Albert Camus

Originally posted on Monday, August 4, 2008

I honestly cannot tell you now what occasioned my putting together this little table and commentary, which initially appeared on my blog. I remember that I asked a question having to do with the man who was passing peas from one bowl to another and not getting very good guesses.

Furthermore, some of my readers know that for quite a while now I've been riding a hobby horse concerning the mutilation of The Stranger (as well as of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha* ) in college class rooms all over America (which, unfortunately includes Indiana as well). Whatever the original catalyst may have been, as you can see by the way I begin, it had to do with The Plague more than The Stranger.

By the time that Camus wrote The Plague (La Peste ), he had moved on somewhat from his earlier writings, including The Stranger. You can correlate some of his fiction with his philosophical expositions, both chronologically and thematically . The Stranger (1942) correlates with The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942) while The Rebel (L'Homme révolté, 1951) sheds more light on The Plague (La Peste, 1947).

Theme Fiction Exposition Philosophy


Affirming one's life in the face of absurdity.

The Stranger

(L'etranger, 1942)

The Myth of Sysiphus

(Le mythe de sisyphe, 1942)

Despite the fact that life happens to be absurd, viz. without any intrinsic meaning, we need to affirm our lives for what they are.  Thus, the point of The Stranger does not really become clear until the very last page. Contrary to the popular (mis)interpretation, Camus is not trying to convince us that life is absurd, though he brings out that point clearly enough.  We've known of life's absurdity for quite a while; it had already been depicted well  by Kafka, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevski.  What he's saying  is that, absurd or not, we need to embrace our lives and enjoy all the different experiences that come along the way. Thus, despite  the wide-spread view,  the meaning of the book is not that the protagonist Mersault was unhappy (frequently paired with the corrollary that  he would be so much happier if he became a Christian), but that he had found unstinting happiness once he took ownership of his life, no matter how  botched up it might be.

 In The Stranger the protagonist Mersault spent almost the entire novel distancing himself from his life.  One can't change the events that come one's way, and so Mersault was constantly pointing  out that this, that, or the other thing was not his fault, and, sure enough, it wasn't.  Nothing seemed to matter precisely  because nothing  really did matter.  It was not until the night before his execution that he realized that he had looked at his life from the wrong angle all along.  Rather than distancing himself from his life and always apologizing for it, he needed to own up to it, regardless of the nature of his life.  Even if he was about to be executed, that was fine, just so long as he let it be his execution.  He resolved to take it all in and to enjoy  the experience in all of its  depth.  He hoped that the crowd spectators would greet him with "howls of execration."

Camus begins the collection of essays published under the title of  The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays by stating that the only significant question is whether to commit suicide.  Once one has decided not to kill oneself, one has affirmed that one's life is worth living.  But, if so, then one should maximize every aspect that life has to offer, whether it be meaningful or absurd. Sisyphus was a character in a Greek myth, who had offended the gods and was enduring eternal punishment by having to roll a huge boulder up a hill only to have it drop down again just when he's almost done.  Camus said that we should picture Sisyphus laughing.  

Nevertheless, contrary to the (mis)interpretation that goes into the other direction, affirming your life does not mean doing anything that comes into your mind.  Just clowning around is not appropriate either because to do so would be to take the meaning out of your life, as well.  This observation takes us to the second part of Camus' writings, in which he emphasizes the objective values of human life.  


Affirming the value of humanity in the face of God's harshness.

The Plague

(La Peste, 1947)

The Rebel

 (L'Homme révolté, 1951)

 Even if Camus had been "existentialist" in his earlier writings (and that's highly questionable), that categorization would definitely not be appropriate for this later phase. A central point of existentialism was that there are no given values, and that each person must decide who he or she  is,  and what is right or wrong for them.  Jean-Paul Sarte said in his  essay "Existentialism is a Humanism," that existentialism is nothing but the consistent outworking of the premise that there is no God. The most important consequence of that idea is that there are neither intrinsic blueprints for being human, nor extrinsic values imposed on human beings.  All persons must define themselves and construct their values based on the 'essence' that arises out of their self-perception."  If Sartre is right in defining existentialism in this way, then Camus, by the time he wrote The Plague (if not earlier), would not qualify on any of these points.

Camus did not expressly deny the existence of God, but stated that  we needed to fight against God, because God is opposed to the values that are intrinsic to being human.  So, a much better classification for Camus than "atheist existentialist" is that he was an anti-theistic humanist.  

The Plague is the story of Dr. Rieux, a physician, who lived in the small town of Oran in Algeria.  When the plague came to Oran, the town was isolated, and Dr. Rieux spent night and day fighting it.  His ideological opponent was Father Paneloux who believed that the disease was sent by God.  He delivered two major sermons in the book. In the first one, he averred that the plague was punishment for the sins of the town; in the second  one he dropped the punitive aspect, but claimed that God was testing everyone's faith with the epidemic.  Dr. Rieux's response was that if God had sent the plague, then we need not only fight against the plague, but against God as well.  

The Plague is filled with unusual people, most of whom illustrate the contrast to the heroic Dr. Rieux. For example, one of his patients was a chronic asthmatic who spent his entire life sitting in his bed with two bowls. All day long he passed dried peas from one bowl to the next, counting them as he did so. What was he trying to accomplish by doing so? Simple, he was marking time, and he claimed that this method was more accurate than any clocks.

The person who memorized the train directory was the father of one of the supporting characters, named Tarrou. Tarrou's father was a prosecuting attorney, who memorized the time table as a hobby. His son could ask him how to get from any one place to another, and he could recite the exact set of trains to take one there. This was the content of his life; he was a man who had nothing significant to live for. And yet, he was a prosecutor who had it in his power to see to it that people who had full lives, but who happened to slip up somewhere, would be executed.

If you should get around to reading The Plague somewhere along the line, you may very likely be surprised how the words that Camus places into Fr. Paneloux's mouth sound like those of contemporary evangelical preachers. The priest who visits Mersault in prison in The Stranger is a carricature (though, alas, how many students over the years have turned him into the one with all the right answers?! ) Fr. P. is not a carricature. He's a man with normal human reactions who is torn up inside even as he tries to defend God's role in this disaster. In the final analysis, though coming from two very different extremes, he and Dr. Rieux are the two people in the novel whose lives have genuine content. Camus, of course, favors Rieux over Paneloux.

There are other bizarre characters in the novel as well: the man who is setting out to write the supreme novel of all times, but never gets past the first sentence, and the man who spends all day spitting on cats.

Alan Watts

Of course, Camus is mistaken about life. If it comes prepackaged with values, then those values must have some grounding or they are arbitrary and could just as easily be reversed. Thus, he is only a logical step removed from Sartre's notion that we can create our own essence, an idea that is consistently denied by our experience. Human beings cannot will themselves into becoming someone other than who they are. Neither Sartre nor Camus managed to live consistently according to their own philosophies, which is not surprising since it's impossible to do so.

I enjoy Camus' obsessed characters. Even Dr. Rieux is just across the line in neurotic territory. But life cannot be meaningful without a standard for meaningfulness. Such a standard must be objective, immutable, and without flaws (otherwise it would not be a standard). My quarrel with Camus--again, not to mention Sartre--is not with their diagnosis: life seems to be absurd in so many ways. It is their treatment,viz. trying to fix it themselves, that has an unbroken record of failure. Only by abdicating our own autonomy and accepting God's sovereignty can one find true meaning in life--and I'm not saying that it's easy even then. (Nor am I going any further in defending this statement at this time since my point is a critique of Camus; see my other writings, e.g. chapter 5 of No Doubt About It for more on this issue.)

*Siddhartha is frequently presented as an example of pantheism in a broadly Buddhist context. The long and short of that notion is that these two concepts (i.e. Buddhism and pantheism) are mutually exclusive. Now, it may be the case that Hermann Hesse himself was confused on this matter. Alan Watts, another highly influential exponent of what he thought was Zen Buddhism, certainly was as non-representative for genuine Buddhism as he was entertaining. Regardless of either of these authors' intentions, for us to use Hesse (or Watts, for that matter), as an entry point to teach about either a historically rooted pantheism or an authentic Buddhism is to set our students off into the wrong direction. Back to text.

Posted by Win at 23:38           Monday, August 4, 2008