You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Albert Camus Thought That Life Is Meaningless

April 26, 1946: Nicola Chiaramonte Reviews 'The Stranger'

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We were born at the beginning of the First World War. When we were adolescents, we had the Depression. When we were twenty, Hitler came. Then we had the Ethiopian war; the Spanish war; Munich. This is what we got, in the way of an education. After which, we had the Second World War; the defeat; Hitler in our towns and homes. Born and brought up in such a world, what did we believe in? Nothing. Nothing but the stubborn negation into which we had been forced from the beginning. The world in which we had to live was an absurd world, and there was nothing else, no spare world in which we could take refuge. Confronted by Hitler's terror, what values did we have that could comfort us, and which we could oppose to his negation? None. Had the problem been that of the failure of a political ideology, or of a governmental system, it would have been simple enough. But what was happening came from man himself. We could not deny it. We saw it confirmed every day. We fought Hitlerism because it was unbearable. And now that Hitler has disappeared, we know a few things. The first is that the poison that was in Hitler has not been eliminated. It is still there, in all of us. Anyone who speaks of human life in terms of power, of efficiency, of "historical tasks," is like Hitler: He is a murderer. Because if all there is to the problem of man is a "historical task" of some kind, then man is nothing but the raw material of history, and anything can be done with him. There is another thing we know, and this is that we still cannot accept any optimistic view of human existence, no "happy end" of any kind. But if we believe that to be optimistic about human existence is madness, we also know that to be pessimistic about man's action among his fellow men is cowardly. We were against terror because terror is the situation where the only alternative is to kill or be killed, and communication among men becomes impossible. That is why we now reject any political ideology which raises global claims on human life. Any such ideology spells terror and murder. And we want the Reign of Terror to come to an end.

In a bald and clumsy summary, this is what Albert Camus had to say when he was asked to lecture in New York on the subject of "The Crisis of Man." Those who heard him speak had no doubt that he had the right to say "we." His was the voice of a whole generation of Europeans, and more especially Frenchmen, who, caught in a struggle that was both senseless and inescapable, have done more than any accepted notion of duty or "historical task" could ever have required of them, with no other moral aid but the quality of their despair.

The world of action, to them, has not meant an escape from the world of thought, as it has to some of their elder brothers. But neither could they be satisfied with ideas whose connections with actual conduct would be only tangential and general. In fact, this is what they most objected to. They somehow considered the world of thought more dangerous than the world of action, and were suspicious of it. Because of this, they were often considered skeptical, or cynical, or "nihilistic." All of us have heard people report that the youth of France did not believe in anything, while the Fascists and the Nazis had a faith. This kind of talk was current in France itself, before the war. Few persons seemed to take into account the fact that those young men had plenty of reasons to wonder, and that their attitude also implied that thought could be more real than any action, once its authenticity became evident. They were looking for a kind of integrity of which the examples around them were only too rare. In fact, if they had to believe what was shown them on the historical scene, there appeared to be integrity only in evil. The world of Nietzsche was far more real than the world of science, rational thinking, and humanistic moralism. Such being the case, the only sure guide could be loyalty to personal experience and the refusal to believe anything that could not be checked in terms of one's actual encounters with life. A kind of negative truthfulness. The best among those men knew that this was all they had with which to face armed brutality, death, and dereliction. Those who came through must now continue their search in a world no less absurd than the one in which they were born.

There are several eminent writers in France today, but none who has taken up with more decision and clarity than Albert Camus the intellectual and moral implications, as well as the human pathos, of such a situation.

It is a situation that consists essentially of intellectual, moral, and practical antinomies. The absurdity of life; despair; the impossibility of accepting general solutions; the evil in man—all these are questions, rather than answers. They would become meaningless the moment they were not faced with integrity. And it would not be too much to say that integrity is the outstanding quality of Camus' personality as an artist, a philosopher and a political journalist.

In The Stranger  the admirable short novel now published in English, Albert Camus has in fact expressed the tragedy of integrity as a modern man can sense it.

The story is simple. A man, Meursault, lets himself get involved in a sordid affair at the end of which he becomes a murderer. He is brought to trial. At that moment, everything he has or has not done before the murder becomes a charge against him. He has let his mother die in a home for the aged; during the wake, he not only did not show any grief, but even smoked a cigarette; after the funeral he went to the movies and spent the night with a girl; he freely consented to become the accomplice of a pimp. During the questioning he expresses no regret; at the trial he remains completely impassive. His callousness, as the prosecutor remarks, is even more revolting than his crime. He is condemned to death.

It is the hero himself who tells the story. His is a peculiar kind of confession, meant for nobody in particular, just for the record. The objectivity, and even the anonymity, of the tone could not be greater. This man makes a point of stating only what is relevant to his case. In fact, in a world that condemns him on the basis of his objective behavior, he is the only objective person. In the routine attempt to save him, the defense substitutes for him a meaningless fiction. In order to have him condemned, the prosecutor retorts by a fiction in the opposite direction. All this is irrelevant. If somebody could say something relevant, explain what has happened, that would be important. But nobody seems to know, and everybody acts as if he knew why things happen to men. As for himself, he does not know either, and that is why he does not defend himself. His only advantage, if any, is that he knows that he does not know anything except the succession of events that was his life. This certainty he cannot betray. That is why he revolts so violently against the priest who comes to console him. Consolation would mean substituting something else for the bare truth. "It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, far surer than he; sure of my own life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me."

Who is Meursault? "Just like everybody else; quite an ordinary person," is his answer. The only difference is that a certain series of events befell him, instead of a certain other. His lot could have been different, but not the final meaning of it. He was caught in a peculiar kind of trap. But this is precisely what describes the situation of the individual in everyday life. Since there is nothing else, there is no difference in meaning, either, "One life is as good as another." It is the self-evident that we have to deny, if we want to make of Meursault a sorry exception.

Meursault is Everyman, with a vengeance. For his actions he has only one explanation, which is very tentative: "Though I mightn't be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn't interest me." A quite common predicament. Except that Meursault acknowledges it. Because what is right is not clear to him, he can do wrong; but to lie would be to confuse the issue. He cannot do it. The tension of the story consists entirely of the obstinacy with which this man refuses to lie. We feel this tension from the very beginning, and from the very beginning we expect doom. Rather than a virtue, truthfulness here is a radical decision, something like a last defense. That is why the story is tragic. It is the tragedy of the ethical. No book in contemporary literature points with such soberness and directness to what we still call "a man's soul," Macbeth's "eternal jewel." And this is why, among other things, although the tone of the narration might remind us of Hemingway or Caldwell, the parallel remains superficial. What Camus has attempted to describe is precisely what the Americans leave out: the dimension of the ethical, the "I."

In a world which is intrinsically absurd, what can man do? This is Camus' question, Meursault's answer is: die unreconciled. But life's own queries still remain to be answered. And nothing is so characteristic of Camus as his refusal to give answers that would be merely logical, to ignore the diversity and the contradictions of experience. The theme of The Myth of Sisyphus, a collection of philosophical essays, is the absurdity of the Absurd, the impossibility of making a logical rule out of it. Pessimism or optimism. God or suicide. Reason or Unreason. These are all attempts to jump out of the real problem by giving it a final solution. Camus calls them "refusals to acknowledge.” In the same way, despair is the most intimate reality of man. To make of it a moral rule would be at the same time to debase it and to get rid of it. "Against eternal injustice, man must assert justice, and to protest against the universe of grief, he must create happiness," says Camus in his Letters to a German Friend, written in the thick of the battle and probably the noblest document of the state of mind of the European Resistance.

Albert Camus speaks of happiness against a background of despair, and that is why his voice rings true. Aware as he is of the absurd, he stresses nothing like clear consciousness. And from the ultimate loneliness of man, he draws one consequence, which is the necessity today of reestablishing real communication among men, these "brother enemies" divided more than ever before by false thoughts and violence.

These are reasonable paradoxes. They are not so very different from the ones the Greeks had to face. And we cannot help feeling in Camus' voice a yearning for the return of a man who, however welcome in academic circles, has never since his death been readmitted to his proper place, which was the public place—Socrates, "the simple wise man with a curious distinction."