Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Albert Camus: "Resistance, Rebellion and Death"


(The following essay appeared on my Multiply site on November 29, 2011)  

"We notice that everywhere, together with freedom, justice is profaned. How then can this infernal circle be broken? Obviously, it can be done only by reviving at once, in ourselves and in others, the value of freedom--and by never again agreeing to its being sacrificed, even temporarily, or separated from our demand for justice."-From "Resistance, Rebellion and Death" (1959) 

"A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once"--Blaise Pascal (used as an introductory quote by Albert Camus' for his last collection of essays: "Resistance, Rebellion and Death".) 

To me , Albert Camus (1913-1960) stands as one of the most illuminating political and social philosophers of the 20th Century. He was also an exceptional novelist--his masterpiece being "The Plague" (1948)--a story about a seemingly inexplicable contagious disease which ravages an Algerian coastal city and how various people of various backgrounds come to grips with the randomness of its victims. He also wrote many plays for the theater including a 3 1/2 hour adaptation Dostoyevsky's novel "The Possessed" (1959) which was his last major work before his untimely death from a car accident n the south of France on January 4, 1960. Three years earlier he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

His attitudes and opinions were, to quote one of his English translators, Justin O' Brien, unique, sometimes in the face of hostility, sometimes at the risk of his life (as in his workin journalism and militancy in the French Underground during World War II) and later in vitriolic attacks against him by former friends, including the most famous philosopher of that time in France,  Jean-Paul Sartre. 
Many French left writers and other intellectuals sided with Sartre at the time he struck out, first through disciples and then directly, against Camus for his unabashed non-favoritism between Soviet, American and non-aligned camps in the Cold-War tinged struggles of the 1950's. 

It would have easier for Camus to confine his criticisms of the post-war era to Francoism and the United States "containment" strategies of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles , which supported fascist and other dictatorial regimes in many parts of the world. But Camus saw attacks against human liberty in places like East Berlin, Poland, and Hungary as well. It was this past and present limitlessness of revolutionary movements going back to the French Revolution and the reign of the mad emperor Caligula that inspired his writings. 

Anything foul and inhumane Camus fought against, most courageously when his country was occupied and he was writing brilliant pro-freedom essays and working with the Underground for the liberation of France. His writings in the newspaper "Combat" are truly above propaganda. At the same time, when "Combat" became a commercial entity after the war, and the editorial line was compromised,he left it. He also left his position with UNESCO when it accepted fascist Spain as part of its transnational members. 

"By remaining flagrantly independent", Justin O'Brien wrote a year after Camus death,"he could speak out against both against the Russian slave labor camps and against US support for Franco's Spain. By overcoming the immature nihilism and despair that he saw as poisoning our century, he emerged as the staunch defender of our positive moral values and of 'those silent men who, throughout the world, endure the life that has been made for them."

"Freedom is not made up principally of privileges; it is made up especially of duties."--Camus. 

He was a also staunch opponent of the death penalty, in all its forms, and, at great loss to his prestige against the Paris intelligentsia, this Algerian-born son of a single mother who lived with her in poverty for years, stood against the terrorism of if the 1950's between the Algerian radicals in the F.L.N. and the French colonialists and the torture and desperate retributions of those who wanted Algeria to step back into its harsh colonial past. 

Camus didn't compromise in his ideas of liberty or concern for the lowliest individual. His father had died at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. His mother was of humble origins and they were forced to live in a poverty stricken part of Algeria. He worked a variety of low-paid jobs and participated on a soccer team and a local theater group in Algiers. He was given a chance at university based on his intellect and he received a degree after completing university courses. He joined the Communist Party in Algeria in 1936, but couldn't stay with that group. Later, he incurred the wrath of the moderate government for his exposes in his newspaper work about the plight of the poor Kabyle tribes in North Africa.

After World War II, he continued his work as a writer in Paris and became friends with other major writer-philosophers, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. This ruptured in the early 1950's when he wrote "The Rebel", a book-length essay. 

Unlike Sartre, he could not look away when he saw individuals destroyed for some future "greater good". 

Having seen war firsthand and the loss of many of his comrades in the spy networks that were set up to thwart the German occupiers, Camus became a warrior for truces and greater understanding among opposing forces. At the same time, he held an overall "absurdist" view of life. 

"To observe that life is absurd is not an end, but a beginning."
- Albert Camus 

From the Swarthmore College webpage on the author: "Camus was concerned mainly with exploring avenues of rebellion against the absurd as he strove to create something like a humane stoicism. The Plague (1947; Eng. trans., 1948) is a symbolic novel in which the important achievement of those who fight bubonic plague in Oran lies not in the little success they have but in their assertion of human dignity and endurance. In the controversial essay The Rebel (1951; Eng. trans., 1954), he criticized what he regarded as the deceptive doctrines of "absolutist" philosophies--the vertical (eternal) transcendence of Christianity and the horizontal (historical) transcendence of Marxism. He argued in favor of Mediterranean humanism, advocating nature and moderation rather than historicism and violence. He subsequently became involved in a bitter controversy with Jean Paul Sartre over the issues raised in this essay."


  1. Albert Camus was an extraordinary writer and man. I read The Stranger (aka The Outsider) and The Plague many years ago, I was greatly impressed by Camus' literary style. The darkness of the stories reflect his own Absurdist position as a subcategory of existentialism, but veering toward the Nihilistic side somewhat it is about the ultimate absurdity of hoping to find any universally agreed meaning in nature. I've never read The Rebel, but having read your post I think I should add another title to the ever increasing reading list. Thanks for featuring Albert Camus here Doug, I think he is sometimes overshadowed by Sartré in the Cold War French literary and philosophical extablishment. His life tragically was cut short, but he is I think one of 20th century Europe's really great writers.

    1. I'm glad you think so highly of Albert Camus, AA. The Stranger (Outsider) is a book I vividly remember being so absorbed in, especially Meursault's coming to realization of his true self and his individual senses that it had a strong influence on me before I could understand the Absurdist position.
      "The Rebel" is also one I'd recommend. It touches on the writings of Marx, Bakunin, Dostoyevsky, et al, and the whole issue of revolutionary words (tracts, manifestos, novels) and in deeds--things you yourself are demonstrably well-versed in.

      I'm forever grateful to a professor I had in 19th and early 20th Century Russian history who led me to that book.

      I'm right now reading a boook that serves as an introduction to Kierkegaard and his concept of subjective truth, which Camus expanded upon for modern readers. It's true I've certainly approached the existentialist school from the wrong way around. ;-)