InPRINT: Albert Camus and the Biggest Question of All

ColumnRead a book. Sustain your mind.

I’m torn, often and about many things, including protests in the street. Make no mistake; I do support the movement(s) and those souls who hit the pavement (hello, Occupy) to make a newer and better world. I understand and have seen the power of dissent and today, with the issue of moving forward or backward once again looming large, I know I should be out there.

Yet it’s not unreasonable to ask, “Does it matter?” The world is an absurd place of cruel whims and monstrous scope, and finally, as the great humorist George Carlin once observed, “the planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.” Given that the deck is by definition stacked against us (a delightful afterlife aside, if you wish), what can one really do and why, in fact, should we do anything at all? Go ahead and cue the snarky guffaws, but here’s the question: To be or not to be? It’s a good one, right?

Among other notables, Albert Camus (1913-1960) gave the query quite a go. In his Nobel Prize winning novels (along with his numerous short stories, plays and essays), the great (and oh so cool) French writer-philosopher examined authenticity and rebellion in the face of the power, the potential of the individual in an absurd and painful world, and the choices we all face about how (and if) to play the hands we’re so arbitrarily dealt. Good stuff. Serious stuff. Stuff that we would do well to revisit every once in a while as we watch the news and try to decide, “What is to be done.”

What’s special about Camus’ timeless stories is that they’re unafraid. Unafraid not only to present and confess our flaws in the context of life’s Sisyphean nature (his characters tend to be human, as opposed to traditionally heroic; some kind, some indifferent, some truly awful), but also unafraid to have us somehow march bravely on, albeit into a relentless wind of frigid and life-numbing “abstractions” (to Camus, generalizations rob the world of its humanity and nuance, and distort reality on the ground).

The three novels published during his lifetime (tragically cut short by a car accident) were The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall. Staples today in both literature and philosophy departments around the world, each has its own angle, coming at the Big Question(s) as different thought experiments staffed by particular personality types. The Stranger is the story of Meursault, an honest yet indifferent and unemotional man who finds himself accused of murder. The Plague tells us of Doctor Bernard Rieux’s work and life in Oran, a city decimated by death and cut off from the outside world. Finally, The Fall is the confession of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a well-respected citizen whose unflinching self-reflection leads to his own demise. (More on these titles below.)

The novels could hardly be called a triptych (though on a recent read I did notice a reference in The Plague to events in The Stranger), but together they circle around a single maypole of life’s hardest facts – events are often beyond our control, and absurdity, pain and even horror are part of the human experience – and beg the question of how to behave in light of such truths. The challenges of empathy, compassion and, ultimately, action are not easily met, of course, and it is in the stutter step between thought and deed that Camus finds his – indeed, our – drama. It’s a drama I recalled when I watched Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen on television as he lay bleeding in Oakland last October, a victim of rubber bullets unleashed by police during an Occupy rally.

Today, the Left and the Right do battle to the degree where progress (or even ideology) no longer matters as much as winning. Science deniers are at war with environmentalists as the ice caps continue to melt. Totalitarianism, racism, sexism, class warfare—all continue to draw our blood just as they did in Camus’ day and throughout history before him. And worse still, all of these events are simply absorbed (if not partly orchestrated) by a corporate class so dominant that we don’t even know what the light of day might look like anymore. I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but just as Camus’ characters were challenged, the question continues to be begged: Beyond even what to do—why do anything at all?

Camus’ fiction offers us two essential lenses through which to view the problem. First, the stories somehow stir up a compassion for ourselves and our existential dilemma that has us so torn about taking action given Carlin’s irritated dog observation. (Sorry, but you knew the “ism” was coming. For the record, Camus denied being that particular “ist.”) It’s not easy to jump into action every time your head tells you to, as life is not, it turns out, abstract. (Indeed, Camus himself entered a self-imposed intellectual exile during the last years of his life when he could not bring himself to side with the anti-colonialists in his native Algeria. His mother still lived there, he explained.)

Second, and most important, Camus refused to accept the question in terms of party or politics (Camus famously broke from his friend Jean-Paul Sartre when he took issue with the Communist Party’s approach to world changing), or “winning” (a fool’s quest) or even some objective good versus evil (Camus was an atheist). Rather, he dares you to act from your best lights, for no reason that can be known aside from what’s between you and you. The answer, he wants us to consider, is to be. For its own sake.

(Re)read Camus when you can. His novels are accessible and eloquent masterpieces, presenting big ideas and brimming with allegory. And here’s the good part – they’re totally entertaining. Riveting, even. And they’re guaranteed to get you asking the Big Question.

The Stranger (1942)

The story of Meursault, a French Algerian who tells of the events in his life with an emotionless indifference to, among other notable happenings, the death of his mother, The Stranger was Camus’ first novel. The main character’s mater-of-fact narration and tone present a man functioning only with the most coldly perceived understanding of what’s going on around him. Almost completely void of feeling, his detachment leaves him an outsider, or stranger, in his community, at once free from societal rules and yet helpless as a bobbing cork, as the storyline washes him this way and that. The novel pivots around his seemingly inexcusable murder of a local man and his inability to process responsibility or defend himself against those seeking to punish him for his actions. An exploration of free will and responsibility, The Stranger is spare and quiet, allowing fundamental philosophical ideas to appear in high relief while at the same time revealing Camus’ great storytelling capabilities.

The Plague (1947)

The Algerian coastal city of Oran is occupied (as wartime France is by Nazi Germany) by bubonic plague in this tale of human resilience in the face of an obscene and powerful enemy. Under this basic yet wildly intense premise, the city becomes Camus’ laboratory for an exploration of human behavior in the framework of life as possessed by random and cruel forces, requiring resistance in any possible form. The story revolves around Dr. Bernard Rieux, who helps lead the fight against the plague for no reason other than it’s his job to reduce human suffering. As abstract forces ranging from bureaucracy to religion saddle others around him, Rieux surfaces as driven by his own personal compact, unencumbered in his efforts to do the next right thing. A rich and gripping read, many consider The Plague to be Camus’ greatest masterwork.

The Fall (1956)

Camus’ last novel to be published during his lifetime (two others were published after his death), The Fall is the confession of self-appointed “judge-penitent” Jean-Baptiste Clamence. He tells his story to a stranger in a bar in post-war Amsterdam, beginning with his background as a successful and honorable defense lawyer (working on behalf of widows and orphans) in Paris. Through a series of random events, Clamence is exposed to his own hypocrisy and thus initiates what becomes a purposeful self-undoing as he attempts to bring his world into alignment with his own deep and human flaws. The once-great man pulls at the string of his inner failings to surely unravel his world and take charge of his own expulsion from his false Eden. As we listen in astonishment, we are confronted with the price of hubris and challenged by the weight of personal responsibility in a dark world where innocence is lost and rules are nonexistent.

Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly column, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.


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Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at