Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

The Short Happy Death of Albert Camus

By Jay Meija on Saturday, November 16, 2002 06:08 pm


"I know nothing more stupid than to die in an automobile accident."--Albert Camus

The last thing in the world Albert Camus wanted was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. "I'm castrated," the mortified Algerian-born French writer complained upon hearing that he'd won the greatest honor any writer could ever hope for. At that moment in his life, Camus was depressed, ill, and suffering from an enormous writer's block. Now he would be subject to the torture of public exposure, spectacle, and solemnities. Left-leaning Frenchmen led by Jean Paul Sartre had been publicly deriding Camus for being too conservative and for behaving as the high priest of Absolute Morality -- albeit one who carried his own portable pedestal. For conservative Frenchmen, Camus was no conservative at all but a militant radical at a time when the Arabs in Algeria were preparing for revolt. In the press Camus was treated more as a political than a literary figure and was often vilified as a mere writer of illusions. One critic dismissed his work as negative and jeered at the concept of the modern alienated outsider as nothing more than "the hero as vegetable." To his own regret, Camus could ill afford to turn down a Nobel Prize financially or morally, as Sartre later did. Trapped by fame, misunderstood even by his own admirers, and suffering the sting of his adversaries coolly mocking him in the press and in private, Camus wearily made the trip to Stockholm and accepted the award.

Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 "for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times". Playwright, philosopher, novelist Albert Camus claimed he was "born to no one" in colonial Algeria on November 7, 1913. Actually he was the son of a working-class family and he spent the early years of his life in North Africa. After taking a short break necessitated by a bout with tuberculosis, he entered the University of Algiers and worked at various jobs -- selling spare automobile parts, giving private lessons, and working for the weather bureau -- to support his studies. During this time he and other young left-wing intellectuals formed a theater company and Camus wrote his first play, 'Revolte dans les Asturies'. Upon earning a degree in philosophy, Camus took up journalism and accepted a post with the left-wing Alger-Republicain. Eventually he made his way north across the Mediterranean Sea to Paris, and when World War II broke out, Camus found himself trapped by the Nazis. Undaunted, he used his literary talents to support the French Resistance as editor of Combat, an important underground paper. After the war, he gave up politics and journalism and devoted himself full-time to writing.

As part of a group of writers reacting to the senseless horrors of World War II, Camus helped shape a growing literary movement in Europe known as Absurdism. Absurdism had its roots in the movements of expressionism and surrealism, as well as in the fiction of Franz Kafka ('The Trial', 'Metamorphosis') during the 1920s. The term is applied to dramatic works and prose fiction sharing a common sense that the human condition is essentially and ineradicably absurd. Absurdism became a rebellion against traditional Western beliefs and values asserting that human beings are rational creatures that live in a partially-intelligible universe and who are capable of heroism and dignity even in defeat. Instead, the absurdists viewed the universe as uncaring place where people live in a state of total helplessness and uselessness. The stench rising from the ruins and graveyards of Europe, Russia and the Far East, the discovery of the gas ovens across Germany and Poland, and the dropping of two atomic bombs on two civilian cities in Japan, added to the notion that man in the modern world was already a lost cause.

"In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile ... This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity."
(Albert Camus, 'The Myth of Sisyphus').

Early on Camus himself came to know the senseless absurdity of the nature of life. His father, a poor agricultural worker from the Alsatian region of France who had settled in North Africa, died a year within Camus' birth during the fighting at the first battle of the Marne in World War I. His mother, of Spanish descent, worked as a femme de menage or charwoman. She was illiterate and partially deaf and completely dominated by her own mother, to whose household she meekly returned after her husband's death. As one critic pointed out, "if there is any tenderness to be found in the works of Albert Camus (a microscope's task) it is the image of this woman, sitting idly be her Algiers window indifferently watching life pass her by. He pities his mother but that is not the same as love. Feeling this detachment, he can begin to understand her unhappiness."

The ability to detach himself shows up immediately in Camus' most famous work, 'The Stranger'. Published in 1942, at a crucial moment in the war when the night of the Nazi fog darkened Paris and most of the rest of Europe, it a story about the classic "alienated outsider". Camus startles the reader with this unusual opening: "Today maman died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from home: 'Mother dead. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely'".

At first glance, Meursault's lack of sentiment about his mother's funeral seems cold. Yet he comes across as practical and human. His mother had been ill for some time. They have steadily grown apart. Her funeral was not the defining moment of their relationship and he feels no need to manufacture grief that hasn't naturally arisen. He does not completely lack emotion, as throughout the story he feels an affinity to those around him and generally he tries to help them out.

Camus anticipates the reader will at some point re-read this opening passage. He has already set a tone and standard so that the reader should continually reassess their attitude toward Meursault. However, Camus's purpose is not to shock or offend the reader, but rather to force the reader to keep an open mind and be willing to change their view of Meursault as the book progresses. Camus shifts the reader's reaction to Meursault from negative to neutral. Camus is imploring the reader to wonder what Meursault is thinking and to explore the possibilities of Meursault's thoughts.

What happens in the book is that the main character Meursault journeys to his hometown and goes to his mother's funeral. He returns home and later he goes to see a comedy film with Marie, a woman with whom he is somewhat indifferent about except for sex. Meursault is a creature of the physical world. He enjoys the sun and swimming and sex. He takes a trip to the beach with a pimp whose friendship he does not abide nor disavow. He gets into a fight with a band of Arabs who are after the pimp and he later he shoots one of the Arabs after returning to the beach alone. He is put on trial and condemned to death not because he shot the Arab, but because he did not comply with Society and its customs. He is found guilty because he is a moral monster: He didn't cry at his mother's funeral.

Like most of us, Meursualt (whose name can be roughly translated as "death leap") hopes for a long full life. Faced with his impending death after he has been condemned to execution, his rational mind struggles with his irrational hope for living. After his last appeal has failed, a prison chaplain comes to visit him. The chaplain attempts to comfort Meursault with platitudes about God and forgiveness. Meursault explodes with insults and attacks the chaplain who has to be rescued by the guards. Meursault's last impulse for hope has been extinguished.

"Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. [The chaplain] to o knew why. From the depths of my future, through the whole of this absurd life I'd been leading, I'd felt a hot wind blowing towards me across all the years that were still to come, and on its way this onrushing blast had leveled everything that was being proposed to me in the equally unreal years I was living through."

Later, following his outburst, Meursault is overcome by the reality of his absurd situation and he reaches a total peace:

"It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into -- just as it had got its teeth into me. I'd been right, I was still right, I was always right. I'd passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I'd felt like it ... And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I'd been happy, and that I was happy still."

Camus, through Meursault, shows the reader to pity themselves and all other humans. The reader demonstrates to his or her self the essence of the absurd: the reader is like Meursault, naked in the face of impossible odds, living in a deplorable and pitiable state. The reader pities his own relationship with society.

After 'The Stranger', Camus continued expanding his view of human life as rendered ultimately meaningless by the fact of death, and his belief that the individual can never make rational sense of his experience in life.

His other works include 'The Myth of Sisyphus' and two plays, 'Cross Purpose' and 'Caligula'. In these works Camus explored contemporary nihilism with considerable sympathy, but his own attitude toward the "absurd" remained ambivalent. In theory, philosophical absurdism logically entails total moral indifference. Camus found, however, that neither his own temperament nor his experiences in occupied France allowed him to be satisfied with such total moral neutrality. The growth of his ideas on moral responsibility is partly sketched in the four 'Letters to a German Friend' included, with a number of other political essays, in the book 'Resistance, Rebellion, and Death'. Towards the latter part of his short life, Camus was concerned with exploring avenues of rebellion against the absurd as he strove to create something like a humane stoicism. 'The Plague' is a symbolic novel in which the important achievement of those who fight bubonic plague in Oran lies not in the little success they have but in their assertion of human dignity and endurance. In the controversial essay 'The Rebel' he criticized what he regarded as the deceptive doctrines of "absolutist" philosophies--the vertical (eternal) transcendence of Christianity and the horizontal (historical) transcendence of Marxism. He argued in favor of Mediterranean humanism, advocating nature and moderation rather than historicism and violence. He subsequently became involved in a bitter controversy with Jean Paul Sartre over the issues raised in this essay.

The relationship and the public break with Sartre took a great personal toll upon Camus. Sartre had an almost cumbersome influence on Camus -- as both a friend and a teacher. Sartre and his friends initially admired the black passion of 'The Stranger' and 'The Myth of Sisyphus' but as they became aware of Camus' later realism and optimism they began to lose interest in him. What is notable is that the break with Sartre could be seen from the start. Their friendship was born out of the giddiness of the liberation era and could not last and did not last. Camus was an idealist and a moralist and deeply anti-communist; Sartre wished to repudiate idealism and wanted to live in history. In his famous essay, Camus took a stand against Stalin, contending that Sartre had become an apologist for Stalin's bloodthirsty regime. To Sartre, Camus had ignored class struggle. "Perhaps you were poor", Sartre wrote during the public feud, "But you are not so any longer."

There was also confusion about Camus and his association with Existentialism, a label he did not ask for nor like. "No, I am not an Existentialist", he once said during an interview. "Sartre and I are always astonished to see our names together." Both men had published their major works before they had first met, and when they did meet, it was to take note of their differences. Camus considered himself to be a poet; Sartre a critic. Sartre was also patently jealous of the younger man who could attract women even without the exploitation of his intellect and reputation.

Legend has it that Camus refused to engage with Sartre's consort Simone de Beauvoir because he feared she would talk too much in bed. On a more human level, Camus wore loud Algerian-style suits often topped with a trench coat looking like a young Humphrey Bogart complete with dangling cigarette. He drove about Paris very slowly in an old black Citroen. Friends would shout "Ho! Albert!" He would not shout back but merely wave his hand. To one observer, he appeared to be playing his own part in an unfinished movie.

With the little time left Camus had left between the break with Sartre and the awarding of the Nobel Prize, Camus broke free from his writer's block. He wrote two political plays, the satirical 'State of Siege' and 'The Just Assassins'. It can be argued, however, that Camus scored his major theatrical success with stage adaptations of such novels as William Faulkner's 'Requiem for a Nun' and Fyodor Dostoevsky's 'The Possessed'. He also published a third novel, 'The Fall' and a collection of short stories noteworthy for their technical virtuosity, 'Exile and the Kingdom'. Posthumous publications include two sets of notebooks covering the period 1935-51, an early novel, 'A Happy Death' and a collection of essays, 'Youthful Writings'.

On January 4, 1960, Camus was killed in an automobile accident while returning to Paris with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard. He was only forty-six years old and had written as recently as 1958, "I continue to be convinced that my work hasn't even been begun." Adding to the tragic irony was the fact that Camus had intended to return to Paris by train until Gallimard convinced him to change his mind. The return half of a rail ticket was found unused in his pocket.
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