The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre versus Camus by Andy Martin (2012)

Martin’s savvy, streetwise, wordplayful book is a joint biography of the two great mid-twentieth century French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

It’s told in a popular, punning, jokey style which is hip to the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll reputation of these two top thinkers and proceeds by the themes, ideas and associations of their writings more than strict chronology.

This is plain enough from the title which refers to the fact that young Sartre was a boxer at school, whereas Camus is famous – to anyone who cares about these things – for being the goalkeeper for various soccer teams in his native Algeria. The aggressive pugilist spoiling for a fight, and the cautious backstop with time to admire the view – this is just one of the many dichotomies Martin uses to build up a portrait of these two complex men.

Like the ‘New Journalism’ of the 1960s, the book also has a fair sprinkling of Martin’s own memories and autobiographical anecdotes which are told to ease us into the subject.

The tone is set by the opening where Martin looks back to being a troubled bookish teenager in the 1970s, plagued by worries about whether he exists, whether other people exist, is it all a dream etc? In this mood he picked up a second-hand copy of Sartre’s masterwork – Being and Nothingness – and was instantly hooked by its description of a waiter.

Sartre’s waiter

Sartre is in the Café Flore in Paris. He watches the waiter who brings him his coffee then serves other customers. He begins to realise that the waiter is being just a bit too punctilious, with his bowing and scraping and smiling and his exaggerated politesse. Sartre realises he is playing the role of a waiter. And who is he playing it for? Not only for everyone in the café but – for himself! The eyes of the customers are upon him, reinforcing his role, but his own mind is looking watching judging his performance.

This insight is the gateway into Sartre’s philosophy. We humans are completely free, at every moment, to do what we wish. But this freedom is too much, crushing, causes anguish and so most of us prefer to act a part. There are a thousand ways to do this but they can all be described as bad faith i.e. denying, refusing to acknowledge, our freedom. Instead we prefer to say ‘I am a waiter’ and then to adopt the persona of The Waiter in all our social relations. Makes life so much simpler. In reality, the waiter could stand up at any moment, undo his pinafore and step outside, walking into whatever future he wants to create – poet, painter, soldier, runaway. But, like most of us, he is afraid to.

The total freedom of each human being; the burden of the resultant responsibility which gives rise to anguish and panic; taking refuge in role playing/bad faith; and the compelling power of other people’s gaze in moulding and defining us – in just a few pages Martin has not only neatly explained key concepts of Sartre’s philosophy, but related it to the feelings of a confused teenager in the 1970s in a way which makes it accessible to any sympathetic reader.

Martin’s style

And this is the playful, accessible approach Martin then takes for the next three hundred pages, introducing us to the key themes and ideas of Camus and Sartre’s writings, relating them to everyday life, all told in punning, jokily clever prose.

As examples, the short chapter covering the attitude towards drugs of the two writers is titled ‘The Philosophers Stoned’ ha ha. (Sartre experimented with mesacline in his 20s and later became dependent on stimulants and uppers, although drugs only really confirmed the weirdness, the often hallucinatory intensity of his early perceptions; whereas Camus had no illusions about drugs – he married an opium addict and stuck with her till he found she was being unfaithful to him; for the rest of his life he was suspicious of all short cuts to ‘ecstasy’).

Similarly, he riffs on Sartre’s most famous quote – ‘other people are hell’ – when he describes Camus’s very different feel for social solidarity, for whom – ‘other people are health’ boom boom!

Maybe the high point of Martin’s word play comes on page 215 – by which stage Camus and Sartre are established as not only very different types of men and writer, but have become enemies slagging each other off in publications – and Martin produces a sort of aria of allusiveness:

If their dual intellectual trajectory had to be written down in a single letter, it would look like this:

X

Jacques Derrida used to refer to this crossover effect (which is also deferral and aporia) as a ‘chiasmus’ (thinking of the original Greek letter). I am going to stick with the X because I like to think of Sartre and Camus as, if not ‘existentialists’ (a label even Sartre initially refused), then ‘X-men’ – or even ‘ex-men’ – subject to random mutation. Sartre and Camus contain an anti-Camus, an anti-Sartre, and in their opposition to one another they also oppose themselves. The X is an X-ray, illuminating not so much two adversarial individuals as a larger, composite, conflicted consciousness, the ‘universal singular’ (in Sartre’s phrase). X-theory is the meeting, the clash, between existentialism and the absurd. (p. 216)

Quite finished, Mr Martin? No more puns, jokes, high-brow, low-brow or scientific references to x, y or z? Right. We can begin.

Graphomania

What came over strongest for me from reading the book is the way that both men were essentially writers, that’s to say they were addicted to writing, writing anything, first — and the exposition of logical philosophy a long way second. Martin uses their notebooks and diaries and letters to show two men who wrote compulsively about how it feels to be alive, to think, to perceive, to feel, to act, and how these thoughts were continually friable, fissiparous, open to radical reassessment and reworking.

Only snippets and snapshots appeared in print till after their deaths. From their letters and notebooks Martin creates a much more fluid, intensive, insightful, probing, exploratory investigation of their mind-sets than is remotely possible from the isolated bulletins of their published works.

It would be convenient to think of Sartre and Camus’s works of ‘philosophy’ as settled statements of fact, but – alas – Martin highlights how they are more like way stations in a never-ending flow of thought, insights and ideas. It would be nice to think that once you had struggled through the 650 pages of Being and Nothingness you had ‘understood’ Sartre, but unfortunately, the so-and-so went on to develop a ‘late’ philosophy, embodied in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) which differs substantially from the early version.

(The Critique is a sustained and punishing attempt to reconcile ‘the best’ in Marxist thought with Sartre’s earlier existentialism, specifically to reconcile the early idea of man’s indeterminable freedom with the Marxist notion that History has a predetermined course and is hurtling towards the communist revolution. Tricky balancing act, which explains the book’s retreat into impenetrable jargon.).

Similarly, the reader of Camus’ essay on suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), can’t help noticing the change of tone, subject and emphasis between it and his next major essay, his massive demolition of revolutionary thought, The Rebel (1951).

Also, both writers notoriously didn’t just write ‘philosophy’. Camus was first and foremost a novelist, but just as famous for his half dozen plays, for his powerful short stories and – like many French thinkers – for the notebooks or carnets which he tidied up and published throughout his life.

Which is the real Camus?

Sartre was even more prolific and Martin confirms the impression I had from reading his Roads to Freedom trilogy, that Sartre had lifelong graphomania – he just couldn’t stop writing. There’s a story that during his national service in the French army he not only wrote continuously through all his downtime but even wrote standing up while on sentry duty. As well as the numerous big books of philosophy, Sartre wrote long essays about contemporary artists and authors (collected in the sequence of volumes titled Sequences I, II etc), wrote journalism for Camus’s paper, Combat (32 articles from New York), lectured across America and Europe, edited and wrote for his own journal, Les Temps Modernes (est. October 1945), produced his own suite of plays, as well as scribbling away in a series of packed notebooks and diaries, not to mention a huge number of letters to his countless mistresses and lovers.

Moreover, Sartre wanted to be famous. He published details of his love affairs, he gave numerous interviews, he wanted to appear in magazines and newspapers and be interviewed on radio and TV, he encouraged de Beauvoir to write romans à clef about their affairs and relationships, he wanted it all to be out there, he wanted to bombard the world with Sartreana.

And it worked. By 1945 he was famous, by the 1950s he was a superstar.

How much is enough?

For me this appalling profusion of words raises a fundamental question about authors, writers, philosophers and thinkers of all stripes, which is: How do you know when you’ve finished? How many books by Sartre or Camus (or any other author) do you need to read to feel confident that you have understood, grasped and got them?

There’s obviously a spectrum of consumption, from ordinary people who’ve never heard of either of them, ordinary people who’ve heard the names but never read them, people who’ve read magazine or newspaper articles and picked up a hint of what they’re about, people who’ve read simple introductions or bluffer’s guides, people who’ve read one or two of their books and liked (or disliked) them, people who’ve read a few books and maybe studied them at uni, people who are fans and read most of their works, students who have studied aspects of their work in detail, academics who have read most of it and written papers or books about them, all the way through to die-hard scholars who have read and reread everything available and are world experts on them.

Which are you? Which should you aim to be? What is the correct attitude to ‘key twentieth century thinkers’ like this?

Whatever it is, Martin gives a really good, accessible, light-hearted, stylish introduction to the two men, their lives and times and obsessions and theories and ideas and writings, which not only informs but entertains and amuses. Crucially, he joins the dots, he takes themes from the totality of the writings – not just the famous works but the letters and notebooks and diaries, as well as interviews and articles – to embed the famous Penguin paperback works into a really fertile bed of their lives, writings and relationships.

This is a hugely enjoyable and brilliantly informative book.

Sex lives

Let’s get it out of the way, the two men had florid sex lives. Both were professional seducers and womanisers. Camus at one point actually feared he had a sex addiction and wondered about seeking professional help. Sartre knew that he was a selfish, womanising bastard (he writes as much to his lifelong partner in crime, Simone de Beauvoir). They competed to have as many (young) women as possible. They met up and paraded their latest catches in front of each other. They even competed over the same (young) women.

For example, a young American journalist (improbably named Sally Swing) approaches Sartre in a restaurant in Cannes and asks for an interview. Sartre (always charming) agrees and gives her his card, says call me in Paris. She leaves, He turns to the other people at the table and says he is going to seduce and fuck her. And he does (p.143)

‘Fuck’ because Sartre – it emerges – swore like a trooper. His normal speech was littered with effing and blinding. It was part of his rejection of bourgeois norms. Similarly he refused to wash and was filthy dirty. During his time in a barracks in the Phoney War of 1940, the other soldiers forcibly stripped and showered him, his stench was too much even for soldiers.

He was, apparently, a cold fish of a lover. De Beauvoir said so (it was part of their fidelity to truth to always be brutally honest) and so did numerous of the young women he speared. Sartre himself described how he clambering aboard a woman, harshly penetrating and then jigging hurriedly to his climax. Bearing in mind that he rarely washed or cleaned his (yellow, tobacco-stained) teeth, the stench from his crotch, armpits and mouth must have been disgusting. But the young women queued up because he was famous, charming and intensely clever.

As Martin points out, to a large extent, for Sartre, love affairs and even sex, only really existed when he wrote about them in diaries, notes for novels or plays, insights to be included in critical essays, and in the hundreds of letters he wrote to his lovers and the thousands he wrote to de Beauvoir about his lovers  — they were maybe just a pretext for the never-ending writing he was addicted to.

Camus, meanwhile – Mr clean-cut, good-looking Mediterranean Man in contrast to short, ugly, foul-mouthed stinking Sartre – also had numerous lovers, running alongside his two wives. (In America he describes being at Vassar College, dazzled by ‘the army of long-legged starlets, lazing on the lawn’. He has a fling with Patricia Blake, the 19-year-old student tasked with showing him round New York. Par for the course. In the months before his tragic death in a car crash, he was living in a remote village in the south of France with his lover, Mi, a twenty-something Dutch artist. His wife and his twin children came to stay. And in the days before the crash he wrote letters to Blake in New York, to his lover Catherine Sellers in Paris, and to his other lover in Paris, the actor Maria Casares. No wonder he was exhausted. p.278)

But whereas it’s relatively easy to explain/understand why the short ugly Sartre had to continually prove himself with a string of young women, Camus presents (as he does generally) a slightly more puzzling case. It seems he was suspicious of his success with women, of anything which came too easy. In fact, Martin extends the metaphor, he was suspicious of all ejaculations, effusions, ecstasies. He fought a constant battle to rein himself in, restrain his life and moods and writing.

The reverse. In various forms he sought oblivion, an almost oriental idea of self-erasure. His first novel is about an empty man who commits a meaningless murder and is pointlessly hanged for it. His first factual book revolves around suicide. If Sartre is a machine generating endless texts laced with weird mental states, Camus is the hugely restrained reporter of minimal consciousness and bare desert landscapes. Martin quotes Camus’s notebooks to show that not only in his fictions, but in his life and loves, he was always seeking moments of stasis, transcendence.

I’m so glad I persisted in tracking down and reading Camus’s last volume of stories, Exile and the Kingdom, because I think it’s his best book, least troubled by religion and Big Meanings, in which the problematics of existence are given their sparest, most dramatic, most compressed expression. Martin’s account helps bring out how this strange desert mood was central to Camus’s imagination.

The triteness of biography

However, the trouble with reading about writers’ sex lives is they are so samey: boy finds girl, writes love letters, diary entries, finally gets to fuck girl, ecstasy, misunderstandings, they split up, anguished letters/diary entries, boy marries someone else, gets bored, is unfaithful, more anguished letters/diary entries, mistresses, mess, alcoholism. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Albert Camus, Harold Pinter, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis – adultery, alcoholism, suicides. It’s so boring and predictable.

We read writers’ writings because they have an exceptional way with words, language, ideas and feelings which are disturbing, innovative, exciting, which help us escape and transcend the human condition, carry us with it, flying up on wings of words.

I avoid writers’ biographies because they are the extreme opposite, always the same thing: unhappy childhood, precocious schooldays, bright young students, first love affairs, early hope, middle-aged achievement, discontent, affairs, mistresses, unhappiness, alcoholism, decline, death.

Any of the stories in Exile and the kingdom – but especially The Silent Men or The Guest – are worth more than all the facts of Camus’s biography.

Clash of the titans

The twin motives for reading this book were the promise of understanding their philosophies better; but also to read a good account of their famous falling out and enmity. And Martin does not disappoint. The first 200 or so pages paint in the evolution of their writing and thought, against the backdrop of their lives and characters. The final 100 go into some detail about their quarrel.

Camus and Sartre met in 1943. Sartre invited Camus to read through Huis Clos, playing the part of Garcin. They got on like a house on fire and hung round with Sartre’s daemon, Simon de Beauvoir, in Martin’s version flirting with her body and mind, while having numerous affairs with other women, discussing them, sex, politics, novels, plays, everything with each other. Thick as thieves. Camus commissioned Sartre to go to New York as American correspondent for the Resistance newspaper, Combat, which he carried on editing till 1947 (giving rise to a very interesting chapter comparing and contrasting their attitudes to America: Camus loved it; Sartre loathed it).

But, in the later 1940s, as Sartre became keener on communism (though never quite keen enough to join the Party), promoting it through the pages of his quarterly magazine Les Temps Modernes, Camus had his doubts. The newly defined Cold War was forcing people to take sides – and the Parisian intellectual world was overwhelmingly anti-American and pro-communist: Sartre was snugly nestled in the majority view.

But Camus had increasing doubts. The Berlin Blockade (1948-49) and the steady communist seizure of power in all the East European nations which the Soviets had ‘liberated’, crystallised Camus’s dislike, growing slowly into fear, encouraged by friends like the arch anti-communist Arthur Koestler.

It took Camus several years to write his long political essay on the subject of revolution, L’Homme Révolté, which was published in 1951. Martin points out that it refers to now fewer than 166 authors, poets, writers, artists and philosophers (and points out with typical humour that he knows because he counted them himself).

In readings of de Sade, Saint-Just, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and many others, Camus finds the same basic ideal of freedom with no limits, the exorbitant, all-consuming wish for the triumph of extra-human values regardless of others, despite others, over others. In Hegel, Marx and the communist tradition, this Romantic delusion of Total Freedom becomes a fetishised utopia which will be reached at some remote time in the future. In the meantime, through a grotesque perversion, almost any repression, suppression, violence, censorship and inhumanity can be justified in the here and now because – according to the new tyrants, the leaders of the ‘Party’ – only this way can we reach the Promised Land.

L’Homme Révolté starts off slowly (and quite obscurely, with its lengthy discussion of Sade) before building up to a sustained and devastating critique not only of communist theory and practice but, eventually, implicitly, of the practice of philosophy itself, which the book suggests has been on the wrong track for 150 years.

Sartre was personally insulted not only by the anti-communism and the anti-philosophy stance of L’Homme Révolté, but also – as Martin notes, typically bringing out the highly personal nature of everything the dynamic duo wrote – also by the simple fact that he, the leading philosopher of the day, was not mentioned among all those 166 writers! Not once!!

The rest of the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes, Marxists to a man, was also outraged. They commissioned a junior editor in the office to write a hatchet job of L’Homme Révolté. Camus was upset by the review – which took twenty pages to say that he was basically too stupid to understand Hegel or Marx and his opinion was therefore worthless – but just as upset that they gave it to a young unknown; that his ex-bosom buddy J.P. hadn’t considered it worthy of his attention. Camus wrote a long letter restating his case and complaining of his treatment. At which point Sartre rolled up his sleeves and wrote a long editorial explaining that their friendship was over, that Camus misunderstood philosophy, politics and history, that he was yesterday’s man.

Ouch.

Martin describes all this with his trademark grasp not only of the facts and the texts, but with a stylish witty insight into how the men’s philosophies derived from their worldviews which ultimately stemmed from their very different characters and upbringings, summed up in the book’s knowingly tabloid sub-title:

The Boxer and The Goal Keeper: Sartre Versus Camus
They should have been a dream team. It turned into a duel to the death!

The final 30 or 4o pages are riveting because they cover some fascinating topics.

1. Martin explains how Sartre tried to morph the Free Man of the early existentialist philosophy into the Proletarian, the Working Man of Marx’s worldview, who carries the burden of changing the world. Camus, by contrast, withdrew bruised from the L’Homme Révolté debacle, and turned his attention to plays, the wonderful stories of Exile, but was also filling his notebooks with almost mystical questions about life and the universe. It is a revelation to know that he produced a series of haikus about nature. All this nature-feeling was incorporated into the big autobiographical novel he was writing at the time of his death, and which was later published as The First Man.

2. In terms of the Cold War, Sartre managed to criticise the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe while still supporting a vehemently anti-capitalist line, supporting anti-Franco agitators in Spain and anti-colonialists around the world.

3. Separately from the issue of communism in Europe was the rapid spread of anti-colonial movements all around the world. If he had trouble reconciling existentialism with Marxism in  his philosophical works, Sartre had no problem at all translating his communist sympathies into a loud and unflinching anti-colonialism. If Third World nationalists were fighting for independence, Sartre could be guaranteed to write articles, sign petitions and go on marches. Hence his much-photographed meeting with Che Guevara who he fatuously described as ‘not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age’, as if the Cuban revolutionary needed his endorsement.

4. Algeria, of course, was Camus’s Achilles’ heel, and when the Algerians broke their uneasy post-war acquiescence by rising for independence in 1954, Sartre had absolutely no problem giving the violent National Liberation Front his full blessing and condemning all the colonists and France’s entire presence there. He happily wrote an introduction to Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, a blistering attack on colonial racism and repression, supporting Fanon’s proposition that revolutionary violence is not only an option in the struggle for liberation, but vital for the mental health of the oppressed (by erasing the colonial oppressor, the nationalist killer asserts his freedom, dignity and identity, p.281).

For Camus it was a tragedy, since he had grown up among the 80% of the white Algerians who didn’t own limousines and chauffeurs, but themselves lived in abject poverty (the poverty described in his story Les Muets and in the unfinished First Man).

Camus’s attempts to stop the spiral of murder, massacre and torture came over as mealy-mouthed and ineffectual, though surely they are the position most of us liberals would take nowadays.

5. The Nobel Prize, Camus was awarded it (in 1957), Sartre turned it down (in 1964). Martin’s chapter on this is absolutely riveting. Camus hated it, the attention it drew, and the knowledge that his clever enemies in Paris would despise him even more for selling out. He refused to give interviews about it, he tried to back out of attending the ceremony, he felt it was like being ‘buried alive’. By the last few years of his life he wanted to be a recluse in the rural house he bought with the prize money in the south of France.

Sartre, of course, loved the attention, lapped it up, and managed the situation with suavity and aplomb, politely telling the Academy that i) the prize generally went to writers from the west whereas he considered the East should have equal respect as well, that ii) he didn’t believe in a hierarchy in literature, that iii) he didn’t want to become an ‘institution’. Almost as if he had had the letter, and the dignified refusal, prepared for years :).

Later he regretted losing out on the money – quite a sum, 250,000 Swedish kronor – which he airily declared in interviews he would have given to third World nationalist struggles, starting with donations to London-based anti-apartheid organisations.

6. Death. The final chapters are grim, giving a detailed account of Camus’s pointless death in a car crash on a drive back to Paris (his friend, Michel Gallimard was driving the poxy French car, a Facel Vega, on a rainy road at 100 miles per hour when it skidded and hit a tree. He and Camus, in the front, were killed. Gallimard’s wife and daughter, in the back, escaped with scratches.) By contrast, Sartre lived on till 1980, past is heyday, having the baleful experience of becoming an irrelevant back-number. In his last years, totally blind, his mind went – and his final drooling bumbling years are portrayed in unflinching detail by his faithful if brutally honest companion, de Beauvoir.

Wow. What a journey the reader has been on!

T shirts

In the end, Martin returns to his own life, living, working studying in New York, pondering the meaning of Sartre/Camus’s writings. He brings in Barthes and Derrida, Wittgenstein and Bergson, to give us his take on the pair’s relevance and importance, their enduring insights into the great puzzle of the mind-body conflict, the disjunction between the symbolic and the real, the way nothingness is the vital prerequisite for our sense of being, and so on.

Maybe. It’s a view.

But I suspect that the great writers most enduring gift to posterity will be – t-shirts.


Related links

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of books by Albert Camus

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy p.56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

It’s a difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and so quick to put it down to do almost anything else. The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the ‘hero’, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. No heating!! he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Things which affect the ‘hero’ are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t even much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate. For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6, in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger. The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.


The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (just like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of articulacy but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chuck him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding. Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them. The dog eats Murphy’s biscuits while he’s not looking. The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers he spread-eagled face down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so we never find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke. Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’. Was it worth all that effort to decode? Yes, if you like this kind of ‘joke’ and find this kind of ‘humour’ rewarding; no, if you don’t.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, as is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her she is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary. Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’. ROFL. Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven. He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It is gobbledygook for twenty pages.

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron Professor Neary. But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader. I think they all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem, some kind of romantic climax is disappointed for they’re all locked safely back up, though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire game, After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who did it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting it is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham. From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty but almost completely bereft of warmth or humour.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking as usual described in autistic detail and the gas heater he’s rigged up explodes killing him. Oh.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the MMM, Dr Angus Killiecrankie to learn that Murphy is dead and are taken to see his fairly burned corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, geddit?

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way. OK.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she turns a trick. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair and pushes him home.

End.


The style – baroque, elaborate and contrived

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up.

But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of needless pedantry and clumsy, arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

To me this passage demonstrates the way Beckett has little or nothing to say, but goes on to say it at great length, and with as much circumlocutionary periphrasis as possible. In particular, the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction. (This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements will become central to the plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists’ becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle. This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And also explains that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, a sort of joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more implicitly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world in contrast. This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours. It is intellectual snobbery, pure and simple.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence, all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Did you roll on the floor laughing? Were there mega-lolz for you? I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the misfortune to go through a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny?

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour?

The modern introduction by a Beckett scholar talks breezily about it being a great comic novel but doesn’t give any examples. Is there comedy in the sustained mock heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing? But is it – could it possibly be taken as – funny?

Neary arrived the following morning. Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is one if not the central question in reading Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’ Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated impoverished unpublished would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. Beckett made £20 out of it – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it? It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he’s abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he will arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language. As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

Astride the grave

Maybe. Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones. Hilarious, right? Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead its flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter this artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going I read chapter 9, the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of it seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien. (It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.) Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘the Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

It turns out that the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be.

The early scenes of being pointless in London are revealed for the shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended. The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’. Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book. Fine. But this contrivance doesn’t give structure or even meaning to the narrative, it is simply a net laid on top of it.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in the Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities. Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss. For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch. Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing. In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that the exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

Maybe this was boundary-pushing stuff in 1938. Not so much in the era of 50 Shades of Grey.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that periodically phrases pop out which anticipate the repetitive and monocular vision of the plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)… So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Right here, buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

  • First Love (1946)
  • The Expelled (1946)
  • The Calmative (1946)
  • The End (1946)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Dies (1951)
  • The Unnamable (1953)
  • Watt (1953)

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

Camus by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970)

O’Brien (1917-2008) was Irish and had a long and varied career alternating between politics (Irish Foreign Office, United Nations, MP), journalism (editor-in-chief of the London Observer) and teaching (at universities in Ghana and New York). So he was well-placed to give an all-round assessment of Camus’s role as a novelist, playwright and above all, politically engaged writer and intellectual, 10 years after the Frenchman’s tragic death.

Only when I’d finished it did I understand the blurbs on the back of the book which point out that the entire study is written to a thesis, with a particular political interpretation in mind.

The Arab problem O’Brien starts by briskly outlining Camus’s biography and then gets on with ruffling feathers and questioning received opinion. He quotes a French writer on Camus who claims that all the working class inhabitants of the slum where Camus grew up were happily inter-racial. No, they weren’t says O’Brien; that kind of community is always troubled and there is evidence of outbreaks of unrest throughout Camus’s life.

O’Brien quotes some of Camus’s earliest essays which already make generalisations about Mediterranean Man, invoking images of Greek temples and so on. Absolutely nowhere in these portraits of his homeland does he mention mosques, muezzin, nowhere in any of his fictions is Arabic spoken. (Arabic was, in fact, banned in Algeria’s French-controlled schools.) Just a few pages into his study, O’Brien claims that, regardless of his conscious intentions, throughout his career Camus’s concept of ‘Mediterranean culture’ – by completely erasing Arab culture – served to legitimise French colonialism.

The Outsider (1940) Tough attitude, eh? O’Brien takes it on into his reading of L’Etranger. Here he points out that the account of Mersault’s trial is misleading. a) Mersault’s defence lawyer would have shown that he was defending himself against an Arab who had drawn a knife and had already attacked his friend, Raymond. Chances are a French court would only have charged him with manslaughter and possibly let him off altogether. No way it would have condemned him to death for self-defence against an Arab. b) The entire trial subtly implies that Frenchman and Arab had identical legal and civil rights in French Algeria, but they didn’t.

By gliding over this basic fact, the entire novel softens and conceals the harshness of French rule. This partly explains why the entire second part, devoted to the improbable trial and a schematic encounter with the prison priest, although its central to the plot, is less well remembered than the first half, set in the streets of Algiers, the beach, the desert heat.

O’Brien voices the misgivings I myself had on recently rereading L’Etranger, that the killing of the Arab is not really real. It is for his entire detachment from society that we feel Mersault is convicted – and this mood of rebellious detachment appeals now as it did then to adolescent minds everywhere. But no longer being a troubled adolescent, for me what stood out was the way the Arab has no name, never speaks and goes completely unlamented.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) O’Brien suggests this long essay is less a work of philosophy than the soliloquy of an artist meditating on suicide and death. He questions the novelty or viability of Camus’s notion of ‘revolt’, claiming that the post-God stance was the common currency of the time, and that every nation had rebelled against the Nazi occupation. O’Brien says that nonetheless the book had a big imapct on him and  his contemporaries because of its vivid affirmations of life in the face of death and despair.

The Plague (1947) O’Brien says The Plague is a masterpiece but it is not a novel; it is an ‘allegorical sermon’, and quotes Camus who himself referred to it as ‘a tract’.

O’Brien points out its flaws. For a start, Camus was apparently influenced by a recent article of Sartre’s on bourgeois fiction, to drop the notion of an omnipotent narrator. Apparently this explains why there is a fallible ‘Narrator’ who makes a fuss explaining how he has collated other documents, including Tarrou’s diary, to create his text, but this subterfuge is a) not consistently carried through – it ought to have had more newspaper reports or other sources to give it a real documentary feel b) is clumsily undermined when the text reveals at the end that ‘the Narrator’ is none other than Dr Rieux – who has been its central character! Puzzling and unsatisfactory.

But O’Brien goes, once again, for its most striking feature – the complete absence of the Arabs who, of course, made up eight-ninths of the population of Oran, the supposedly Algerian city where the plague breaks out.

O’Brien suggests they have to be erased from the narrative if it wants to be an allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France; for that allegory to work the chosen city must be a purely French city; the presence of Arabs complicates the allegory, in fact would ruin it, because you would have an oppressed population within the oppressed population. But O’Brien speculates that Camus might also have been aware of a more subversive interpretation of his allegory: that it was the French in Algeria who were the plague, the violent conquerors of the free Arabs.

By now O’Brien’s tone is scathing. He refers to the erasure of Arabs from the novel as ‘an artistic final solution to the problem of the Arabs’ – and points out how breath-takingly hypocritical it is that this genocide of the imagination takes place in a book stuffed so full of worthy characters calling for ‘total honesty’ about describing their situation; in a book whose central message is honesty and integrity in the face of the world’s injustice. Ha!

The Rebel (1951) O’Brien concentrates on the political message of The Rebel, specifically its anti-communism, using it as a focus to trace the slowly increasing vehemence of Camus’s anti-communism from the ambivalence of the Resistance days, to his final speeches and essays.

Argument with Sartre (1951) Camus’s attitude to communism was the crux of the break with Sartre when a journalist reviewed The Rebel unfavourably in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes. O’Brien, surprisingly, takes Sartre’s side by suggesting it needed more integrity to stand up to the immense weight of anti-communist feeling at the time, much of which was stoked up by CIA-funded publications and journalists. Sartre never joined the communist party but for writing in general terms about revolution he was subjected to lots of criticism. Via the same agents of cultural control, Camus found himself being championed as an exponent of liberal democracy and freedom (which he largely was, but with the vulnerabilities O’Brien is pointing out).

Colonialism O’Brien thinks the mounting vehemence of Camus’s hatred of communism and the historical/philosophical arguments he put forward in The Rebel to argue that communist regimes were uniquely, and inevitably, evil and repressive – masked a very bad conscience about the equally inevitable violence and repression of the French Empire, which had started as soon as the World War ended with violent suppression of independence movements in Algeria and Indo-China, to name the two biggest.

Exile and the Kingdom (1957) O’Brien dates these six short stories to just before the Algerian war broke out. Interestingly, O’Brien sees La Femme adultère and Le Renégat as a diptych contrasting heaven and hell. In the first a bored ignored wife has a mystical experience under the stars of the Algerian night sky; the latter is the demented monologue of a Christian missionary to native tribes who has had his tongue ripped out and been reduced to madness.

O’Brien notices how all the stories, even the realistic one about workers at a small workshop in Algiers who go on strike – have a dream-like quality. Everything he wrote, no matter how brutally realistic, was pulled towards a kind of allegorical abstractness.

Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) In 1958 Camus published an entire collection devoted to bringing together all his writings on Algeria, O’Brien is correct to describe them as ‘depressing’. I have just read those of them which Camus selected to be included in his selection of journalism, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961). What’s depressing is their growing irrelevance, which is matched by a steady escalation of high-minded sentiment.

O’Brien catches this in a neat formulation, when he describes them as ‘categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.’ Yes, it’s the categorical style of all Camus’s factual writing which I find so wearing, the sense that every sentence is pointing out important distinctions and subtleties in what are, in actual fact, a depressingly narrow range of ideas – freedom, oppression, death, life, suicide, freedom, death, rebellion, freedom. Round and round like hamsters in a cage.

The Algerian War of Independence broke out with attacks on French military and civilians on 1 November (All Saints Day) 1954. After a year of escalating massacres and political deadlock, in January 1956 Camus went in person to Algeria and held a public meeting at which he presented his one contribution, the idea of a ‘truce for civilians’ which both sides could abide by. (The speech is reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.) He was barracked by the Europeans and ignored by the Muslims and the meeting broke up in disarray. He wrote numerous articles and interviews, but that was his one and only public intervention. His suggestion sank like a stone. The massacres continued for another six years, spreading to mainland France and leading to the widespread use of torture, before the French eventually conceded defeat and granted Algeria independence on 5 July 1962.

O’Brien is cutting. The Algerian war fatally undermined Camus’s position.

  • In his articles Camus was always careful to balance both sides. This sounds fair but what it really means is that he can’t bring himself to come out and state the fact that the entire disaster is the result of French colonialism, government incompetence, cultural arrogance, and systematic repression (rather like the defeat of France in 1940 – almost like there’s some kind of pattern).
  • Camus consistently ruled out any negotiation with the Front de Libération Nationale (the FLN, the leaders of the Algerian revolt), insisting that: 1. Algeria be restored to peace before 2. discussions with moderate Arab representatives could take place, but 3. Algeria could never be given independence because of its economic and social backwardness. But Camus’s central positions – no negotiation with the FLN, no independence – echoed and in effect supported the main French government policy and the military strategy which, with horrible inevitability, led on to the torture and massacres, and to the rise of the French terrorist organisation, OLS, which would end up trying to assassinate the president and organise a military coup in France. It was a complete dead end.

The volume of essays, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, counterpoints the writings on Algeria and his trip there in 1956, with Camus’s two long pieces about the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet control which took place on October-November of the same year. O’Brien dwells on the way Camus really goes to town on the evil repression of the Hungarian Uprising, and repeats in summary form the argument of The Rebel that communism is somehow uniquely and especially inhumane and violent. Camus tries here (as everywhere in his later writings) to be balance the two sides in the Cold War, to talk about two poles of repression. He goes out of his way to mention that the West, too, practices its oppressions and injustices, but he doesn’t even mention the stupid fiasco of Suez (another great triumph for French strategy and arms) and nowhere gives any sense that Western imperial repression was perceived as just as total and unjust as he thinks communist oppression. He can’t escape his Eurocentric point of view.

For O’Brien, although Camus continued for the last few years of his life with his ‘categorical and resonant’ defences of freedom, in practice he was now a right-wing apologist for the colonialist French government.

The Fall (1956) Camus’s third and final novel began life as a short story for the Exile and the Kingdom  volume. Like many of those stories it has a strong dreamlike quality, what with its fairy tale setting in a foggy, allegorical Amsterdam.

O’Brien brings out the centrality of Christian themes and imagery in this story of a successful society lawyer who loses his confidence, who comes to realise he is a fraud, who undergoes voluntary exile in Amsterdam and can only find release (like the Ancient Mariner) by buttonholing strangers and telling them his strange confession. (Having aligned Camus with the French colonialist government and now emphasising the essentially religious nature of his imaginative vision, for a moment I thought O’Brien might go on to predict that, given another 20 years, Camus might have turned into a crusty, right-wing French chauvinist and Catholic. But no.)

O’Brien says that, in contrast to the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom which are (mostly) hard and unrelenting, The Fall involves a return to irony, pleasure, mystery – the positive and enjoyable qualities of his two earlier novels. He has an interesting reason for this. He speculates it’s because the short stories – especially The Guest – dramatise Camus’s excruciating in the early 1950s, caught between two cultures and two irreconcilable armed camps. Whereas, by the time of The Fall a year or so later, Camus has to some extent reconciled himself to his position as an outsider from both sides.

Thus the Amsterdam of the novel is not only, in thematic terms, the anti-Algeria: foggy and wet to Algeria’s blazing sunshine. Its political significance derives from the narrator of The Fall‘s insistence that it is also like the Limbo of the theologians, neither heaven nor hell, a place outside time, a dream-place where one man sits condemned to tell his story over and again. It is the corner into which Camus has painted himself.

Conclusion

O’Brien heads towards the thundering conclusion that Camus’s political position was flawed and wrong. O’Brien believes that Sartre was right and if Camus had allied himself more equivocally with the Sartre group in criticising Western imperialism, much trouble in both Algeria, and then Vietnam, might have been avoided.

He seriously undermines the idea of Camus as some kind of secular saint, a hero of free speech and humanism. Instead, he sees Camus as the most representative voice of Western consciousness and conscience of his era, not because he was a great liberal, but because he had a crippled, fatal relationship to the colonised Third World.

Trying to do the right thing but according to an entirely Eurocentric set of values, incapable of understanding the rights and demands of the colonial peoples, putting up one impractical idea after another while all the while, in effect, acquiescing in the repressive policies of his government – and finally forced into a humiliating silence – he is the representatively troubled intellectual of the Great Decolonising Era, of the end of the European empires.

This is all brought out much more clearly in the title the book was given in America – Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. It is a grimly tragic view of the man and his stance, but I find it very persuasive, having myself noted the elimination of the Arab presence in his novels, the vehement anti-communism of The Rebel and the surprising presence of Christian themes and ideas throughout his work.

And it isn’t all negative. O’Brien also pays reverence to the strengths of his three flawed but haunting novels and, in particular, his deeply political interpretation of the man and his times lends a new depth and resonance to the short but haunting masterpiece, La Chute.


Credit

Camus (Modern Masters) by Conor Cruise O’Brien was published as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970. All quotes & references are to the 1976 paperback edition (which cost me 65p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle for France

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

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

Essays from The Myth of Sisyphus

The Penguin paperback edition of The Myth of Sisyphus is padded out with five essays which span Camus’s writing career. These are much shorter than Sisyphus and give free rein to Camus’s taste for sensual impressionism laced with philosophising.

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 the value of art.

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 late Camus who is remembered as not only an enlightened exponent of liberal humanism but as a passionate poet of the landscape of his boyhood and youth, who brings a unique ability to combine abstract ideas with sensual imagery.

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 hears 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

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940 and the year 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 this ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s 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 a 1945 interview where he pointed out 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 compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument – an entertaining flow of ideas will suffice.

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 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 sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus is 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 metaphor 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 for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus 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, with 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. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

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 mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

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 cafés 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 around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even 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 before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

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 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 deep 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, even 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 metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

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. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

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.

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)

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.

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 by Camus 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 understood the idea of 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 up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. Absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

He suggests that 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 outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim 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.

Very few people followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ 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. There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

At the climax of the book, the last few pages describing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the book gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

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

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

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