One of my favorite writers is Albert Camus (1913-1960). Although I do not totally embrace his philosophy of the absurd (Absurdism), I’ve always admired how Camus addresses those events and experiences in living that we encounter that evades our making sense of them so that we can easily place them in our logic-box. Logic is a good tool, but, from my perspective, we stretch the tool beyond its limits when we believe it can sum up everything there is about life, providing us with certainty about all things. Whether it be The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, The Plague, or The Stranger, Camus, through his philosophical and fictional writings, introduced readers to the kinds of experiences that we face in living, or at least those experiences we watch others go through, that challenge the notion that we fully, or even mostly, comprehend life. Born in French Algeria, in his early life, Camus fought in the French Underground during Nazi occupation, writing for the underground publication, Combat. In his activism as a writer, he sought to fight inequalities between Europeans and natives in Algeria. As an Algerian, he hoped for peaceful coexistence between France and Algerians, speaking out against atrocities on both sides. Having been a member of the French Communist Party, the party expelled him when he joined the Algerian People’s Party, embracing anarchism. (Anarchism is a term totally misused and misunderstood, which is an entire different discussion altogether. Suffice it to say here, anarchism does not mean lawlessness and despoil.) Indeed, it’s Camus’ anarchism that draws me to his writings and much of his philosophical thought. In regards to his supposed Absurdism, Camus stated later in life that he did not care to be associated with the philosophy of absurdism. As an anarchist, he instead was interested in how human beings face life events and experiences, which they cannot comprehend. He was more interested in the will of human beings to make sense and meaning of such experiences.
Writing more in-depth about Camus on this blog is something I hold open for the future. Anyone who has read Camus knows that his writings are packed full of statements that can be used aphoristically. While I enjoy reading aphoristic writings, we have to take care not to lift quotes from writers where they scream bloody-murder for being ripped and shredded out of their contexts. Having said that, what I want to do in this blog article is respond to three quotes by Camus that are some of my favorite. I don’t pretend to totally understand them, or have the right take on them. If I must give advice, the best I can do is encourage people to read this prolific author, who is anything but simple so as to place in a box of some literary criticism.
Summer and Winter
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was, within me, and invincible summer.
There are a lot of takes on this quote from general anthropological ones to various types of spiritual interpretations. Some attribute the quote to Camus’ supposed optimism. Others believe that Camus is saying that human beings have more power in them than they realize, and that they should find ways to ignite that power. Still others interpret Camus to be saying that human beings do not realize their true potential until they face difficult times.
Excuse me, if you will, but it’s somewhat difficult for me to view Camus as an optimist, encouraging people that if they simply think positively, then things will turn out okay. Personally, I cannot glean such an idea from his writings. Likewise, I don’t see Camus as seeking to make a general anthropological statement to the extent that he believes all people have an inner-light that they must turn on. Specifically, the quote says, . . . within me . . . His discovery was personal. The notion that people do not realize what they’re made of until they face difficult times, comes close to what Camus may be getting at. The invincible summer, however, may not be what everyone finds. Moreover, the invincible summer does not appear to mean that, even for the one who finds it within himself, that all things turn out okay. Whether it was the French underground, the Algerian conflict, or his personal battle with tuberculosis, Camus dealt daily with the unknown. Could it possibly be that the invincible summer is Camus’ bearing what life brings his way, whether things turn out okay or not?
Knowing and Doing
There is no happiness if the things we believe in are different than the things we do.
The notion of living out what we believe is one in which I have become personally interested during the last several years or longer. I particularly am interested in the idea of what we know, we do, as well as the consequences from when we do and when we don’t do what we know. Expediency tends to trump principle these days. It is a temptation for all of us, I believe. I will even strongly personalize that statement – it is and has always been a temptation for me. I believe things strongly, and for the most part, I also think I’ve lived out in my life what I believe. Nonetheless, there are those times when the road seems easier to forsake principle and take the easy way out. Moreover, clarifying what one believes and values appears to be an ongoing process. At 69 years old, I’m not the same person I was at 29. (Thank the heavens.) Clarifying values from day-to-day is a most difficult task. I do believe strongly that it is important to know, not only what we believe, but why we believe it. Again, Camus’ work in the French Underground, his activism pertaining to the conflicts between Europeans and Algerians, and his fall out with Sartre’s embracing of Stalinism, all addressed stands that Camus took publicly. Camus, however strongly he argued a position, because that is what he thought he should do, he didn’t seem to ask for obeisance as much as he wanted his own life to be an example so as to challenge people to come to their own conclusions. Another pithy statement he made speaks to this understanding: We are all special cases. People have to clarify their own values and reach their own conclusions within their personal contexts. For Camus, such clarification comes through stepping into and experiencing life. Another aphorism he offers: You can’t create experience. You must undergo it. I strongly believe that the integrity to live out what we believe and value is worth our pursuit. There is a caveat. We appear always to be undergoing change, so what we believe and value, and particularly how we apply what we believe and value to living, evolves through our contact with the experience of living.
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
I find it rather comical these days when I hear social critics claim again and again that America is an individualistic society. Would be that such a claim were true! Personally, I believe the sickness of the day is conformity. Whether it’s the search for gurus, political leaders, or motivational speakers, people appear to be looking for someone to tell them how to live. We are surrounded by speech codes, political correctness, patriot acts, celebrity-ism, and dichotomous debates that reduce to the line, if you don’t agree with me, then you are . . . fill in the blank. Again, Camus states: Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. I would add that a large sum of people expend a lot of energy to make everyone normal, as they, of course, define normal. Camus’ anarchism and personal rebellion against an existence that parasites and sucks the life-blood from an individual is one of the things about him I admire most. We seem to be constantly confronted by a social matrix filled with messages and narratives that want to claim our personhood to be either this or that. We have a war on sex, a war on drugs, a war on speech, and and war on thought – a war for one’s mind. Pithy though it may be, I like Camus’ simple definition: What is a rebel? A man who says No. Addressing the notion of living out what one believes, the quote that opens this section is one I hope to live out. There are countless times through the years that I have failed at doing so. Moreover, I’m not – and most likely cannot ever be – clear on how to live out such a claim. And it’s an existence that each person must search out for him or herself. It’s a rebellion against existence itself. There is a parasite sucking one’s brain among all the commercials, that which passes as art, that which passes as science, and politically-correct ideologies that seek to tell you what you should believe, how you should act, and even what words you should use. Maybe it’s time for people to say No. Saying no will be each person’s path; it’s not about everyone agreeing on everything. Indeed, disagreement appears to be something we can’t handle these days. To live as though one’s existence is an act of rebellion is a tough call. I’m not sure I can pull it off. But I hope to.
Camus’ writings are complex, difficult to digest, and impossible, most likely purposely so, to catalog. He neither liked being associated with the philosophy of the absurd, nor being labeled an existentialist. Although he joined certain political movements, he tended to fall out with them the second they sought to categorized his thought and existence. He despised anything that smacked of collectivist authoritarianism. His fallout with Sartre over Stalin’s atrocities proved to be life-long. It would have been more than merely interesting to watch Camus’ thought evolve had his life not been cut so tragically short. His life was one as a writer of fiction, an essayist, a playwright, and a committed philosophical rebel. He took his stand on freedom, which he described with another pithy saying: Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better. Each of us must define and describe that for ourselves, and decide on what ground or foundation, if any, we think our beliefs and values stand. Camus’ rebellion was anything but an unthinking one. What do I believe and why do I believe it? Each person, not only must decide his or her answer to those questions, but also must decide whether or not the question is worth asking for the pursuit.
John V. Jones, Jr. Ph.D, LPC-S/November 14, 2016