Camus was the conscience of the 20th century

Camus was the conscience of the 20th century

By M. SAAD | | 26 March, 2016
Albert Camus.
An upcoming literary conference in the United States will honour the memory of the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus, a literary figure we can’t afford to forget, writes M. Saad.

From 26 March till 19 April, New York City will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the only visit made to the United States by the French writer, philosopher and activist Albert Camus. His three-month trip, in 1946 — sponsored by the French government —was spent mostly lecturing at various American universities. To honour the great writer, the Estate of Albert Camus is coming up with a month-long series of events, which will include performances, film screenings, book readings and discussions on the many aspects of Camus’ work. The festival Camus will feature personalities like the actor Ronald Guttman, the poet and visual artist Patti Smith, the writer Adam Gopnik, the historian Stephen Petrus and the musician Ben Sidran among others.

“Art is,” in the words of Camus, “the cry of the mind exhausted by its own rebellion.” Camus believed that the important thing is not to live better but to live more. One must live without myths and illusions, was his point, and without consolations and self-deceptions. Camus, through his works, addressed the fundamental problems of life. He believed that the artist alone can bring about a renaissance which will ensure justice and liberty in the world.

He was born in the Algerian town of Mondovi (now Drean) on 7 November 1913, when the country was under French rule. He was raised by his illiterate mother after the death of his father, who was a farmer.

In his fiction, the paradox of life is dramatised by man’s situation — man finds himself suddenly pressed into corners and it is his action or inaction which defines him. And in the end, Camus would say, man’s situation is absurd. Man is lent dignity and stature only when he understands the tragic nature of life — that is when he becomes conscious of the absurdity of life.

As readers, the first thing we wish to know about someone like Camus, who defined a way of life, is his life story. There is always this curiousity to observe the way this or that writer lives or had lived. Of Camus, it’s worth noting that his life was a remarkable triumph over adversities. He felt strongly for the country of his birth: it was in Algeria where he spent the hardest years of his life. For him the sun and the happiness were the same. He once said in an interview to Les Nouvelles Litteraries, “At the heart of my work, there is an invincible sun.”

Camus insisted that he was not an existentialist. He considered himself an artist. When Jean-Paul Sartre was asked if Camus is also an existentialist like him, he replied, “No. That’s a grave misconception. Although he owes something to Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Heidegger, his true masters are the French moralists of the seventeenth century. He is a classical Mediterranean. I would call his pessimism ‘solar’ if you remember how much black there is in the sun. The philosophy of Camus is a philosophy of the absurd; and for him the absurd springs from the vanity and futility of human wishes. The conclusions which he draws from it are those of classical pessimism.”

France after the end of Second World War showed a tremendous determination to make everything new. Camus once wrote in an essay that our vocation, in the face of oppression is to open closed minds, to bring together the good and bad in men so that we may know it. The newspaper Combat under his editorship was a part of that movement and was also the most influential newspaper during the French Resistance. It was a symbol for a new independent press in France.

As artists, perhaps we have no cause to concern ourselves with the events of our century but as men we must. The suppressed need every voice that can speak to turn their enforced silence into words. We must not desert them.
—Albert Camus

Camus’ oeuvre has that vivid evocation and atmosphere which makes one suffer with his unfortunate characters. Take for instance, Meursault — the hero of L’Estranger or The Outsider— a young man who lacks basic reactions and emotions: he is bored, passive and slack in the heat of the Algerian sun, and fate seems to dominate his life. He however, is an honest man who refuses to believe or feel what he doesn’t feel or believe. The story begins on the day when Meursault learns that his mother had passed away. He feels no remorse nor shows any emotions.  A day after the funeral,  he meets a girl and goes to a comic movie with her. Later in the story, Meursault on the beach gets involved in a feud with two Arabs who want to settle the score with one of his friends. One of them pulls out a knife, “the sunlight flashed on steel”.  Meursault happens to have a gun, and the trigger “gives way under his fingers”. We are uncertain here whether or not he shot the man deliberately. But when Meursaut is charged with murder, he never makes a plea for self defence. He says he killed the man because of the sun. During his trial, witnesses tell about his callous behaviour at the funeral of his mother. The judge condemns him with the death sentence. Then in prison, when the chaplain comes to him with an offer of salvation in the world to come, he answers with passion that this world is the only place where happiness can be attained. He says that even if his cell had been smaller than a tree trunk, he would have found a reason to live by merely watching the birds fly by through its opening and looking at the clouds changing their shape in the sky. The novella, through Meursault, presents the suffering that comes along with the capital punishment — a life lived waiting for death confined in a cell, away from the free world, recollecting and reliving the past events of life. The novella perhaps, has the literature’s greatest closing paragraph:

“With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained was to hope that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”

Le Mythe de Sisyphe or The Myth of Sisyphus was written in 1941. It has a sensational statement right at the beginning in the opening essay of the book: “There is only one truly serious philosophical reform: suicide.” It makes you sit up as a reader. In it, Camus deals with the problem which intrigued him for years: how can a man’s life have any meaning when the universe is without a meaning. And the answer that Camus suggests is that each man can give life a meaning; there is no justification for suicide in physical or philosophical form. But the real difficulty is to find how one can give life some meaning. He — knowing life as such has no ultimate purpose — urge us to live intensely and fully. Sisyphus fits into the picture here; he keeps pushing the stone up the hill. He knows what he is doing and finds whatever joy there is in it. Camus ends the essay with another memorable sentence: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

In his essay, “The Artist and the World”, Camus writes that writers should not withdraw into themselves and draw a veil over the sufferings which history offers. It’s worth observing here that Camus was born very poor and was repeatedly ill throughout his life. Before finding a permanent niche in journalism, he worked as a government clerk, a meteorological official, a salesman and an actor. He further writes in the essay, “As artists, perhaps we have no cause to concern ourselves with the events of our century but as men we must. The suppressed need every voice that can speak to turn their enforced silence into words. We must not desert them.” The essay presents a picture which shows how Camus saw himself as an artist in relation to society. He tells us that the individuality of the artist and the consideration for the good in mankind are not separate. And he judges the greatness of an artist by the balance he maintains between them. He writes: “From my very first essay to my latest book I have never written from a position which would refuse to tackle social questions and avoid rubbing shoulders with those whose life is humiliation and degradation. They need hope, and if we do not speak for them and to them, they have only the choice between two kinds of miseries — their own unrelieved despair and that which we, if we are silent, put upon them. To me, it is unthinkable that their needs should be ignored, and anyone who shares my opinion cannot just close the shutters and go to sleep.”

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus said: “A writer cannot serve today those who make history; he must serve those who are subject to it.” Throughout his life, he was committed to the victims of history, from the supporting the French Resistance to the casualties of the Cold War. He devoted himself to developing various genres such as novels, essays, short stories and dramas. Despite his short life, Camus remains one of the greatest voices to have emerged from France.

 

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