Review – Looking for The Stranger Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic
by Alice Kaplan University Of Chicago Press, 2016
Review by Bob Lane Mar 14th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 11)
We are in the midst of an ongoing Camus renaissance, one traced by Matthew Sharpe in his book Camus, Philosophe: To Return to Our Beginnings to four causes: The publication in 1994 of Camus’ Le Premier Homme, a true literary event; the fall of Stalinism; the war on terror; and the decline of the hegemony of post-modernism and post-structuralism with academia. We are blessed with many recent books on Camus [Sharpe produces an exhaustive survey of the recent secondary literature on Camus, heavily footnoted and annotated] and his works have continued to be a resource for philosophical inquiry even as his literary works have continued to be read and written about — or responded to as in the case of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation which considers the same killing on the beach but from the Arab victim’s point of view.
Who is the author? Regular readers of the Blog will recognize this quote from Albert Camus, who is one of Bob’s heroes. I just did a search for Camus on the Blog and this list will indicate the many times he has been written about here.
It was on January 4, 1960 that Camus was killed in a car crash.
His works live on though, and he continues to be relevant. Take a look at the list.
In January of 1960, a powerful sports car was traveling north in France towards Paris. Albert Camus was a passenger in the car. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 and had been called in the presentation speech “the conscience of the 20th century.” He had been an actor and an editor, a dramatist and a novelist, and was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis in World War II. He was forty-six years old and well known around the world. Camus was traveling to Paris with friends after spending the New Year holiday on his property in the south of France. It was raining. The car came out at one point on a straight, clear stretch of road. About midway it went off the road and rammed into a tree. Camus was killed. One newspaper at the time reported, “It was a dramatic end for the young writer who was a leader and interpreter of the philosophy of postwar France’s wild, young existentialist set.”
If the existentialist set in France was wild, this is hardly a charge that can be leveled against Camus. A more thoroughly earnest man it would be hard to find anywhere.And yet, his sudden senseless death there on the road lends support to one of the fundamental ideas of the existentialists movement: that life is absurd, senseless, that anything can happen to anyone at any time, without rhyme or reason; life is illogical; the only god is the god of chance; “Time and chance happeneth to all men,” as the preacher said many years ago. And yet, in his works Camus is stating, is demanding, that life has value without having meaning. In so doing he is rebelling against two things: on the one hand, nihilism, that is the belief in nothing; and on the other hand, the Christian concept of contemptus mundi, contempt for the world, which forces one to turn away from the living, present moment and to be concerned about some time in the future. ( Humanist in Canada, Lane)
“To destroy one of its terms is to destroy the whole. There can be no absurd outside the human mind. This, like everything else, the absurd ends with death.”
Humankind seems to be at odds with itself in finding meaning in life. We have this consciousness and awareness, but physically only need a handful of things to survive and perpetuate our species. For many of us, our basic needs are easily met (assuming one lives in a society in which this is normal). We do not have to think about our food, water, and shelter sources in many ways. This gives many of us the privilege of having to worry about what our lives mean. According to Albert Camus, “we get into the habit of living before we get into the habit of thinking” (Camus, 6). This habit means that we fulfil our basic needs of how to live in practicality before we question what life is. If we were constantly fighting for our survival, we would not have the time to think about this. The goodness and meaning of life would be to survive and nothing more. Now that our survival is essentially guaranteed, we face this question of “why” or “do we have purpose”. Regardless of whatever purpose we may have, we are stuck with the dilemma addressing whether or not life is worth living. Friedrich Nietzsche gives us the idea that our lives are what we make of them. Camus claims that our lives are completely absurd due to our awareness. Contemporary film provides us with an example of how one might theoretically face this existential moment of unknowing by becoming an active role in ones own life. All three of these ideas come together to form an answer to the question of whether or not life is worth living, even if we do not have a purpose to live. Since antiquity, scholars have been fumbling around for an answer to this question by trying to prescribe some sort of meaning to our existence. We are seemingly cursed with an unsatisfied awareness of the world and our place in it.
To answer our question of whether or not life is worth living, we shall examine a few different perspectives on the subject. To start, we will look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence as a parallel (or, precursor) to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus followed by a slightly different take on how one might handle such a question in the contemporary film, American Beauty. In between, however, we must address a major point that Camus raises about suicide from a philosophical perspective. This bit of suicide, Camus claims, is one that needs a philosophical address as it has only been investigated from a psychological or sociological perspective. All three accounts provide interesting ways of reasoning (or, doing) to come to the same answer to whether or not life is worth living or if we should all go “off” ourselves when we are confronted with such a question.
The eternal recurrence refers to an idea that Nietzsche proposes in which we ought to be able to look upon our lives and say that we would wholeheartedly repeat it in an eternal loop, from birth to death, from the beginning of perceived time to the end. Nietzsche suggests that we embrace this life, that we learn to say “yes” to our lives and decisions in their sum total. We ought to accept every event that has happened and will happen, regardless of how much pain or joy it may bring us. In doing so, we should recognize that we are also an event, not necessarily just a static being that happens to exist in a fixed world. We are in a constant and persistent state of growth, development, curiously, and hunger. This constant striving for power after we have learned that we are not fixed is what Nietzsche dubs the will to power. It is a difficult concept to define, but certain aspects of it seem more clear than others. The will to power comes from our innermost nature and desires, and that is to not belong or fit in with our society and survive, but to transcend all of these things. That is, we are not satisfied with just living. We need more. This will to power overcomes a simple will to live. We do not let life happen to us, we are the embodiment of life if life were understood as a persistent state of emergence and betterment. With Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and will to power, we get a resounding, gleeful, “YES! why wouldn’t it be” to answer our question, as if it were some obvious fact. Now, Nietzsche does not force a purpose upon our lives. He claims that it is “why the ethical teachers come forward, as the teachers of the aim of existence” (Nietzsche, 1). This follows down a long road of logic, but essentially leads us to the idea that it is our imprinting ethical values on our lives that forces us to ask what our meaning of existence is. By throwing out this meaning given by morality, we can better and more genuinely understand our lives as being worthy of living, even though by giving ourselves morality, we have given ourselves a secondary reason to consider our lives worthy. Camus takes this a bit further with absurdity to discuss the background of how we could possibly come to such a conclusion.
Camus became the second youngest person to receive the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to him for the “clear-sighted earnestness” of his work, which “illuminates the problems of the human conscience.” On November 19, 1957 Camus recognized the impact of his former teacher with such “clear-sighted earnestness” in a letter, included in the last pages of Camus’s The First Man (public library | IndieBound), translated by David Hapgood.
19 November 1957
Dear Monsieur Germain,
I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honor, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened. I don’t make too much of this sort of honor. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.