“We must suffer, suffer into truth.” (Aeschylus’s Oresteia)
I usually don’t read multiple biographies about one person in preparation for these blog posts, but with Albert Camus (wikipedia), I did. Because Camus is one of those people who reached across the barriers of time and space and language and gripped me by telling me a story about life that sounded remarkably like my own. Actually, in studying his life and works these weeks, I’ve had a spiritual awakening that has easily been the most significant event of the year for me. But more on that in future posts; for now, let me just tell you his story, and then summarize some of his works and philosophy about life.
Albert, the Boy in Algeria
Albert was born on November 7, 1913 in French Algeria (a French possession in Northern Africa), where he would spend most of his life. Camus’s Dad died during World War 2 which left baby Albert with just his Mom who was illiterate and became an invalid after losing her husband.
Albert was a popular boy in high-school (the lycée), but in 1930, at 17 years old, he contracted tuberculosis, a diagnosis which at the time claimed 140/100,000 lives. Albert coughed up blood and fainted and became overall much weaker so that life as he knew it came to an end. He couldn’t play soccer anymore; he couldn’t swim, roam the town with friends—in essence, he became an invalid like his mother, but, unlike her, he hated it.
No treatment was available for tuberculosis except pneumothorax injections, so Albert took this as his death-sentence, afraid death would take him sooner rather than later. But he began to have hope in thinking the disease was purely metaphysical and something he could cure himself of, but that (obviously) never panned out.
Tuberculosis caused Camus to miss out on many things in life, like the professorship he wanted and the eligibility to fight in World War 2, but he channeled his anger into his writing. He was constantly forced to slow down, to cancel trips and to tell people No. As he watched life pass him by, bitterness began to dominate his thinking. That bitterness was never far below the surface with him, and it is what shaped his ironic style of writing and his negative philosophy of life.
Albert, the College Student
He was able to attend the University of Algiers by moving in with his Uncle Acault who was the strange combination of both a gentleman and a butcher. Camus then found his identity in the flamboyant French fashion of his Uncle, and it was said he’d attend soccer matches dressed to the nines. He fell in step behind his favorite professor, Jean Grenier, who introduced him to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and the Bible. He read philosophers like Spinoza, Descartes, Plato, Chasten, Kierkegaard, and the philosophical systems like Taoism and Hindu philosophy. He read James Joyce’s Ulysses which he enjoyed but found "disordered.”
Jean Grenier would prove to be a life-long friend and ally for Camus in his war on the absurdity of life. It’s amazing to see how much impact he had on Camus. One quote I found particularly helpful in identifying Grenier’s worldview:
People are astonished by the great number of diseases and accidents which strike us. It’s because humanity, tired of its daily work, finds nothing better than this miserable escape into illness to preserve what remains of the soul. Disease for a poor man is the equivalent of a journey, and life in a hospital the life of a palace.
Grenier’s tongue-in-cheek savior for the problems haunting mankind was illness. He and Camus both longed for a savior (and they both longed to be that savior, but never were able to get past the cynicism that comes built-in from a humanistic, closed system.) One scene from the biographer Lottman sums up Camus’s own bitterness at God:
[One day a child was hit by a bus and left for dead.] Walking away, Camus turned toward the landscape of blue sea and sky. Raising a finger toward the heavens he said: “You see, He says nothing.” Fouchet [his friend] was certain that Camus had no fundamental objection to religion, although he found the situation of man in the face of suffering and death, alone in the silence from the sky, unbearable.
The Absurdity of Life
Camus spent his entire life trying to make that silence from heaven a little more bearable. He struggled to make sense of the seemingly opposing tensions of life, to make sense of a dying boy and a silent, sovereign God. And as with all great philosophers, Camus wasn’t abstractly concerned; he saw a piece of himself in that boy, no doubt. He knew he was dying and yet he felt the absolute silence of God drowning out his fears. It was as if God didn’t care, even though the intricate beauty and detail of the Universe seems to say the exact opposite. He ended up spending his entire life writing because one night, he had an epiphany:
The book had a liberating effect. He read it in the space of a night, woke to a revelation. He had learned that books were not only for escape and distraction. They could speak of ‘My stubborn silences, these vague and sovereign sufferings, the singular world which surrounded me, the nobility of my family, their misery, and then my secrets…’ At last he could penetrate ‘the world of creation.’
So even though Camus was almost paralyzed by the absurdity of life, he struggled on trying to make sense of the best he could, using his words. Jacques Heurgon, a contemporary, said of him, “He simply loomed up among us as someone whose life was going to be important, who was going to begin, starting at zero and without complacency, the great enterprise of being a man.”
Communism for the Greater Good
Camus spent the rest of his life trying feverishly to make the world a better place, to stand in for God, as it were, and take the broken pieces of the world and put them back together again. While it’s true, Camus’s philosophy of life was negative, it was only negative because life is negative. Life itself seems antagonistic towards anything and everything good. Deep down, Albert’s main desire was to free the world from the oppressive madness. On his death bed, Camus’s final wish sums up what I’m saying, “Even my death will be contested. And yet what I desire most today is a quiet death, which would bring peace to those whom I love.”
Camus wanted peace, and he wanted to make sure he could have some effect on the world to bring it about. (We all want peace, but the Christian realizes that even though life is absurd and we are wildly too small to make any difference, God is there and He is not silent.) Since Camus was limited to this world only, Communism seemed the best way to go about reducing man’s pain:
It seems to me that, more than ideas, life itself often leads to Communism…I have such a strong desire to help reduce the sum of unhappiness and of bitterness which empoisons mankind.
So Camus starts a theater for political activism, which goal was to propagate Communism through art. The theater’s tract said, “It is sometimes advantageous to art to descend from its ivory tower,” to go about pricking the hearts of the common man for specific purposes.
Marriage, Singleness, and Aloneness
Camus marries young (at 20 years old), to (literally) the hot girl at school—and who’s also a druggee—and believes he can rescue her from herself. Her name is Simone Hie. He loses his friendship with Fouchet over her and his uncle greatly disapproved of her because she would hold him back from studies. She is a tramp, drunk, and would drive anyone to suicide.
Not long after, she tries to commit suicide. Camus didn’t feel guilty, but responsible. He internalizes her problems, even though she goes on to cheat on him. He wrote a play called The Fall where the main character, Clamence, represents the duplicity of being human: the cynic with the joyous. It’s a confession. It makes us ask Would I rescue the drowning woman? Would I be so honest as to admit I wouldn’t? His wife said, “This is about us, isn’t it? Well it’s good to see you taking responsibility.” She was the drowning woman and Camus was pondering the moral implications of leaving her to herself. Eventually, he did leave; they separated and divorced. So Camus was single again, a Don Juan, and (ironically) ended up playing Don Juan again in the theater.
He loved the theatre because it brought him great warmness. Out there, in the real world, absurdity reigned, but in here, in made-up stories, when Camus could be sovereign, the world seemed right again. He could ensure justice and equity and peace. He learned his morality experientially, from the theatre and from sports. Those were his university, and that is why he never broke free from his depressing view of life. He was too constrained by the view of the horizontal. If only he could have lifted his eyes to see that life is like his plays, that justice and equity will reign eventually, but I digress.
Now single, he spends some time alone in Paris to finish a book he was working on, and writes about the loneliness there, a bit I found personally cathartic:
“To know how to remain alone for a year in a poor room teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years of experience of ‘Parisian life.’“ It was a form of torture, ”always so close to madness" but in Paris the quality of a man would affirm itself—or perish.
On December 3, 1939, Camus remarries to a woman named Francine, who soon after gives birth to twins. Camus struggled as a father, and never understood the proper meaning of marriage, as exhibited in his views of sexuality:
“Sexual life was given to man perhaps to divert him from his true road,” he wrote. “It’s his opium…Without it, things come back to life.” (263).
Nobel Peace Prize
He received the Nobel Peace Prize in literature for his book The Stranger, and was the second-youngest recipient, at 44 years old, after Rudyard Kipling, who received the prize at the age of 42.
Death by Accident
Camus died on January 4, 1960 at the age of 46, and it wasn’t from Tuberculosis. He was riding in his friend’s car, a V8 and a real piece of engineering mastery, when the car suddenly veered off the road and into a tree, bouncing off one and t-boning into another. They calculated they were probably doing 90mph, which, for the car and for the driver, was a normal pace. The cause of the accident was never clear, though some speculated it may have been a broken axle.
Camus died on the spot, in such a futile and absurd way, I’m sure even he wouldn’t have been surprised.
- Albert Camus - The Madness of Sincerity.
- Camus in Ten Minutes.
- Herbert R. Lottman, Albert Camus: A Biography.
- Robert Zaretsky, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Plus a great review of this book in the American Conservative.
Leaving the full treatment of both my awakening and his philosophy for another day. (I have to say that out loud or I’ll get carried away.) ↩
In 1946, the development of the antibiotic streptomycin made effective treatment and cure of TB a reality. Prior to the introduction of this drug, the only treatment (except sanatoria) was surgical intervention, including the “pneumothorax technique”, which involved collapsing an infected lung to “rest” it and allow tuberculous lesions to heal (wikipedia). ↩
Apparently he was inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, where the main character does just that. ↩
I say a hearty, Amen, brother. ↩
From “Les Iles Kerguelen" by Jean Grenier. ↩
Robert Zaretsky, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, loc 28. ↩
After three years in the isolation of chronic fatigue syndrome, I can identify. You either rise to the challenge and become someone different, or you fall into dehumanizing self-pity and bitterness. ↩