By coincidence I was in Paris on the 7 November on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus (1913-1960). He lived some of his life in the city. The timing made me think about his continuing relevance beyond the hothouse intellectual climate of the city of his time.
His novels, especially The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall have a continuing resonance as we continue to search for meaning and clarity in a world that borders on, and often collapses into, the absurd. His life, is also an example and reminder of the awkward position and creative pain of being an outsider. His novel L’Etranger, so often given the English title of The Stranger, is best translated I feel as The Outsider. Outsider status is an interesting category to understand the contemporary world. We all have states of the outsider, some temporary, others fleetingly and for others, the category is more permanent and more penal. French-speaking, born in Algeria to a very poor family, he straddles the awkward shift from colonial to postcolonial and his own responses to the colonial struggle in Algeria have all the compromised difficulty of the torn and the divided. His uncompromising pacifism is also a continuing message. In an editorial for the journal Combat in a response to hearing of an atomic bomb exploding in Hiroshima he wrote,
"The world is what it is, which is to say, not much. That's what each us learned yesterday thanks to the formidable chorus that radio, newspapers, and information agencies have just unleashed regarding the atomic bomb. We are told, in fact, amid a host of enthusiastic commentaries, that any mid-sized city whatever can be totally razed by a bomb about the size of a soccer ball…We'll sum it up in one sentence: mechanical civilization has just reached its final degree of savagery. We are going to have to choose, in a future that is more or less imminent, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of scientific conquests...Faced with the terrifying prospects that are opening up before humanity, we see even more clearly than before that peace is the only fight worth engaging in.”
His arguments are all the more powerful and brave because of their time and place. Unlike his contemporary Jean Paul Sartre, Camus was never so ideologically committed to the authoritarian regimes of communism despite enormous pressure in postwar Paris. He wrote clearly and accessibly. His love of football and his prizing of everyday friendship make him seem more human than the arid intellectualism of his Paris contemporaries. Few lives can be summed up as ‘philosopher, writer, goalkeeper’.
Chess players in the Luxembourg Gardens (Photo: © John Rennie Short)
His pained response to the atomic age is all the more disturbing because it has the anguished realization of a new world that is now an accepted, taken for granted world. We have, by and large, incorporated and thus by default accepted the notion of mass destruction, global war and the possibility of annihilation. When he wrote, “To revolt today means to revolt against war”, he was leaving us a message that still has power and meaning and guidance.