The moral passion of Albert Camus
Last week I discussed the novels of Albert Camus and why I think they
are significant and invite close and sustained attention of discerning
readers. Today I wish to begin by discussing his short stories and
plays. Exile and the Kingdom is his only collection of short stories.
It consists of six stories that deal with the plight of men and women
when confronted with demanding challenges; in other words they deal with
critical moments in the lives of his chosen characters. Many of the
stories are set in Algeria and reflect his ambivalence about the
Algerian struggle for self-determination. I will discuss this aspect
later in this column.
Exile and the Kingdom did not generate the kind of debates and
critical discussion that his novels such as The Stranger and The Fall
did. However, in my judgment, these stories display a facet of Camus'
creativity that merits focused attention.
These stories explore aspects of important social issues such as
women's freedom and agency, class antagonism, terrorism, the
ramifications of religious faith in modern secular societies and the
responsibilities of the artist. However, he carries out this exploration
through individual sensibility and inward tensions.
In other words, the author has chosen to extract the social and
political implications of the experiences he is reconfiguring through
indirect ways. The first story in this collection is titled The
Adulterous Woman and manifests the coming together of the powers of
nature, sexuality and religious sensibility in a complex way. The story
is centered around a middle-aged woman from a middle-class background;
it in a sense shows how she betrays her business-driven and conservative
husband by surrendering herself to the powers of nature and experiencing
a state of ecstasy in the desert night.
This is how Camus describes the experience in his lush prose. 'The
last stars of the constellations dropped their clusters a little lower
on the desert horizon and became still. Then, with unbearable
gentleness, the water of night began to fill Janine, drowned the cold.
Rose gradually from the hidden core of her being and overflowed in wave
after wave, rising up even to her mouth full of moans. The next moment,
the whole sky stretched out over her, fallen on her back on the cold
earth.' What is interesting about the story is that Janine's adultery is
metaphorical, or even, metaphysical and her achieved freedom ephemeral.
The second story is titled 'The Renegade' and takes place in Africa
and has a European as its protagonist. 'The Renegade' is confined to the
happenings of a single day. This story is constructed in the form of an
interior monologue around the musings and reflections of a priest, who
has been captured, and his tongue has been cut out by the members of a
tribe whom he sought to convert to Christianity.
The story tells us of his earlier conversion from Protestantism to
Roman Catholicism, and his later wish to convert the African tribes to
Christianity, and his inability to do so and the subsequent acceptance
of what he sees as their cruel divinities.
This story raises interesting questions about power, conviction,
domination, self-doubt and cultural otherness.
At one point, the protagonist ruminates, 'I dreamed of absolute
power, the kind that makes people kneel down, that forces the adversary
to capitulate, converts him in short, and the blinder, the cruelty he
is, the more he's sure of himself, mired in his own convictions, the
more his consent establishes the royalty of whoever brought about his
collapse.' This story, in many ways, can be regarded as the prototype
for his novel The Fall, which is also confessional in nature.
The third story is called ??The Silent Man and deals with a group of
workers coming to back their jobs after a strike that ended in failure.
Yvars is a cooper is growing old and is very conscious of this fact; he
woks in a factory; the workers went on strike but their attempt was
unsuccessful. The owner of the factory is not cruel or uncaring but the
growth of technology has forced him to adopt cost-cutting measures. The
demoralised workers come back but refuse to interact with their owner.
However,all this changes when the owner’s young daughter is taken by
ambulance to the hospital and they are forced to express their sympathy
to him. As Yvars cycles back from work, as he always does, as the
twilight covers over the horizon, it is about the little girl that he
thinks. The story captures aspects of human solidarity and empathy. As
in many other works of Camus, the sea plays a crucial role in the story
as a powerful visual symbol that underscores ideas of life and freedom.
The title of the fourth story is The Host. The original French title
L’Hote contains a pun; the word can mean both host and guest. If we take
the meaning of the English word, the story focuses on a European
schoolteacher Daru He works in a remote hilly area and is asked to take
into protective custody an Arab who is accused of murder. The following
day, Daru prepares breakfast for his guest and then goes with him to a
crossroads, and indicates the way to Tinguit where the authorities await
him; however, Dar allows him the opportunity to escape if he so desired.
The Arab prisoner decides submissively to take the road to Tinguit.
When he returns to the school he observes that someone had written on
the blackboard the ominous words, ‘you handed over our brother. You will
pay. The story concludes on a note of wistfulness; he is alone in the
country which he loved so much. Daru is presented as a sympathetic
character that has to face bitter truths of life.
The next story, ‘The Artist at Work has as its theme the predicament
of the artist who is successful in modern society.
How artists are compelled to navigate between the preferred solitude
and inescapable solidarity with others is vividly portrayed in this
story. Unlike in the other stories, and for that matter the novels,
there is a lightness of touch discernible in this short story. Jonas is
a painter whose very success, paradoxically, has made it virtually
impossible to practice his chosen art in the way that he would like.
He enjoys the adulation showered upon by his disciples but at the
same time realizes that it is superficial and has no deep roots in
informed understanding and art appreciation. What Albert Camus is
seeking to emphasize in this story, it seems to me, is to call attention
to the fact that an artist can best serve society and establish
solidarity with others if he is only allowed to pursue his medium of
expression in solitude.
The Artist at Work can be read as a satirical fable that captures the
unenviable predicament of an artist caught between preferred social
values and adulation and the pursuit of his deepest artistic impulses;
the artist has to seek an inner exile in order to avoid social pressure.
The last story in the collection is called The Growing Stone and
narrates the story of a French engineer who strives to cleanse himself
through gestures of fraternal solidarity in the jungles of Brazil. The
story is set in the island of Iguape; the French engineer D’Arrast has
become friends with Coq, African cook on a ship who was saved when the
Coq is firmly convinced that he was saved because of a miracle and
vows to carry a heavy stone and place it at the feet of the Virgin Mary
during a religious ceremony. In this story one observes a calculated
juxtaposition of the rationality of the engineer with the religious
intuition of Coq. It is as if Camus is seeking a space of sublimity that
transcends reason, language and social organization.
The following description taken from the last paragraph of the short
story captures this feeling effectively. ‘No sound but the murmur of the
river reached them through the heavy air. Standing in the darkness,
D’Arrast listened without seeing anything, and the sound of the water
filled him with a tumultuous happiness. With eyes closed, he joyfully
acclaimed his own strength; he acclaimed, once again, a fresh beginning
What we see in these stories, then, are explorations of themes such
as alienation, misunderstanding and miscommunication that marked his
earlier writings. A number of the characters in these stories are
perceived as outsiders even though they securely inhabit the terrain
that is being represented. In an interesting way, colonialism and the
complex problem that is Algeria figure prominently in the stories
collected in the Exile and the Kingdom.
At least two of the pieces underscore the transformations that have
taken place in Algerian society since Camus lived there, and represent
the diverse social and political currents at work in that society.
Although many critics, as I stated earlier, prefer to give short shrift
to this collection, I feel that it deserves careful study if only
because it focuses on the complexities of the Algerian problem that
animated France writers and intellectuals in interesting ways.
Let us now consider Albert Camus as a playwright. He was not only a
dramatist, but also an actor and director; he loved the theatre
immensely. In fact he has confessed on numerous occasions that he was
most content when working in the theatre. In addition to writing his own
plays, he directed the plays of others and adapted William Faulkner’s
celebrated novel Requiem for a Nun to the stage. In the 1940s there was
a remarkable resurgence in French theatre.
After the great classical theatre of Corneille, Moliere and Racine
there was a general decline in the art of the stage play. About two
hundred and fifty years a later French theatre was revitalised by the
emergence of such hugely talented playwrights as Claudel, Anouilh,
Giraudoux, Montherlant, Sartre, Ionesco, Becket and genet; Albert Camus
was in this distinguished company.
I stated earlier that Camus was deeply interested in the theatre.
This was, to my mind, due to three primary reasons. First, he saw the
theatre as a popular site wherein he could purposefully disseminate his
ideas on the absurdity of life, the destruction power of tyranny,
respect for freedom and dignity among ordinary citizens who are not
necessarily caught up in the intellectual debates among French thinkers.
Second, through acting and directing plays he was able to experience a
sense of uplift that a group of people working in solidarity to achieve
a common purpose. It became emblematic of his larger mission in life.
Third, in addition to the potentialities that the theatre possessed for
edification, he saw it as the finest form of creative expression that
has to be vigilantly nurtured.
During the period 1935-1939 Camus assiduously studied the art of
stage play – writing, acting, directing. He picked up the mechanics of
theatre-writing and theatre-production through hard work; he did so
under trying circumstances constrained by economic factors. During the
period 1944-1949, after World War II, Camus began to hit his stride as a
playwright. Je wrote four original plays which achieved varying degrees
of success. In this column, I wish to focus on ne such play, Caligula,
which in my judgment is his finest play. (This has been performed in
Sinhala).It displays his indubitable strengths as a dramatist. As a
writer, Albert Camus frequently looked to the classical heritage – Greek
and Roman myths and narratives and histories – for inspiration and
guidance. Caligula displays this proclivity admirably.
Caligula, also known as Gaius, was a well-known Roman emperor who
ruled from 37a.D – 41 A.D. In the first two years he administered the
land as a moderate, reasonable man with a sense of dignity. This all
changed after the death of his Drusilla, to whom he was deeply attached.
He became cruel, irrational, cynical, intolerant, ending up as an
implacable tyrant. Camus re-writes this narrative in terms of the stage
to focus on the absurdity of life as well as the nature of tyranny.
There is a distinct metaphysical edge to his ruminations on these
topics. The play consists of four acts; in the first, we are shown how
the citizens are troubled by the disappearance of Caligula subsequent to
the death of his sister with whom he had an incestuous relationship.
After three days he comes back as a different man. He is now filled with
sadness, appears to be untidy, and is firmly resolved to take the
destiny into his own hands while challenging the gods. Arrogantly his
objective is not to attain parity of status with the gods, which is
brazen it itself, but to rise above them.
In the second act, we see the resentful public plotting the death of
the emperor who has brought untold misery and humiliation on them. As
they plan the assassination they want Caligula to continue with his
madness and he des exactly that displaying his power to trample over the
lives of others. In the third act we observe the irrational ruler,
disguised as divinity, receiving the adulation of the people.
They naturally find his behavior abominable. Caligula with unabated
pride boasts that he has found the way to achieve parity of status with
divinity. He is as brutal and Helcion, one of the couriers of Caligula,
alerts him to the fat that people are disgusted with him and are
planning his assassination.
He dismisses these warnings. In the fourth and final act Caligula is
in ballerina costume; the people are called to the palace and expect to
be brutally killed. Instead they are treated to a dance by Caligula.
Then the patricians are gradually killed off. Obviously, this cannot go
on endlessly and Caligula is murdered by the gathered conspirators as he
looks into a mirror saying the prophetic words, ‘to history, Caligula,
history….I am still alive.’
The ending focuses on the tyrannical insanities that bring to mind
the excesses of modern totalitarian regimes. Some critics have
commented, accurately in my mind, that this play can be read as a
critique of totalitarianism, despotism, and the German Occupation. It is
important to bear in mind, however, that there are different levels of
meaning attached to the experience given dramatic figurality in this
For example, he sees certain heroic qualities and nobility of
defiance in Caligula’s character because he sought to challenge and
subvert the absurdity that marks the human condition. In other words, I
feel that it is too restrictive, and unfair to Camus, to read the play
as a mere political allegory.
Clearly, Camus is a playwright of ideas and so was his friend and
adversary Jean-Paul Sartre. However, there is a difference between them
as playwrights. As one critic remarked, ’neither Sartre nor Camus are
primarily playwrights. Sartre is, above all, a professional philosopher.
Camus is obviously more of an artist and was always active in the world
of theatre, but all of his works are dominated by intellectual searching
and examination of ideas..’
However, it is important to bear in mind their plays can be
differentiated from philosophical plays, as we standardly understand the
term because of the indubitable dramatic nature of the philosophies that
they espouse. Their theatre turns the spot light on the basic issues of
making sense of man and the world.
Caligula can be a described as a revolutionary figure or a quixotic
nihilist who is bent on transforming life. It is his desire go
obliterate the past and all traditions associated with it. He berates
against the divinity and subjects citizens to all kinds of humiliation;
he takes pleasure in defying commonsense . Indeed, Caligula seems to
harbour a strange concept of the world.
As he says, ‘I shall make this age of ours a kingly gift – the gift
of equality. And when all is leveled put, when the impossible has come
to earth and the moon is in my hands – then perhaps I shall be
transfigured and the world renewed; then men will die no more and at
last be happy.’ As we probe into Caligula’s mind what becomes clear is
that he is fantasizing the possibility of using unfettered power
Clearly, his idealised world takes precedence over human life.
As the literary critic Stephen Eric Bronner has aptly pointed out,
‘Caligula embodies attitudes and values popular during the 1930s;
cynicism, arrogance, elitism, and a nihilistic form of utopianism. Such
values and behaviour, according to Camus, call forth revolt. And not
just against Caligula or Hitler, but in principle against any dictator,
including presumably Stalin.’ He went on to assert that Caligula
cogently portrays the predicament of those suffering under regimes
exercising arbitrary and limitless power. Making use of Rome as a symbol
for the 1930s might make t hard for people to differentiate between
diverse totalitarian regimes; however, readers and spectators do
comprehend Camus’ message. He represented the political ramifications of
an ethical relativism that is ‘justified by the meaninglessness of
So far I have discussed the creative writings of Albert Camus – his
novels, short stories and plays. He also gained a wide reputation as an
exceptionally gifted essayist and journalist who wrote perceptively and
lyrically on personal, social and metaphysical issues. Camus also
achieved wide fame as a thinker – not so much as a systematic thinker in
the way that Sartre was, but more as an intuitive thinker.
His books such as The Myth of Sisyphus and the Rebel bear testimony
to this fact. In this concluding section of this column I wish to focus
on Camus vision of life and society and human beings. It is important to
bear in mind that this vision of his is vitally connected to the
narratives, situations and characters he brings to life in his creative
Let me illustrate this point with reference to two works – The
Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; the former, as we saw earlier, is a
highly acclaimed novel while the latter is a philosophical discussion.
What is interesting to observe is that the one complements the other in
an interesting way. The Stranger is a creative analysis of a state of
mind which leads to the realisation of a newer perspective on life while
The Myth of Sisyphus can be regarded as a philosophical re-description
of this perspective as well as the state of mind that it wanted to get
rid of. In other words, The Stranger is a narrative of emotion while The
Myth of Sisyphus is a philosophical examination of that feeling.
The novel underscores the fact that despite the reality that
absurdity pervades life, and it appears to be meaningless, life is worth
living. Meursault, the protagonist of the stranger realises this fact at
the end. Similarly The Myth of Sisyphus points out that suicide is not
the answer to the absurdity and meaninglessness that mark life.
Therefore, the abstract thoughts of Camus on life and society and
human existence have to be understood in relation to his creative works.
There are a number of topics that merit close analysis in terms of Camus
thinking and social vision. In the interests of space I wish to focus on
three of them. The first is his wide reputation as an existentialist
thinker and a proponent of the Absurdism.
The second, his ambivalence about the Algerian independence struggle.
The third is his complex and deteriorating relationship with Jean-Paul
Sartre. All three of these themes shed valuable light on the strengths
and weaknesses of Camus as a social thinker.
Let us first consider existentialism and his perceived adherence to
this mode of thinking. Existentialism is more a philosophical
orientation than a clear system of thought. Kierkegaard is generally
regarded as its originator, and in the hands of thinkers such as Karl
Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre it
evolved in diverse directions. Existentialists, by and large, deny that
the universe constitutes a determined and ordered system whose ruling
law as can be understood through reason.
They believe that the problem of being should be privileged over that
of knowledge acquired through philosophical inquiry, each individual has
to grasp the living reality in terms of the actual situation he or she
finds himself or herself in. ideas if freedom, action, responsibility,
authenticity figure prominently in their writings. For them the logical
starting point for philosophical investigation is the individual and his
experience as individual. This philosophical movement gathered momentum
after World War II and began to influence art and literature in
There is a fairly widespread, although in my judgment, mistaken
belief that Camus is an existentialist. Both Sartre and Camus denied
that this was indeed the case. The Myth of Sisyphus, in many ways, can
be read as a critique of existentialism, especially the Christian
existentialist tradition popularised by Kierkegaard and Jaspers.
As Camus sees it, existentialist thinkers begin with the idea that
the world is meaningless and then through a leap of faith to assert that
there is meaning and depth in it. As he pointedly remarked they, ‘deify
what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them.’
Albert Camus himself made the following comment.
‘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 each refuses to answer for the debts that the other may
have incurred….Sartre and I published all of our books, without
exception, before we became 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.’
While Camus, by his admission, did not favour existentialism, he was
certainly closer to the idea of the absurd which, in many ways, he was
instrumental in disseminating. His writings are closely linked to the
idea of the absurd. To be sure, Camus is not deploying the word absurd
in its common guise as being ridiculous, but more in the way it is used
in musical discourses as out of harmony.
Camus used this term in both his creative and philosophical writings
to underline the meaninglessness, illogicality, purposelessness of the
world that we inhabit. For Camus a sense of metaphysical anxiety and the
absurdity of the world go hand in hand. In the myth of Sisyphus he makes
the following revealing comment.
‘A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a
But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of
light, man feels a stranger. he is an irremediable exile, because he is
deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of
a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the
actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of absurdity.’ This
statement, it seems to me, encapsulates persuasively Camus’
understanding if the term absurdity.
The second important, and in many ways the most controversial, theme
that I wish to discuss is Albert Camus’ attitude to Algeria and the
Algerian struggle for independence. He has been attacked both from the
left and the right for the kind of vision on the Algerian struggle that
he espoused. Camus’ identifies deeply with Algeria, and many of his most
lyrical passages in his fiction deal with the natural beauty of Algeria.
He was also appreciative if the diverse cultures that constituted
Algerian society. At the same time, he also empathised with the French,
especially those from the lower classes, who had lived in Algeria for
centuries, like his family. He was opposed to the imperial designs of
the French and the gratuitous violence of the Algerian nationalists. He
was caught in the cross-fire between these two contending groups,
satisfying neither. Writers like Cruise O’ Brien and Edward Said have
criticised him for not being more forcefully anti-colonialist in his
thoughts and action.
Camus’ attitude to the Algerian struggle was complex and nuanced. At
the risk of unfairly simplifying it, it can be described as follows.
Despite the fact that he was of the opinion that Algeria was inseparable
from France both historically and culturally, he was deeply critical of
the injustices perpetrated by the government; the government was
primarily concerned with furthering the interests of a small minority of
rich European colonizers.
At the same time Camus opposed to violence. (interestingly, in some
of his writings I came across approbative references to Gandhi).Hence he
was opposed to the violence unleashed by the French as well as the
Algerian nationalists. He promoted a kind of cultural assimilation and
Mediterranean cosmopolitanism. Critics such as Edward Said and Cruise
O,Brien took exception to this; they felt that he was paying inadequate
attention to the corrosive powers of colonialism.
Third, I wish to focus on the friendship and conflict between the two
great writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Both were outstanding
writers and profound thinkers. Initially Sartre praised Camus his junior
by eight years. He said, ‘you were for us – tomorrow you may be again –
the admirable union of a person, an action and a work…..you were close
to being exemplary. For you summed up the conflicts of the time, and you
transcended them by your ardent living of them.’
Although they were friends initially, there emerged differences
between them that later appeared to become unbridgeable. Camus was
critical of Sartre’s attempt to marry existentialism and Marxism and his
uncritical support of Soviet communism. Sartre, for his part felt that
Camus was being dawn more and more towards bourgeois way of thinking and
he faulted Camus for underplaying the adverse impact of colonialism.
The differences between these two writers are important because they
serve to call attention to some of the significant fault-lines in the
intellectual topography of France at the time.
Albert Camus, undoubtedly, is one of the greatest writers of the
twentieth century. Sri Lankan writers, Sinhala, Tamil and English, have
drawn on this thinking. To be sure, he had his share of faults and blind
spots. However, he exerted a profound influence on the thought and
imagination of his times. It is indeed his moral passion that, above
all, animated his writings which I find most compelling and worthy of