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Albert Camus
1913 - 1960

 


The French novelist, essayist, and playwright Albert Camus was obsessed with the philosophical problems of the meaning of life and of man's search for values in a world without God. His work is distinguished by lucidity, moderation, and tolerance.
 

 

Albert Camus may be grouped with two slightly older French writers, André Malraux and Jean Paul Sartre, in marking a break with the traditional bourgeois novel. Like them, he is less interested in psychological analysis than in philosophical problems in his books. Camus developed a conception of the "absurd," which provides the theme for much of his earlier work: the "absurd" is the gulf between, on the one hand, man's desire for a world of happiness, governed by reason, justice, and order, a world which he can understand rationally and, on the other hand, the actual world, which is chaotic and irrational and inflicts suffering and a meaningless death on humanity. The second stage in Camus's thought developed from the first - man should not simply accept the "absurd" universe, but should "revolt" against it. This revolt is not political but in the name of the traditional humane values.

Camus was born on Nov. 7, 1913, at Mondovi in Algeria, then part of France. His father, who was French, was killed at the front in 1914; his mother was of Spanish origin. His childhood was one of poverty, and his education at school and later at the University of Algiers was completed only with help from scholarships. He was a brilliant student of philosophy, and his major outside interests were sports and drama. While still a student, he founded a theatre and both directed and acted in plays. Having contracted tuberculosis, which periodically forced him to spend time in a sanatorium, he was medically unable to become a teacher and worked at various jobs before becoming a journalist in 1938. His first published works were L'Envers et l'endroit (1937; The Wrong Side and the Right Side) and Noces (1938; Festivities), books of essays dealing with the meaning of life and its joys, as well as its underlying meaninglessness.


L'Étranger

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 Camus was unfit for military service; in the following year he moved to Paris and completed his first novel, L'Étranger (The Stranger), published in 1942. The theme of the novel is embodied in the "stranger" of its title, a young clerk called Meursault, who is narrator as well as hero. Meursault is a stranger to all conventional human reactions. The book begins with his lack of grief on his mother's death. He has no ambition, and he is prepared to marry a girl simply because he can see no reason why he should not. The crisis of the novel takes place on a beach when Meursault, involved in a quarrel not of his causing, shoots an Arab; the second part of the novel deals with his trial for murder and his condemnation to death, which he understands as little as why he killed the Arab. Meursault is absolutely honest in describing his feelings, and it is this honesty which makes him a "stranger" in the world and ensures the verdict of guilty. The total situation symbolizes the "absurd" nature of life, and this effect is increased by the deliberately flat and colorless style of the book.

Unable to find work in France during the German occupation, Camus returned to Algeria in 1941 and finished his next book, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), also published in 1942. This is a philosophical essay on the nature of the absurd, which is embodied in the mythical figure of Sisyphus, condemned eternally to roll a heavy rock up a mountain, only to have it roll down again. Sisyphus becomes a symbol of mankind and in his constant efforts achieves a certain tragic greatness.

In 1942 Camus, back in France, joined a Resistance group and engaged in underground journalism until the Liberation in 1944, when he became editor of the former Resistance newspaper Combat for 3 years. Also during this period his first two plays were staged: Le Malentendu (Cross-Purpose) in 1944 and Caligula in 1945. Here again the principal theme is the meaninglessness of life and the finality of death. Two more plays, L'État de siège (The State of Siege) and Les Justes (The Just Assassins), followed in 1948 and 1950, and Camus was to adapt seven other plays for the stage, the sphere of activity where he felt happiest.

In 1947 Camus brought out his second novel, La Peste (The Plague). Here, in describing a fictional attack of bubonic plague in the Algerian city of Oran, he again treats the theme of the absurd, represented by the meaningless and totally unmerited suffering and death caused by the plague. But now the theme of revolt is strongly developed. Man cannot accept this suffering passively; and the narrator, Dr. Rieux, explains his ideal of "honesty" - preserving his integrity by struggling as best he can, even if unsuccessfully, against the epidemic. On one level the novel can be taken as a fictional representation of the German occupation of France, but it has a wider appeal as being symbolical of the total fight against evil and suffering, the major moral problem of human experience.


Later Works

Camus's next important book was L'Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel). Another long essay, this work treats the theme of revolt in political, as well as philosophical, terms. Camus, who had briefly been a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, afterward maintained a position of political independence, from both the left and right-wing parties in France. In this book he develops the point that man should not tolerate the absurdity of the world but at the same time makes a careful distinction between revolt and revolution. Revolution, despite its initial ideals, he sees as inevitably ending in a tyranny as great or greater than the one it set out to destroy. Instead, Camus asks for revolt: a more individual protest, in tune with the humane values of tolerance and moderation. Above all he denounces the Marxist belief that "history" will inevitably produce a world revolution and that any action committed in its name will therefore be justified. For Camus, the end can never justify the means. L'Homme révolté was widely discussed in France and led to a bitter quarrel between Camus and Sartre, who at this time was maintaining the necessity of an alliance with the Communists.

In the early 1950s Camus turned back to his earlier passion for the theater and published no major book until 1956, when La Chute (The Fall) appeared. This novel consists of a monologue by a former lawyer named Clamence, who mainly sits in a sordid waterfront bar in Amsterdam and comments ironically on his life. Successful and worldly, he has undergone a moral crisis - the "fall" of the title - after failing to help a young woman who commits suicide by jumping off a bridge in Paris; afterward he gives up his career and moves to Amsterdam, where he lives as what he calls a "judge-penitent." The guilt he feels because of this "fall" makes him see and describe the whole of human life in terms of satirical pessimism.

In 1957 Camus received the great distinction of the Nobel Prize for literature for his works, which "with clear-sighted earnestness illuminate the problems of the human conscience of our time." In the same year he published a collection of short stories, L'Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom). Later he began to work on a fourth important novel and was also about to become director of a major Paris theater when, on Jan. 4, 1960, he was killed in a car crash near Paris, at the age of 46, a tragic loss to literature since he had yet to write the works of his full maturity as artist and thinker. Since his death important volumes of Carnets (Notebooks) have appeared.
 


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Camus, Albert (1913-60). Novelist, playwright, essayist. Camus was born and raised in a working-class European milieu in Algeria. His early intellectual promise was spotted by Jean Grenier and he went on to pursue studies in philosophy that might have made of him a distinguished academic. However, the onset of tuberculosis at the age of 17 ruled out an academic career, and the disease was to dog him for the rest of his life. His first published writings were lyrical essays inspired by a passion for existence and an intense capacity for communion with nature, coupled with a sharp perception of life's fragility and bleakness. The title of the 1937 collection, L'Envers et l'endroit, highlights this dualistic conception of the human predicament which was to remain a constant throughout his work (see L'Exil et le royaume, 1957).

In the late 1930s he took a succession of menial jobs while developing various interests: political, involving brief membership of the Communist Party; theatrical, through the foundation of two companies for which he adapted, wrote, directed, and acted; journalistic, as a campaigning reporter on the radical newspapers Alger républicain and Soir républicain. He also completed his first novel, La Mort heureuse (published posthumously), and began work on his play Caligula, as well as the novel L'Étranger and the philosophical essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe. When published in 1942, the latter two works established his reputation as the spokesman for a philosophy of the absurd. The essay begins by asking whether suicide is not a legitimate reaction to life's futility and analyses the components of the human condition, concluding that the absurd results from the incompatibility between, on the one hand, the indifferent natural universe and the incomprehensible circumstances of existence, and, on the other hand, man's desire for order and sense. Thus, an authentic response to the human lot requires that the individual maintain the tension between his or her needs and aspirations and the world's refusal to satisfy them. We are like Sisyphus condemned perpetually to push a boulder up a mountain, whence it will inevitably roll back down again: in the endless and ever-defeated effort to surmount this fate, we must, argues Camus, imagine Sisyphus happy and emulate his resilience. Meursault, the anti-hero of L'Étranger, leads a life which can be seen as a manifestation of this vision, and through his terse narrative became an icon for his alienated era.

As these works appeared, Camus had actually moved beyond what to him was only an initial premiss for the individual, and was more concerned with collective attitudes. Trapped in occupied France where he had gone for medical treatment in 1942 just before the Allied landings in North Africa, he worked for the Resistance newspaper Combat while writing La Peste, his allegorical depiction of life under oppression. This novel demonstrates how the tension characterizing the absurd develops into resistance and revolt against a common lot in a movement of solidarity which has implications on the political as well as the metaphysical plane. The clandestine publication of the first of the Lettres à un ami allemand (1943) expressed something of the practical relevance of this theory of revolt which was the next stage in Camus's thought.

At the Liberation of France, Camus, as editor-in-chief of Combat, now a national newspaper, was a major figure in French intellectual life. Through his editorials he informed public opinion on the crucial issues of the day: the post-war purges of collaborators, the establishment of a new constitution and a new political regime in France, the beginnings of the Cold War (see Ni victimes ni bourreaux, 1946). He was linked with Sartre as a leader of radical opinion, but took pains to distance himself from the latter's Existentialism, as his own notion of revolt presupposed moral values Sartre was bound to deny. The publication of La Peste in 1947 was a prelude to a cooling in their hitherto close relations; when L'Homme révolté (1951) was analysed in Sartre's review Les Temps modernes it precipitated a bitter controversy which severed links definitively. In this essay tracing the origins and development of revolt, Camus had been concerned to show that Hegelian historical determinism constituted a perversion of the rebel's true aim and had inevitably opened the way to totalitarianism, both fascist and Marxist.

Moving towards a third stage in his philosophical evolution, Camus was beginning to direct his efforts towards defining an ideal of balance or measure: but in practice this brought him further wounding isolation and estrangement, as he was driven equally to denounce the abuses of Communism and to protest against Western hypocrisy, both in the workings of capitalism and in the failure to support the freedom being snuffed out in Eastern Europe. The mid- and late 1950s were particularly soured for Camus by the Algerian War. Throughout his career he had castigated the injustice inherent in Algeria's political status within France; but his position exposed him to criticism from all sides as, unable to contemplate the transformation of his homeland into a country which was not French, he determined to refrain from public comment for fear of inflaming partisan passions. In 1958 a volume of his journalism, Actuelles III (following previous collections of 1950 and 1953), presented over 20 years' writings on the subject: it was met with virtual silence. His demoralization was exacerbated by personal difficulties and by doubts about his creative powers; but his artistic gifts were triumphantly vindicated in La Chute (1956), which converted his own perceived shortcomings into a mirror sardonically turned on his contemporaries. Though his output as a playwright—Le Malentendu (1944), Caligula (1945), L'État de siège (1948), Les Justes (1949)—failed to match the impact of his other works, in the 1950s he was a much-respected theatre director and produced successful adaptations of other authors. Following the publication in 1957 of his short stories L'Exil et le royaume, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was working on a substantial new novel, Le Premier Homme (published 1994), when killed in a car accident.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 23 December, 2008