The Death and Life of Albert Camus

albert-camus

Who else looks cool with just the butt of a fag hanging from their mouth?

A man called Albert Camus died on Monday the 4th of January, 1960 at about 54 minutes past 1 in the afternoon. He had lived for 46 years and 69 days by measure of the Western calender. He left his home in leafy Lourmarin in the south of France the day before to make the 460 mile trip to Paris, driven by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard. With them went Gallimard’s wife Janine, their daughter Anne and dog, a terrier called Floc. For some reason Michel lost controll of the Facel Vega FV3B, it hit one tree and then another: Camus was negatively accelerated through the back window, breaking his neck and killing him instantly, Michel hit his head and died of a brain haemorrhage 5 days later, Janine and Anne in the back-seat were unhurt.

Albert was born in Mondovi, Algeria on the 7th November 1913. His father died in the First World War fighting the Battle of the Marne in 1914 when Camus was 9 months old. He spent his childhood years in a small apartment in Belcourt, a working class and multi-ethnic suburb of Algiers, living with his brother Lucien and two uncles, raised by his half-deaf mother, a cleaner and her mother, the family Matriarch – both were illiterate. There was no running water or electricity in the apartment, the toilets were out on the landing, shared with two other apartments in the building. There was not one book in the house Albert grew up in. He was expected to leave school and get a job as soon as possible to support his family, like his elder brother Lucien had done. But Louis Germain, one of Albert’s teachers at primary school apparently noticed his ‘potential’, and encouraged him to seek a scholarship to take him on to secondary schooling, offering the young Camus tutoring to prepare him. Germain was able to convince Camus’s grandmother to give him permission to seek a scholarship on the grounds that Albert would get better paying jobs after graduation. In 1924 he received the scholarship to enter the lycée and continue his studies.  He grew up to become a philosopher (and novelist, playwright, goalkeeper, lover, father, editor of the French Resistance newspaper Combat etcetera – here we can easily imagine that Camus would interject to declare himself first and foremost human).

albert-camus-paris-balcony-streetsCamus proclaimed that existence was at its core essentially meaningless, absurd. Taking this as his premise he argued that the only serious philosophical question is suicide: whether or not life is worth living. He tackled this question in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, using the fate of Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology as a metaphor for human life. According to the myth, for a long history of antagonising the Gods, Hades (the God of the underworld) was sent to chain Sisyphus, but instead he ended chained himself: for so long as Hades was bound, no mortals could die. For this challenge to the heavenly order Sisyphus, King of Corinth was set the task to roll a huge boulder all the way up a steep, rocky hill. All his struggling was not enough, he could never push his burden up to the peak, it would always end up escaping his grasp and roll back down again to the bottom, and Sisyphus would have to follow it there and start again. An eternity of unending struggle and frustration was to be his fate. So too for all of us claimed  Camus. Why then in the face of this absurd condition do we, by and large, keep on living? Is this justified? In short, Camus says yes: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Camus was no fan of travelling by car. Apparently, he once remarked that he “could think of nothing more absurd than to die in an automobile accident”. It took some convincing from his friend Michel Gallimard to take the trip to Paris by car with him. On Camus’s corpse, in his back poket, an unused train ticket was found. At the age of 46, by the standard of most philosophers, he died a young man, though he might have laughed at such an assertion – for a working class man who contracted tuberculosis at 17 he died an old man! These relativities we apply to death are attempts to elude death as the absolute it is, the great leveller, an egalitarian institution if ever there was one. His death seems to highlight the zero-level absurdity of existence he points to and elaborates on in his work. That we recieve his sudden death as needless, accidental, interrupting the ‘natural’ course of a mans life and leaving his works ‘unfinished’ is symptomatic of the unending struggle and frustration that characterises the absurd condition of life. Dead is dead is dead: in a car crash, at war or asleep in bed. Our denial of this undifferentiated absolute is a vulgar revolt against an uncaring universe, the prospect of our own extinction. An attempt to mark a human stamp upon the the antithesis of humanity, its very self-negation: death. Camus offered a radical alternative to this fate: to stand and face the absurdity of existence head on. To make it the very brick and mortar of ones attitude. To embrace it. As Camus put it:  “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”

camus car crashPolitically, Camus is hard to pin down, his first real encounter with politics came at the age of 17 , while staying at his anarchist Uncle Gustave’s house, recovering from an attack of tuberculosis. We can question to what extent his uncle’s anarchism set the co-ordinates of Albert’s future political development: Camus never subscribed to any dogmatic ideology and was hostile towards state, capital and ‘politics’ as an institution. In many ways his thought fell in line with the anarchist axiom that ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’. His fierce criticism of the USSR set him apart and alienated him from many of his contemporaries  ‘on the left’ in France and Algeria at the time. Camus had a very public falling out with his friend, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre after the publication of ‘The Rebel’ in 1951; a book-length essay on rebellion and revolution in societies which, as well as criticising ‘really-existing-socialism’ questioned the reputations of Robespierre and St. Just, sacred cows of the French left. He railed against the view of revolution as an end in itself and decried the propensity for revolution to give way to tyranny and totalitarianism. First, and foremost, he was a humanist. “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for”.

 A month after his death, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a tribute to his deceased friend:

“The moment it appears, the inhuman becomes a part of the human. Every life that is cut off-even the life of so young a man -is at one and the same time a phonograph record that is broken and a complete life. For all those who loved him, there is an unbearable absurdity in that death. But we shall have to learn to see that mutilated work as a total work. Insofar as Camus’s humanism contains a human attitude toward the death that was to take him by surprise, insofar as his proud and pure quest for happiness implied and called for the inhuman necessity of dying, we shall recognize in that work and in the life that is inseparable from it the pure and victorious attempt of one man to snatch every instant of his existence from his future death.”

After the crash, no trace was found of Floc the dog.

albert-camus-dancing

* * *

“I have never seen anyone die for an ontological argument…On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically being killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living(what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying).”

“Do not wait for the Last Judgement. It comes every day.”

“Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”

“What is a rebel? A man who says no.”

“If the world were clear, art would not exist.”

“Men and women must live and create, live and create. To the point of tears”

Albert Camus

***

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3 thoughts on “The Death and Life of Albert Camus

    • Floc was a Dog that lived with the Gallimard family. A Skye terrier to be exact. He was travelling in the car with Camus and the Gallimards. After the crash, it seemed that he had disappeared. No trace of a dead dog was found at the crash site by the survivors or investigators.

      What happened to him is a mystery that plays on my heart. This mystery is the aspect of the crash that I spontaneously find the most memorable. Why that is warrants more investigation, but it seems to me pre-reflectively that this reaction is quite profoundly illustrative of the zero-level absurdity of existence. I might be entirely wrong though, firm conclusions must wait until I tackle the issue more rigorously.

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

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