by Albert Camus (translated by Arthur Goldhammer)
Published May, 2013
Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize
by Sean B. Carroll
Published September, 2013
A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning
by Robert Zaretsky
Published November, 2013
Since the publication of his first major works in 1942, Albert Camus’ reputation, for good or bad, has been built upon cliché. This has resulted, for generations of readers, in a curious blindness when approaching his books. It seems simpler to repeat the cliché than to consent to what is actually spelled out on the page. Minds that claim to be able to penetrate the tangled jargon of voluminous works such as Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) struggle to retain their balance when faced with the lucid prose of a short book like Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).
The first set of clichés, which sprang up around the publication of The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger (1942), is that Camus is an existentialist (or proto-existentialist at this early stage), that the essay espouses a ‘philosophy of the absurd’ and that the novel is an illustration of this existential philosophy of the absurd. There is, in fact, a false debate in Camus scholarship about whether Camus was an existentialist or an absurdist, as if these are the only choices available, without considering the possibility that he may be neither. As a consequence, it is assumed that this first phase of Camus’ work developed an existential ethic that was individualistic, hedonistic and amoral, bordering on nihilistic.
This feeds into the second set of clichés that emerge around the publication of The Plague (1947) and The Rebel (1951). It is often repeated that during this period there is a shift in Camus’ thinking from a concern with the individual to a new-found concern with the collective. This shift, it is then argued, must be predicated upon an intellectual break with his earlier ‘philosophy of the absurd’, a break that is said to have taken place from around 1942, during the Nazi occupation of France, when Camus became involved in the Resistance.
But to read The Myth of Sisyphus and conclude that Camus is an absurdist is like reading Das Kapital (1867-1894) and concluding that Karl Marx is a capitalist. We should not push this analogy too far, however, because although Marx can be said to be a philosopher of capital (even though he offered a philosophy that was opposed to capitalism), Camus was not even a philosopher of absurdity – or any other kind of philosopher. Why? Because, as he explicitly argues in The Myth of Sisyphus, such a philosophy would be a contradiction in terms. Philosophy is an attempt to escape from absurdity, and the absurd is precisely the point at which philosophy fails to touch the earth.
The absurd, therefore – for Camus, at least – is not a concept. Rather, it is a feeling and an experience born of the impossibility of any conceptual order being capable of guiding our actions. To conceptualise this impossibility, and to make this concept the cornerstone of a philosophical doctrine, can only be achieved through the suppression of this initial feeling and a denial of absurd experience. ‘It is alive,’ Camus says of the absurd: ‘in other words, it must die or else reverberate.’ For Camus, philosophers kill the absurd in their attempts to escape its reverberations. He calls this ‘philosophical suicide’. He prefers to steer a course of action that takes these reverberations into account. This is what The Myth of Sisyphus is ultimately concerned with describing. For Camus, this leads away from philosophy and toward fiction, which is why The Stranger is not an illustration of a ‘philosophy of the absurd’. Camus’ fiction is oriented toward undermining the pretensions of any such philosophy.
It is here that the curious blindness of readers of Camus can be witnessed first-hand. Ask anybody familiar with Camus to cite the opening line of The Myth of Sisyphus. Invariably, they will say: ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’ And yet, there are two paragraphs that precede this sentence, which rarely find their way into commentaries. The actual opening line of the book is: ‘The pages that follow deal with an absurd sensitivity that can be found widespread in the age – and not with an absurd philosophy which our time, properly speaking, has not known’ (emphasis added).
Am I splitting hairs here? Even if we agree that, technically, Camus is not a philosopher and that he is not offering a discursive ‘philosophy of the absurd’, then at least it is obvious that The Myth of Sisyphus concludes that life is absurd. As such, isn’t it reasonable that Camus be considered an absurdist? Well, no. This is the second example of blindness when reading this essay. The second paragraph of the book – the one immediately preceding what is commonly thought to be the famous ‘first line’ about suicide – is clear on this point:
But it is useful to note at the same time that the absurd, hitherto taken as a conclusion, is considered in this essay as a starting-point. In this sense it may be said that there is something provisional in my commentary: one cannot prejudge the position it entails.
The pages that follow bear this out. Philosophy is not capable of guiding our actions, but we still need to act. For Camus, the question is: how? The Myth of Sisyphus draws three conclusions: rebellion, freedom and passion. The most important to Camus’ subsequent thinking was rebellion: a form of action that defied the absurd without pretending to escape from it. This became the impetus for his involvement in the French Resistance, and it was integral to the political ethic he developed ten years later in The Rebel. Far from there being an intellectual impasse between these two works, there is, in fact, continuity.
And yet, the provisional position of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus has been pre-judged for the past seventy years. It has been made absolute. This has shaped almost every commentary of Camus’ works since. Camus himself tried to argue against this trend, but to no avail. In a little read essay from 1950, ‘The Enigma’ – written, in part, to prepare his audience for The Rebel, published the following year – Camus addresses his frustration at the common misunderstanding of his earlier work, particularly how he is constantly caricatured as an embodiment of ‘the absurd’:
Of course, it is always possible to write, or to have written, an essay on the notion of the absurd. After all, you can always write about incest without necessarily having hurled yourself on your unfortunate sister, and I have nowhere read that Sophocles ever thought of killing his father and dishonouring his mother …
He then argues that most readers fail to distinguish between the cliché and the nuances of his work. Here he repeats his initial position from The Myth of Sisyphus that the absurd is a starting-point only and should not be taken as a conclusion:
Thus does one become a prophet of the absurd. Yet what else have I done except reason about an idea I discovered in the streets of my time? That I have nourished this idea (and part of me nourishes it still) along with my whole generation goes without saying. I simply set it far enough away so that I could deal with it and decide on its logic. Everything that I have been able to write since shows this plainly enough. But it is more convenient to exploit a cliché than a nuance. They’ve chosen the cliché: so I’m as absurd as ever.
What is the point of saying yet again that in the experience which interested me, and which I happened to write about, the absurd can be considered only as a point of departure – even though the memory and feeling of it still accompany the farther advances.
After seventy years, the level of blindness regarding Camus’ works at times reaches – dare I say it? – absurd levels. The scholar Robert Solomon, for example, recently wrote, with little irony: ‘Indeed, I will argue that some of Camus’ interpretations of his own work are so remarkably off the mark that one might wonder if he ever read them.’
It is probably unfair at this point to launch into a review of Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Zaretsky cannot, of course, be held personally accountable for the interpretative ballast of the past seventy years. Yes, the clichés are present. But what is interesting about his work is that there is an evident tension between the ingrained clichés and an attempt to find the nuances in Camus’ life. As in his previous book, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Zaretsky’s focus is on placing Camus in his biographical and historical context. This emphasis on Camus’ life, rather than his work, is essential to the relative success of Zaretsky’s method, but it is also partly responsible for its points of failure, as he is often happy to accept the traditional interpretation of these works rather than attempt to read them afresh.
In his 2010 book, Zaretsky examines in some detail four moments in Camus’ life. The first is in 1939, when Camus was working as a reporter for Alger républicain in Algeria. At that time, the Kabylia region was suffering from famine. Camus spent time there investigating its causes and effects. The newspaper was highly critical of the French colonial government and the reports it published in June of that year led to it being shut down. Camus was blacklisted. So, unable to find work, tubercular, but with two half-written manuscripts that would become The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, he left Algiers for Paris.
The second moment is in 1945 in Paris, after the liberation from the German occupation. Camus is now a famous author, as well as being publicly known as the editor of the once-clandestine Resistance newspaper, Combat. This moment is dominated by the Purge, when French collaborators were caught, tried and executed. As editor of Combat, Camus had been in favour of these trials, but he quickly became disillusioned with them. The turning point came when he was asked to sign a petition to commute the sentence of Robert Brasillach. After a sleepless night on January 25, 1945, Camus signed the petition. It was not successful. Brasillach was executed in February. From that moment on Camus was a steadfast critic of the death penalty.
The third moment is in 1952, soon after Camus published The Rebel. This is the famous public quarrel between Camus and Sartre, ignited by a negative review of The Rebel that appeared in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps moderns. It was ostensibly over the question of communism, which Sartre defended and Camus rejected. In principle, the argument was about the larger question of the uses and misuses of political violence. But underlying all of this was the breakdown of the personal relationship between these two very public figures. It ended their friendship and largely ostracised Camus from the intellectual community in Paris.
Zaretsky’s final moment is in 1956, in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence. Still largely an outsider in the French intellectual community, the war also made Camus a pied-noir, an outsider in his home country. Camus was against the push for Algerian independence on economic and cultural grounds, just as he was also against French colonialism on political and humanistic grounds. During the war, he argued against the use of terrorism from the Algerian side and torture from the French side. He also called for a civilian truce, aimed at minimising the death of civilians from both communities. To many Arab-Algerians, he was an enemy. To many French-Algerians, he was a traitor. And to the French metropolitan intellectuals, from both the left and the right, he was at best an unrealistic idealist, and at worst irresponsible. In January 1956, he made a pact not to speak publicly about the war, although he worked diligently behind the scenes to minimise the loss of life.
In Albert Camus: Elements of a Life, Zaretsky contextualises each of these moments, biographically and historically, considering the events leading up to them and the consequences that followed. In doing so, he presents an overview of the life and times of Albert Camus. So why, three years later, has he published A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, which covers much the same material, albeit from a different perspective? The reason Zaretsky offers in the introduction to the second book, while reflecting on the first, is this:
But by the time I had completed the [first] book, I was dissatisfied: bound to the historical context, I felt I had slighted certain intellectual or moral themes we have long associated with Camus’ work.
These themes, which are given a chapter each in this new book, are Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity and Revolt. In each of these chapters, Zaretsky reworks the biographical and historical material from his previous book, interpreting it through these thematic prisms. But it is the attention to the historical context that is the most successful aspect of both books. What diminishes the second book is precisely that Zaretsky allows himself to be guided by these intellectual and moral themes, which have been ‘long associated with Camus’ work’.
In the first book there are flashes of independent thought, which in the second book slip back into orthodoxy. For example, in 2010 Zaretsky wrote:
Many critics discern in Camus’ later work a shift away from the ethical perspective of The Stranger to a new focus acquired during the war. They argue that from the place of individual revolt against the absurd world staked out by The Stranger, he moves to the high moral ground of collective resistance in The Plague. But the high ground was already reached in the earlier novel. The Stranger is, indeed, a strange book – stranger than usually thought, for reasons rarely discussed.
In 2013, he sides with the critics:
For whatever reason, by late 1942 Camus had begun to reconsider the limits of absurdity. In his notebooks, he wondered what the world would make of a thinker who suddenly announced: ‘Up to now I was going in the wrong direction. I am going to begin all over.’
This notebook entry is taken out of context. Camus is not explicitly referring to himself here. In the original entry, he is imagining ‘a philosopher who after having published several works declares in a new book: “Up to now I was going in the wrong direction …”’ But only two entries prior he makes notes on the ‘Development of the absurd’, and in the pages that follow he makes further notes for The Rebel, which explicitly incorporates the absurd. Yet Zaretsky claims: ‘Soon after the publication of The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, Camus concluded that he had to move beyond the absurd.’
The opening chapter of A Life Worth Living begins promisingly. It begins by arguing that traditional philosophy fails to adequately address the experience of the absurd that Camus is concerned with. This is why Camus does not deploy philosophical jargon and techniques in his work. Zaretsky goes on to draw a fruitful literary comparison between Camus and Montaigne. But he hedges his bets by then discussing the absurd as both ‘literary and philosophical quarry’, which allows him to return to framing Camus’ position in philosophical terms. Here Zaretsky introduces philosophers, such as A.J. Ayer and Thomas Nagel, to subject ‘the absurd’ to reasoned critique. Robert Solomon is cited, observing that the arguments in The Myth of Sisyphus are ‘flops’. All of this is like asking a historian to authenticate The Lord of the Rings. Zaretsky then asks: ‘But should we insist that these arguments be construed in strictly philosophical terms?’ These pages would perhaps have been better spent tracing the contours of Camus’ arguments in The Myth of Sisyphus, rather than looking at what others have imported into it. If that was attempted, then the question would not have needed to be raised.
I don’t want to leave Zaretsky on a negative note, however, as there is much in his books that is worth reading; indeed, more so than in most other books on Camus. The attention to the biographical and historical context (when not distracted) is engaging, but what is perhaps most valuable about Zaretsky’s approach is the way he draws detailed comparisons between Camus and other historical figures. I have already mentioned the comparison between Camus and Montaigne, but there are many others, including Nicolas Chamfort and Simone Weil, that are equally illuminating.
Sean B. Carroll’s Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize is in many ways a remarkable book, largely because it is not written by a Camus scholar, but by a science writer. Not only does it manage to avoid reducing Camus to cliché (the ‘philosopher’ reference notwithstanding); it brings a new perspective on Camus to light. It is about the relationship between Camus and the biologist, Jacques Monod. Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957; in 1965, Monod won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with François Jacob and Andre Lwoff, for their work on the genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis. Camus and Monod were both involved in the Resistance during the German occupation of France, but it was not until after the war that they met, at a meeting of a human rights organisation that Camus co-founded. They became firm friends.
Around this time, the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko was leading an intellectual purge within the Soviet Union, criticising as ‘reactionary’, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘erroneous’ much of modern evolutionary biology, which did not accord with communist social and political philosophy. Soviet scientists had to either publicly resign or agree to abdicate their intellectual independence and support the cause of showing how biology confirmed the basic tenets of Soviet philosophy and social engineering.
Reading about these developments in the French communist press – where Lysenko’s ‘scientific’ discoveries were reported as great achievements – Monod was shocked on both scientific and political grounds. During the war, he had been a member of the French Communist Party, which was for him an accessible route to joining the Resistance forces, but after the war he had distanced himself from the Party. Politically, as in his scientific work, Monod valued independent thought. He researched Lysenko’s ideas and wrote a devastating critique that was published on the front page of Combat in 1948. This began a second career for Monod as a public intellectual.
Camus was also interested in science, but as a layman. In the 1930s, he worked briefly as an assistant to a meteorologist in Algeria, where he noted the difference between statistical description and particular examples. His tuberculosis meant that he spent his adult life being subject to medical science – which, although it was at this stage clear about the aetiology of tuberculosis, was still in the dark about its effective treatment. These experiences filtered into The Myth of Sisyphus, in its pages on the limits of scientific reason.
After they met, Monod became, in effect, Camus’ scientific advisor. Camus, in turn, encouraged Monod through his public arguments against ‘Soviet biology’. Pages of notes on science and politics, provided by Monod, were later incorporated into The Rebel. Camus became, for Monod, the model for the public intellectual that Monod would continue to be throughout the 1960s and ’70s, following Camus’ death. Monod’s book on evolutionary biology and humankind, Chance and Necessity (1970), offers a very Camus-like view of the world, albeit from a scientific perspective, and takes its epigraph from the last page of The Myth of Sisyphus, the final lines of which are:
But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms the world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Carroll describes the intersection of these two lives in fascinating detail, but Brave Genius is also an important book because, at its heart, is an argument against allowing science to be directed by political expedience. At present, the political right is largely responsible for denying the science of climate change, but Carroll’s book offers a timely reminder that the political left has also done its share of science denial. In fact, throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, at one time or another, both sides of politics have rejected new scientific discoveries based on their political world views.
What is also remarkable about Carroll’s book is that is sheds light on a blind spot of many intellectual biographies. If the subject is a literary figure, for example, then most biographies will (understandably) emphasise the subject’s literary experiences and acquaintances, and downplay or suppress non-literary experiences or acquaintances. In the case of Camus, it is refreshing to read an account of his life without, for example, the tedious and distorting presence of Sartre. For a couple of years during the war and for a few years after, Sartre and Camus were friends. Sartre, as is well known, spent his days in Parisian cafes, writing and conversing. The popular image of Camus is that he did too. Even the more nuanced biographical portraits of Camus, knowing that this is not the case, tend to overemphasise these interactions, and thus the importance of Sartre to Camus.
During this post-war period Camus was not only writing, but working. He was newspaper editor at Combat and a book editor at Gallimard. Because of his tuberculosis, he also spent half his time outside Paris, in various small villages where he was supposed to rest and breathe clean air. His life in the office and in these villages is not as well delineated as his peripheral role among the Left Bank intellectuals, but knowing the details of these aspects of his life sheds additional light on his personality. We have tantalising glimpses, such as the fact that when editor of Combat Camus would often be found sharing a cigarette with the printers, rather than with the editorial staff in the main office (when he first moved to Paris he had worked as a typesetter). Carroll’s book provides a sustained look at one of these alternative aspects of Camus’ life.
One of the consequences of over-emphasising the relationship between Camus and Sartre during the 1940s is that it also over-emphasises the importance of their break in the early 1950s. This is not to suggest that their famous quarrel in 1952 is not important, only that it has distorted the interpretation of this period of Camus’ life and work. Ironically, the thing that has been most distorted in the commentary that has been written about this quarrel is the very thing that it was ostensibly about: The Rebel.
Zaretsky, for example, in his first book on Camus, takes the quarrel as the defining moment of this period, not the publication of The Rebel itself. In both A Life Worth Living and Elements of a Life, Zaretsky’s emphasis on the quarrel means that The Rebel is only seen through this limited lens. Again, this is the norm in Camus scholarship. Even The Cambridge Companion to Camus (2007), which includes insightful chapters on each of Camus’ books, major and minor, including the novel that remained unfinished at his death, The First Man (1994), does not have a chapter on The Rebel. Instead, it has a chapter on the quarrel with Sartre.
For Sartre and his cohorts, the quarrel was about Marxism and communism. They argued that these were the only currently viable options, politically and philosophically, and downplayed Stalin’s crimes. So their focus was on the one or two chapters of The Rebel which pertained to this question. They did not adequately consider the context of those chapters and the wider argument of the book, which is extraordinarily complex. In The Rebel, Camus attempts a Nietzschean genealogy of ‘rebellion’ and ‘measure’ across mythological, literary, philosophical and political history. Against this background, he focuses on modern revolutions, in particular, from the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, to Hitler’s ‘irrational terror’, and onward to the contemporary political landscape. He concludes by examining the importance of all of this for aesthetics and, in particular, the novel.
In the chapters Sartre considers, Camus is critical of Marxism and communism. But in the book as a whole (and this is perhaps the direct offence that Sartre was retaliating against) Camus is also undermining the basis of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Camus makes it clear in the opening chapters that he is arguing in favour of a human nature that precedes human existence, while existentialism is predicated on the opposite:
Analysis of rebellion leads at least to the suspicion that, contrary to the postulates of contemporary thought, a human nature does exist, as the Greeks believed. Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving?
Camus’ relationship with Jacques Monod encouraged his belief that modern evolutionary biology supports the ancient Greek notion that such a ‘human nature’ exists. For Camus, this creates the standard for the necessary ‘measure’ of rebellion, the limit which one must not breach. Later in The Rebel, Camus also explicitly criticises certain points of ‘Atheistic existentialism’. Sartre was to spend the 1950s fruitlessly trying to reconcile his existentialism with Marxism. But The Rebel already contains the seeds of an argument against both systems of thought, precisely on the grounds that they are systems of thought which breach the limits of human nature, and so are incapable of guiding human actions.
The publication of Camus’ Algerian Chronicles in 1958, in the midst of the Algerian War, effectively ended the period of ‘silence’ that Zaretsky (among others) has described as the dominant motif of this period. The public response to this book was itself a resounding silence. There is today as much confusion among scholars and biographers about this late stage of Camus’ life (he died in January 1960) as there was among his contemporaries. Alice Kaplan, in her excellent introduction to Arthur Goldhammer’s new translation of Algerian Chronicles, explains how Camus’ 29 month ‘silence’ from January 1956 to June 1958 ‘became a metonymy for cowardice’. The publication of this collection of articles, which Camus drew from his years of commitment to Algeria (1939-1958), did little to overturn the judgements that were levelled against him, then and now, with regard to his position on the Algerian War.
Much of the confusion stems from the fact that commentators struggle to see the motives behind Camus’ stance on Algerian independence. They have no context for his position, and so they invent their own, imposing simplistic postures onto Camus’ actions. He is opposed to Algerian independence, so he must be a French Imperialist. He wants a civilian truce, so he must be an unrealistic liberal. He opposes French colonialism, but also opposes the Algerian methods of overturning it, so he must be a sentimental pied noir.
Camus’ position was thought out in some detail long before the Algerian War began. It is spelled out in The Rebel. So one of the main consequences of over-emphasising the importance of the quarrel with Sartre, and the subsequent distortion of the broader argument of The Rebel, is that this intellectual context is rarely considered as being relevant to Camus’ position on the Algerian War. And yet almost every action that Camus undertook during this final period of his life is guided by the ethic of rebellion laid out in these pages, published three years before the war began, and deliberated on for ten years prior to that.
In a series of articles published soon after the war began and collected in Algerian Chronicles, Camus states his opposition to the violence of both sides in terms that explicitly draw on the central argument of The Rebel about limits:
To be sure, this is the law of history. When the oppressed take up arms in the name of justice, they take a step toward injustice. But how far they go in that direction varies, and although the law of history is what it is, there is also a law of the intellect, which dictates that although one must never cease to demand justice for the oppressed, there are limits beyond which one cannot approve of injustice committed in their name.
There are layers of confusion that distort this period of Camus’ life, and which perhaps account for the cool reception of Algerian Chronicles in 1958. The focus on Camus’ 29 months of public silence in the late 1950s ignores two facts. The first is that Camus was only publicly silent. As Kaplan and Zaretsky point out, during this period Camus intervened behind the scenes in over 150 cases where captured Arab soldiers were to be executed. In each case, Camus implored the French President directly and personally to commute the death sentence.
The second fact is the pervasive silence of French intellectuals during the preceding twenty years, when Camus was almost alone in trying to draw the attention of mainland France to the untenable colonial situation in Algeria. That is conveniently forgotten. And so Camus’ attempt to highlight all that he had written against French colonialism since 1939 – which was the main purpose of republishing the articles selected for Algerian Chronicles – is a source of some embarrassment to the French intelligentsia. Nobody likes to be reminded that they ignored all warnings. It is easier to takes sides in a war, than it is to prevent it.
One cannot read Algerian Chronicles without the feeling that accompanies moments of slow motion perception: that experience you have when you witness a violent accident taking place, when time seems to occur at half-speed and you almost feel like you could reach out and move everybody out of harm’s way, but you know that is impossible. Reading Algerian Chronicles now, one realises that, for Camus, that moment lasted more than twenty years.