Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus

By the end of his short life (he was only 46 when he died), Camus seems to have been shifting into a new phase as an artist and thinker. We know from various sources, including his journals, that Camus had early on formulated a multiphase writing plan. The first phase consisted of a triad of works—the play Caligula (1938), the novel The Stranger (1940), and the book-length essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1941). In them, he set out to confront the absurd—the nihilism that seemed to have gripped modern Europe. Unfortunately, many readers in his lifetime, and some even today, identify Camus exclusively with this first stage. To Camus, the radical confrontation with the absurd was an absolute necessity in the 20th century, but only as a first step toward a fuller vision of human meaning and value.

Even before completing the first phase in 1941, Camus, who was then still in his late twenties, laid out the second. Having faced and rejected the existential abyss, he believed that values could be constructed out of rebellion against the human predicament. Another triad of works was projected and took a decade to complete: a play entitled The Misunderstanding (1944), a novel, The Plague (1947), and an essay, The Rebel (1951). The first two phases contain many of the works usually associated with Camus, but, as he remarked in his journals in 1949, he regarded these early works as a necessary depersonalization before speaking “in my own voice.”

For a subsequent phase, he planned on another triad of works exploring the need for limits and measure, even in revolt: The First Man, The System (a long essay never written), and another play. Camus saw these various phases as falling under three mythological markers: Sisyphus, Prometheus, and Nemesis. To readers who think writers produce spontaneously, this scheme may appear calculated and surprisingly rigid. But for Camus it was necessary. He believed that an inborn tendency to anarchy, unless vigorously disciplined, would lead to a fatal dispersal of his powers.

In many ways, it is remarkable that a man like Camus ever conceived of such a scheme. He had grown up with few of the supports that normally provide direction and order. Less than a year after his birth on November 7, 1913, Camus lost his father—a victim of wounds received at the Battle of the Marne. The penniless youth from Belcourt, one of the poorer quarters of Algiers, went on to the lycée and university only because certain kind teachers convinced his grandmother, who dominated the Camus household, that it would profit the family if he continued studying rather than go directly to work. At 17, just out of the lycée, he came down with tuberculosis and might well have died had not one of his uncles, a butcher, taken him under his wing and kept him well fed. Even so, his prospects were not bright: the tuberculosis meant that Camus, though intellectually promising, could not pass the physical for the agrégation, the usual route to a teaching position in the French university system.

In the 1930s, while he worked on his thesis at the University of Algiers, Camus took various odd jobs. He tutored, directed a theater company, recorded weather data for a meteorological office, sold car parts, and finally became a journalist at the Alger Républicain. During the same period, he also was briefly an activist and member of the Communist Party and found time to write two collections of essays, his play Caligula, and part of two novels, A Happy Death and what would become The Stranger.

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