Unformatted text preview: 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page i ALBERT CAMUS 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page ii Page Intentionally Left Blank 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page iii ALBERT CAMUS
FROM THE ABSURD TO REVOLT
John Foley 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page iv First published 2008 by Acumen
Published 2014 by Routledge
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Typeset by Graphicraft Limited, Hong Kong. 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 For my mother and for Farah 04:34PM Page v 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page vi Page Intentionally Left Blank 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page vii It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity
for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our
declining capitalist civilization: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies
have not recognized, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to
me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in
some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or
the absolute values of our primitive past. “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions,” said an admirable writer of our time, “and yet stand for them unﬂinchingly,
is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.” To demand more than this is
perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s
practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political
Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958) 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page viii Page Intentionally Left Blank 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page ix CONTENTS Acknowledgements
Notes on the text and abbreviations
1 1 The absurd
The Myth of Sisyphus
Between nihilism and hope 5
26 2 Camus and Combat
Camusian rebellion and political engagement
Letters to a German Friend
Camus and Combat
“Neither Victims nor Executioners”
The Plague 29
50 3 The Rebel
63 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page x x ALBERT CAMUS Marx, history and state terrorism
Unity and totality 67
76 4 Camus and political violence
The scrupulous assassin
“Reﬂections on the Guillotine” 87
100 5 Camus and Sartre
The “revolted soul”
“Hostile to history”
“Freedom without brakes”
Camus and Sartre on violence 108
126 6 Camus and Algeria
A new Mediterranean culture
A civilian truce 141
155 Conclusion 170 Notes
235 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page xi ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I wish to thank the following individuals or institutions: the Irish Research Council
for the Humanities and Social Sciences for the award of a postdoctoral fellowship
2004–6, during which much of this research was done; Kevin Barry and Nicholas
Canny of the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, at
the National University of Ireland, Galway, where I worked for the duration of my
IRCHSS fellowship; Mme Catherine Camus, who granted me extraordinary access
to materials at the Centre de Documentation Albert Camus, Bibliothèque Méjanes,
Aix-en-Provence, in the spring and summer of 2003, and Marcelle Mahasela,
Director of the archive, who greatly assisted me in my research; the Harry Ransom
Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, which awarded
me a Mellon Fellowship in 2007, permitting the consultation of those papers in
the Alfred Knopf Collection pertaining to Camus; the Beinecke Rare Book and
Manuscript Library, Yale University, for assistance in ﬁnding my way through a
small part of the John Gerassi Collection of Jean-Paul Sartre; Joe Mahon, at the
Department of Philosophy, NUI Galway, who supervised this research through its
initial stages; the editors of Albert Camus in the 21st Century (Rodopi, 2008), in
which a version of Chapter 5 has appeared; Steven Gerrard of Acumen, for his support for this project and for his patience.
The following individuals kindly responded to various queries, offered advice, or
gave support: Hédi Abdel-Jaouad, Ronald Aronson, the late Konrad Bieber, Ian
Birchall, the late Jo Campling, Cairns Craig, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Colin Davis, Phil
Dine, Peter Dunwoodie, Raymond Gay-Crosier, John Gerassi, Daniel Gri-Gri, Eddie
Hughes, John Kenny, Paschal O’Gorman, Eric Sellin, the late Pat Sheeran, Frank
Shovlin, Joe Sweeney, Maurice Weyembergh. I am particularly grateful to David 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page xii xii ALBERT CAMUS Carroll and David Sprintzen, both of whom read the book in manuscript for the
publisher and made several valuable suggestions.
I owe a very great deal to my family, Mary, Charles and Stephen, and to Farah,
without whom this work would not have been completed.
John Foley 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page xiii NOTES ON THE TEXT AND
ABBREVIATIONS In almost all cases the dates given for entries to the Carnets or Notebooks are
approximate, as most entries are not dated. If no reference is given for a translation
from the French, it is my own; if a reference to a translated text is followed by an
asterisk (*), the translation has been revised. Finally, the following abbreviations
have been used throughout:
NB2 Carnets I: mai 1935–février 1942 (Paris: Gallimard, 1962).
Carnets II: janvier 1942–mars 1951 (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).
Carnets III: mars 1951–décembre 1959 (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).
Cahiers Albert Camus Vols 1–8 (see bibliography for full references to
Camus at Combat: Writing 1944–1947, ed. J. Lévi-Valensi; fwd D.
Carroll; trans. A. Goldhammer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Caligula and Other Plays: Caligula, Cross Purpose, The Just, The
Possessed, trans. S. Gilbert et al. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).
Essais, Introduction par R. Quilliot; Edition établie et annotée par R.
Quilliot et L. Faucon (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1965).
Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. E. C. Kennedy; ed. P. Thody (New
York: Knopf, 1968).
The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. J. O’Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
Notebooks 1935–1942, ed. & trans. P. Thody (New York: Knopf, 1963).
Notebooks 1942–1951, ed. & trans. J. O’Brien (New York: Knopf, 1965). 9781844651405_A01_Acumen.qxd 10/09/2008 04:34PM Page xiv xiv ALBERT CAMUS OCI
TRN Œuvres Complètes: Tome 1, 1931–1944, ed. J. Lévi-Valensi et al. (Paris:
Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2006).
Œuvres Complètes: Tome 2, 1944–1948, ed. J. Lévi-Valensi et al. (Paris:
Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2006).
The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, revised and complete trans. A.
Bower; fwd H. Read (New York: Knopf, 1956).
Resistance, Rebellion and Death, trans. J. O’Brien (New York: Knopf,
Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, eds & trans. D. Sprintzen &
A. van den Hoven (New York: Humanity, 2004).
Selected Essays & Notebooks, ed. & trans. P. Thody (Harmondsworth:
The Outsider, trans. J. Laredo (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983).
The Plague, trans. S. Gilbert (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960).
Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles, Préface par J. Grenier; Textes établis et
annotés par R. Quilliot (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,
1962). 9780773534667_A02.qxd 10/09/2008 10:42 AM Page 1 INTRODUCTION
It is essential for us to know whether man, without the help of the eternal or of rationalistic thought, can unaided create his own values . . . the uneasiness that concerns
us belongs to a whole epoch from which we do not want to dissociate ourselves. . . .
We know that everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. But we must
ﬁrst posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account.1
(Albert Camus, “Le Pessimisme et le Courage”, Combat 3 November 1944) Despite his popular image, strictly speaking Camus was not an existentialist. His
ﬁrst major philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), was explicitly intended
as a critique of existentialism, especially the Christian existentialist tradition of
Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Chestov. According to Camus, starting from the premise
that nothing in the world has meaning or depth, existentialists proceed, through a
leap of irrational faith, to ﬁnd meaning and depth in it. He thus criticizes representatives of the philosophical movement with which he is most closely associated for
“deify[ing] what crushes them and ﬁnd[ing] reason to hope in what impoverishes
them” (MS: 35; E: 112). Moreover, although in France in the 1940s and 1950s to be
an existentialist was, most probably, to be a follower or admirer of Sartre’s atheistic
existentialism, we ﬁnd in this period both Sartre and Camus repeatedly insisting
that Camus was deﬁnitively neither an existentialist nor a Sartrean. Indeed, in 1939,
reviewing Sartre’s short story collection The Wall, Camus can be seen to object to
Sartre’s depiction of human freedom as both total and futile. For Camus, as David
Sprintzen notes, the characters of Sartre’s ﬁction have “absolutised their freedom
to compensate for a transcendent absolute by whose absence they are haunted”.
Furthermore, this freedom “bears witness to a deeper isolation from the world
around them and, most particularly, from nature” (Sprintzen 1988: 44). In the world
described by Sartre, the individual is “reduced to self-contemplation”, is conscious
of “his profound indifference to everything that is not himself ”, is “alone, enclosed
in this freedom”. This solipsism is symptomatic of the discovery of the absurd but,
says Camus in a review of Sartre’s Nausea in 1938, “the realisation that life is absurd
cannot be an end, but only a beginning. This is a truth that nearly all great minds
have taken as their starting point. It is not this discovery that is interesting, but the
consequences and rules for action that can be drawn from it.”2 9780773534667_A02.qxd 10/09/2008 10:42 AM Page 2 2 ALBERT CAMUS Although the “absurd”, as we shall see, constitutes Camus’s “ﬁrst principle”, he
nevertheless deﬁnes his intellectual programme precisely in contrast with existentialism. In 1943, for example, he declares that the purpose of The Myth of Sisyphus
is to deﬁne “an absurd way of thinking [une pensée absurde], that is, one delivered of
metaphysical hope, by way of a criticism of several themes of existential philosophy”.3 In 1944 he declares that, although it is a “great philosophical adventure”,
he believes the conclusions of existentialism to be “false”; a few weeks later, Sartre
characterizes Camus as a proponent not of existentialism but of a “coherent and
profound . . . philosophy of the absurd”.4 In November 1945, a month after the ﬁrst
issue of Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes appeared, Camus declared:
No I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our
names associated. We think that one day we may publish a short statement
in which the undersigned afﬁrm that they have nothing in common and that
they each refuse to answer for the debts that the other may have incurred . . .
Sartre and I had published all of our books, without exception, before becoming acquainted. Our eventual meeting only conﬁrmed our differences.
Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas I’ve written, The Myth of
Sisyphus, is directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.5
Two days later in another interview Camus reiterates the same points, adding
that “if one is an existentialist because one poses the problem of human ends, then
all literature, from Montaigne to Pascal”, deserves to be called existentialist.6 In an
interview in December 1945, Sartre responds unequivocally to the “almost habitual”
association of his work with that of Camus: “It rests”, he says, “on a serious confusion. Camus is not an existentialist.” His “real masters”, says Sartre, are not
“Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Heidegger” but “the French moralists of the 17th century”.7 In the same month, Camus reafﬁrms his differences with existentialism,
and suggests that the confusion whereby he is treated as a “disciple” of Sartre in the
popular media may derive from the fact that few people seem to understand the
meaning of existentialism. He afﬁrms that he is not a philosopher, on the basis that
he has not “sufﬁcient faith in reason to believe in a system”, and criticizes theistic
existentialism for its irrational leap of faith.8 Critically, in this interview Camus goes
on to introduce another criticism of existentialism, one which, I would suggest, is
directed primarily if not exclusively at Sartre. In The Myth of Sisyphus, as we have
noted, Camus accused the existentialists (theistic existentialists in particular) of
“deifying what crushes them”. In this interview he criticizes atheistic existentialists
for what he considers to be a similar resort to divine mystery, this time in what he
sees as a divinization of history: “they no longer believe in God, but they believe in
history”, history considered as an absolute value, an idea rooted in Hegel and
Marx, for whom the totalizing “meaning” and direction of history were discernible.
Although Camus admits to understanding the attraction of the religious “solution”
and, most especially, he appreciates the importance of history, he believes in neither
“in their absolute sense”. “It makes me very uneasy”, he says, “that I am being forced 9780773534667_A02.qxd 10/09/2008 10:42 AM Page 3 INTRODUCTION 3 to choose between Saint Augustine and Hegel. I have the impression that there must
be a tenable truth between the two extremes.”9
Although such an appeal to “history” as a transcendent value may seem alien to
existentialism, it was entirely relevant to Sartre, who, as is well known, sought to
reconcile his existentialism with Marxism, and who had in the interview just quoted
identiﬁed himself as a Marxist.10 To this extent, Camus’s rejection of existentialism
became more a focused rejection of Sartrean existentialism and what he considered
the incompatibility of its alleged deiﬁcation of history with its afﬁrmation of human
freedom.11 A month later, in January 1945, Camus responded to a review of his play
Caligula, which suggested that the play “is but an illustration of the principles of
Sartre’s existentialism”. Camus replied, pointing out that, ﬁrst, the play had been
written in 1938, before Sartre’s existentialist works had been published, secondly,
his only book of ideas, The Myth of Sisyphus, explicitly criticizes existentialism (and
part of this critique may still be applied to Sartre) and, thirdly, that although he recognized the “historical importance” of existentialism he had not sufﬁcient faith in
reason to subscribe to a system, to the point that even Sartre’s manifesto in the ﬁrst
issue of Les Temps modernes seemed to him “unacceptable”.12 As we shall see, this
critique of Sartrean existentialism achieves its ultimate expression in The Rebel
(1951), the essay that provoked a spectacular end to their association in the public
eye. Here Camus notes that while “atheistic existentialism” may wish to “create a
morality”, it has yet to respond to the “real difﬁculty” involved in creating such a
morality “without introducing into historical existence a value foreign to history”.13
For the present purposes, the merits of Camus’s criticism of existentialism are
not at issue – the point is simply that he went to considerable effort to distinguish
himself from existentialism, particularly Sartrean existentialism, and that any
attempt to read Camus as an existentialist should take this into account. Camus, in
this account, can be seen to object to what we might call philosophical existentialism on the basis that: (a) although, broadly, he agrees with the initial absurd premise
of existentialism, he claims that in its response to the absurd it “deiﬁes what crushes
it” (this was especially the case for theistic existentialists); and (b) in its Sartrean
form, its “deiﬁcation of history” is incompatible with the existentialist afﬁrmation of
radical human freedom.
There is of course another, less technical way in which the term existentialist can
be deployed, and identifying Camus with this group is hardly problematic. How we
want to describe this broader group of writers is open to debate, but it seems that
we could do far worse than use Camus’s reference to a literature concerned with
“the problem of human ends”. In any event, although classifying Camus as an existentialist constitutes a singularly unhelpful way of assessing the merits of his
thought (because he was a critic, not an exponent, of existentialism), reading him as
a moraliste or, to use his own term, “an existential writer” may provide little assistance in determining the value of his writing.14
This book suggests that Camus’s oeuvre can be read in a relatively systematic
way if we concentrate on two pivotal concepts in his writing: the absurd and revolt.
It argues that they are both intellectually coherent, meaning that they admit a fair 9780773534667_A02.qxd 10/09/2008 10:42 AM Page 4 4 ALBERT CAMUS degree of analytic scrutiny, and, furthermore, that they are mutually dependent
upon one another, by which I mean that, according to Camus, if the absurd is not to
degenerate into moral nihilism it must rehabilitate itself in the light of revolt, and
that if revolt is not to deteriorate into a regime of tyranny and oppression, it must
remain conscious of its origins in the absurd premise.15 There have been a number
of important critical contributions that share this view of the relation between the
two concepts (notably those of David Sprintzen and Thomas W. Busch), but there
remains an inﬂuential critical perspective according to which Camus eventually
rejected the absurd in favour of revolt (most recently in Avi Sagi and Richard
Kamber).16 The problem with such a perspective is that it inevitably leads to a distorted view of both the absurd and revolt and, as we shall see, can result in Camus’s
concept of the absurd being identiﬁed with nihilism, and his...
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