Keeping sane

Albert Camus lived through an era not unlike our own – saturated with a hopelessness about the future, fearful of the other, leading to terrorism from one side and torture and justifications of torture from the other side in order to supposedly safeguard society. Camus himself saw such as a vicious circle, and fell out with his fellow Leftist travellers, such as Sartre, for feeling that violence was somehow inevitable and yet never justified, never a necessary evil for the greater good, in contrast not only to modern Western conservatives, but to those of Camus’s time on the political left with their justification of Stalinist violence.

This is a major theme coming out of Robert Zaretsky’s recent little biography (A Life Worth Living) – though biography may be the wrong word – study might be better: Zaretsky takes five tropes: absurdity (of course), silence, revolt, fidelity and moderation, and writes about each of these affected and were meditated on by Camus.

Famously, Camus thought that it was necessary to confront meaninglessness. One can argue about the supposed meaninglessness of the world, in big and small ways, but it would be flippant not to be at least sympathetic to his outlook that the world is indeed meaningless, particularly based on the situation he found himself in, as an onlooker to the exploitation and violence in his native Algeria. (Besides, talk about meaning in the world at large is, as David Bentley Hart points out, so abstract as to be, er, meaningless – meaning is to be found in a particular thing… or difficult to find in a particular thing, as the case may be.) It’s not hard to have sympathy and admiration for both Camus’s outspokenness and then his reluctance to speak out about violence. He felt passionate about injustice and was torn between a duty to report the truth and a reluctance to offer a voice when there are often no clear answers to moral dilemmas (hence them being dilemmas in the first place). This is not always an easy position for a public intellectual to take – it is easier to make grand pronouncements that leave the impression of black and white.

It is also hard not to admire his attitude to the cultivation of happiness – that it is hard fought for – a long, tiring effort, especially when our society promotes easy answers here too, that are generally mirages. His Sisyphean attitude is sometimes off – Zaretsky suggests that contrary to what Camus says, Homer never says Sisyphus is wise and there’s actually not much to redeem that story, and there’s not meant to be – it’s not about human dignity, but about the folly of crossing the gods – but one can admire Camus’s ‘epiphany’ that one must not neglect injustice or those things that keep us sane, such as, in Camus’s case, taking some joy from nature.

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