Was Camus a Sisyphus or a Stranger?
On the 7th of November 1913, Albert Camus, a French Noble Prize winning author, philosopher and journalist, was born in Dréan, French Algeria. Known for literary landmarks, such as The Stranger, The Plague or The Fall, he is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Initially a close friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus’ rejection of the communist ideology made their friendship fall apart. In effect of this, Sartre was left with “grim dialectical realism (Communism as the only path to qualitative change, and the ugly face of such change) and… [Camus with his] principled leftist rejection of Communism (which left him unable to identify with any significant force struggling for change).” (Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended it). Camus expressed his stance against Communism in the 1951 book, The Rebel, where he also suggested a need for a compromise between the two opposite forces of capitalism and Communism (but Communism not in its totalitarian form): “Absolute freedom mocks at justice. Absolute justice denies freedom. To be fruitful, the two ideas must find their limits in each other.” (Albert Camus, The Rebel).
His rejection of communist values per se did not happen instantly. In his biography there are many traits suggesting his inclination for political activism and communist movement. In 1935, he joined the French Communist Party; the same year, in a letter to his friend Claude de Fréminville, he wrote: “I’ve joined the Communist Party, where I will work loyally as a soldier, not in the leadership committee. My skills will be used in journalism for La Lutte Sociale [Social Struggle] and in Marxist classes, etc. We must experience the hardship and triumphs of Communism.” (Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life). This letter must have come as a surprise to Fréminville, who a year earlier had received a letter of a completely different nature: “I have a deep-seated attitude against religion, and for me, communism is nothing if not a religion. To belong would mean to force myself to hide my other beliefs… If I went toward Communism… I’d put my vitality, intelligence and power into it, I might put my talent and soul, but not all my heart.” (Todd).
For a man who above all wanted to stay independent and who rejected all religions, his further political engagement suggests that Camus had at least one strong belief – a belief in the power of human acts; hence his later active support of the Algerian People’s Party, founded in 1936, followed by an involvement in the anarchist movement. During the war Camus did not stay indifferent either. Around 1942, he joined the Resistance and co-edited Combat – the Resistence’s newspaper. He worked there under a false name; therefore some of his articles from that period still remain unidentified. In one of them, after the liberation of Paris in 1944, Camus wrote:
“This huge Paris, all black and warm in the summer night, with a storm of bombers overhead and a storm of snipers in the streets, seems to us more brightly lighted than the City of Lights the whole world used to envy us. It is bursting with all the fires of hope and suffering, it has the flame of lucid courage and all the glow, not only of liberation, but of tomorrow’s liberty.” (The Blood of Freedom, Combat, 24 August 1944).
Trying to analyse Camus’ life one can generally see a man ‘who cared’, maybe who did not instantly know which way to go, but who was certainly pro social change and pro social improvement. And the intensity with which he described the liberation of Paris shows that he was capable of hope too. Yet, Camus seen through the prism of his literary works and his philosophy presents a slightly different image. His rejection of religion and God as such, does not collide with this image. However, as mentioned before, Camus did believe in the power of human acts. And it is in fact this particular belief that stood in opposition to his absurdist approach to life. Camus claimed that the human tendency to seek value and meaning in life is in reality futile, and therefore absurd. In his 1942 book, The Myth of Sisyphus, he wrote:
“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” By comparing men to actors and the world to theatre, Camus did in fact deny a possibility of a real and significant change. Yet, throughout his life he longed for that change and did not stay a complete l’étranger.
No small amount of thought to relate, here. Wow–good read. Thanks! ~ m
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Nice review! Personally, I’ve never been able to take the views of Camus and Satre seriously: intellectuals who take their own thoughts way too seriously. But then, things were pretty intense in the 30s and 40s…
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And Colin Wilson regarded the French existentialists as too pessimistic and forged his own optimistic version!
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