Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944)

There’s a whole nest of pitfalls that we can’t see. Everything here’s a booby-trap… (p.30)

Sartre’s most famous play is just one act and forty pages long. A man is ushered by a perfunctory ‘valet’ into a closed room, tastefully decorated with Second Empire furnishings. Shortly afterwards the valet ushers two more guests in, both women. The door is locked behind them. Polite and embarrassed, slowly the trio realise that they have died and are in hell.

Hesitantly, they reveal their stories.

The characters

Joseph Garcin is a man’s man, big and burly, a journalist in Brazil, who wrote for a pacifist newspaper. He was a brute to his wife, reeling home smelling of wine and women. One time he brought home a girlfriend and made love to her deliberately loudly so that his wife (in the spare bedroom) could hear them. Next morning he had his wife bring them coffee in bed. When war came and he was called up, Garcin fled to Mexico to evade conscription but was caught, brought back, and shot by firing squad for cowardice.

Inèz Serrano is a lesbian. She is arch and manipulative. She admits she seduced a woman (Florence) away from her husband, turning her against him. He was killed in a tram accident and the wife felt so guilty she gassed herself and Inèz in their sleep. ‘I can’t get on without making people suffer’ (p.26).

Estelle Rigault is posh and dim. She married a man three times her age for his money, but then had an affair with a man her own age, Roger. He got her pregnant and she could afford to go on an extended holiday to a hotel in Switzerland to sit out the pregnancy and birth. After she’d borne the child, with her lover watching, she attached the baby to a stone in a pillow and threw it into the lake to drown. Appalled, her lover committed suicide.

The play

So the fun, the entertainment, the interest of the play is how these three characters set about torturing each other, slowly, one by one, forced to relinquish any hopes that their time together might be bearable or redeemable, slowly coming to the awful conclusion that l’enfer, c’est les autres = hell, it’s other people.

Having just read Andy Martins’ book about Sartre. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper, I now know that Sartre thought there were only two ways for humans to relate to each other, as sadists or masochists; and that he confessed to having a sadistic attitude towards his fictional creations. It shows. Over the hour and a bit of the play they combine every possible way of irritating, upsetting and flaying each other, emotionally.

The play can very easily, then, be seen as an example of the Theatre of Cruelty which was popular after the war.

For example, towards the end shallow Estelle offers herself sexually to Garcin: she is only real when she has ensnared a man. This plays to Garcin’s sense of himself as a manly man but he discovers he can’t do it, get it up, unless Estelle really genuinely tells him that she respects him. He needs this because he has become – over the course of the hour – increasingly filled with self-loathing and self-doubt caused by reflecting on his cowardice. But neither of them can really rise to the occasion because it is taking place in front of Inèz, with her sharp tongue and cutting comments. Inèz, by virtue of her lesbianism, is revolted by big hairy Garcin – but can’t have Estelle, who she is strongly attracted to, because she is a dippy dolly bird who only fancies rough tough men.

Ensnared in a cobweb. Caught in a net. If any of them moves the other two are yanked along into further depths of mutual contempt and hatred. It is a terrifying triangle of eternal frustration and torment.

Thoughts

Or at least, it is if you’re French. From Racine in the 1660s, to Les Liaison Dangereuses in the 1780s, to Zola in the 1890s, the French take love, love affairs, affairs of the heart, with a staggering, baroque and ornate seriousness. Setting his play with rather dull modern-day characters is a Sartrean joke on this Grand Tradition but the seriousness with which they take their silly emotions is unmistakably French.

No longer a troubled teenager, and cursed by being English, I wasn’t remotely moved by Huis Clos, I was interested in details and themes.

Catholicism For example, it tends to confirm what I’d observed from Sartre’s novels, that his entire worldview only makes sense against the enormous backdrop of Roman Catholicism. You can only feel abandoned in a godless universe, if you at any time felt at home in a god-filled universe i.e. if you were a believer. Both Camus and Sartre only make sense as rebels against a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. But we Protestant English lack that intense religious background and so miss the intensity of the rebellion against it.

The gaze A more specifically Sartrean trope is the important of ‘the gaze’ and ‘the look’. Again, from the Martin book I know that Sartre was hyper-self-conscious from an early age of his appalling ugliness. Thus the act of looking is central in his fiction and his philosophy. People are engaged in an endless warfare of looking. To some extent people behave as they do because other people are watching: they want to conform to the watchers’ expectations or defy them but they can’t ignore them.

In another way, people watch and observe themselves acting and behaving, especially if there are mirrors around. So, in Huis Clos Estelle needs mirrors to reassure herself that she exists: she has six big mirrors in her house. But here, in the well-furnished room, there are no mirrors at all, not even hand mirrors. In a particular sequence she goes to put her lipstick on but has no way to see her reflection and so has to trust Inèz to tell her she’s doing it correctly. Except that half way through Inèz cruelly asks, what if I’m deceiving you? What if I’m deliberately making you look stupid? Which makes Estelle distraught but also clarifies how horrible life is going to be in hell where she will never be able to see herself. Already she feels herself, somehow, fading away…

[Estelle] When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself to make sure, but it doesn’t help much… When I talked to people I always made sure there was [a mirror] nearby in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as others saw me… (p.19)

And then again, people control and intimidate others through their gaze, as Inèz spitefully promises to watch Garcin wherever he goes, whatever he does:

[Inèz] Very well, have it your own way. I’m the weaker party, one against two. But don’t forget I’m here, and watching. I shan’t take my eyes off you, Garcin; when you’re kissing her, you’ll feel them boring into you…

In an interesting twist, that isn’t much reported in the summaries of the play I’ve read, all three characters can continue, for a while at least, to see how their partners and colleagues are continuing to live back on earth. Thus Estelle sees the mourners walking away from her funeral, while Garcin has a particularly vivid vision of all his colleagues at the newspaper lolling around and discussing what a coward he was. This makes him all the more want Estelle to SEE him, to bring him to the present with her gaze, to rescue from his inner consciousness with the power of her look.

[Garcin] Come here, Estelle. Look at me. I want to feel someone looking at me while they’re talking about me on earth… (p.38)

Women as slimy It’s a small detail, really, but having read the four novels of The Roads to Freedom involved reading lots of descriptions of slime and mucus and vomit. Sartre wants to debunk the smoothness of the traditional ‘bourgeois’ novel by including lots of bodily functions, but also just likes being revolting. So it’s a small but telltale moment when Garcin, in despair, makes for the bell by the door (which doesn’t work), Estelle goes to hug him and tell him everything’s OK, and Garcin pushes her away with:

[Garcin] Go away. You’re even fouler than she. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh! Like an octopus. Like a quagmire. (p.41)

Andy Martin, in his book on Camus and Sartre, says the threatening symbol of the octopus appears in a number of Sartre’s writings as the terrifying threat of being sucked in, absorbed and digested by other life forms, part of Sartre’s ‘biophobic tendency’. Like the tree whose boley roots almost give Roquentin a nervous breakdown in Nausea. Like women who threaten to drown and swallow men in their gloop.

The BBC TV adaptation

In which the staggering thing, almost impossible to overcome, is the breath-taking poshness of the actors, in particular the ludicrously upper-class voice of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, here playing Garcin. To some extent many of the moments, the phrasing, the thoughts and the similes only really make sense when voiced by essentially very restrained middle-class characters. My kids watch Breaking Bad and The Wire. I showed them a snippet of this and they fell about laughing.

Academics have to continue solemnly judging that this kind of thing is ‘a searing tragedy of the human condition’ and so on – while the rest of us, who live in normal-people-land, can actually relax and admit that the whole thing is pompously ridiculous.


Credit

Huis Clos was first performed in Paris in May 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outcome

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

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

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

Crime and punishment

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

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

Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The translation

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

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

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

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

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

Algeria

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Caligula by Albert Camus (1938)

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

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

Theatre of ideas

Theatre in France has always been more philosophical and intense than in England. The tragedies of Jean Racine (1639-1699) have a purity and a terror with no match in English literature.

Like much modern French theatre, Caligula is a play of ideas, or maybe of one idea, in which the characters mostly exist as types or foils for the psychological and philosophical debate.

The character of Caligula

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was the third emperor of the Roman Emperor. ‘Caligula’ means ‘little boots’ and was a nickname given him by Roman soldiers when he was on campaign as a boy.

Caligula succeeded his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Tiberius, in 37 AD. For the first eight months of his reign he ruled wisely. But after his sister, Drusilla, died in 38, the 24-year-old Caligula abruptly changed character, becoming, in the words of the Roman historian, Suetonius, ‘a monster’. He instituted a reign of terror, having leading patricians murdered, their sons killed and their daughters forced to work in public brothels.

So much for the historical record. In Camus’s hands Caligula becomes a demented philosopher-emperor who takes most of the leading philosophical themes of Camus’s time and pushes them to extremes. He seeks:

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

but in seeking it, time after time reveals the absurdity at the core of human hopes and ambitions.

Take the theme of freedom – Caligula realises that, by having complete power over every human in the Roman Empire, he has in effect become ‘the only free man in the world’.

Or the idea of ‘power’ – for Caligula the only point of having power is to abuse it i.e. to have the power to use power senselessly and in the face of all rational limits or protest.

Or take Camus’s central preoccupation of the 1930s, the Absurd. By carrying his wishes to their logical conclusion, Caligula demonstrates at some points the absurdity of human wishes; at others, the absurdity of having wishes which the real world cannot deliver. Right at the start of the play he says he wants the moon, he wants to possess the moon, why can’t he have the moon? — establishing the absurdity of his romantic longings, the impossibility of his desires.

So the play isn’t much concerned with character, let alone incidental touches of humanity or humour. Everyone talks as if they’ve just swallowed a philosophy textbook, and almost everything Caligula says seems designed to be quoted in a textbook about existentialism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only variation from the sweeping generalisations about life and the universe, fate and freedom, is when Caligula’s soliloquies rise to a pitch of hysteria reminiscent of Racine’s tragedies:

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

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

Not many laughs here (although Caligula’s cynical brutality occasionally amuses him). Instead the play sustains an exhausting tone of continuous hysteria, reflecting the subject matter.

Structure of the play

The play doesn’t so much have a plot as consists of a sequence of scenes each one designed to give examples of Caligula’s insanity i.e. his realisation that he can do anything he wishes. Thus we have scenes where he humiliates the patricians (the ruling class of Rome) who live in a constant state of terror; he forces them to invite him to dinner, forces them to let him sleep with their wives. If he feels like it he has their sense murdered, and, when he’s bored, he has them poisoned or executed on a whim.

For Caligula, with absurdist logic, points out that, since all men must die, it is only a question of when not if and therefore it doesn’t much matter whether it’s now, or tomorrow, or in ten years’ time.

This is an example of him pushing human logic right to its limits and exposing its absurd consequences. But it is also – when you step away from the play and ponder his speeches and actions along these lines – very immature. Sure, all men must die. But that makes life all the more precious, all the more worth saving, all the more worth living well. To point out that all men must die and then burst into tears about it or howl against the injustice of fate are both essentially immature, almost childish, responses.

The message of Shakespeare’s tragedies – that it’s the readiness, the ripeness, the preparedness to die, without hysteria or melodrama, which counts – is the philosophy of a much more worldly-wise and mature man.

Camus, born in 1913, was only 25 when the first draft was completed, much the same age as Caligula, who achieved all the mayhem which made him notorious for all time, before he was finally assassinated by his own bodyguard at the age of 28.

The play’s climax

Having tortured, executed, debauched and manipulated as many men and women as he can, Caligula discovers that the Total Freedom he sought is empty, brings him no joy or release.

And so, when he discovers there is a plot to kill him, he carries his Absurdist logic – his repeated theme that life is meaningless – to its logical conclusion and chooses to ignore it.

Right at the very end of the play he murders Caesonia, the only women who ever loved him, strangling her despite her pleas of love, and then allows himself to be stabbed to death by the conspirators.

Assessment

The play works examines, dramatises and takes to the limit the absurdist logic inherent in the figure of ‘the tyrant’ – the human who has complete power of life and death over everyone else in his society.

Assessing the play amounts to assessing whether the dramatisation, the showing-forth of Caligula’s madness in the series of short scenes which Camus has assembled, is adequate to the theme.

Well, there’s no doubting that many of the scenes are powerful – there is no shortage of cynical cruelty and occasional black humour but – despite much intense melodrama – the play is actually not very dramatic.

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

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

There are no reversals or surprises, Caligula just sets out on a quest to become a monster – and succeeds. He starts off spouting high romantic ambitions to conquer the moon and outface fate and achieve his freedom, and the play never departs from this high, airless, often hysterical tone.

Which makes it all the more surprising to learn that Caligula was a great success when first staged in 1945 with the 20 year-old actor Gérard Philipe making his name in the title role.

The success or failure of plays is much more complex than poems or novels. It is dependent on innumerable contingent factors like the staging, costumes, lighting, music, on the ability of the actors, and, above all, on whether the production captures the often intangible spirit of the times.

Theatrical history is littered with plays which were smash-hit sell-outs in one season or year and which, only a few years later, seemed dated, badly made, creakily plotted or over-written, their one-time success now inexplicable.

Philipe was a talented new face, that probably helped, theatre has its own fashions and rising stars. But it also seems reasonable to guess that the play’s absurdity matched the post-war mood, as people tried to rebuild lives (and cities and countries) devastated by years of was, and as the broader culture caught up with the mood of black nihilism unleashed by the terrible revelation of the Nazi death camps, and almost immediately afterwards the revelation that humanity had created new, atomic weapons which could potentially wipe us off the face of the earth. Not to mention, of course, the lingering memory of the last days of the Nazi regime and the mad rantings of the megalomaniac at the heart of it.

All these factors maybe explain why what appears to us, now, 70 years later, such an extended exercise in shrill adolescent hysteria, at the time perfectly caught the mood of a culture and a continent in ruins.


Credit

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

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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, 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 suicide as the apparently ‘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 quite a long time to finally getting round to saying this. In reading Camus 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, unlike the philosopher, the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument. He can be quite content with an entertaining flow of ideas.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big philosophical 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 flowery 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’.

Thus Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments, a point he makes repeatedly himself:

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 has a reputation for being clear and lucid, but this book 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 feels 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 (aptly 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 from this point I became alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was, after all, 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, paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive too 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 chiming of this word 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 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 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 of a traditional moralist, whose text is just the glue which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, these jewels being 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 to 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. In fact all of us know that absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish which Camus describes aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

My son 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 crushing 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 at the time 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.

The last few pages of the book describe the Greek myth of Sisyphus and the text 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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