I avoided Camus for years, mostly because I had heard him referred to as an existentialist and a philosopher and assumed that my eyelids would gain weight exponentially as soon as I started to read him. On a whim, I did start to read him, and was proven very wrong.
What annoys me about philosophers is that they fall too easily into ‘-isms’, reducing to their doctrines the world they are meant to be commenting on. When they finally get going, by which time they’ve usually lost me, they seem to be talking in a secret language all their own, the world languishing far behind.
All this is down to my own mental limitations, I realise, but it helps to explain my newfound love for Camus. For starters, he refuses the label ‘existentialist’:
No, I am not an existentialist… The Myth of Sisyphus was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.
This is good news for me: I’m still not sure what existentialism actually means.
Secondly, he gets right to the point. I started with his long essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and was immediately greeted by these opening lines:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
He asks whether or not life has a meaning, and puts forward that in itself it does not, but acknowledges that we must live despite this. More than this, it is our responsibility to give life meaning:
The Myth of Sisyphus… sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.
Camus sees art – particularly literature – as crucial if life is indeed to be worthwhile, because art is ultimately an effort to assert life’s importance. Writing in the midst of the 20th century and its troubles, he stresses that the artist must assume a social role. An excellent novelist himself, he lived and created by his own sound principles.
If there is anyone who has no right to solitude it is the artist. Art cannot be a monologue.
What struck me above everything is his refusal to ignore the world as it is, in all its messiness. He had enough intelligence to hide behind abstractions, as many thinkers at the time did, but he actively refused to do so and fought against such cowardice. In a resistance newspaper, he wrote in the aftermath of WW2:
We live in a world of abstraction, a world of bureaucracy and machinery, of absolute ideas and of messianism without subtlety. We gasp for air among people who believe they are absolutely right, whether it be in their machines or their ideas.
Any would-be writer disillusioned with their art – and we all get to that stage where we wonder what the point is – would do well to read Camus, who more convincingly than any other writer suggests that life and art need each other to survive.