Source of book: Borrowed from the library
This is my first foray into Camus. I have mentioned before that I have a lot of gaps in 20th Century literature, in part because my high school curriculum was suspicious of post-Victorian literature and thus glossed over it, and in part because I never really got into it after my school years.
Albert Camus was an author, journalist, and philosopher, born in 1913 in (then French) Algeria. He was a “Pied-Noir,” meaning of European descent, not an indigenous Algerian, and this colors his writing. His parents remained in Algeria, and the turmoil surrounding its eventual independence forms one of his themes - as does his worry that independence would lead to the expulsion or mistreatment of Europeans. This fear indeed came to pass, and most of the Pied-Noir fled in the wake of independence.
By that time, Camus had died in a car accident, cutting short a brilliant career.
Camus was Humphrey Bogart before Bogart himself.
The ever present cigarette, the laconic attitude, the whole shebang.
Camus’ works are also influenced by his philosophy, which I will address more in a footnote. He was often called an existentialist, much to his chagrin, as he did not embrace the label. He was good friends with Jean-Paul Sartre (until their falling-out), which might explain some of the confusion. Although Camus’ absurdism and Sartre’s existentialism had common roots in the writings Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (who are sometimes retroactively designated as existentialists), the differed from each other - and from the third sibling, nihilism. Camus himself said that he had devoted his life to opposing nihilism.
Sartre and Camus became friends during their mutual work in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation, and continued for a number of years, until they parted ways over political differences. Sartre adopted an increasingly Marxist point of view, which Camus rejected, and the two never got over it. (Just to give a bit of an example, Sartre defended the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics which killed Jewish athletes, and buddied up to Che Guevara, and supported the Maoists with his writings. Clive James wrote interesting essays on both Camus and Sartre in Cultural Amnesia, one of the best non-fiction books I have read.
This book actually consists of two separate works, which I will review separately. The first is The Fall, a novella-length work, Camus’ last completed work of fiction. Published in 1956, it combines philosophy with stream-of-consciousness technique.
The narrator is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a former high-powered French defense attorney, as he describes himself. He tells his story in a series of monologues - confessions, if you will - to an unknown listener. In it, he describes his former life, his good opinion of himself - which isn’t unjustified, actually - and his crisis leading to a withdrawal from public life.
I was not at all prepared for the impact this book would have as I read it. Clamance is a hypocrite, which isn’t a surprise, but the power is in how he is a hypocrite and how he comes to realize it.
Clamance is, outwardly, a good man. He prefers to defend the helpless and the disadvantaged. To the degree he can, he tries to do what is good and right in court, and use his powers to help others. He is generous, and generally the sort of person that makes the world a better place.
There are two instances, however, that lead him to realize that he is not what he seems.
In the first case, he is walking home late at night, and sees a woman leaning over a bridge. As we walks on, he hears a splash, and then a scream, which eventually dies away downstream. He does nothing. He is unable to rouse himself to save her, and finds he doesn’t really want to.
In the words which close the novel, "Pronounce to yourself the words that years later haven't ceased to resound through my nights, and which I will speak at last through your mouth: "O young girl, throw yourself again into the water so that I might have a second time the chance to save the two of us!" A second time, eh, what imprudence! Suppose, dear sir, someone actually took our word for it? It would have to be fulfilled. Brr...! the water is so cold! But let's reassure ourselves. It's too late now, it will always be too late. Fortunately!"
He puts this memory out of his mind for a while, but he is later haunted by it.
The second instance occurs later, when a man stalls his motorcycle in front of him, and blocks the road for some time. Clamance asks him to move the motorcycle, but instead of doing so, the rider threatens him with violence. Clamance exits his vehicle to take things into his own hands, but instead is struck in the face by the rider, who then speeds off.
Clamance is non-plussed, and does nothing. Which is actually the smartest alternative, and he knows it. But in his heart, he burns for revenge, thinking he should have hit back, or chased him down and run him off the road. This look at his inner self reveals that his altruism is merely skin deep. What he mistakes for goodness is really self-seeking. He wants attention, approval, and power. His self-image as one who lives for virtue’s sake alone has been shattered, and he cannot continue.
After this realization, he throws himself into debauchery and exaggerated contempt for others in an attempt to hide from the crisis. He eventually withdraws, and becomes a “judge-penitent,” living to tell his story (a nod to the Ancient Mariner, perhaps), and make other realize they are no better than he.
So much about this book is effective, but particularly the way that Camus exposes the will to power inherent in much piety.
“When I was concerned with others, I was so out of pure condescension, in utter freedom, and all the credit went to me: my self esteem would go up a degree.”
There is much more that I won’t quote here. It builds, gradually, out of the germ from the beginning of the story. Goodness led to much good - he did good things - but it contributed to an increasing belief that he was above and superior to all others. His very kindness was condescension.
The Fall has a number of clear allusions to Dante’s Inferno, both in the name and in the use of the concentric rings of Amsterdam (the setting of the story) as a metaphor for hell. One can also see Camus’ working knowledge of the Bible through a number of well-placed parallels. In many ways, it can be read as an extended treatment of the Pharisees and their need to gain approval of men.
The narrator’s musings on the need to dominate were also disconcerting. On the one hand, I recognize what he is saying all too readily in my own worse self. On the other, he describes chillingly the totalitarian instinct that became apparent in the Nazi and Soviet experiences. It also is at the root of authoritarian cults, and I found myself seeing just a bit too much of Bill Gothard’s teachings for comfort.
I am well aware that one can't get along without domineering or being served. Every man needs slaves as he needs fresh air. Commanding is breathing - you agree with me? And even the most destitute manage to breathe. The lowest man in the social scale still has his wife or his child. If he’s unmarried, a dog. The essential thing, after all, is being able to get angry with someone who has no right to talk back. “One doesn’t talk back to one’s father” - you know the expression? In one way it is very odd. To whom should one talk back in this world if not to what one loves? In another way, it is convincing. Somebody has to have the last word. Otherwise, every reason can be answered with another one and there would never be an end to it. Power, on the other hand, settles everything. It took time, but we finally realized that. For instance, you must have noticed that our old Europe at last philosophizes in the right way. We no longer say as in simple times: “This is the way I think. What are your objections?” We have become lucid. For the dialogue we have substituted the communique: “This is the truth,” we say. “You can discuss it as much as you want; we aren’t interested. But in a few years there’ll be the police who will show you we are right.”
And this, soon afterward:
Just take me, to change examples if not subjects, I have always wanted to be served with a smile. If the maid looked sad, she poisoned my days. She had a right not to be cheerful, to be sure. But I told myself that it was better for her to perform her service with a laugh than with tears. In fact, it was better for me. Yet, without boasting, my reasoning was not altogether idiotic...Just between us, slavery, preferably with a smile is inevitable then.
There are so many things there, from the need for a power hierarchy, to the insistence that everything be done with a “good attitude,” if the authority insists on it. The Soviet cult certainly insisted on keeping up appearances in that manner. And Gothard, like all cult leaders, insisted on a constant smile.
One final idea that intrigued me in this book. Camus (or at least his narrator) makes the claim that judgmentalism does not require religion. In fact, his point is that atheism actually feeds judgmentalism, because the impulse doesn’t arise as a result of a moral code. Even moralism itself comes from judgmentalism, rather than the other way around.
In Camus’ view - which I find supported by my observations - we judge because we want to be exonerated ourselves. We feel somewhere deep down, that we are innocent, or at least justified, and engage in mental gymnastics to prove that to ourselves, in spite of the evidence. Because we also know that we are not innocent, and that we are not ultimately okay. We have that seed of selfishness that Clamance recognizes with horror.
So what do we do? We condemn and accuse the rest of the human race. We look down on others so that we feel better about ourselves. “People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves.” And so we find or invent rules that we can follow, and set these up as our standards, and feel better about our own failings.
Thus, regardless of the religion, philosophy, or creed; regardless of the specific rules we cling to; regardless of time or place; judgmentalism and hypocrisy are inseparable. They are means to power and a way to deny our own selfishness.
However that may be, after prolonged research on myself, I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being. Then I realized, as a result of delving in my memory, that modesty helped me shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress.
In the end, though, the narrator hasn’t really risen above what he is. Instead, he has appointed himself as a “judge-penitent,” intent on convicting the rest of the world along with himself.
Phil Collins claims that he spontaneously thought of the lyrics to “In the Air Tonight,” inspired by the disintegration of his marriage. While some have tried to claim that there was a factual incident behind the song, Collins denies it.
I haven’t seen anyone theorize about a connection to Camus’ book, though. Why not? Does nobody read it anymore? I have no proof Collins (perhaps unconsciously) borrowed the idea, but I do wonder.
Exile and The Kingdom
In contrast to The Fall, this book is a collection of six short stories. These vary widely in both subject matter and tone, as well as in setting. I haven’t done so since my discussion of some shorter Henry James works, but I think these stories are long enough to warrant individual treatment.
“The Adulterous Woman”
The setting for this one is Algeria, and the central character is a middle aged woman who married an older, unexciting man for the stability he promised. She is experiencing a bit of a midlife crises, perhaps one might say.
If one judged by the title, one might think this ended with a fling with one of the raw, virile, native Algerians. At least, if this were Bridges of Madison County, or its ilk, that is how it would go.
Instead, the closest this story comes to actual adultery in the normal sense is that she thinks she is being flirted with by a soldier, and finds she likes it. That’s it. At least as far as an affair with a human. And it takes place early in the story, and it gets less than a paragraph.
The real happening in the story is that she sneaks out of the hotel room after her husband is asleep, and returns to an old fort they toured earlier in the day. She runs around in the starlight, and finally ends up on her back under the vast sky in what can only be described as an orgasmic moment. An ecstasy of the universe, perhaps, some longing fulfilled, but that her husband cannot understand.
Camus writes delicious descriptions throughout his works, but I particularly love the way he portrays the surprising cold of the high desert in the winter. California has plenty of desert, hot and otherwise, but it is easy to forget just how sharp the cold can be.
She had feared the heat, the swarms of flies, the filthy hotels reeking of aniseed. She had not thought of the cold, of the biting wind, of these semi-polar plateaus cluttered with moraines. She had dreamed too of palm trees and soft sand. Now she saw that the desert was not that at all, but merely stone, stone everywhere, in the sky full of nothing but stone-dust, rasping and cold, as on the ground, where nothing grew among the stones except dry grasses.
It is hard to even figure out what to say about this one. It is the story of an erstwhile missionary captured and abused by the residents of the now abandoned city of Taghaza. It reminded me a bit of Edgar Allan Poe’s darkest stories, but a bit less coherent. Camus writes from the point of view of the victim, and everything is as confused in the story as in the mind of the narrator. It is a really unrelentingly dark story, and Camus seems to be intentionally portraying despair that even evil will succeed in triumphing. (This might fit with his philosophy, however, which I will discuss a bit below.)
A bit about Taghaza might be in order. Salt has been an important commodity for millennia, and northern Africa has long been an important source. Taghaza was located in what is now Mali, although it has been part of Algeria, and before that the Egyptian and Roman empires. Its mines served as a major source of salt up until the 16th Century, when operations moved to another site. The city was constructed of salt bricks - which worked fine considering the exceedingly low precipitation.
Another great description is given in this story: “Under the blows of the iron sun the sky resounded at length.”
Ruins of the city
The salt pans
“The Silent Men”
This story is about the aftermath of a failed strike in a shrinking industry. The art of barrel making was once vibrant, but is starting to fade, and the workers, tired of seeing the real purchasing power of their wage decrease, strike, but fail. Unfortunately, this event also ruins the sense of camaraderie between the owner and the workers. It seems to be a bit of an uncomfortable parallel to the last few decades, where wages - particularly for manual labor and manufacturing - have declined in real terms, and solutions seem unlikely.
I already mentioned that Camus was torn between sides in the Algerian conflict. This story illustrates the impossibility of staying neutral, and the lose-lose nature of the dilemma.
A school teacher is asked to convey a prisoner to the next town, some miles away. He tries to refuse, but is left with his charge anyway. He tries to give the prisoner his own choice, but fails to make any real difference, and is blamed anyway.
The characterization was good, and the moral dilemma was nuanced because of the subtle humanity of all the players.
Another interesting bit about this one is that the title, in the original French, is “L'Hôte,” which can either mean “guest” or “host.” I’m a sucker for a good play on words.
“The Artist at Work”
While the other stories are all deadly serious, this one is humor. It has a bit of a sharp edge, but it still is very much tongue in cheek. Jonas, the artist of the title, goes from obscurity to fame, and receives a pension allowing him to devote himself to his art.
To his chagrin, however, all these “friends” and other hangers-on keep bothering him and hanging around day and night, until he cannot work. He is unable to say no, partially because of his good nature, and partially because of his belief in fate.
Any introvert can readily sympathize with this plight.
“The Growing Stone”
Set in Brazil, this story tells of an engineer called to a remote town to design a levee. While there, he becomes intrigued by the poorer (and darker skinned) native population. He makes friends with a sailor who is torn between Catholicism and the native faith.
I’m not sure what to make of this one. The descriptions of the drive through the jungle and of the confrontation in the bar by the ludicrous police chief are compelling. Likewise, the author makes the pagan dance come alive. However, beyond the idea of empathy, I felt that Camus’ point is unclear at best. The story both ends and peters out. Maybe if I read it again while in a different mood it would strike me differently.
I do like Camus’ writing style, particularly the unexpected way he describes things, making them come alive in a way that a more conventional metaphor would not. A general air of pessimism pervades, but not really despair. This is a common mood for the time, and it is easy to see why European writers in particular would feel this way in the aftermath of two devastating and senseless wars. I hope to read some of his better known works in the future.
Note on Absurdism:
I’m not even going to try to discuss existentialism and all its branches in this post, but will attempt to give the central ideas of Absurdism at least.
Although Kierkegaard also discussed the basics, it was Camus that reduced it to a (relatively) simple set of ideas.
As Camus saw it, there are two opposed ideas that are in a mortal conflict:
1. Humans desire to find inherent value, meaning, and purpose in life.
2. The human inability to find any such value, meaning, or purpose.
Or, put another way, the conflict between the search for meaning and the meaningless world that is discovered.
To cope with these ideas, humans have three options (in Camus’ opinion.)
The first is suicide. Camus rejected this “solution,” because he believed it didn’t solve the absurdity, but rather added to it. Ceasing to exist didn’t cause existence to have meaning, but made it even less meaningful.
The second solution, according to Camus, was to take a “leap of faith,” and find meaning in something beyond experience. A transcendance, if you will, but something inherently unprovable, intangible, and non-rational. For Camus, this was equivalent to “philosophical suicide.” In essence, to take that “leap of faith” was, to him, to kill the rational part of his being. It was denial, claiming to see a meaning where there was no evidence of one.
Camus chose what he viewed as the third solution, to embrace the inherent paradox, and create meaning in spite of its impossibility. To “Keep calm and muddle on,” if you will. Kierkegaard regarded this particular solution as madness, but was unable to formulate an alternative. (I’m not a philosophy major, and haven’t read through Kierkegaard, so I may be missing something here, but it appears he never came to an answer, just a question.)
Now, before my Christian (and particularly Calvinist) friends jump in with some platitudes, let me just add a little food for thought.
All too often, we tend to read into scripture what we have been told it means, and miss what it actually might mean. A great example of this is the book of Ecclesiastes. Whether one knows it primarily from the Byrd’s version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or as the source of “Meaningless, everything is meaningless,” it is easy to misremember a nice tidy ending. One in which the writer remembers some “God” idea, and that gives life meaning.
That’s not how it actually reads. I cannot help but think that Ecclesiastes is a bit of an Absurdist book. The meaninglessness of life - its “absurdity,” if you will - is the theme of the book. Things don’t work out like they should. Virtue is not rewarded. Everyone dies, regardless. It is a chasing after the wind.
Even the tacked-on “conclusion” about the duty of man toward God feels a bit like Camus’ own “solution.” The writer has viewed the paradox of absurdity, and decides to muddle on in spite of it. Many will read it as being that “leap of faith,” of course, but I think that is too easy. The rest of the book is too compelling, and the conclusion doesn’t actually address the absurdity. And I think that is okay! We do not see in full now, and the attempts to impose a meaning on events are hopeless.
I see this particularly in the way that all too often we jump in with platitudes in the face of tragedy. At best, this is shallow. At worst, it is cruel. To try to impose meaning on the senseless death of a child, for example, is either to make God into a monster, slaughtering innocents as an object lesson (as Calvinists are all too quick to do), or to gloss over the terrible reality - the absurdity, unfairness, and meaninglessness of it all.
I’ve discussed the book of Job before too - particularly in regards to C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. (You might enjoy the discussion between me and Mackenzie Mulligan in the comments.)
I believe that Job also demonstrates the absurdity. In fact, I think Camus’ three “solutions” can be seen here. Job’s wife advises suicide. Job’s friends are in denial of the absurdity, and attempt to impose their own beliefs about meaning - namely that Job deserves this, and if he will simply repent, all will be well with him. It is a “leap of faith,” at least for poor Job. Again, Job’s epiphany isn’t that the absurdity disappears. He never gets an explanation. Rather than transcend by a leap of faith, the transcendent comes to him. He gets, not an explanation, but a glimpse of the Divine. I’m not going to pretend to understand all of that, but I can say that we all want the neat explanation given by Job’s friends. We want to be able to see meaning in all things, at all times, and if we don’t, we try desperately to impose it. I think one of the beauties of Ecclesiastes and Job is that the paradox isn’t forced into a resolution. Job’s friends are ultimately wrong. It takes the initiative of the Divine to give meaning, not a “leap of faith.” In the end, meaning itself become “meaningless,” subsumed in the restoration of all things.
Note on the translation:
I borrowed the Modern Library edition, translated by Justin O’Brien. Although all works lose something in translation, I have nothing but positive things to say about the translation. The language is so natural, it seems to have always been in English, the flow of the words is delightful, and I had a great time reading it. Between Camus and O’Brien, the writing is beautiful. I recommend reading this version, although it is possible others are good as well.