Albert Camus’ opposition to tyranny and emphasis on personal responsibility have lessons for the contemporary world.
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. - Albert Camus
Few literary intellectuals of the 20th century can rival Albert Camus whose birth centenary is being observed on November 7, 2013. He was born into an obscure working class family in French Algeria in 1913. By the time he died, in a relatively short span of 46 years, he had carved out a place for himself in the intellectual history of the modern world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and became a world icon with a lasting legacy.
Camus left behind an impressive crop of writings comprising fiction, plays, non-fiction, letters and essays that still continue to be read and widely admired. He pioneered a new literary-philosophical movement with a fresh idiom and a remarkable style of narration whose parentage he disowned. He introduced a new world view that was avidly picked up by the members of the counter culture everywhere, encompassing the conscientious objectors to the beat generation. He was inspiration to a whole generation of writers and translators in the postcolonial societies who saw in him and his art an effective antidote to the establishment.
Camus broke every stereotype and rule of the game. He survived an early attack of tuberculosis in 1930, and fought under the name of Beauchard (as the novelists George Orwell and André Gide did during the Spanish Civil War) for the underground Resistance in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. He opposed the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and was against the two power blocs during the Cold War. He gave up a lucrative association with the UNESCO in the 1950s for the world body granting membership to Franco’s Spain.
Indeed, rebellion seemed to be an article of faith with Albert Camus throughout his life. He joined the French Communist Party in 1935 and was expelled in 1937, as a dissident and a Trotskyite, for his independent views. Later, joining the French Anarchist Movement in 1948, he opposed tyranny from all quarters despite his pronounced left-wing sympathies. He spoke against the Soviet repression of East Germany in 1953 and that of Hungary in 1956 when most of the Left thinkers maintained a studied silence.
Charismatic and ebullient both in life and letters, Camus led a chequered life. Married twice, he was friend to some of the most illustrious men and women of his times including Jean Paul Sartre. It is with Sartre that he is generally associated for the literary philosophical movement best known as existentialism. In some quarters, Camus is also known as a major exponent of the Absurd Movement in literature and drama. Both claims have a ring of truth, and yet both must be open to necessary caveats.
On different occasions, both Camus and Sartre denied their affiliation to existentialism as it has come to mean in the literary-philosophical circles, while Camus shows a qualified and nuanced approach to the notion of the absurd in his literary works. The best treatment of the theme of the absurd in Camus is seen in his iconic works such as L’Etranger (The Outsider), 1942, La Peste (The Plague), 1947, L’Homme Revolte (The Rebel), 1951, the play Caligula, written in 1938 and performed in 1945, and several essays such as ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ and the collection of essays posthumously published in 1961, entitled Resistance, Rebellion and Death.
To put the question simply: How does the individual deal with the sense of meaninglessness and the sense of the absurd in life? In his pivotal work, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus shows that ‘the total absence of hope’ has ‘nothing to do with despair’. It must not be ‘confused with renouncement and a conscious dissatisfaction’. And thus, Meursault, the protagonist of The Outsider who faces imminent execution for manslaughter and is offered the prospect of salvation by the Christian priest in the prison, makes a paradoxical affirmation of life as evidenced towards the end of the novel in Part Two. Similarly, Dr. Rieux in The Plague must serve the citizens of Oran afflicted with the dreaded disease and the ensuing horror. Thus, both Caligula and Meursault, despite their criminality, and being arraigned, epitomise the ostensible paradox: they become anti-heroes in Camus’ terms. Indeed, based on his study of St. Augustine, Camus might argue paradoxically that both non-belief and the quest for salvation may simultaneously coexist. It is the need for personal responsibility that can finally redeem our life and add meaning to our actions.
True to his artistic credo, Camus championed human rights and steadfastly opposed, along with Arthur Koestler, capital punishment. And, yet, his role during the Algerian freedom movement has been the subject of criticism in informed circles, a minor blemish admittedly in an extraordinary career.
Camus lived as he wrote — on his own terms. An iconoclast till the very end, he saw the need for action in a world beset by horror and the spectre of war. He believed in the need to change the world, but rejected the doctrinaire approach. Camus’ protagonist may have remained an ‘outsider’ to his world, but he remained true to his individual conscience. As Camus wrote in typically Blakean terms: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t , and die to find that there is.”