Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus

Τhough, like any writer, Camus changed, there is also much continuity in his emotional universe. For example, the very first entry in his first notebook, started in his early twenties, speaks of childhood poverty and the crucial importance of mothers: “The bizarre feeling that the son has for his mother constitutes his whole sensibility. The manifestations of that sensibility in the most diverse fields is adequately explained by hidden memory, material from his youth (a glue that sticks to the soul).” Read in isolation, this passage might appear to be either a truism or a confirmation of vaguely Freudian intuitions. But Camus’s relationship to his mother has profound and particular echoes in his other work.

The mother who is dead before the action of The Stranger begins, it is now clear, belongs only to Camus’s early “absurd” phase. And the indifference of her son, Meursault, is mostly an absurdist literary device. More normative is the presence of the mother in The First Man, who carries a startling, and almost defining, meaning for Camus’s work and sensibility. Camus’s mother was an odd type: illiterate, taciturn to the point of muteness, distant, and, to an outside eye, cold. (His grandmother was the more active presence in the household, and a violent one at that.) Most boys would have resented such a mother, but Camus made her a kind of ideal figure of rugged human love, a representative of the silent people who accept life and death with calm equanimity.

In terms of pure literary craftsmanship, Camus reveals himself here as a highly capable painter of scenes from life, whether they be set in the lycée, on the beach, in the streets, or at home. There is a great deal of color, taste, sound, and smell that is largely absent from the novels that were admired for their spareness and intellectual rigor. The First Man shows Camus’s old genius for making fiction do the work of thought, but he is less concerned here to strip the story down to bare essentials. In fact, the story’s main interest is its recreation of the lost life of Algiers, a world that nurtured the sensibility of the author and his fictional counterpart.

All his life, Camus pursued a kind of personal quest beyond or above politics, especially in his fiction. In some ways, the quest was philosophical. Although Camus received the Diplôme d’études supérieures in philosophy from the University of Algiers, both he and his professors knew that he would never make a proper academic philosopher. It was not that Camus was incapable: his essay “On a Philosophy of Expression by Brice Parain” shows philosophical gifts that could have been developed further, had he wished. But there was too much personal engagement in Camus’s philosophizing and too little technical reasoning to satisfy the academic philosophers. A journal entry from 1935, just around the time he was finishing his university studies, expresses Camus’s sense of his own path: “One only thinks through images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.”

What kind of philosopher Camus became is difficult to specify. After their break with Camus, Sartre and his collaborators took him to task for the philosophical simplicity and second-hand knowledge in his work, especially The Rebel. But just as a standard political reading of Camus provides too narrow a focus, readers who approach him with the wrong philosophical expectations miss a crucial dimension of his work. Like Nietzsche, Camus valued the ancient Greeks, not the philosophers but the pre-Socratic thinkers and poets, as he construed them. Plato is too otherworldly for Camus, who always proclaimed loyalty to the earth and made a lucid recognition of the beauties and brutalities of the world —a joyful forgetting of death in the frank embrace of life— into a kind of personal ideal.

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