If you want to talk about Camus, you have to talk about war.
Technically, there were, there are, multiple wars. Albert Camus’ life began less than a year before the start of World War I, and his father died in combat in the First Battle of the Marne. He wrote most of his most famous works, The Stranger, The Plague and “The Myth of Sisyphus” living under the Nazi occupation of France and its territories in World War II. He grew up as a poor, fatherless Frenchman in an Algeria that had been under French control for more than a hundred years, and spent many years advocating for his vision of peace in that country, with varying success. (More on that later.)
But in 1942, Camus was living in a nation occupied on two levels: by France, and by the Nazis. I am always reluctant to define an author’s work by one event or trauma, but it’s hard to escape the violence that shaped his life. France’s control of Algeria came at a staggering cost to the Algerians — it’s estimated that somewhere between half a million and a million people, between 1/6 and 1/3 of the local population, died between 1830 and 1860 — and was maintained through deportation, banishment, execution, outlawing political parties, and other assorted brutalities. (In 1945, after the fall of the Nazis, a celebratory party turned into a rebellion against French control, which ended with, you guessed it, yet another massacre.)
In 1942, Camus was also teaching in primary school. Anyone who’s dealt with a child on a regular or more than regular basis knows that children throw you curveballs all the time. Why do bad things happen? Can you explain colonialism to a nine-year-old? Have you tried to explain Nazis to one?
It’s really no wonder Camus became a father of Absurdism. (He was also called a father of Existentialism, and that’s a pretty fair label, even if Camus hated it.) Camus, and his characters, look a cruel and inexplicable world in the face and see no order and no God. In some cases, like Meursault in The Stranger, the character himself has made the inexplicable and cruel choice, murdering a man in broad daylight on a beach. Even Sisyphus knows exactly what he did to incur the divine wrath that sealed his fate, but his punishment feels maddeningly disproportionate; pushing that boulder, up and down, all day, every day, for eternity, for no clear purpose or benefit. It makes no sense, the child within us objects. It’s not fair. The causes and effects are all off. The good no longer end happily and the bad unhappily, at least not the way that Miss Prism intended. Meursault finds happiness and purpose only as he faces the gallows. Camus tells us that we must imagine Sisphyus happy in his unending, pointless labors. Anyone looking for a pattern does so at the risk of their own sanity. La vie est absurd.
People joke about the French inclination to philosophy, to indifference, or both, but Absurdism isn’t so much a French reaction to the maddening contradictions of life as it is a deeply human one. The Biblical book of Job is probably the most famous attempt at wrestling with the nonsensical nature of suffering and death in the West, but it’s hardly the only example. (Job ends up on the wrong end of a bet he didn’t make, and when he points out to God that that’s bullshit, he gets yelled at. Where’s the justice in that?) The absurd is everywhere in the world and in the history of theology and letters; Camus just started putting a name to it. (Later, another philosopher would incorrectly identify it all as “Ironic.”)
But Camus doesn’t give into despair, or advocate that anyone else should. Even Mersault, who finally finds purpose in death, isn’t quite suicidal. Camus’ later work, The Plague, probably his masterpiece, honors the toil and stress of two men facing the implacable challenge of, well, a plague. Cut off from the outside world, their struggle seems endless, and death becomes a constant companion. The men keep working. What else can they do? They are too human to do anything else.
It’s no wonder the work of the Existentialists and Absurdists have continued to last. Surrounded by a world that seems to be more ridiculous every day, reading headlines that were parodies the day before, sometimes all we can do is put our feet on the ground and make our stand, however ridiculous, however doomed. In the absence of God and rationality, when flat earthers and QAnon seem to dominate the public square, all we have is who we are. All we can do is the best we can.
(Of course, Camus’s footprint is everywhere, including The Cure’s blunt first single.)
As impossible as it would be to talk about Camus without mentioning war, it’s harder still to talk about him without bringing up Algeria. By the time Camus was born, generations of white French subjects had been born on Algerian soil, and Algeria was clearly dear to Camus’s heart. He wrote about and critiqued French abuses before and after the outbreak of the Algerian War, including decrying the antisemitism and fascist sympathies many of his fellow pieds-noirs indulged in. (That was the term used for French subjects living in Algeria, and yes, that does literally translate to black foot.) He desperately wanted peace in a country he clearly saw as a home, but he alienated both the French and Algerians and failed to make much of an impact. Being a sexy and charismatic Nobel Prize winner only counts for so much, and it’s no substitute for real political power.
The trap of colonialism is that it becomes hard for its beneficiaries to see beyond their circumstances; Camus advocated for an autonomous Algeria, but he wouldn’t — or couldn’t — envision a fully independent one. Even Camus’ critiques of the dehumanization caused by colonial rule can reinforce that very dehumanization. Leaving Meursault’s victim nameless means leaving him without an identity of his own. He is reduced to his ethnicity alone, remaining little more than a plot point in someone else’s story. Meursault is so alienated from his own humanity that of course he doesn’t know or remember the man’s name…but he didn’t kill a white man, now did he? At any rate, far smarter writers than me have discussed this: Edward Said had some good things to say in Culture and Imperialism (this blog post is a reasonably good rundown, though he’s much harsher on Said’s prose style than I am), and Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation focuses on the family that Mersault’s victim, now named Musa, left behind, as a deliberate rebuke of Camus’s choices. His legacy in Algeria itself remains mixed at best.
Camus died young in a car accident, one last violent act. His works have never dropped out of the popular consciousness, and I really don’t think they should. Camus had his weaknesses and blind spots (I haven’t even scratched the surface of Camus and women), but there’s something so deeply human in his work. And the man sure could write.
I actually read The Stranger in French years ago. Unlike many of the literary classics I struggled through, it was a pretty easy read. Camus’s prose is bold and sharp, with a voice distinctive enough to shine through even to an intimidated high school student. As a result, I very much enjoyed this discussion of the novel’s famous first line.
For further reading, The New Yorker has an excellent article on Camus, his life, work and continued relevance. Dazed talks about why Absurdism speaks so much to us.