Wednesday, November 6, 2013



Albert Camus was born on 7th November 1913 into a largely illiterate family in the slums of Algiers and died on 4th January 1960 at the age of forty seven as a Nobel Laureate in a tragic car accident. In an article on Camus in the September/October 2013 issue of the magazine ‘Philosophy Now’ Ray Cavanaugh writes –

“Among the wreckage was the incomplete manuscript for his book The First Man, and in his pocket the train ticket that he hadn’t used after accepting the lift to Paris. In an instant, Camus had gone from being a generational voice to being a corpse on the side of a highway. One wonders what meaning can be derived from such a sudden change. Or perhaps life is simply absurd.”

One cannot but wonder that the master of the absurd met such a fate. Through all his novels and essays the central underlying theme has been the individual’s quest to understand and overcome the meaninglessness of life. Ironically the very first novel that Camus wrote but published subsequently to ‘The Outsider’ was called ‘A Happy Death’. The heroes of both the novels are called ‘Mersault’. We never know if Camus had found that elusive happiness which the hero of ‘A Happy Death’ searches. Some quotes from the book are revealing –

"Only it takes time to be happy, a lot of time. Happiness, too, is a long patience. And in almost every case, we use up our lives making money, when we should be using our money to gain time." The book is actually in two parts – ‘Natural Death’ and ‘Conscious Death’. In the first the hero kills a rich man for his money so that he can create time for himself and in the second towards the end he buys a house near the sea in a village and lives alone, consciously moving towards death being severely ill. In Camus’s own words-
"At this hour of night, his life seemed so remote to him, he was so solitary and indifferent to everything and to himself as well, that Mersault felt he had at last attained what he was seeking, that the peace which filled him now was born of that patient self-abandonment he had pursued and achieved with the help of this warm world so willing to deny him without anger." Severely ill, he dies a happy death: "And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds."
But Camus’s death was neither natural nor conscious but accidental, something to which none of his heroes were subjected to. Maybe we should find comfort in his words “What did it matter if he existed for two or for twenty years? Happiness was the fact that he had existed.” 

On happiness itself he had this to say in the book, “You make the mistake of thinking you have to choose, that you have to do what you want, that there are conditions for happiness. What matters- all that matters, really- is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous, ever present consciousness. The rest, women, art, success is nothing but excuses, a canvas, waiting for our embroideries.” 

This book is less talked about than his others, maybe because it was published much after ‘The Outsider’. It was published in 1971 ten years after Camus death. The other outstanding novel of his is ‘The Plague’ for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature in the year 1957 at the age forty four, one of the youngest recipients. For the first time in ‘The Plague’ one gets an insight into Camus’s views on God –

I'm fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I've long ceased finding that original”

“Every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence."

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing.”

“Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?"

From the above abstracts from The Plague, we get the impression that he had never really arrived at a conclusion regarding the existence of God. His concern is more with the plight of the individual and what he should do alleviate his sufferings and live an authentic life. The two sentences – “He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence” and “there are sick people and they need curing” are a testimony to his belief. In the book these words are spoken by a doctor who is in the midst of a plague epidemic. It is the story of medical workers finding solidarity in their labour. Camus tries to portray that we ultimately have no control over life and this irrationality is inevitable. His accidental death is a testimony to his beliefs.

He believed that God is an idea, an abstract concept constructed by us, made to sit in judgement over what is morally right and wrong. He continues to believe that making God sit in judgement over us makes him as mortal as we are and thus ultimately killing him in our heart. It is in this context that we try to understand Nietzsche when he says “God is dead”. The absurdity arises when we raise the question as to what is morally right and what is morally wrong. This cannot be possible without reward and punishment, in which case there has to be an authority to sit in judgement over our actions. This is a catch-22 situation and so, is all the more absurd. This is a situation that we find ourselves in, may be like Sisyphus. But the redeeming part of Camus’s philosophy is that one has to rebel against this absurdity and not succumb. He says “Man in order to exist must decide to act”. Doesn’t this ring a bell for all of us who are bred on the Hindu view of life, of Karma yoga? Ultimately it is doing one’s duty without expecting the fruits of action, is a way to redemption. This is brought out so poignantly in that sentence- “there are sick people and they need curing” uttered by the doctor whose only concern was discharging his duties as a doctor, and what does one expect in the middle of a plague epidemic except that he can cure as many people as possible and therein lies his redemption.

I have resisted the temptation to refer to his other novels as I have briefly tried to cover them in my earlier post of February 2012 ‘A Tribute to Albert Camus’. But today on the occasion of the centennial of his birth, I cannot but refrain from remembering the tragic circumstances of his death at a very young age. May be if he had lived longer we would have had the pleasure of more of his works. Though some find his works depressing, which of course is the case with all existentialist thought, for me reading him for the first time, his book ‘The Fall’ did prove to be one of the turning points in my life, my awakening as I call it. But it is ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and the subsequent ‘The Rebel’ that bring out the core of Camus’s philosophy. All great literature has been centred around recognising the conditions of human existence and finding solutions

Though Camus was clubbed along with Sartre and called an existentialist, he never wanted to be labelled either as an existentialist or an absurdist. In fact Camus says that the only book of ideas which he published ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ was directed against the existentialist philosophers.

One cannot also really call him an absurdist for in the ultimate analysis when one considers ‘The Rebel’ we understand that he was trying to find a solution to problems of human existence. His thoughts on this “If we assume nothing has any meaning, then we must conclude that the world is absurd. But does nothing have any meaning? I have never believed we could remain at this point” are very revealing.

So much has been written about him and his works that one is always in danger of repeating what has been said. But it was the irony involved in the way he died, that the first thought which came to my mind was ‘A Happy Death’. The celebration of the centennial of his birth cannot but make us remember the loss that the literary world suffered.

The very fact that despite having a ticket to travel by train, he opted for a lift in a car and travel by road, would make us, who are believers in God and destiny, that this was destined to happen, something preordained. But for Camus it would have been a random event in a world that was devoid of any inherent meaning.

Apart from my own impressions of Albert Camus it was necessary for me to refer to the actual quotes from his novels as well as other commentators on the subject. This was necessary so that a truer and a more authentic picture of a man who is considered as one of the great philosopher/writers of the twentieth century is presented. I thought that this would be my fitting tribute to a man who said “Man in order to exist, must decide to act”.


kerala said...

One of your best, Subbu. The Nobel was awarded for the overall work of Camus, not specifically for The Plague. His religious belief tended more towards humanism than the worship of god and the practice of religious belief. He held that the absence of religious belief was no bar for a longing for salvation (not exactly in the religious sense, but meaning the reward or satisfaction one gets by doing good) and meaningful living, which presented a paradox akin to the idea of absurdism Camus famously propagated. Today we do not consider it a paradox or absurdist thinking at all. It's probably the only way a good life can be led, as opposed to the inherently paradoxical religious life.

Ramakrishna Rao Tanikella said...

Very informative sir... Thanks