The Tireless Search for Albert Camus
To be sure, he was cool. With an olive complexion, a dark pompadour, and the dark eyes and sagging jowls of Humphrey Bogart, Albert Camus had the look. A fashionable French novelist, he could sport a trench, dangle a stylish cigarette off his bottom lip, and pen an edgy, avant-garde novel about a man who… The post The Tireless Search for Albert Camus appeared first on VoegelinView.




To be sure, he was cool.
With an olive complexion, a dark pompadour, and the dark eyes and sagging jowls of Humphrey Bogart, Albert Camus had the look. A fashionable French novelist, he could sport a trench, dangle a stylish cigarette off his bottom lip, and pen an edgy, avant-garde novel about a man who shoots someone dead on a beach for no good reason at all.
Albert Camus was cool. But he was engaged in “The Search.”
Philosophically, Camus described himself as an Absurdist. Absurdism is an offshoot of existentialism that grapples with an “absurd” paradox. While we live in a world of insurmountable trial and inexplicable suffering, we are haunted, if not compelled, by a notion that there is meaning amidst it all. In chaos, we still believe in an elusive, yet sensible structure. In misery, we possess hope. Empirical evidence, Camus reminds us, points away from meaning. And yet there we are, undeterred, in hot pursuit of it. The greater the gap between difficult reality and our hopeful expectation of it, the more absurd is our plight.
Here, it seemed, was another elite French cafe philosopher who, once again, deigned to lecture the rest of us on the supremacy of the empirical and the silliness of the transcendent. It was only a matter of time, I imagined, before Camus was insisting that the world is purely material and only to be experienced through our base sensations.
But that’s when Camus surprised me.
In The Myth of Sisyphus (a treatise composed during the Nazi occupation of France), Camus tackled what he called the “fundamental question of philosophy…whether life is or is not worth living.” In the thick of his philosophical musings, he landed on the ancient story of the trickster Sisyphus whose mischievous ways incited the ire of the gods. In return, they punished him by forcing him to forever roll a massive boulder up the mountainside only to watch it thunder back down so that Sisyphus would have to roll it back up again. Sisyphus’ fate could be considered hopeless and meaningless, exactly what the punishing gods intended. But Camus adds a wrinkle to the age-old story. Notwithstanding his pointless and endless plight, Camus’ Sisyphus had the last laugh. He outwitted the gods by somehow finding meaning in the drudgery of his task. “Each atom of that stone,” Camus writes, “each mineral flake of the night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The spirit that was intended to be broken was instead buoyed. Nihilism was averted. The transcendent surpassed the tragic.
In his 1947 novel The Plague, Camus follows the brutal consumption of an Algerian town by bubonic plague. Amidst the unquenchable fevers, thundering headaches, and suppurating buboes, the weary Dr. Rieux and his motley crue of assistants perform their work. When Rambert, the foreign pressman, agitated to slip through the city’s quarantine barricades and escape the interminable darkness of the plague, Rieux offered understanding. Who didn’t want to flee the tragedy that was consuming them all? “However,” Rieux paused, “there’s one thing I must tell you; there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.” Rieux, a shocked Rambert would quietly discover, was dislocated from his own wife who was ill in a far removed city. Rambert, we soon find out, decided to stay and help.
In 1951, Camus crafted The Rebel which served as an Absurdist philosophical bookend to The Myth of Sisyphus.  “In the age of negation, it was of some avail to examine one’s position concerning suicide,” Camus observed, “In the age of ideologies, we must examine our position related to murder.” Having served in the French Resistance, Camus endured the dark totalitarian realities of National Socialism. In the wake of the war, he nurtured no illusions about the similarly oppressive nature of Communism championed by so many of his fellow French intellectuals, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre. “Ideology today is concerned with the denial of other human beings…Each day at dawn, assassins in judges’ robes slip into some cell: murder is the problem today.” Camus rejected ideology’s insistence that absolute freedom and absolute justice were either compatible or achievable. Lest there be moderation where one virtue chastens the other, ideology risks devolving to despotism and revolutionary violence in its name. Camus’ indictment of the logical end of totalitarianism created a rift between him and Sartre that would never be repaired.
Albert Camus never saw the problem of an absurd world as an end in itself. He was a seeker. “To observe that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning….What interests me is not this discovery [of life’s absurd character], but the consequences and rules of action we must draw from it.” Camus’ path reminds me a little of Walker Percy’s character Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer. Trapped for years in a listless existence of crushing “everydayness,” Bolling discovers that there must be something more — a gnawing compulsion that he dubs “The Search.” “What is the nature of the search, you ask….The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life….To become aware of the possibility of the search was to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
What I would call Camus’ awareness of “The Search,” biographer Robert Zaretsky would call an “unraveling” of the seams of his unconscious daily routine. “The moment of unraveling,” Zaretsky writes, “can be as banal as an overheard conversation or a glimpsed interaction, or as extraordinary as a Stuka bearing down on you. It is the moment when we are awoken from our routine lives by a whisper or explosion, either of which demands ‘Why?’ with equal and unexpected insistence.” Camus’ “unraveling” led him to unexpectedly hopeful epiphanies in an absurd world. “It was in the depths of winter,” Camus wrote, “I finally learned that, within me, there lay in an invincible summer.”
To be sure, Camus was an atheist and would remain one until his untimely death in a car accident at the age of forty-seven. “I continue to believe that this world has no supernatural meaning,” he confessed, “but I know that something in the world has meaning — man.” Notwithstanding his blind spot for God, Camus was deeply engaged in “The Search.” In so doing, he put his finger on something — a sensibility —  that can resonate with those of us who believe. The world is broken and we, too, are broken. But there is hope amidst the brokenness — a dignity we inexplicably sense at the core of our own fallibility. And that hope presupposes a sublime reason for hope and an ineffable source from which such hope must come.
Albert Camus was an Absurdist who, unwittingly, stumbled upon the beginnings of eternal truth. In his tireless search, he was dabbling in the things of God. “In the center of our work, dark though it may be,” Camus confided, “shines an inexhaustible sun.” Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus offered that “Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself….I have never been able to renounce the light…”
Our modern world could learn a little from Albert Camus. Troubled by darkness, compelled by meaning, drawn into “The Search,” we are likewise stumbling and searching for sensibility amidst absurdity. And though Camus (to our understanding) never fully concluded his “Search,” the proper end of our searching would find each of us teary with relief and resting our weary heads on the loving shoulder of Christ.

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