prevailing through contempt I

Albert Camus was born on 7 November 1913, in a family of French settlers in Algiers. In his youth, he played soccer and studied philosophy. He realized his maturity in popular essays that treated disturbing themes in a soothing fashion. He wrote about resisting suicide and living in insensibility. He engaged the demons of personal and social negativity, ranging from debilitating guilt to random terror. He endorsed personal rebellion as the pathway to solidarity in the face of absurd existence. Camus stood on the left, apart from all parties. He published clandestine polemics in the French Resistance and disassociated himself from the Communist Party after the Soviets suppressed the Hungarian rebellion. He declared himself against the capital punishment and declined to declare himself against colonialism, refusing to take sides in the Algerian revolt. His novels and plays rehearsed and amplified his concerns. They became wildly popular in France and abroad. The Nobel Prize consecrated his ambivalent reputation. His writing earned popular acclaim and supercilious condescension. He was killed on January 4th, 1960, when his friend Michel Gallimard spun out of control his Facel Vega, advertised as the fastest four-seat coupé in the world, its refined French chassis overwhelmed by a brutish American engine. The car veered off a country road and rammed into a tree. Camus was the only casualty of this accident. He was 46 years old. Ever since, his stature has grown, even as his critics declined into odium and hysteria.


    In his 1942 essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus took the bull by the horns:

    Il n’y a qu’un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux : c’est le suicide. Juger que la vie vaut ou ne vaut pas la peine d’être vécue, c’est répondre à la question fondamentale de la philosophie. Le reste, si le monde a trois dimensions, si l’esprit a neuf ou douze catégories, vient ensuite. Ce sont des jeux ; il faut d’abord répondre. Et s’il est vrai, comme le veut Nietzsche, qu’un philosophe, pour être estimable, doive prêcher d’exemple, on saisit l’importance de cette réponse puisqu’elle va précéder le geste définitif. Ce sont là des évidences sensibles au cœur, mais qu’il faut approfondir pour les rendre claires à l’esprit.     There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. To judge whether life is or is not worth the trouble of living, is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must begin by answering. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, the importance of that reply can be readily grasped, for it will precede the definitive act. These are conspicuities the heart can feel; yet they must be investigated before they become clear to the intellect.
    Si je me demande à quoi juger que telle question est plus pressante que telle autre, je réponds que c’est aux actions qu’elle engage. Je n’ai jamais vu personne mourir pour l’argument ontologique. Galilée, qui tenait une vérité scientifique d’importance, l’abjura le plus aisément du monde dès qu’elle mit sa vie en péril. Dans un certain sens, il fit bien. Cette vérité ne valait pas le bûcher. Qui de la terre ou du soleil tourne autour de l’autre, cela est profondément indifférent. Pour tout dire, c’est une question futile. En revanche, je vois que beaucoup de gens meurent parce qu’ils estiment que la vie ne vaut pas la peine d’être vécue. J’en vois d’autres qui se font paradoxalement tuer pour les idées ou les illusions qui leur donnent une raison de vivre (ce que l’on appelle une raison de vivre est en même temps une excellente raison de mourir). Je juge donc que le sens de la vie est la plus pressante des questions. Comment y répondre&bsp;? Sur tous les problèmes essentiels, j’entends par là ceux qui risquent de faire mourir ou ceux qui décuplent la passion de vivre, il n’y a probablement que deux méthodes de pensée, celle de La Palisse et celle de Don Quichotte. C’est l’équilibre de l’évidence et du lyrisme qui peut seul nous permettre d’accéder en même temps à l’émotion et à la clarté. Dans un sujet à la fois si humble et si chargé de pathétique, la dialectique savante et classique doit donc céder la place, on le conçoit, à une attitude d’esprit plus modeste qui procède à la fois du bon sens et de la sympathie.     If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions that it induces. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held an important scientific truth, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a useless question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others that paradoxically get themselves killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is at the same time an excellent reason for dying). I therefore judge that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions. How to answer it? On all essential problems ― I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that increase tenfold the passion of living ― there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Only the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity. In a subject at once so humble and so imbued with pathos, the learned and classical dialectic must therefore yield, as one can see, to a more modest attitude of mind deriving at one and the same time from common sense and fellow feeling.
    On n’a jamais traité du suicide que comme d’un phénomène social. Au contraire, il est question ici, pour commencer, du rapport entre la pensée individuelle et le suicide. Un geste comme celui-ci se prépare dans le silence du cœur au même titre qu’une grande œuvre. L’homme lui-même l’ignore. Un soir, il se tire ou il plonge. D’un gérant d’immeubles qui s’était tué, on me disait un jour qu’il avait perdu sa fille depuis cinq ans, qu’il avait beaucoup changé depuis et que cette histoire « l’avait miné ». On ne peut souhaiter de mot plus exact. Commencer à penser, c’est commencer d’être miné. La société n’a pas grand chose à voir dans ces débuts. Le ver se trouve au cœur de l’homme. C’est là qu’il faut le chercher. Ce jeu mortel qui mène de la lucidité en face de l’existence à l’évasion hors de la lumière, il faut le suivre et le comprendre.     Suicide has never been dealt with, except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here, at the outset, with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, in the manner of a great work of art. The man himself knows nothing of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment building manager who had killed himself, I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since, and that that experience had “undermined him”. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is found in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. This fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light, it must be followed and understood.
― Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942, Essais, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1965 (E), p. 99 ― translated by MZ

    The writing inspires and infuriates. Camus sweeps away the foundations of philosophy to institute in their place a matter of private concern. His rhetoric persuades by undermining his case. If philosophical problems matter at all, they matter only for their own sake. To burden metaphysics with human reasons to go on living, is to dismiss its validity. The universe began without involving any human lives. Its end is unlikely to require any human participation. If any fundamental truths arise between these endpoints, they cannot depend upon human desires and willings. Mankind arrives on its stage too late and quits it too early, to remake, let alone define, its basic workings.
    Whether or not a genuine interest in the way the universe works justifies human sacrifice in its defense, is a question best left to individual determination by each interested party. By recanting his scientific convictions, Galileo may have saved his life, at the certain cost of undermining its reason to go on in selfless pursuit of truth. We know this denial to have inspired Descartes to don his mask. To be sure, one man’s tergiversation cannot be held accountable for another man’s dissimulation. The want of transitivity in life choices lies at the root of the problem identified by Camus. But from the general standpoint, it is already evident that human reasons for endurance or extinction are not forthcoming on abstract grounds. The proliferation of mutually irreconcilable reasons is manifest, and reasons that motivate the saint in submitting his will to abstract ideals, are not merely insufficient, but utterly incomprehensible to the hero striving to subordinate the idealists and the pragmatists alike to the command of his will.
    Camus readily admits that his philosophical diagnosis, let alone the prescription derived from it, does not apply to everyone. He addresses a particular kind of man, man whose faith in reason has suffered as much at the hands of Kant and Nietzsche, as his religious belief has suffered from the critique of Voltaire and Diderot. His condition is not, however, that of an epigone of modernity. The Socratic aporia already suggests that life is paradoxical, that it defies all rational analysis, that all attempts to mediate this paradox with logic by reducing it to mere contradiction tend to lose its substance altogether. Both Nietzsche and Camus follow Socrates in embracing the paradox as constitutive of human existence rather than as an intolerable but necessary burden. Camus begins by pointing out that even if there is one ultimate meaning to existence, we cannot know it. Because of our finitude in the face of infinity, because of our reason’s inability to comprehend its own workings, because of the aporia enunciated by Socrates, and the antinomies of pure reason announced by Kant, because of the gap between a knowing subjectivity and the sought for objectivity, we humans are incapable of connecting the “why” to the “wherefore” that might not be there. Within our subjective individual realities, we might find some that by themselves stand as truths, and probably comprise parts of the universal meaning. But, put all together they do not quite make it. Whatever the meaning of life might be, it must be greater than the sum of these little truths available to us. Yet, regardless of their eternal inability to achieve their goal, men strive to know that there is a meaning, one great meaning to life. They take all the little subjective realities given to them in their senses as evidence of that. They apprehend this meaning directly in their consciousness, without understanding it in their intellect. Just as their senses are receptive to experience, so their minds are susceptible to truths that witness the meaningfulness of their existence. Our perception, volition, and cognition, our consciousness and reflection, our aptitude for scientific discovery and moral sense, all open the roads to meaning. Alas, these roads do not go very far. This confrontation of human longing for clarity with its frustration by the world engenders the absurd. (E, p. 110. I owe much of this account to Mark C.E. Peterson.)
    In his novel L’Étranger, written and published simultaneously with Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus presents a character who refuses every received idea resigning him to his place in the social order, personal relations, and the universe in its entirety. Patrice Meursault frustrates all expectations regarding his behavior. He declines to submit to the common standards of manners and mores. He rejects polite complacency in the face of his meaningless life and irremediable human condition. (See the discussion in Sprintzen, Camus: A Critical Examination (Sprintzen), pp. 23-40.) His story begins with his failure to mourn for his mother:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.
L’Étranger, Théâtre, récits, nouvelles, Gallimard, 1962 (TRN), p. 1127
Mother has died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know. I have received a telegram from the asylum: “Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Sincere condolences.” It means nothing. Perhaps it happened yesterday.
―translated by MZ

This emotional lacuna forebodes fatal trouble for Meursault. The trouble unfolds towards his refusal to feign contrition on trial for his life. It abuts at his rejection of the final opportunity to reconcile himself with religious faith on the night before he is to be executed. Meursault cannot accept the promise of eternal salvation at the expense of the one life he is given with immediate certainty. It makes no difference that he is about to lose his life at the hands of the law, punished for his failure to abide by the customary rules. But then he comes to terms with his fatal predicament all the same:

Lui parti, j’ai retrouvé le calme. J’étais épuisé et je me suis levé sur ma couchette. Je crois que j’ai dormi parce que je me suis réveillé avec des étoiles sur le visage. Des bruits de campagne montaient jusqu’à moi. Des odeurs de nuit, de terre et de sel rafraîchissaient mes tempes. La merveilleuse paix de cet été endormi entrait en moi comme une marée. A ce moment, et à la limite de la nuit, des sirènes ont hurlé. Elles annonçaient des départs pour un monde qui maintenant m’était à jamais indifférent. Pour la première fois depuis bien longtemps, j’ai pensé à maman. Il m’a semblé que je comprenais pourquoi à la fin d’une vie elle avait pris un « fiancé », pourquoi elle avait joué à recommencer. Là-bas, là-bas aussi, autour de cet asile où des vies s’éteignaient, le soir était comme une trêve mélancolique. Si près de la mort, maman devait s’y sentir libérée et prête à tout revivre. Personne, personne n’avait le droit de pleurer sur elle. Et moi aussi, je me suis senti prêt à tout revivre. Comme si cette grande colère m’avait purgé du mal, vidé d’espoir, devant cette nuit chargée de signes et d’étoiles, je m’ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde. De l’éprouver si pareil à moi, si fraternel enfin, j’ai senti que j’avais été heureux, et que je l’étais encore. Pour que tout soit consommé, pour que je me sente moins seul, il me restait à souhaiter qu’il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon exécution, et qu’ils me accueillent avec des cris de haine.
L’Étranger, TRN, pp. 1211-1212
Once he left, I recovered composure. I was exhausted and I got up on my bed. I believe that I slept because I awoke with stars in my face. The sounds of the country rose up towards me. Odors of night, of soil and salt refreshed my temples. The wonderful tranquility of this sleeping summer entered me like a tide. At this moment, at the extremities of the night, howled the sirens. They announced departures for a world that now was forever indifferent to me. For the first time in a long while, I thought of mother. It seemed to me that I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a “fiancé”, why she had pretended to start over. Over there, over there also, around this asylum where lives died out, the evening was like a melancholy truce. So close to death, mother had to feel liberated and ready to relive it all. No one, no one had the right to cry over her. And me also, I felt ready to relive it all. As if this great anger had purged me of pain, emptied of hope, before this night burdened with signs and stars, I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world. To feel it so equal to me, so fraternal at last, I felt that I had been happy, and that I was happy still. So that all were consummated, so that I felt myself less alone, it remained to me only to hope that there would be many spectators on the day of my execution, and that they would meet me with cries of hatred.
―translated by MZ

The narrator’s avoidance of insight serves his narrative in good stead. The immediacy of sensory experiences, which constitutes his entire universe, cannot endow Meursault with the means to transcend his fateful predicament. His final epiphany of resignation and acceptance seems to come from nowhere. Given his consistent rejection of social bonds, it is not easy to account for this sudden swelling of fraternal feeling, howsoever perversely sustained by in his social exclusion, in the mind of a doomed pariah. A sensual sponge, who absorbs experience without reflecting on it, would not seem capable of an emotive leap of such abruptness. Sustaining this transition from nihilism to solidarity will become the central philosophical concern of Camus in the following years.

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