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Imagine for a second that neighboring countries are at war. Over the radio and in the newspapers, massive destructions of cities you’ve personally visited are being discussed at length and shown tragically to you. You are especially shocked at the before and after photos. You live in the world where what you say and do is entirely monitored, and can and will have dire consequences for your relatives, your friends and whom you associate yourself with in your community.
Military forces have taken hold of the state in which you live in and the government that is functioning at the moment and all it’s services are now being centralized oppressively. There’s a constant air of the unknown brewing. A constant force of despair and uncertainty that surrounds your country and the entire world that feels like its on the brink of imminent destruction.
Soon after, racial discriminatory laws are passed. People are being rounded up like animals and treated like cockroaches indiscriminately. Instantaneously some of your friends because of their religious, political and ethnic backgrounds are barred from attending different schools, getting certain jobs and or working in certain industries. Some loses their citizenships and rights, and others are even arrested because of reasons they might not have never consciously done or dealt with before in actuality.
They are even rumors that are very true you don’t want to believe them yet. Your friends are shipped to working camps and are being tortured to their last breath. You have not heard from them for months. You are continually being stopped on familiar streets now filled with a sense of fog, darkness while coldness and sadness continually rises from within. You are continually asked for identification papers on the same streets despite a year ago this neighborhood, your neighborhood was alive, thriving and well.
This is what Albert Camus experienced at the prime of his age at 29 when he lived in Paris in 1940, when German troops with their weapons marched down from the Champs-Elysée invaded France amidst World War II, thus soon after Vichy collaborationist government formed. It was under these circumstances two years later in 1942 that Camus had released his famous novel “The Stranger” that he worked on for five years previously.
German soldiers parade on the Champs Élysées on 14 June 1940
Life in Paris for everyone was tragically transformed. Countless of sympathizers to the Nazi cause had made it possible for tyranny and fear to thrive throughout France and its pronounced city of love, Paris.
While reflecting on this, it would behoove me to not mention this eerie reality oddly resembles very much like of our modern conflicts happening this very moment today - In Syria, in Libya, in Palestine, and would I even dare to say can found on the streets and neighborhoods across the U.S where violence thrives, historical trauma remains unhealed and discrimination is alive and well.
I have too many friends from those affected areas and these horrid wars. It seems no difference to some degree and these injustices persists. When war and violence strikes, the social contract breaks and tyranny and survival begins to rule. What do we do then? How do we respond? How do we live out our lives in an unjust world?
Albert Camus: A Life
It might be premature to reflect at this point but I am reading the Autobiography of Albert Camus: A life by Olivier Todd. It’s a fascinating book, the prose is direct so far, the exposition are simple and the intricacies of Camus’s life and how it’s explored has been wonderful and an absolutely engaging experience.
Camus is one of the authors that I have read profusely in the past and have always deeply admired his vision for the world while growing up in the U.S as an immigrant from Haiti and a young black boy aspiring to be a writer.
So reading this Autobiography has been a long time coming. It was written by Olivier Todd who is a French writer and journalist born in 1929. He has dedicated his life to the pen and has produced some wondrous works in nonfiction, biographies and novels. He explores Albert Camus’s life with such details by weaving in Albert’s own words from his personal journal that he kept and wrote profusely in and reflected deeply on all aspects of his life.
Camus was born in November 7th, 1913 and grew up poor in Algeria. A country that was colonized by France much like Haiti. Camus studied Philosophy at the University of Algiers. Camus grew up to be one of the most celebrated literary minds and figure in the entire world, but his life wasn’t without worry and trials, as is any of us or living this human experience.
I believe the first thing I could say that influenced his writing and his outlook on life was that of Tuberculosis that he suffered throughout his childhood and adolescence and the remnant part of his adult life. When I read about these things I try to wonder what was it like for him?
To be incapacitated by a disease and have health issues that prevented him from fully exercising his creative capacity and his social apparatus. His collapsing lung igniting issues for him at different points of his early life. He wrote in his journal “Fatigue from too much sports and too much sunbathing resulted in spitting blood.”
At many times he held unto his life force by a single thread because medical advances were not entirely great nor reliable. Can you imagine being sick with this disease and the most common treatment at the time was injecting air into the chest forcing the infected lung to collapse and in hopes that the tuberculor lesions would eventually heal! Wow.
Death was so close to him. I believe this caused him to see everything in life in relations to his own mortality and his own senses and this allowed him to wrestle with what truly mattered to him in life. It was atrociously painful yet freeing at the same time in terms of superseding societal conventions and him being able to imagine beyond his time and what he saw happening in his society.
He was an avid reader of philosophy, of history, of poetry, of novels. He was a thinker and a believer in the arts and this drove him to embrace Plotinus, a hellenistic philosopher who represented the thinking of Neoplatonism which declared that “the world of ideas was the real world.”
Albert was a person who felt that the world and our society was absurd. Yes induced by his intimate relationship with his own mortality that he could die at any moment but also by the collective population’s kind of morose. He saw a fog that prevented people from seeing the true horrors that it had caused them to do and its absurdity.
How society functioned, the poverty that he witnessed around him growing up as a North African. Sorta how we ourselves today in modern times are quick to discard people who are homeless as mad and crazy and not give them the proper acknowledgement and support that they deserve as fellow humans.
Out of fear society numbs us to our interconnectedness, we are frozen and are caged to inaction. He reflected in his journal in relations to colonialism “In truth, everyday we brush by a people who are living three hundred years behind the times….It is despicable to say that these people do not have the same needs that we have….If colonial conquest can be justified, it will be insofar as it helps conquered people keep their personalities, and we owe it to this land to let a proud and humane population stay faithful to themselves and their destiny.” Mind you, Algeria was still under the colonial rule of France until 1962! Two years after Camus perished in a car accident in north central France in 1960. He never got to see a free Algeria.
In an absurd world, he had given up on society as a force for good, for in himself, as an individual he relied on his ways and his ideas to understand the world and his destiny. He says “I only know that I will maintain what I believe to be true in my own universe, and as an individual I will give in to nothing”.
Camus says “Man finds himself confronted by the irrational…he feels inside himself the desire for happiness and reason. Absurdity is born at the confrontation between human cry and the world’s unreasoning silence.” Camus living in France under Nazi rule joined the French Resistance where he served as editor-in-chief at Combat, a newspaper that was very much outlawed and almost was caught at one point.
He collaborated heavily with many writers, intellectuals and artists to speak against the horrors of his times. He said “Should I accept life as it is? That would be stupid, but how to do otherwise?…should one accept the human condition? On the contrary, I think revolt is part of human nature…Whether one accepts or revolts, one is confronting life”
Albert Camus the Writer
As a writer he believed in the power of words and the novel. He called the polyphony of the novel, interwoven themes, and characters confronted by a single problem. He felt that one has to write a work “like a master who is teaching truth.” Camus felt it was his duty to tell the truth as much as possible, with as much style as possible.
I absolutely agree with this point in not only the ability of words and ideas as being closer to ‘truth’ as the Neoplatonist saw but also in their surgical abilities to innovate the inner realms of humanity because of that truth. I am reminded of an interview that left a particularly significant impression on me. It was of writer Milan Kundera on the Paris Review The Art of Fiction #81 Interview series” He said:
“Musil and Broch saddled the novel with enormous responsibilities. They saw it as the supreme intellectual synthesis, the last place where man could still question the world as a whole. They were convinced that the novel had tremendous synthetic power, that it could be poetry, fantasy, philosophy, aphorism, and essay all rolled into one”.
Every works of fiction, or words and ideas imbued in a sentence carry deep meaning and symbolic power that allows for greater depth of understand if done right. Your writing skills need to be up to par.
“Every great novel has its own philosophy” Camus believed and said “I prefer to leave nothing behind, rather than a work that betrays everything I feel.” There’s a radical sense of inner knowing and authenticity to the aboriginal self that one as a creator, as a human must engage with self to be able to support life and all its unfolding in whatever way that might be.
I think one of the things early in his life that he found was the tension in the social life that he loved so deeply, his romantic life that moved him, his journalistic professional life work during weekdays that he had a bit of dismay towards to yet all of these conflicted with his personal creative writing life which required time and dedication like any craft.
Saying no to requests and events more often so he would have the mental space to focus and work on his essays, read intensely and create new works of fiction the world had never seen before became the norm. He often said that “Willpower is a form of solitude” and he reflected “The people who create - I mean great artists, not literary journalists - are almost men of action, contrary to popular believe, who have chose this form of action to exercise their will.”
Their will to live and express this life force inside themselves was something he felt he needed to do to survive as an artist in an unjust world. In this line of thinking he was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer’s Will to Power. He created creative works of fiction that meaningfully explore a lot of philosophical and societal tensions he saw in the world and wrestled with personally.
Thats something I would say I struggle with a lot in making space and finding the time to create what burns in you. Have you? What sacrifices are making for that fiery thing that burns deeply in your spirit?
Combating a Absurd World
Camus said that “The only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.” There’s a sense of knowing that one must claim to oneself to be able to reach a force beyond our own ideas of what we think is possible. A reckoning is needed in us to move this absurd world and find the keys of our own universe, how it clicks, how it works, and how it moves us towards action. One of his letters Camus reflected that “I only know one thing, my mystical soul is burning to give itself with enthusiasm, faith and fervor”
Referring back Nietzsche Camus said “What matters is not eternal life but eternal liveliness.” His famous quotes of ones need to rebel in an unjust world I believe is really looking deeply within us first. The rebellion is in the mind and its inside of us first. Thats were it begins and it will lead us to live out more fulfilling lives, one of the critical piece I believe if we are ever to build something better than what we have today. If every aspect of the world is dysfunctional and absurd as Camus puts it than we must fight and combat with our art.
And I personally believe that the greatest of art of it all is the art of living. The art of our life in its entirety.
Camus’s personal motto was “Live, act and write”
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In good spirit,