The rights of the human heart: essays by Camus

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Personal Writings

Albert Camus, Penguin, 2020, 224 pages, £7.07

Committed Writings

Albert Camus, Penguin, 2020, 160 pages, £7.21

ALEXANDER ADAMS revisits the rich oeuvre of one of 20th century France’s finest thinkers

Albert Camus (1913-1960) confessed that he had one wellspring of inspiration: his Algerian childhood. His silent unlettered mother, his absent father (killed in the Great War) and the ever-present warmth of the sun and the presence of the sea: all these were the foundations for his insights into the world:

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. This is why, perhaps, after working and producing for twenty years, I still live with the idea that my work has not even begun.

Ironically, Camus would be dead less than two years later, not even 50, killed in a car accident.

This idea of a return to an immutable emotional locus is something Camus reprises in the 1958 introduction to The Wrong Side and the Right Side, some of his earliest writings. This is the first part of Personal Writings, which also includes the 1939 collection Nuptials (Noces) and Summer (L’Été) of 1954. The essays of The Wrong Side and the Right Side (L’Envers et l’Endroit, previously translated as Betwixt and Between) were written 1935-6 and published in 1937 in Algeria. The book was initially little known – partly due to the low edition size – but Camus’s receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1957 turned French acclaim into international demand. The increase in attention led to Camus agreeing to a reissue of the book in 1958. Writing the introduction and re-reading the texts of The Wrong Side and the Right Side also inspired Camus’ last novel The First Man, published posthumously in 1994.

Camus held to his youthful arguments but found their forms “clumsy”. “I can confess that for me this little book has considerable value as testimony.” He also thought that in that roughness, he revealed too much of himself:

Clumsiness and disorder reveal too much of the secrets closest to our hearts; we also betray them through too careful a disguise.

The pieces are partly essay, partly story, partly memoir, each with the air of a parable.

Suddenly he realizes that tomorrow will be the same, and, after tomorrow, all the other days. And he is crushed by this irreparable discovery. It’s ideas like this that kill one, men kill themselves because they them – or, if they are young, they turn them into epigrams.

Thus, the youthful Camus is able to ironise his insight. The author dips into his familiarity with the legends of the Greeks, mentioning stories well known and obscure.  

There are prose sketches of his native Algiers. The biographical element is ever present. He describes his mother’s silence and simplicity, which held talismanic significance for him of the good person who resists the buffets of fortune. He mentions the fate of his father:

Probably he was very ordinary. Besides, he had been very keen to go to war. His head was split open in the battle of the Marne. Blinded, it took him a week to die; his name is listed on the local war memorial.

‘Death in the Soul’ describes a formative experience. Camus toured Prague, speaking only a little German – which many inhabitants did not speak – and felt ill, wandering around the landmark churches and museums. In the room next to his was a dead body. A male guest had died (Camus supposed due to suicide) and Camus saw the body when it was discovered. Banality, suffering and mortality co-exist, lacking inherent meaning. Only in retrospect did their proximity did the experiences mean anything consequential.

Nuptials contains four lyrical essays set in North Africa and Italy. It contains some beautiful description of the landscape and buildings of the coast.

The violent bath of sun and wind drained me of all strength. I scarcely felt the quivering of wings inside me, life’s complaint, the weak rebellion of the mind. Soon, scattered to the four corners of the earth, self-forgetful and self-forgotten, I am the wind and within it, the columns and the archway, the flagstones warm to the touch, the pale mountains around the deserted city. And never have I felt so deeply and at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.

Camus dwells on what he understands of life, ideas that will inform his Existentialist ideas of the 1940s and 1950s:

I tell myself: I am going to die, but this means nothing, since I cannot manage to believe it and can only experience other people’s death. I have seen people die. Above all, I have seen dogs die.

Not a profound thought, but a true one. He takes the insight as a call to live well every day. Sometimes he finds more unexpected truths –

Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusions.

Camus took his morals from the working-class district of Belcourt, Algiers.

They have their code of morality, which is very well defined. You “don’t let you mother down”. You see to it that your wife is respected in the street. You show consideration to pregnant women. You don’t attack an enemy two to one, because “that’s dirty”. If anyone fails to observe these elementary rules “He’s not a man”, and that’s all there is to it. This seems to me just and strong.

A 1939 travelogue lauds Oran as ready to become a hub of international culture – “Oran, a happy and realistic city, no longer needs writers. It is waiting for tourists.” It is a sad hope that failed. The nightmare of civil war, exodus of the colonists, mismanagement under independence and further civil strife has obliterated Algeria from the world’s consciousness. Oran still awaits its tourists. Camus had odd criteria for a holiday destination. “All the bad taste of Europe and the Orient meets in Oran.” The cafés are dirty but cheap; amenities are crude; the youth follow fashions picked up from American movies.

Camus is not being only satirical – although he is; he is suggesting one gains as much understanding of the world by observing the streets of this ordinary town as the glories of Italy or Greece. As Camus later admits,

Sometimes, in Paris, when people I respect ask me about Algeria, I feel like crying out: “Don’t go there.” Such joking has some truth in it. For I can see what they are expecting and know they will not find it. And, at the same time, I know the attractions and subtle power of this country, its insinuating hold on those who linger, how it immobilizes them first by ridding them of questions and finally by lulling them to sleep with everyday life.

The companion volume, Committed Writings, is very different in tone and content. It is a collection of more polemical pieces: Letters to a German Friend, ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ and ‘The Nobel Speeches’. The former is four articles published clandestinely in occupied France in the journal Combat. They critique Nazi ideology and the treatment by German occupying forces of the French. Although they address the recipient as “you”, Camus explains,

When the author of these letters says “you”, he means not “you Germans” but “you Nazis”. When he says “we”, this signifies not always “we Frenchmen” but sometimes “we free Europeans”

He analyses how the Nazis might see the French:

I know, you think that heroism is alien to us. You are wrong. It’s just that we profess heroism and we distrust it at the same time. We profess it because ten centuries of history have given us knowledge of all that is noble. We distrust it because ten centuries of intelligence have taught us the art and blessings of being natural.

Camus seems to set up a false dichotomy between the value of heroism and the value of peace. Peace comes from a willingness to defend one’s land and people with adequate controlled savagery and endure suffering.

As these texts are intended as moral arguments, they function quite differently from the lyrical discourses of The Wrong Side and the Right Side. They are argumentative, yet no response from the supposed recipients, the German occupiers, would have been expected. Camus is arguing his points without expectation of counterpoint. His generalisations are rather grand; instances given could be actual, inaccurate or invented. While one sympathises with the position of the author and the occupied French, these arguments are not especially strong as arguments, whatever their merits as utterances of moral superiority and personal resolution. These are the weakest pieces in the two books.   

The experience of national doubt and being detached from the certainties of tradition inculcated a suspicion of the given standards of French society after the Great War. The rapid defeat of the Second World War and the sight of many compatriots collaborating with the occupying army was the immediate spur for Existentialism and Absurdism. For Camus, the absurdity came from man without God, country, king or tradition, forced to find meaning in a universe both inhospitable and without objective morals. Camus’s humanism came – paradoxically – from the barbarity and cowardice of war and occupation. When God and the generals turned their backs upon France, it was the ordinary man (at great risk to himself) who found meaning in sacrificing his life so that his compatriots might go free. Camus’s experience of the war, during which he put his life at risk in the resistance movement, and his reading of Kafka’s The Trial, that shaped his Absurdism. The Trial is a parable of an everyman caught in a system that judges and sentences without transparency. It is, of course, a reflection upon life.

‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ (1957) is an essay on capital punishment, which accompanied a text by Arthur Koestler. Camus’s father apparently witnessed a public guillotining, which he found distressing. The account of his father’s reaction fascinated Camus his whole life. Camus’s argument against capital punishment in France and her colonies is interesting and well-argued. One argument against state killing, which was no longer public in France after a 1939 execution (quite a late date for a public execution), is that the very concealment of the horror of killing sustained support for the act because supporters did not have the opportunity to confront the reality. He adds the remarkable fact that a vast majority of the executed had, before committing their crimes, attended a public execution. (James Boswell had confessed his fascination with attending executions, whilst finding the compulsion degrading.) This tends to undermine the argument that the death penalty – and its spectacle – provides a deterrent against crime.  

‘The Nobel Speeches’ covers Camus thoughts on the role of art during the Cold War and the responsibilities of writers –

All artists must find the solution to this problem according to their sensitivities and abilities. The greater an artist’s revolt against the reality against the reality of the world, the greater the weight of that reality needed to counterbalance it. But that weight can never overpower the unique requirements of the artist.

He was positive about the importance of art.

Tyrants know that great works embody a force for emancipation that is only mysterious to those who do not worship art. Every great work of art makes humanity richer and more admirable, and that is its only secret.

The speeches feature his political outlook –

What characterizes our times, in fact, is the tension between contemporary sensitivities and the rise of the impoverished masses. We know they exist, whereas before, we tended to ignore them. And if we are aware of them, it is not because the elites, artistic elites or others, have become better.

This awareness also leaves artists prey to the desire to display false class solidarity and to mouth expected political pieties, in contradiction from their experience and insight. The explicit social function of art can conflict with honesty and integrity, both of the artwork and the creator.

All considered, on the evidence here, it is baffling that a writer of Camus’s intellect and unvarnished insight could have believed that anarchism and non-centralised socialism to be anything other than unrealistic responses to the truth of human head and human heart. It could be that Camus’s optimism regarding the human spirit outstripped his judicious consideration and one might fault him for not his Absurdism but his overestimation of the power of rationalism, in the face of all the evidence Camus himself marshalled in these essays. Readers of these excellent new editions will be able to assess that point themselves.