The Precious Things

‘Isn’t it an incredible time to be reading and discussing L’homme révolté?’ wrote the student who is taking his French literature course with me this year, in his most recent email. And indeed it is, although I do not suggest you should hurry to pick up Albert Camus’ complex and contentious work of philosophy. Camus struggled over it for six years before publication, and the strain shows. He was not a philosopher, neither by temperament nor training, and the book is one complicated, obscurely written hot damn mess, even if it is a work of extraordinary integrity and importance. It was also the book that provoked a huge public argument and a bitter estrangement from his one-time close friend, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s journal reviewed the book negatively; well, that’s too polite a description. It was slammed and shredded and generally torn to pieces. When Camus protested, in print, Sartre took up the charge and wrote an editorial in which he attacked him in the most savage terms.

And what if your book bore witness merely to your philosophical incompetence? If it were composed of hastily gathered knowledge, acquired secondhand? If, far from obscuring your brilliant arguments, reviewers have been obliged to light lamps in order to make out the contours of your weak, obscure and confused reasoning?

This was very unkind of Sartre, who knew exactly what he was doing, undermining Camus, who had had a very average schooling, from the heights of his own tip-top education. But he had harsher words still, aimed at Camus’ fear that no one was listening to the message he felt compelled to deliver.

Who appointed you Public Accuser? The Republic of Superior Persons? You pronounce sentence and the world remains unmoved. Your condemnations disintegrate upon contact with reality and you are obliged to begin again. If you stopped you would see yourself as you are: you are thus condemned to condemn, Sisyphus.’

When I read about this argument, many years ago now, I could not believe how mean Sartre was being. Camus had once been a dear friend, a close friend, it was how he knew where to hit him hardest, and he took advantage of that. But the thing was, as with so many unpleasant brawls, the brutal charges Sartre placed at Camus’s feet drew attention away from the argument Camus was making.

And what was that argument? Well, it is, as my student says, a very timely one when the world is once again made turbulent by revolution. Camus wrote the book not long after the end of the Second World War, in a time when it was pretty much compulsory for a writer in France to support the Communist Party. But Camus simply could not reconcile the massacres in Russia with his own conscience. Terror and violence were never to his mind redeemable by the ideas behind it – there was no difference he could see between what the Nazis did to the Jews and what Stalin had done. If it was wrong to kill a man, then it was wrong no matter who did it, no matter what the reasons. He disliked and distrusted his contemporaries’ reliance on History to prove the necessity of their actions in some distant future times. He could not believe in the quasi-religious vision that posited some sort of heavenly cultural state emerging out of the wreckage of violent revolution. He felt that the intellectuals around him were getting their religion and their principles and the weighty matter of human life all tangled up, and that there were simple truths about morality that were not being heeded.

Time has proved Camus right. The revolutionary violence his friends favoured fell out of fashion and was shown up as a repugnant sympathy with tyrants by people who had no intention of putting their own lives on the line. Not that Camus lived to know that. He was always unsure about his book, and about his position. He hated the way that being a well-known writer in France meant he was obliged to take up a political stance and pronounce on matters that caused him much heartache and concern. But he had a nagging integrity that meant he simply could not fall in line with what everyone else was saying: ‘I tried for years to live according to everyone else’s morality,’ he wrote in his notebooks. ‘I tried to live like everyone else, to be like everyone else. I said the right things even when I felt and thought quite differently. And the result is a catastrophe. Now I wander in the ruins, cut off, alone and accepting my fate, resigned to my peculiarities and my weaknesses. I shall have to rebuild a truth – having lived my whole life in a sort of lie.’

There was a part of Camus’s book that struck me very deeply when I read it. Camus has a moralizing distaste for the excesses of revolution, but he is emotionally invested in the notion of the rebel, and rebellion. The rebel, in Camus’s understanding, is the person who stands out for something precious inside the self that is shared by all as part of the human condition, but which circumstances of inequality prevent some from accessing. So the slave rebels because he knows he is no different from his master, but is prevented nevertheless from owning his physical and mental freedom. The adolescent rebels, because she knows that she is no different from the adults around her, but she is not allowed the privilege of thinking differently or taking responsibility for herself on the rocks of real life. The difficulty, as Camus is well aware, is in translating that individual rebellion into a group movement, without having the dignity and the worth of all human life trampled into the mud in the process. How to have a rebellion, in which one person protests the right of all to enjoy the qualities and privileges of basic humanity, without someone having to die for it?

Camus believed there would always be violence, but he did not know what to do about it, and for this reason, he was vilified by his politically more sophisticated friends, who pointed out that sitting on the fence was a futile and untenable position. But at least Camus knew that it was an honest one, in the face of a real and insurmountable human problem. At least he knew that taking the fashionable route and agreeing with the groupmind would cast him into personal despair. At least he never betrayed himself for popularity, admiration, the approval of his peers. I don’t expect many people will read this post as it is not in the popular fashion of the internet; it is not easy or gossipy or about some current trend (and you can applaud yourself if you’ve got this far). It’s about learning from the past, which has never found much favour. But I write it as a tribute to Camus, whose integrity I have always admired profoundly, even if L’homme révolté is a pain in the butt to read. The difficult things are always worth doing, and the difficult thoughts are always worth having.


21 thoughts on “The Precious Things

  1. Love your post! (And I made it to the end, yay!)

    I always wanted to reread Camus since it is now 20 years since I read “Die Pest” (unfortunately my French is not good enough for the original text) and a few other things. And I hardly remember anything.
    At the time I really enjoyed reading the French existentialists but I am afraid I did not really understand much.

    Any suggestions with what to start the rereading?

  2. Litlove, your post is magnificent. The person who said Bravo had the right word, and I would add, “Encore.” Camus is my kind of guy, and you are my kind of blogger.

    There will always be bread and circuses. And there must be literature and thoughtfulness, too. The popular pleasure of entertainment doesn’t negate or obviate the need, too, for art, intellect, consideration and discussion.

  3. Terrific post. I read the popular works long ago (The Plague, The Roads to Freedom, etc.), and I still believe The Plague to be a great literary work. Sartre has come to seem a writer of ideas using literature as a body to display the dress of his philosophy. After I discovered his attitude to Stalin and his ability to discard millions to a life of suffering and/or death I lost interest in him. I think of him now as a fanatic, sacrificing humanity to an ideal. If he hadn’t been so eminent he would probably have come in for psychiatric help. I think they wanted to award him the Nobel prize for literature. I don’t know why he declined, probably because it was Western and didn’t support mass annihilation or something. Didn’t he dislike Proust for being more popular than Gide, as Gide was more to his taste a la commitment? I always think those who think such places as Soviet Russia were the best should have gone there, but, like all such in such circumstances, they are never are so committed as to do so. I guess this isn’t so kind. One should be more considerate. Perhaps I should join a militant group!Correct my errors – I may have got it all wrong.

  4. The idea that writers in France should stand up with their political opinions and be counted was very much of that era. Antoine de St-Exupery suffered dreadfully during the Second World War when he felt that what he saw as his pure patriotism was being appropriated and defined by de Gaulle as well as the Vichy hardliners. He was caught in the middle, went to America, and was then vilified by all sides! So sad – he was such a noble soul.

  5. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on women’s war writing, and in the process found myself to be (or to be becoming) an ardent pacifist. I thought being an ardent anything might make the world appear more black and white, but in fact I found myself awash in whole new seas of grey. The problems of war and violence do seem insoluble and yet so utterly worth solving that to apply oneself with energy and integrity to the task of creating a non-violent world, or simply of to understanding violence in a way that might allow one to lessen its presence and effects is, I think, truly admirable. And oh so difficult. Great post…my favorite of yours in a while. You may even have convinced me to read L’homme révolté.

  6. People blog for various reasons. While we can attract more traffic with trends and hot topics, there are those who write what they’re passionate about, regardless of popularity. In the same way, people read blogs for various reasons. To some, speaking for myself maybe, philosophy is fashion… and I’m glad our blogosphere is big enough to accommodate all. Thanks for writing a post on Camus and Sartre in such an accessible style, litlove.

    BTW, when I was in Paris last summer, I went to look for Le Brasserie Balzar in the Latin Quarter, the restaurant which Camus and Sartre frequented… while they were still friends I suppose.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with you. Camus was on my mind these days anyway as I did order Elzabeth Hawes’ Camus, A Romance two days ago. Did you read it? I always preferred Camus over Sarte, especially when it comes to novels. Camus was a fantastic writer. I find Sartre’s plays interesting. What makes me admire Camus much more is that I think he was morally superior. Isn’t such a violent reaction, like Sartre’s towards Camus not telling us much more about the man Sartre than about Camus’ philosophy? I find it always interesting to see what things infuriate people and make them forget their generosity and kindness. As you write, this violent reaction must have been bad at the time as the criticism might have gotten more attention than the book but with hindsight we know better.

  8. Applaud myself…? Why, I am much more inclined to applaud you, my dear! Loooved reading this. Sartre had such a vicious streak anyway, don’t you think? And I rate Camus’s thinking – it strikes me as both honest and true.

  9. The reason I’ve always liked Camus better than Sartre is exactly *because* he was such a crummy existentialist. (Actually he thought of himself as an absurdist, but still.) It honestly didn’t matter to Sartre what sort of decision you made, as long as you were making decisions and being rather than just existing. But for Camus, it really mattered *which* decisions you made. He could never give that up.

    I’ve read La Peste over and over — I wrote part of my dissertation on it — and it’s a bit simple. But it’s serious, deadly serious about the things he’d seen and done. You’re right about his integrity.

  10. Good for you to engage, as you so often do, on the level of ideas, not on a lower level of just talking about people (Christopher Hitchens, Paris Hilton, David Cameron) or trends, while also showing how current events have mattered to your student.

    Camus isn’t one of my favourite writers, though that’s not a way to say I dislike him; others mean more, briefly put. But I recognize that he had more integrity than Sartre ever had, and seemed to be a better writer.

  11. I know it sounds silly, but I honestly always feel so much smarter when I read your posts. My horizons are always broadened here because you share your knowledge with such ease. I have never read Sartre or Camus and only know about them peripherally and knew none of this. Don’t you hope that wherever Camus is now that he realizes he has been proven right? I like the way he thought and need to read some of his work!

  12. Jacob – I always feel I’ve achieved something if I’ve pleased you – thank you!

    Chris – ah a friend of Camus is always a friend of mine. I am much keener on him as a novelist than a philosopher, however, and my favourite book of his is La Chute (The Fall) which is a troublesome little novella but a brilliant one. But both The Outsider and The Plague are fantastic novels too. I hope you enjoy whatever you read by him.

    Lilian – bless you for that! I couldn’t agree more – entertainment and engagement in ALL their forms are necessary.

    Bookboxed – I always think that the attitude of the French intellectuals towards Stalin should be analysed on a regular basis in universities across the world. It’s a perfect case in point of fashionable ideology getting in the way of common sense and good judgement. Sartre was indeed a peculiar little man, although he ended up having a huge change of heart about engagement. You’re quite right that he judged divisively between authors on the basis of whether they followed his interests in social realism or not, but then the French writers in that period were an argumentative and cantankerous lot at the best of times. He made a big u-turn later in life, though and gave up literature altogether, saying that books were irrelevant in a world where children were starving. I always felt that this was a kind of reaction to the essentially loveless world of Existentialism. Sentimentality ended up swamping Sartre, and hopelessness too. It doesn’t do to live by the lights of philosophy alone, nor the dictates of pure self-sufficiency. I find this literary period fascinating though, for the complexity of what occurred in it.

    Michelle – oh thank you so much.

    Deborah – well now I did not know that about Saint-Exupery, who is not,I will have to confess, an author whose work I have ever read (no, not even Le petit Prince – isn’t that dreadful?). But you have made me intrigued about him now and I look forward to finally reading him.

    Mary – this is not the most accessible work of philosophy I have ever read, I will warn you! By all means, do read it if it appeals. But I would think none the less of you for reading a good overview of the whole philosophy of that existential era.

    Dorothy – ah! then my work here is done… 😉

    mbolit – I think I must join you on the ardent pacifist front, and in the belief that it matters perhaps more than anything else to consider the latent aggression in human nature, and the desire for retaliation (which is so powerful and fierce that it causes many problems of escalation). It is, sadly, not a problem that seems to go away.

    Arti – that IS the great thing about the blogosphere – room for everyone and a multiplicity of voices. How wonderful to wander around Paris searching out the famous haunts. I’ve been past Les Deux Magots but never inside (for fear of the prices).

  13. Caroline – no I don’t know that book about Camus – I will go and look it up. I also prefer him as a writer to Sartre and like Sartre’s plays best of all the genres he wrote in. The argument with Sartre really destroyed Camus’s reputation.It sounds strange to say this, when he was then shortly awarded the Nobel Prize, but in his own country he was an intellectual outcast. It did immense damage to him. Thankfully, the history he had no faith in has at least proved him right.

    Polaris – I have a special interest for groups of writers or artists. Something about them always provokes fascinating issues – although much better to be on the sidelines watching than in the middle of the pack fighting…

    Stefanie – you would have to watch yourself. Camus had three mistresses and one wife at the time of his death. I’m sure he would be delighted by a hug from you.

    doctordi – oh Sartre could be a real beast. But he was a funny man, full of generosity towards his friends. He went around with his pockets stuffed with cash, which he doled out to any in want, and he kept several of his mistresses for years after their affairs ended. But definitely a vicious streak. Camus was a good French moraliste – he told the truth and was tortured by it. I do find myself drawn to him far more.

    Jenny – I quite agree that Camus was the one with the broad vision, as it turned out, and Sartre for all his intellectual prowess could not leave the form and the regulations behind to see what was real. La Peste is one of my favourite books. I put off reading it for years, thinking it would be like a Hollywood epic – all gory deaths and heroics. How wrong can a person be? It’s an extraordinary novel.

    JB – it’s the relation of the ideas to the people that always intrigues me. The very abstraction of ideas can be used to camouflage the emotional reasons that people bond with them, and that’s where I itch to get my scalpel out. I can’t think Sartre would be on your list of favourite writers, either, right? But France was rich in artists over this period, and I must read Blaise Cendrars who I know you do rate.

    Em – oh you’re not alone in feeling sad for Camus. It’s appropriate. He was unfairly treated and suffered greatly. But we can at least be glad that history saw his reputation fully restored in the end.

    Danielle – what a lovely comment, thank you! I do hope with all my heart that Camus somehow knows what happened in the decades that passed after his death. I really like him as a novelist, although he may strike a new reader to his work a bit strangely at first. If you want to read him, try The Plague or The Fall. They are unusual books but accessible ones (The Plague most of all) and actually rather easy reads because Camus never used flowery language. I’d be rather intrigued to know what you make of him.

  14. This is beautiful Litlove. I love the dirt on the literary spat between Camus and Sartre which sets a great context for the post – why are literary fall-outs so bitchy? Apologies for the swearing, but what a bastard Sartre was (this is toned down from my original thought of what he was).

    You have made me want to urgently seek out some Camus, lovable rebel that he is.

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