Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Albert Camus

Albert Camus

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

Albert Camus was a philosopher like Bertrand Russell was a philosopher.  Camus, whose fiction is among the greatest written in the 20th century, denied that he was a philosopher or that he was proposing a philosophical position.  Indeed, in reading his fiction and essays it is apparent that he places little value in modern philosophy, ideology, and religion because, ultimately, each promises a utopia that is unrealizable and that oftentimes ends in evil, even though the intentions of the proponents of those schools of thought may be good.  Out of these writings, however, he does construct an edifice for how we can live our lives in a universe that we learn is vaster and older than we ever imagined.  In this way he anticipates the current crop of scientific writers who are beginning to extend their interests to this same territory, in particular, the so-called New Atheists through such works as Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins as in this talk:

But also other writings from various specialties such as Lewis, Amini, and Lannon in A General Theory of Love.  Or perhaps it is they who have continued his line of thought, though they may not be entirely aware of that fact.

For Camus, who lived first-hand during the fall, humiliation, and Vichy collaboration of his beloved France–a member of the Resistance–life was an “absurd” proposition since we live our mortal lives and ask ultimate questions in the face of a silent universe.  In his book length essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942; Eng. tr. 1955) he noted that we humans continue to ask such questions yet, like Sisyphus, find ourselves tumbling back down the hill.  Reason and deductive philosophical methods fail to answer these questions since they attempt to prove using circular reasoning the propositions that they assume as true.

For me the essential wisdom to be garnered from Camus lies in the novels The Stranger (1942; Eng. trans., 1946), The Plague (1947; Eng. trans., 1948), and The Fall (1956; Eng. tr. 1957), though along with the essays The Rebel (1951; Eng. tr. 1954) and the aforementioned The Myth of Sisyphus, though he hardly ever wrote anything that was not worth reading.  Wisdom derived from these works is not simply in the philosophical propositions that they explore but in their insight into the human condition.

In The Stranger, the main character Meursault, a French Algerian, describes his world in a detached and pathological manner.  He is what today we would recognize as a sociopath, a condition that may describe as many as one of every twenty five people.  It is here that Camus explores the nature of evil.  The book opens with him discussing the death of his mother in a dry, almost passive voice, which he learns through a telegram.  He is asked to travel to a nursing home a distance away to make arrangements for her burial, which he does reluctantly.  He then returns home as quickly as he can to spend time with his girlfriend, for whom he expresses no feeling.  As we explore Meursault’s character we find that he does not care about anything, nor does he share empathy with his fellow human beings.  He decides eventually to kill another person as an intellectual exercise.  He wants to know: can he kill a stranger without anger?

When he is arrested for the crime Meursault barely tries to defend himself, explaining to the jurors that he feels nothing but annoyance at having to defend his actions.  As a result he is put to death for his crime.  The Stranger was first published in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France.  It was during this time that Camus was editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat.  All around him was the horror of human cruelty given legitimacy by an invading force that killed without regret.  It is in this context that the novel’s flat tone is both shocking and intimate given the monstrous human phenomenon it describes.  For Camus, evil is ignorant–pathology and solipsism being extreme forms of ignorance.  The character Meursault sounds much like the pleadings of Eichmann after his capture by the Israeli authorities chronicled in Hannah Arendt‘s landmark book Eichmann in Jerusalem.  In her study of the man Arendt posited that Eichmann was anything but an aberration but, in her terminology, evil it turns out is banal.  In this same vein Camus’ Meursault is a very banal man, and the embodiment of his own country’s collaboration with fascism and the Holocaust which caused people to do horrible things to their fellow human beings.

In The Plague, Camus’ masterpiece, scores of people are falling ill and dying in the Algerian city of Oran.  Despite the reality before them, the city’s leaders are unwilling to accept that it is bubonic plague.  As the disease runs out of control with fear running amok, the government finally takes action and places the city under quarantine.  The people of the city are now not only cut off from the outside world and their loved ones, but also cut off from social contact within the city.  Fear, isolation, and panic overtake the community.

As Camus develops his story the people of Oran react in one of two ways to the plague: those who personalize the danger and regret their lives, and those who dedicate themselves to caring for the sick, despite the personal danger to their own health.  Among this latter group is Dr. Rieux and a few of his acquaintances.  Only after almost half of the city’s population dies does the community realize that all of them have a high probability of dying.  Accepting their own mortality they develop a sense of unity and place the needs of the community of a whole above their own personal needs and desires.  This is a theme that Camus will revisit in later essays and literature.  Faced with the realization of one’s mortality in an indifferent universe does one give up and die, pursue one’s own interests, or is there still another way to preserve the best that makes us human?  Camus comes down strongly for finding such a way in the compassion, sympathy, and empathy felt among one’s fellow human beings, which speak to the needs of all of us.

In The Fall, probably Camus’ most controversial and complex novel, we follow the conversation between former Parisian lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, and a fellow Parisian he meets in a seedy dockside bar in Amsterdam named Mexico City.  The conversation is one-sided, and first person through the second person, not an unfamiliar approach for those familiar with the work of Joseph Conrad.  The story covers a period of five days in five separate locations starting at the bar and ending in Clamence’s apartment.  Clamence describes himself as a “judge-penitent,” and it is not entirely clear what he means when his narrative begins, but which reveals itself as the story unfolds.

The novel follows three main sections:  Clamence in Paris and his fall, Clamence in a prison camp during the Second World War, and Clamence’s acquisition of the painting “The Just Judges.”  Each of these sections pose a dilemma and explain Clamence’s self-description of “judge-penitent.”

In Paris, before his self-described fall, Clamence had been a well respected lawyer.  He viewed himself as the defender of the downtrodden and actively sought out cases that bolstered his image in this way.  His actions were not so much motivated by altruism than both public approval and self-image.  Clamence’s fall, and his self-imposed exile to Amsterdam, is caused by his own lack of action when a woman falls to her death along the River Seine.  He passed the woman along his walk and saw that something was amiss.  Regardless he presses on and hears a splash, though he doesn’t see her fall.  He chooses not to go back and investigate, avoiding the choice of whether to place his own life in danger in saving the woman.  He tries putting the incident out of his mind and avoids reading the newspapers in fear that they may confirm that the woman did, indeed, jump–an act that would undermine his own self-image.

Then one day, he finds himself close to the same location along the river while in a self-congratulatory mood.  He hears laughter in the distance and it seems to be coming from the water, though he turns and it most likely came from two lovers in the distance, though there is enough doubt in the narrative to suggest that it was generated by Clamence’s subconscious and that he himself uttered the laugh.  He is thus reminded of his cowardly behavior and the possibility of the woman’s death.  He is struck by the contradiction of his self-image and the reality of his motivations and actions.

Later Clamence’s “fine picture of himself” is literally shattered by a sucker-punch to the face coming from a motorcyclist with whom he gets into an argument for blocking a congested city street.  Dejected and seeing for himself for the first time for what he truly is, Clamence attempts to destroy the image he built of himself, living a life of debauchery and consorting with the worst elements of Paris.  Despite these attempts the myth of his public image is too strong and he fails as a public penitent.

In the second part of the narrative, Clamence tells the story of his desire during the war to join the Resistance, but his fear of death is too much for him.  In fear he instead flees to North Africa with the intention of ending up in London.  I was reminded in reading this portion of the book of the Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca and came to realize that its narrative was very close to the experience of many Frenchmen during this time.  During his transit Clamence is arrested in Tunis, supposedly as a precautionary measure, and ends up in a German prison camp.  While in the camp he meets a veteran of the Spanish civil war, captured by a “Catholic general” and handed over to the Germans.  The man tells him that, supposedly as a result of the Church’s collaboration, he has lost his faith in Catholicism and posits that a new Pope is needed.  Only able to control the limited environment of their imprisonment, the inmates at the behest of the Spanish inmate elect Clamence the camp “Pope,” with wide latitude over the distribution of food, water, and work assignments.  At first diligent in his duties Clamence abuses his power one day by drinking the water of a dying man.  For the second time we have the imagery of water.  In the first case Clamence refuses to immerse himself to save another.  In this case Clamence consumes the water to cause the death of another.

In the final sequence, the stolen Jan van Eyck panel entitled The Just Judges from the fifteenth-century Ghent altarpiece entitled The Adoration of the Lamb hangs in a cupboard in Clamence’s apartment.  He explains that he acquired it from the bartender of the Mexico City who, in turn, had received it from the thief in return for a drink.  Because Clamence knew that the painting was being sought by the authorities he extended a “kindness” by offering to hide the panel for the new owner.  The subject of the panel are the judges on their way to adore Jesus.  To Clamence the judges will never find him since he cannot offer people the redemption that they seek.  Since Jesus’ teachings emphasized the avoidance of judging others, the Church subverted his message and turned him into the ultimate judge, separating him from his innocence as the Lamb.  It is here that he defines his role as judge-penitent.

Many critics have looked at The Fall as a break from the more optimistic and positive messages in The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Rebel.  Instead, however, I believe that this work is the fullest rendering of the human condition that he wrote, exploring the themes that he always visited.  Unlike The Stranger, there is no final judgement that brings justice.  Unlike The Plague, there is no community to pull together.  Instead, in the atomistic post-World War II world we only have individuals who appear to be trustworthy and acting in the public interest, though the reality is starkly different.  What goes around does not always come around.  In this way Camus is much like Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Bad Little Boy.”

The narrative structure goes a step further by insinuating the reader into Clamence’s world.  As such we, the second person, allow him to be what he is.  And, as such, we are co-conspirators to his actions and, by extension, to the world we allow to take place.  It is a book, along with its predecessors, that still speaks to our time.

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