Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)

Albert Camus (pronounced Kam-oo) (November 7, 1913- January 4, 1960) was a French author and philosopher and one of the principal luminaries (with Jean-Paul Sartre) of absurdism.

Camus was the second youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (after Rudyard Kipling) when he received the award in 1957. He is also the shortest-lived of any literature laureate to date, having died in a car crash 3 years after receiving the award.

Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria to a French Algerian (pied noir) settler family. His mother was of Spanish extraction. His father, Lucien, died in the Battle of the Marne in 1914 during the First World War, while serving as a member of the Zouave infantry regiment. Camus lived in poor conditions during his childhood in the Belcourt section of Algiers.

In 1923, Camus was accepted into the lycee and eventually to the University of Algiers. However, he contracted tuberculosis in 1930, which put an end to his football activities (he had been a goalkeeper for the university team) and forced him to make his studies a part-time pursuit. He took odd jobs including private tutor, car parts clerk, and work for the Meteorological Institute. He completed his licence de philosophie (BA) in 1935; in May of 1936, he successfully presented his thesis on Plotinus, Neo-Platonisme et Pensee Chretienne for his diplome d'etudes superieures (roughly equivalent to an M.A. by thesis).

Camus joined the French Communist Party in 1934, apparently for concern over the political situation in Spain (which eventually resulted in the Spanish Civil War) rather than support for Marxist-Leninist doctrine. In 1936, the independence-minded Algerian Communist Party (PCA) was founded. Camus joined the activities of Le Parti du Peuple Algerien, which got him into trouble with his communist party comrades. As a result, he was denounced as "Trotskyite", which did not endear him to Stalinist communism.

In 1934, he married Simone Hie, a morphine addict, but the marriage ended due to Simone's infidelity. In 1935, he founded Theatre du Travail- "Worker's Theatre"- (renamed Theatre de l'Equipe("Team's Theatre") in 1937), which survived until 1939. From 1937 to 1939, he wrote for a socialist paper, Alger-Republicain, and his work included an account of the peasants who lived in Kabylie in poor conditions, which apparently cost him his job. From 1939 to 1940, he briefly wrote for a similar paper, Soir-Republicain. He was rejected from the French army because of his tuberculosis.

In 1940, Camus married Francine Faure, a pianist and mathematician. Francine gave birth to twins Catherine and Jean Camus on September 5th, 1945. Also in this year, Camus began to work for Paris-Soir magazine. In the first stage of World War II, the so-called Phony War stage, Camus was a pacifist. However, he was in Paris to witness how the Wehrmacht took over. On December 15, 1941, Camus witnessed the execution of Gabriel Peri, an event which Camus later said crystallized his revolt against the Germans. Afterwards he moved to Bordeaux alongside the rest of the staff of Paris-Soir. In this year he finished his first books, The Myth Of Sisyphus. He returned briefly to Oran, Algeria in 1942.

Literary career

During the war Camus joined the French Resistance cell Combat, which published an underground newspaper of the same name. This group worked against the Nazis, and in it Camus assumed the moniker "Beauchard". Camus became the paper's editor in 1943, and when the Allies liberated Paris Camus reported on the last of the fighting. He eventually resigned from Combat in 1947, when it became a commercial paper. It was here that he became acquainted with Jean-Paul Sartre.

After the war, Camus became one member of Sartre's entourage and frequented Cafe de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris. Camus also toured the United States to lecture about French existentialism. Although he leaned left politically, his strong criticisms of communist doctrine did not win him any friends in the communist parties and eventually also alienated Sartre.

In 1949 his tuberculosis returned and he lived in seclusion for two years. In 1951 he published The Rebel, a philosophical analysis of rebellion and revolution which made clear his rejection of communism. The book upset many of his colleagues and contemporaries in France and led to the final split with Sartre. The dour reception depressed him and he began instead to translate plays.

Camus's most significant contribution to philosophy was his idea of the absurd, the result of our desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither, which he explained in The Plague. Some would argue that Camus is better described not as an existentialist (a label he would have rejected) but as an absurdist.

In the 1950s Camus devoted his efforts to human rights. In 1952 he resigned from his work for UNESCO when the UN accepted Spain as a member under the leadership of General Franco. In 1953 he was one of the few leftists who criticized Soviet methods to crush a worker's strike in East Berlin. In 1956 he protested similar methods in Hungary.

He maintained his pacifism and resistance to capital punishment everywhere in the world. One of his most significant contributions was an essay collaboration with Koestler, the writer, intellectual, and founder of the League Against Capital Punishment.

When the Algerian War of Independence began in 1954 it presented a moral dilemma for Camus. He identified with pied-noirs, and defended the French government on the grounds that revolt of its North African colony was really an integral part of the 'new Arab imperialism' led by Egypt and an 'anti-Western' offensive orchestrated by Russia to 'encircle Europe' and 'isolate the United States' (Actuelles III: Chroniques Algeriennes, 1939-1958). Although favouring greater Algerian autonomy or even federation, though not full-scale independence, he believed that the pied-noirs and Arabs could co-exist. During the war he advocated civil truce that would spare the civilians, which was rejected by both sides who regarded it as foolish. Behind the scenes, he began to work clandestinely for imprisoned Algerians who faced the death penalty.

From 1955 to 1956 Camus wrote for L'Express. In 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, officially not for his novel Reflexions Sur la Guillotine". When he spoke to students at the University of Stockholm, he defended his apparent inactivity in the Algerian question and stated that he was worried what could happen to his mother who still lived in Algeria. This led to further ostracism by French left-wing intellectuals.

Camus died on January 4, 1960 in a car accident near Sens, in a place named "Le Grand Frossard" in the small town of Villeblevin. Ironically, Camus had uttered a remark earlier in his life that the most absurd way to die would be in a car accident.

The driver of the Facel Vega, Michel Gallimard- his publisher and close friend- also perished in the accident. Camus was interred in the Lourmarin Cemetery, Lourmarin, Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France.

He was survived by his twin children, Catherine and Jean, who hold the copyrights to his work.

After his death, two of Camus's works were published posthumously. The first was an earlier version of The First Man, that Camus was writing before he died. The novel was an autobiographical work about his childhood in Algeria and was published in 1995.

Many writers have written on the Absurd, each with his or her own interpretation of what the Absurd actually is and their own ideas on the importance of the Absurd. For example, Sartre does little more than acknowledge it while Kierkegaard bases the existence of the God on the fact of the absurd. Camus was not the originator of Absurdism and regretted the continued reference to him as a philosopher of the absurd. He shows less and less interest in the Absurd shortly after publishing Le Mythe De Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus). To distinguish Camus's ideas of the Absurd from those of other philosophers, people sometimes refer to the Paradox of the Absurd, when referring to Camus's Absurd.

His early thoughts on the Absurd appeared in his first collection of essays, L'Etranger (The Stranger/Outsider), and in the same year releases Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), a literary essay on the Absurd. He had also written a play about a Roman Emperor, Caligula, pursuing an Absurd logic. However, the play was not performed until 1945. The turning point in Camus's attitude to the Absurd occurs in a collection of letters to a fictitious German friend, published in the newspaper Combat.

Camus' ideas on the Absurd

In the essays Camus presented us with dualisms; happiness and sadness, dark and light, life and death, etc. He wanted us to face up to the fact that happiness is fleeting and that we will die. He did this not to be morbid, but so we can love life and enjoy our happiness when it occurs. In Le Myth, this dualism became a paradox; we value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavours are meaningless. Whilst we can live with a dualism (I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come), we cannot live with the paradox (I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless). In Le Myth, Camus was interested in how we experience the Absurd and how we live with it. Our life must have meaning for us to value it. If we accept that life has no meaning and therefore no value, should we kill ourselves?

Meursault, the Absurdist hero of Le Mythe de Sisyphe raises questions it cannot satisfactorily answer.

Camus' work on the Absurd was intended to promote a public debate. His various offerings entice us to think about the Absurd and offer our own contribution. Concepts such as cooperation, joint effort and solidarity are of key importance to Camus. In the essay Enigma, Camus expressed his frustration at being labeled a philosopher of the absurd. None of his previous work was intended to be a definitive account of his thoughts on the Absurd, although the Le Mythe de Sisyphe is often mistaken as such.

Camus made a significant contribution to our understanding of the Absurd, but was not himself an Absurdist. "If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has a meaning." Second Letter to a German Friend, December 1943.

Books by Albert Camus