Albert Camus, who would be 100 years old Thursday, is ageless. The French Algerian’s life and work reflect the long tragedy of the 20th century, marked by disquiet, genocide and violence, but his diagnosis of our absurd condition, and his effort to find not a cure (there is none) but the proper response, tie him just as firmly to the new millennium.
Camus lived on intimate terms with the absurd. He lost his father, whom he never knew, in the war to end all wars that emphatically failed in that regard. He was a French intellectual from working-class Algiers, a writer raised by a grandmother who could not read and a mother who could not read and could scarcely speak. And he discovered mortality as an athletic teenager, when he began to cough up blood from his tubercular lungs.
But these facts were not themselves absurd. Camus held that absurdity bleeds into our lives only when we ask it for meaning and hear instead an “unreasonable silence.” At that moment, he wrote, the “stage setting” of our lives collapses, leaving us with neither script nor director. Can we live without the reassurance, once provided by religion and faith, that transcendent meaning exists? Is it possible, he asked, to live our lives “without appeal”?
Camus is famous for two works that plumb absurdity. In “The Stranger,” Meursault senselessly kills a man — an act the absurdity of which is revealed only when others demand in vain a reason. “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in turn, considers the punishment meted out to the mythical king of Corinth, condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountainside, only to watch it roll back down. Both heroes overcome their absurd fate by embracing it, by making it their own. We must, Camus concluded, imagine them happy.
But by the time the books were published in occupied France, Camus was no longer happy with their conclusions. The absurd, he scrawled in his journal, “teaches nothing.” Instead of looking to ourselves for answers, as do his heroes, we must look to others. We are, Camus recognized, condemned to live together in this silent world. Our deepest impulse, once we realize the silence will never end, is to refuse this state of affairs. To shout “no” to the world as it is, to shout “yes” to the world as it should be.
As his editorials in the clandestine newspaper Combat reveal, Camus believed this was the essence of resistance. And not just to the Nazis. He combated nihilism and absurdity until his death in 1960. Whether it was the use of the guillotine in republican France or the use of the gulag in the Soviet Union, civilian terrorist bombings by Algerian nationalists or waterboarding and electric shock torture by French soldiers, Camus’ imperative was human solidarity.
The personal consequences were tragic: Camus’ insistence on solidarity often begat solitude. His denunciation of communism created a rift with Jean-Paul Sartre and much of the rest of the Paris intelligentsia; his heroic but failed attempts to broker a civilian peace in Algeria reduced him to controversial silence. Even his efforts to save the lives of those who despised or dismissed him, from the collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach to Algerian revolutionaries, ended in failure and isolation.
Isolation may well be the price that any true moralist must pay. How could it be otherwise when a moralist, so different from a moralizer, is as hard on himself as he is on others. As Camus confessed to his journal, “Every time somebody speaks of my honesty, there is someone who quivers inside me.”
Camus was just as unsparing in his description of the world and the artist’s place in it when he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. He wrote, he said, in order to share the “misery and the hope” of catastrophic times, to “fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history,” to cope in a world where nobody could ask men and women to be optimists.
And yet, in a voice as vibrant and vital today as it was in his own time, he still chose affirmation, in an artist’s devotion to “the beauty he cannot do without.”
“I have never been able to renounce the light,” he told the black-tied, staid crowd assembled in his honor, “the pleasure of being, and the freedom in which I grew up.”
On the centennial of his birth, we must seek to understand both the silence Camus confronted and his refusal to despair. And we must imagine Camus happy.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston and the author of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.