a philosopher of the absurd -- 9/13/18

Today's encore selection -- from A Life Worth Living by Robert Zaretsky. Albert Camus (1913 to 1960), best known for literary works such as The Stranger and The Plague, was a philosopher of the absurd who was often closely linked to Jean-Paul Sartre and his philosophy of existentialism. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. It is small wonder that Camus came to view life as absurd. He was born in Algeria, then under the oppressive colonial rule of France. While still a child, his father died in battle in World War I, and as a teenager, he contracted tuberculosis. He suffered the global economic depression of the 1930s and then witnessed the unprecedented carnage and casualties of World War II:

"For Camus ... [our] astonishment [at life] results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world. '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 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.' ...

"As a literary and philosophical quarry, the absurd first appears in Camus' journal in May 1936, the same month he defended his dissertation on the subject of neo-Platonism at the University of Algiers. 'Philosophical work: Absurdity,' he assigned himself as part of his study and writing plan. Two years later, in June 1938, the absurd again appears on his to-do list, then a third time at the end of the same year. Though he is mostly at the stage of research and reflection, Camus had already decided to approach the subject more or less simultaneously through three different genres: as a novelist, playwright, and essayist. He had begun work on his play Caligula in 1938, though it was first performed only in 1945. As for The Stranger, Camus completed a draft just days before the Germans smashed through the Ardennes in May 1940. And it was at that same moment, when France still appeared, if not eternal, at least solid and secure, that Camus yoked himself to what he described to his former teacher Jean Grenier as his 'essay on the Absurd'. ...

"Though young, Camus was a veteran of the absurd. When still an infant, he lost his father in the purposeless mayhem of the Battle of the Marne; as an athletic teenager, he coughed blood one day and discovered he had tuberculosis; as a reporter of Alger républicain, he discovered, behind the universal values of liberty and equality of the French Republic, the grim reality for the Arabs and Berbers living under the colonial administration; as the paper's editor, he inveighed against the absurdity of a world war that, as a committed pacifist, he unrealistically insisted could have been avoided; and as a pacifist exempted from the draft because of his tuberculosis, Camus nevertheless tried to enlist: 'This war has not stopped being absurd, but one cannot retire from the game because the game may cost your life.' He was, in a word, already fastened on the lessons to be drawn from an absurd world. ...

"In November [1940], Camus confided to his journal: 'Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.' "

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Robert Zaretsky


A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning


Belknap Press


Copyright 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


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