FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

In Camus’ Image

by THOMAS H. NAYLOR

When I first read Albert Camus’s The Stranger as a college student in 1957, it went right over my head.  I was clueless as to what this book was about.  When I re-visited it twenty-five years later, I was so taken by Camus that I soon read everything that he had written which had been published in English.

Born in Algeria in 1913, Camus became the editor of the French Resistance underground newspaper Combat in Paris during World War II and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.  He died in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960.  A card-carrying agnostic, who struggled with Christianity throughout his life, Camus had an uncanny grasp of the human condition and an unwavering predisposition towards rebellion against it.

His English-speaking followers have recently been afforded a long-awaited treat with the publication of a 208-page photograph album (in English) edited by his surviving daughter, Catherine Camus, Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity (Edition Olms, 2012).  It is truly delightful.

I believe that Camus figured out many of the important pieces of the puzzle of life, but because his own life was prematurely snuffed out by a tragic accident, he never got around to connecting the dots.  Be that as it may, Camus’s philosophy of life appears to rest on three interconnected theories: a theory of the absurd, a theory of rebellion, and a theory of death.

The Absurd 

What we are all up against is the human condition, God’s gift to us in the Garden of Eden from which there is no escape – separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death.  Not a pretty sight.  To Camus it was absurd that we are all separated, our lives are meaningless, we are powerless to influence our fate, and we are all going to die and face nothingness.  From the absurd flowed three consequences for Camus – his revolt, his freedom, and his passion.

About separation, Camus wrote an entire essay in 1944 entitled “The Tragedy of Separation.”  “The meaning of life is the most urgent of questions,” he said in The Myth of Sisyphus, but “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.”  No doubt his feelings of powerlessness were influenced by his recurring bouts with tuberculosis which he first contracted in 1930 with relapses in 1936, 1942, and 1949.  As for death, “We know it ends everything,” and results in eternal nothingness.  “Eternal nothingness is made up precisely of the sum of lives to come which will not be ours.”  But, “There is no freedom for man so long as he has not overcome his fear of death.  One must be able to die courageously without bitterness.”

About the absurd Camus said:

It is only by repeatedly revolting against the absurdity of his predicament, without appeal or hope beyond it, that a human being fully expresses the absurd relationship.  Only the person who sees clearly what in the final analysis is his ultimately tragic and trusting situation relative to his world and remains actively unreconciled to it can be said to “live out the absurd.” 

Rebellion 

In response to the absurd there are four options – escape, denial, engagement, and confrontation.

First, we may escape the human condition altogether through suicide.  “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” said Camus, “and that is suicide.”  We have to come to terms with the question of “whether life is or is not worth living.”  To Camus suicide was a complete cop out – the refusal to come to terms with the human condition.  The decision to take one’s own life is tantamount to a decision to leave the game to avoid struggling with life’s tough questions.  To commit suicide is to opt for immediate, permanent nothingness rather than risk experiencing separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and fear of death.  It represents the ultimate form of despair in which our humanity is trumped by nothingness.

Second, we may deny the human condition through a life based on having – owning, possessing, manipulating, and controlling people, power, money, machines, and material wealth.  Through having we try to find security and certainty in an otherwise uncertain world.  But the benefits of having may be illusory and transitory suggests Erich Fromm:  “If I am what I have and what I have is lost, who then am I?”

Third, we may choose to engage the human condition through being – by our creations, our personal relationships, our spirituality, our sense of community, and our stand towards pain, suffering, and death.  But being may also be another form of denial of the human condition, a form of escapism – escape from the absurdness of what it means to be a human being.

Fourth, we may confront the human condition and peacefully rebél against separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death.

“Rebellion,” according to Camus, “is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition.  It protests, it demands, it insists that the outrage be brought to an end, and that what has up to now been built upon shifting sands should henceforth be founded on rock.”

To rebél is to confront the human condition head on, to face down separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death.  The problem said Camus is that, “The rebel refuses to approve the condition which he finds himself.”  And, “he is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of a common good which he considers more important than his destiny.”

The rebel, “confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit he can tolerate.”  Continuing Camus says that, “It is those who know how to rebél at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.”

Camus’s rebellion was nonviolent.  He was not into human killing.  In his view killing was grounded in nihilism, and to attack nihilism with another form of nihilism made little sense.  “To kill men leads to nothing but killing more men.”

“Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom is living,” but “The point is to live.”

Unlike Jesus’s rebellion against the human condition which was grounded in hope, Camus’s was not.  Camus frequently reminded us that his rebellion was always without hope of affecting the human condition.  There was no “pie in the sky” in Camus’s world.  “I share with you the same revulsion from evil.  But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”

No words of Camus were ever more prescient than, “We are suffering a reign of terror because human values have been replaced by contempt for others and the worship of efficiency, the desire for freedom by the desire for domination.  It is no longer being just and generous that makes us right; it is being successful.”  And what should we do about this?  Rebél.

Rebellion provides us with the faith to claw meaning out of meaninglessness, the energy to connect with those from whom we are separate, the power to surmount powerlessness, and the strength to face death rather than deny it.

Happy Death 

As Erich Fromm said in To Have or To Be, “We are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent – people who are glad when we have killed the time we were trying so hard to save.”  “Men die; and they are not happy,” proclaimed Caligula in Camus’s play bearing his name.  The sense of angst among many is so strong that, “There is only one hell and it is on earth,” said Camus.

Beginning with his first novel A Happy Death, which was not published until after his death in 1960, Camus returned over and over again to the theme that the purpose of life is not to be happy, as many would have us believe, but rather to die happy.  In Camus’s novel The Stranger, as well as in his four plays Caligula, The Misunderstanding, State of Siege, and The Just Assassins, the theme was always the same – die happy.

But if one expects to die happy, one must first rebél.  Above all, according to Camus, there must be “a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I most honor in this world.”  Not surprisingly, Camus was opposed to murder, suicide, and the death penalty.  His sense of personal meaning and values gave high priority to courage, pride, love, community, and social justice.  In addition, Camus felt strong affinity with the poor and the underprivileged.

In no sense is dying happy a euphemism for radical individualism or hedonism.  This is not a superficial self-help, self-esteem, feel-good philosophy aimed at the “me” generation.  To die happy one must first assume personal responsibility for the meaning of one’s life.  Living means coming to terms with, rather than avoiding, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical pain and suffering.  To have a happy death we must confront the human condition through rebellion.

Those who die happy scrupulously avoid being sucked into the seductive lifestyle and subsequent angst of the living dead.  One reason so few of us die happy is that we refuse to plan for the one event in our life which is absolutely certain – our own death.

The punch line is blunt and undeniably clear.  Life is truly absurd and without hope, and there is no rational reason to believe that tomorrow or the day after will be any different from today.  Therefore, rebél, live, and try to die happy.  That’s the sum total of it.

Did Camus die happy?  Catherine Camus’s photograph album suggests that he most likely did.

A salon of eight or ten persons, where all the women have had lovers, where the conversation is lively and anecdotal and a light punch is served shortly after midnight, is the one place in the world where I am most comfortable.

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of AffluenzaDownsizing the U.S.A., and The Search for Meaning.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 30, 2017
William R. Polk
What Must be Done in the Time of Trump
Howard Lisnoff
Enough of Russia! There’s an Epidemic of Despair in the US
Ralph Nader
Crash of Trumpcare Opens Door to Full Medicare for All
Carol Polsgrove
Gorsuch and the Power of the Executive: Behind the Congressional Stage, a Legal Drama Unfolds
Michael J. Sainato
Fox News Should Finally Dump Bill O’Reilly
Kenneth Surin
Former NC Governor Pat McCory’s Job Search Not Going Well
Binoy Kampmark
The Price of Liberation: Slaughtering Civilians in Mosul
Bruce Lesnick
Good Morning America!
William Binney and Ray McGovern
The Surveillance State Behind Russia-gate: Will Trump Take on the Spooks?
Jill Richardson
Gutting Climate Protections Won’t Bring Back Coal Jobs
Robert Pillsbury
Maybe It’s Time for Russia to Send Us a Wake-Up Call
Prudence Crowther
Swamp Rats Sue Trump
March 29, 2017
Jeffrey Sommers
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon: Real Threats More Serious Than Fake News Trafficked by Media
David Kowalski
Does Washington Want to Start a New War in the Balkans?
Patrick Cockburn
Bloodbath in West Mosul: Civilians Being Shot by Both ISIS and Iraqi Troops
Ron Forthofer
War and Propaganda
Matthew Stevenson
Letter From Phnom Penh
James Bovard
Peanuts Prove Congress is Incorrigible
Thomas Knapp
Presidential Golf Breaks: Good For America
Binoy Kampmark
Disaster as Joy: Cyclone Debbie Strikes
Peter Tatchell
Human Rights are Animal Rights!
George Wuerthner
Livestock Grazing vs. the Sage Grouse
Jesse Jackson
Trump Should Form a Bipartisan Coalition to Get Real Reforms
Thomas Mountain
Rwanda Indicts French Generals for 1994 Genocide
Clancy Sigal
President of Pain
Andrew Stewart
President Gina Raimondo?
Lawrence Wittner
Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?
March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail