Albert Camus and the Human Crisis
By Robert Emmet Meagher
Pegasus Books, 2021
$27.95 352 pp.
“The great task of man is not to serve the lie.”
These words were not said by Albert Camus, although, as Thomas Merton writes in his essay “Camus and the Church,” he said the same thing in many ways throughout his work. These words were actually written by Camus’s friend, Brice Parain, an existentialist who studied the metaphysical implications of language and eventually became a Catholic.
One hundred and twenty pages of The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, the 549-page New Directions tome, focus on the work of Camus. Why all this interest of a Christian thinker in a man who said he very much doubted the existence of God and did not believe in Christianity; who, when he and a friend came across a Muslim boy killed by a taxicab and surrounded by his grieving family in the street, “turned toward the landscape of blue sea and sky,” raised “a finger toward the heavens,” and said, “You see, He says nothing”?
Albert Camus and the Human Crisis answers that question. Robert Emmet Meagher, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Hampshire College, has taught religious studies and theology. It is fair to say he has a Christian point of view on life, or at least that’s the feeling one gets when reading this book. He says he wrote it “to try to correct the record when necessary”—for instance, that Camus was neither an existentialist nor an atheist, as he has often been described—and “to increase even further the number of his readers, and to deepen their appreciation of his life and works in our time.” “Our world, and our nation, in particular, are in crisis,” he writes, “and we need the moral clarity and prophetic wisdom of Camus as never before.”
Meagher, also scholar of Euripides, says he began the book with Camus’s speech “The Human Crisis” in one hand and the daily news in the other. As he did so, he remembered a passage from Herakles Gone Mad, one of the Greek tragedian’s plays:
The truth is our country has gone mad.
Its schemes are wild.
And it is sick with dissent and division.
It’s come apart.
Otherwise how would you ever have come to power?
The chorus in the play speaks these words to the tyrant, Lykos. “I had someone else in mind in summoning them,” Meagher adds.
Albert Camus and the Human Crisis begins with a discussion of how Camus came to America in 1946 and delivered “The Human Crisis” on March 26 in New York City. The Americans, Meagher writes, recent victors in the war, were expecting a discussion of literature, philosophy, and theater. But Camus, like his anti-hero Meursault in The Stranger, “refused to lie.” He threw a pitcher of cold water on his audience as if to say, “Wake up! The battle has just begun.” “New York had invited an existentialist and found themselves confronted by a moralist,” Meagher explains. “Instead of a French Hemingway, they got an Algerian Jeremiah.”
“The Human Crisis” is included in a new volume of Camus’s collected speeches under the title “The Crisis of Man.” In it, Camus says:
There is a human crisis. Since putting a person to death can be regarded with something other than the horror and scandal it ought to provoke. Since human suffering is accepted as a somewhat boring obligation, on a par with getting supplies or having to stand in line for an ounce of butter.
“Camus warned against the common postwar complacency that took false comfort in the fact that Hitler was dead and the Third Reich had fallen,” Meagher writes. “Yes, the serpentine beast was dead, but ‘we know perfectly well,’ [Camus] argued, ‘that the venom is not gone, that each of us carries it in our own hearts.’” The world was not ready to hear Camus then. But now we are, since the dragons we thought we had slain have returned.
Camus grew up in Algeria, a French colony, the son of a French Alsatian father and a Spanish mother who had never learned to read or write, was deaf, and had a speech impediment. Camus’s father, Lucien, died in World War I when the boy was almost a year old. One of the only stories Camus knew about him was one his grandmother told him: Lucien once witnessed the execution of a farm worker who had slain an entire family, and when he came home, he was terribly shaken and vomited repeatedly, unable to forget the image of the guillotine. In the words of Alice Kaplan in her excellent book about Camus’s creative process, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, “That an execution made Lucien Camus sick, that it filled him with such horror he couldn’t speak, was really the only thing Albert Camus ever learned about his father.”
A teacher suggested that Camus go on the Grand Lycée, the upper level of school, then to the University of Algiers where he met a Catholic professor, Jean Grenier, who became his mentor and most profound influence. As Germaine Breé writes in her study of Camus, and which Meagher, a friend and colleague of Breé’s, quotes:
To Camus [Grenier] transmitted his love of Greek literature, of the great tragic poets as well as the philosophers. It was through Plato and Plotinus that Camus first considered those problems of essence and existence . . . Camus’s line of thought, unlike Sartre’s, can be traced through St. Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Chestov, with Plato and the Neoplatonists as a constant check and reference.
In 1930, when he was 17, Camus suffered his first bout with tuberculosis. Breé writes that “his first lonely encounter with death, a public ward at the clinic, the other patients around him, seem to have awakened him to a full consciousness of what it really meant to be a living human being.”
After a series of personal lyrical essays, Camus wrote the play Caligula (begun in 1938 and published in 1944), the novel The Stranger (1942), and a book of philosophical essays, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). In Caligula, he portrays the infamous Roman emperor as being driven into an amoral way of life as a reaction to the death of his sister (and mistress) Drusilla. The Stranger is about a man who seems cold and almost inhuman, but who—because of a murder he commits in a fog of miasmic heat and physical exhaustion, the subsequent trial, and his looming execution—comes to understand himself for the first time through a sort of Stoic, mystical experience. The title essay of The Myth of Sisyphus proclaims that the most important philosophical question is that of suicide; it presents the mythical Sisyphus, eternally doomed to roll a stone up a steep hill only to have it roll back down again, as a person to emulate since our life-task is Sisyphean.
Meagher is very good on how this early work, especially The Stranger, has been read as if it was Camus’s last word on life, which would be very bleak if so. But he points out, often using Camus’s own words, that this was not what Camus had in mind:
Like Socrates in his dialogues, Camus pursued assertions and arguments he knew were ultimately false, pressing and interrogating them until they broke down and came to a dead end of their own making. The works of the absurd or Sisyphus Cycle were . . . experiments in truth, experiments that ultimately fall short, not as works of art but as counsels to live by. They offer only half-truths, unable to bear the full weight of a life worth living.
This was also the time in his life when Camus was working on his novel The Plague (1947). He lived within walking distance of the Protestant village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, famous for having sheltered 5,000 people, mostly Jews, during the war. In 1943, Camus moved to Paris and risked his life working with the French Resistance, living a double life as an editor for both the French publisher Gallimard and the underground newspaper Combat. Two of his friends were caught, tortured, and killed by the Nazis. His work began to address what men and women should do to confront the threat of fascism and violence.
The Plague describes a physical plague that first kills all the rats in the city of Oran in Algeria. Then the people start dying. Although the plague is portrayed as a purely physical ailment, Camus layers his novel with hints and subtones that identify it with the horrors of World War II. The main characters include Dr. Rieux, a laconic physician who tries to warn politicians of what is coming (and who was based on a composite portrait of two doctors in Le Chambon, one of whom bravely proclaimed in a Nazi trial that, “We in Le Chambon resist unjust laws, we hide Jews, and we disobey your orders, but we do this in the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”); Tarrou, an idealistic young man who becomes Rieux’s friend and once asks whether one become a saint without God; Rambert, a journalist; and Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who gives his life in service to others. One of the most moving scenes in all of Camus’s work is when Dr. Rieux and Tarrou break their own rules and sneak out of Oran for a swim in the ocean under the stars.
One can detect the influence of St. Augustine on Camus’s thought in his portrait of Father Paneloux. Meagher, however, overstates this influence, finding correspondences between the work of the two Algerians that is more suggestive than convincing. For example, he says that Meursault’s acceptance of his death at the end of The Stranger is like the conversion of St. Augustine in the Confessions, as is also the fact that both Meursault and the young Augustine did not cry at their mothers’ funerals. My only other philosophical quibble with Meagher is that, when speaking of Plato, he says the Socrates in the Republic is the same Socrates as in the earlier dialogues. This is, as far as I can tell from my own reading, simply not true; the Socrates in the earlier dialogues appears to be close to the original Socrates that Plato knew and followed as an aristocratic youth.
Historicism—the idea that history has a meaning, and we can figure out what it is and plan our utopia accordingly—is something Camus never accepted. He covers this territory in his book-length essay The Rebel (1951). The gist of the book is that despite there being no God, or at least no God who seems to intervene to help his creation, humankind can still find solace in art and rebellion, and also strive for human solidarity.
Camus’s problem with historicism is that it is afflicted by hubris: we are not modest enough. We think we can see as gods, and so having found the meaning of history either through revelation of the supernatural (Christian) or natural (Marxist) kind, we think we’ve got it all figured out. The next steps after this lead to inquisitions, death camps, and gulags. The only way out of this conundrum is to remember we are but humans, not gods or God. As soon as we think we are gods or God, the world we fashion becomes a hellscape.
The Rebel was a response to the idea that any of us can know for sure what ought to be done, that any of us is “absolutely right.” Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir attacked him for this—Meagher writes that “Camus sought open dialogue and respectful debate, to which Sartre had already shut the door, preferring ridicule to refutation”—but Camus went his own way, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was increasingly involved in adapting, writing, and directing plays. Hannah Arendt praised him and his work, and he read and praised Simone Weil, who he felt very close to and whose house he visited before he accepted the Nobel Prize. He also wrote a novel, The Fall (1956), “drenched in Catholic themes, images, and ideas,” and a book of short stories, Exile and the Kingdom (1957).
At the end of his life, he was working on a novel, The First Man, which his daughter, Catherine, said was supposed to be his War and Peace, and which Camus felt he was writing “on a whole new level.” In a moving introduction to the book, Catherine describes it as “less austere, more lyrical.” This is important because one of the things that strikes a reader of Camus is exactly that austerity. It is refreshing and bracing at times, but at others it seems to be holding something back. One wonders if The First Man was the beginning of a new, what Kierkegaard would call “religious” cycle, some sort of view of life that would go beyond art and morality into a more comprehensive vision. Unfortunately, we never had the chance to find out: Camus died in a car wreck January 4, 1960, in the south of France. An unused train ticket and the manuscript of The First Man were found in the trunk of his car. There has been some speculation that his death was engineered by the Soviets, but this remains unconfirmed.
One of the major themes of Camus’s life was the importance of friendship. He counted many Christians as friends. After the war, he initially advocated for severe punishment of collaborators. He and the Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, who had also been in the Resistance and was a man of the Left, disagreed on this; Mauriac argued for mercy. Camus came to agree with Mauriac, with whom, Meagher shows, he had a lot in common. Both were men of principle, neither fascist nor communist. Camus’s mentor and most lasting philosophical influence, Jean Grenier, was also a Christian.
Meagher has given us a grand introduction to a profound artist and thinker, a rare combination, who identified with the suffering of the world, believed in art, rebellion, humility, and friendship, and is still a guide to people of all persuasions today. This scholar of Euripides hearkens back to the dramatist’s words in the book’s conclusion:
The good and decent man,
even if he lives in some distant place,
and even though I never set eyes on him,
I count as friend.
Frank Freeman’s work has been published in America, Commonweal, Dublin Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard, among others. He lives in Maine with his wife and four children, dog, cat, and four chickens. He hopes to have his books published some fine day.