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The moral passion of Albert Camus

[Part 2]

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 ship wrecked.

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 in life.

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.’

Mind

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 play.

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 life.’

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 works.

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.

Existentialism

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 important ways.

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 familiar world.

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 focused reflection.

 

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