Reading does not require much; a quiet place to sit, good lightening, maybe a glass of water or wine. Most importantly, reading does not requires us to go outside. With many across Europe increasingly home-bound, Salomé Melchior recommends we pick up our old copy of Camus and revel in his treatment of themes both poetic and political.
Albert Camus is a near mythical figure for French, European and world literature. He was born in Algeria and witnessed colonial society. In his literary work, his experience of the real world comes across and his creativity dialogues with everyday circumstances. A poetic and pragmatic thinker, Camus touched upon philosophical and political ideas.
Heroism is not everything; Happiness is more complicated.”
“Heroism is not everything; Happiness is more complicated.” This quote is a guideline to understand Camus and his vision of life. For him, life was not about being heroic, but about striving towards happiness, which may be understood in several forms: individual happiness, social happiness, political happiness, artistic happiness. The latter connotes a sense of plenitude, of fulfilment, of going beyond oneself. Camus himself was a fervent anti-totalitarian and participated in the Resistance, like another pioneer writer of his times, René Char.
Camus nourished the utopia of a “vivre ensemble”, of a living together in harmony, as one. He has also inspired thinkers from a range of backgrounds, such as the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, the libertarian philosopher Michel Onfray and Henri Guaino, a political advisor of Nicolas Sarkozy. In Camus’s quest, equilibrium and harmony are a paradisical dwelling that can be set as a goal, even if they cannot be realized tangibly. He was a Mediterranean at heart and gives an account of the vividness of living in L’été (Summer), for example. His opposition to death sentences translates into his fervour for living that he hopes every man can experience. In Retour à Tipasa (Return to Tipasa), he famously stated that what he honours most in the world, is this will to live, which does not refuse anything from life.
His love for truth and freedom characterized him as a philosopher. He was preoccupied by justice and navigated, in fact, between severe and grave tones in his writing. Yet he also expressed a certain lightness when evoking love, for example. He ironically stated that believing in liberty, in a “crazy” form of liberty, is like believing in a sort of crazy love, in those great passions that justify everything. Some of his statements have a transcendental, visionary flair. In a way, he recalls Nietzsche’s “Madman” in the Gay Science. He arrives like a poet who no one knows how to categorize, how to grasp. The ongoing actuality of his writing is also representative of his capacity to project life, to stroke it at its core. Coming from a rustic background, and growing up in cosmopolitan milieu, where he befriended the great minds of his time, Camus incarnates a bridge between the here and there, the then and now.
Camus has been compared to George Orwell, because both lived in times of colonialism and totalitarianism, which they fought against through their writing. Camus’s friendship with Simone Weil is also significant: he enabled her to publish her first thoughts, and she later became one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. His legendary love-hate friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, is a great example of how friendship and intellectualism coincide, and are ultimately torn apart by politics. When Sartre fervently sided with the communists, he distanced himself from Camus, who tried to nourish his understanding of life as a whole, rather than of politics particularly.
Like a painter, Camus observed life, tried to internalise its joys and pains and describe them on a page.
“The true generosity towards the future is to give everything to the present.” This quote is most representative of Camus as a man, writer, philosopher and poet. For him, life as a whole was a source of interest and inspiration. Like a painter, he observed it, tried to internalise its joys and pains and describe them on a page. In his capacity to make the particular universal and atemporal, he is a source of illumination. Today still, in all sorts of crises that we are living through, his masterpieces L’étranger (The Stranger) and La Peste (The Plague) are lanterns during dark times. Progressively confined to our houses, in Europe and beyond, due to an invisible enemy that is threatening us, La Peste can be a cardinal entry point to our understanding of and identification with situations in the present.