Albert Camus: I Rebel, Therefore We Exist

Half a century passed without Albert Camus’ poignant, nagging and prodding, provoking and invigorating comments. All that time the library of books, studies and essays dedicated to the author of L’Étranger, La Peste, La Chute and Le Premier Homme swelled unstoppably: ‘Questia’, the ‘online libraries of books and journals’ most frequently consulted by academics, listed by 1 October 2009 3171 items, including 2528 book-size that discuss his ideas and their place in the history of thought; ‘Google Books’, yet more popular website, counted 9953. Most of the authors of books and articles struggled ultimately with one question: what stand Albert Camus would have taken were he witnessed the world – our world – that came into being after his untimely death: what his comments, appeals and advice, which he had no time to offer us and which we so sorely miss, would be like.

One question – many answers, many different answers… And no wonder. On Franz Kafka, Camus opined: “Tout l’art de Kafka est l’obliger le lecteur à relire“. Why? His (Kafka’s) solutions or their absences suggest explications, but “qui ne sont pas révélées en clair“; to clarify them, one would need nothing less than re-reading history “sous un nouvel angle”. In other words, Kafka’s art is to avoid the temptation to try the embracing of the un-embraceable, and the closing of issues bound to stay forever open, intriguing and enervating – and so never to cease to question and provoke the reader, while inspiring and beefing up the efforts of re-thinking. Thanks to that peculiarity, Kafka’s inspirations, never die; controversies and contentions which those inspirations continue to beget are as close as conceivable to what the alchemists dreamt of as the ‘philosopher’s stone’, from which the ‘elixir of life’ can be, forever and ever, drawn. In his portrait of Kafka, Camus sketched the model of all immortal thoughts: that trademark of all great thinkers, including himself…

I wouldn’t dare to pretend that I’ve managed (or even earnestly tried) to study the thousands of reinterpretations which Camus’ legacy has begotten to-date. I lack therefore the competence to summarize, let alone to evaluate, the state of the on-going debate, let alone to predict its further course. In the comments that follow, I am bound to limit myself to my Camus: to my reading of Camus, and to the sounding of his voice as listened to once more fifty and more years later, this time through the commotion and uproar of our liquid-modern bazaar; in short – to the author of, primarily, Le mythe de Sisyphe and L’Homme révolté, two books that like few other read in my youth helped me to come to terms with the oddities and absurdities of the world we inhabited – and which we continued to make day in day out, consciously or not, through the mode of our habitation. I won’t be surprised if other avid readers of Camus and seekers of his message to posterity find my reading different from theirs, odd or even perverse: while searching indefatigably for the truth of human predicament, Camus was careful to follow the object of his exploration in its openness to variety of explications and judgments and staunchly resisted all premature foreclosure of the matter (all foreclosure, in case of the impenetrable mystery of human nature and potential, cannot but be premature!) while shunning all temptation to cleanse his portrayal of human plight, for the sake of logic and clarity of his narrative, from the ambiguity and ambivalence that are its irreducible, perhaps defining, attributes. Camus’ definition of an intellectual, let’s recall, was “someone whose mind watches itself”…

Several years ago I was asked by an interviewer ‘to summarize my concerns in a paragraph’. I could not find a better shorthand description of the purpose of a sociologist’s effort to explore and record the convoluted paths of human experience, than a sentence borrowed from Camus: “There is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I should like never to be unfaithful either to the second or the first”. Many a radical and self-confident writer of recipes for happy humans would decry that profession of faith as a blameworthy invitation to straddle the barricade; Camus has shown however, in my view beyond reasonable doubt, that ‘taking sides’ and sacrificing one of those two tasks for (apparently) the sake of better fulfilling the other would inevitably end in casting both tasks beyond reach. Camus placed himself, in his own words, “half way between misery and the sun”: “Misery kept me”, he explained, ” from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn’t everything”. Camus confessed to be “pessimistic as to human history, optimistic as to man” – man being, as he insisted, “the only creature that refuses to be what he is”. Man’s freedom, Camus pointed out, “is nothing else but a chance to be better” – and “the only way to deal with an un-free world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion”. Camus’ portrayal of human destiny and prospect is located somewhere betwixt and between the likenesses of Sisyphus and Prometheus, struggling – in vain, yet obstinately and indefatigably – towards the reunion and merger of the two. Prometheus, the hero of L’Homme révolté, chooses life-for-others, life-of-rebellion against their misery, as the solution of that “absurdity of human condition” that drew Sisyphus, overwhelmed by and preoccupied with his own misery, towards suicide as the sole answer to and escape from his (human, all-too-human) plight (faithful to the ancient wisdom spelled out by Pliny the Elder, presumably for the use of all practitioners of amour-de-soi coupled with amour propre: “Amid the miseries of our life on earth, suicide is God’s best gift to man”). In Camus’ juxtaposition of Sisyphus and Prometheus, refusal was made in the name of affirmation: “I rebel”, as Camus would conclude, “therefore we exist”. It is as if humans have invented logic, harmony, order and Eindeutigkeit as their ideals only to be prompted, by their predicament and their choices, to defy each one of them through their practice… ‘We’ won’t be conjured up by the lonely Sisyphus having a stone, a slope, and a self-defeating task for their sole company.

But even inside the apparently hopeless and prospectless plight of Sisyphus, faced as he is with the utter absurdity of his existence, there is a room, an abominably tiny room to be sure, but all the same wide enough for Prometheus to step in. Sisyphus’ lot is tragic only because it is conscious – aware of the ultimate senselessness of labours. But, as Camus explains, “La clairvoyance qui devait faire son tourment consommé du même coup sa victoire. Il n’est pas de destin qui ne se surmonte par le mépris“. Pushing the morbid self-awareness away and opening himself to Prometheus visit, Sisyphus may yet turn from a tragic figure of a slave-to-things into their joyous doer. “Happiness and the absurd”, Camus points out, “are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable.” And he adds: To Sisyphus, this universe “without a master” seems “neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Sisyphus is reconciled to the world as it is, and that act of acceptance paves the way to rebellion; indeed, makes rebellion if not inescapable, then at least a most likely outcome.

That combination of acceptance and rebellion, of concern with and care for beauty and concern/care for the miserable, are meant to protect Camus’ project on both fronts: against resignation pregnant with suicidal impulse, and the self-assurance pregnant with indifference to the human cost of revolt. Camus tells us that revolt, revolution, and striving for freedom are inevitable aspects of human existence, but that we must watch the limits to avoid these admirable pursuits ending in tyranny.

Did indeed Camus die fifty years ago?