►→ also see ►→Albert Camus (1913-1960)
In his monumental biography of Albert Camus, Olivier Todd (1996) makes the point that Camus and George Orwell had much in common; the one big difference, however, was that Orwell’s essays were much better than his novels, whereas with Camus it was the other way around: he was a greater novelist than essayist. And yet—like Orwell’s fiction—Camus’ essays contain some of his finest prose, and have been enormously influential. Like Orwell, too, Camus was remarkably consistent throughout his relatively short life as a writer. His art develops with astonishing internal coherence; there are no abrupt changes of direction.
In 1937, shortly after Camus had at the age of 24 completed his university studies in philosophy with a diploma essay on Plotinus and St. Augustine, his first collection of essays, L’Envers et l’endroit (The wrong side and the right side), was published in Algiers. This short book, some 50 pages long, consists of five essays; unlike Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus) and L’Homme révolté (The Rebel) it presents no sustained argument, but offers instead a blend of lyrical reflection with self-portrayal, even self-scrutiny, that will come to be seen as characteristically Camusian. Sometimes, when relating his 1936 visit to Prague, for instance, he speaks in the first person, but at other times, for example when speaking of more intimate family matters, he uses the third person: “There were five of them living in the flat: the grandmother, her younger son, her elder daughter and the latter’s two sons.” The stark poverty of Camus’ childhood as described here is contrasted with the superabundant generosity of nature in a country where the sun and the sea cost nothing and are freely available to all. This play of opposites is a constant theme of the collection and helps explain its title. The day of the grandmother’s funeral, for instance, is a fine, cold, clear winter’s day: “…from the cemetery high above the town the bright transparent sun could be seen shining on the sea which was quivering with light like a moist lip.” One person’s existence may have come to an end, but life in all its glory flaunts its sensuous splendors unabashed.
This theme recurs in Noces (1939; Nuptials), a collection of four essays published in Algiers two years later. They describe different places in North Africa and Italy, and the title is taken from a passage of characteristically sensual lyricism which concludes the third essay, “L’Été à Alger” (Summer in Algiers): “In the evening or after rain the whole earth, her belly moistened with a seed that gives off an odor of bitter almonds, takes her rest after giving herself all summer to the sun. And so once again this smell hallows the nuptials between man and the earth, and fills our hearts with the only truly virile love available in this world: a love that is generous but cannot last.” In tune with the note sounded here—of impermanence and perishability experienced in the midst of the most intense manifestations of ecstasy and joy—Camus’ two youthful collections foreshadow the major essays to come, particularly in a revealing remark in Noces, which has rightly been called Camus’ manual of happiness, to the effect that whatever exalts life increases its absurdity at the same time.
The absurd is, famously, the theme of Camus’ greatest essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). In what Olivier Todd aptly describes as “a philosophical prose poem,” Camus explores the implications of the fact that humanity has to learn to live with a historically unprecedented situation, namely a world in which God does not exist. Camus’ atheism is no modish affectation, but absolutely fundamental to his thinking; such efforts as are occasionally made to portray him as a kind of covert Christian are doomed to failure, because the texts will simply not bear out such a reading. On the contrary: Camus takes the nonexistence of God for granted, as something needing neither detailed demonstration nor further explanation. If there is no God—if in other words there is no permanent, transcendent being governing the universe—then there can be no such thing as life after death. Indeed, positing the existence of a soul which goes on functioning after our earthly body wears out makes sense only in a universe where a God of sorts presides over some kind of empyrean to which the soul is dispatched pending (according to which faith is involved) reincarnation or resurrection. But if there is no life after death, if death is indeed final, it is death’s very finality that raises questions which Camus tackles head-on in The Myth of Sisyphus. He goes straight to the point in the essay’s famous opening sentences: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.
Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” Humankind finds the finality of death hard to take: hence the existence of religions which claim to abolish it. Once human beings face up to the fact of their mortality they experience the absurd, which is the feeling that since death is the end of everything so far as the individual is concerned, nothing makes sense any more; and if life is not worth living, it is only reasonable to commit suicide.
Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus to rebut this argument. He fully accepts the fact of the absurd, but not the conclusions drawn from it. Humankind, he says, can (indeed must) renounce all hope of immortality and accept the transitoriness of life, but it should never assume that this denies the possibility of finding happiness and a sense of purpose in the here-and-now. Suicide is, in fact, a totally unwarranted act of irrational despair; there are instead, he argues, three valid, rational, nonreligious ways of responding to the absurd.
The first is to acknowledge that the acceptance of the absurd sets a person free: free to act and function as a genuinely independent being, no longer trammeled by the givens of an illusory transcendent reality. The second is passion, the enthusiasm to make the utmost of the present moment; or as the epigraph, taken from Pindar, eloquently puts it: “Aspire not, oh my soul, to immortal life, but exhaust the realm of the possible.”
The last is revolt, the refusal to be cowed by the absurd: such an act of rebellion gives value and dignity to life, and is epitomized by the figure at the center of this philosophical meditation, the Greek hero Sisyphus. For daring to flout the wishes of the gods, Sisyphus, according to legend, was condemned through all eternity to push a boulder to the top of a hill and watch helplessly as it rolled down again. But the most unpleasant truths lose their power of discouragement once we recognize and accept them.
That explains why, in the magnificently defiant words on which this essay closes, “the struggle toward the summit is itself enough to fill a man’s heart: Sisyphus should be seen as someone who has found happiness.”
Camus’ next, much longer essay, The Rebel (1951), develops the idea of revolt as humanity’s only recourse in a world without religious faith, and further defines this kind of metaphysical rebellion as “the urge that impels individuals to defend a dignity common to all humankind.” This time Camus misjudges the nature and scope of the essay as a genre; The Rebel lacks the punch of The Myth of Sisyphus, being too ambitious and too liable to get bogged down in historical and political detail to function effectively as an essay. Whereas in the earlier work the end convincingly answers the question raised at the beginning, in the course of The Rebel the definition of the central concept— revolt—shifts unnervingly from a philosophical to a political one. The essay is therefore unsatisfying, even broken-backed. It reads more like the doctoral dissertation Camus (because of ill health) was never allowed to submit than an essay in the usual sense of the term.
His last work in this genre was L’Été (1954; Summer), a collection of eight lyrical essays written between 1939, the year of Noces, and 1951, the year of The Rebel. It therefore harks back to an earlier and better form of the essay as practiced by Camus and to what as a writer of lyrical prose he was best at—celebrating the harsh light and untamed beauty of his native land:
There is an Italian softness about Algiers. The cruel brilliance of Oran has something Spanish about it. Perched on a rock above the Rummel gorges, Constantine reminds one of Toledo. But Spain and Italy are steeped in history, whereas the [three Algerian] towns I’m speaking of have no past at all. During the tedium of the siesta, sadness is both implacable and free from melancholy, while joy lacks softness in the morning light or in the natural luxury of our nights.
Born 7 November 1913 in Mondovi, Algeria. Studied at the Grand Lycée, Algiers, 1924– 32, baccalauréat; University of Algiers, 1933–36, licence in philosophy and graduate studies diploma, 1936. Contracted tuberculosis, 1930, with recurrences, 1942–43, and 1949–50. Married Simone Hié, 1934 (divorced, 1940). Held various jobs in Algiers, 1935–39; member of the Communist Party, 1935–39; worked for the Alger-Républicain (Algiers republican; later the Soir-Républicain [Evening republican]), 1938–40, Algiers, and Paris-Soir (Paris-evening), 1940. Married Francine Faure, 1940: twin son and daughter. Taught in Oran, Algeria, 1942.; reader and editor of Espoir series, Gallimard publishers, Paris, from 1943; journalist, Paris, 1943–45; cofounding editor, Combat, 1944–47; journalist for L’Express, 1955–56.
Awards: Critics Prize (France), 1947; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1957. Died (in a car accident) at Villeblevin, near Montereau, 4 January 1960.
Essays and Related Prose
L’Envers et l’endroit, 1937
Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942; as The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien, 1955
Actuelles 1–3: Chroniques, 1944–1948, Chroniques, 1948–1953, and Chroniques algériennes, 1939–1958, 3 vols., 1950–58
L’Homme révolté, 1951; as The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, translated by Anthony Bower, 1953
Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (selection), translated by Justin O’Brien, 1961
Essais (Pléiade Edition), edited by Roger Quilliot and Louis Faucon, 1965
Lyrical and Critical (selection), edited by Philip Thody, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, 1967; as Lyrical and Critical Essays, 1968
Selected Essays and Notebooks, edited and translated by Philip Thody, 1970
Other writings: five novels (L’Étranger [The Stranger], 1942; La Peste [The Plague], 1947; La Chute [The Fall], 1956; La Mort heureuse [A Happy Death], 1971; Le Premier Homme [The First Man] (incomplete), 1994), short stories, several plays, and notebooks.
Collected works edition: OEuvres complètes, edited by Roger Grenier, 9 vols., 1983.
Crepin, Simone, “Albert Camus: Essai de bibliographie,” Bibliographia Belgica 55 (1960)
Roeming, Robert F., Albert Camus: A Bibliography, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968
Brée, Germaine, Camus, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, revised edition, 1961
Cruickshank, John, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959; New York: Oxford University Press, 1960
Grenier, Roger, Albert Camus, soleil et ombre: Une Biographie intellectuelle, Paris: Gallimard, 1987
Lottman, Herbert R., Albert Camus, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, and London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979
McCarthy, Patrick, Camus: A Critical Study of His Life and Work, London: Hamilton, 1981
Rhein, Phillip H., Albert Camus, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1989
Thody, Philip, Albert Camus: A Study of His Work, London: Hamilton, 1957
Thody, Philip, Albert Camus, 1913–1960: A Biographical Study, London: Hamilton, 1961
Todd, Olivier, Albert Camus: Une Vie, Paris: Gallimard, 1996
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