Entranced by Reality

In a beautiful review of a new book on Camus, Ian Marcus Corbin writes:

In one of his most lyrical essays, “Nuptuals at Tipasa,” Camus exults in the stark beauty of an Algerian mountain town on the verge of the Mediterranean Sea: “Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” [ . . . ] One could very sensibly argue that the pleasure and vibrancy of his aesthetic experiences served as a vital counterbalance to one of the most common and dangerous pitfalls of professional thinkers: the temptation to float off into the cool, exhilarating ether of abstraction, leaving messy, mundane realities behind.

The next few sentences of “Nuptuals” aren’t quoted by Corbin but they seem particularly apposite: “It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure. But watching the solid backbone of the Chenoua, my heart would grow calm with a strange certainty. I was learning to breathe, I was fitting into things and fulfilling myself.”

Camus’ refusal, or perhaps inability, to lose sight of the real in the abstract accounts for much of his enduring attraction. It may not seem such a rare thing, but amongst serious thinkers I believe it is. And as Corbyn says, “it certainly was in Camus’s day. Camus’s peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction.”

His love of the sensual beauties of the world cohabited uneasily with an astringent sense of its otherness, its strangeness, its unknowability.

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia.

“Hostility” isn’t how I would phrase it (indifference seems closer to the mark) but it seems to me he’s right. We do seek to clothe almost everything with meaning and it’s good to remind ourselves about this often endearing but also frequently harmful habit from time to time. At any rate, as Corbin says:

This realization, that nature even at its most beautiful defies our attempts to understand it, stands irrevocably apart from us, is a deep root of Camus’s famous assertion that the world is “absurd.” Camus’s main idea of absurdity, as Zaretsky unpacks it, is a matter of imbalance between desire and reality—humans long for ultimate meaning and crystalline clarity, but the god-shorn cosmos offers neither of these. It remains coldly, majestically indifferent and inexplicable.

“God shorn”? Perhaps. I’m still on the fence (and don’t expect to ever find a way down) but in this context it doesn’t much matter. My (occasional) conception of God is sufficiently distant and impersonal to leave the end result much the same. For all practical purposes, we’re alone in just the fashion Camus describes.

For Camus, this bleak realisation left man with what he saw as the most important philosophical question of all. Do we carry on, or consciously choose to exit? This formulation has always seemed somewhat melodramatic to me, along with the tone of some of his responses to our “absurd” predicament, but then I haven’t just lived through WWII or watched the grinding insanities of Stalinism unfold (and be praised by my contemporaries).

His conclusion is that we should indeed continue to live, and in fact not only live, but fight back, become rebels against the inhumane cosmos. The cosmos may not be on my side, meaningless death may be the last word, but I must refuse to let that fact prevent me from living as deeply and bravely and beautifully as possible. I must remain human.

The sweetness of the world, or for that matter its bitterness, isn’t diminished by the knowledge that we are soon to leave it. Instead, it can infuse experience with an almost unbearable piquancy. Similarly, to act well, or at least to try to, takes on a different tone when ultimate vindication is ruled out.

Speaking through the character of Dr. Rieux in his novel The Plague, Camus writes, “We refuse to despair of mankind. Without having the unreasonable ambition to save men, we still want to serve them.”

“We refuse…” ; “We still want…”. It is simultaneously a modest and outrageous formulation, and it is absolutely central to Camus’s ethics. Most thinkers have argued that their favored moral system should be embraced because it runs parallel to the grain of the universe or history or nature or the Divine will, it accords with reason or human nature, or whatever. Camus makes no such claim. He imagines that he can simply stand athwart reality, and advocate for ethical norms that he wishes to embrace, because he knows they are right.

It’s a bracing, stripped down philosophy and in my view all the more admirable on that account. As Corbin points out, it led Camus to act in a dignified, just and compassionate fashion. He refused to grab at easy solutions even when heartache and opprobrium rained down on him. Instead, what mattered was to see what really is, shorn wherever possible of illusions, accept it and then try to transform it into something more palatable, more humane.

As you’d expect of someone so deeply suspicious of systems and ideologies, he made no pretence of being “a great philosopher”. Had no such desire, I’d wager.

His thinking is too personal, too scattershot, too practical for that. There are many academic philosophers who label themselves Kantians, but does it make sense to be a Camusian? Perhaps not. He was a singular thinker, and his thought thins dramatically when abstracted from the particular wiry, dark-haired, deep eyed pied-noir who gave birth to it. His great writerly achievements flow from the fact that he remained entirely that man when he sat down to write. One marvels at the intricate ingenuity of the Kantian system, but one loves Camus the man.

 Would there were more of him.

 

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