The Just by Albert Camus (1949)

It is 1949. War-torn Europe lies in ruins. Across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe communist regimes are intimidating and executing their way to power. The Cold War between America and Russia is well-entrenched, epitomised by the Berlin Airlift, which began in June 1948.

Which side should you choose to be on? American capitalism exploiting its workers, repressing its Black population at home and spreading its neo-imperialism abroad? Or the worldwide communist movement which, despite much evidence to the contrary, at least holds out the possibility of a fairer world, where workers are liberated from an exploitative system and the vast populations of the imperial colonies are freed?

But joining the communist movement means accepting the need to get your hands dirty, to join in with its culture of conspiracy, revolution and political murder. Is this acceptable?

In the late 1940s Camus was working through this issue in the long philosophical essay which would be published as L’Homme revolté in 1951. This book addresses head-on what Camus regarded as the big issue of the day, namely — Is it possible to commit political murder in a just cause? Is the idea of freedom in some hypothetical future, for an entire society, worth killing a handful of actual people in the here-and-now? To use the phraseology so many people used throughout the communist period – Do the ends (the workers’ state, complete human freedom, utopia) justify the means (conspiracy, terror, murder)?

Alongside the politico-philosophical approach of L’Homme révolté, Camus set out to dramatise the issue in this five-act play. Its title can be translated as The Just, The Just Assassins or, maybe, The Righteous.

The play follows the activities and arguments of a small group of revolutionary socialists in Russia, in 1905, who are planning to assassinate the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. All but one of the characters are real historical personages and the events really took place as described. Camus based the play on Memoirs of a Terrorist by one of the group, Boris Savinkov. (In fact Camus devotes several pages of L’Homme révolté to Savinkov’s book, giving thumbnail portraits of the characters and quotes from their writings, which shed light on the play, and certainly on Camus’s fascination with this brand of ‘fastidious assassins’, as he calls them.)

Plot & characters

At the first attempt to throw a bomb in the Grand Duke’s carriage the would-be assassin Kaliayev bottles out because there are children in the carriage. He is rebuked by the unflinching revolutionary Stepan:

Not until the day comes when we stop being sentimental about children, will the revolution triumph and we be masters of the world. (p.136)

(A sentiment which has had a long life right down to the present day.) The wavering poet Kaliayev is tempted by the only woman in the group, Dora, who, after several acts of talking tough, suddenly declares that she wants to be loved as a woman, does he love her, oh why can’t they choose human happiness? etc etc.

But Kaliayev sticks to his guns and two days later throws a bomb which kills the Grand Duke as he rides by in his carriage. (All this happens off stage; we only hear the sound effects and see the excited faces of the characters looking out a window onto the scene of the murder in the street below.)

In the final acts the play becomes increasingly schematic as Kaliayev – who was captured after he’d thrown the bomb and is now in prison – is faced first by a fellow prisoner who will in fact be his hangman; and then in a long, excruciatingly pretentious scene, by the Grand Duchess, the wife of the man he blew to smithereens, who is, of course, a Christian and who wants, of course, to forgive him.

This permits Camus to write a long Dostoyevskian debate contrasting divine love and earthly love, divine justice and human justice, sin and forgiveness, and so on.

KALIAYEV: When they’ve pronounced the sentence, and they’re all ready for the execution… then… at the foot of the scaffold… I shall turn away from you and this vile world… And at last my heart will be filled with love!… Can you understand?
GRAND DUCHESS: There is no love except with God.
KALIAYEV: Yes, there is… Love for people… Love for mankind! (p.161)

With every fresh text of Camus’s that I read I become more convinced that Christian theology was central to his worldview, in particular the Christian dynamic of crime and punishment, sin and salvation, damnation and salvation, repentance and forgiveness. Although there is much chat about revolutionary ‘freedom’, it is the fundamentally Christian ideas of sin and forgiveness which underpin the text.

After Kaliayev has spurned the Grand Duchess’s offer of praying for forgiveness, the sleek Chief of Police Skouratov, says he will put it about that Kaliayev begged for mercy and renounced his views unless Kaliayev admits the whereabouts of his fellow conspirators. End of act four.

In the last act we are back with the conspirators in their shabby apartment. Like the actors in a Greek tragedy, a messenger/eye witness describes Kaliayev’s last moments as he goes to be hanged. So he rejected Skouratov’s offer, he didn’t flicker in the face of death etc.

The climax of the play is the histrionic behaviour of Dora, Kaliayev’s lover, who, half-weeping, half-shrieking, announces that she wants to be reunited in sacrifice with her man and insists – against the group’s sexist code that no woman can actually take part in an act of terrorism – that she will be the one to throw the next bomb. Shamed by her ‘revolutionary’ intensity, her colleagues acquiesce. And so the torch is handed on…

Schematic

What is most striking about the play is the starkly simplistic attitudes of the characters. They are like diagrams or caricatures. One is a poet who hates lies but has to lie in order to be a conspirator, and justifies it because once he has thrown his bomb ‘all lies will end’. One thinks they are ‘killing to build a world where there will be no killing’. One thinks you can’t just talk about the revolution, you must be part of it. One thinks no individual can be free until all people in the world are free.

The presence of the children introduces a new topic which is, Should you – are you permitted – to murder a few young innocents in order to bring about a Just Society in which there will be no more suffering? Discuss.

The temptation of Kaliayev by the prison governor/head of police seems like a token gesture – compare and contrast its throwaway brevity with the searing psychological intensity of the interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four or the prolonged breaking down of Rubashov in Darkness at Noon. Camus isn’t in the same league.

The heavy-handedness of the debate about God in Act Four alienated me from the play and when Dora, in Act Five, becomes the focus of the action with her distraught alternation between tearful love for her man and steely determination to strike the next blow for ‘freedom’, I completely switched off.

If you had never thought about these issues before, the play might just about be a good 6th form or maybe undergraduate resource with which to prompt discussions about the morality of revolutionary violence – in the same way that Frankenstein might be used to trigger discussion about the ethics of genetic engineering or Heart of Darkness about imperialism. But it’s not a serious critique. It’s neither serious history nor philosophy nor psychologically realistic drama.

Terrorists may be at work all over Europe as I write, but I don’t think the guys we have to worry about think or talk like this nowadays.

The uselessness of morality

My son the Philosophy A-Level student tells me I am a ‘consequentialist’. I had to look it up to find out what he meant. It means I don’t believe in grand moral or ethical principles (a position I sometimes provocatively express as, ‘I don’t believe in morality’) – I don’t invoke general moral axioms or principles to help me decide whether to act this or that way. I judge by outcomes. I am interested in what works.

For me, there is no particular ‘moral’ principle involved in the debate – Is political murder ever justified? – the only criterion is, Does it work? And all the historical evidence we have is that almost all political assassinations a) don’t change anything or b) make repression worse. It doesn’t work, so don’t do it.

Holding this position explains why I found almost everything the characters say in this play superfluous and irrelevant. The characters’ interminable debates over their conflicting moral codes, worrying about their sensitive scruples, their agonised discussion of ethical principles and so on seem to me either adolescent navel-gazing or windy metaphysics. They kill the Duke. They are arrested. There is no revolution. Tyranny is not overthrown. Freedom does not come for every person in Russia. They resolve to carry out another terrorist atrocity. Fail. It is a failed way of thinking.

Only in a declared state of war can killing a clearly-identified enemy be justified, because it stands some chance of success i.e. winning the war. In all other circumstances, killing is just killing. The Baader-Meinhof group shooting German bankers and industrialists. The IRA blowing up pubs in England. ETA assassinating Spanish officials. ISIS machine gunning people at a rock concert. Did they achieve their stated aims of overthrowing the system, country, values they detest? No. They failed. In the end they were just killers.

But more often than not they found themselves trapped in the role of terrorists. Committed to a ’cause’ they couldn’t quit because they had already burned their bridges, psychologically and legally. As small terrorist acts fail to achieve their ends, many terrorist groups find themselves sucked into an inflationary spiral, forced to stage bigger and more destructive ‘spectaculars’ in order a) to get some kind of reaction and b) to justify their ’cause’, their existence, to themselves and their supporters.

This grim logic of modern terrorism is explained in a number of sections of Gerard DeGroot’s fascinating social history, The Seventies Unplugged.

Historical innocence

Back to the play – by setting it in 1905 Camus’s makes sure Les Justes is largely innocent of the history of bloodshed which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. The characters exist in a kind of pre-lapsarian phase of political terrorism. Although Russia had had a healthy track record of terorrism for at least a generation previously – the Grand Duke’s father, Tsar Alexander II, survived no fewer than five assassination attempts before himself being blown up in 1881 by terrorists (like father, like son) – the grotesque, continent-wide super-violence of the Great War and its aftermath had not yet occurred. The thirty years of bloodshed, terror and state terrorism sprawling from 1917 to 1947 was undreamed of. (It is, for example, interesting to learn that the real-life Grand Duchess was murdered in 1918 by revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War. These complexities, tremors and afterlives are absent from the play.)

By choosing 1905 Camus has stripped away the contemporary and complex historical context of his own time (1949) and returned to a much simpler, more innocent age, in order to bring out the ‘issues’ with greater clarity.

Maybe this is why Les Justes sometimes feels more like an excerpt from BBC Bitesize or an over-the-top school play than a drama for modern grown-ups. It is full of cardboard characters adopting histrionic poses, like the super-revolutionary Stepan:

For us who don’t believe in God, there is nothing between total justice and utter despair!!! (p.148)

But he is wrong. There is no such thing as total justice or utter despair, these are tiresomely writerly abstractions. In fact there is a whole world of life and love for everyone to enjoy, whether they believe in God or not. There is absolutely no need to live in this hysterical, Dostoyevskian state of mind unless you want to.

It’s their unrelentingly histrionic simple-mindedness and their wilful neglect of the real, actual world of happy people, which makes the characters in this taut little melodrama difficult to care for and a lot of Camus’s political writings so difficult to read.

Ivan Kalyayev, assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia

Ivan Kalyayev, real life assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, and lead figure in Les Justes

But plays are funny things. They’re not meant to be read cold on the page, but animated by flesh and blood actors, in real productions in front of live audiences at particular times. All of these factors came together favourably in the production of Les Justes which opened in December 1949, was very well received by the critics, and ran for over 400 performances. In that time and place this drama of ideas obviously spoke to a large audience who presumably a) enjoyed the moral debates b) found it dramatically satisfying. So maybe I’m completely wrong.


Credit

Les Justes by Albert Camus was published in France in 1950. This translation by Henry Jones was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1965. The Just was brought together with the other plays, Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Possessed, in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

I can’t bear to hear you talking like that, about crime and punishment… (p.105)
[Martha to her mother, Act 3, Le Malentendu]

Apparently, Camus heard the story this play is based on while on a holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936:

When his father dies a young man, Jan,leaves home to seek his fortune. Years later he returns a rich man determined to surprise his old mother and grown-up sister, Martha, and asks to stay at their wayside inn without telling them who he is (he is so changed in appearance that they don’t recognise him). Little does he know that in the intervening years his mother (reluctantly) and sister (enthusiastically) have adopted the habit of murdering rich travellers who stay with them. Despite umpteen moments when he could have told them who he is, the son continues to conceal his identity and so the women murder him (giving him a sleeping draught in his evening tea, then dumping his comatose body in the river). The next morning, while going through his papers, they discover the truth – that he is their son/brother.

It has the feeling of a folk story, with the grim bitterness of folk wisdom. It certainly makes for a very taut if characteristically diagrammatic play.

In tune with the neo-classicising tendencies of between-the-war France (think the neoclassical works of Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso), Camus tries to give the language the clarity and depth of classical tragedy. The more abstract the action, the more allegorical the story becomes, capable of numerous interpretations. The most obvious interpretation is to see it as a demonstration of the ‘Absurdity’ of the world, and the preposterous vanity of human wishes.

Jan’s wife, Maria, has accompanied her husband on his pilgrimage back to his old home and begs him to reveal who he is, her feminine intuition (and the the genre of tragedy) giving her a premonition that something bad will come of keeping silent. But Jan refuses, he wants to get to know his mother and sister again as they naturally are, before revealing his identity, and – after some feverish dialogue – he sends Maria away before checking into the inn.

Above and beyond the schematic nature of the plot, Camus gives the play a kind of structural symmetry by having the daughter of the house, Martha, and the wife, Maria, mirror each other. Martha is motivated to murder rich men in order to fulfil her dream of being able to leave the rainy country behind and go and live in the hot south by the blue sea. Placed in the diagram opposite her is the young man’s wife, Maria. Martha, in her dialogue with Jan, paints rhapsodic pictures of the hot country by the blue sea where they live and which they have left behind on this fool’s errand – so that Jan can carry out what he thinks of as his duty, and share his money with his mother and sister.

One aspires to travel to – the other has come on pilgrimage from – the unnamed hot country.

Outcome

When Martha reads the passport which reveals that she has just murdered her brother, she doesn’t go wailing hysterical but stands numb. She hands it to her mother who breaks down and vows to kill herself. Martha doesn’t stop her mother as she exits the stage to go and throw herself in the self-same river where they disposed of her son’s body.

Then Maria enters asking where her husband is. There is absolutely no shred of psychology or any human touch in the way Camus has Martha tell Maria point blank: ‘He’s dead. We murdered him.’ She sounds like a robot, and the news gives rise to an entirely predictable outbreak of weeping and wailing on the part of Maria. But this doesn’t result in what you could call any believably human behaviour (like Maria attacking Martha, maybe, or smashing up a few things).

Instead, the pair remain more or less fixed in place and, through tears of anguish, discuss the philosophical issues this dreadful misunderstanding has raised. Well, shout about the philosophical issues.

Crime and punishment

Le Malentendu confirms the sense I’ve been developing that Camus’s over-riding concern is more about Justice, about the contrast between divine and human Justice, the (im)possibility of Justice in a godless universe – than about absurdist existentialism as such.

As in Caligula the terminology of crime and punishment dominate the characters’ dialogue – after all the entire play centres (as does his famous novel, The Outsider) on a murder. It is no accident that Dostoyevsky figures in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, nor that Camus’s last work was a labour of love converting Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils into an elaborate stage production. The more of Camus I read, the more I realise that crime and punishment seen in are his central concerns.

Religion

But they are crime and punishment seen, as in Dostoyevsky, from a religious point of view. Cross Purpose tends to confirm my sense for the centrality of Catholic religion in Camus. On the last page the two women, Martha and her opposite number Maria, reach a crescendo of hysteria, Martha (the murdering sister) yelling at Maria that love is futile and life is pointless, we all end up in the wet mud of the grave eaten by worms:

What do they serve, those blind impulses that surge up in us, the yearnings that rack our souls? Why cry out for the sea, or love? What futility! Your husband knows now what the answer is: that charnel house where in the end we shall lie huddled together, side by side. (p.114)

And she yells in contempt at Maria to pray to her useless God. But despite this atheist harangue, pray to God is just what Maria proceeds to do in the final gesture of the play:

Oh God, I cannot live in this desert! It is on you that I must call, and I shall find the words to say. [She sinks on her knees.] I place myself in your hands. Have pity, turn towards me. Hear me and raise me from the dust, oh Heavenly Father! Have pity on those who love each other and are parted. (p.115)

‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ is the cry at the end of Racine’s searing tragedy, Andromache, but Racine’s characters believed in God. Here the very idea of God, or calling on him, is heavily mocked because Maria’s agonised prayer is, apparently, answered by the old serving man. This figure has been absolutely mute throughout the play, shuffling here and there in silence to tidy up the dishes and so on. Now, as Maria, stricken, on her knees, begs for mercy, the door opens and the old man comes in and -for the first time – speaks:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in a clear, firm tone]: What’s all this noise? Did you call me?
MARIA [gazing at him]: Oh!… I don’t know. But help me, help me, for I need help. Be kind and say that you will help me.
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

These are the last words in the play. I think it is intended to sear your soul with the futility and meaningless of life and to be a really bitter satire on the complete absence of God or divine love from the world – rather the opposite, the ironic presence of mocking humanity. But, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, I think the modern reader would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at its preposterously pompous self-importance.

The translation

The translation is, frankly, dire. I can’t imagine it being used on a modern stage; to be remotely usable it would have to be comprehensively rewritten.

Unhappily one needs a great deal of money to be able to live in freedom by the sea. (p.68)

Do please let us take the chance of someone’s coming and my telling who you are. (p.71)

On such occasions one says, ‘It’s I,’ and then it’s all plain sailing… There are situations in which the normal way of acting is obviously the best. If one wants to be recognised, one starts by telling one’s name; that’s common sense. Otherwise, by pretending to be what one is not, one simply muddles everything. (p.72)

I have not been given my rights and I am smarting at the injustice done to me… Let every door be shut against me; all I wish is to be left in peace with my anger, my very rightful anger. (p.108)

Algeria

It is of passing interest that the hot southern land which Martha longs for and which Jan and Maria come from is pretty obviously Algeria. Camus was effectively exiled in mainland France during the Second World War, when he wrote Le Malentendu, and he pined for his hot homeland and also for his wife, who had stayed there to pursue her career as a teacher.

Martha imagines her hot sun-bleached paradise, and Jan describes to her the sound of the waves and the colourful flowers of spring, and his wife Maria laments having to leave the blue skies of home – all of them quite obviously describing Camus’s Algeria,

that southern land, guarded by the sea, to which one can escape, where one can breathe freely, press one’s body to another body, rolling in the waves… (p.108)

But having processed this fact – Algeria = sunny paradise, Europe = rainy prison – it doesn’t really add much to your appreciation of the play except to make it seem even more schematic.

And having recently read Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Camus makes the informed reader notice that in all three characters’ fantasies of this hot country there are no people, certainly no dirty impoverished Arabs to clutter up the scenery. As in L’Etranger and La Peste Algeria is a depopulated allegory of a country rather than a historic place.


Credit

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus was written in 1943 in occupied France, and performed and published in liberated Paris in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Cross Purpose was brought together with CaligulaThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Caligula by Albert Camus (1944)

This purity of heart you talk of – every man acquires it, in his own way. Mine has been to follow the essential to the end… Still, that needn’t prevent me from putting you to death. [Laughs.] (Caligula p.58)

Camus began writing a play about Caligula in 1938, completed a three-act version by 1941, and a four-act version was published in 1944. It was part of what the author called the ‘Cycle of the Absurd’, along with the novel The Stranger (1942) and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

Theatre of ideas

Theatre in France has always been more philosophical and intense than in England. The tragedies of Jean Racine (1639-1699) have a purity and a terror with no match in English literature. Like much modern French theatre, Caligula is a play of ideas, or maybe one idea, in which the characters mostly exist as types or foils for psychological and philosophical debate.

The plot

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was the third emperor of the Roman Emperor. ‘Caligula’ means ‘little boots’, a nickname given him by Roman soldiers when he was on campaign as a boy. Caligula succeeded his adoptive grandfather, Tiberius, in 37 AD. For the first eight months of his reign he ruled wisely. But after his sister, Drusilla, dies, the 24-year-old Caligula abruptly changed character, becoming, in the words of the Roman historian, Suetonius, ‘a monster’. He instituted a reign of terror, having leading patricians murdered, their sons killed and their daughters forced to work in public brothels.

So much for the historical record. In Camus’s hands Caligula becomes a demented philosopher-emperor who pushes the philosophical themes of Camus’s day to the limit, espousing

a philosophy that’s logical from start to finish. (p.19)

Take the theme of ‘freedom’ – Caligula realises that, by having complete power over every human in the Roman Empire, he has become ‘the only free man in the world’. Or the idea of ‘power’ – the only point of having power is to abuse it i.e. to have the power to use power senselessly and in the face of all rational limits or protest.

Take Camus’s preoccupation of the 1930s, the Absurd. By carrying his wishes to their logical conclusion, Caligula demonstrates the absurdity of human wishes; or the absurdity of having exorbitant and extreme wishes which the real world cannot deliver. Right at the start he says he wants the moon, he wants to possess the moon. Why can’t he have the moon? setting the tone of the impossibility of his desires.

Hence the texture of the play isn’t much concerned with character, let alone with touches of humanity or humour. Everyone talks as if they’ve just swallowed a philosophy textbook.

I wish men to live by the light of truth. And I’ve the power to make them do so.

All that’s needed is to be logical right through, at all costs. (p.7)

This world has no importance. Once a man recognises that, he wins his freedom… You see in me the one free man in the whole Roman Empire. (p.12)

A man can’t live without some reason for living. (p.19)

One is always free at someone else’s expense. (p.25)

I’ve merely realised that there’s only one way to get even with the gods. All that’s needed is to be as cruel as they. (p.37)

There’s no understanding Fate; therefore I choose to play the part of Fate. (p.38)

Logic, Caligula; follow where logic leads. Power to the uttermost; wilfulness without end. (p.43)

What I want it to live, and to be happy. Neither, to my mind, is possible if one pushes the absurd to its logical conclusions. (p.45)

Other artists create to compensate for their lack of power. I don’t need to make a work of art; I live it. (p.56)

Or is overcome by the same near-hysteria which characterises Racine’s tragedies:

I want to drown the sky in the sea, to infuse ugliness with beauty, to wring a laugh from pain. (p.14)

Ah, if only in this loneliness, this ghoul-haunted wilderness of mine, I could know, but for a moment, real solitude, real silence… (p.32)

Not many laughs here (although Caligula’s cynical brutality occasionally amuses him). Instead a kind of elevated tone of continuous hysteria, reflecting the subject matter.

The play really amounts to a sequence of scenes parading examples of Caligula’s insanity i.e. his realisation that he can do anything he wishes, humiliating the patricians who live in a state of terror, are forced to entertain him to dinner, whose wives he screws, whose sons he murders, and who he poisons or has executed on a whim.

For Caligula, with absurdist logic, points out that all men die, it is only a question of time, therefore it doesn’t much matter whether it’s now, or tomorrow, or in ten years’ time. This is an example of him pushing human logic right to its limits and exposing its absurd consequences.

Gérard Philipe was just 20 years old when he starred as Caligula in the successful 1945 production of the play

Gérard Philipe was just 20 years old when he starred as Caligula in the 1945 production of the play

Having tortured, executed, debauched and manipulated as many men and women as he can, Caligula discovers that the Total Freedom he sought is in fact empty. In finally carrying the logic of his tyranny to its conclusion he discovers the plot to kill him but chooses to ignore it. Right at the very end he murders Caesonia, the only women who ever loved him, strangling her despite her pleas of love, and then allows himself to be stabbed to death by the conspirators.

The play portrays the absurdist logic of the tyrant, pushed to its ultimate, inhuman limit. Assessing the play amounts to assessing whether the dramatisation, the showing-forth of Caligula’s madness is adequate to the topic.

Many of the scenes are powerful, there is no shortage of cynical cruelty and occasional black humour but – despite much intense melodrama – the play is actually not very dramatic. There are no reversals or surprises, Caligula just sets out on a quest to be a monster – and succeeds.

All that said, Caligula was a great success when first staged in 1945 with the 20 year-old actor Gérard Philipe making his name in the title role. The success or failure of plays is much more complex than poems or novels; it is dependent on innumerable contingent factors like the staging, costumes, lighting, music, on the ability of the actors, and on the often intangible spirit of the times. Philipe was the fashionable new thing, the grotesqueness of the scenes matched the post-war mood of excess and absurdity – and so it was a hit.


Credit

Caligula by Albert Camus was published in France in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Caligula was brought together along with Cross PurposeThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Edward Said on Albert Camus

A brief introduction to Edward Said

Edward Said was born in 1935 in Palestine. His father was from Palestine, his mother from Lebanon. They were both Christians, not Muslims, so he was already an outsider in a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Said attended British Anglican schools in Jerusalem and Alexandria, which further detached him from the surrounding Muslim culture and Arab language, before being sent to an elite school in Massachusetts. He went on to earn a BA (1957) at Princeton University, and Master of Arts (1960) and Doctor of Philosophy (1964) in English Literature from Harvard University, before joining Columbia University in 1963 as a member of the English and Comparative Literature faculty.

A privileged private education and a prodigious academic ascent.

At Columbia Said taught the classic 19th and 20th century novels – Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Conrad, Graham Greene. His thesis was on Conrad, the novelist of colonial disillusion and pessimism. He produced several works of straight literary criticism which show awareness of the new intellectual winds blowing in from Paris, an awareness of the theories of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on, but all these pale into insignificance before his epoch-making work, Orientalism (1977).

Orientalism examines the little-read works of 19th century ‘orientalists’, men who claimed to be experts on the peoples, the histories, cultures and languages of the Middle East, India and North Africa. The book’s thesis is straightforward – that the writings of all these ‘orientalists’, even the most sophisticated and erudite of them, are soaked in a set of clichés and stereotypes about the native peoples of the places they studied, which helped their European imperialist masters – in most cases Britain or France – to rule them, to dominate them, to subjugate them.

Orientalist discourse portrays ‘the natives’ as lazy, corrupt, decadently sensualist or fanatically religious, as economically or culturally backward – however you cook it, as needing the beneficent intervention and rule of our glorious, civilised, law-bringing empires.

Said reviews the rise and development of ‘orientalism’ as a field of knowledge and shows how riddled it is from top to bottom with offensively racist clichés which allowed the imperialist powers to pursue their aims of control and exploitation with a clear conscience.

Although you can criticise various aspects of the book (and many critics did, very fiercely) there is no denying that it opened minds to a completely new way of seeing European culture – from the outside, as an instrument of domination and control – and that this radical new perspective led quickly to the birth of a new discipline, ‘post-colonial studies’.

The book caused much controversy, especially among contemporary experts on ‘the Orient’ (mostly meaning the Middle East) who felt insulted and undermined. Said defended his thesis in journals and in the media, his TV and radio appearances raising his profile.

His public profile went up further when he began to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1967 War onwards, assenting to Israel’s existence but calling for equal recognition of the rights of Palestinians, including the right to their own territory and the right for the large Palestinian diaspora to return home. His ongoing involvement with Palestinian politics, to the extent of becoming a member of the Palestinian National Council, ensured his position as a leading public intellectual, frequently subject to furious criticism.

Anyway, back to his books, Said followed up Orientalism with Culture and Imperialism (1993). This was based on lectures he gave applying the insights of Orientalism to specific authors from the canon of 19th and 20th century literature, including Jane Austen (with her famously casual mention of Caribbean sugar plantations in Mansfield Park), Dickens (the role of Australia as the destination for Mr Micawber at the end of David Copperfield and as the site of Magwitch’s reformation in Great Expectations), Conrad’s florid depictions of colonial despair in his Far Eastern novels and, especially Heart of Darkness.

And there is a chapter about Albert Camus.

Albert Camus

Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria to European parents. His father died when he was small and he grew up in great poverty in a suburb of Algeria, mostly looked after by his strict grandmother while his mother went out to work. He showed intellectual precocity and studied philosophy at Algiers university. There he will have been exposed to the latest European thinking of the early and mid-1930s which was uniformly pessimistic, typified by Spengler’s masterpiece The Decline of the West (1922) and the grim existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, summed up in Being and Time (1927).

But unlike most writers and philosophers, Camus was a very physical being. He was good looking and fit, played football professionally, swam in the Mediterranean and had many girlfriends.

This dichotomy, between physical activity, sunbathing and swimming – Joyful and happy – and thinking – Negative and troubled – comes across powerfully in his early essays such as Summer in Algiers and underpins a lot of his ‘philosophy’.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (if I understand it correctly) the thinking mind is afflicted by the absurd disconnect between the human wish for order and meaning in the universe and the distressing absence of that order and meaning in the universe as we experience it. The anguish of feeling disconnected, ‘abandoned’ in a ‘godless universe’ is so distressing it leads some people to contemplate suicide, which is the subject of the essay.

But Camus revolts against this option, because it destroys one half of the absurd proposition Man + World. It is an absurd solution to an absurd predicament. Absurd man is saved from despair by his revolt against his situation:

Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.

‘Passion’. Maybe I’m over-simplifying but it seems to me that Camus had to struggle all his life just to allow the joyous physicality of existence to triumph. I feel like I’ve experienced the same kind of struggle between being a bookish depressive appalled by the history of our species, and a guy who likes to go running, swimming, cycling and walking. Maybe lots of bookish people feel the same. Although his terminology and his prose style are often impenetrable, I think it is centrality of this common dichotomy, and Camus’s passionate defence of Life, despite all the arguments to the contrary, which made him so popular in his day and such an enduring figure.

Said on Camus

Pages 204 to 224 of Culture and Imperialism are devoted to a study of Camus. It opens with a brief recap of the way the French Empire expanded exponentially after the French defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War – overseas conquest against technologically backward countries compensating for their humiliating defeat to the all-powerful Germans. This huge expansion (between 1880 and 1895 French colonial territory shot up from 1 to 9 million square kilometers, p.205) was accompanied by an explosion of new writing, not only factual descriptions of the new colonial acquisitions – mainly in Africa – but also expanding and justifying France’s vision of itself as a uniquely privileged exporter of civilisation and culture – what came to be known as its mission civilisatrice.

The essay takes the history of the Algerian town which the French named Bône as an example, a settlement which the French expropriated from the native Algerians and where they recreated French architecture, law and culture. And then Said points out that Camus was born to immigrant European parents in the small settlement of Miondovi, just outside Bône.

Said starts his critique by quoting from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s long essay about Camus, written for the old Modern Masters series back in 1970. O’Brien critiques aspects of Camus’s writings but nonetheless praises Camus for his achievement in depicting ‘Western consciousness’, for being the most representative intellectual of his day, in his troubled quest to establish and preserve humanist values in the unfavourable circumstances of the Cold War.

Said criticises O’Brien, and by implication all other fans of Camus, for precisely this evaluation, claiming that making him a universal representative of the Western intellectual effectively erases the profound and vital Algerian roots of his writings.

Let’s look at the novels in terms of their Algerian setting. Of Camus’ three novels – The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956) – the third one is immediately excluded because it is about a Paris lawyer now living in Amsterdam. It was published two years after the Algerian War of Independence began (November 1954) and so Algeria was no longer available as a neutral backdrop for a fable about human consciousness.

This simple fact already sheds light on the other two novels – it brings out how the Algeria of their setting (Algiers and nearby villages in The Outsider, Algeria’s second city, Oran, in The Plague) is prior to the war of independence. Camus’s Algeria is a blank canvas, a neutral backdrop against which the European heroes act out their allegorical stories.

Only three Arabs appear in The Outsider, none of them are named or speak, and the role of the central one (the brother of an Arab woman who is regularly beaten up by the protagonist’s friend, Raymond, and who seeks to avenge her) is to be shot dead on a sunlit beach by the novel’s anti-hero, Mersault.

It requires little effort for even the casual reader to see that the Arabs are merely the toys or mannequins or wordless puppets which exist solely to provide fodder for the adventure and agonised musings of the central, European figure.

Likewise there are no named Arabs in The Plague. It is a novel entirely about Europeans. The majority of deaths from plague in The Plague must, logically, be the deaths of Arabs, since they made up nine tenths of the population of Algeria and of Oran, the city where the story is set – but there is no sense of this in the novel, no sense, for example, that the Algerians might have had different cultural and religious ceremonies and traditions surrounding their Muslim dead.

To be harsh: in Camus’s two most famous novels, nameless faceless Arabs have to die in order for Europeans to have fancy philosophical reflections.

So you don’t have to be a genius to see that Camus’ reputation as an embodiment of ‘Western consciousness’ can be regarded – when seen through a post-colonial lens – as more of an indictment than a tribute, in that this wonderful ‘Western consciousness’ is in fact the consciousness produced by, and which benefits from, wide-ranging and brutal imperial exploitation.

The accusation is that Camus’s fictions erase the identity, and even the presence, of colonised native people. Seen from this harsh perspective, far from promoting a universal anything, Camus’s fictions – no matter how troubled and questioning they may appear to be – in actual fact, by virtue of their assumptions and subject matter, continue the racist, colonial project of imperial France.

This is despite the fact that Camus himself, when working as a journalist before the war, produced powerful and well-researched reports on the miserable poverty of many Algerians which he regarded as a direct result of imperial exploitation. He may well have done; but in the fictions – which is all that anyone reads – Camus is, despite his best intentions, an accomplice.

Said’s prose style

Said’s aim is admirable, it is a shame that his prose is so wordy and pretentious.

What I want to do is to see Camus’s fiction as an element in France’s methodically constructed political geography of Algeria, which took many generations to complete, the better to see it as providing an arresting account of the political and interpretative contest to represent, inhabit, and possess the territory itself. (p.213)

To resituate L’Etranger in the geographical nexus from which its narrative trajectory emerges is to interpret it as a heightened form of historical experience. (p.224)

Culture and Imperialism is mostly made up of this kind of bombastic grandiloquence which often produces relatively little insight. Said’s prose preens and grandstands. Also, he spends a lot of time promising detailed close readings of the texts which he then often fails to deliver. Both these characteristics quickly become pretty irritating. Nonetheless, just pondering the colonial position of Camus for the time it takes to read these twenty pages, prompts powerful reflections.

My overall conclusion on Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, both of which I’ve read in their entirety – is that the bombastic style routinely fails to deliver the kind of nuanced text-based insight it promises – but that, despite the pretentious literary-critical style, Said’s thorough-going post-colonial approach is a revelation, a real eye-opener, and prompts a complete re-appraisal of everything you thought you knew about the literature of the European imperial powers.

Paralysis

Sometimes Said’s contorted prose style throws up unexpected phrases which strike a chord.

I was struck by Said’s phrase that Camus’s was an ‘incapacitated colonial sensibility’ (p.213). That notion of ‘incapacity’ is fruitful. As I mentioned above, from his earliest essays Camus appears to be stricken, caught, torn between the healthy outdoor joys of the body which are continually ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (Hamlet), by the bleak indoor climate of 1930s philosophy and intellectual enquiry to which he was also passionately attached.

It adds an extra dimension to Camus’s essays and novels if we overlay this body-mind dichotomy with the additional idea of a late-imperial guilty conscience. Camus wants simple pleasures – he wants life to be simple – but it isn’t because Algeria is a colonised country, the great majority of its population are downtrodden and exploited. How can you not feel guilty living there and seeing the poor and exploited every day? How can you join in the great European debates about ‘freedom’ and ‘being’ and ‘communism’ and all the rest of it, while you pick your way between the ragged street beggars or avert your gaze from the Arab Quarter, the squalid lanes of the Casbah?

On this reading, the paralysis of his characters – trapped under the pitiless sun like Mersault, or imprisoned inside the quarantined city of Oran – reflects not only the overt issues of exile and rebellion, but also the ideological dead-end of French colonialism, which fully understands its time is up, that it has no future repressing an entire people, but simply can’t conceive the possibility of handing over power to the natives and thus abandoning the hard work of a century of colonising effort. The French colonial mind is trapped, stuck, paralysed, stricken, incapacitated.

The plight of Camus’s fictional characters may well be the plight of stricken 1930s intellectuals – but, seen  from Said’s perspective, it is also the plight of last-gasp late-colonialism.

On this reading, absolutely everything Camus wrote is compromised, holed beneath the waterline, by his unwilling, reluctant, and barely acknowledged acquiescence in French imperialism. The recurrent longing for union with the sun, the sea, the desert, is an impossible longing by the writer to be free of French colonial history and commune directly with the Algerian landscape, for a moment forgetting that it is a landscape made safe for Europeans to have great philosophical epiphanies in as a result of 100 years of expropriation, land clearing, and forced resettlement of its original peoples. It is a longing to forget that guilt.

Said analyses a story from Camus’s late collection Exile and the Kingdom to bring out how all but one of these late stories are nostalgic for a simpler, less conflicted world, in that they are about French people seeking ‘to achieve a moment of rest, idyllic detachment, poetic self-realisation’.

These are not stories about existentialist man (and woman). They are stories about late-imperial men and women, seeking a peace and harmony with their colonial setting which is ultimately impossible, an impossible dream.

The literary critic Roland Barthes described Camus’s prose as écriture blanche, which translates as ‘white writing’, but also has overtones of blank or empty writing. Said’s post-colonial perspective helps us see that the tone of The Outsider is not just blank because the lead character is almost psychotically disconnected from society and his own life (the obvious interpretation) – but because the entire narrative blanks out the native population, the colonial setting, France’s imperial presence. What makes the novel so blank and empty is the complete absence of the violent history and oppressive imperial structure in which it operates.

Camus and the Algerian War of Independence

After the war of independence broke in 1954 out Camus found himself in an impossible position. His entire childhood, his identity and that of his poverty-stricken mother and all the friends he had seen around him struggling to survive, were all entirely derived from their setting in Algeria. He couldn’t tear his entire personal and social history out of his identity. And so the great defender of humane liberal values found himself attacking the Algerian freedom fighters and opposing the war for independence. Camus went back to Algeria (from Paris where he’d lived since 1945) and tried to set up a movement for peace, to organise local truces to end the appalling bloodshed on both sides, but these all failed.

It was a war of extremes and Camus’s well-meaning liberalism was a drop in the ocean, a drop of dew which evaporated without trace in the fierce Algerian sun. It is no accident that in his last few years he turned from either political essays or novels back to his first love of the theatre, for the most part writing dramatisations of other people’s novels (winning prizes for his stage adaptations of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky). The blank unpeopled background of Algeria which underpinned his most famous works was no longer available.

Camus’s tragic death in a car crash in 1960 aged just 46 has a poetic justice about it. His identity had been torn apart, his ability to write the nativeless allegories set in his homeland had been removed. As a late-colonial writer, the death of his colonial setting signified his own writerly – and then literal – death.

To summarise in a sentence: whenever you read anyone saying that Camus’s writing in some way addresses ‘the human condition’, Said’s wordy but invaluable contribution is to force you to add that Camus’s writing just as much or more, and whether he wanted it to or not, reflects the late-imperial, colonial condition.


Credit

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said was published in Britain by Chatto and Windus in 1993. All quotes & references are to the 1994 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

The Algerian war of independence

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre @ Great Missenden

The museum

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is a museum in the village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, the South of England. Children’s novelist and adult short story writer Roald Dahl lived in the village for 36 years until his death in 1990. During that time he became famous around the world, mostly for his best-selling children’s books although he did write quite a few short stories for adults on very adult themes (witness the two hefty Penguin paperback volumes of the Complete Short Stories).

But it was for children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Matilda, Danny the Champion of the World and that he became famous. At the peak of his success the local post office delivered 4,000 letters a week from young fans around the world.

After his death, his widow, his wider family, his publishers and better-off fans all agreed it would be good to create some kind of memorial to the great man. However, the house he actually lived in and the garden where he built the famous writing shed which he worked in every day, passed into private hands.

Then in the 2000s a derelict coaching inn and stable complex in Great Missenden High Street came on the market. The Roadl Dahl trustees had the very imaginative idea of buying it and converting it into a child-focused museum, gallery, cafe and interactive space to celebrate Dahl’s life and work and to inspire new generations of storytellers.

The comprehensively refurbished space opened as the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in 2005.

Front of the Roald Dahl Museum (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

Front of the Roald Dahl Museum (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

The Museum is aimed at 6 to 12 year-olds and their families. It has three galleries along the side of the attractive cobbled yard, as well as a café and a lunch room for school trips.

Children getting creative in the Roald Dahl museum

Children getting creative in the Roald Dahl Museum

Of the three galleries, ‘Boy’ focuses on the book of the same name which describes Dahl’s boyhood adventures and experiences. ‘Solo’ features his RAF flying days and moves onto his life in Great Missenden, including an evocative recreation of the writing hut Dahl built in the garden of his house, stuffed with the cosy bric-a-brac which made him feel at home.

Inside Roald Dahl's original Writing Hut

Inside Roald Dahl’s original Writing Hut (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

And there’s a story centre room with crayons and paper etc where children are encouraged to create their own stories, or can gather round on the floor to discuss and share ideas.

From the museum’s bright and colourful displays I learned that:

  • Roald is pronounced Rooo-arl.
  • He was Norwegian, at least his parents were. Roald was born in Wales, in Llandaff outside Cardiff, and sent to a prep school across the Bristol Channel in England, before going on to Repton, a public school in the Midlands.
  • He was unusually tall at 6 foot six. He joined the RAF at the outbreak of the war and his fighter plane cockpit had to be adjusted for him.
The RAF section of the museum

The RAF section of the museum with a model of the kind of fighter plane he flew

He crash landed his plane in the Libyan desert and was lucky to survive. His back gave him trouble for the rest of his life. He continued as an air ace, shooting down enemy planes until invalided out of the RAF in 1941, at which point he was sent to the USA to promote the war effort and persuade America to join. There’s a striking photo of tall handsome uniformed Roald striding next to an overweight, jowly grey-haired Ernest Hemingway.

It was a chance meeting with the adventure novelist C. S. Forester, who suggested Dahl write about his wartime experiences. The result was his first story, retelling the story of his desert crash and introducing the idea that he was shot down, which was published in the Saturday Evening Post.

The rest is the usual story of a writer’s long warfare with publishers and critics, magazines and journals, until he had established himself as a writer of cruel and sardonic short stories.

Very roughly speaking Dahl wrote short stories for adults for 15 years after the war, brought together in collections like Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch. It was only in 1961 that Dahl published his first ‘novel’ for children, and what a succession of brilliant children’s fictions then poured from his pen!

  • James and the Giant Peach 1961
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1964
  • Fantastic Mr Fox 1970
  • Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator 1972
  • Danny, the Champion of the World 1975
  • The Enormous Crocodile 1978
  • My Uncle Oswald 1979
  • The Twits 1980
  • George’s Marvellous Medicine 1981
  • The BFG 1982
  • The Witches 1983

I really liked the presentation of all this in the museum. There are blown-up photos, a timeline, models, books and illustrations and notes, it’s all big and bright and attractive and interesting, and all the time there is the voice of Dahl himself reading extracts from relevant books. Thus the first room, Boy, features Dahl reading out descriptions of key incidents and adventures from the book of the same name describing his childhood.

Billy and the Minpins

There’s a small space devoted to changing exhibitions. Currently they’re displaying 14 illustrations by Quentin Blake for Dahl’s last children’s book, Billy and the Minpins. These are, as all of Blake’s illustrations, magical, and beneath each one is displayed the relevant snippet of the original hand-written manuscript of the story in Dahl’s spidery handwriting.

Cover of Billy and the Minpins by Quentin Blake

Cover of Billy and the Minpins by Quentin Blake

The shop

There’s a massive shop, featuring a wide range of merchandise as well as dvds of all the movies made from his books, a wall of wonderful prints of some Quentin Blake illustrations and, for me, most impressive of all, a wall of his books, not only the children’s books but a range of short story collections, including the famous Tales of the Unexpected, televised in the 1980s, as well as the surprising amount of non-fiction which he wrote.

Walks

The shop is a mine of information and the staff are very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions. They also give out free leaflets describing two walks you can do: one is a tour of the village of Great Missenden, taking in places and buildings which feature in the stories; the other is a longer walk across the railway line and up to the nearby woods where Dahl took his own children to play and ramble when they were small.

I went on both walks and describe them in my walking blog. The most striking feature of Great Missenden High Street is probably the beautifully preserved vintage petrol pumps which feature in Danny The Champion of the World.

The petrol pumps in Great Missenden High Street

The petrol pumps in Great Missenden High Street

Set half a mile away from the village, on the side of a hill overlooking the valley of the little River Misbourne is the church of St Peter & St Paul, where Dahl is buried.

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Great Missenden

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Great Missenden

It’s worth mentioning that there’s currently a Chilterns Walking Festival which runs till 1 October, with lots of group walks and other activities taking place all across the region.

Great Missenden is only a 45-minute train journey from Marylebone station and the museum is a simple five-minute walk down the old High Street. What with the village walk and the opportunity for a picnic up in the woods, this makes a wonderful day out for families with small children who love any of Dahl’s books.


Related links

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition, which cost 35p.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Camus’s style in The Plague

I don’t understand why critics refer to the lucidity and clarity of Camus’s style; I find it quite the opposite. I think three elements contribute to his turgid and often impenetrable prose.

  1. Lack of interest in telling a conventional story with its use of suspense, character development, detailed descriptions and therefore a style which simply presents action and narrative incident.
  2. This is because Camus is consciously writing ‘philosophical’ fiction, designed to convey ideas and feelings about those ideas, rather than to provide narrative thrills, so that the narrative frequently stops while we listen to the narrator’s long-winded opinions and reflections on the plague.
  3. The translation doesn’t help. On every page there are turns of phrase which an English speaker or writer would never use. (‘A minute or so later Rambert and Rieux were sitting at the back of the doctor’s car.’ (p.168) ‘At’ the back?) On the plus side this helps keep the text feeling a little alien and estranged. On the downside, it often makes passages seem heavy-handed and obtuse.

Long winded 

Here is the narrator reflecting on what would be needed to deal with the plague.

But these extravagant forebodings dwindled in the light of reason. True, the word ‘plague’ had been uttered; true, at this very moment one or two victims were being seized and laid low by the disease. Still, that could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end, because it was unthinkable, or, rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines. If, as was most likely, it died out, all would be well. If not, one would know it anyhow for what it was and what steps should be taken for coping with and finally overcoming it. (p.37)

See how long-winded that is. And see how he uses the word ‘lucid’ as if this thinking actually was lucid when in fact it is the opposite – it is woolly, vague and needlessly melodramatic – ‘forebodings’, ‘seized’, ‘shadows’, ‘unthinkable’. Same goes for the frequent use of the word ‘precisely’ which almost always appears in a passage of tortuous obscurity – as if saying something is precise and lucid will make it precise and lucid.

Obtuse

Here is a typical reflection by the narrator:

And, as it so happens, what has yet to be recorded before coming to the culmination, during the period when the plague was gathering all its forces to fling them at the town and lay it waste, is the long, heartrendingly monotonous struggle put up by some obstinate people like Rambert to recover their lost happiness and to balk the plague of that part of themselves which they were ready to defend in the last ditch. This was their way of resisting the bondage closing in upon them, and while their resistance lacked the active virtues of the other, it had (to the narrator’s thinking) its point, and moreover it bore witness, even lit its futility and incoherences, to a salutary pride.

This is almost meaningless. At its core it is saying that Rambert’s determination to escape from the closed city reflects a healthy pride. Takes a long time to do it.

Poetic

Over and again the text creates reflections about the condition of plaguefulness which dwell on the sense of exile, isolation, and then apathy which overcomes the population, reflections which combine poetic phrasing with the never-ceasing search for fossicking distinctions. Possibly this is a characteristic of French fiction which is less evident in English fiction, or of the French essay-writing tradition, this continual definition, redefinition and counter-definition of words.

Now, at least, the position was clear; this calamity was everybody’s business. What with the gunshots echoing at the gates, the punctual thuds of rubber stamps marking the rhythm of lives and deaths, the files and fires, the panics and formalities, all alike were pledged to an ugly but recorded death, and, amidst noxious fumes and the muted clang of ambulances, all of us ate the same sour bread of exile, unconsciously waiting for the same reunion, the same miracle of peace regained. No doubt our love persisted, but in practice it served nothing; it was an inert mass within us, sterile as crime or a life sentence. It had declined on a patience that led nowhere, a dogged expectation. Viewed from this angle, the attitude of some of our fellow citizens resembled that of the long queues one saw outside the food-shops. There was the same resignation, the same long-sufferance, inexhaustible and without illusions. The only difference was that the mental state of the food-seekers would need to be raised to a vastly higher power to make it comparable with the gnawing pain of separation, since this latter came from a hunger fierce to the point of insatiability. In any case, if the reader would have a correct idea of the mood of these exiles, we must conjure up once more those dreary evenings sifting down through a haze of dust and golden light upon the treeless streets filled with teeming crowds of men and women. For, characteristically, the sound that rose toward the terraces still bathed in the last glow of daylight, now that the noises of vehicles and motors, the sole voice of cities in ordinary times, had ceased, was but one vast rumor of low voices and incessant footfalls, the drumming of innumerable soles timed to the eerie whistling of the plague in the sultry air above, the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted love from all our hearts. (p.152)

Impressive, eh? The obvious poetic descriptions are accompanied by a kind of poetic philosophising, a poetry of ideas. Some of the similes are comparisons with natural phenomena but loads of them reach for abstract entities (‘sterile as crime or a life sentence’) which sound incredibly weighty but don’t really bear close examination — or just reach for extreme and hyperbolic expressions – why, for example, are people waiting in a queue ‘without illusions’? Why the introduction of this tremendously heavy-weight philosophical idea?

Because everybody in the text is recast in the light of this pseudo-philosophical discourse. Everyone is acting under the arc lights of Camus’s Absurdist worldview which gives everything a garish, long-shadowed melodramatic feel.

Dramatic dialogue

Sometimes Camus dramatises the characters’ differing views of their plight with the punch and counter-punch you would expect of a playwright, reminding you that he was ‘a man of the theatre’, writing five original plays, adapting five novels for the stage, and himself starring in a number of productions.

Suddenly he realized that Rambert was returning his gaze.
‘You know, doctor, I’ve given a lot of thought to your campaign. And if I’m not with you, I have my reasons. No, I don’t think it’s that I’m afraid to risk my skin again. I took part in the Spanish Civil War.’
‘On which side?’ Tarrou asked.
‘The losing side. But since then I’ve done a bit of thinking.’
‘About what?’
‘Courage. I know now that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn’t capable of a great emotion, well, he leaves me cold.’
‘One has the idea that he is capable of everything,’ Tarrou remarked.
‘I can’t agree; he’s incapable of suffering for a long time, or being happy for a long time. Which means that he’s incapable of anything really worth while.’ He looked at the two men in turn, then asked: ‘Tell me, Tarrou, are you capable of dying for love?’
‘I couldn’t say, but I hardly think so, as I am now.’
‘You see. But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.’
Rieux had been watching the journalist attentively. With his eyes still on him he said quietly:
‘Man isn’t an idea, Rambert.’
Rambert sprang off the bed, his face ablaze with passion.
‘Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that’s my point; we, mankind, have lost the capacity for love. We must face that fact, doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no farther.’ (p.136)

You see how this could immediately be staged, in fact change the names and it could fit into his play about ardent revolutionaries, The Just. 

It’s melodramatic, intense and yet, once you stop to think about it… ‘Mankind has lost its capacity to love.’ Hmmm: I don’t think we have, actually.

In sequences like this I can follow the fictional interplay between the characters but it is difficult to get worked up about their actual points of view. They seem factitious, meaning ‘artificially created’, ‘worked up’, ‘contrived’ in order to create drama and conflict where there isn’t really any.

Translatability

A good deal of Camus’s prose consists of pedantically nitpicking between different definitions, in search of rather elusive distinctions. You can’t help wondering how this fine tuning of the definitions of words and ideas can possibly be translated into English, with its completely different sets of connotations.

‘It’s high time it stopped,’ people would say, because in time of calamity the obvious thing is to desire its end, and in fact they wanted it to end. But when making such remarks, we felt none of the passionate yearning or fierce resentment of the early phase; we merely voiced one of the few clear ideas that lingered in the twilight of our minds. The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place
to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence. (p.149)

‘Despondency not to be mistaken for resignation which is nonetheless a particular kind of acquiescence.’

He’s performing a kind of conjuring trick with words and you can’t help wondering how accurately this has been – or could be – translated into a different language.

Commonplace

When it is stripped of the convoluted terminology, Camus’s thought is often quite trite.

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness. (p.110)

You can see why the much cleverer Sartre and de Beauvoir used to read Camus and snigger.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition, which cost 35p.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Essays from The Myth of Sisyphus

The Penguin paperback edition of The Myth of Sisyphus is padded out with five essays from across Camus’s writing career. These are much shorter than Sisyphus and give free rein to Camus’s taste for impressionism laced with would-be profound meditations.

1. Summer in Algiers (1936)

Born in 1913, Camus was 26 when this piece was published. At just 12 pages long it’s a brief, impressionistic depiction of his home town, which already displays key aspects of his style. These include:

Arresting phraseology which, upon reflection, is questionable if not meaningless. The opening sentence is:

The loves we share with a city are often secret loves.

?

Over the top imagery, hyperbole, a histrionic tone.

Old walled towns like Paris, Prague, and even Florence are closed in on themselves and hence limit the world that belongs to them. But Algiers (together with certain other privileged places such as cities on the sea) opens to the sky like a mouth or a wound.

Is Algiers a mouth? (No) Do mouths always open to the sky? (No). ‘Like a wound’? Is a city like a wound? In what possible way?

Ahistorical Mention of wounds immediately puts me in mind of the atrocities committed during the eight year Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), and then the appallingly violent civil war of the 1990s. Camus obviously doesn’t know anything about these – but we do. It makes his casually extreme or violent references seem… irresponsible. When he writes:

everything here calls for solitude and the blood of young men

we know that his premonition of hyperbole or whatever it is, is going to be horribly fulfilled.

Meaningless I don’t understand critics who say Camus is lucid and clear. For me, much of what he wrote is impenetrable gibberish. The first sentence is clear enough – the next three seem to me not only meaningless but pointless. They are verbiage, discourse for its own sake.

In Algiers one loves the commonplaces: the sea at the end of every street, a certain volume of sunlight, the beauty of the race. And, as always, in that unashamed offering there is a secret fragrance. In Paris it is possible to be homesick for space and a beating of wings. Here at least man is gratified in every wish and, sure of his desires, can at last measure his possessions.

Pseudo-philosophy Camus studied philosophy at university but I am continually reminded of the superior and sometimes dismissive attitude taken towards him by Jean-Paul Sartre, a professional philosopher. In his works Camus invokes philosophical or pseud-philosophical concepts, but they are really words for feelings, mood, climates of thought, rather than for much rational argument. Of Algeria, he writes:

It is satisfied to give, but in abundance. It is completely accessible to the eyes, and you know it the moment you enjoy it. Its pleasures are without remedy and its joys without hope. Above all, it requires clairvoyant souls – that is, without solace. It insists upon one’s performing an act of lucidity as one performs an act of faith. Strange country that gives the man it nourishes both his splendor and his misery!

The first two sentences are intelligible. But what does ‘Its pleasures are without remedy and its joys without hope’ mean? ‘Its pleasures are without remedy’. Do pleasures need a remedy? Do your pleasures need a remedy? And do your joys normally require hope?

This isn’t at all philosophy, it is posturing, it is attitudinising, it is displaying a turn of mind, a cast of thought, and right from the get-go it is a stricken worldview, one which can’t, in fact, accept simply and gratefully the sensual pleasures of sunshine and swimming, but is addicted to portraying every single element of human experience as a plight, a sickness, a problem, which requires cure, remedy, hope.

It is not surprising that the sensual riches granted to a sensitive man of these regions should coincide with the most extreme destitution. No truth fails to carry with it its bitterness.

What is he on about? Why must sensual riches coincide with destitution? ‘No truth fails to carry with it its bitterness.’ This is rubbish. there are plenty of joyful truths. In hundreds, in thousands of sentences like this, Camus repeats his one idea that human existence has a surface of sensual pleasure beneath which lurks the existential anguish of the Absurd meaninglessness of life – without solace, without remedy, without hope, and so on and on.

Dubious translation Reading Camus I am continually aware that I must be missing something; he makes fine distinctions which don’t appear to carry over in to English.

In Algiers no one says “go for a swim,” but rather “indulge in a swim.” The implications are clear.

No they’re not, I really don’t see what the implications are. So often I am mystified and frustrated.

Straightforward lyricism Just when I’m about the fling the book in the corner there are passages of comprehensible description, which just about manage to keep me reading. Sometimes of great beauty.

Above all, there is the silence of summer evenings. Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summons for my Algiers to be so closely linked to them. When I spend some time far from that town, I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive trees. And toward them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes. A whole little nation of red clouds stretches out until it is absorbed in the air. Almost immediately afterward appears the first star that had been seen
taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming, night. What exceptional quality do the fugitive Algerian evenings possess to be able to release so many things in me?

2. The Minotaur or the Stop in Oran (1939)

This essay deals with a certain temptation. It is essential to have known it. One can then act or not, but with full knowledge of the facts.

I have no idea what this means. The essay in fact gives impressions of Oran, Algeria’s second city. There is a section on the street fashion of the young (youths aged 16 to 20) which is for the boys to look like Clark Gable and the girls to try to look like Marlene Dietrich. There is a section on the popularity of shoeshine boys. He visits a boxing match full of over-excitable novices. He laughs at the ludicrous statues of two lions in front of the City Hall. But the image which keeps recurring is of the stoniness of Oran. It is seen as a kind of desert. Unlike European cities, clamorous with history, Oran’s youth and ugliness make it place where you can… where a man can… well, I didn’t quite understand what you can do there.

It is impossible to know what stone is without coming to Oran. In that dustiest of cities, the pebble is king. It is so much appreciated that shopkeepers exhibit it in their show windows to hold papers in place or even for mere display. Piles of them are set up along the streets, doubtless for the eyes’ delight, since a year later the pile is still there. Whatever elsewhere derives its poetry from the vegetable kingdom here takes on a stone face. The hundred or so trees that can be found in the business section have been carefully covered with dust. They are petrified plants whose branches give off an acrid, dusty smell. In Algiers the Arab cemeteries have a well-known mellowness. In Oran, above the Ras-el-Ain ravine, facing the sea this time, flat against the blue sky, are fields of chalky, friable pebbles in which the sun blinds with its fires. Amid these bare bones of the earth a purple geranium, from time to time, contributes its life and fresh blood to the landscape. The whole city has solidified in a stony matrix. Seen from Les Planteurs, the depth of the cliffs surrounding it is so great that the landscape becomes unreal, so mineral it is. Man is outlawed from it. So much heavy beauty seems to come from another world.

The word ‘solitude’ recurs throughout:

  • But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength?
  • To be sure, it is just that solitude amid others that men come looking for in European cities.
  • Descartes, planning to meditate, chose his desert: the most mercantile city of his era. There he found his solitude and the occasion for perhaps the greatest of our virile poems.
  • Santa-Cruz cut out of the rock, the mountains, the flat sea, the violent wind and the sun, the great cranes of the harbor, the trains, the hangars, the quays, and the huge ramps climbing up the city’s rock, and in the city itself these diversions and this boredom, this hubbub and this solitude.
  • But can one be moved by a city where nothing attracts the mind, where the very ugliness is anonymous, where the past is reduced to nothing? Emptiness, boredom, an indifferent sky, what are the charms of such places? Doubtless solitude and, perhaps, the human creature.
  • At the very gates of Oran, nature raises its voice. In the direction of Canastel there are vast wastelands covered with fragrant brush. There sun and wind speak only of solitude.
  • But this cannot be shared. One has to have lived it. So much solitude and nobility give these places an unforgettable aspect.
  • A great deed, a great work, virile meditation used to call for the solitude of sands or of the convent. There were kept the spiritual vigils of arms. Where could they be better celebrated now than in the emptiness of a big city established for some time in unintellectual beauty?

What does it mean? Like all of Camus, it is difficult to make out. But throughout these essays seems to run a tension between the virile, shallow, unintellectual life of street toughs, young women heavy with make-up, of young dudes going to Hollywood movies and dance clubs, swimming in the sea, football and fighting, on the one hand – all aspects of youthful life which the 26-year-old Camus is very attracted towards – and the ‘solitude’ which seems to be required for creative thought and which he keeps bumping into in both Algiers and Oran. A rather minatory, worrying isolation which is both creative and alienated.

Maybe that is the significance of the regular repetition of the word ‘solitude’.

3. Helen’s Exile (1948)

The ancient Greeks believed in limits and moderation. Overstep them and the gods sent you mad. Now we have killed God and, living in a godless universe dominated only by history and power, have let reason run rampant. Reason, in numerous forms, rejecting any idea of restraint or limits, aspires to totality, and our time (the post-war period) was witnessing the mounting clash between totalising empires.

So I think this short essay is a way of describing the advent of the Cold War with its implacable totalising opponents – capitalist America and communist Russia – its ‘Messianisms’ – in ‘philosophical’ and literary terms of the Greek spirit – its moderation, its bravery, its facing up to human limitations – which we have abandoned.

The nine years since the first essays in the volume have seen a big change in Camus’s spirit. In the early essays he played with paradoxes and jauntily invoked a hedonistic nihilism. Now there is more than enough nihilism to go around in the big bad Cold War world, and so his approach has become noticeably clearer and noticeably more liberal and humanistic. Obvious, even:

The historical spirit and the artist both want to remake the world. But the artist, through an obligation of his nature, knows his limits, which the historical spirit fails to recognize. This is why the latter’s aim is tyranny whereas the former’s passion is freedom. All those who are struggling for freedom today are ultimately fighting for beauty.

Ringing phrases which he then goes on to qualify a little.

Of course, it is not a question of defending beauty for itself. Beauty cannot do without man, and we shall not give our era its nobility and serenity unless we follow it in its misfortune. Never again shall we be hermits. But it is no less true that man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard.

I think he is referring to the enmity of both sides – communist and capitalist – to artists’ free exercise of their calling.

Admission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty – this is where we shall be on the side of the Greeks. In a certain sense, the direction history will take is not the one we think. It lies in the struggle between creation and inquisition. Despite the price which artists will pay for their empty hands, we may hope for their victory

4. Return to Tipasa (1954)

The 40-year-old author speaks more candidly than ever before in his own voice, as he takes a trip back to this small Algerian town in the rainy depths of the Algerian winter in a downpour of rain. He manages to slip through the barbed wire fencing off the ancient ruins and sits communing with the place and its long history. He is calm. He finds within himself confidence that Europe can shake off the ruinous fanaticisms which have devastated it and still grip it.

These two post-war essays are completely different from the pre-war ones, tremendously chastened, less tricksy, and given to outspokenly clear invocations of liberal freedom and artistic beauty.

There is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us, today, are dying of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it.

In the clamor in which we live, love is impossible and justice does not suffice. This is why Europe hates daylight and is only able to set injustice up against injustice.

But in order to keep justice from shriveling up like a beautiful orange fruit containing nothing but a bitter, dry pulp, I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice, and return to combat having won that light.

Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky, and I measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing.

This is the Camus who is remembered as a moving and enlightened exponent of liberal humanism.

5. The Artist and His Time

A short essay in the form of a question and answer session with an (imaginary?) interviewer who asks AC half a dozen questions about the artist in our time.

Well, says Albert, the artist must fight for justice, against terror and violence, must speak on behalf of the humiliated and downtrodden, the colonised and the workers, but retain his artistic vision. He is against Marxism as justifying appalling crimes now in the name of some nebulous never-arriving future. It is a new version of the old mystification of power.

One of the temptations of the artist is to believe himself solitary, and in truth he bears this shouted at him with a certain base delight. But this is not true. He stands in the midst of all, in the same rank, neither higher nor lower, with all those who are working and struggling. His very vocation, in the face of oppression, is to open the prisons and to give a voice to the sorrows and joys of all. This is where art, against its enemies, justifies itself by proving precisely that it is no one’s enemy. By itself art could probably not produce the renascence which implies justice and liberty. But without it, that renascence would be without forms and, consequently, would be nothing. Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.


A tale of two Camus

What these shorter essays dramatically show is the difference between pre-war Camus and post-war Camus.

Pre-war Camus’s prose style is addicted to unexpected twists, surprising adjectives, paradoxes and addicted to a rather melodramatic pose of absurdity and nihilism. His ‘argumentation’ proceeds by often impenetrably obscure leaps: phrases like ‘however’, ‘but of course’, ‘naturally’, ‘and then’, tend to introduce changes of direction which seem completely unrelated to what came before. The flow routinely seems wilful, more to do with a desire for paradox and surprise than any concern to mount a coherent argument. That’s why you can get to the end of an early Camus essay and realise you have no idea what he was on about. What you do remember is the (fairly obvious) descriptions of the fierce climate, sun and sea of Algeria – and, dotted about the prose, will be oases of meaning which the reader clings to like a drowning man to a life raft.

All this contrasts with post-war Camus, who is chastened, mature and far more accessible. He has abandoned the shallow tricksiness of the earlier essays for a far more forthright articulation of a far more conventional liberalism. He is still French and so addicted to odd locutions and fancy, paradoxical insights. But far more than the early work, the essays from the 1950s are clearer, more declamatory and more pleading for the adoption of humane, liberal values in the face of bleak times.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien, which includes the five shorter essays, was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

The Battle of France

The Algerian war of independence

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940, 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when he wrote The Stop in Oran and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide, about confronting suicide, the ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

The answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes a long time to say this. I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1945 interview, that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) and the essayist isn’t under any discipline to produce a coherent sequence of argument, more an entertaining flow.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists, yanking in quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering and impressionistic flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’. Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments.

  • The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…
  • If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…
  • Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…
  • Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the often pretty obscure nature of the work. Camus is, in fact, often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy would feel like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using – characteristically for the man of Africa – the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the matephor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and become alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

  • The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)
  • By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves. This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, for paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive, so often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual reading of it may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me.

Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its rather histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a real waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

  • An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)
  • Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

  • In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)
  • It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)
  • At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)
  • A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description as a traditional moralist – his text is just the stuff which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, which are meant to be taken away and meditated on.

  • To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need & hope for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – of the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again he defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s.

His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt. Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun For Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80 years old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is… to be a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but about other writers, notable the anti-western religious nut-case Dostoyevsky. Yes, being a writer is the height of the lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

And then sets about crowning himself with laurels of self congratulation.

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So, as the existentialist comic puts it, these bookish guys sitting around in cafes and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their lucid and precise philosophy, be bookish guys sitting in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays. Guys just like them, who congratulate themselves on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their courage and their strength.

How to be a Hemingway hero without stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’. Wow. Never has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

And, throughout these texts is the implication that, like so many ‘abstruse’ theories in the humanities, existentialism in its time was a way for devotees to feel superior to the blind, dumb, bourgeois cattle around them.

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children, no ties to the world and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty year-old family man with family commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East and China.  The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless new metaphors and images and laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. They also have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it. — OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

Alright. I get it.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia, maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world – and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – why?

He got the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a godless universe. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and over to each of us to make of it what we will? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? It isn’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. It is a value imposed on the situation. The absurd can be funny. Absurdity often is funny in everyday life.

He suggests the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outside in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the stricken situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the grinding humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation. Very few people followed the ‘logic’ of their arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) – but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation.

By the climax of the book, the last few pages describing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the book collapses into an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. I defy you to understand this final passage.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Camus’ books

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Fall by Albert Camus (1956)

The plot

A Parisian is on a visit to Amsterdam. One evening he is approached by a stranger in a bar, a fellow Parisian who lives in the Dutch capital. This stranger is a regular in the bar, knows the landlord (who he refers to as ‘the ape’ or ‘the gorilla’) and all the other clientele who, he says, are petty criminals, pimps and thieves. He shares a gin with the visitor and his chat about the locals slowly turns into a bit of background about himself. He used to be a successful lawyer in Paris, quite well known in his field and… Time to go? OK, well, I’ll see you here tomorrow night, maybe…

And so begin a sequence of six (unnumbered) chapters in which the one-time successful Paris lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells, in unbroken monologue, his story to the unnamed, unspeaking auditor. It is an extremely effective technique. The reader is buttonholed right from the start and slowly, mesmerically, drawn into the lawyer’s story.

Physically strong, tall, handsome, charming, Jean-Baptiste went out of his way to open doors for ladies and help the elderly across the road. He did pro bono work for the poor. He discoursed eloquently at dinner parties and attended plays and the opera. He had a string of mistresses, relishing the challenge of seduction then swiftly forgetting them.

But slowly, as the monologue continues, the initial impression we have of his moral perfection and flawless charm is undermined as we come to realise he was really a monster of egotism. By the middle chapter, where he describes his love affairs, he goes so far as to admit that he wanted all his lovers, but ultimately everyone, to dangle on a string, to be dependent on him, to jump when he requires.

I could live happily only on condition that all the individuals on earth, or the greatest possible number, were turned toward me, eternally in suspense, devoid of independent life and ready to answer my call at any moment, doomed in short to sterility until the day I should deign to favor them. (p.51)

And yet… at the height of his fame, his success and his preening self-congratulations… events happened which began to undermine his confidence. One day he is caught at a red light behind a motor cyclist whose bike stalls as the lights go green. He gets out to remonstrate but is unexpectedly thumped by a passer-by who tells him to stop picking on the poor biker. Dazed, Jean-Baptiste stumbles back into his car and drives off but his amour propre is dented.

On another occasion, one night crossing a bridge in Paris, he hears laughter. Healthy, non-sinister laughter, coming from somewhere, a boat passing, he can’t figure out where but… it unnerves him. Years earlier he had passed, on another Paris bridge, a slender female shape in the lowering rain, had reached the end of the bridge and turned onto the quay when he heard a loud splash and then muffled cries and then… silence.

Eventually (although there is no definite moment; I reread the passage several times and can’t identify any actual incident which causes it) eventually, Jean-Baptiste realises that he has many enemies, many people resent his success; many women hate him, many men are jealous, and they are all sitting on judgement on him.

With typical French hysteria, he thinks ‘the whole universe then began to laugh at me.’ (p.60). And he begins to feel for the first time that he is living a double life, playing a game which he just doesn’t care about any more. He is undermined. He begins to hate his appearance of saintly benevolence. He longs to smack children, let down wheelchairs of the disabled. He shouts abuse at beggars and (this is a comic touch) contemplates writing an Ode to the Police and another in praise of the guillotine. He starts calling on ‘the Lord’ in the court room and insulting people at dinner parties.

In other words, he starts guying the bien-pensant liberals he had previously dazzled with his humanity. He can’t bear their adulation of him. He starts to feel impossibly hypocritical, being a lawyer prosecuting people for crimes much more minor than the ones he knows he wants to commit. He wants to be punished.

Jean-Baptiste decides to abandon the world of men and… throws himself into an orgy of sensualism among women, waking between two prostitutes, having an affair with a singer in a bar, drinking himself senseless on unmade beds in brothels etc.

Despairing of love and of chastity, I at last bethought myself of debauchery, a substitute for love, which quiets the laughter, restores silence, and above all, confers immortality. At a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see; the mind dominates the whole past, and the pain of living is over forever. (p.76)

After numerous adventures of the flesh, Jean-Baptiste is on a cruise with his latest mistress when he sees a dark shape on the horizon and turns in fear, his heart palpitating. He thought it was the drowned woman, the suicide, come back to haunt him. (This makes it sound more rational, more comprehensible, than the scene actually is. Truth to tell I couldn’t work out amid the verbiage of aphorisms, what actually happened at any point of this narrative. Something made him realise the falseness of his position in society. And then this further epiphany made him understand he couldn’t run (away from what, isn’t comprehensibly explained).)

The penultimate section transitions rather suddenly to six pages meditating on the purpose of God and the real meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion. I understand this is literature not theology or philosophy and I understand it is a fictional character speaking, so he is entitled to ramble on about whatever he wants to, but at around this point I began to run out of patience. It’s a short enough book, at 108 pages in the Penguin paperback, but even so, by this stage it began to feel padded out with an over-familiar type of pseudo-Christian fustian.

This Christian imagery continues into the sixth and final section where Jean-Baptiste confides in the listener his adventures during the German invasion of France. Since this took place in 1940 we suddenly realise that all the preceding narrative, Jean-Baptiste’s successful career and then flight into debauchery, all this is set in the 1930s. Even though this book wasn’t published till 1956. Wow.

He took part in the retreat from the advancing German army, fled to the southern sector of France and toyed with joining the Resistance but thought it would be pointless. Crossed the sea to Tunisia where he found a job for a while before he and his boss were arrested and he was sent to a prison camp. Here, as a joke, he was elected ‘Pope’ among his little group of prisoners. (There is such a fatal inevitability about these French writers’ addiction to Catholic teaching, ideology, metaphor and culture; they just can’t break free.)

This final section takes place in Jean-Baptiste’s spartan flat in Amsterdam where he’s invited his listener. He isn’t feeling well. He’s stopped reading. In a revelation he opens a cupboard and shows the listener the lost panel of the Van Eyck altarpiece The Adoration of the Lamb. One of the customers at the bar where we first encountered him, had stolen it and given it to the landlord (the ‘gorilla’) in lieu of payment. When Jean-Baptiste saw it he told the landlord just how valuable it was and persuaded him to hand it over for safe-keeping. And so here it is.

The Just Judges by van Eyck (1432)

The Just Judges by van Eyck (1432)

Jean-Baptiste explains the bitter irony. Tourists who go to the cathedral to see the Van Eyck altarpiece file past a copy of this panel. In other words, he knows they are worshiping false judges and that tickles him, being a lawyer with an obsession with judgement, guilt, penitence and all the rest of the Christian fol-de-rol.

In the last ten pages, weak and feverish, from his sick bed, Jean-Baptiste explains to the listener what it means to be a ‘judge-penitent’, the odd title he’s used to refer to himself throughout.

I found it hard to follow this final section. He seems to say we all need God or a master of some kind, and since God has gone out of fashion, it will have to a cruel master. Thus he is in favour of slavery for everyone, as the only form of democracy and the only way we will all get our just deserts.

On the bridges of Paris I, too, learned that I was afraid of freedom. So hurray for the master, whoever he may be, to take the place of heaven’s law. ‘Our Father who art provisionally here … Our guides, our delightfully severe masters, O cruel and beloved leaders …’ In short, you see, the essential is to cease being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself. When we are all guilty, that will be democracy… Death is solitary, whereas slavery is collective. The others get theirs, too, and at the same time as we – that’s what counts. All together at last, but on our knees and heads bowed. (p.100)

This seems a bit demented to me. Is this meant to be an exploration of the mentality of a fascist? Or of a decrepit old debaucher? Jean-Baptiste goes on to explain that this is why he now spends his time in a low dive in the Amsterdam docks, preaching his beliefs to anyone who will listen and excoriating his life and loves just as he has been to us.

And, he explains, as he describes his own ‘fall’, slowly, during this explanation, the ‘I’ passes to ‘we’, gradually implicating the listener in his crimes, gradually making the auditor realise that he, too, is a hypocrite…

Jean-Baptiste has not, in fact, repented at all. He continues his wicked ways, serving himself and loving others – only now with a lightened heart, lightened by his confession and lightened by implicating, by dragging down, by sitting in judgment on his hearers.

Whenever one of them cracks, after a lot of gin and berating bursts into tears and beats his breast – then Jean-Baptiste feels again that sublime sensation of being above them, on the mountain, breathing freely. Revels in his superiority.

It is night. It is starting to snow over Amsterdam. Jean-Baptiste works himself up into quite a state, raving about being taken up into heaven in a flaming chariot. He is a neglected prophet, he is Elijah in the desert. Then, a little more rationally, he hopes his listener is a policeman who will arrest him for hiding the stolen Van Eyck painting so that he will be prosecuted, sent to prison, maybe executed, his blood sodden head held up in front of the crowd!

I would be decapitated, for instance, and I’d have no more fear of death; I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and I could again dominate – an exemplar. All would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to
come forth. (p.107)

And only now, here on the last page, does his listener reveal that he too is a Paris lawyer. Aha, says Jean-Baptiste, that explains their secret sympathy. Did some woman once throw herself off a bridge as he passed by, did he hear her, did he do nothing and has he been haunted ever since?

And so – is this what the book has been about? Does it all boil down to Jean-Baptiste’s bad conscience about passing that woman who drowned herself? Was his entire psychological collapse, his inability to do his job any more, his sense of being judged by everyone, his flight into debauchery, then to the south, then to Tunisia and then to foggy Amsterdam and into this rather demented persona, into this role of the cackling judge-penitent, and even his mad death wish to be decapitated – is it all caused by his failure to act, to save the young woman? Is all this talk about God and repentance and salvation and Jesus and the rest of it all due to his unbearable guilt for that one failure of nerve?

Maybe to its original readers this came off as a bold and dramatic coup de théâtre, but I felt distinctly underwhelmed.


Commentary

Catholicism and Communism

Camus grew up in a French society where education, culture and society were dominated by the logical precision of Roman Catholicism. During the 1930s there was the steady rise of the French Commuinist Party espousing the supposedly ‘scientific laws’ of Marxist communism. And in the territory between camped out the fashionable existentialist philosophers, led by young Jean-Paul Sartre, the whizz-kid novelist, playwright and critic.

This dichotomy between Catholicism and Communism, both abundant in sweeping generalisations, mythic stories and zany paradoxes (as the works of Graham Greene amply demonstrate) – God, hell, heaven, the revolution, the working class, and so on – provided French writers of his time with a limitless supply of material with which to produce dazzling paradoxes and metaphorical pirouettes.

Whereas in our time, in England, neither the Catholic church nor communism are living presences. Communism has evaporated and there are more practicing Muslims in England than Roman Catholics. We live in different times. And this deadly duo were certainly never as important in English culture as on the Continent.

Thus to read Camus or Sartre is to witness, from the outside, an artist from an essentially alien culture performing tricks with material we don’t really understand or care about. When Jean-Baptiste Clamence makes yet another reference to hell or heaven or God or being damned, I feel as if someone has put great weights on my feet. I find it harder and harder to read on amid these dazzling conjuring tricks played with dead tokens form a defunct religion.

On pages 82 to 87 Jean-Baptiste confides in us what the real purpose of God is and why Jesus really died – hushed confidences breathed by nutcases all over Europe, and the material for hundreds of 20th century authors to concoct text out of.

But you can only write witty and subversive and ‘shocking’ interpretations of God or Jesus if anyone cares about God or Jesus. If no one these days cares about God or Jesus enough to be ‘shocked’ by your subversive interpretations, it is like dead air.

Do you know why he was crucified – the one you are perhaps thinking of at this moment?…  The real reason is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others – even though he didn’t know which ones. Did he really not know them? He was at the source, after all; he must have heard of a certain Slaughter of the Innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place – why did they die if not because of him? Those blood-spattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror… Knowing what he knew, familiar with everything about man – ah, who would have believed that crime consists less in making others die than in not dying oneself! – brought face to face day and night with his innocent crime, he found it too hard for him to hold on and continue. It was better to have done with it, not to defend himself, to die, in order not to be the only one to live… (p.83)

It positively irritates me that both Camus and Sartre are avowed, loud atheists and yet both continue to invoke, at length, the metaphors and language of something they claim doesn’t exist. Their works are full of calls for men to be more consistent and logical but they themselves are howlingly inconsistent with regard to the Christian religion. If there is no God, heaven or hell then stop calling places heaven or hell or referring to God or writing scores of pages about sin and damnation and judgement and redemption and Jesus!

Just listing some of the references to hell in The Fall indicates how central religious metaphors are to this atheist author:

  • Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams.
  • If everyone told all, displayed his true profession and identity, we shouldn’t know which way to turn! Imagine the visiting cards: Dupont, jittery philosopher, or Christian landowner, or adulterous humanist – indeed, there’s a wide choice. But it would be hell! Yes, hell must be like that: streets filled with shop signs and no way of explaining oneself.
  • Do you know Dante? Really? The devil you say! Then you know that Dante accepts the idea of neutral angels in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he puts them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule of his Hell. We are in the vestibule, cher ami.

It’s a kind of cheating. It’s having your cake and eating it. It’s denouncing an entire value system and then using it lock stock and two smoking barrels as key elements of your own value system. But if there is no God, hell, heaven, sin, angels and all the rest of it – then by incorporating these dusty tokens so deeply into his own discourse, Camus condemns his own thought to irrelevance.

How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits. I sit enthroned among my bad angels at the summit of the Dutch heaven and I watch ascending toward me, as they issue from the fogs and the water, the multitude of the Last Judgment.

None of this exists. It is poetic fantasy.

Dubious aphorisms

Jean-Baptiste Clamence has kept the pompous self-importance which characterised his Parisian success, only now he is self-importantly ‘damned’ rather than one of the self-confessed élite. Either way, he is a handy mouthpiece for Camus’s enduring technique of building up his texts out of tiresome and often dubious aphorisms. Camus and his characters just love telling us pithy truths.

  • Each of us tries to show up to advantage, even in solitude.
  • The act of love is a confession. Selfishness screams aloud, vanity shows off, or else true generosity reveals itself.
  • Every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. (p.42)
  • Martyrs, cher ami, must choose between being forgotten, mocked, or made use of. As for being understood – never! (p.56)
  • People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. (p.60)
  • We rarely confide in those who are better than ourselves. (p.61)
  • We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. (p.62)
  • What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others. (p.62)

The aphorisms are like attractive flowers which grow out of some pretty murky roots. A lot of the text is persiflage which often don’t really make sense. The best roses grow out of ripe manure. In some places the text consists of a battery of dubious generalisations, one after the other.

But the question is not to remain logical. The question is to slip through and, above all – yes, above all, the question is to elude judgment. I’m not saying to avoid punishment, for punishment without judgment is bearable. It has a name, besides, that guarantees our innocence: it is called misfortune. No, on the contrary, it’s a matter of dodging judgment, of avoiding being forever judged without ever having a sentence pronounced. (p.57)

Like many passages in Camus, I read this and don’t understand it.

Punishment without judgement is bearable.

Really? Is it? Being beaten to death for no reason is bearable? But by ‘punishment without judgement’ he appears to mean ‘misfortune’, bad luck. Is that a workable definition of misfortune – ‘punishment without judgement’? I reread this passage carefully and suspect I am beginning to understand it, but it has been a lot of effort to decode something which seems, well, plain wrong. Is any of what he’s saying in the slightest bit applicable to my life, or even very illuminating?

Entire paragraphs are built up like this from shaky generalisations towards even shakier conclusions. Great swathes of text have the appearance and the sound of fine, rigorous logic – but crumple to dust when you pay real attention or think them through.

Is there any way out? Your successes and happiness are forgiven you only if you generously consent to share them. But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others. Consequently, there is no escape. Happy and judged, or absolved and wretched. (p.59)

I know plenty of people, from mums to social workers to carers to nurses, who are awe-inspiringly ‘concerned with others’ – and this brings them immense happiness. A moment’s reflection shows this generalisation, like so many of Camus’s stylish abstractions, to be false.

Women

So after a process of feeling more and more judged and got-at in the society he formerly dominated, Jean-Baptiste decides to run away. To a desert island? No, there are no more desert islands.

I simply took refuge among women. As you know, they don’t really condemn any weakness; they would be more inclined to try to humiliate or disarm our strength. This is why woman is the reward, not of the warrior, but of the criminal. She is his harbor, his haven; it is in a woman’s bed that he is generally arrested. Is she not all that remains to us of earthly paradise? (p.73)

I imagine feminists would not be too thrilled by this sort of generalisation. But I, a non-feminist, am also offended or just unimpressed.

I suppose it’s worth remembering that Jean-Baptiste is a fictional character and that his thoughts and generalisations are not Camus’s. And that if these aphorisms and apothegms are dubious, that is more a reflection on Jean-Baptiste’s preening character than Camus’s.

Except that Camus’s other books are, just like this one, made out of tessalations of pithy aphorisms. And that many of the quotes you come across from Camus are precisely this kind of wild generalisation, albeit taken out of all character and raised to the level of a general truth.

So much Camus sounds like wisdom, but a strangely redundant, irrelevant and often tiresome wisdom.


Credit

The Fall by Albert Camus was published in France in 1956. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1957, and as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Camus’ books

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

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