Albert Camus: From the Absurd to Revolt

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As a child, about the only thing Camus ever learned about his father was that he had once become violently ill after witnessing a public execution.

Introduction to Camus: The Absurd, Revolt, and Rebellion

In his posthumously published autobiographical novel The First Man , Camus recalls this period of his life with a mixture of pain and affection as he describes conditions of harsh poverty the three-room apartment had no bathroom, no electricity, and no running water relieved by hunting trips, family outings, childhood games, and scenic flashes of sun, seashore, mountain, and desert. These father figures introduced him to a new world of history and imagination and to literary landscapes far beyond the dusty streets of Belcourt and working-class poverty.

It was in secondary school that Camus became an avid reader absorbing Gide, Proust, Verlaine, and Bergson, among others , learned Latin and English, and developed a lifelong interest in literature, art, theatre, and film.

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That helped me in later life, especially in mainland France, where nobody plays straight. Among his various employments during the time were stints of routine office work where one job consisted of a Bartleby-like recording and sifting of meteorological data and another involved paper shuffling in an auto license bureau. One can well imagine that it was as a result of this experience that his famous conception of Sisyphean struggle, heroic defiance in the face of the Absurd, first began to take shape within his imagination.

That same year Camus also earned his degree and completed his dissertation, a study of the influence of Plotinus and neo-Platonism on the thought and writings of St. Over the next three years Camus further established himself as an emerging author, journalist, and theatre professional. The name change signaled a new emphasis on classic drama and avant-garde aesthetics and a shift away from labor politics and agitprop. It was during this period that he also published his first two literary works— Betwixt and Between , a collection of five short semi-autobiographical and philosophical pieces and Nuptials , a series of lyrical celebrations interspersed with political and philosophical reflections on North Africa and the Mediterranean.

He started the decade as a locally acclaimed author and playwright, but he was a figure virtually unknown outside the city of Algiers; however, he ended the decade as an internationally recognized novelist, dramatist, journalist, philosophical essayist, and champion of freedom. This period of his life began inauspiciously—war in Europe, the occupation of France, official censorship, and a widening crackdown on left-wing journals. Camus was still without stable employment or steady income when, after marrying his second wife, Francine Faure, in December of , he departed Lyons, where he had been working as a journalist, and returned to Algeria.

To help make ends meet, he taught part-time French history and geography at a private school in Oran. All the while he was putting finishing touches to his first novel The Stranger , which was finally published in to favorable critical response, including a lengthy and penetrating review by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Albert Camus

The novel propelled him into immediate literary renown. Camus returned to France in and a year later began working for the clandestine newspaper Combat , the journalistic arm and voice of the French Resistance movement. During this period, while contending with recurrent bouts of tuberculosis, he also published The Myth of Sisyphus , his philosophical anatomy of suicide and the absurd, and joined Gallimard Publishing as an editor, a position he held until his death.

After the Liberation, Camus continued as editor of Combat, oversaw the production and publication of two plays, The Misunderstanding and Caligula , and assumed a leading role in Parisian intellectual society in the company of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir among others. In the late 40s his growing reputation as a writer and thinker was enlarged by the publication of The Plague , an allegorical novel and fictional parable of the Nazi Occupation and the duty of revolt, and by the lecture tours to the United States and South America. In he published The Rebel , a reflection on the nature of freedom and rebellion and a philosophical critique of revolutionary violence.

This powerful and controversial work, with its explicit condemnation of Marxism-Leninism and its emphatic denunciation of unrestrained violence as a means of human liberation, led to an eventual falling out with Sartre and, along with his opposition to the Algerian National Liberation Front, to his being branded a reactionary in the view of many European Communists.

Yet his position also established him as an outspoken champion of individual freedom and as an impassioned critic of tyranny and terrorism, whether practiced by the Left or by the Right. In , Camus published the short, confessional novel The Fall , which unfortunately would be the last of his completed major works and which in the opinion of some critics is the most elegant, and most under-rated of all his books. During this period he was still afflicted by tuberculosis and was perhaps even more sorely beset by the deteriorating political situation in his native Algeria—which had by now escalated from demonstrations and occasional terrorist and guerilla attacks into open violence and insurrection.

Camus still hoped to champion some kind of rapprochement that would allow the native Muslim population and the French pied noir minority to live together peaceably in a new de-colonized and largely integrated, if not fully independent, nation. Alas, by this point, as he painfully realized, the odds of such an outcome were becoming increasingly unlikely.

In the fall of , following publication of Exile and the Kingdom, a collection of short fiction, Camus was shocked by news that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He absorbed the announcement with mixed feelings of gratitude, humility, and amazement. On the one hand, the award was obviously a tremendous honor.


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On the other, not only did he feel that his friend and esteemed fellow novelist Andre Malraux was more deserving, he was also aware that the Nobel itself was widely regarded as the kind of accolade usually given to artists at the end of a long career. Yet, as he indicated in his acceptance speech at Stockholm, he considered his own career as still in mid-flight, with much yet to accomplish and even greater writing challenges ahead:. Every person, and assuredly every artist, wants to be recognized. So do I. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts, and with his work still in progress…how could such a man not feel a kind of panic at hearing a decree that transports him all of a sudden…to the center of a glaring spotlight?

And with what feelings could he accept this honor at a time when other writers in Europe, among them the very greatest, are condemned to silence, and even at a time when the country of his birth is going through unending misery? Of course Camus could not have known as he spoke these words that most of his writing career was in fact behind him.

He also formulated new concepts for film and television, assumed a leadership role in a new experimental national theater, and continued to campaign for peace and a political solution in Algeria. Unfortunately, none of these latter projects would be brought to fulfillment. On January 4, , Camus died tragically in a car accident while he was a passenger in a vehicle driven by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, who also suffered fatal injuries.

The author was buried in the local cemetery at Lourmarin, a village in Provencal where he and his wife and daughters had lived for nearly a decade. In this respect, it is also worth noting that at no time in his career did Camus ever describe himself as a deep thinker or lay claim to the title of philosopher. Instead, he nearly always referred to himself simply, yet proudly, as un ecrivain —a writer. This is an important fact to keep in mind when assessing his place in intellectual history and in twentieth-century philosophy, for by no means does he qualify as a system-builder or theorist or even as a disciplined thinker.

To pin down exactly why and in what distinctive sense Camus may be termed a philosophical writer, we can begin by comparing him with other authors who have merited the designation. Right away, we can eliminate any comparison with the efforts of Lucretius and Dante, who undertook to unfold entire cosmologies and philosophical systems in epic verse.

Camus obviously attempted nothing of the sort. On the other hand, we can draw at least a limited comparison between Camus and writers like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche—that is, with writers who were first of all philosophers or religious writers, but whose stylistic achievements and literary flair gained them a special place in the pantheon of world literature as well.

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Here we may note that Camus himself was very conscious of his debt to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche especially in the style and structure of The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel and that he might very well have followed in their literary-philosophical footsteps if his tuberculosis had not side-tracked him into fiction and journalism and prevented him from pursuing an academic career. By his own definition then Camus is a philosophical writer in the sense that he has a conceived his own distinctive and original world-view and b sought to convey that view mainly through images, fictional characters and events, and via dramatic presentation rather than through critical analysis and direct discourse.

He is also both a novelist of ideas and a psychological novelist, and in this respect, he certainly compares most closely to Dostoyevsky and Sartre, two other writers who combine a unique and distinctly philosophical outlook, acute psychological insight, and a dramatic style of presentation. Like Camus, Sartre was a productive playwright, and Dostoyevsky remains perhaps the most dramatic of all novelists, as Camus clearly understood, having adapted both The Brothers Karamazov and The Possessed for the stage.

However, his body of work also includes a collection of short fiction, Exile and the Kingdom ; an autobiographical novel, The First Man ; a number of dramatic works, most notably Caligula, The Misunderstanding , The State of Siege , and The Just Assassins ; several translations and adaptations, including new versions of works by Calderon, Lope de Vega, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner; and a lengthy assortment of essays, prose pieces, critical reviews, transcribed speeches and interviews, articles, and works of journalism.

Camus made no effort to conceal the fact that his novel was partly based on and could be interpreted as an allegory or parable of the rise of Nazism and the nightmare of the Occupation. However, the plague metaphor is both more complicated and more flexible than that, extending to signify the Absurd in general as well as any calamity or disaster that tests the mettle of human beings, their endurance, their solidarity, their sense of responsibility, their compassion, and their will.

Set in a seedy bar in the red-light district of Amsterdam, the work is a small masterpiece of compression and style: a confessional and semi-autobiographical novel, an arresting character study and psychological portrait, and at the same time a wide-ranging philosophical discourse on guilt and innocence, expiation and punishment, good and evil. Camus began his literary career as a playwright and theatre director and was planning new dramatic works for film, stage, and television at the time of his death.

In addition to his four original plays, he also published several successful adaptations including theatre pieces based on works by Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, and Calderon. He took particular pride in his work as a dramatist and man of the theatre.


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  7. However, his plays never achieved the same popularity, critical success, or level of incandescence as his more famous novels and major essays. The Misunderstanding Le Malentendu , —In this grim exploration of the Absurd, a son returns home while concealing his true identity from his mother and sister. The two women operate a boarding house where, in order to make ends meet, they quietly murder and rob their patrons.

    Through a tangle of misunderstanding and mistaken identity they wind up murdering their unrecognized visitor. Camus has explained the drama as an attempt to capture the atmosphere of malaise, corruption, demoralization, and anonymity that he experienced while living in France during the German occupation.

    The play is set in the Spanish seaport city of Cadiz, famous for its beaches, carnivals, and street musicians. By the end of the first act, the normally laid-back and carefree citizens fall under the dominion of a gaudily beribboned and uniformed dictator named Plague based on Generalissimo Franco and his officious, clip-board wielding Secretary who turns out to be a modern, bureaucratic incarnation of the medieval figure Death.

    One of the prominent concerns of the play is the Orwellian theme of the degradation of language via totalitarian politics and bureaucracy symbolized onstage by calls for silence, scenes in pantomime, and a gagged chorus. The Just Assassins Les Justes , —First performed in Paris to largely favorable reviews, this play is based on real-life characters and an actual historical event: the assassination of the Russian Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich by Ivan Kalyayev and fellow members of the Combat Organization of the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

    The play effectively dramatizes the issues that Camus would later explore in detail in The Rebel , especially the question of whether acts of terrorism and political violence can ever be morally justified and if so, with what limitations and in what specific circumstances. After the successful completion of his bombing mission and subsequent arrest, Kalyayev welcomed his execution on similarly practical and purely political grounds, believing that his death would further the cause of revolution and social justice.

    Upon seeing the two children in the carriage, he refuses to toss his bomb not because doing so would be politically inexpedient but because he is overcome emotionally, temporarily unnerved by the sad expression in their eyes. Similarly, at the end of the play he embraces his death not so much because it will aid the revolution, but almost as a form of karmic penance, as if it were indeed some kind of sacred duty or metaphysical requirement that must be performed in order for true justice to be achieved.

    From the Absurd to Revolt

    Nuptials Noces , —This collection of four rhapsodic narratives supplements and amplifies the youthful philosophy expressed in Betwixt and Between. It is here that Camus formally introduces and fully articulates his most famous idea, the concept of the Absurd, and his equally famous image of life as a Sisyphean struggle. Only this time his primary concern is not suicide but murder. He takes up the question of whether acts of terrorism and political violence can be morally justified, which is basically the same question he had addressed earlier in his play The Just Assassins.

    Formats and Editions of Albert Camus : from the absurd to revolt [farposttammisp.tk]

    After arguing that an authentic life inevitably involves some form of conscientious moral revolt, Camus winds up concluding that only in rare and very narrowly defined instances is political violence justified. To re-emphasize a point made earlier, Camus considered himself first and foremost a writer un ecrivain. However, he apparently never felt comfortable identifying himself as a philosopher—a term he seems to have associated with rigorous academic training, systematic thinking, logical consistency, and a coherent, carefully defined doctrine or body of ideas.

    This is not to suggest that Camus lacked ideas or to say that his thought cannot be considered a personal philosophy. It is simply to point out that he was not a systematic, or even a notably disciplined thinker and that, unlike Heidegger and Sartre , for example, he showed very little interest in metaphysics and ontology, which seems to be one of the reasons he consistently denied that he was an existentialist.

    In short, he was not much given to speculative philosophy or any kind of abstract theorizing. His thought is instead nearly always related to current events e. Though he was baptized, raised, and educated as a Catholic and invariably respectful towards the Church, Camus seems to have been a natural-born pagan who showed almost no instinct whatsoever for belief in the supernatural.

    Even as a youth, he was more of a sun-worshipper and nature lover than a boy notable for his piety or religious faith. On the other hand, there is no denying that Christian literature and philosophy served as an important influence on his early thought and intellectual development. As a young high school student, Camus studied the Bible, read and savored the Spanish mystics St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and was introduced to the thought of St.


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    Augustine St. Augustine would later serve as the subject of his baccalaureate dissertation and become—as a fellow North African writer, quasi-existentialist, and conscientious observer-critic of his own life—an important lifelong influence. In college Camus absorbed Kierkegaard, who, after Augustine, was probably the single greatest Christian influence on his thought.