“The Don Draper of Existentialism”


Albert Camus is having a moment. He should have more of them and always. To be French, though, in these United States, since Lafayette, has always meant to be as recherche as the word; to be an existentialist, for a long time now, so passe (and so freaking French); and to be left, in the U.S. or Europe, without being far left, so uninspired. But Camus is there to be discovered and rediscovered, and now with the publication of Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity, by his daughter Catherine, and a new biography in French, L’Ordre Libertaire, by Michel Onfray, we have one of the significations of a moment: a New Yorker profile by Adam Gopnik (still fully available only to subscribers). Gopnik begins,

The French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus was a terrifically good-looking guy whom women fell for hopelessly – the Don Draper of existentialism.

Of course, the one thing Don Draper surely is, Albert Camus, his writing reveals, never was: a stranger in his own life. The political forces that Camus opposed, on the right and the left, are far less powerful than they were in his life and prime, but they still bedevil us, trampling nations and their people with brutality or traipsing across the intellectual scene in ignorance and folly. I have written about Camus several times, including once very personally, and once in introduction to the ultimate film of existentialism in extremity. Below, from the archives, from just over two and then one year ago, are two previous posts about Camus and his significance: “Absurd Man” and “Rebellion and Revolution.” From Camus’ 1950’s notebooks, Gopnik draws the essential Camus, to begin:

Justice in the big things only. For the rest, just mercy.

Absurd Man

(January 20, 2010)

January 4th was the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Camus in a car crash, an end all too facilely characterized and diminshed as “absurd.” He was 46 years old, and he had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you missed it, and care to, you can read about the meaning of Camus in my own life in the Writer’s Choice, from this past December, over at Normblog.

The Economist has some thoughts on Camus in light of four new works on his life released in France. When he died – because he had separated himself from the rationalizations and justifications of the ascendant European Marxist left, and been ostracized by Sartre and his intellectual coterie – he was at the low point of his public life. Today, as The Economist points out, his star is risen again.

History finds Camus on the right side of so many of the great moral issues of the 20th century. He joined the French resistance to combat Nazism, editing anunderground newspaper,Combat. He campaigned against the death penalty. A one-time Communist, his anti-totalitarian work, “L’Homme Révolté” (“The Rebel”), published in 1951, was remarkably perceptive about the evils of Stalinism. It also led to his falling-out with Sartre, who at the time was still defending the Soviet Union and refusing to condemn the gulags….

The public recognition that Camus achieved in his lifetime never quite compensated for the wounds of rejection and disdain from those he had thought friends. He suffered cruelly at the hands of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their snobbish, jealous literary clique, whose savage public assassination of Camus after the publication of “The Rebel” left deep scars. “You may have been poor once, but you aren’t anymore,” Sartre lashed out in print.

“He would remain an outsider in this world of letters, confined to existential purgatory,” writes Mr Lenzini: “He was not part of it. He never would be. And they would never miss the chance to let him know that.” They accepted him, says Mr Tanase, “as long as he yielded to their authority.” What Sartre and his friends could not forgive was the stubborn independent-mindedness which, today, makes Camus appear so morally lucid, humane and resolutely modern.

These qualities praised in Camus can be found everywhere in his writing, most directly in his essays, from those he wrote for Combat, as editor of that underground French Resistance newspaper, to those on Algeria, to his Nobel acceptance speech. This following excerpt is from a collection of essays written forCombat after the war, translated by Dwight McDonald, and published in 1947 as “Neither Victim nor Executioner” (a theme pursued further in The Rebel, to come) in Politics.

And it is sociability (‘le dialogue’) the universal intercommunication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice and lies destroy this intercourse and forbid this sociability; and so we must reject them. But these evils are today the very stuff of History, so that many consider them necessary evils. It is true that we cannot ‘escape History’, since we are in it up to our necks. But one may propose to fight within History to preserve from History that part of man which is not its proper province. That is all I have to say here. The ‘point’ of this article may be summed up as follows:

Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthered or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for the moment, they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will then, continue. But I will ask only this simple question: what if these forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of History on which so many now rely turns out to be a will o’ the wisp ? What if, despite two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations and a whole system of values, our grandchildren – supposing they survive – find themselves no closer to a world society? It may well be that the survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since it is inevitable that they continue to do so, there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive, through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life. The essential thing is that people should carefully weigh the price they must pay.

To conclude: all I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honourable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.

If that end may seem to veer toward the excessively idealistic, let’s consider that Camus had just, with his life, opposed Nazism. He gambles that words are morepowerful than munitions. He knew as well as we might think we do that for long periods of time that may not be so. But if we of the free and democratic societies that are products of the Enlightenment ever believe our intellectual and human achievements, which we hope will transcend our many failings, prevail in the right not with the aid of our might, when necessary, but because of it, then we must know that it is not right at all.

Rebellion and Revolution

(January 31, 2011)

With the current events in Egypt following upon the still unfolding story in Tunisia, the nature and potential consequences of revolutionary upheaval are much on people’s minds. For Egypt, as generally for the Middle East, democrats everywhere celebrate the swell of a common spirit of liberty seeking to throw off shackles. Realists, even among democrats, worry, too, knowing the politics and players of the region, about what may yet follow that could betray the initial free and liberating spirit. There is every reason to anticipate – and signs – that Islamist parties of varying levels of extremity will seek to advance their causes amid the flux of events.  So far, with some measure of regrettable death and criminality, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, unfolding, offer hope in the general spirit and conduct of those nations’ citizens. Much remains to occur and be witnessed.

Thinking of what hangs in the balance in these revolutions, I was reminded of Albert Camus‘ The Rebel (L’homme révolté). In the 1951 work Camus examined  the rebel’s act in terms of origins and ends. He considered what impels rebellion, the human limits it seeks to throw off and its commitment, in throwing off those limits, to an understanding of the human condition. A recognition of the immorality of oppressively imposing limitations on any of us,  reasoned Camus, imposes limits too on what the rebel may do in claiming his own freedom.

When Camus wrote, it was in the context already of several decades of Marxist utopianism, and of European Left rationalization of that utopianism’s essential excess, before, even, any comprehensive knowledge of the totality of communist crimes, with much still to come. A not dissimilar form of rationalization for ideological and political excess exists at the far reaches of the Left today. It exists, too, in the Islamism that might still play a role in these revolutions being played out before us, with roots in the unreason of doctrinal theology. For the Western Left, Camus might say, the unreason is that which lies at the end of reason, reason that believes it can reach and even enact an absolute.

from Part V: Thought at the Meridian

from “Moderation and Excess”:

[R]ebellion with no other limits but historical expediency signifies unlimited slavery. To escape this fate, the revolutionary mind, if it wants to remain alive, must therefore return again to the sources of rebellion and draw its inspiration from the only system of thought which is faithful to its origins: thought that recognizes limits.

from “Beyond Nihilism”:

There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and of thinking which is possible on the level of moderation to which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history. Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition.

from “Rebellion and Murder”:

It is then possible to say that rebellion, when it develops into destruction, is illogical. Claiming the unity of the human condition, it is a force of life, not of death. Its most profound logic is not the logic of  destruction; it is the logic of creation. Its movement, in order to remain authentic, must never abandon any of the terms of the contradiction that sustains it. It must be faithful to the yes that it contains as well as to the no that nihilistic interpretations isolate in rebellion. The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness. Nihilistic passion, adding to falsehood and injustice, destroys in its fury its original demands and thus deprives rebellion of its most cogent reasons. It kills in the fond conviction that this world is dedicated to death. The consequence of rebellion, on the contrary, is to refuse to legitimize murder because rebellion, in principle, is a protest against death.

from “Beyond Nihilism”:

Rebellion proves in this way that it is the very movement of life and that it cannot be denied without renouncing life. Its purest outburst, on each occasion, gives birth to existence. Thus it is love and fecundity or it is nothing at all. Revolution without honor, calculated revolution which, in preferring an abstract concept of man to a man of flesh and blood, denies existence as many times as is necessary, puts resentment in the place of love. Immediately rebellion, forgetful of its generous origins, allows itself to be contaminated by resentment; it denies life, dashes toward destruction, and raises up the grimacing cohorts of petty rebels, embryo slaves all of them, who end by offering themselves for sale, today, in all the market-places of Europe, to no matter what form of servitude. It is no longer either revolution or rebellion but rancor, malice, and tyranny. Then, when revolution in the name of power and of history becomes a murderous and immoderate mechanism, a new rebellion is consecrated in the name of moderation and of life.

For all this, Camus was spurned by Sartre and excoriated by much of the French Left.  Time only proved him right, then and now, and in 1957 he won his Nobel Prize for Literature.


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