Sunday, 25 April 2010

52 for 2010 #14

Albert Camus: A Life by Oliver Todd

I remain uncertain about my relationship with Albert Camus. I've read and admired his three novels, the short story collection and the essay on revolt, but in all honesty it's his lifestyle and celebrity that I find most attractive. A seemingly pathological womaniser, he left behind one ex-wife with a ruinous morphine habit (not his fault), one widow with mental health problems (largely his fault) and a loose network of lovers, including the famous actress Maria Casarès. If there's any single artefact from the man's life that I most appreciate, it's the iconic B&W photograph that graces the covers of several of his books: his hair slicked back, his collar turned up, a half-smoked cigarette protruding from his mouth. He looks a little tired, as though the attention of the photographer is boring him; how fabulous to treat fame with such insouciance!

But what about his ideas? I have to admit that I've never fully grasped them. Camus was sometimes a victim of his own high-flown prose style; the final passage of The Rebel sounds tremendously stirring at first ('In this noon of thought, the rebel thus disclaims divinity in order to share in the struggles and destiny of all men.'), but against the list of historical injustices and monsters of thought that make up the rest of the book, it can offer little more than fine writing and invocations of valour. This was, of course, the charge that was laid against Camus by many of his contemporaries, including Sartre, who thought him a good writer but a poor philosopher. Raymond Aron, who would produce his own, more systematic denunciation of Communism a few years after The Rebel appeared, agreed with the sentiments that Camus expressed in his book, but felt that they were poorly argued.

So what does that leave us with? An ardent appeal for a form of radical individualism that refuses to disregard collective responsibility? Nietzsche with a heart? I don't know. I'd like to believe that there's something more sophisticated at the core of Camus's thought, something to transcend his elegantly rendered platitudes and anxious self-criticism, but what might it be? As the man said himself, he was suspicious of systems of thought, preferring to live by his (admittedly selective) sense of justice. Maybe, 'in the final analysis', exhortations to moral virtue were all he could bring to bear. Maybe that was the point.

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