Albert Camus | Critical Essay by Robert Greer Cohn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Albert Camus.
This section contains 5,272 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Robert Greer Cohn

SOURCE: "The True Camus," in The French Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, October, 1986, pp. 30-8.

In the following essay, Cohn provides an overview of Camus's literary career. Cohn praises Camus as "beyond all intellectual fashions and ideological factions, the finest, most authentic voice of his age."

Let us start modestly, as Albert Camus did. By the time he was stopped, when he died brutally in his forty-seventh year, he was widely regarded as the most important literary figure in the Western world.

He could hardly have come from humbler circumstances. His French father, who died in World War I almost as soon as Albert was born, was an agricultural worker in Algeria. His Spanish mother could not read, seldom spoke, and was partially deaf. Her mother was a straight-laced old lady who raised Albert and his older brother with strictness and, at times, the whip. Camus grew up in Belcourt, a working-class neighborhood of Algiers. As he looked back on it later, his childhood seemed happy despite the hardships. He loved the life of the streets and the beaches in the sun. A dedicated teacher took an interest in him and encouraged him in his studies. Camus worked with fierce concentration and went on with scholarships to the University of Algiers, where he specialized in philosophy. But at age 17, he contracted the tuberculosis which never really left him, though it came and went. He dropped out of school and took a series of odd jobs. At age 20, he married but divorced a year later; his first wife, Simone Hié, was a beautiful drug addict who betrayed him and wounded his psyche deeply. Camus's affair with the Communist Party shortly after this was rather similar; youthful hopes and swift disenchantment. Simultaneously, he founded a politically-inspired theater group which attracted some local attention. He did some writing as well as acting and directing for it, loved it all passionately. He had meanwhile recovered enough to go back and get a diploma in philosophy. In 1937, he published his first little book, L'Envers et l'endroit.

This bring us to the literary Camus who most concerns us, for it is a marvelously honest and tender piece of writing about his early years, and when it was republished shortly before his death, he said that unless he returned to the unspoiled simplicity and piety of that book he would never do anything worthwhile. So let us have a look at it, remarking only that what happened to Camus after that is quite well known: how he fought for justice to the Arabs in the local press, went on to help edit and write for the Resistance paper Combat during the war; how he remarried and had twins, how he became famous with L'Etranger, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, La Peste, L'Homme révolté, and so on; the quarrel with Sartre; the Nobel prize; his dismay at his fame; and at the Algerian conflict in which he refused to take sides, out of loyalty to his mother; his stupefying death in a car accident in 1960. We will return to some of these items later.

The title L'Envers et l'endroit refers to the deep, honest ambivalence that runs throughout Camus; typically for him, particularly in his first manner, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, life and death go hand in hand. Eventually, this total cancellation will be identified with the absurd, referring especially to the tension between the mind's quest for unity or meaning and the world's chaotic refusal of it. One would speak too of heaven and hell, if it were not for the fact that Camus, like his parents, had little use for organized religion though he was baptized a Catholic. But he was a profoundly religious man in his own way and said "God is beauty" to an intimate friend. Later, he will reintroduce into a world threatened by valuelessness the moderate religious concept of "the sacred." Altogether, a pantheism not unlike that of the other great artists of modern France or Europe, or Emily Dickinson here, is close to his untrumpeted belief. But the God of beauty, or of the wistful sacred, is remote indeed from often-grim human affairs, and in these pieces we see an old woman whom no one is interested in staying with any more. The young folks go off heedlessly to the movies and leave her alone with her cold crucifix. Young Camus goes off too, but with a stab of concern in his heart, and we see him, in a sense, betraying those other young'uns, becoming himself with his deeper awareness. There is another sketch about an old man, similarly avoided in a café, going home alone in the dusk toward his eventual death.

There is a scene where Camus is sitting in an Arab café overlooking the twinkling port alone, listening to the foghorns in the night and wondering about his future itinerary through life. The key notes are sounded in the darkness of his love for his strange "indifferent" mother—she never caressed him but they were utterly in league and he knew it—and his need to be a man.

This is a telling point. He was fatherless like his Stranger, of whom it is said tersely "He had never known his father." In La Chute, equally tersely, Clamence laments "Il n'y a plus de pére, plus de régles!" It is suggestive to note that any number of France's greatest writers, from Du Bellay and Racine through Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Sartre were orphaned or otherwise deprived of their fathers. The impact is fairly obvious. The normal father provides a role model which mediates the boy's struggles to manhood. Failing that, the process of dissociating oneself from the mother becomes quite problematic, and an excessive pattern is apt to develop of "proving oneself as a man." This is confirmed by Ernesto Guarner (revealed to me by Charles McCabe), a Spanish psychiatrist whose clientele was exclusively matadors. Without exception, they were fatherless. Before I had learned that, I had spoken in print of Camus's bullfighter psychology, mindful of his Spanish inheritance as well as Michel Leiris' essay, "De la littérature considérée comme une tauromachie" (in L'Age d'homme [Paris: Gallimard, 1939]). I was naturally pleased when Herbert Lottman's biography disclosed the fact that one of his closest friends thought of Camus in just that way. The fact that Patrick McCarthy in his recent book dismisses this notion loftily causes me no particular pain. McCarthy's book (Camus [New York: Random House, 1982]) is often hasty and insensitive, though it has its uses and is cleverly packaged.

In another scene, Camus stares for hours at a mother cat that has just devoured some of her kittens. This is the other side of his special courage and one which I particularly admire. He describes in an unbearably powerful understatement of tenderness a night he spent lying next to his mother after she had been frightened by an unknown assailant, breathing in her perspiration and her silent anguish. In this daring to stay with the unmediated mother, he resembles Proust whom he, unlike Sartre, worshiped. We know about Proust's stubborn relation to his mother; few normal people are honest about their deepest affections and anxieties as this pair of artists were.

Further, as in the case of Proust whose mother could become an object of fierce hatred out of jealousy, in Jean Santeuil to the point of wishing her death, so too Camus sees in the mother cat the hideous "wrong side" of his total attachment, what Jung refers to as the "terrible mother." The Stranger tells the examining magistrate that his indifference before the death of his mother can be partly explained by the fact that everyone desires the death of loved ones at times. This is repeated elsewhere in Camus, and it is an important theme of La Chute. Camus' play Le Malentendu is about a mother who, with the help of her daughter, strangles the incognito traveller who turns out to be her son.

No doubt the betrayal by Simone Hié has something to do with all this and with the well-known don Juanism of Camus, but of course, beneath all that, there are universal facts of life, which some people are more candid about than others. Not that one should wallow in them; Camus thought of his Misunderstanding as a modern tragedy, and that, one feels, is the proper way to handle these matters, just as Sophocles did with his Oedipus. But let there be no misunderstanding here: woman is at the core of Camus' earthly world, where the mother securely is in La Peste.

In L'Etranger, which came out in 1942 and made his reputation, Camus' protagonist seems dazed at first. He has been inwardly stabbed by a new awareness, as we gradually learn with him; he is "on to something," the absurd. The consolations of religion had departed from lots of lives in his time, but it is another thing to feel in depth that the world is made of a profound cleavage between mind and reality. The fact of mortality alone when it hits you truly can make mockery of the quest of meaning; or the simple confrontation of self too close-up in a mirror when you see a sort of alien moon-landscape. Where is our identity, or anything fixed in this fleeting, ephemeral existence? But all that Angst is familiar by now, and I would like rather to emphasize that this is one of those dazzling, infinite half-truths of which reality is obviously made, such as freedom and determinism, continuity and discontinuity, heredity and environment. Since each is infinite, one can get hooked on it as on an infinity-opening drug and Camus did for a youthful while, as did a lot of young people in his time, partly through reading him. As a result of the impact of World War II which, as he said, "made me modest," he discovered or rediscovered the other half-truth, that life is not absurd. From then on, those two half-truths together interested him more in what he described as a "higher balance," in connection with his doctrine of limits and moderation. One infinite balances off and limits the other in his more mature perspective.

But for the moment, his hero is stuck in his half-truth of the absurd which Camus will further explore in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. The vertical posture of the young matador can usefully characterize this steep excessive and one-sided honesty which leads or allows him to commit murder. Everyone remembers the scene where he yields to a sort of universal indifference under a dazzling sun on the beach and numbly shoots the Arab who was harassing his friend, Raymond. The fact that he shoots one shot and then four more has been often explained: his honesty dictates that he, as it were, endorse his dazed act, take fully responsibility in a sort of Nietzschean mood of superman suspension of ordinary morality. The Stranger becomes, it is widely agreed, the full conscious absurdist at this fateful juncture. But the usual comments are less sure of the puzzling accompanying thought which runs through Meursault's head, that he was aware that he had "unbalanced the day". Though nothing can be proven here, I submit that this is the germ of the movement to maturity in the "higher balance" I alluded to earlier. The Stranger's steep, vertical, infinite honesty is tentatively crossed by a ghostly dimension of other-relatedness, equally infinite as he will discover later, in La Peste and L'Homme révolté and which moderates our individual juvenile-omnipotent drives.

This dimension had already existed in his play Caligula, written a few years earlier, in the mouth of his spokesman for decency and sanity, Cherea. But Camus had gone on to get smitten by the new kind of awareness which, as he said in the preface to Le Mythe de Sisyphe, he had found on the "street corners of his time."

In that essay, published in 1943, Camus accepts practically as axiomatic—though he hedges a little in the preface about its being merely a tentative proposition—the manifold contradictions he finds throughout western culture from Zeno and Aristotle on to the existential exponents, such as Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Chestov, of "humiliated thought." So taken is he by this view that he seriously considers whether suicide might not be the proper response to the universal absurdity of our lives, and that is the subject of his essay. To explore, as he puts it, a logic to its extreme consequences even if it dictates our death. A Spanish stubbornness, which Camus was known for, is at work here, very clearly, and I think a succinct comment might be: Olé. Fortunately, he finds for life. Suicide, it turns out, would be a sort of evasion, a copout or "leap." This is a term he applies to a number of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Chestov, Jaspers, Husserl, who accept the absurd to a point and then find a way out through religious salvation or some equivalent resolution. In this sense, they abort the unending tension which is the essence of absurd contradiction. Suicide would obviously do the same thing. But for this Camus the absurd is our only reality, our only good and must be lived with all the bittersweet way, with passion, lucidity, revolt—by this last term, he means never giving in, as in suicide or consoling religion. It is equivalent to consciousness or high consciousness. In other words, suicide would take away all we have, bitter as it is at times, and even in essence. A long, lucid, and intensely indifferent life is the defiant révolté answer to such a fate, and he imagines Sisyphus, rolling his eternal rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again, as being happy, as he says at one decisive point.

All this can bear another look. What is really going on underneath is this: at the point where Camus considers suicide as a solution to the absurd, he is confronted with another kind of absurdity, namely that it makes no sense to end a life to solve a life's dilemma because at the moment you die, the very problem disappears; at death, you have solved nothing since there is no more problem. Or if one imagines a tiny instant between life and death and the wavering that would occur between a problem to be solved and a no-problem (in death), then you have what can be seen as the absurd formula folded back or turning on itself. The absurd, which is a contradiction, can—as a total proposition of truth—be seen itself as contradictory. The absurd is both true and not true or, as I said earlier, it is a half-truth.

In the case of Meursault, a tilt from the vertical bullfighter dimension to the horizontal dimension of other-relatedness occurred at least in his mind: it would have provided a balance, the "balance of the day," which he sensed he had broken. Here too, an excessive drive to honesty, a kind of mortal logic which could dictate his death is providentially moderated by a tilt or pivoting: the logic of the absurd, and the suicide which might result from it, give way to an illogical, merely human impulse. Incidentally, even in his early lyrical essays, we find that promising, humane giving-in in terms of tenderness and, at times, a flow of tears. If suicide turns out to be the problematic, wavering solution we just saw it to be, then there is no point committing suicide. Rather, one does nothing drastic in that self-canceling direction but just keeps on living impulsively, which is what we all do all the time. Camus' "logic" has encountered a limit in the breakdown of the absurd, contradicted by its own self, fortunately. It is precisely such a tilt which characterizes the "happiness" of Sisyphus, which is not at all warranted within the absurd. In fact, it looks suspiciously like what he accused others of: a leap into another dimension of existence, away from the too-perfect logic of the "absurd." This is also true of the statement the good-hearted Camus makes at one point in his essay. Although theoretically his absurdist heroes accept no conventional morality, at that point Camus, obviously frightened of some of the implications, says that there is no reason to commit a crime any more than there is not to commit it, adding that to perform evil would be "childish." If that is not an arbitrary "leap" in his terms, what is it?

Still, the whole doctrine had an immense appeal, as we know, and set the tone of Camus's reputation at that time. Even recently, one heard William Styron speaking of Camus as his guide to whatever replaced religion for him.

But for those who followed Camus into his later phase, during and after and occasioned by the war, we find something quite altered. The tilt to the horizontal of other-relatedness is fully described and accepted in the preface to L'Homme révolté in 1951.

Partly because his reputation was so bound up with it, Camus at this point is at some pains to square his new view with his previous absurdist "logic." But now he clearly states what I have stated a few moments ago: the "profound ambiguity of the absurdist position," or what we have seen as the absurdity or arbitrariness of the absurd. Camus is left quivering at a crossroads: between the two horns of the original absurd contradiction in one direction, the vertical, and between its acceptance and rejection in another direction, the horizontal. At this crucifying juncture, he throws up his hands and sees himself bereft of all but a blind "impulse," life itself just going on at this crossing of dilemma and protesting against the mess. Moreover, the protest is against a world which has seen murder on such a staggering scale in World War II. Indeed, the book L'Homme révolté, which he is prefacing, is an attempt to answer the problem of mass murder in his time, just as Le Mythe was supposed to deal with individual suicide. So he is left only with the protest, this "impulse" which he now calls "revolt." Earlier, you will recall, revolt was the expression of a defiant response to life's absurdities and it just kept you living in the absurd, not copping out. That revolt led to no solution to anything. But now it is his answer to murder, as follows: a "révolté," or rebel, is a person who says no to an unacceptable situation, for example, an exploitative master. But he says "no" in terms of a right, a right to be free of exploitation or injustice. This right is a "yes" which goes with the "no." In other words, a true rebel revolts in the name of a principle which is universal, a right. Since a principle is by definition not just for one individual but a general law, the tilt to the horizontal occurs here, of which I spoke earlier. Since that right encompasses all men, one has no justification for murdering anyone in the name of rebellion, Camus claims. One may well sympathize, as I do, and still see that this pivoting or tilt is just another impulse with no real foundation in logic, absurd or otherwise. It is just the feeling one can have that I and you are all bound up and one slides into the other easily, as in life. There is, indeed, a great mystery of reality here—the problem of identity and intersubjectivity—but it is obvious that people who do not feel it just go ahead and murder anyway, and by the millions, in wars. Camus is sensitive and does feel the connection and compassion, just as he did for the old woman in the early essay we spoke of. He wants us all to feel it and stop killing each other. He is singularly good-hearted. Alas, his notion that we must in true revolt always balance the "no" and the "yes" as well as the I and the we—the striking and the caring or scrupulosity—is not easily observed in the heat of action which is not simultaneous, balanced, but serial or successive. Typically, one will strike and then regret it, or mourn a dead enemy if it comes to that; but not both together.

In a section of L'Homme révolté Camus alludes to Ivan Kaliaev, a Russian poet who insisted on giving his own life to pay for the life of the tyrant which he took. Camus called him "an innocent assassin" and wrote an admiring play about him, called Les Justes. Well, not too many will emulate him and it is clear that there is no sure-fire formula here. Yet, I think Camus is doing as well with all this as one can. By adding the horizontal dimension to his earlier perspective and maturing into his doctrine of limits and "higher balance," he has powerfully and convincingly shown at least what is desirable. He knows that this impulse toward The Other, including an enemy, is just that, an impulse. It is a tilt to the side and The Other and on-going life, even as you radically revolt in depth and cut through (vertically) a status quo. But, knowing that, he nudges us in the humane direction, and that is a good thing. In this way, he gives comfort to all those who would temper the ruthless revolts of Marxism by a limit, a cross-cutting dimension of humanity, as in the views of Silone and Gramsci in Italy and the modern Socialists in Western Europe generally, including France under Mitterrand.

If you look at this another way, viewing history along a timeline—seeing a ruthlessly goal-directed drive in the modern totalitarians, a deification of history as leading to a final justice for all, then Camus's good heart and sense of balance tell him, in L'Homme révolté, that we must limit the drive of that "horizontal religion" by a perspective of the sacred, which cuts across it in the name of individual (vertical) human rights, a value outside of history. In this sense, he contests the Sartrean doctrine of existence always preceding essence, and a constantly open relativistic "situation." Rather, he rediscovers that man has a nature after all, a sort of moderated essence which can serve as a value; this or that man is infinitely precious in himself, stemming from the sacred, and history has no right to treat him as a mere pawn toward some utopian end in a remote future.

In this way and others, I believe Camus got the better of Sartre in their famous quarrel. I totally disagree with Patrick McCarthy as to the value of L'Homme révolté and Camus' thought in general. L'Homme révolté is a heart warming attempt to figure out what went wrong in our Western culture to the extent of the massive atrocities of the twentieth century. He traces our sins of imbalance and hubris from the roots in Judeo-Christianity, which is too obsessively judgmental and goal-oriented as compared to the temperate and relatively now-oriented Greek view of life. His investigation and analysis take him through numerous figures of our tradition, up through the Hegels, Marxes and Nietzsches. He does not always do them full justice—though he is usually generous in admitting this too—but he tries to, and mightily, and for me this is the key book of modern historico-political theory. Camus is not a philosopher and says so, but he is a non-specialized thinker, a poetically visionary, intuitive one, rather like Heidegger's Denker. The wrestling with the absurd dimensions which I noted is right in line with the most sophisticated patterns of thought such as we find in Lacan, Foucault, and Jakobson. If he gets no final answers, it is because there are none, for these others as well. The new social concern and the mature higher balance were already evident in La Peste of 1947. There is now a definite tilt away from the perfect tension or ambivalence of the absurd in the new formula: "There is more to admire in man than to despise"; such a tilt is, also, sideways, into the flow of time and humane emotion. The hero, Dr. Bernard Rieux, is described as being square-jawed, aged 35, and stocky. It would be hard to be more four-square balanced than that … Because of the new emphasis, Rieux is a doctor, and the people who are too individualistically concerned about (vertical) salvation, such as the Jesuit Paneloux and even the philosophical Tarrou, are somehow doomed and succumb to the plague, whereas an ordinary guy, the journalist Rambert who just wants to be happy with his girl, makes it. For similar reasons, the artist-figure Joseph Grand is cut radically down to humanity in that his art is risible though his decency is great; he too survives, partly because in the midst of the crisis he burns his manuscripts, which is a surefire way to lower your hubris. The later Camus was much concerned about his reputation, pride, and ego getting in the way of breathable life and creativity. Everything in La Peste moves in this direction in emphasis, though the vertical is preserved too in proper proportion through Rieux's meditative depth and even Grand's renewed art, in the end. The very tone of the novel is moderated, cool, a chronicle, with a new objectivity and workaday calm befitting the doctor narrator. The emphasis is collective, and the events of the chronicle are seen from several viewpoints. Fraternity, unpretentious struggle against a still-absurd fate which brings plagues that come and go when they want, courage with refusal of heroics, just life wanting to go on and be normally happy, all this had a considerable appeal to young people who were looking for guidance in a world without much belief after the second World War.

One of his last books, and some think his best, was La Chute, of 1957. It is a bitterly funny portrait of a former Parisian lawyer living in Amsterdam. He had a golden youth and thought very highly of himself as a lover of his fellow man until one day he failed to respond to a dangerous call for help from a drowning woman in the Seine, and then his whole ego-structure collapsed. "The lights went out" on the party, as it did for Salinger's girls in Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut or, really, all of us privileged people. No longer being able to keep up an image of his goodness and innocence, he resorts to a stratagem of spreading universal sense of guilt; "misery loves company." This was his fall from a sort of grace, and his name and much of the symbolism allude to Saint John the Baptist and the theme of baptism which the plunge into the nocturnal river would have been, a sacrificial descent leading to salvation, rebirth. So he calls himself a "false prophet," living in duplicity like all the rest of existence, and this is the constant, searingly amusing theme: all our little self-deceptions and hypocrisies are paraded before us. And there is the higher duplicity of the Hegelian notion that evil is just a part of the on-going synthesis of good and evil, which Kierkegaard trenchantly revolted against with his either-or. Camus is solidly, underneath, on the side of Kierkegaard here, though he is never mentioned. The muddy, verbose dialectics of his own time, Sartre's included, are being subtly invoked. But the pure light of the Greek islands stands for that clear innocence we can never find again in our northern mists amid the hustling, hassling, self-seeking, lobbying, conniving, half-lying millions in our semi-polluted cities like Amsterdam, the site of one of the greatest crimes in history, as Camus puts it, the genocide of the Dutch Jews. But the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, goes rattling on about this and that, always worrying about his own self-justification. He even tries to pull Jesus down to his all-too-human size, seeing him as guilty because of his awareness of the children of Rachel, the slaughter of the Innocents killed for his sake, and he hears the cries of Rachel refusing to be consoled. Here, Camus and Clamence want us to break through at least for an imagined instant, a flash. There is not the slightest question of Clamence speaking for Camus, as some (like Simone de Beauvoir) thought; Camus denied this roundly in an interview, and poured scorn on Clamence. No, but in those break-through moments, we see the original Camus whom Patrick McCarthy and others rightly deem a deeply religious man without a church—a man who could reject organized religion and the afterlife again and again and, yet, say to an interviewer "The anti-religious view is vulgar," or "God is beauty", and speak of the sacred as the only resource—a Value—against the ruthless nihilistic plunge into merely secular history. A beggar who comes up to Clamence in the street whispers humbly "We have lost the light." Those few words are quite sufficient for those who have eyes to glimpse with.

Camus in an interview put truth above all other values, but as we noted, he was a good-hearted decent man and, on the whole, he was a sort of higher centrist. He stayed in the middle of controversies such as the Algerian war for independence, and at the end of L'Homme révolté he comes out for a whole series of mid-positions: moderation in revolt, the mild, reasonable Mediterranean, and an idea of Europe as being humanly in-between excesses in Russia and technology-driven America (as he saw it then); the village as opposed to big cities—he rather loathed New York and did not often care for Paris—or rural emptiness on the other side; the season, as of the harvest, between overambitious teleological or eschatological reaches of time or the too short sighted daily perspectives; the trade-union movements in politics; and so on. He spoke for the centered literary work, e.g., the novel, as against formalistic art on one hand and journalism on the other; and it was supposed to be balanced between private concerns and public. As a novelist, he was a daring innovator, and yet he spoke again and again of his love for the French classic era and style: Pascal, Molière, Madame de LaFayette. He wanted to write a modern tragedy, and, in a fine essay, he saw tragedy as arising on its two august occasions, in Greece and Renaissance Europe, between an age of faith declining and a rising age of reason. Altogether he was a sublime muddler-through, in the enlightened middle as it were. That is not a comfortable position to be in, especially when everyone else is taking sides as they usually do. You get hit by both parties at times, like a referee. Politics is not carried on this way and he can be said, in brief, to be largely apolitical despite his struggles to pitch into his time. McCarthy calls him "indifferent" in contradiction to the popular image of Camus as a moral leader, but that is excessive. No, he was a fiercely caring man, but in his own far-seeing and superior way. At times, of course, these higher syntheses drop into a dreadful opposite of nothingness, indifference in that sense, and Camus with his recurring tuberculosis, certainly had his black or zero moments; his friend, Martin du Gard, even spoke of his misanthropy. But taking that with the sacrificial and deep concerns, still, all in all, including the sensitivity, the courage, the lucidity, the culture, the style, the sense of humor, he was probably what we Americans all along tended to think he was: beyond all intellectual fashions and ideological factions, the finest, most authentic voice of his age.

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