Thinking About Books and Dead Writers, Issue One: An essay on the work of Albert Camus (Part 1)

(Note: If you haven’t read any books by the said writer, and you want to, it would be in your best interest not to read any further. The following short essay will do what they call, spoil many of the ideas and plots and endings of some of the said author’s greatest works. In a very minimal format the writer of this entry will also be brainstorming and writing spontaneously. Most of the writers who will be discussed in this series have been dead for a long time so this should be a pretty safe activity.

And today, the present, it’s a humid summer morning, and for some reason it feels like a good day to think about some writing that’s not my own. Sometimes getting away from one’s own work by using the essay format to let the mind wander other fronts of the past is an interesting exercise for the overall process of not just writing and reading, but living a life in general. Lastly, it is stressed, that I don’t have time to work very long on these posts, so trust me, it will be academically lacking and perhaps even poorly written. Thank you.)

Albert Camus was greatly influenced by his father. Watching him come home one day from a public execution he never saw such psychological distress in a person before….

If I had to pick one book that enhanced my vision as a human being it would be, The Stranger. Now like many important parts of any given life I don’t know if that’s because of who I was when I read it, the age I was at, or if it was the message of that book itself. Chances are it’s a combination of everything, but with that being said for some reason that short two-part book silenced something within me that was unnecessarily loud before. In many ways who I thought I was as a human being not so much changed but became magnified. I was probably already walking this path where I now stumble, but that book, damn, when I got to the part where he was sentenced to death by way of the guillotine I heard every echo that took up space in the apartment complex where I was living at the time. I felt alone. I felt alive. It was a new kind of consciousness. 

It’s a strange little book, and towards the final pages when he’s talking to the priest he goes on and shows his emotion, and his great failure isn’t so much his crime, but his lack of morality. His own insane choices in an absurd world are what ultimately does him in. Not saying hello or crying at his mother’s funeral is what he’s convicted on, and yes, of course his crime was murder, and his self-defense should have failed him because of the amount of overkill he used. He shows anger and he turned his victim into the mirror of his own rage. He was guilty, but that’s not really the point. He’s asked the question, why did you shoot him so many times? Famously he said,  The Sun.

Camus uses Meursault as an outlet to express his absurdest philosophy. Everything about the fictional man’s life is at conflict with the absurd. It would seem that something you could take away from reading The Stranger is that for some reason the lives of actual people mattered less when up against a controlled society, one that for some reason must kill or steal or control the ideas of the masses in order to uphold some loosely idealized form of justice. It would seem that in Camus’s time, for the system to survive meant people had to die. Camus wanted the end of murder, or even a reasonably honest explanation why such a technologically advanced world still needed massive war to fulfill the kingdom’s foundation. For some reason he believed in the common man, the worker, the brothers and sisters and the mothers and fathers that look tired, those people who time and time again seem to be disposable. Albert was a decent human being. That should be a good enough reason for most to read his books.

And what is, justice? Now this is something that Camus struggles with basically his whole life up until his death. His last published novel work (besides, A Happy Death, which some scholars think was a very early draft of The Stranger) is The First Man. Right up until Albert died in a car accident it seems that here was a man who was changing gears and moving into a new direction with his artistic life. The First Man was about who the main character was as a person, how he became a man and why he was a man, and this subject of manhood was of course almost as absurd as the theme of his earlier novels, this concept known as, justice.

Why was the character a man and why was Camus a man? Why was he The First Man? It’s difficult to get into, and even he isn’t so sure why, but one thing he outlines with conviction is that he’s a man because he had to be. It was pressed upon him by forces outside of his control. This novel was published posthumously and wasn’t completely finished was more reflective and nostalgic for the sea, for what Camus loved, which of course was the Mediterranean and the Algerian coasts. With his words he paints the sounds of laughter and almost in  a more american surrealist approach his sweeping sentences contain imagery that only his short lyrical essays hinted at.

Albert Camus starts with The Stranger and ended back at the sea where he started. He started with death and ended in life. Sadly for his overall vision, his life was cut short. Today, well it’s two thousand thirteen and I live around the Great Lakes. When I first read some of his words back when I was a senior in college I quickly connected to the way he wrote, not just the way his poetic voice shadowed with words the water and the sun, the sand and his love for swimming, but also the way he wrote about people and the great threat to society, something that doesn’t really come from abroad and outside the state, but something that breeds within people. This something is what I believe he was writing about in his second novel called, The Plague. 

In the overall scope of his body of work there are two sides to this man, this writer, this artist, this son, this father, this journalist, this philosopher, this human being, this was as Camus said, just a life. Albert was many things and this is something I always admired about him. One of his quotes said, on the day I am only a writer is the day I will stop writing forever. He said, don’t walk in front of me or behind me, walk to the side of me and be my friend. I think he also said that, a free press can of course be good or bad, but without freedom it most certainty will be bad.

Think about some of them. I don’t know. Said above, these are some of his more well-known quotes that I paraphrased. Here was a citizen and an artist of democracy, a firm believer of respecting a nation’s sovereignty, and he was also very conflicted by what it means to be a human being during such an alienating era. He didn’t have all the answers or even many of the answers to the questions that troubled him. He was given spite by some of his closest friends for his work in an essay about revolution, in where he traced the historical steps of the concept of a rebel within an overall political apparatus. Most well-known is the fight between him and Sartre. On one hand you had two young men who got as big if not bigger than the voices of the post world war america literary scene. They were in many ways very different types of thinkers. Camus was more of  a disciplined writer/journalist born from poverty and working class upbringing. Sartre was a mad-man stone cold at times/ brilliant philosopher who strove for something greater than most of us can possibly even think about. For evidence of this, check out his existential page turner called, Being In Nothingness. Mind…Blown.

Anyway, on one side of the spectrum you had Sartre who grew to be a fundamental voice (at times I think, used) inside of the communist party, while Camus was said to be a bit more conservative when it came to his approach when discussing concepts such as the battle that was tearing Algeria apart. Camus in my opinion wasn’t controlled by an outright easy to define ideology, but rather he was what today we would call, a Humanist. He didn’t always know what was this or that, what was black or white when it came to  right or wrong, but he always knew what he loved and would die protecting. Camus was also appalled how some within his circle never really stood-up against the gulags. I’m not sure how deep this went but I do know Camus and Sartre always were rivals of each other, even before they were famous they got into arguments, even down to the friendly drinking kinda night when you fight just to fight. They always respected each other as friends, I do know that. I think their fight was sensationalized for magazine sales, but there’s some weight to it as well, and if nothing else this information gives us more of an idea to who these two men were.

Albert Camus was an Algerian writer. He was conflicted by terrorism because he feared that his mother could be killed at any moment. His fighting with ideas constantly went back and forth. The pull and the strain of nature v.s politics, family v.s politics, friends v.s politics, these were all battles that were within Camus himself. He didn’t deny how difficult it is for us to find a peaceful solution. He only asked of us the same thing he asked of himself, he only wanted us to try. He was a man of ideas but even more so he was a man of action. He resisted the temptation to become uniform in what was becoming a silent and accepting generation. He was afraid of the end of the world and the end of goodness. He was an ethical man, and sometimes he might have agitated people within his own constituency, but he talked, he said, what if? What if what were afraid of is already here growing within us. He sought for the possibility of decency in a twisted world.

Starting off with The Stranger he released almost an accompany piece called,  The Myth of Sisyphus, which is a growing philosophical/sociological classic that discusses a humans place in an absurd world. What looks to be objective is almost more of a meditation on why he should keep going subjectively, as it was an overall description for the symbolic man or human being within a collective social group. During this time in his life he was recalling of the time he was working for a paper that was about to be driven out of business. He was a good writer and a good editor, and also this was a more literary time so he probably would have made a living elsewhere, such as France or The United States. Camus was stubborn, and his name recognition didn’t seem to play any real importance in his decision-making. He was about his people and his land. He asked himself, why should I keep going if my own land is being destroyed? I think he answers his own question with his essay, and it’s because he has no choice to do otherwise. Camus knows all too well that he must live, he must write, he must follow the path that he alone has chosen to carry his chains upon. For Camus, his rock may be called his writing, his existence, his nation, his family and the sea, which would be a major component of scenery that he would continue to develop and sketch new pictures of the rest of his life. 

(Part Two Outline: Tracing from The Plague and the fear, to the fall. The Stranger. The Plague. The Fall. A trilogy for hope in an absurd world. His travels to New York, the ship coming through the harbor and his walks on the streets at night looking at this strange new beat land. What he might have written if he wouldn’t have died. Is something like that even possible? Can you guess what a writer would have written after their death with any kind of accuracy based on what they were working on right up to the point of their death? Is an undertaking even worthwhile?) 


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