Albert Camus and the Limits of Absurdity

Robert Zaretsky writes about the existentialist philosopher and writer’s one and only trip to the United States
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Albert Camus
Seventy years ago this month, Albert Camus arrived in New York City. It was the first, and last, visit the author of The Stranger made to the United States. Camus spent most of his time in New York — a city, he confessed, that defeated his understanding. His experience was, in a word, absurd. To mark the visit’s anniversary, the literary estate of Albert Camus has organized a series of readings, performances, and discussions across the city. The actor Viggo Mortensen, singer and songwriter Patti Smith, folk singer Eric Andersen, and scholars Morris Dickstein and Alice Kaplan are among the artists and writers who will participate. One of the events will be at the Midtown branch of the New York City Library, where at 6:30 p.m., April 14, LARB’s history editor, Robert Zaretsky, will join New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik for a public conversation on the place of Camus’s life and work in the 21st century.

ON MARCH 25, 1946, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, having left the rainforests of Brazil for the concrete canyons of New York City, confronted a social structure as complex and harsh as those he had found in the rainforests of Brazil. Moonlighting as the French Embassy’s cultural attaché, Lévi-Strauss received an unexpected visit from a group of French passengers who had just arrived on an American freighter, the Oregon. Immigration officials had detained one of them because he refused to give the names of friends who belonged to the Communist Party. Lévi-Strauss dispatched a colleague to the docks, and the French visitor, frazzled and frustrated, was finally released.

With this faintly absurd event began Albert Camus’s only visit made to America.

Camus was no ordinary tourist. France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sent him as an official representative of the recently liberated country. Who better to speak to American audiences about France’s experience of occupation and liberation? By 1944 and the liberation of Paris, the young French-Algerian writer was not just the author of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, both published to critical acclaim in occupied Paris. He was also the editor of Combat, the most influential underground paper of the French Resistance. With a suddenness that both touched and troubled him, Camus had become the one marketable export left to a bloodied and brutalized country: the French intellectual for whom ideas were a matter of life and death.


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Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus

His friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, had preceded him to New York in 1945. Playing the role of existentialism’s John the Baptist, Sartre spoke at great length about Camus to a reporter from, of all places, the American edition of Vogue. Praising the new literature that had taken root in the liberated soil of France, Sartre declared, “its best representative is Albert Camus, who is thirty years old.” Under the pressure of occupation and resistance, Sartre observed, the metaphysical absurdity that marked Camus’s novel and essay had morphed into a form of political absurdity. While this explained the pessimistic nature of Camus’s work, it also represented an antidote to despair. “It was when he lost all hope that man found himself, for he knew then that he could rely only upon himself,” Sartre explained. “The constant presence of death, the perpetual threat of torture, made such writers as Camus measure the powers and the limits of man.”

“When The New Yorker journalist A. J. Liebling called on Camus the day after his arrival, he was astonished by the Frenchman’s ‘absurd suit,’ whose lapels and cut, he wrote, seemed to predate the Great Crash.”

It also made Camus measure the powers and limits of celebrity. When he followed Sartre’s opening act the following year, he seemed groomed for the starring role. Lithe and likable, smart and smooth, Camus struck more than one observer as a Gallic Bogart — a comparison that delighted many French, none more so than Camus. But hailing from a country ravaged by material scarcity, he was hardly dressed for the part. When The New Yorker journalist A. J. Liebling called on Camus the day after his arrival, he was astonished by the Frenchman’s “absurd suit,” whose lapels and cut, he wrote, seemed to predate the Great Crash.

But Liebling was also seduced by the visitor’s warmth and humor. They talked about the war just ended — Liebling had been in France for its liberation — and the peace just begun, about Paris and New York. Inevitably, Liebling quizzed Camus about his own work, bringing up the conclusion of The Myth of Sisyphus, which offers the image of the Greek hero condemned to roll a boulder up a mountainside for all eternity. “For a man arrived at such a grim conclusion,” Liebling noted in his “Talk of the Town” article, “M. Camus seemed unduly cheerful.” When Liebling asked why, Camus replied: “Just because you have pessimistic thoughts, you don’t have to act pessimistic. One has to pass the time somehow. Look at Don Juan.”

At interview’s end, we must imagine Liebling happy. And little imagination is needed to see his happiness when he was asked to play the master of ceremonies two days later at the McMillin Theater (since renamed the Miller Theatre), where Camus was scheduled to give a talk. Though he shared the marquee with two other French writers — one was Jean Bruller, who under the penname Vercors published the great resistance work The Silence of the Sea — Camus was the evening’s star. More than 1,200 people flocked to the hall; more than a few, one suspects, had a shaky knowledge of French but nevertheless grasped the event’s significance. Though he had seemed relaxed to Liebling two days earlier, Camus now felt the air of expectation filling the auditorium. He paused, if only for a moment, overcome by stage fright.

“To a packed auditorium of mostly young Americans, he sought to convey the character and consequences of events that, while scarcely touching his audience, had ravaged Europe.”

But this small crisis gave way to a larger crisis, one affecting us all. In “La crise de l’homme,” or “The Crisis of Man” — the title he gave to his talk — Camus set himself an enormous task. To a packed auditorium of mostly young Americans, he sought to convey the character and consequences of events that, while scarcely touching his audience, had ravaged Europe. “The men and women of my generation,” he began, were born just before or during World War One, reached adolescence in time for the Great Depression, and turned 20 years old when Hitler took power. To complete our education, we were offered the Spanish Civil War, Munich, and another world war followed by defeat, occupation, and resistance.


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Albert Camus and his friend and publisher Michel Gallimar

This upbringing, Camus drily concluded, made for an “interesting generation.” Faced by the absurdity of these events, his generation had to find reasons to resist and rebel. Where, though, could they be found? Neither religion nor politics offered guidance, while traditional morality was a “monstrous hypocrisy.” On a continent swept by mass murder and terrorism, a world awash in nihilism, Camus’s generation was thrust into the most terrifying of contradictions. “We hated both war and violence, yet we had to accept both one and the other.” They confronted, in short, the crisis of man.

“Camus’s generation was thrust into the most terrifying of contradictions. “We hated both war and violence, yet we had to accept both one and the other.” They confronted, in short, the crisis of man.”

By way of illustration, Camus offered vignettes of life under the Nazi occupation. There is the concierge at a Gestapo building somewhere in Europe who enters an apartment where two men, suspected of resistance activity, are shackled and bloodied. When one of them asks for help, she replies with pride: “I never mind the business of my building’s residents.” And there is one of Camus’s fellow résistants, his head bandaged, led into an SS officer’s room where, the day before, his ear had been ripped off. The officer, who had overseen the torture, asks sympathetically: “Tell me, how are your ears?” Finally, there is a Greek mother who learns that the German soldiers who took her three sons hostage are about to shoot them. Pleading with the officer to spare them, he offers a compromise: a son can be freed, but the mother needs to choose which one. She points to the eldest, thus condemning her two other sons to death.

Camus tells his listeners that he did not choose these stories to shock them, but because they illustrate the crisis of man the world now confronted. The crisis, quite simply, is the fruit of a world where torture is not only practiced but evokes little more than indifference with the torturers and acceptance among its witnesses. When our response to the killing or torturing of a fellow human being is anything other than horror and outrage; when we consider the deliberate infliction of pain as no more disturbing than standing in line for our daily food rations; when we have reached this point, we must accept that the world will not improve simply because Hitler is gone. Scanning the hall, Camus declared: “We are all of us responsible and we are duty-bound to seek the causes of the terrifying evil that still gnaws at the soul of Europe.”

“The crisis, quite simply, is the fruit of a world where torture is not only practiced but evokes little more than indifference with the torturers and acceptance among its witnesses”

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Albert Camus reading a newspaper

Against this bleak diagnosis of our condition, Camus offered a prescription nearly as bleak. While there was no reason for hope, this was not a reason to despair. We can solve this crisis, he announced, only “with the values we still have at hand — in a word, the awareness of the absurdity of our lives.” This was not metaphysical grandstanding, or the sort of language that sounds better in French than English. Camus was instead invoking the philosophical and moral themes that shaped the worlds of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. While neither was yet translated into English, many in the audience must have been aware of the opening lines to the latter book. “There is just one truly important philosophical question: suicide. To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” This question confronts us the day that, finding ourselves in “a universe suddenly divested of illusions and light,” we nevertheless insist on meaning. If our “irrational and wild longing for clarity” is met by “the unreasonable silence of the world,” Camus wonders, is suicide the only reasonable response? Is it possible, he demanded, “to live without appeal”?

But the audience perhaps did not know that Camus had since moved beyond these early works. Though the books had been critically acclaimed when they were published in 1942, Camus saw that events had outstripped the meaning of Meursault’s and Sisyphus’s solitary and singular rebellions. The time had come to reassess the limits of absurdity. What would the world make, he asked in his journal, of a thinker who announced: “Up to now I was going in the wrong direction. I am going to begin all over”? With relief, he realized that it didn’t matter.

“We are, in the end, condemned to live together in a precarious, unsettling world.”

This was not all that Camus now grasped. Absurdity, he saw, “teaches nothing.” Instead of taking this diagnosis as a fatality — instead of looking only at ourselves, as do Sisyphus or Meursault — we must look to others. We are, in the end, condemned to live together in a precarious, unsettling world. “The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love,” he wrote in the journal. “Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.” Love saves us from absurdity. [Read the Full Essay]

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