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Camus: Between Yes & No
Ray Boisvert tells us about Camus’ essential ambivalence towards the world.
If ever there were a poster child for French meritocracy, it would be Albert Camus. He was not yet two when his father was killed in World War I, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother in a tiny apartment with neither plumbing, heating nor books. Yet his teacher at the local elementary school, Louis Germain, overcame a reluctant grandmother, who wanted Albert making desperately needed income, and his gifted pupil was allowed to choose school over work. Albert Camus went on to become a noted novelist, an influential philosophical essayist, and the second youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He dedicated his Nobel acceptance address to M. Germain.
His birth centennial offers a good opportunity to reflect on his work. Provence, where he purchased a home with his Nobel money, was to host a major commemorative event, which has already been marked by controversy. Two directors left (one dismissed, one quit in a huff). As a result, the event, as originally envisioned, will no longer be held. In a way, it is fitting that a celebration honoring Camus would be contentious, as his life and legacy remain controversial.
The Works of Albert Camus
Although his first novel The Stranger (1942) made him world-famous, Parisian intellectuals, in particular Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, regarded him as a kind of uncouth provincial. He simply was not properly bred, properly educated, properly urbane. But the differences were more than cultural. They were also personal, political, and philosophical. The handsome Camus had an easy time wooing attractive women, something much more of a challenge for Sartre. One woman in whom Camus was not interested, de Beauvoir, did not take the spurning too well. In addition, Camus could neither espouse the Marxism automatically favored by postwar French intellectuals, nor buy into what he considered to be exaggerated philosophical absolutes pronounced by Sartre. Camus always believed that it made no sense, and was in fact dangerous, to deny any reality to ‘human nature’, as Sartre did. He regularly praised the Greeks for their sense of limit – limits that were built into the nature of things, not just subjective interpretations. To isolate freedom and make it absolute, unlimited, in Sartre’s manner, Camus warned, was a disaster. It would run roughshod over justice, and give license to those with the knack for grabbing power. Measure and balance – these were the themes that had to dominate. Such ideas led Camus to assert that he was not an existentialist, despite having the label regularly associated with him. Had commentators wanted to develop criticisms that would stick, they could have identified the main weaknesses recognized by later critics: Camus’ simplistic, thin descriptions of both Arabs and women in his novels. His novel The Plague (1947), for example, although set in Algeria, provides readers with a cast of characters uniquely of European descent. Arabs, in an Arab city, are invisible. With few exceptions, women characters are background accessories in his works.
The complete break with Sartre and de Beauvoir came as a result not of such Eurocentric or androcentric concerns, but because of political differences. Camus’ book l’Homme révolté, translated as The Rebel (1951) but more accurately rendered as ‘Indignant Man’, occasioned the rupture. In it, Camus skewered not only pious platitudes simplistically celebrating the French Revolution, but also the idealization of history that was essential to Marxism. The book was praised in the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, and, among intellectuals, by Hannah Arendt; but overall, the reaction from the French thinking class (mostly left-wing and openly Marxist) was vicious. Sartre, Editor of Les Temps Modernes, assigned the reviewer’s task to Francis Jeanson, who proceeded to savage the text. Camus replied in kind, bypassing Jeanson and addressing Sartre directly. Sartre’s rejoinder began, “My dear Camus, our friendship was never easy, but I shall miss it,” and thus completed the break.
Things only got worse for Camus’ relationship with French intellectuals. In the late 50s and early 60s the Algerian war for independence grew more intense. The Parisian intelligentsia sided with the Algerian rebels, going so far as defending violence against civilians as being necessary to cast out the colonial power. Camus was not so sure. He realized the evils of colonialism, yet his relatives were poor European settlers in Algeria, and he did not see them as exploiters. He did however see them as potential victims of terrorist attacks, therefore something he could never bring himself to defend. His hope was for the kind of settlement that would later mark South Africa’s independence: real political power for the indigenous people, coupled with a place for the Europeans who, having been in Algeria for generations, knew no other home. In the polarized world of colonizers and rebels, such a position found few friends. Disliked by both sides, frustrated and internally conflicted, Camus eventually resolved himself into a self-imposed silence on the Algerian question.
The Contrasts of Camus
That Camus would be conflicted and his life marked by controversies is not really surprising. He entitled one of his earliest essays ‘Between Yes and No’. His entire intellectual effort was to maintain a position which sought a difficult-to-find middle ground between easy simplifications.
Part of the difficulty was the inherited climate of opinion. On the one hand there was France’s Cartesian philosophical heritage, which prized clarity, distinctness, and the need for certainty. Allied to this was a kind of Enlightenment materialistic mechanism: an understanding of nature as a vast machine whose only meaning could come from an outside Designer. Once that Designer no longer seemed real, the machine universe offered little more than the meaningless, blind movement of particles. But in contrast to such a drab mechanistic existence, there was for Camus the often pleasant experience of living, which manifested itself in Mediterranean warmth, especially in the joys of sun and sea. His early essays exult in the sheer bliss of enjoying days under a crystal blue sky, spending time lolling about in the water, admiring Roman ruins, and in general, feeling one with the beauty of nature. The ‘absurd’ condition of existence for which Camus is perhaps most famous, which he explored in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), resulted from the incompatibility of these two dimensions. On one side, a human being who longs for meaning, purpose, significance; on the other, a world that responds with nothing but indifference – nothing but brute raw matter in motion.
In one of his most revealing essays, ‘The Enigma’ (1950), Camus expressed his annoyance at being constantly associated with the philosophy of the absurd. He had only explored a topic much in the air. His analysis of absurdity was always meant to be a starting point, nothing more. It is neither possible nor consistent, he asserted, to “limit oneself to the idea that nothing has meaning and we must despair of everything… As soon as we say that all is nonsense we express something that has sense.” Denying that the world has meaning involves “suppressing all value judgments.” However, living is in itself “a value judgment.”
This essay spoke directly to the contrasting strains in Camus’ thought: the cold materialism of contemporary philosophy, and the warm joy of lived experience. The road beyond absurdity lay close at hand. It had nothing to do with embracing transcendence or abstract absolutes, it was rather a confidence in directly savored experience. He described this path as an “instinctive fidelity to a light where I was born and where, for millennia, men have learned to salute life even in suffering.” Celebrate both life’s joys and its suffering. Embrace neither a simple ‘yes’ nor a simple ‘no.’ Rather seek an integrative ‘yes’ that makes room for a ‘no’. At the heart of things there is for Camus what he says was central to Aeschylus – not a lack of meaning, but an enigma.
Keeping the enigma in mind – giving voice to a yes that incorporates a no – is not an easy task. Camus’ novels explore different dimensions of this struggle. The Stranger sets out the starting point. It depicts a world which is not absurd, but actually quite consistent. It is not absurd because, instead of a contrast between human beings and the world, there is perfect alignment. Like the world, Camus’ main character, Meursault, is a living, breathing example of absolute indifference. He receives a telegram that his mother has died. He might as well have been reading a newspaper weather report. A young woman wants to marry him. Sure, why not? But, really, just about any female would do. After a scuffle he finds himself, by chance, on a beach, with, by chance, a revolver in his pocket. There he confronts, by chance, one of the scuffle’s combatants. A combination of sun, salt water in the eyes, and his surroundings, leads him to shoot the Arab. Then, as it’s all the same anyway, he fires four more bullets into the cadaver. Not surprisingly, as the novel ends, the character embraces his absorption in, not contrast to, the world: “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”
The Stranger cleared the intellectual stage. It depicts a world dominated by nothing but a simple ‘yes’ to the way the world is. That world, including humanity, is one of mere indifferent matter moved by blind forces. The ultimate test of acceptance – the ultimate victory of ‘yes’ to life without ‘no’ – would be ‘eternal return’, a doctrine prized by Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Camus’ favorite authors. Would one be willing to live this very same life over and over again? At the very end, faced with the inevitability of the guillotine, Meursault says ‘Yes’. He asserts of his life, “And I felt ready to live it all again too.” Readers, though, are left puzzled. His was such a cold, emotionless, indifferent life. Some ‘no,’ some rebellion, would give it more flavor as fully human. Even an absurd existence – one fraught with the contrast between human and world – would be better than this. The situation depicted in The Stranger is one which, in effect, cries out: Something other than this has got to be tried.
Camus’ next novel, The Plague, turns things around. ‘No’ becomes central. Humans need not see themselves as fully woven into the fabric of things. Individuals can revolt. They can say ‘no.’ “I work against creation” says the protagonist, Dr Rieux. Amor fati [Nietzsche’s ‘love of fate’] and eternal return are for those who refuse to take up the human challenge. Instead, humans can, in their limited way, make an effort to improve things. This is not quite the same as Aeschylus’s exhortation to embrace greatness in a life that will, of necessity, include suffering. For Aeschylus there is a grandeur in an all-encompassing yes-saying that welcomes both life and the responsibilities that come with it: for Aeschylus people can say ‘no’ to aspects of life by saying “ Yes, I can rise to this occasion, take responsibility, engage in heroic deeds.” Dr Rieux does not quite go this far. His revolt is his saying a blanket ‘no’ to the world. A world in which innocent children suffer is one upon which we must turn our backs. A ‘yes’ to that kind of world makes us accomplices in its brutalities.
With his final novel The Fall (1956), Camus does little to move beyond the yes-or-no stalemate. The protagonist Jean-Baptiste is a kind of do-gooder. But, unlike Dr Rieux, he is not an especially nice man. He feels himself superior to others, has nothing but disdain for people, and does very little out of genuine goodness or generosity. Partly, Camus was indicting the Parisian intellectual class; partly, as his biographer Olivier Todd points out, he was engaging in self-criticism.
The world depicted in The Fall has nothing constructive in it. It is one of constant accusation and judgment. The protagonist wants to be able to say ‘no’ to everyone else, yet to be immune from criticism himself; the judge who is never himself judged, i.e., God. Such a stance is as delusional as it is monomaniacal. Blanket condemnations of the human condition, à la Original Sin, or blanket condemnations of particular economic systems, à la Marx, lead only to Inquisitions and purges. The answer does not involve standing outside the fray passing condemnatory judgments. The answer is… well, the answer remains unformulated. In The Fall, doves hover and hover, but never land. Grace remains elusive. Spirit and nature do not mingle. Yes and no continue to be at odds. Humans cannot be indifferent, yet the world is indifferent. The stalemate lingers, as does our need to get beyond it.
The Path to Resolution
There was once a way out. Aeschylus, for whom tragedy and greatness coincided, could embrace the world with a generous ‘yes’ which includes the responsibility for (1) identifying what needed to be met with a ‘no’, and (2) setting things aright. In ‘The Desert’ (1939), Camus admits he came close to such a position. At one time in the city of Florence, he realized that “at the heart of [his] revolt there slumbered a consentment.” Consentment is a yes that incorporates a no – an affirmation that encompassed responsibilities; especially responsibilities to do something about those aspects deserving of a no. This combination could be, somehow had to be, held together. Such an intuition, however, was fleeting. Camus never got to the point of creating a Dr Rieux who could assert, in fighting against evil, I am both working with and working against creation. The doves hover and hover, they never land.
Besides the Florence revelation, the best hint for a constructive path Camus could have explored is found in his essay ‘Helen’s Exile’ (1954), Here, it is true, Camus celebrates a somewhat fanciful and idealized Greek inheritance. Still, what it says about Camus himself remains important. ‘Helen’s Exile’ reveals a Camus willing to let his philosophical side be trumped by his experiential side. Beauty takes center stage, where it is part and parcel of the way things are. It is possible, as Camus phrased it elsewhere, to celebrate a kind of marriage with the world. In other words, humans and the world need not be described in the sharply bifurcated way inherited from the philosophical tradition. Despite what philosophers have taught us, humans and the world are not opposites. Despite what Meursault manifested, the apparent opposition is not overcome by humans becoming mere indifferent matter in motion.
‘Helen’s Exile’ extols, as a correlative to beauty, the notion of limit or measure. The radical freedom of the existentialists may have ignored this notion; but limits are, as Heraclitus pronounced, woven into the fabric of things. Woe to those who would transgress those limits. The Erinyes, the goddesses of vengeance – really the preservers of limit – will bring transgressors back into line. The modern spirit, which Camus calls the ‘historical’ spirit, has so idolized reason that it has driven out limits, tending instead to isolate and absolutize single values, especially liberty and rationality. What a contrast to Plato, who encouraged a balance among multiple factors. His writings “contained everything – nonsense, reason, and myth…” When no single factor predominates, not even rationality, then some balance is in play. Such an equilibrium would provide one way to counteract the fanaticisms (i.e., ideologies without internal limits) that Camus saw all around him.
His struggle to achieve this balance was never resolved. In another of his lyrical essays, ‘The Almond Trees’ (1954), Camus almost comes to embrace yes and no – a consentment that admits the need for revolt. “We have to sew together what is torn,” he says, “bring justice to a world that is obviously unjust.” The last two words indicate Camus’ penchant for allowing blanket philosophical overstatement to trump a Mediterranean sense of concrete measure and balance. Rather, the world is torn in some ways. Justice is not perfectly present. However, working within natural limits and using the resources around us, we can strive to overhaul what needs to be repaired. A ‘yes’ to life means a ‘yes’ to the responsibility for healing life.
A blanket ‘yes’ or a blanket ‘no’ to life are philosophical abstractions. They represent the kind of conceptual framework which the existentialists substituted for lived experience. But in the world of flesh-and-blood people, life can be embraced as enigmatic. We can, in other words, accept how opposites like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ must somehow be held together.
Camus had projected a comprehensive series of works divided into three cycles. The first two, the cycle of the absurd and the cycle of revolt, he got to accomplish. The third could have taken him into a realm where an overarching ‘yes’ nonetheless incorporates the need to struggle associated with a ‘no’. He called it the cycle of love. To our dismay and loss, he never got to create it.
© Prof. Raymond D. Boisvert 2013
Raymond Boisvert is in the Department of Philosophy, Siena College, Loudonville, NY.