Editorial Note:

Pedro Blas Gonzalez is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida.


Camus' Hero of the Absurd

by Pedro Blas Gonzalez


When I was young, I asked more of people than they could give:  everlasting friendship, endless feeling. Now I know to ask less of them than they can give:  a straightforward companionship. And their feelings, their friendship, their generous actions seem in my eyes to be wholly miraculous:  a consequence of grace alone.

Albert Camus


When Albert Camus died in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960, on the Nationale 5 road he left an unfinished novel titled, The First Man (Le Premier Homme). The novel is an autobiographical work. The circumstances surrounding his accidental death at the age of forty-six might be considered the closing of what Camus referred to as an absurd existence. Even though this novel is incomplete, The First Man leaves an invaluable indication as to precisely what the major philosophical themes of this work were to be. Camus had compiled a series of "notes" and "sketches" that were to serve him as a working outline for the novel. Included in these notes were entire lines of dialogue, some substantially long enough to give us a clear understanding as to the time, characters and literary voice in this work. This novel was subsequently published in 1992 under the direction of Camus' two children. As his daughter describes in the editor's note that appears at the beginning of the book, Camus would have never agreed to publish an unfinished novel. However, the novel was developed far along enough to merit a qualified publication. The reception of this conditional publication by a major twentieth century thinker would undoubtedly depend on the good will of the critics. This seems a timely and fundamental fact given that Camus' work and life was seriously hampered by the caustic will of ideological nay-sayers.

Because The First Man is autobiographical and because Camus' thought always revolves around the autonomy of the individual in what he deems as an objectifying cosmos, I believe that these notes serve an even more important and poignant role in his exploration of individuality. A philosophical perspective that frames and attempts to differentiate the existence of his characters informs all of Camus' literary creations. For this reason, I will argue that The First Man leaves the reader, if not the Camus scholar, in a very rare and even unique position. In this work, which from all indications was to be a much longer work than the published two hundred and eighty one pages, Camus' was intent on writing a literary autobiography. Throughout the notes he offers a glimpse into the indignation that he felt for those who are too quick to judge a work of art without due regard for its author. The notes and sketches leave the reader with a clearer and more intimate picture of the private Camus. It is undeniably true, at least in Camus' case, that artistic creation and the vital trajectory of the thinker cannot be easily separated.

The publication of this work also served as a test of good will between those whose vocation it is to create and those whose mode of making a living is to impart criticism. Unfortunately, regardless of questions of technical conventions and literary merit, a great part of literary debates and disputes can be viewed as an objectifying and blind disregard for human autonomy. Yet thinking and writing can be a rather tenuous business because concerns for human freedom, individuality, and existential autonomy always find their way into all of Camus work. There are very striking philosophical similarities between The First Man and Camus' first book, A Happy Death, for instance. In A Happy Death, which he completed in 1938 at the age of twenty-five, the author develops a very interesting, if not altogether original idea that has the thinker attempting to capture the essence and immediacy of death itself. In this work the young Camus is concerned with living a good life in order to have a "happy" death. In other words, Camus' main contention has everything to do with Socrates' notion that all philosophy is a preparation for death through a conscious readiness to die. A Happy Death is essentially a meditation on the values of a future oriented existence that is aware that the future is always embedded in a vitally lived immediacy. The theme of the passage of time is a central and unifying theme in these two works. In A Happy Death, Patrice Mersault, the autobiographical main character, comes to the realization that to possess time can be both magnificent as well as a very dangerous thing. The rallying point of this contention is that idleness is a fatal condition to existential stagnation and mediocrity. However, this, he tells us, cannot be said of the creative life. Instead, Camus argues that true reflection can only exist when framed by the presence of idle time. In The First Man Camus equally follows through with this same concern that he had as a younger man. The death of his father in the latter work signifies the horror that the passage of time can mean to a reflective soul. Mersault and Jacques desire transcendence, one that will round out there lives. In both cases, the consensus is that happiness originates from having a pure heart and the necessary will to implement the virtues thereof.

Camus' situation as a philosopher and writer is a rather precarious one. There is a sense in which he can easily be regarded as a stoic. His notion of metaphysical rebellion showcases a courageous engagement with reality that leaves no room for external blame or sentimental rationalization. In addition, he also does not allow this frustrated metaphysical rebellion the indiscretion of becoming the basis and escape valve of ideology. But stoics usually shun the world of men and retire to a private existence. Camus clearly does not take this route as is evident from his engagement in the French resistance and his voicing concern for the plight of those living under Soviet bloc atrocities. However, there is a also a very reserved and dignified side to Camus the man, which he found to be at odds with Camus the public entity. Yet he seems to have found a resolute answer to this dilemma by demanding that the autonomy of the thinker, as one who attempts to bring coherence to what Kant has called the "chaos of sensations" is respected. The thinker for Camus is always a creator of worlds. A very strong indication of the respect that he felt for other thinkers and the creative process itself is seen in the scant number of negative references that he makes in reference to the work of others. In "The Myth of Sisyphus" Camus does make mention of Dostoevsky when he writes of The Brothers Karamazov and Kafka's The Trial and The Castle, but he always does so in a positive light. His references to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Chestov are merely instances of praise that allow Camus to argue a particular point. The rest of "The Myth of Sisyphus" is an exploration of the nature of life and death and the Socratic question of what constitutes a worthwhile life. Equally true, in the The Rebel Camus stirs clear of offhanded criticism of the thought of others. In the first part of that work the focus is on man's place in what he considers an absurd universe. The first part of the The Rebel is reminiscent of the vital and intellectual honesty of the thought of such thinkers as Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to mention just a few. The second part of this book offers a criticism of the tyrannous consequences that Marxism wrought on Soviet bloc nations. This part of the work offers an indictment of ideology and how this subsumes life itself to the state. This section of the work is very comparable to Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind and Ortega's The Revolt of the Masses in its ability to pinpoint how existential malcontentment leads to public tyranny. To his critics, we must point out that time has vindicated Camus in his understanding of these historic facts. In opposition to the extensive verbiage of Sartre's devotional emphasis to dialectical materialism, Camus demonstrates great foresight in his understanding that it is the dialectic of the lived experience, which is the true foundation of history. This latter insight, Camus aptly discovers, is based on the exigencies of human reality and not necessarily on social-political expediency.

In the autobiographical novel, the author possesses an added direction and vision to his work that the reader may neither suspect nor that he is privy to. Most philosophical works have traditionally excluded concern for the thinker as an autonomous being. Perhaps this is perfectly appropriate given the complexities and rigor involved in works of philosophy. But this is neither completely necessary or is it true in many cases. Camus' work demonstrates a detailed and accomplished acumen for existentially vital concerns that speak to the conscientious reader. It would seem inappropriate and even asinine to treat such questions in the clinical and detached manner that positivist philosophers have so often undertaken. Yet this personal and autobiographical stake in a work of literature is an aspect of the creative process that ought to be immune from the ire of the critic.

Still more importantly, The First Man Camus enables the discerning reader the ability to look into the formative stages of the creative vision itself. This is a telling and insightful glimpse into the creative process due to the autonomous privacy that only the author can enjoy. Consider Nabakov's notion that only fools or novices show their unfinished work to others. But the creative process is much more than forging a sketch of a future work. This process involves an aesthetic and moral vision that must revolve around the vital concerns of the thinker as a person. Strictly speaking, the dichotomous nature of the will and vision of the thinker cannot be reconciled by the critic without doing so in the terms that the thinker has set for himself. This standstill is a clear-cut example of the hazards that reflection provides, especially under conditions where the knowledge in question is of a vital-existential kind. These concerns are clearly discernable in these notes and sketches. In many respects these notes bring to mind Michelangelo's unfinished Captives where every chisel mark is an attempt to free the recalcitrant figures contained in the marble. This is the case because in these notes Camus works out the specific details and vital makeup of the world that he was intent on describing.

Amongst the main themes found in The First Man perhaps three can be easily isolated: 1) What he called a Robert Musil theme:  the search for salvation of the soul in the modern world, 2) The isolation that the writer/thinker must bear, and 3) The search for individual autonomy.1

Camus refers to Robert Musil in what is very likely the latter's novel, The Man Without Qualities. This reference questions the possibility of arriving at meaning in the modern world. One of Camus' fundamental presuppositions for asking this question has to do with Nietzsche's assertion that God is dead. If the notion that God is dead is taken to task, then everyone finds himself burdened with the responsibility of fashioning existence alone. The other has to do with the dehumanizing and objectifying force that lies at the center of the modern state. The totalitarian state, especially the Soviet model, Camus viewed as rendering impossible any possibility for true hope and genuine peace.

The Man Without Qualities forms part of that very fertile period in European literature that has come to be known as the inter-wars interregnum. Even though Musil's extensive novel technically limits its plot to concentration on the anticipation of the First World War, he is still concerned with the isolation of the individual in modern society. Both, the search for meaning and the salvation of the soul in the modern world are equally reoccurring themes throughout all of Camus' work. In "Pessimism and Courage," an essay that is contained in his book Resistance, Rebellion and Death, he takes up this same point. Camus writes:

We want to think and live in our history. We believe that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it to the very end. If the epoch has suffered from nihilism, we cannot remain ignorant of nihilism and still achieve the moral code we need. No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. We know this. But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account. 2

But this condition of exile that Camus feels is not to be confused with alienation in the sense that Sartre uses this word. One who feels himself alienated from others, a particular society or institution, for instance, has the hope of coming out of this loneliness or longing for a union with the source of his alienation. But this is not Camus' main line of reflection because alienation more often than not is described as a defused feeling of withdrawal or "nausea" from things commonly shared. Exile for Camus served the author to signify the existence of a permanent wall that separates man from any true penetration into the mystery of life and death. The question of exile for Camus can be construed to exhibit several possible meanings. One of these is the literal exile that he lived in being away from his home in Algeria. Camus is also a fine example of the Mediterranean temperament. His novels are replete with reverence for the sun and its effects on the Algerian people and their way of life. He embraced the French, that is, the European manner of life without seemingly abandoning his love of his Algerian upbringing. This question of the relationship of philosophy to temperament is one that is brilliantly taken up by Ortega y Gasset as well as Julian Marias among others. Camus brings up this point in Notebooks 1935-1942 where he mentions that every philosophy is a direct example of a respective thinker. But exile also means Camus' understanding that the ontological and fundamental condition of man is always to live one's life alone. Another notion of exile has to do with Camus' concern for the uniqueness and thus irreducible quality of the circumstances that each individual must bear. In many respects Camus' work can be liken to an aesthetic of life. He is a philosopher with a singular vision of what life means to those who reflect on both, its depravities as well as its glory.

When Jacques Cormery, the autobiographical forty-year old main character of The First Man goes in search of his father's tomb what Camus depicts is nothing other than a stoic attitude toward life. In some absolutely stunningly beautiful passages Camus' narrator reflects on the passage of time and what this all means to subjectivity. Upon realizing that his father, who died in World War I, was only twenty-nine years of age, the narrator writes of Jacques's encounter with time:

The course of time itself was shattering around him while he remained motionless among those tombs he now no longer saw, and the years no longer kept to their places in the great river that flows to its end. 3

At this point Jacques not only begins to mourn the death of his father at such an early age, but he also confronts his own history and how the years have already robbed him of half of his life. Jacques's exile from "the deadly order of the world"4 pins him against an alien world from which thought offers no respite. This passage is a supreme example of Camus' firm grasp and clear exposition of existential concerns. Philosophically speaking, this is what Jaspers means by saying that my existence is never an object for me, but rather a reality that I must live from within. Yet in exercising our freedom to live we remain in search of our essence as this is symbolized by all of our actions. However, by over intellectualizing this process what we end up with is nothing other than an abstract concept. Camus also saw that existential categories could not be intellectualized without simultaneously robbing them of their immediate reality. Jacques's arrival at the understanding that his life will always be a transparent phenomenon and thus never an object of thought makes him appreciate the vital categories of existence evermore. This fascination with the concept of time and how this fluid reality frames human existence is already present in Camus The Happy Death, his first novel. But the aforementioned passage also shows the respect that Camus had for the destiny of the individual as a concrete cosmic entity. The sense of the absurd that man feels, Camus argues, ought then to become directed to life itself given the limitations of man's essential metaphysical condition. Thus Camus' notion of revolt is always aimed at the absurdity that the cosmos represents and which cannot be subdued through rational thought. This is the same outrage and indignation that is felt by Gilgamesh on the death of his best friend Enkidu. The greatest of human contemplative problems for Camus always have to do with the question of mortality. But this metaphysical outrage is fortuitously transformed and elevated into an appreciation of the sublime. For this reason his treatment of subjectivity and individuality always grapples with the fate of man as he appears on the scene and in the only manner in which man must live:  alone.

After Jacques's initial shock and horror to realize that he has now outlived his father by eleven years, it dawns on him that what separates the living from the dead is time, a relentless mystery that ossifies all human existence into non-being. The narrator explains:

But, in the strange dizziness of that moment, the statue every man eventually erects and that hardens in the fire of the years, into which he then creeps and there awaits its final crumbling -- that statue was rapidly cracking, it was already collapsing.5

Hence to attempt to extract a ready-made epistemology from these vital moments is not only an exercise in intellectual futility, but it is also to rob life of its immediacy. Some critics have condemned Camus' thought to exist solely on a literary plain. In essence this manner of "demoting" his contribution to philosophical thought by only attributing to it a literary value misses the point of his thought altogether. Camus' philosophy, like that of other similar thinkers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegard, Unamuno and Kafka, for instance, is centered around the encounter of the individual with the cosmos, and not necessarily with an attempt to amplify such findings for all men. Such criticism of his thought, of course, is ludicrous given the existential themes that he was concerned with. Camus' respect for individuality and personal autonomy came at a time in history when these notions where being attacked from many quarters. In European philosophy at that time, the dominant voice was the fervor that materialism, especially positivism and analytic philosophy had fomented. In America, pragmatism was all the rage. Of course, Marxism and its many variants denied the possibility of any personal transcendence. Thus the entire spectrum of Camus' writing was precisely a reaction to these objectifying forces.

Also, to this kind of criticism we can argue that Camus' main objective was to explicate what it meant for him to be alive. Some critics are moved by the dangerous assumption that philosophy per se can only come about through the genre of the philosophical treatise. But to Camus' credit, we can see that he denies that philosophical problems must be addressed in any fixed philosophical forum. What he suggests instead is that thinkers ought not to become limited by the explication of formal problems. This incessant attempt to separate Camus from his philosophy, which is due in part to his alleged "misreading" of Hegel, further demonstrate the differences between a genuine philosophizing and mere criticism. Camus' philosophical and literary output is a vital overflow of his life and circumstances. This is not a mere historicism, but an understanding that existential thought is also always biographical in nature. But if these are not the true conditions and background of all genuine reflection, then clearly philosophy today has been subsumed by a new form of scholasticism. Camus' conception of philosophical reflection is akin to that of a pair of crutches or a compass, that is -- philosophy is conceived as an aide to help us navigate through existence. All movements that have attempted to locate the essence of man in collective structures have always done so by undermining the individual. This is a criticism that Camus feels at ease in pointing out in both, the modern state and religion. Yet these are precisely the very forces that Camus fought against with his life and work.

The First Man is a unique example of the artistic process in full blossom as well as the natural dialectic that informs all reflection. Many writers have left notes that accompany their published work, but few of these have been unfinished works. And even fewer still are the notes of a gifted thinker on the verge of synthesizing a worldview. However, the notes and sketches that pertain to The First Man ought not to be confused with his two Notebooks that are dated 1935-1942 and 1942-1951 respectively. These two works contain overall notes, ideas and even short essays, but they do not make up the outline of any specific work. For this reason, the importance of The First Man cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather as a corollary to his other works and his development as a philosopher.

Another important theme that this novel develops is that of the loneliness of the writer. Writers, of course, do not monopolize loneliness. Loneliness is a central component in the role that subjectivity plays in human existence. But Camus was very concerned with loneliness from a very early age. In Notebooks: 1935-1942 he contrasts the loneliness that is found in the city with that of the desert. There he refers to the city, and Paris specifically, as the last desert. And when Camus writes in his notes that the nobility of the writer's occupation always lies in resisting oppression, hence in accepting isolation he is equating writing with moral courage and aesthetic vision. Yet oppression for Camus is both, metaphysical and social-political. The interesting irony of his particular circumstances is that the very same political forces that he found to be incapable of making a dent in the absurd were the very same ones that sidetracked his career. For this reason he chose to talk about the loneliness of the ancient Greek thinker, Empedocles. Empedocles is a suitable source of inspiration for Camus due to the latter's understanding of the universe as a battleground of conflicting and thus opposing forces. The strife that lies at the center of Empedocles thought is also Camus' notion of the conflict that man must attempt to settle between his existential condition and the cosmically objectifying. His answer to this existential dilemma is solved through his love and thus acceptance of life and his repudiation of politics as a form of power struggle. Another one of the ironies in Camus' later life is that his major form of loneliness was dealt to him by the spite of ideologues in their quest for the exercise of power.

Undoubtedly, Camus was ruthlessly victimized by leftist intellectuals for his humanistic and historical criticism of the Soviet machinery of terror that was so visibly proven in the existence of mock trials and the Gulag. However, history has clearly shown that he was correct in his assessment of the devastating and criminal attacks on autonomy and individuality that communism represents. Fortunately, today there are more people in France willing to recognize this vindication. But Camus was not alone in citing Soviet bloc atrocities. Czeslaw Milosz's book The Captive Mind (1953) paints a historically accurate, moral and psychological picture of the ideological character type that created and operated the Gulag.6 Solzhenitsyn, Orwell and Koestler amongst others have also written insightful testimonies to these Soviet bloc violations of human autonomy. To ignore and criticize such testimonies demonstrates the objectifying and anti-humanitarian fervor that leftist intellectuals have possessed dating back to the 1920's. The astonishing fact that proves the degree of this ill will can be seen even after Camus fought the Nazis as part of the French resistance during the German occupation, as well as in his opposition to Franco's government. However in the eyes of his leftist critics Camus' crime was twofold: 1) He renounced his membership in the communist party at a time when this action could do the most damage to that propaganda machine and 2) He verbalized his displeasure with the Soviet Gulag. It would seem to humanists that this second move on Camus' part demonstrated a "commitment" to the truth. Instead, to ideologues the reality of this second crime meant the weakening of the Marxist theoretical position regardless of the verifiable facts. This latter fact is at the center of Camus' falling out with Sartre. Even after Sartre finally admitted to Soviet atrocities he nevertheless refused to grant that these came about from a faulty and fallacious logic that fermented mass murder. For these two acts of valor Camus was never forgiven. In fact, it is easy to see that not only was he not forgiven, but also how he was savagely attacked. This is a large component of what Camus refers to when he mentions the isolation of the writer. He became ostracized as a pariah. An indication of this sentiment can be seen in what the narrator of The First Man has to say of Jacques's friend Malan:

Yet he was immensely cultivated and J.C. admired him unreservedly, for Malan, in a day when outstanding men are so banal, was the one person who had his own way of thinking, to the extent that that is possible. At any rate, under his deceptively accommodating exterior, he was free and uncompromisingly original in his opinions.7

Another reason that makes Camus' moral courage even more commendable is the poverty from which he arose in his native Algeria and from which he eventually lifted himself. That leftist intellectuals, most whom were bourgeois themselves, should ignore and downplay this fact demonstrates the daunting degree to which ideology will go in negating the autonomy of the individual. Having been brought up by his mother after his father was killed during World War I, Camus still managed to achieve a degree of dignity that refused poverty as a permanent condition. In this respect Camus can be seen as a working class hero. He represents the optimum ideal of the democratic process where the plight of the individual is left to its own autonomous devices.

From this poverty he also developed a strong sense of pride in remembering those who helped him. Camus' sense of loyalty is always a central aspect of his thought. This can perhaps be in keeping with his stoic and classical notion of honor. William Barrett, a thinker whose authoritative books on Existentialism have always proven to be on the mark, writes in Time of Need:

From the experimentation in form and language that has been one of the hallmarks of modern literature, Camus remained aloof, deliberately pursuing a kind of classicism that takes us back, beyond the realistic novel of the nineteenth, to the recit, the short moralizing tale, of the eighteenth century. 8

This classical respect for honor is displayed throughout The First Man. When Jacques Cormery is talking to his friend Malan, he thanks him for helping him rise above his poverty. Jacques says:

When I was very young, very foolish, and very much alone - you remember, in Algiers? - You paid attention to me and, without seeming to, you opened for me the door to everything I love in the world.9

And when Malan responds by saying that Cormery was gifted, Jacques immediately makes him understand that natural talent is often not enough for success. This is also in keeping with Camus' equation of freedom with limitation. Jacques tells Malan:

Of course. But even the most gifted person needs someone to initiate him. The one that life puts in your path one day, that person must be loved and respected forever, even if he's not responsible. That is my faith.10

This sense of loyalty is a reaction to the adversity that poverty had put Camus through and which he refused to convert into the fuel of ideology. After his break with the communist party Camus saw himself as not easily belonging or identifying with any particular group. It is interesting to note that Camus was always marred by the loneliness of this metaphysical exile. Following the notes to The First Man, the editors inserted two letters that Camus wrote to Monsieur German, his grade school teacher in Algiers. One letter was dated November 19, 1957 and offers a heartfelt appreciation for his old teacher because, as Camus writes:

Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching, and your example, none of all this would have happened.11

In the letter he mentions that after receiving the news that he had won the Noble Prize, he first thought of his mother and then of Monsieur Germain. This is the kind of undying loyalty to individual autonomy that cannot occur in the mind of the ideologue due to the privileged position that it attributes to politics. It is also a fine example of the serious devotion that Camus felt toward concrete individuals. Barrett writes:

But the trouble is that the professional revolutionary is apt to become the servitor of his ideas rather than their master and consequently he is led to set his abstractions above the processes of life itself, and in their name to murder, if need be, millions of people.12

But for Camus this sense of loyalty does not end with people. Camus felt a keen desire to keep the memory of the ancient Greeks alive as well. His devotion to universal beauty serves as a repudiation of what he considered to be the tortured and aimless art of modern man. In retrospect we can see that Barrett correctly sums up Camus' basic moral and artistic orientation toward modernity when he writes of Camus' essay, "Helen's Exile":

Helen is the ancient symbol of human beauty, and modern artists, in Camus' view, have exiled her from our midst to pursue an art of tortured expressionism.13

This cultural and artistic alienation is yet another form that exile signifies for him. Camus testifies to this himself in his notes when he writes:

What has helped me bear an adverse fate will perhaps help me accept an overly favorable outcome - and what has most sustained me was the great vision, the very great vision I have of art.14

Part of this vision was the realization that human life was the greatest work of art for him. This joie de vivre that his work exudes is a negation of the rampant nihilism that he witnessed in most of contemporary philosophy and literature. He alludes to this point in the notes by saying:

One cannot live with truth - "knowingly" --, he who does so sets himself apart from other men, he can no longer in any way share their illusion. He is an alien - and that is what I am.15

Camus' notion of man in revolt, much like Ortega's "I and my circumstances" is a confrontation between man and the cosmos. The comparison between these two thinkers should not go unnoticed because Camus had great reverence for Ortega, even once referring to him as one of the greatest European thinkers after Nietzsche. Also, both of these thinkers refused to allow their thought to become subsumed by ideology or politics. In The Revolt of the Masses Ortega argued that politics always remains as the lowest rung of all civilizations and cultures. The reason for this is because Ortega realized that most political problems are always metaphysical/moral problems that merely bubble up to the surface in what some would consider political ways.

The task that Camus issues for Sisyphus is one where man lives on without the hope of transcendence. Again, in the notes to The First Man Camus earmarks this theme by writing: "Finally he takes Empedocles as his model. The philosopher who lives alone."16 This stoic ideal and resignation, then, far from being construed as defeatist becomes for Camus the rallying cry for embracing of life. Camus' zest for life is founded on the principle that life is irreplaceable and irreducible to any abstraction. He believed that life -- even with all of its trevialations and indignities was his only faith.

It is correct to say that Camus' thought can be fundamentally divided into two periods: 1) that of the "Myth of Sisyphus" and 2) The Rebel. But it is also correct to assume that his notion of revolt and exile was only exacerbated through the injustice that he received at the hands of ideological critics. This fact is easily ascertained in The First Man.

In a poignant note of indignation and resignation to his fate he has Jacques say:

I've lived too long, and acted and felt, to say this one is right and the one wrong. I've had enough of living according to the image, others show me of myself. I'm resolved on autonomy, I demand independence in interdependence.17

For instance, a lucid example of the excessive criticism and personal attacks that he underwent is found in the way that he was portrayed in the unbalanced and apologist book that Patrick McCarthy wrote titled, Camus. Unlike the sensitive and truth seeking works on Camus by William Barrett; the insightful Albert Camus of Europe and Africa (1970) by Conor Cruise O'brien and the two excellent works by Germaine Bree titled Camus (1959) and Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment (1972); McCarthy's Camus makes an ideological mockery of Camus thought.

When McCarthy writes in 1976 about Camus' cosmic indignity or Revolt:

Man is still balanced on a tightrope between his sense of the sacred and his awareness that he must die, and revolt is still a demand for unity, which the world cannot answer. It is a negative trait, a creature of division and stoical contemplation. It cannot construct values, which would dissolve the skepticism that is one of its components. Its chief characteristic is that it refuses the leap of faith which revolution represents.18

McCarthy's criticism is high-flown and oozing of injustice because Camus' main point in The Rebel is precisely to demonstrate that the existential problems of man, as a cosmic being, cannot be assuaged by political solutions. McCarthy's criticism is purely political and as such it presupposes that all thought ought to be guided toward a political dimension. But this is precisely where this logic goes wrong. At end of the second part of The Rebel the author offers an analysis of how, after one hundred and fifty years of nihilism, metaphysical revolt has given way to state sponsored terror. But then, to point this out is one of those alleged indecencies from which the left will not forgive Camus. Furthermore, to call Camus a "creature of stoical contemplation" is to distort the independent nature of what it means to be a stoic. Again, McCarthy's dogmatically ideological position is to convert all thought into praxis. But what he has in mind is not just any praxis, rather one that is oriented toward political means. On the contrary, Camus' vision as a thinker begins with his vital suffering as an autonomous being. Perhaps what Mr. McCarthy argued for was a "commitment" to political praxis, one that is capable of changing the order of social/political reality. But if "commitment" is what ideological critics demanded of Camus all they had to do was listen in good will to what he had been saying dating back to his commentaries in Combat. Furthermore, Camus understood that to change the political status quo was not to answer the vital/existential questions of life itself as, for example, the question of human mortality?

And, for Mr. McCarthy to write the following at such a late date as was 1982:

While spending hundreds of pages attacking Marxism Camus offers few alternative forms of protest. This robs his book of diversity and turns it into even more of a lament.19

Again, the audacity to make such a claim can only be founded on intellectual hypocrisy. Camus, as so many other western intellectuals, already knew in the 1930's and certainly in the 1940's that the Soviet machinery had an array of fellow travelers, allies and mouthpieces in the West that were quick to voice their propagandistic concerns on demand. Under such conditions it becomes pertinent to ask where were the humanistic concerns of these intellectuals? And as to the charge that Camus makes "few alternative forms of protest" seems self-serving and ingenious because Mr. McCarthy's fallacious logic implies that Soviet totalitarianism was the solution to the inherent problems of western democracies and capitalism. Apparently Camus' spirited pointing out the crimes against humanity of the totalitarian state was not seen as a viable alternative or option.

In contradistinction to McCarthy's caustic invective, Lev Braun's brilliant analysis, Witness of Decline, Albert Camus: Moralist of the Absurd more accurately depicts Camus' historical clarity in his portentous understanding of the nature of the totalitarian state. Braun cites Camus' humanitarianism in the latter's insightful article on the terrors of Hungarian socialist totalitarianism.

For it is indeed a counter-revolutionary state. What else can we call a regime that forces the father to inform on his son, the son to demand the supreme punishment for his father, the wife to bear witness against her husband - that has raised denunciation to the level of a virtue? Foreign tanks, police, twenty-year old girls hanged, committees of workers decapitated and gagged, scaffolds, writers departed and inspired, the lying press, camps, censorship, judges arrested, criminals legislating, and the scaffold again - is this socialism, the great celebration of liberty and justice?

No, we have known, we still know this kind of thing; these are the bloody and monstrous rites of the totalitarian religion! Hungarian socialism is in prison or in exile today. In the palaces of the state, armed to the teeth, slink the belly tyrants of absolutism. 20

One must remember that Camus' humanism was a genuine desire to improve or at worst keep man's existential condition from worsening. Also, important to keep in mind is that the author of the aforementioned was also the same thinker who, as Braun explains, "resigned his post in UNESCO in 1952 to protests Franco's Spain's admission."21

The personal autonomy that Camus demonstrates can be equated with the singular aesthetic vision and moral courage that he was to later outline in The First Man. In spite of McCarthy's call for an "alternative" to Marxism, Camus had indeed already offered an old alternative to terror: liberty. In "Socialism of the Gallows" Camus makes it clear in no uncertain terms that true heroism today demands a desire for freedom from all quarters. In this essay he challenges intellectuals to understand that ideas, both good and bad can have serious consequences. He explains:

But first our leftist intellectuals, who have swallowed so many insults and may well have to begin doing so again, would have to undertake a critique of the reasoning and ideologies to which they have hitherto subscribed, which have wreaked the havoc they have seen in our most recent history. That will be the hardest thing. We admit that today conformity in on the left. To be sure, the right is not brilliant, but the left is in complete decadence, a prisoner of words, caught in its own vocabulary, capable merely of stereotyped replies, constantly at a loss when faced with the truth, from which it nevertheless claimed to derive its laws. The left is schizophrenic and needs doctoring through pitiless self criticism, exercise of the heart, close reasoning, and a little modesty. 22

This passage is a clear demonstration that in this issue Camus was in fact the true revolutionary. All genuinely constructive reflection clears the way for true and lasting peace by voicing a sincere, apolitical opposition to all forms of totalitarianism. Camus' trajectory as a man and thinker was conjoined in a life that was dedicated to the search for truth. His individualism, dignity and personal autonomy brought him a great deal of strife and personal antagonism from people who had a lot to gain from denying him these basic human qualities. This antagonism and hate that he underwent were partly due to the mechanism and, if we are to call things by their proper name, the technique of terror that ideologues had so eagerly perfected already in the early part of the twentieth century. Camus, like so many other writers as Stanislaw Wietkiewicz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak who valued human integrity and autonomy were victims of a ruthless worldview that denies any inherent value to the individual.23

Like Heidegger, who thought that only a God could save modern man, Camus too, if we are to judge by The First Man grew more restless and less optimistic when he realized that the absurd had become institutionalized in the form of the totalitarian state. His concern had always been for what Unamuno called the individual man of flesh and bones in the latter's book The Tragic Sense of Life. The individual, Camus argued, ought to be the main concern of all genuine humanism and not an abstract ideological rendition of man.24


Schopenhauer on Conscience as the Ground of Ethics, by Pedro Blas Gonzalez

Jean François Revel and Anti-Americanism

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Notes:

1. The First Man is an autobiographical novel. The main character in this work is Jacques Cormery, a young boy. Through Jacques Camus reflects on his childhood in Algeria, his love for his mother and the ever-present Camus depiction of the sun. See: Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities. Translated by Sophie Wilkins, New York: Vintage International, 1996. This unfinished novel is a tour de force that deals with the two years (1913-1914) in the life of the main character named Ulrich. The novel is a study of the days leading up to WWI as Ulrich turns his back on morality and all conventions. The novel is in effect a close look at the rising tide of nihilism in the west.

2. The First Man, p. 59.

3. Ibid. p. 26.

4. Ibid. p. 26.

5. Ibid. p.26.

6. Czeslaw Milosz has written in To Begin Where I Am: Collected Essays that Albert Camus was a modern-day Cathar in that if he denied the existence of God, it was perhaps because of his love for God, and his inability to justify such a being. This is a considerable argument, especially when we take a close look at the overall tone of The First Man. Milosz as well as others critics have speculated that perhaps Camus was beginning to soften up his views on God and the absurd at the time of his death. Milosz writes: "The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on Saint Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on grace - absent grace -- though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of "Judge not and ye shall not be judged" gives the advice "Judge, and ye shall not be judged," could be, I have reasons to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre." Another reason that Milosz holds this view has to do with what he considers Camus' view that history is a battleground for good and evil. p. 253.

7. Ibid. p.30.

8. William Barrett, Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972, p. 28.

9. The First Man, p.33.

10. Ibid. p.33.

11. Ibid. p.321.

12. Time of Need, p. 48.

13. Ibid. p.28.

14. The First Man, p.320.

15. Ibid. p. 295.

16. Ibid. p. 309.

17. Ibid. p. 292.

18. Patrick McCarthy, Camus. New York: Random House, 1982, p. 251.

19. Ibid. p. 251.

20. Lev Braun, Witness to Decline, Albert Camus: Moralist of the Absurd. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974, p.241.

21. Ibid. p. 241.

22. Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, p. 171.

23. See the works of Witkiewicz, Solhzenisky and Mandelstam.

24. Miguel de Unamuno, Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida. Madrid: Editorial Plenitud, 1966, p. 7.