“Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear,” wrote Albert Camus, who died 54 years ago — on January 4, 1960 — in a tragic car accident near Sens, France, barely 46-year-old, and who will long be remembered as the father of existentialism even if he devoted most of his life to a search for the meaning of life in the face of death. Keen to live a moral life, he once opined that “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion,” which defined his thinking and life.
Life and Times
Born in Mondovi (now known as Dréan), Algeria, on November 7, 1913, the French novelist, essayist, and playwright, best known for such novels as “L’Étranger” (The Stranger, 1942), “La Peste” (The Plague, 1947), and “La Chute” (The Fall, 1956), became the second youngest recipient [after Rudyard Kipling] of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.
His father Lucien was a poor agricultural worker who died in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne while serving as a member of the Zouave infantry regiment that wore short open-fronted jackets, baggy trousers, and oriental headgear. His mother, an illiterate house cleaner from Spanish origins, was half-deaf but, remarkably, managed to raise a conscientiously awakened young man in what was an increasingly troubled French Algeria where the Pieds-Noirs [plural of Pied-Noir or black feet], a pejorative term that referred to people of French and other European ancestry, lived. Mother and child, along with an elder brother — also named Lucien — moved with their maternal grandmother and a paralysed uncle in what was no more than a small two-room apartment in Algiers, which featured prominently in Camus’s first published collection of essays, “The Wrong Side and the Right Side” (1937), that also described his mother, grandmother, and uncle.
A second collection of essays, “Nuptials” (1938), revealed the young man’s love of the Algerian countryside that depicted its natural beauty as a form of wealth that even the poor could and did enjoy. Both collections focused on the fragile mortality of human beings that gained prominence in future writings.
In 1918, Camus entered primary school and was fortunate enough to be taught by an outstanding teacher, Louis Germain, who helped him to win a scholarship to the Algiers Lycée (high school) in 1923, which ensured an eventual admission into the Université d’Alger. Parenthetically, Camus seldom forgot his roots or the many individuals who backed him, loyal to the hilt. When he accepted his Nobel Prize, the acclaimed author dedicated his award to Louis Germain, as he thanked the esteemed teacher even if three decades had passed between the two events.
A sickly young man, in 1930, Camus confronted the first of several severe attacks of tuberculosis that interrupted his studies, which led him to take odd jobs to earn a living: private tutor, car parts clerk, and assistant at the Algiers Meteorological Institute. Though a part-time philosophy student at the university, he completed his diplôme d’études supérieures in 1936 and composed a thesis on the writings of Plotinus and St Augustine, “Néo-Platonisme et Pensée Chrétienne” (Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought), which examined the relationship between the two thinkers. His candidature for the agrégation, the equivalent of a masters, was cut short by another attack of tuberculosis, which forced him to travel to a sanatorium in the French Alps — his first visit to Europe — before he returned home to Algiers via Italy.
An avid reader, his favourites were André Gide, Henry de Montherlant, and the immensely challenging André Malraux, Camus leaned “left” throughout the 1930s, and may even have become a member of the Algerian Communist Party in 1934, although he quickly became disillusioned with pre-War pro-Communist writings, including those of Jean-Paul Sartre.
He wrote a series of articles analysing social conditions among Algeria’s Muslim population, which drew attention to many of the injustices that led to the outbreak of the 1954 War of Independence. Whether it was the war that reshaped his views were impossible to determine, although it was increasingly clear that he based his political stands on humanitarian rather than ideological grounds, as later writings reflected. As editor of the Parisian daily “Combat” (1944-1947) as well as a leading literary figure, Camus published his first novel in 1942, “L’Étranger” (US title, The Stranger, British title, The Outsider), which studied alienation.
Engagé, Camus founded the Group for International Liaisons within the Revolutionary Union Movement after his split with the Citizens of the World movement in 1949, because he was determined to denounce two ideologies found in both the USSR and the USA, ostensibly because both societies worshipped technology instead of empowering man. Ironically, his early leftist preferences withered at the proverbial vine after he was denounced as a Trotskyite in 1937 and expelled from the Algerian Communist Party.
He flirted for a few years with the Cercle des Étudiants Anarchistes (Anarchist Student Circle) as a sympathiser familiar with anarchist thought, wrote for some anarchist publications and stood with the anarchists when the latter backed the 1953 East German Uprising, as well as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Married twice, first to Simone Hié in 1934 for a short period of time and then, in 1940, to Francine Faure, a pianist and mathematician who gave him twins, (Catherine and Jean born on 5 September 1945), Camus did not take the institution seriously and dismissed it as being unnatural. Over the years, he had several mistresses, most notably the Spanish-born actress Mara Casares, whom he saw frequently.
He died on January 4, 1960 at Le Grand Fossard in the small town of Villeblevin near Sens. His driver on that fatidic day was Michel Gallimard, a famed publisher and close friend, who also died in the accident. Although his French biographer, Olivier Todd, dismissed the August 2011 Milan newspaper assertion that the writer was the victim of a Soviet plot, the theory advanced by the Corriere della Sera lingered.
An Assessment of the Philosopher
Even if Camus displayed a paradoxical approach to philosophy in his book-length essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, he presented a philosophy that was existentialist, though the author denied existentialism. “Both ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and his other philosophical work, ‘The Rebel’, are systematically sceptical of conclusions about the meaning of life, yet both works assert objectively valid answers to key questions about how to live,” wrote the American philosopher Ronald Aronson. Still, he was a fierce critic of religion and of modernity (presumably because he also anticipated postmodernism and its devastating impact on man), though he espoused both absurdity and rebellion. That combination aimed to resolve the life-or-death issues that shaped his thinking and motivated his actions.
Consequently, while he accepted the Aristotelian idea that philosophy begins in wonder, Camus argued that human beings cannot escape asking the question, “What is the meaning of existence?” His own answer to this question revealed the fundamental paradox that preoccupied the thinker, namely the fact that there may be no answer, including no answer in every scientific, teleological, metaphysical, or human-created end that would pretend to provide adequate answers. In other words, while Camus accepted that human beings inevitably sought to understand the very definition of life — what is one’s purpose during this earthly existence — he was sceptical because he believed that the natural world was not sufficiently empowered to enlighten man on such matters.
Given that existence itself had no meaning for Camus, he posited that man must learn to “bear an irresolvable emptiness,” a paradoxical condition between our “impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer.” For Camus, this was the absurd, which he described in his “The Myth of Sisyphus”, as Sisyphus “strains to push his rock up the mountain, watching it roll down, then descending after the rock to begin all over, in an endless cycle.”
Humans are like Sisyphus, posited Camus: we can ask fundamental questions about the meaning of life but must accept that our answers will tumble back down, and while this might sound as if Camus rejected rationality, in fact, he only disallowed the system because, he argued, “I think according to words and not according to ideas.”
It was this nuance that pitted him against Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature — but who declined it because he posited that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution” — but who saw merit in the work produced by Camus to be at the same level of essays written by Pascal, Rousseau, and Nietzsche.
The two men became friends though Sartre did not approve of the Camus solution that suicide was a legitimate response to absurdity. In fact, suicide is neither a “problem” nor a “question,” but an act and must be addressed as such, although one may wish to ask — and hopefully answer — such questions as “What does it mean to ask whether life is worth living?” or “Why does man despair?”
The Revolutionary Thinker
In “The Rebel”, Camus adds revolt or, more accurately, the act of rebellion to his philosophical repertoire. Even if Sartre addressed the question clearly in his opus, “Being and Nothingness”, Camus took “revolt” in a sharply different direction than Sartre, because he was clearly and chiefly interested in the human social experience. What man must do, he advanced in “The Rebel” was to revolt against oppression and slavery, and protest against the all forms of injustice. This outlook, which was coloured by the author’s Algerian experience, stressed that revolt created values, dignity, and solidarity. “I revolt, therefore we are” was his paradoxical statement, which was only topped by his assertion that “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that [one’s] very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Inasmuch as “The Rebel” rejected Communism, which upset colleagues and brought about the final split with Sartre, what troubled Camus was the dour reception the book received. His assault on the Soviet police state was clear enough but he also questioned the very nature of mass revolutionary politics, which he detected in Sartre. Consequently, he devoted his efforts to a defence of human rights, criticised Franco’s Spain, the USSR for its disastrous repression and, most notably, against his own government for the Algerian fiasco.
To be sure, he defended Paris and argued that the Algerian uprising was an integral part of the “new Arab imperialism” led by Jamal Abdul Nasir’s “anti-Western” offensive, though he also favoured greater Algerian autonomy as he believed that the pieds-noirs and Arabs could and should co-exist. Increasingly, what mattered was the fate of individuals, including prisoners of war condemned to death for whose freedoms he toiled.
Camus publicly reversed himself and became a lifelong opponent of capital punishment after France executed many prisoners.
Albert Camus explored man’s weaknesses, illusions, and political temptations of a post-religious universe. He described how traditional forces lost their influences on modernising societies, and how younger generations confronted emptiness and a sense that anything was possible. While he claimed that modern secularism stumbled into a nihilistic state of mind because man sometimes — perhaps often — failed to free himself from traditions, Camus believed that justice would rise from the ashes.
Even if man was and is unable to protest against death, he posited, his central metaphysical concern with absurdity and revolt led him to conclude that postmodern man confronted grandiose dilemmas. In the words of Ronald Aronson, “Camus remain[ed] relevant for having looked askance at Western civilisation, at progress, and at the modern world, but at the heart of his analyses is his ambivalent exploration of what it is like to live in a Godless universe.” Camus recommends, the American wrote, “that we avoid trying to resolve our many dilemmas and face the “fact that we can never successfully purge ourselves of the impulses that threaten to wreak havoc with our lives.” Instead, man should learn to be tolerant, perhaps even embrace the frustration and ambivalence that human beings cannot escape their destiny, at least not in this life, if they ever want clear answers to their questions.
Collected Works in French
Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles, Roger Quillot, ed., Paris: Gallimard, 1962.
Essais, Roger Quillot and Louis Fauçon, eds., Paris: Gallimard, 1965.
Œuvres Complètes, Vols. I–IV, Raymond Gay-Crosier, ed., Paris: Gallimard, 2006–2009.
Works in English
The Plague, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948.
The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
The Fall, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
Caligula, and Three Other Plays, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.
Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.
Lyrical and Critical Essays, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
The Stranger, New York: Vintage, 1988.
Between Hell and Reason, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1991.
“Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism”, in Joseph McBride, Albert Camus: Philosopher and Littérateur, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1992, pages 93–116.
Notebooks 1942–1951, New York: Marlowe, 1995.
Notebooks 1935–1942, New York: Marlowe, 1996.
Camus at “Combat”: Writing 1944–47, Jacqueline Lévi-Vatensi, ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
The Literature on Camus is very rich and the following is but a small sample:
Ronald Aronson, Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World, London: Verso, 1980.
Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004.
Edward J. Hughes, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Camus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Donald Lazere, The Unique Creation of Albert Camus, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life, New York: Knopf, 1997.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the just published ‘Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.