Nov 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Albert Camus

Very early on in my philosophical formation -- long before I had any idea that I might study, let alone go on to become a professor in that field -- I first encountered the work of Albert Camus, in the form of a paperback, The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays.  I had just started high school, and we were on one of our many visits from Wisconsin, where my mother and father had settled in the family's exodus out of Chicago, gone down I-65 into rural Indiana, where my grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles had built the complex of little pre-fab Wausau  houses, facing each other on a common driveway, two of them connected in their basements by a cinderblock garage -- a time and place of sand and sun, snow and wood-burning stoves, oaks and sandburrs, trails, freedom, work, card games and quiet affection that to me, in my childhood was perhaps an image of what paradise could be.  My uncle Aime lived there, in a room partitioned off from the rest of his parents' basement, and I would visit with him in that room where he slept, listened to and reflected on radio programs, and read the books stacked in neat piles, but at casual angles and locations. 

Camus' volume held the top place that day on one of the stacks.  I recognized the name Sisyphus from my readings in Greek mythology, so I picked it up to page through it.  Seeing my interest in it, Aime told me it was worth reading, and asked me if I wanted to take it, so I did, and tried to puzzle my way through the not-entirely-for-beginners prose in the main essay.  Trying to remember back to that time, I can't be sure I really understood much of what now, nearly thirty years later, seems clear enough that I've recently shot several video lectures (one, two, and three) discussing the work.  What I recall is being struck by the boldness of Camus' formulations, an enjoyment arising from turning over the paradoxical phrases, and the feeling that if I just dug at it tenaciously enough, I'd come away from reading equipped with something novel, exciting, something I could integrate within my own life and developing thought.  For me, its fitting that, in celebration of his birthday, I focus mainly on that early work in which I first encountered his intransigent thought, his resolve to live "without appeal."


Several Remarks about His Other Writings


I will say a few things about several other Camusian works, however, since there are some aspects of his thought, life, and character that might be all too easily ignored if one restricts one's view solely to The Myth of Sisyphus, or to its companion piece, his early novel, The Stranger.  As a side note, all too often, that story provides a first introduction, a rather misleading one, to Camus' philosophical approach and commitments.  It is certainly an absurdist novel, not only in its narrative, but in the very motivations (or lack thereof) of its main character, Meursault, the framing of the speeches made by him and the other characters, the irrational rationality of the procedures and projects, even the descriptive decisions  made by the author.  But, Mersault is not a stand-in for Camus, nor is he even a particularly good representative of the kind of ethics, one of life lived resolutely and resiting temptation in the absurd, sketched in the Myth of Sisyphus.

Let me just make two shifts of direction before returning to that early philosophical exploration, two lurches along different vectors, because these add some acknowledgement of the complexity of Camus.  they touch on dimensions, lacking which, I have no doubt that I would find him much less attractive, sympathetic, interesting.  The first of these takes us into Camus' future, which is in fact our past, just not as far back as the 1930s and early 40s of  The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger -- really about five to ten years distance.

The two works that I would actually count as Camus' finest, his masterpieces, comprise, you might say, a set of companion pieces to the early essay and novel -- another, longer novel, The Plague (published in 1947) -- and another, longer philosophical study, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (in 1951). Though the same artistry, craftsmanship of thought and phrase, the same intense striving after lucidity is equally exhibited in the early and the later works, a greater depth, somberness, complexity sounds through them -- a set of qualities stemming from the centrality accorded to one's response to, one's engagement with other people.  It is not as if there is a shift away from fidelity to the self and its quest for a lived truth, but something like values of decency and solidarity, care, concern, and empathy now come to the fore as integral to that truth for certain characters of the Plague.  The Rebel, for its part, explores possibilities and dead ends of revolt, but revolt in the face of the insupportable, affronts to one's own dignity, and in that process, the dignity of others, which is then put up at risk by the logic unrolled in one's own response.

If we go back closer in time to The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus, to the bittersweet Letters to a German Friend, Camus starts by discussing love, the difference between him and his German, Nazified one-time friend and their love of their respective countries.  He quickly ranges over other themes:  the rigorous demands of justice, temptations that had to be overcome, the prices paid to steel oneself to fight, kill, die, but retain one's humanity, the power of truth -- but throughout these letters the undertheme of love, of care, of affection continues on, painfully, plaintively -- in passages such as these:

You speak of Europe, but the difference is that for you Europe is a property, whereas we feel that we belong to it. . . That is not the right kind of love.  This land on which so many centuries have left their mark is merely an obligatory retreat for you, whereas it has always been our dearest hope. . . . 
You say Europe, but you think in terms of potential soldiers, granaries, industries brought to heel, intelligence under control. . . but for us Europe is a home of the spirit where for the last twenty centuries the most amazing adventure of the human spirit has been going on. . . 
Sometimes on a street corner, in the brief interval of the long struggle that involves us all, I happen to think of all those place in Europe I know well.  It is a magnificent land molded by suffering and history. . .
Among the instances Camus describes  --  lovingly -- as the letter goes on, figure pilgrimages and churches with whose religion he does not identify, against whose God he sets himself in revolt, and yet whose homely beauty, whose worth for saving, moves him.  There is a sort of toughened tenderness to the Algerian philosopher and writer, a hidden, almost theologically infused dimension of charity which occasionally flashes forth among all the other themes, the sketches, the insights jotted down in his Notebooks.


Coming to Grips with the Absurd

I don't think anyone will say those sorts of things about The Myth of Sisyphus.  There's something quite different about a work which announces to us that:
The absurd man thus 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.
There's no internal or absolute necessity that the absurd man -- the one who recognizes absurdity and who chooses not only to acknowledge, but to resist the temptation to escape it, to leap out of the absurd into some kind of meaning or transcendence -- be a solitary, others making less than what can be called full impressions upon him, but that is simply how Camus does depict him in The Myth of Sisyphus.

As a side-note, although it is quite legitimate in my view to locate Camus within the Existentialist movement, or, if you prefer this metaphor, somewhere along its spectra, he himself not only does not use that term to describe himself or his own philosophy -- preferring at this point to articulate his stance in terms of the absurd -- he actually criticizes very explicitly at at considerable length authors who he terms "Existentialists," taking aim particularly at Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Lev Shestov, and Karl Jaspers.  In his view, these are thinkers who do grasp, who realize, who are deeply troubled by the absurd, but then who choose to make some sort of irrational "leap" away from the absurd, turning it into transcendence or God.  Interestingly, he touches on Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche  (and mentions Sartre, but not by name) briefly in the essay, and in an appendix to it, he treats Franz Kafka's novels fairly favorably.  So, there's more to be said about Camus as an existentialist -- but not here.

Back to the key idea of the absurd, however.  How do we end up experiencing the absurd?  Camus sets out multiple, even myriad ways.
At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man n the face. As it is, in its distressing nudity, in its light without effulgence, it is elusive. But that very difficulty deserves reflection.
Absurdity is an experience, an affective mood, a feeling, one which can remake or even undo the world:
Great feelings take with them their own universe, splendid or abject. They light up with their passion an exclusive world in which they recognize their climate. There is a universe of jealousy, of ambition, of selfishness, or of generosity. A universe in other words, a metaphysic and an attitude of mind.

What is true of already specialized feelings will be even more so of emotions basically as indeterminate, simultaneously as vague and as “definite,” as remote and as “present” as those furnished us by beauty or aroused by absurdity.
What is particularly peculiar to it is that its realization can arise, or break out, almost anywhere, unpredictably, impossible to dam up or reliably divert.  Camus tallies up what he calls a"rapid classification" of classic examples of the absurd.
In certain situations, replying “nothing” when asked what one is thinking about may be pretense in a man. . . . But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as it were the first sign of absurdity.

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm - this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.

. . . a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.

. . . .perceiving that the world is “dense,” sensing to what a degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. . .  The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia, for a
second we cease to understand it because for centuries we have understood in it solely the images and designs that we had attributed to it beforehand, because henceforth we lack the power to make use of that artifice. The world evades us because it becomes itself again.

I come at last to death and to the attitude we have toward it. . . . 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.
And now, my favorite of these commonplaces, rendered brilliant by Camus' imagery:
Men, too, secrete the inhuman. At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. 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.

What is The Absurd?

One might easily get the impression that Camus, thinks that it is things, or people, or perhaps the whole world that is absurd -- but strictly speaking, rigorously analyzing the notion of the absurd, that is not actually the case.  The absurd is somewhat more complexly structured.  It actually has three different elements or components.  In fact, it is precisely our rationality, our existence as the "rational animal" that renders the absurd possible.  On the one hand, it makes possible for us comparison between things, a sensibility for their unproportion, for disharmony, for unfittingness.  Absurdity, as experienced or perceived -- perhaps even as feared, yet in the future or in mere possibility -- deceives us into assuming it simple, when it is necessarily complicated.
In all these cases, from the simplest to the most complex, the magnitude of the absurdity will be in direct ratio to the distance between the two terms of my comparison. There are absurd marriages, challenges, rancors, silences, wars, and even peace treaties. For each of them the absurdity springs from a comparison. I am thus justified in saying that the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it. The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation.
We are the ones who are able to note such divorces, such discords, such divergences -- not only between different things, but also within even the parts and portions of ourselves -- and even more between ourselves and the world which environs, confronts, and disappoints us.  Camus writes of our nostalgia, at the same time affective and intellectual, for unity, for things making sense, for them conforming themselves to the contours of our desires and expectations.  The world, however, is what it is:
In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’s fate henceforth assumes its meaning. A horde of irrationals has sprung up and surrounds him until his ultimate end. In his recovered and now studied lucidity, the feeling of the absurd becomes clear and definite.

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together.
A bit further on, he draws the metaphysical conclusions:
I can therefore say that the Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting them. If wish to limit myself to facts, I know what man wants, I know what the world offers him, and now I can say that I also know what links them.
He speaks of this as an "odd trinity" -- the human being, the irrational world, and the linkage and disruption between them -- and this, he thinks, is at the very foundation of our experience, our thinking, our acting, our feeling, our loves and our hates, our desires and fears. We can skate on a surface of meaning above it, but the ice can always thaw and crack.  At times, on an uncertain lake, the ice unexpectedly booms out, or threateningly fissures -- the same can happen with any meaning in which we have invested ourselves, and expect the world which we think we know and can count on, to likewise invest itself.  Camus goes on to write that this trinity:
. . .  resembles the data of experience in that it is both infinitely simple and infinitely complicated. Its first distinguishing feature in this regard is that it cannot be divided. To destroy one of its terms is to destroy the whole. 
One cannot unbind the terms from each other, in reality, of course, because that is precisely where they have found their inescapable structure.  Camus is describing what he takes to be a fundamental ontological condition and its irreplaceable elements.
There can be no absurd outside the human mind. Thus, like everything else, the absurd ends with death. But there can be no absurd outside this world either. And it is by this elementary criterion that I judge the notion of the absurd to be essential and consider that it can stand as the first of my truths. 
It will also supply him with his intellectual method, his philosophical procedure, and the rudiments of an ethics -- something I'll not attempt to explore here in this post, but will examine in detail in future Orexis Dianoētikē posts, when I shift themes from philosophical theories of anger to what remains true or valuable in Existentialism.  For Camus, this is a matter of (absurdly) remaining true to oneself, to one's endeavor.
The rule of method alluded to above appears here. If I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it. If I attempt to solve a problem, at least I must not by that very solution conjure away one of the terms of the problem. For me the sole datum is the absurd.

The first and, after all, the only condition of my inquiry is to preserve the very thing that crushes me, consequently to respect what I consider essential in it. I have just defined it as a confrontation and an unceasing struggle.
It is not simply a philosophical enquiry into the absurd, finished, neatly tied up, once the book is written and closed.  No, to his credit -- and if you want to understand precisely why he situates himself this way, you ought to read the section in the Myth of Sisyphus on "Absurd Creation," where philosophy, literature, and living necessarily slough into each other for modern writers -- Camus conceives of his task as interfusing thought and action, intellectual and practical commitment.

So, he writes -- and this is where I will end this birthday celebration, with a wonderful encapulation, almost a motto, in which Camus sets out his moral program, in a new set of triads:
. . . carrying this absurd logic to its conclusion, I must admit that that struggle implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest).

Everything that destroys, conjures away, or exorcises these requirements (and, to begin with, consent which overthrows divorce) ruins the absurd and devaluates the attitude that may then be proposed. The absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to.