existential primer

Albert Camus
documenting the absurdities of war and peace

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Before commenting upon the works of Albert Camus, I should first make a rather bold statement: I consider him to be an existential writer. More accurately, I consider him a writer of existential works. It is fashionable in academic writings to now drop the label from almost every “existentialist” — especially since only Jean-Paul Sartre seems to have embraced the label, and then only for a brief time. Certainly it is possible to debate Camus’ status as an existentialist, but one cannot ignore existential elements in his fiction. Camus preferred to think of himself as an “absurdist.”

As one reads Camus, or any other writer sometimes called “existential,” remember existentialism was never an organized movement. Existential situations and themes appear in Dostoevsky’s works, but he certainly was not an existentialist. In large part, the following commentaries do not focus upon whether or not Camus was an existentialist… I leave that to the readers and individuals with doctorates in philosophy. Personally, I think Camus stands far above Sartre as a writer and nearly equals Franz Kafka. That view is my bias.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


Biography

Albert Camus was born on 7 or 8 November 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria. Both dates are listed in various biographies. His parents were Lucien Camus and Hélèn Sintès. Lucien had been orphaned in Algeria. His parents had been French immigrants seeking a better life in the colonies. Lucien was self-educated. When Albert was born, Lucien was working as a cellerman at a winery.Camus

Unlike Lucien, Hélèn was not French. Her family had moved to Algeria from the Spanish island of Minorca. She suffered hearing loss and a speech impediment. Hélèn was illiterate, relying upon her husband for support.

His father, Lucien, died in 1914, during World War I’s Battle of the Marne. Lucien was a member of the First Zouave Regiment. War was to remain a constant throughout Camus’ life — and his literature.

Camus’ mother was left to raise her son alone, in extreme poverty. Widowed and nearly deaf, there was little possibility of her earning a reasonable income. She moved the family to Rue de Lyon, in the Belcourt section of Algiers. Belcourt was a crowded, almost third-world neighborhood. The family was forced to move to the region so a grandmother could raise Albert and his older brother. Albert’s grandmother was dying of liver cancer, while an uncle living in the apartment was paralyzed. A second uncle also lived with the family. Camus’ family represented all human misery and misfortune.

The apartment, near the Arab Quarter of the city, lacked electricity and plumbing. The “facilities” consisted of water jugs and “Turkish toilets” on the balcony. A Turkish toilet is a drain into an open, or minimally covered, public sewer.

According to Camus’ accounts, his mother was permanently melancholy. To escape this home life, Camus buried himself in studies and participation in local athletic teams. He distinguished himself in sports as a leader and competitor. In academics, Camus also excelled. When Camus entered the local Belcourt schools, an instructor named Louis Germain noticed young Albert’s intellect. The teacher tutored Albert, helping him pass the lycée entrance exams in 1923. A lycée is an exclusive secondary school for students destined to university — as Albert was.

An important step out of poverty, Camus was accepted into the University of Algiers’ school of philosophy. In 1930, his studies were interrupted by severe tuberculosis. The disease took one of his most important possessions — his strength. As a result of the disease, Camus reduced his studies to a part-time pursuit. Albert would attend lectures at the University of Algiers from 1932 through 1953, never losing his enthusiasm for learning.

Communism versus Socialism

Between 1931 and 1935, Camus worked in a string of low-paying jobs, including positions as a police clerk and salesman. He also had a brief marriage during this period, which ended in divorce. Sadly, Camus wanted to be a teacher, but could never pass the medical exam due to his tuberculosis.

While a student at the University, Camus joined and left the Communist Party. According to biographers, Camus joined the Communist Party in 1934, primarily as an anti-Fascist. The Spanish Civil War greatly affected Camus and many others. His stormy relationship with the Communist Party continued throughout his life. “Marxist-Leninist” doctrines did not appeal to Camus, even as a student. His real concern was for the plight of the working class and poor in Algeria and elsewhere.

Marriage added to the complexity of Camus’ life. In 1934 he married Simone Hié, the daughter of a successful ophthalmologist. Simone was from Algeria’s upper-class and her mother — the doctor — supported the newly weds. Unfortunately, Simone was also a drug addict. Camus’ marriage ended when he learned Simone was having sex with a doctor in exchange for various drugs.

Camus remained a socialist throughout his life. He founded The Workers’ Theater in 1935. The Workers’ Theater was intended to present socialist plays to Algiers’ working population. Camus hoped to educate the workers, in accordance with his own beliefs. The theater company survived until 1939.

In 1936 the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) was founded with the explicit goal of independence for Algeria and a government representing Muslim concerns. In response to the PCA, Camus joined activities of Le Parti du Peuple Algérien — a party he considered more “people” oriented. The PCA soon declared Le Parti to be a Fascist organization, which it was not. Camus was placed “on trial” by the Algerian Communist Party and expelled as a “Trotskyist.” This experience resulted in Camus becoming anti-Communist for many years. Hypocrisy within the International Communist (Workers) Party was exposed by the Stalin-Laval Pact of 1935, which changed Communist Party goals. Stalin wanted strong allies to fight fascism. France was suddenly “good” and, after some “persuasion,” the PCA dropped its call for Algerian independence. Camus was to be forgiven, but he did not forgive.

Between 1937 and 1939, Camus wrote for the Alger-Republicain, a socialist paper. As a reporter, he compiled a detailed account of the lives of poor Arabs in Kabyles. Camus later published a collection of essays on the conditions and ethnic discrimination faced by the Arabs in Actuelles III. In late 1939 and early 1940, he edited another socialist paper, the Soir-Republicain. His editorship lasted only a few short months, as the paper closed in the midst of tensions between Algiers and France.

Combat and Resistance

The period from 1939 through 1942 presents some difficulty to trace accurately. Biographers differ on exact events in Camus’ life, so I attempt to present those facts on which there is agreement. It is important to recognize that World War II created a great deal of confusion. Camus was a member of a resistance cell, so not all his activities could be recorded by himself or others. If the order of events in this section are in error, please offer any corrections.

Camus married again in 1940. Francine Faure was a mathematics instructor from Oran.

In 1940, Camus left Algiers for Paris, hoping to establish himself as a reporter in the leftist press. Unfortunately, the German army invaded France, and Camus returned to North Africa. Camus remarried in Africa, and found a teaching position in Oran. Camus was shortly declared a “threat to national security” and “advised” to leave Algeria in March 1940. The political right’s rising power in both France and Algeria resulted in the mistreatment of many leftist and pacifists. Camus was a pacifist and wrote openly about avoiding war in Europe. The invasion of France left a terrible impression upon Camus.

Again, Camus traveled to Paris. This marked Camus’ Exile. Camus arrived shortly before the German army took Paris and much of northern France. The remnants of the French army were demoralized and, worse, positioned incorrectly to offer any defense of the city. Camus find himself feeling isolated, or estranged, from what he thought was his country. Camus wrote:

Paris is dead. The danger is everywhere. You go home and wait for the alert signal or whatever. I get stopped constantly in the street and asked for my ID: charming atmosphere.

Consider that Camus is a pied-noir. His skin is tanned by the sun or light brown. His accent might be imperfect. Whatever the case, to the “powers” governing Paris, Camus is suspect. What he certainly is not, in their minds, is Parisian. For better or worse, Camus is in Paris briefly before the entire staff of Paris-Soir, the newspaper at which he found work, is relocated to the western port city of Bordeaux to avoid the Nazis.

He travels light, carrying one case with white shirts, ties, toothbrush, and three incomplete manuscripts. These manuscripts were “The Absurds” — as named by Camus. During the year 1940 he produced some of his greatest essays and short stories. In less than a year, Camus wrote or completed drafts of The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Plague. In addition to these works, Camus filled notebooks with his thoughts on philosophy and politics.

The German army soon reached Paris, forcing Camus and many others to flee for Vichy France. In November 1942 the Allies landed in North Africa, giving Camus some hope the war might end. Camus soon traveled to Saint-Etienn, in Central France. During the winter, his tuberculosis symptoms worsened and his mood sank.

Combat

In October, 1943, Camus joined a clandestine resistance cell known as “Combat” — also the name of the organization’s newspaper. Combat had been founded in 1942 as an intelligence and sabotage organization. Considered crude leftists and terrorists by General de Gaulle, Combat proved itself dedicated to France during the occupation. As with most operatives, Camus adopted a false identity, “Beauchard,” and carried false papers to travel within occupied cities. Camus helped smuggle copies of the paper Combat to the public. Combat was printed in Lyon and distributed in Paris, carrying news of the war.

Camus became editor of Combat in 1943, editing the newspaper for four years. His columns and reports often called upon people to act in accordance with strict moral principals. It was during this period that Camus formalized his philosophy that human life was sacred, no matter how inexplicable existence of life might be. The newspaper moved to Paris in the summer 1944, following the Liberation of Paris. Camus wrote the first Paris edition editorial.

Paris is aflame in a hail of bullets on this August night. In this immense setting of water and stone, all around this river flowing heavily with history, the barricades of freedom are once again being erected. Once more, justice must be bought with men's blood. It is unimaginable that men who for four years have fought in silence and in whole days of bombardments and gunfire will agree to see the forces of resignation and injustice return in any form whatsoever.

Jean-Paul Sartre

World War II brought Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus together; politics eventually drove them apart. Even their friendships with Simone de Beauvoir was not enough to keep the two men united following the rise of Soviet Communism. Only after Camus’ death would Sartre again praise his former friend.

During the mid-1940s, this trio of French intellectuals would meet at Café de Flores on the Boulevard St. Germain, known as the “The Left Bank.” They shared common beliefs: the universe is brutally apart from reason, there is no divinity, and that freedom surmounts a basic despair. Early on Sartre and Camus embraced solidarity (humanism) as the guiding value in life. Later, in part due to Camus’ rejection of Soviet methods, Sartre would state that Camus had forsaken solidarity as a guiding principal.

Born into poverty, raised by a widowed nearly-deaf mother, Albert Camus was the ideal target of socialist and existential doctrines. Not that such doctrines are necessarily incorrect, but Camus’ perspective was different from that of other French intellectuals. Experiences produce biases — and Camus’ biases were rooted in poverty and suffering. Camus was in many ways the man Jean-Paul Sartre wanted to be. While Sartre had a mildly difficult childhood, he was never wanting for attention or security. Sartre was drawn to Camus in large part due to this contrast in histories.

Following the war, Camus toured the United States. Camus found that French Existentialism, as promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre, was widely misunderstood as a philosophy of hopelessness. Camus did hold that life was absurd — defying logical explanation, and ultimately irrational. However, Camus considered life valuable and worth defending. While the American public thought existentialism was devoid of morality, Camus’ experiences in Algiers and France had led to a strong ethical system.

In 1944, at the age of thirty-one, Camus was a leading voice of social change. He belonged to no political party and was fiercely independent. His rejection of Marxism led to attacks from the Communists in France and other countries. Camus responded by attempting to form a socialist party of his own. While the political party never matured, it was clear Camus spoke for many French workers.

Camus’ twins, Catherine and Jean were born.

{** More info on twins needed **}

Camus succumbed to illness in 1949, a relapse of his tuberculosis accompanied by other difficulties. For two years he remained in seclusion, writing and publishing political essays. Camus recovered in 1951, and published The Rebel, a collection of his thoughts on metaphysical, historical, and artistic rebellion. The book so angered some of his counterparts that he was ostracized by many French intellectuals. It was this work that led to Camus’ split with Sartre.

The stress of The Rebel’s reception among philosophers and historians led Camus to seek out more relaxing work. He spent the next few years translating his favorite plays. This work as a translator led to successful French-language productions of plays by Larivey, Buzzati, and William Faulkner.

Camus, The Activist

During the 1950s, Camus took on the role of full-time advocate for human rights. He did this despite his break from the French intellectual elite, which in some ways left Camus isolated. He found himself alone, though often writing about the same injustices as Sartre and others.

In his new solitude Camus would never show more solidarity, giving way to the French equation/pun solitaire-solidaire, which he would later employ in one of his short stories. He was active in most of the major causes of his time.
Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 140

Still disgusted with victory of Franco in Spain decades earlier, Camus resigned from UNESCO in 1952 when it admitted Spain into the organization. Camus could not belong to any organization allowing a Fascist state membership.

In 1953 Camus wrote in support of east Berlin workers who attempted to strike. While other leftists ignored the sins of the Soviet satellite states, Camus was shocked when the state used tanks to end demonstrations. The Communist Party once again proved to Camus that it was anything but communist or socialist in nature. Wrote Camus of the events:

When a worker, somewhere in the world, approaches a tank with his bare fists and cries out that he’s not a slave, what are we if we remain indifferent?
Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 141

Camus’ deep affection for France was severely tested by events in the 1950s. Dedicated to human rights, Camus found himself struggling to understand French colonialism — and its fall. In July 1953, police opened fire on Muslims protesting in Paris. Many were wounded, several killed, by French police. Many Muslims in Paris were Algerian, hoping for a peaceful resolution to colonial control. Most simply wanted, as did Camus, greater autonomy for their homeland. Events such as the police shootings only served to isolate the Muslims and give greater power to radicals.

One of the greatest blows to French pride was the fall of colonial Asia. In 1954, Vietnamese General Giap’s army defeated French colonial powers in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. After the Vietnamese began to rebel openly, other French colonial holdings begin to follow in armed rebellion. Camus was torn — he considered himself French first, Algerian second… and he saw the colonies as part of a greater France.

Later, as with many other leftists, Camus found himself aligned with the “right” when the Soviet Union began to use force to control its satellite states. In 1956 Camus and others protested Soviet actions in Hungary.

True to his life-long opposition to capital punishment, Camus defended the infamous American couple, the Rosenbergs, not because they were leftists but because of death penalty imposed by an American court. Camus actually worried that the couple might have spread nuclear weapons — a technology Camus found deeply troubling. Commenting upon the United States' use of nuclear weapons (6 Aug 1945), Camus wrote:

Mechanized civilization has just reached its highest degree of savagery. There is a certain indecency in celebrating a discovery which above all serves the greatest rage for destruction man has known for centuries.

The Vichy Purge

Following World War II, there was a great call for “justice” throughout most of Europe. In France, the Vichy Purge followed WWII. During the purge traitors and Vichy leaders were summarily tried and executed for crimes against the French people.

Camus attended the trial of Marshal Pétain as both a journalist and out of morbid curiosity. He wanted to know how such a great man could have aided an enemy of the French people. To the surprise of many, Pétain was sentenced to death. The World War I hero, now more than 80 years old, had gone from a French icon to a personification of treachery. Camus and others were relieved when Pétain was pardoned by Charles de Gaulle, who wanted unity after the war.

Many of the French people, even those who had fought in the Resistance, wanted to forget the war. While de Gaulle had led French troops, he wanted to rebuild France more than he wanted revenge. As a result, de Gaulle’s government did not continue the Vichy Purge as long or as thoroughly as might be assumed. Once a few major trials and executions had occurred, de Gaulle properly thought the public would be satisfied — and no more French blood would be shed as a result of the war.

Like his fellow Frenchman, Camus insisted upon justice — and severe penalties. For the first time in his life, he wondered if the death penalty was a reasonable punishment. Camus attended the trial of a particularly treacherous man and admitted that death seemed almost too good for a traitor. Still, Camus resisted the death penalty and fought his emotions.

In every guilty man, there is some innocence. This makes every absolute condemnation revolting.

Camus, The Journalist

After the war, Camus continued to work at the newspaper Combat. For Albert Camus, “journalist” was as prestigious a job description as “novelist” or “playwright.” Camus wrote of the sounds and smells of the press room, where the words he had written were typeset and printing plates created. He often spent hours watching the typesetters work with hot lead and the pressmen adjusting the presses while newspapers were printing. Camus realized that newspapers were far more influential than most other forms of writing — thanks to their larger and loyal audiences.

In 1947, Combat was taken private, which meant it operated for profit. This change did not originally affect content; one reason the paper was privatized was its popularity. Over time, however, the content did shift and editorial policy moderated. Yet Camus’ strong journalistic ideals did not change. He always held that news must be what people should and need to know, not what they want to read. Commenting upon the press, in 1957, Camus wrote:

This press, which we hoped would be proud and dignified, is today the same of this unhappy country.

Algerian Unrest

The Algerian situation began to deteriorate more rapidly on 1 November 1954, when members of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) attacked various state assets in Algeria, including military barracks, police offices, and other symbols of French occupation. Unlike many from the intellectual left in France, Camus did not side with the rebels. Unlike these left-leaning thinkers, Camus was in the unique situation of being from a colony. He considered self native Algerian. Said Camus, “It’s easy to be anti-colonialist in the bistros of Marseille or Paris.”

Camus started writing for l'Express daily newspaper in 1955. His beat included coverage of the Algerian war. His articles about Algeria were later collected into Actuelles: Chronique Algérienne.

Who has capsized all projects of reform for thirty years, if not a parliament elected by the French? Who has closed its ears to the cries of Arab misery… if not the great majority of the French press? And who, if not France, with its disgusting good conscience, has waited until Algeria bleeds to finally realize that she exists?

In February 1956, mass demonstrations by pied-noirs forced France to respond to the unrest in Algeria. Reluctantly, 400,000 French soldiers were stationed in Algeria. The FLN attacks on non-Muslims worsened with the arrival of troops. Unfortunately, yet predictably, the French responded with torture, mass killings, and a campaign against Muslim fundamentalists.

A despondent Camus concluded there was no stopping the violence, at least not between rebels and the French troops. Camus begged publicly for a “civil” truce in Algeria, asking both sides to “spare the civilian population” from violence. Taking his crusade to the people of Algiers, Camus and others organized a 22 January 1956 public debate. Outside the hall, Muslims and the Front Français de l’Algérie faced off, but without any major incidents. Unbeknownst to him, Camus was guarded by members of FLN. After the debate, one Algerian writer called Camus, “Le Colonisateur de Bonne Volonté” — The Well-Meaning Colonialist.

The last essay written by Camus, “Algérie 1958,” supported a “Federation of Peoples” in Algeria. Under Camus’ plan, Muslims and pied-noirs would share power in government and Algeria would become an autonomous commonwealth. He had also become convinced that communist were behind much of the unrest. Camus blamed the Soviet Union, Egypt, and Arab states for encouraging Muslim radicals.

Camus escaped the stress of being a political leader through a series of affairs. From 1956 until 1959, Camus translated and directed plays in France. His leading actresses were also his lovers, Maria Casarès and Catherine Sellers.

Nobel Prize

The Fall was published in 1956, marking Camus’ return to novels. The book was well received, bringing Camus back into favor in intellectual circles. The following year, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. While The Fall clearly attracted attention, the Nobel committee cited Camus’ essay Réflexions Sur la Guillotine as an influential work on behalf of human rights.

When Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, he was the second youngest to ever receive award. While in Sweden to accept the award, Camus went before students at Stockholm university. An Arab student accused Camus of not caring about the Arabs in Algeria. Camus responded,

I have to denounce blind terrorism in the streets of Algiers, which might one day strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice.
— Camus

His comments shocked the left-wing. Just as quickly as The Fall had returned him to favor, these comments isolated Camus again from intellectual circles. Family before justice? Private concerns greater than the common good? These thoughts ran counter to traditional socialist doctrine. Camus knew that most people would defend family above country, but he dared to state publicly that human relationships superseded political theories.

Privately, Camus had worked to help Arabs, saving many from the death penalty. He later said that “mother” in his comments was meant to symbolize Absurd Death — no more meaningless death in the name of politics was acceptable to Camus. Still, leftists failed to understand. The still held to the belief that sometimes revolution must be violent.

In May 1958, a coup in Algeria, led by right-wing French, temporarily ended the civil unrest. France promised self-determination, assuming the conservative victory meant French rule would continue. Camus planned to campaign against independence… he could never imagine Algeria apart from France.

Before his death, Camus had planned another set of three works. His new theme was to be “Love.” According to some biographers, Camus also had three lovers in Paris.

It seems almost fitting that Camus died at the pinnacle of his career as a writer. Camus died in a freak automobile accident near Sens, France, on 4 January 1960. Curiously, Camus had once said there would be no death less meaningful than to die in an automobile accident. He disliked cars, especially driven at high speeds. He was not driving when he died. Among his papers was the novel The First Man, a fictionalized account of his family history. This novel was published in 1995, leading to renewed interest in Camus and his works.

What sets Camus apart from many existentialists and modern philosophers in general is his acceptance of contradictions. Yes, Camus wrote, life is absurd and death renders it meaningless — for the individual. But mankind and its societies are larger than one person.


Chronology

The chronology, like the biography of Camus, is complicated by biographies with differing dates and some missing records.

1913 November 7
(or November 8)
Born in Mondovi, French Algiers.
1914 September Father, Lucien, killed in World War I, Battle of the Marne.
1930 Treated for tuberculosis.
1934 Marries Simone Hié, daughter of an ophthalmologist. Later divorced.
1935 Founds The Workers’ Theatre to educate and entertain the working class of Algiers.
1937 Began writing the collection of essays known as the Algerian Essays.
1938 Joined the reporting staff of the Alger-Republicain.
1939 The Workers’ Theatre closes.
1940 Marries Francine Faure, a mathematics instructor.
1940 Left Algeria for Paris, then left Paris after the Nazi invasion.
1941 Returned to France to join the French Resistance Movement.
1942 Publishes The Stranger.
1943 Becomes editor of the Parisian Daily Combat, a French Resistance newspaper.
1943 June 2 Meets Jean-Paul Sartre.
1945 Twins, Catherine and Jean, born to Camus and Francine.
1951 Publishes The Rebel, a study of revolt and rebellion. The book’s criticisms of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party lead to a split from Sartre.
1956 The Fall published, a study of fraud and guilt.
1957 Awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
1958 Actuelles III is published, a collection of Camus’ columns on the condition of Arabs in Algeria.
1960 Publishes Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.
1960 January 4 Died in Sens, France in an automobile accident.

Works


Commentaries

Algeria, a Main Character

Albert Camus was decidedly Mediterranean. He loved the sun, sand, and swimming. As soon as he saw a large city, he realized how special the small communities of his native Algeria were; he hated dull, modern cities. Quite simply, Camus was Algerian, no matter how often he proclaimed he was French. Algeria was one of the most important concepts in most of his works — the colonial state was the setting for his major works and served as a metaphor frequently.

Camus’ French Algerian heritage found its way into his works — and his politics. His last work, The First Man, published 35 years after his death, is as much about Algeria as Camus’ own history. In fact, Camus was as loyal to France and Algeria as to any person or philosophy. Despite its heat, poverty, and social unrest, Camus loved Algeria. His exile from the colony seemed to only increase his passion for it.

Algeria is the setting for most of Camus’ works. Its sun is key in The Stranger, The First Man, and other stories. Even stories meant to be metaphors about France and Nazi occupation are set in Algeria; The Plague could have been set anywhere, but Camus chose Algeria. In this sense, Algeria is a “main character” in Camus’ fiction. However, it is the political role of Algeria in Camus’ life that is interesting to students of politics and philosophy.

Biographer David Mairowitz theorizes that Camus’ attitude toward Algeria was shaped by the culture of the colony. As a boy, Camus was exposed to a system constructed to reinforce the myth that French colonies were merely the reconstruction of the Roman Empire. Colonialization was not conquest but reunification of a great Empire. Algerians, it was believed, would eventually merge into a common culture. Camus carried this belief until his death; he envisioned an Algeria in which Moslem/Christian and Arab/Gaul divisions ceased to be important. He never understood the deep distrust and hatred of the Algerians.

France is the mother country with her kings and châteaux, and young Moslems as well as pieds-noirs are imbued at school with the idea of a common heritage between the two countries, learning — cynically — about “our ancestors the Gauls,” while being taught virtually nothing of the thirteen centuries of Algerian history between the Roman and French colonizations.

When, 130 years later, French Algerians are forced to leave, they will not see themselves as victims of de-colonization, but as having been kicked out of their own country.
Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 19

The “left-right” divide is somewhat meaningless, since they are relative to each national political structure.

Human rights and equality preoccupied Camus. His politics were decidedly “left-wing” and socialism appealed to Camus because it promised to equalize some social inequities. However, in life Camus was not able to treat Arabs as he did his French comrades. Even when trying to write sympathetically of the Arabs in Algeria and the poverty in which they were forced to live, Camus still leaves the impression that the Arabs need to be “civilized” by the French culture. It was not that Camus did not try to support and aid the Arab population, but like many liberals he failed to realize his support was accompanied by a form of condescension.


The Absurds

In 1940, Albert Camus arrived in Paris where he was to work as a reporter for the newspaper Paris-Soir. Unfortunately, the Nazis were not far off, so the newspaper’s staff left Paris for Clermont-Ferrand. The stay in Clermont-Ferrand was brief, as the Nazis moved onward, and Camus found himself in Bordeaux. During this period Camus, like many others, was forced to travel lightly — carrying only essential items in case it became necessary to flee France entirely. Among his possessions were three manuscripts, which he called “The Absurds.”

The Absurds defined Camus to other French intellectuals; Jean-Paul Sartre considered them Camus’ best philosophical works. The Absurds are the following works:

For Camus, the absurd was not negative, not a synonym for “ridiculous,” but the true state of existence. Accepting the view that life is absurd is to embrace a realistic view of life: the absence of universal logic. This approach to philosophy is more radical than Nietzsche’s “God is dead.” One might rephrase Camus’ absurdism as “God? No thanks… I’m on my own.”

Many mistakenly believe Camus saw no meaning in life; even Camus and Nietzsche seek meaning in life, but not in a way familiar to most. For Camus, meaning was in the human experience. Absurdity does not render life meaningless — people have meaning because they interact with each other, while remaining in control of their own destinies.

The Stranger (l’Étranger, Written 1938, Published 1942; 1946 English)

The first of “The Absurds” written by Albert Camus, The Stranger defines Camus for most Americans. The novel is simple, with none of the diversions common in popular literature. The main character is not a hero, has no true love affair, and the pursuit of money and power never enters into the story. The Stranger is an honest atheist, willing to accept his life as it happens.

The Title

Camus’ title, l’Étranger, has been translated poorly, in my opinion. The U.S. title, The Stranger, implies the main character, Meursault, has been viewed as a “strange” or “odd” person for some time. The other possible meaning is that no one knows him; Mersault is a stranger even to those who think they know him. These definitions do not seem adequate. The U.K. title, The Outsider, only serves to confuse readers more.

Meursault is the archetype of a middle-class man. He works as a clerk, rents an apartment, and draws no attention to himself. He is, if anything, ordinary. Meursault might even be boring. He lacks deep convictions and passion. If he is estranged from any aspect of French society, it is religion — he does not believe in the symbols and rituals of faith.

Is the main character estranged? “Cela m’est égal.” Meursault views life as one might a movie. No matter what occurs, “It’s all the same to me.” He is not a stranger, but rather an observer without an emotional connection to the world.

Along with the title, Camus took care in naming the main character. Meursault’s name is symbolic of the Mediterranean. Mer means “sea” and Soliel is French for “sun.” The sea and sun meet at the beach, where Meursault’s fateful act occurs.

Structure

Analysis of the novel begins by recognizing the story’s basic structure. There are three deaths which mark the beginning, middle, and end of the story. First, Meursault’s mother dies. This death occurs before the narration starts, but marks the start of Meursault’s downfall. In the middle of the tale we have the death of an Arab. The defining events in The Stranger are set in motion by Meursault’s apparent murder of the Arab. One day, walking toward a cool stream, Meursault is blocked by an Arab. It seems the Arab draws a knife, as Meursault sees a flash of light from the blade. Meursault then kills the Arab, believing this to be an act of self-defense. At the end of the novel, Meursault is executed, the third death.

Readers should note an Arab is killed. Arabs were traditionally the targets of racism in Algiers. The “more French” one was, the more important the individual. The culture and religion of Arabs were deemed simple and barbaric. This explains why it was more upsetting to the court that Meursault was not respectful of their societal norms… killing an Arab was a minor offense. Not seeking Christian forgiveness or mourning properly for his mother were the far worse crimes. The surface structure of the novel leads many to assume the act of manslaughter is Meursault’s prevailing crime; it is not. Had he explained himself, and seemed more “Christian” to the court, all might have been forgiven.

Meursault

Meursault is an anti-hero, according to some scholars. His only redeeming quality is his honesty, no matter how absurd. In existential terms, he is “authentic” to himself. Meursault does not believe in God, but he cannot lie because he is true to himself. This inability to falsify empathy condemns him to death. While Meursault allegedly executed for killing an Arab, he is hated for not expressing deep emotion when his mother dies. Meursault has faith in nothing except that which he experiences and senses. He is not a philosopher, a theologian, or a thinker. Meursault exists as he is, not trying to be anything more than himself.

Meursault, the novel’s hero, a “stranger” to the system of Christian morality insofar as he cannot comprehend it, is certainly not an “outsider” neither consciously choosing to remain outside society nor being rejected by it. On the contrary, Meursault is the perfect model of a young lower-middle-class pied-noir, with an ordinary desk job, and with the ordinary insider’s simple taste for watching a banal film, having a drink at the local bar, going to the beach, lying in the sun. He is very much inside the French Algerian colonial scene, living the most ordinary of lives, not at all a social reject an in no way a rebel… at least not yet.
Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 43

Why did Camus’ readers recognize Meursault as a plausible character? After two World Wars and other sufferings, many people came to (or tried to) live life much as Meursault does. They lost the will to do more than exist. There was no hope and no desire. The only goal for many people was survival. Even then, the survival seemed empty. We learn how empty Meursault’s existence is through his relationships. He is not close to his mother; we learn he does not cry at her funeral. He does not seem close to his mistress, Marie Cardona. Of his lover, Meursault states, “To me, she was only Marie.” There is no passion in Meursault’s words.

Mother’s Death: Event 1

In America, unlike most European countries, employment lacks security. Taking personal leave seems risky to many individuals. Therefore, Americans might relate differently to Meursault’s embarrassment when he must request leave from work to address his mother’s death. European readers have indicated to me a different understanding of Meursault’s embarrassment: death is simply disquieting.

Upon arrival at the seniors’ home where is mother resided, Meursault learns the administrators arranged for a religious service. He is told that his mother requested such a service. Curiously, Meursault doubts this assertion, but does not say so. The caretaker then asks if Meursault wants to view his mother’s corpse. Meursault declines to have the casket opened. The caretaker asks why, clearly shocked that a son would not want to say a proper goodbye to his mother.

Instead of being depressed and mournful, Meursault drinks coffee and smokes in a relaxed manner. This leaves the impression that Meursault is insensitive, or that he did not love his mother. Meursault’s calm exterior during these formalities later plays a role in his conviction and sentencing for murder. Meursault accepts life and death without seeking a deeper meaning.

Interestingly, an old man from the senior home attends the burial of Meursault’s mother. The man is referred to as her fiancé by others. I do not know if the man was her romantic interest. If he was, then a reader might conclude Meursault was not close to his mother and representations of him as distant are reinforced.

Sex without Love

Almost a tangent within the story, Meursault encounters Marie Cardona on his way to the beach for a swim. There is no indication of a close relationship between the two, but they are acquaintances. As neither has plans, they spend the afternoon and night together. They go to the beach, as Meursault had planned, and then to a theater to watch a film. Later, they have sex; they do not make love — it lacks the emotional depth expected in a romance.

When Marie suggests marriage, which seems without context, Meursault responds with a “whatever” of sorts. He admits he probably does not love her. He places no value on marriage. Meursault’s character is established as cold and disconnected. While on trial, as the prosecutor refers to Marie as his mistress, Meursault’s narration declares, “To me, she was only Marie.”

Killing an Arab: Event 2

Meursault encounters Raymond Sintés, his neighbor, and a local thug (pimp), within their building. Raymond invites Meursault and Marie to the beach, where a friend owns a house. Raymond also asks Meursault to write a letter to a “girlfriend” with whom Raymond is known to fight. An astute reader might conclude the young lady works as a prostitute controlled by Raymond.

When Meursault, Marie, Raymond, and Raymond’s friends approach the local bus stop, several Arabs are at the stop — including the brother of Raymond’s “girlfriend.” There is a general unease and distrust between the groups. Arabs are considered a lower-class of citizen than the French Algerians. Raymond, despite his nature, occupies a higher place in society than the Arabs.

Once at the beach, the group encounters the Arabs again. This would be unusual, since Algerian beaches were segregated by social status. A fight between the groups ensues. Raymond is cut with a knife and the French return to the beach house. Readers might wonder why the French Algerians would return after the fight, but it was considered important to keep the Arabs aware of their position. The French minority oppressed the Arabs through intimidation.

Here, Camus makes use of a real incident in his life, which marked him enough to reproduce it as one of the key scenes in l’Étranger. On the strand at Bouisseville near Oran, where the beaches were segregated by mutual unspoken consent, one of Camus’ friends had a run-in with a group of Arabs which eventually involved a knife, a cut, a revolver, but no one dead. Camus himself was involved in this macho scene, although not in the fight itself.
Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 51

Bandaged, Raymond returns to the beach with Meursault. Raymond carries a gun, intent on revenge. While walking, Meursault calms his companion and takes the gun. The incident seems over, as Meursault’s personality indicates a certain calm and logic. Yet, Meursault continues to walk, returning to the site where the Arabs were encountered.

The light shot off the steel [knife] and it was like a gleaming blade slashing at my forehead. It seemed as if the sky opened up from end to end to rain down fire.

Meursault does not kill in cold blood, though his motivation for returning to the beach can be questioned. The sun reflects off the Arab’s knife and Meursault shoots. Why did he shoot four times? As narrator, he does not describe himself in immediate danger. Could it have been fear? He does not explain his actions.

Algerian race relations must be understood as they relate to The Stranger. Killing an armed Arab was not senseless, but rather an act of superiority. Without witnesses, Meursault could create any tale he wished and be found innocent of murder. Instead, he accepts what he has done without feigned remorse. The French cannot have a citizen admit he killed an Arab for little or no reason.

Trial and Execution: Event 3

Meursault is arrested and charged with murder. Curiously, he does not choose a lawyer and one is appointed to him by the court. Within existentialism, choice is an important concept. Meursault’s willingness to accept an appointed defender illustrates that he sees no defense for his actions.

When his lawyer suggests Meursault should argue that he was upset by his mother’s death and in a state of shock, Meursault refuses to embrace the lie. Meursault clings to the truth as he has experienced it, not as society wishes it.

During an examination by a court magistrate, Meursault is asked if he believes in God. He responds honestly, stating that he does not. The magistrate is stunned by this.

All men believe in God! Do you want my life to be void of meaning?

The case against Meursault proceeds without his input; he is an observer from the dock. He watches as his character is insulted and the facts of the murder misinterpreted. Yet, he does not protest to save his life. Meursault seems to want his life terminated. The truth, that a flash of sunlight reflecting off a knife resulted in a quick reaction, is considered absurd by court observers. Also, Meursault admitted to the investigator that he fired more than once.

Knowing that Camus opposed the death penalty, there are several questions regarding the execution of Meursault. Was the execution a comment upon society? Was it a rejection of someone lacking the same morals as his society? Or was the execution a form of suicide?

In the end, Meursualt is fascinated by guillotine, as was Camus. He details its workings in journalistic fashion.

His meeting with the prison priest allows Meursault to again assert his lack of faith before he is executed.

The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942)

The collection of stories published as The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942 was the second of The Absurds. The work has been cited by critics as refined and carefully crafted. The collection stands as more literature than philosophy. Camus spent at least five years writing and editing the work. The polish is clear with the first sentence:

There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.

According to Camus, suicide was a sign that one lacked the strength to face “nothing.” Life is an adventure without final meaning, but still worth experiencing. Since there is nothing else, life should be lived to its fullest and derive meaning from human existence. For Camus, people were what gave life meaning. However, in the moments following the realization that one will, one’s descendants will die… in fact, earth will die, one senses a deep anxiety. And, as an atheist, Camus doubted meaning beyond this life.

A world which can be explained, even through bad reasoning, is a familiar one. On the other hand, in a world suddenly devoid of illusion and light, man feels like a stranger.

Isolated from any logic, without an easy explanation for why one exists, there is what some call “existential angst.” While Camus did not use the phrase, it adequately describes the sensation. Even existentialists of faith struggle with creation, wondering why humanity exists when a Creator would not need mankind. Merely wanting to create something seems like a curious reason to create life. So, even for those of faith, the initial creation is puzzling.

How does one exist without any given purpose or meaning? How does one develop meaning? The Myth of Sisyphus addresses this directly in the retelling of the famous tale. Considering the plight of Sisyphus, condemned to roll a stone up a mountain knowing the stone will roll down yet again, it is easy to declare his existence absurd and without hope. It would be easy to believe Sisyphus might prefer death… but in Camus’ myth, he does not.

Living the absurd… means a total lack of hope (which is not the same as despair), a permanent reflection (which is not the same as renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which is not the same as juvenile anxiety).

For Camus, Sisyphus is the ultimate absurd hero. He was sentenced for the crime of loving life too much; he defied the gods and fought death. The gods thought they found a perfect form of torture for Sisyphus. He would constantly hope for success, that the stone would remain at the top of the mountain. This, the gods thought, would forever frustrate him.

Yet, defying the gods yet again, Sisyphus is without hope. He abandons any illusion that he might succeed at the assigned task. Once he does this, Camus considers him a hero. Sisyphus begins to view his ability to do the task again and again — to endure the punishment — a form of victory.

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We have to imagine Sisyphus happy.

Caligula (Performed 1945)

The third of The Absurds, the play Caligula was presented in 1945. Based on the life of Emperor Caius Caligula, 38 A.D. (C.E.), the play presented a challenge for the audience as well as critics. Was Camus’ Caligula an absurd hero, anti-hero, or a villain? Camus’ main characters realize that men live and die without reason; Caligula, was in the unique position to kill others with seeming impunity.

Caligula: A tyrant is a man who sacrifices people to his ideal or his ambition. But I have no ideals and I already have all the power I want.

Knowing life has no meaning, yet traumatized by the death of his sister, Caligula starts to enjoy acting without logic. If the gods have no logic, and Caesar is a god, then he can do as he wishes to exact revenge on the absurd universe. Caligula offers some explanation to his mistress, Caesonia, as he strangles her.

Caligula: This is happiness: this intolerable release, this universal contempt, blood, hatred all around me, the unique isolation of the man who all his life knows the boundless joy of the unpunished killer… this ruthless logic that crushes human lives.
— based on two English translations

Because Caligula is assassinated at the end of the play, as in history, some have wondered if this was the Caesar's goal. Too unstable to commit suicide, does Camus' character force others to kill him?


The Three Revolts

Continuing his concept of producing trios of works to explore specific concept, Camus developed The Three Revolts. The Revolts are the following works:

The Plague (La Peste, 1947)

La Peste 1947 - The Plague

Nazi occupation of France as Camus' tb?

1943, Camus described German soldiers as "coming like rats"

Oran - Actual Algerian city on med. Coast

1. Metaphor, France Occupied

2. Symbolic of "modern" - bland, without history.

Camus' characters: male, European (why?)

Dr. Bernard Rieux - Existential hero by end? (Like Tarrou?)

Main character - "secret" narrator

"On the morning of 16 April, Dr. Bernard Rieux left his office and come upon a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing."

Politics vs. Action - Small notices posted to avoid panic

Ref to The Stranger - Why? [page 98]

By spring, plague part of "normal" life: city closed (quarantined) even mail, inhabitants trapped by fate?, fight or resign?, cinemas remain full - same films over and over…

Tarrou - Rieux's friend

Compassion - plans to volunteer health corps

Friendship - solidarity of French Resistance

"The Worthy Fight" - Saving humanity

Death spreads, more acceptance by Oran - mass gravesites, no funerals

After sites fill, authorities resort to:

Crematoria - ref to Nazi camps

Streetcars were "adapted to new purposes, their seats removed, and a new line now went directly to the crematorium, its terminus. And each night, strange convoys of streetcars without travelers passed, rattling along above the sea."

Death causes apathy - nothing has value

City soccer ("football") stadium converted to holding camp/infirmary

Vélodrome d'Hiver, Paris, used in 1942 by Nazis to hold Jews destined for Auschwitz.

Quote this [page 107] "There were also several other camps…"

Tarrou/Rieux

Tarrou tells of father witnessing an execution

Scene Camus uses often in his works

This time, firing squad

Tarrou - "I refuse everything which, for good reasons or bad, leads to death or justifies putting someone to death."

Nocturnal swim together

Oran left - Mediterranean = peace

End of siege, end of year

Rats seen alive - a sign

Tarrou falls ill, dies

Rieux receives telegram - wife died

Calm = news of wife

Gates to city reopen

Dancing, celebration, people return to old lives

Rieux admits role as narrator

[Quote: page 111]

Close: "… the plague bacillus never dies or disappears, that it can remain dormant…"

x

The Just or The Just Assassins (Les Justes, 1950)

The Just is a play based upon real events. To convey his concept of moral revolutionaries, Camus fictionalized the 1905 Moscow assassination of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch, the uncle of Tzar Nicholas II.

The assassin, in real life and in the play, is a man named Kaliayev. Camus’ characterization is of a man dedicated to political change, but not through blind or senseless violence. Camus never endorsed or accepted the need for violence against civilians during a revolution, so he endows his characters with the same value. The small cell to which Kaliayev belongs in the play is dedicated to “justice” for the Russian people. They see their actions as self-sacrifice.

At the start of the play, Kaliayev is selected to throw the bomb that will assassinate the Grand Duke. His first attempt ends in what might be considered failure — Kaliayev does not throw the bomb. The Duke was with his niece and nephew. Kaliayev cannot harm innocent children, and the group agrees with his decision. Camus’ account is, according to most, historically accurate; the real Kaliayev was not interested in harming the innocent.

Breaking with history, Camus introduces a fictional character to illustrate the wrongs of the Communist Party. The character of Stepan Federov is a victim of the Tsarist state. Due to his experiences under the Tsar’s legal system, he has become an extremist. Camus illustrates that some revolutionaries are acting upon emotion, not concern for their fellow citizens. Stepan tells the other terrorists that he would have killed children “if the organization commanded it.”

Stepan is the archetype of a Stalinist — the type of supporter of the Soviet Union that prevented Camus from supporting the Communist Party. Camus was a socialist and supported the idea of change, but not the idea that any means can be justified by the anticipated ends. What happens when a revolution fails? The innocent die for nothing, according to Camus.

In the play, Kaliayev succeeds and assassinates the Grand Duke on the third try. The Grand Duchess visits Kaliayev in prison. She is a kind and compassionate person. Again, Camus’ account is based upon history. The Duchess even considers sparing the assassin's life. Kaliayev tells her that he wants to die — to avoid being a “murderer.” At this moment in the play, Kaliayev adheres to basic existential ethics… he accepts the consequences of his actions.

By a curious turn of romantic revolutionary logic (which Camus appears to support), Kaliayev believes that being executed for his act expiates the murder he has committed. Paying with his own life — a kind of calculated revolutionary suicide — is his means of justifying what is normally unjustifiable to Camus, i.e. murder.
Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 127

Camus ends the play with an intended insult to the communists. Dora, a woman, is selected for the next bombing. Historically, women were not allowed to be active in most revolutionary movements, not even the French Resistance. Camus always wondered why “the people” never included women. (Then again, his own relationships with women were difficult.)

The Rebel (L’Homme Révolté, 1951)

Albert Camus’ critics consider L’Hommé Révolté, or The Rebel, one of his most important non-fiction works. While The Myth of Sisyphus shows more polish at times, The Rebel is the most comprehensive exploration of Camus’ beliefs. There are weaknesses in The Rebel, as in most rhetorical works, but the public found the work approachable — and made it a best seller.

The book began as an essay, “Remarque sur la révolté,” written in 1945. This “Commentary on Revolt” attempted to explain Camus’ definition of “revolt.” In the essay Camus explains that a revolt is not the same as a “revolution.” Camus’ lexicon defines “revolt” as a peaceful, evolutionary process. He hoped that mankind would evolve toward improved societies. In his ideal, socialism is the result of a natural historical process that does require effort and leadership, but not violence.

Revolution is not revolt. It was revolt which bolstered the Resistance for four years. It was the complete, obstinate refusal, almost blind at the beginning, of an order which wanted to bring men to their knees. Revolt stems first of all from the heart, but a time comes when it passes to the spirit, where feeling becomes idea, where spontaneous fervor leads to direct action. This is the moment of revolution.
The Rebel

“Remarque sur la révolté” begins with a civil servant refusing an order. For Camus, revolt begins with a single person refusing an immoral choice. Laws and rules are not defensible unless they are meant to help society at all levels. The civil servant in the opening parable is an existential hero, though Camus would have rejected such a label. The bureaucrat makes a decision based upon not is what is easiest for him but what is best for him and society as a whole. This man’s revolt is resistance not violence.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s works are the primary target of The Rebel. While not a perfect treatment of Hegel, Camus argues that Hegel’s works glorified the state and power over personal morality and social ethics. Worse, according to Camus, Marxism co-opts Hegel and extends his theories to allow any means to an end. In Marxism, as embodied by the Soviet Union and its Communist Party, the state is always “right.” Humanism and equality were important to Camus, not an artificial organization.

Camus further offended some leftists by opposing what he considered a trend toward nihilism in European thought. Life was “meaningless” for Camus, but each person did have the opportunity to define a role individually in life. Nihilism rendered living pointless, which Camus could not accept. Mankind, by its very existence, was in the unique position of defining itself through choices.

Attacking Hegel, Marxism, and nihilism resulted in a resounding rejection by the left. Leftist critics hated The Rebel and described it as an act of intellectual treason. The May 1952 issue of Les Temps Modernes featured a review of The Rebel by Francis Jeanson. The review affected Camus deeply. Camus found himself described as a traitor to left. Jeanson suggested no one should be critical of progressive ideas, even when the actions of the left might be “wrong.”

The review in Les Temps Modernes marked end of Camus' relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. As editor, or director, of the magazine, Sartre exercised a great deal of control. Camus knew that Sartre must have agreed with the review at some level. Camus was compelled to write a response to Jeanson. In his response, Camus tried to explain his belief that the ends, or at least the goals, do not justify the means in many cases. Sartre then published an upon letter to Camus. Sartre wrote 19 pages, including very personal attacks. The friendship was over.

While not the primary work cited, the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Camus in part due to The Rebel.


The Fall (La Chute, 1956)

I wonder if the instructor who disliked Camus, but was required to teach his, was a better writer? I somehow doubt it.

I first read The Fall in college and thought it one of the best explorations of a single character I have ever or will ever read. Unfortunately, my paper on the work was less well received. In fact, it was given a mark of “C” with the advice that I pay closer attention to the story, which the professor considered an example of horrible literature popular only because the author was dead and famous. To this day I consider The Fall an incredible character study in search of a story. Why does one need a perfect story, anyway? It remains my bias… the professor did not appreciate what Camus accomplished and overstated what Camus did not. (The preceding opinions are my own.)

The Fall was Albert Camus’ last completed novel. On the surface, it is a simple narrative as Jean-Baptiste Clamence recounts the events from the last few years of his life. On a much deeper level, The Fall is Camus’ written confession. The work is filled with Camus’ self-loathing and criticisms of various people, beliefs, he encountered. More than any previous work, The Fall reveals Albert Camus.

As discussed in the introduction to the commentaries, Camus tended to use Algerian settings for his works, or he would favor symbols of his Algerian youth, such as the sun and open ocean. The Fall breaks Camus’ earlier habits; the narrative is set primarily in Amsterdam, not Algeria or France. The action — as it is — occurs at night, not under the sun. The water is not the open ocean, but controlled rivers. Any energy and optimism of the Mediterranean is surrendered to the sterile cold of a European city. Camus’ despair is the setting.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the novel’s first-person narrator, explains his life and exile in Amsterdam to readers as if talking to someone at a bar. Jean-Baptiste’s highly critical view of himself and life reflect a loss of faith in human nature and justice. Camus’ chosen profession for Jean-Baptiste, lawyer, brings attention to his narrator’s views on justice and morality. Clamence is a former lawyer from Paris, living in personal exile due to self-hatred. In effect, Jean-Baptiste has sentenced himself to the worst fate he could imagine… isolation.

Clamence is punishing himself for cowardice, the worst of possible crimes. As with Sartre, Camus viewed a failure to act as a choice to surrender. While The Plague is a story of action against the odds, The Fall is a tale of a man’s guilt for not acting. One night in Paris, Jean-Baptiste saw a young woman leaning over the parapet on the Pont-Royal. She jumped into the Seine… and he did nothing. Clamence allowed a young woman to commit a terrible, cowardly act — suicide. Shortly after, he left his law practice and Paris.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, one might assume reluctantly after The Rebel’s chilly reception, that The Fall was Camus’ greatest work of fiction. Sartre and other critics appreciated the depth of character. It is also likely they enjoyed the spectacle of Camus’ placing himself before the world.

“The Guest,” from Exile and the Kingdom
(“L’Hote,” from L’Exil et le Royaume, 1957)

The mere thought of keeping a prisoner is one’s house is unsettling. For Camus, such a thought is the basis for a troubling story of Algerian culture and free will. “The Guest” works on many levels, from the question of Arab relations to what choices a person must make alone. Camus does not offer solutions; he does not even offer clear questions. The reader of “The Guest” is left to his or her own questions and answers.

Daru - main character. Compare to Camus. Daru native French-Alergian, born in northern Algeria. Teacher, as Camus wanted to be.

Northern mountains, snow-covered, harsh region. Isolated.

The local students, Arabs, no longer attending class. Daru left alone in empty building. (Home is attached)

French Colonial Gendarme Balducci (armed policeman, of sorts) arrives with a prisoner. Balducci explains Algerian officials expect a civil war. All pied-noirs expected to help the French cause. Daru ordered to deliver the prisoner to police in Tinguit. Balducci claims prisoner killed his own cousin.

Daru declines… is reminded that this is an order. Balducci gives Daru a revolver, in case he needs to defend himself. The Arab becomes Daru’s “guest,” with Daru compelled to act as a good host. (His nature?)

The two share a meal. Daru asks why the prisoner killed someone. The Arab does not understand the question — sees the situation as simple. Cousin wronged him.

Forced to share a room overnight. Daru uncomfortable, unable to sleep. (Mirrors the Algerian situation?) Prisoner rises during the night. Daru worries, then assumes the prisoner is escaping. Prisoner only goes out to use outhouse. Returns quietly.

Next morning, Daru and Arab begin journey toward Tinguit. Daru suddenly stops and gives the Arab some money and food. Points in the direction of Arab nomads and explains they would offer the prisoner shelter. Then, Daru leaves the Arab at the top of the mountain plateau.

Prisoner is “free” to choose his own fate… Tinguit prison or freedom. Daru looks back to see the prisoner heading toward the prison.

Upon return to the class, Daru finds a message written on the board. “You handed our brother over. You’ll pay for this.”

“Daru looked at the sky, the plateau and, beyond it, the invisible lands stretching out to the sea. In this vast country which he had loved, he was alone.”

x

Réflexions Sur la Guillotine, 1957

Réflexions Sur la Guillotine is an essay on capital punishment, and within it Albert Camus states his views clearly and concisely. The essay primarily relies upon the guillotine itself to persuade the reader that the device is cruel. The essay features no lengthy philosophical debates and no obtuse literary references. Critics consider this essay Camus’ best commentary for these reasons; he wrote something anyone could read and discuss.

Camus recognized that the surest way to protest capital punishment was to explain, in fine detail, how executions take place. He cited medical and legal experts to make his points, not philosophers. Some editions of the essay included detailed graphics of the guillotine and its mechanics.

The argument for Camus was summarized by the question, “Why are ‘public’ executions not public?” His answer: because they are terrible. Camus also stated that the death penalty was no better than premeditated murder by the state, in the name of its citizens. In effect, the people were allowing a murder with each execution.

The 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature followed the publication of Réflexions Sur la Guillotine. Camus received the honor based upon this essay and The Rebel. Combined, these non-fiction works defined a unique form of humanistic liberalism.

It was not until 1981 the death penalty was abolished in France.

The First Man (Le Premier Homme, Written pre-1960)

Note: I own a copy of The First Man, but have yet to read it thoroughly. Until I do, this commentary is little more than an introduction to the story.

The First Man, unless other papers are someday discovered and released, is the last unfinished novel by Albert Camus. It was discovered among other papers at the scene of the 4 January 1960 car accident in which Camus died. The manuscript was not easy to read, and some content is missing, but a fairly complete edition is available.

Based loosely upon Albert Camus’ family history, The First Man is a study of both his own and Algeria’s history. The story begins in post-Revolution France, which was in tumult. In an attempt to deal with increasing poverty and crime, the French government offered to send families to its colonial settlements in Algeria. History might be less kind than Camus: these colonists included many criminals and revolutionaries. Camus’ Algeria is simply a rightful part of France, settled by daring and strong-willed French families.

{{{ quote opening from book: There was no road for the immigrants... }}}

The arrival of the “pied-noir” in Algiers is clearly romanticized by Camus. Also, the term pied-noir was not actually used for European Algerians until the mid-1950s.

Henri Cormery, the first man of the novel, is Lucien Camus.

Account of A.C.'s birth - rain, mud, etc. Family on road near Bône, stops in a village, Muslim/Arabs and taken into a farm house. Father goes for doctor, child born

{{update to be completed later}}

 


Quotes

The Myth of Sisyphus

The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the State. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action. The Myth of Sisyphus, ch. 1 (1942)

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. The Myth of Sisyphus, ch. 4 (1942)

Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future. The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays, “The Artist and His Time” (1942)

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. The Myth of Sisyphus, “Absurdity and Suicide” (1942)

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Last words of The Myth of Sisyphus(1942)

The Rebel

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is. The Rebel, Introduction (1951)

From Paul to Stalin, the popes who have chosen Caesar have prepared the way for Caesars who quickly learn to despise popes. The Rebel, part 2, “The Rejection of Salvation” (1951)

Nihilism is not only despair and negation, but above all the desire to despair and to negate. The Rebel, part 2, “The Rejection of Salvation” (1951)

On the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence — through a curious transposition peculiar to our times — it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself. The Rebel (1951)

Marxism is not scientific: at the best, it has scientific prejudices. The Rebel, part 3, “State Terrorism and Rational Terror” (1951)

The most eloquent eulogy of capitalism was made by its greatest enemy. Marx is only anti-capitalist in so far as capitalism is out of date. The Rebel, part 3, “State Terrorism and Rational Terror” (1951)

Instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are. The Rebel, part 3, “Rebellion and Revolution” (1951)

Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. The Rebel, part 3, “Rebellion and Revolution” (1951)

A regime (the Third Reich) which invented a biological foreign policy was obviously acting against its own best interests. But at least it obeyed its own particular logic. The Rebel, part 3, “State Terrorism and Irrational Terror” (1951)

To insure the adoration of a theorem for any length of time, faith is not enough, a police force is needed as well. The Rebel, part 3, “The Regicides” (1951)

Revolution, in order to be creative, cannot do without either a moral or metaphysical rule to balance the insanity of history. The Rebel, part 3, “Rebellion and Revolution” (1951)

Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion. The Rebel, part 3, “Rebellion and Revolution” (1951)

More and more, revolution has found itself delivered into the hands of its bureaucrats and doctrinaires on the one hand, and to the enfeebled and bewildered masses on the other. The Rebel, part 3, “State Terrorism and Rational Terror” (1951)

One leader, one people, signifies one master and millions of slaves. The Rebel, part 3, “State Terrorism and Irrational Terror” (1951)

To be really realistic a description would have to be endless. The Rebel, part 4, “Rebellion and Style.” (1951)

The society based on production is only productive, not creative. The Rebel, part 4, “Creation and Revolution” (1951)

In order to exist just once in the world, it is necessary never again to exist. The Rebel, part 4 (1951)

Just as all thought, and primarily that of non-signification, signifies something, so there is no art that has no signification. The Rebel, part 4 (1951)

The French Revolution gave birth to no artists but only to a great journalist, Desmoulins, and to an under-the-counter writer, Sade. The only poet of the times was the guillotine. The Rebel, part 4 (1951)

Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom. The Rebel, part 5, “Historic Murder” (1951)

We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others. The Rebel, part 5, “Moderation and Excess” (1951)

Lucifer also has died with God, and from his ashes has arisen a spiteful demon who does not even understand the object of his venture. The Rebel, part 5, “Moderation and Excess” (1951)

Men are never really willing to die except for the sake of freedom: therefore they do not believe in dying completely. The Rebel, part 5, “Historic Murder” (1951)

Children will still die unjustly even in a perfect society. Even by his greatest effort, man can only propose to diminish, arithmetically, the sufferings of the world. The Rebel, part 5, “Beyond Nihilism” (1951)

The rebel can never find peace. He knows what is good and, despite himself, does evil. The value which supports him is never given to him once and for all — he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly. The Rebel, part 5, “Nihilistic Murder” (1951)

The Fall

I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. The narrator (Jean-Baptiste Clamence), in The Fall (1956; p. 7)

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall, (1956; p. 43)

True debauchery is liberating because it creates no obligations. In it you possess only yourself; hence it remains the favorite pastime of the great lovers of their own person. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956; p. 77)

Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956; p. 99)

We are not certain, we are never certain. If we were we could reach some conclusions, and we could, at last, make others take us seriously. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956)

On suicide: Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to your skepticism. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956; p. 56)

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death

Man wants to live, but it is useless to hope that this desire will dictate all his actions. Resistance, Rebellion and Death, “Reflections on the Guillotine” (1961), The failure of capital punishment to act as a deterrent.

The society of merchants can be defined as a society in which things disappear in favor of signs. When a ruling class measures its fortunes, not by the acre of land or the ingot of gold, but by the number of figures corresponding ideally to a certain number of exchange operations, it thereby condemns itself to setting a certain kind of humbug at the center of its experience and its universe. A society founded on signs is, in its essence, an artificial society in which man’s carnal truth is handled as something artificial.
Lecture, Dec. 1957, University of Uppsala, Sweden (published as “Create Dangerously,” in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, 1961)

There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed. Resistance, Rebellion and Death, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Last words (1961)

Other Works

Mankind’s only greatness is to struggle against that which overwhelms it. It isn’t happiness we should seek today, but much more than that, a kind o greatness-in-despair. Soir Républcain editorial.

More and more, when faced with the world of men, the only reaction is one of individualism. Man alone is an end unto himself. Everything one tries to do for the common good ends in failure. Notebooks 1935, 1942 (1962), March 1940 entry.

If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man. Address, 1948, to monks of Latour-Maubourg (published in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, “The Unbeliever and Christians,” 1961)

To know oneself, one should assert oneself. Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself. We continue to shape our personality all our life. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die. Notebooks 1935, 1942 (1962), entry for May 1937

To live is to hurt others, and through others, to hurt oneself. Cruel earth! How can we manage not to touch anything? To find what ultimate exile? American Journals (1978), entry for 1 Aug. 1949.

The Poor Man whom everyone speaks of, the Poor Man whom everyone pities, one of the repulsive Poor from whom “charitable” souls keep their distance, he has still said nothing. Or, rather, he has spoken through the voice of Victor Hugo, Zola, Richepin. At least, they said so. And these shameful impostures fed their authors. Cruel irony, the Poor Man tormented with hunger feeds those who plead his case. “Jehan Rictus, Poet of Poverty,” in Sud (Algiers, May 1932; repr. in Youthful Writings, 1976)

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. — The fool, in “Intuitions” (written Oct. 1932; published in Youthful Writings, 1976)

Human relationships always help us to carry on because they always presuppose further developments, a future — and also because we live as if our only task was precisely to have relationships with other people. Notebooks 1942, 1951 (1964), Jan. 1943 entry.

It is normal to give away a little of one’s life in order not to lose it all. Notebooks 1935, 1942 (1962), entry for 22 Nov. 1937.

We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves. Notebooks, vol. 3 (1966), entry for 7 Sept. 1939

Not Camus! Mistakenly Attributed…

I have no idea why there are websites attributing a Christian quote to Camus.

I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is. — found all over the Internet, but never with a citation. This is Pascal’s Wager, not likely something the atheist Camus would write.


Bibliography

Beauvoir, Simone de; Adieux (New York: Pantheon / Random House, 1981, 1984) [Amazon]

Brée, Germaine; Camus (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1959)

The introduction to this work reads:
It is a perilous task to undertake to write a critical study of a living writer, especially one who, though still in mid-career, has aroused as great an interest as Albert Camus.
— June, 1958

Camus died in an automobile accident 4 January 1960, only a year after commenting positively on this biography.

Camus, Albert; The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. [1st American ed.] (New York: Knopf, 1955) [Amazon]

Camus, Albert; The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Trans. Bower, Anthony (New York: Vintage / Random House, 1956) [Amazon]

Camus, Albert, and Hapgood, David; The First Man (New York: Knopf, 1995) [Amazon]

Cohen-Solal, Annie; Sartre: A Life (New York: Pantheon, Random House, 1985, 1987)

Cruickshank, John; Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt (London: Oxford University Press, 1959)

Hayman, Ronald; Sartre: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987)

Kamber, Richard; On Camus (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2002)
ISBN: 0-534-58381-4 [Amazon.com]

Mairowitz, David Zane and Korkos, Alain; Introducing Camus (New York: Totem Books, 1998)
ISBN: 1-84046-000-8 [Amazon.com]

Parker, Emmett; Albert Camus the Artist in the Arena, (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965)

Books: Albert Camus

Camus, Albert. Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper Combat, 1944-1947. Trans. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Alexandre De Gramont. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, Aug 1991. 0819551899 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Caligula and Malentendu. New York: Bantam Books, Apr 1997. 2070360644 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Caligula and Three Other Plays. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books USA, Feb 1962

Camus, Albert. Camus at "Combat": Writing 1944-1947. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, Aug 2007. 069113376X [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. L'Etranger. Paris: Gallimard Jeunesse, Mar 1999. 2070360024 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. L' Etranger. Trans. Carlos Lynes and Germaine Bree. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Dec 1955. 0135307902 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Exile and the Kingdom. New York: Vintage, Feb 2007. 0307278581 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Exile and the Kingdom. Trans. Erroll McDonald. New York: Vintage Books USA, Nov 1991. 067973385X [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Fall. Trans. Erroll McDonald. New York: Vintage Books USA, May 1991. 0679720227 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The First Man. Trans. David Hapgood and Catherine Camus. New York: Vintage Books USA, Aug 1996. 0679768165 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Guest. Creative Education, Apr 1997. 0886823560 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. A Happy Death. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books USA, Sep 1995. 0679764003 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. L' Homme Revolte. Cambridge, Mass: Schoenhof Foreign Books, Jun 1998. 2070323021 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Les Justes. Cambridge, Mass: Schoenhof Foreign Books, Jan 1999. 2070364771 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York: Random House, Sep 1970. 0394708520 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books USA, May 1991. 0679733736 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. La Peste. Cambridge, Mass: Schoenhof Foreign Books, Feb 1998. 2070360423 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Le Premier Homme. Trans. Catherine Camus. Paris: Gallimard Jeunesse, Apr 2000. 2070401014 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Le Premier Homme. Cambridge, Mass.: Schoenhof Foreign Books, Mar 1999. 2070738272 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays. New York: Everyman's Library/Random House, Aug 2004. 1400042550 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books USA, May 1991. 0679720219 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Dec 1965. 0075536498 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Notebooks, 1935-1951. Washington D.C.: Marlowe & Company, Sep 1998. 1569246661 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Noves Et L'Ete. Cambridge, Mass: Schoenhof Foreign Books, Aug 1998. 2070360164 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage Books USA, Dec 1991. 0679733841 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage Books USA, Sep 1995. 0679764011 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. Ohio: Wheeler Publishing, May 2001. 1587240327 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward and Keith Gore. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Feb 1993. 0679420266 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage Books USA, Mar 1989. 0679720200 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Joseph Laredo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Apr 1988. 0394533054 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert. Youthful Writings. New York: Marlowe & Company, Apr 1994. 1569249687 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert and Ryan Bloom. Notebooks 1951-1959. Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, June 2008. 1566637759 [Amazon.com]

Camus, Albert and Renaud Camus. Tricks: 25 Encounters. Trans, Tim Dlugos. London: Serpent's Tail,  Dec 1995. 1852424141 [Amazon.com]

Hughes, Edward (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Camus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, May 2007. 0521549787 [Amazon.com]

Kamber, Richard. On Camus. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Mar 2001. 0534583814 [Amazon.com]

Warsh, Lewis. Albert Camus' the Stranger. Barron's Educational Series, Feb 1986. 0812035437 [Amazon.com]


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