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Volume 5, Number 4 (Summer 1965)

Albert Camus

Thomas Molnar

It is not surprising that liberals and humanists, even the vaguely socialistic, have tried to appropriate Albert Camus. He can no longer protest, although book cover imagein the posthumously published Carnets (dealing with the years from 1942 to 1951) he did make the contemptuous remark that writers without talent usually end up in the leftist—often Communist—camp. The attempt at appropriating Camus is quite natural on the part of those who believe, motivated by their own narrow, “humanistic” outlook, that the problem of Camus was how to remain a true humanist and beat back the temptation of totalitarianism. These critics’ conclusion is that Camus was a lover of beauty, tormented, to be sure, by the anguish so widespread in this century, but basically an optimistic thinker.

This is also the conclusion of Mme. Germaine Brée in her recent study.[1] Analyzing Meursault, main character of The Stranger, she writes: “The awakening that follows his death sentence [permits] Meursault to see, at last, that to exist is happiness. His indifference to the sights and smells of the world turns into a conscious love; his passive acquiescence to the violence done human beings turns into a passionate revolt against death and a sense of human fraternity.” Etc., etc. At another point, toward the end of her essay, Mme. Brée writes: “It was not his [Camus’] purpose to conclude, expound, or dictate, but to live and to write.” The first quotation shows that Mme. Brée decisively misunderstands the very core of Camus’ problem; the second is, the kind of statement that may safely be noted about almost anybody except the most ferocious ideologues of the Sartrian species. The two quotes taken together show a neutralized, unphilosophical Camus, who may be paraded before college students and professors of the “existentially committed” variety.

The Camus I wish to present here is more complicated, and has more facets to his personality as a writer. It is not a contradiction to state that Camus was, at the same time, a man obsessed by one simple idea, like the writers he admired most: Dostoevsky, Kafka, Nietzsche, Faulkner. He was, therefore, the writer essentially of one book—which he wrote again and again, whether in the form of plays, novels, short stories, or essays.

In the Carnets, Camus stated that the modern mind, or our faculty of comprehension (intelligence) is in a state of complete confusion. This intellectual confusion is due to the rejection by German philosophy (in the nineteenth century) of the concept of human nature, replaced, in turn, with the concept of human situation, hence by a situational ethics. Nietzsche expressed the same thought by saying that mankind has lost the center and even the peripheries of its existence. History was thus put in the place of God, Camus continued, since history consists of “situations,” each of which has its own laws and system of reference.

book cover imageYet man’s unquenchable demand is for meaning, for explanations. I would, Camus noted in The Myth of Sisyphus, that everything should be explained to me; yet I know that reason is unable to answer satisfactorily this cry of the heart. Only faith could solve the problem; the Russian existentialist, Shestov, and the Dane Kierkegaard accordingly found the answer. For them reason was of paltry assistance indeed: they trusted faith to carry them beyond rationality. But what about the man without faith? For the man who, like Camus, calls himself an “absurdist,” i.e., one who believes neither in God nor in the world’s rationality? For him, Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, the very structure of the universe reflects a fundamental absurdity, since man, seeking a sense, and the world, having none to offer, are compelled to coexist. Just as an observer of atoms and nuclei influences the objects of his observation by the instruments he must use, so man too, by his mere existence, introduces absurdity into the world.

It follows from this substratum of all human experience that we have no “explanations” for our deeds either; for virtue, vice, or other values. Christians and Marxists can explain their actions, can justify them; for us, absurdists, Camus wrote in the Carnets, “there are no values. Until we find a foundation for our values, we will be condemned to choose the good without justifying our choice. Virtue will be illegitimate until then.

book cover imageIn his play Caligula, Camus illustrated the impossibility of living absurdly, without meaning. The message of the play is that although radical denial of all meaning may be philosophically correct and the only honest attitude, human beings are unable to exist in such a rarefied atmosphere. Caligula illustrates the will for this impossibility: he “wants the moon,” that is, he wants “to live in truth.” In order to acclimatize others, too, he proceeds to upset systematically their values and expectations. “I want them to live according to truth. I have the means of compelling them to live in truth.” In conformity with this system, he kills and tortures his best friends, mocks the hierarchy of the State, rewards disloyalty, punishes faithful service, even his mistress’ love. When finally a conspiracy gets under way, Cherea, his old friend and erstwhile adviser, plunges a knife into him with these words: “You are a harmful creature . . . People cannot live in a world where the most bizarre idea may, in one second, become a reality. They need to feel secure.” Then: “One cannot be free by realizing the last consequences of absurdity. If everybody wanted to carry out his desires, nobody could be happy.”

From Caligula we conclude that Camus could not and did not want to see in the acceptance of absurdity a definitive answer. In several of his works, if not in all, he intended to find a way out, a justification for virtuous actions. Not that he considered absurdity an altogether negative and sterile attitude; in The Myth of Sisyphus he noted that without the awareness of our absurd existence, the root of our anguish and permanent dissatisfaction, we would never rebel against the very condition of this existence. Rebellion was described by him as a “slap in the face of fate and the mechanical aspects of existence.” In its name we become indignant at injustice, at the toleration of evil, or at unreflective routine. And a similarly rebellious act, also due to our realization of all-pervasive meaninglessness, is artistic creation, the deed par excellence in view of certain “final annihilation.” When Camus called rebellion and art “slaps” in the face of fate, he meant that they are the most precious possessions of our human condition, acts of defiance proving our freedom.

Yet Camus was lucid enough to understand that neither rebellion nor art are ethical values. Moreover, they are essentially gratuitous acts, whereas he was looking, as pointed out above, for a way out of the absurd, for a foundation of all values. In December 1946, in the course of a lecture at a convent near Paris, he declared: “I am your Augustine before his conversion. I am struggling with the problem of evil and cannot get to the end of it.”[2]

This beautiful and moving statement would be sufficient in itself to question Mme. Brée’s all-too-superficial interpretation. For, indeed, all his life Camus sought to solve the riddle that evil poses to man; he could have said with St. Augustine and St. Paul: “I see the good and want to follow it, yet I commit evil.” In his three novels he subjected this problem, if not to a philosophically satisfying analysis (after all, as Mme. Brée correctly remarks, he was a writer, not a philosopher), at least to an honest inquiry, honest also in that he admitted that he had to leave it unsolved. Yet the three works do reveal much about Camus and his quest—but only if we do not believe they must be read in the order of their publication.

Let us state, first of all, that all three novels, The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall, have the structure of classical tragedies: the hero leads a quiet, undisturbed existence; then in one dramatic moment he becomes conscious of the existence of evil, in his own being as well as outside. From that moment on his earlier life appears to him a series of contrivances to hide this evil from his own eyes; he tries desperately to change the root of his being, but in the end admits defeat.

The Plague and The Fall follow this pattern. In the first it is somewhat blurred because the main character, Dr. Rieux, is a good man but, like Camus, finds no moral justification for his bravery when confronted with the plague. The journalist Tarrou, however, needs the experience in the plague-stricken city to reevaluate his life and to project a better one. The Fall is of more classical construction: in it Jean-Baptiste Clamance,[3] the “judge-penitent,” passing one night a girl who minutes later throws herself into the river, understands that his outward decency hides the hard core of egoism. He does not return to save the girl, nor would he do it if ever a similar occasion presented itself. “The water is too cold”—and why bother since nobody would be there to witness his heroism?

While these two novels lead to an impasse, The Stranger, chronologically the first, shows Camus’ honest answer, following logically from his philosophy. Meursault has led a completely indifferent life, as if he were an illustration of the thesis in The Myth of Sisyphus: that absurdity is created by our presence in a meaningless universe. Meursault is, as it were, part of that universe, less like a man than an object. His crime which ultimately leads to the gallows is as much a fortuitous act as was compatible, from the novelist’s point of view, with the involvement of his responsibility—not before his own conscience, but only before the court. In his cell he is rather miserable, not only because lawyers, priests, and the whole criminal procedure disturb his usual placidity. Then on the last night he finally finds peace and even a kind of meaning to the whole thing, his whole existence. This is when he realizes, while looking at the coldly brilliant stars above, that his earlier indifference is, after all, justified on the cosmic plane by the equally indifferent stare of the stars. It is the Stoic point of view that we humans imitate the cosmos, thus also its stony indifference. “I, too, felt ready to live again,” are Meursault’s words in his last meditation. “. . . Gazing on this night, heavy with signs and stars, I opened myself up for the first time to the tender indifference of the world. Now that I had discovered that the world was so much like me, and so paternal, I felt that I had always been happy and that I still was. So that everything might be consummated, that I might feel less alone, there was only one thing for me to wish for: that there be many spectators on the day of my execution, and that they greet me with shouts of hatred [italics added].”

This passage, the conclusion of the novel, shows clearly that for the “absurdist” the only justification is his oneness with the universe and its indifferently acting forces. The conclusion is underlined when Meursault’s last wish—bear in mind that this is the last message of a man sentenced to die!—is to be hated by the crowd. The crowd, other men, have hatred (emotions) in their hearts because they never understood the great secret of cosmic indifference. How far we are from Mme. Brée’s picture of Camus as a smiling humanist!

Although Camus never broke with his basic belief, expressed through Meursault, we have seen that he never ceased trying to break away from modern man’s disease, which is also the incurable flaw of all humanisms not anchored in God—atheism. Since he always remained a Stoic and a sensualist, he was unable philosophically to justify his own decency as a man; yet the problem of evil tortured his soul, and he tried repeatedly and in various ways to come to terms with it. He was neither a Christian nor a Marxist (the two great options before our contemporaries), but he sincerely attempted to think through his central problem according to the arguments of both.

While a Sartre with typical bad faith accepted, for example, the evil of Soviet concentration camps as part of the birth pains of a nascent happy society, Camus refused to integrate evil of any sort in his world view. He broke with Sartre over the issue of denouncing these camps, and in his play The Just Ones, he made a clear distinction between rebellion (an act generated by our freedom confronted with mechanical fate) and revolution which leads, in our times at least, to the total denial of justice and to the ideologically-centered police state. Camus’ great dilemma, following from the problem of evil as he understood it, was this: in The Myth of Sisyphus he declared that there will be no freedom for anyone as long as there is suffering in the world; yet he also understood that abstract justice, which would supposedly abolish injustice, is too hard a demand for man to stand upon exclusively.

In The Just Ones the revolutionist Poet exclaims: I became a revolutionist because I love life.

Stepan (a fellow conspirator): I don’t care for life, only for justice which stands above life.

Skouratov: The beginning is always a demand for justice. In the end the same people organize a police state.

Skouratov’s statement sums up Camus’ reason for rejecting the Marxist answer to his quest. What were his reasons for rejecting the Christian answer as well? Like so many of his contemporaries Camus rejected religion and God on account of the existence of evil and suffering. In addition, he claimed (in the Carnets) that for two thousand years Christianity had presented man with an humiliating image of himself. It is hard to see a meaning in this statement, unless it is that the Christian religion has preached that evil will always remain in and with mankind, although each of its manifestations can and must be combated. But the heroic figures of saints and sages do not exactly present a humiliating picture.

The point where Camus came closest to discerning Christianity was in The Plague. The priest, Paneloux, tells the Camusian mouthpiece, Dr. Rieux, that we must love even what we do not understand, namely, God’s punishment seen by our limited knowledge as innocently inflicted. To which Rieux answers: “No, Father, I have a different idea of love. And I will always refuse to love this world where little children can be tortured.”

Rejecting both Jesus and Marx, Camus intended to elaborate an ethical system “based on man who has no need of God.” Yes, but on what man? If on all of them, we must, in order to be consistent, accept Stalin’s and Hitler’s “value-systems” too, unless we want to make a selection from earlier times. In that case, however, who will be entitled to select those men whose values are to be the basis for action? These are unanswerable questions, and Camus fell into their trap because he was not infrequently shallow in his reasoning. He must have understood dimly his untenable demand for ethics based on man alone, for in The Plague and elsewhere he returned to the demands of the Christian religion, although he remained unable to accept their justification in God’s existence and commandments. Instead, he declared through the journalist Tarrou: “In the last analysis, what interests me is to know how one becomes a saint. Can one be a saint without God, this is the only concrete problem I recognize in today’s world.”

He pursued this thought in the Carnets which he was keeping as a diary of his activities and reflections as a writer. The dates coincide with those of The Plague. His quest for saintliness without God took there the form of a “painful march toward a sainthood of negation, an heroism without God, toward pure man who possesses all the human virtues.” This is, of course, the kind of utopian sigh that so-called humanists never fail to admire. In reality, it is a cheap verbal solution, a refusal to face evil and fight it. It is even worse than that, since Camus, like Teilhard de Chardin and the latter’s numerous cohorts, trusted that evolution would bring about this “pure man” in whom the human species will be made divine. I quote again from The Carnets: “It is for us to create God; he is not the creator. And we have only one means of creating him, this is to become God ourselves.”

One regrets that an essay on Camus must end on this shallow note, the eternal cry of the mindless optimist who wants perfection although everything around him shows that perfection is not for man, that it would even be a monstrous freezing of all his faculties in a robot-like existence under an implacable collectivistic system. In The Rebel Camus went to the core of this modern dilemma, and concluded that his contemporaries, since Nietzsche had decreed the “death of God,” wanted to put man in God’s place, that is, in supreme authority. And he saw better than many that this leads not to the divinization of all men, but to the abject exaltation of a few, members of the totalitarian party. Yet all his works testify that he could not rid himself of the humanist illusion that men are absolutely perfectible, and that a society of perfect citizens would automatically be a perfect society. His testimony, however, is not without value: he died young, at the height of deserved fame, but at an age mature enough to show that he was walking down a dead-end street.  

Notes

1. Albert Camus, No. 1 in the Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, New York, 1964

2. Camus was born in Africa, in the land of the Berbers, a race to which St. Augustine belonged. Although a white man born to a French father and Spanish mother, Camus saw himself as a contribution of North Africa to France and to Mediterranean civilization.

3. The name is significant: John the Baptist, precursor of One higher; Clamance interpreted either as “clemency” or as “clamans” in deserto, crying in the desert.

Thomas Molnar (1921–2010) was a Catholic philosopher, historian, and political theorist. Born in Hungary, he taught for many years at Brooklyn College and wrote more than forty books.

Posted: February 6, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

Real progress consists in the movement of mankind toward the understanding of norms, and toward conformity to norms. Real decadence consists in the movement of mankind away from the understanding of norms, and away from obedience to norms.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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