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We are in the midst of an ongoing Camus renaissance, one traced by Matthew Sharpe in his book Camus, Philosophe: To Return to Our Beginnings to four causes: The publication in 1994 of Camus' Le Premier Homme, a true literary event; the fall of Stalinism; the war on terror; and the decline of the hegemony of post-modernism and post-structuralism with academia. We are blessed with many recent books on Camus [Sharpe produces an exhaustive survey of the recent secondary literature on Camus, heavily footnoted and annotated] and his works have continued to be a resource for philosophical inquiry even as his literary works have continued to be read and written about -- or responded to as in the case of Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation which considers the same killing on the beach but from the Arab victim's point of view.
It is clear that Camus is as relevant today as he was in the cold war period. His insistence on human values in this absurd world speaks to us about war and torture and poverty. He has been a large influence on my life and work and I have never forgotten the first time I read his work as a student so many years ago, and in a different country. Or the first essay I wrote on the twenty fifth anniversary of his death:
In January of 1960, a powerful sports car was traveling north in France towards Paris. Albert Camus was a passenger in the car. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 and had been called in the presentation speech "the conscience of the 20th century." He had been an actor and an editor, a dramatist and a novelist, and was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis in World War II. He was forty-six years old and well known around the world. Camus was traveling to Paris with friends after spending the New Year holiday on his property in the south of France. It was raining. The car came out at one point on a straight, clear stretch of road. About midway it went off the road and rammed into a tree. Camus was killed. One newspaper at the time reported, "It was a dramatic end for the young writer who was a leader and interpreter of the philosophy of postwar France's wild, young existentialist set."
If the existentialist set in France was wild, this is hardly a charge that can be leveled against Camus. A more thoroughly earnest man it would be hard to find anywhere. And yet, his sudden senseless death there on the road lends support to one of the fundamental ideas of the existentialists movement: that life is absurd, senseless, that anything can happen to anyone at any time, without rhyme or reason; life is illogical; the only god is the god of chance; "Time and chance happeneth to all men," as the preacher said many years ago. And yet, in his works Camus is stating, is demanding, that life has value without having meaning. In so doing he is rebelling against two things: on the one hand, nihilism, that is the belief in nothing; and on the other hand, the Christian concept of contemptus mundi, contempt for the world, which forces one to turn away from the living, present moment and to be concerned about some time in the future. (Humanist in Canada, Lane, 1985)
And now we have an excellent book from Alice Kaplan. She writes in the Prologue, "Reading The Stranger is a rite of passage. People all over the world connect the book to their coming of age. To grappling with the toughest questions of existence." And a bit later, "My experience teaching The Stranger, and giving talks about the novel, is that everyone in the room has read it – usually twice."
All of us who have taught Continental Literature or a class in Existentialism will recognize that audience and that experience. The Stranger is a book that resonates with everyone who reads it. And Kaplan's book will add to the understanding and enjoyment of Camus's masterpiece. Her book is a biography of a book. "My method," she tells us, "resembles what fiction writers call a 'close third-person narrative. I follow Camus, month by month, as though I were looking over his shoulder, telling the story of the novel from his, rather than my own, point of view. My design is to get as close as I can to his process and his state of mind as he creates The Stranger, sends it out for review, and publishes it in wartime France."
She does just that. She provides rich background information about the life and times of Camus in Algeria – about his mother and father and about his education in literature and philosophy – enough to place him in his time and place and as an outsider himself suffering from a serious disease and living in poverty. "The process began in the summer of 1936 when he returned from his trip to Eastern Europe and ended his marriage to Simone Hié. After one of his attempts at an outline for A Happy Death, Camus imagines Patrice, his main character, recounting a story about a man condemned to death. And Patrice says, "I see this man. He is inside me. And every word he says grips my heart. He is living a breathing with me. He is afraid with me." We are shown the people and the places and the events that, in Camus's creative mind, produced The Stranger. His time spent in the court as a reporter gives him the insight and experience for his famous court scene – this allowed him "to plot The Stranger around a crime that grew out of ethnic tensions in Algerian society, and around a trial that made a mockery of the justice system."
Kaplan tells us of the creation and importance of The Myth of Sisyphus as a brother book to The Stranger – a more philosophical set of essays which should be read with The Stranger. Although Camus insists that there is no such thing as absurd philosophy he is quite clear on the feeling of the absurd which can strike us at any time. The ideas behind the development of the absurd hero are present in the first three essays of the book. In these essays, Camus faces the problem of suicide. In his typically shocking, unnerving manner he opens with the bold assertion that:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (p. 3).
He goes on to discover if suicide is a legitimate answer to the human predicament. Or to put it another way: Is life worth living now that god is dead? The discussion begins and continues not as a metaphysical cobweb but as a well-reasoned statement based on a way of knowing which Camus holds is the only epistemology we have at our command. We know only two things:
This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. (p. 14)
With these as the basic certainties of the human condition, Camus argues that there is no meaning to life. He disapproves of the many philosophers who "have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living." (p.7) Life has no absolute meaning. Despite the human's irrational "nostalgia" for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the "not me" of the universe, no such meaning exists in the silent, indifferent universe. Between this yearning for meaning and eternal verities and the actual condition of the universe there is a gap that can never be filled. The confrontation of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe brings about the notion of the absurd.
The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.21)
The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together...it is the only bond uniting them. (p. 21)
People must realize that the feeling of the absurd exists and can happen to them at any time. The absurd person must demand to live solely with what is known and to bring in nothing that is not certain. This means that all I know is that I exist, that the world exists, and that I am mortal.
Kaplan writes, "On May 1, 1940, after a sleepless night, Camus wrote in his notebook: "The Stranger is finished." The pages were piled on his table, a manuscript to reread and revise. Calling the book by its title gave The Stranger a denser reality." Now that the book is real it still must go through the process from manuscript to published work including the comments by publishers and colleagues, and the publication process in a wartime France with a paper shortage.
We are there for all the steps: from creation to publication to reception. And as a bonus Kaplan continues the biography of the book up to the present with the publication of The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, a book which challenges us to consider the unnamed Arab killed by Meursault in The Stranger.
Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan is an excellent book.
© 2017 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is Philosophy Professor Emeritus and a Blogger at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, BC.