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I happened to be in Paris several years ago on the evening they were giving out the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. Early the next morning, I turned on the television to see who had won. The first news story was not about film stars, but the posthumous publication of Albert Camus’s novel about the French settling of Algeria, The First Man. The French love to be in love with their intellectuals, but that news story, that early, on that morning, about a man already dead more than thirty years, says something about Camus.

On its deeper side, it has something to do with his sense of the sacred, which persisted despite a lifelong inability to believe in the usual sense of the word, and infused his work with larger dimensions than most of the literature of his time. The Nobel Committee that gave him the 1957 Prize for Literature already felt him to be a significant moral and spiritual presence at forty-three (only Kipling won at a younger age): “Even in his first writings Camus reveals a spiritual attitude that was born of the sharp contradictions within him between the awareness of earthly life and the gripping consciousness of the reality of death.”

He rejected Christian, Platonic, and several Enlightenment views of the afterlife, for example, in part because he thought they couldn’t make up for earthly suffering and death and took away from concern for justice in this life. He claimed to have a “pagan nature” that he had discovered via a different Greek strain of thought. He appreciated the beauty of the world, but also its implacable and uncaring tragedy.

And yet he regarded all that—and the human complications within it—with no little irony and humor: “I sometimes dream of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers. After that strong definition, the subject will be, if I dare say so, exhausted.” Thus Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator of the witty, snaky, and self-damning monologue that makes up Albert Camus’s The Fall, the last of his novels to be published during his lifetime. The title of that book and the speaker’s name (John-Baptist) point to its muted, but carefully calibrated, religious themes, as does the original title of The First Man, which was supposed to be Adam. Camus’s brilliant working at the frontier between belief and unbelief—indeed, between ancient Greek and Christian ways—and his effort to live honestly and decently despite the ideological horrors of the twentieth century were central to what made him great in his time and of remarkably fresh insight, even in our own more confused age.

Albert Camus was born in Algiers in 1913 and died in literature’s most famous car crash on January 4, 1960 on the way back to Paris with his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard. As the Nobel Committee recognized, Camus came from a working-class background in Algiers and had risen to prominence by sheer literary genius. His mother was illiterate. His father died in World War I, when he was barely a year old. All his life he kept close to his humble origins, which gave him touchstones for pursuing truth and solidarity.

Unlike the Parisian literary crowd he later lived with, he criticized Marxism and all ideological schemes of earthly salvation for their willingness to murder in the present in the name of “justice” in the future. His later anti-totalitarian book, The Rebel, provoked a nasty rift with Jean-Paul Sartre and the whole French left. But even in writing his scathing reply to Camus, Sartre had first to admit the truth, “In you were summed up the conflicts of our time, and you surmounted them by your eagerness to live them. You were a person, the most complex and the richest.” High praise indeed from a competitor and narcissist.

Camus’s personal appeal was only increased by his movie-star good looks, legendary way with women, and general savoir-faire. He was good at sports (despite tubercular lungs that tormented and panicked and periodically almost killed him), a talented amateur actor, sociable, manly. The only person who could have played him in a film would have been Humphrey Bogart in the Casablanca mode. Camus ran risks as an anti-Nazi journalist with the French Resistance, but always downplayed his contribution in comparison with those who had actually fought and died.

He represented both the world’s beauty and its tragedy brilliantly in his creative work, often with links to his experience of the Algerian sea, sun, and desert. Several of the stories in the late collection Exile and the Kingdom do this with uncanny literary effect. In “The Adulterous Woman,” for example, a traveling salesman’s wife betrays him in Algeria’s southern reaches, not with another man but with the immense desert and its deep night sky: “The last stars of the constellations dropped their clusters a little lower on the desert horizon and became still. Then, with unbearable gentleness, the water of night began to fill Janine, drowned the cold, rose gradually from the hidden core of her being and overflowed in wave after wave, rising up even to her mouth full of moans. The next moment, the whole sky stretched out over her, fallen on her back on the cold earth.” All this gets a coup de grâce in the last line. Janine returns to her room. Her husband asks what’s wrong. She answers—with fitting ambiguity, for anyone familiar with Camus’s lifelong preoccupations—“It’s nothing.” There’s real chthonic power here and in other stories like “The Renegade” and “The Stone that Sprouts.” If this is paganism, it’s the kind of paganism open to the wonder of existence that historically led to philosophy, monotheism, and often enough, Christianity.

Camus’s interest in religious thought proper also started early. His thesis, written for a degree in philosophy at the University of Algiers under the tutelage of Jean Grenier, a serious writer himself, was titled Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought. It examined, among other things, two fellow North Africans, Plotinus and St. Augustine, both of whom remain firmly in the background in Camus’s later writing. About Christianity he was always ambivalent. Grenier taught him respect for Christianity because “there is no truth for man that is not incarnated.”

Though he once went so far as to call himself an “independent Catholic” to his friend Paul Raffi, he confessed: “Catholic thought always seems bittersweet to me. It seduces me then offends me. Undoubtedly, I lack what is essential.” Nonetheless, Camus showed continuing interest in dialogue with believers—including a famous lecture to Dominican friars after World War II, published in the late essay collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death—and even discussed religion at his Paris apartment with the then-famous Abbé Altermann, a Jewish convert and Thomist “of the Strict Observance.”

In the early play Caligula, the Augustinian elements are quite open and modern. That Roman emperor, of course, is a senseless murderer who rejects love, embraces random slaughter, and admits his real goal near his end, an inverted Augustinianism: “Soon I shall attain that emptiness beyond all understanding, in which the heart has rest.” The Augustinian side of Camus, in the saner form of an earthly regime of “limits” (mésure), also shapes later works like The Rebel, which ranges widely over contemporary questions of culture, politics, and society, exposing the excesses of communists and fascists, but also of the French Revolution, de Sade, Hegel, Marx, portions of Nietzsche, the Russian anarchists, the French surrealists, and many others.

Camus’s image has been somewhat distorted, especially in the United States, by the fact that many students who study French only read—often fruitlessly—his brief existential novel The Stranger. If you only know The Stranger, you would have the idea that its stark portrait of absurdity represented his whole oeuvre: Kafka rewritten by Hemingway, as is sometimes said. (Thomas Merton argued, somewhat fancifully, that the failure of the priest-chaplain to convert the imprisoned Meursault at the end of the novel was the kind of thing Vatican II wanted us to look at and learn from in the modern world.)

In reality, Camus regarded radical doubt and existential confrontation with “the abyss” as only the first of three stages that he had planned out quite early. The Stranger, along with the book-length essay The Myth of Sisyphus and the play Caligula, examined modern nihilism. As he summed it up in The Myth of Sisyphus, the modern question—with God and transcendence gone—was suicide. Should we continue on in the face of the absurdity of an indifferent universe?

Camus’s answer was yes, but an authentic “yes” can only be pronounced after a frank look into the abyss. The effort to build could then be carried out with full clarity as to what was in play and what in truth. Camus planned and completed a second cycle of works: the novel The Plague, in which the heroic Doctor Rieux strives, despite ultimate futility, against human suffering and death; the play The Misunderstanding, a kind of Greek tragedy in which a young man returns home in disguise, having made his fortune, only to be murdered and robbed by his mother and sister; and the highly influential cultural analysis The Rebel. The second cycle affirmed human solidarity despite a piteous universe and human depravity. He had completed all this work by 1951, when he was only thirty-eight.

But Camus claimed in his Notebooks that these works were only preliminaries to enable him to speak “in my own voice.” He had it in mind to write another trilogy in that voice: a two-volume novel The First Man, which would be a sprawling, lush, Tolstoy-like saga of the French who came to Algeria and built it up (the unfinished manuscript was in his briefcase when he died). An essay would follow, tentatively titled The System, which was never written and may actually have been something of an anti-system, since Camus distrusted systematic rationalism. And this cycle would have included another play that was supposed to interweave Don Juan and Faust (Camus loved Mozart and wanted to be listening to his Requiem when he died). In discussion with Swedish students at his Nobel Prize events, Camus stated baldly the unifying theme of the third cycle: love.

As is clear even in outline, Camus’s plan was to face the existential abyss and pursue what might still be won for human life even where reason (which is to say, productions like the large continental philosophical constructs of French and German rationalism) and God were no longer available. He created and edited a book series Hope (Espoir) for Gallimard. Its goal: to see if “one can get out of nihilism.” It was there that Simone Weil’s work Gravity and Grace first appeared. In his tentative and incomplete fashion, he was feeling his way towards acceptance of a kind of natural law and an affirmation of universal human nature.

As was always the case with him, he proceeded less by purely abstract analysis than by personal engagement with problems that arose in the course of his life. In his Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm, he points out that people of his generation were twenty when Hitler came to power “and the first Soviet trials began, and to perfect their education, witnessed the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the concentration camps, and a Europe of torture and prisons.” Despite his criticisms of France, America, and the West, leftist commentators regarded him as a cold warrior and incipient fascist merely for pointing out Soviet crimes.

They also attacked him for refusing to be militantly anti-colonialist during the revolutionary violence in Algeria. He famously told a group of students who asked about the virtual civil war then underway, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” This easily could be misunderstood, and was. He clearly meant that he opposed any party in Algeria doing evil—committing injustice—in the expectation that future good would come of it. His play The Just Assassins (Les Justes) explores an old Dostoevskian theme that had haunted him since he had read The Possessed and that he tried to work through himself in The Rebel: Can you kill the innocent in the name of revolutionary justice? It seemed that murder—whether by revolutionaries or the forces of order—lurked down every path in the modern world.

After World War II, Camus had tentatively supported executing Nazi collaborators, which put him at odds with the Catholic novelist and fellow Nobel laureate François Mauriac, who advocated forgiveness. Camus changed his mind—and publicly admitted Mauriac had been right and himself wrong, a rare act for a public intellectual—when he saw what a mess the Épuration became. This basic decency, which refused to be taken captive by political or philosophical partisans, made him unique in French intellectual circles.

In The Rebel, which caused a rift with Sartre and others on the left, he took an independent path, beginning with the opening line: “There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic.” The latter, in his view, were being committed daily by thugs in totalitarian regimes, abetted by Western intellectuals. His studies with Jean Grenier showed here. Camus says Grenier “prevented me from being a humanist in the sense that it is understood today—I mean a man blinded by narrow certainties.”

The Rebel rejects those certainties and that criminal “logic,” and at the same time does not merely accept the status quo: “What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion.” This is Hegel’s master–slave dialectic transposed into a somewhat different key. When the slave refuses to take orders anymore, come what may, he becomes free. The problem was that those who preached revolution were not adopting a “limited” rebellion. In effect, they didn’t mind becoming masters themselves—from the very highest motives, of course. The type is still with us.

The Rebel has weak philosophical foundations and proposes little by way of concrete solutions. Raymond Aron’s later The Opium of the Intellectuals is much stronger, as are Leszek Ko?akowski’s studies of Marxism. And it wasn’t until Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago that French intellectuals admitted certain truths.Still, Camus reintroduced several things to public awareness that had dropped out of progressive thought. For instance, he quotes Soloviev’s warning that materialism is not the natural foundation for solidarity, as many believe: “Man is descended from monkeys, therefore let us love one another.”

What Camus sought, in essence, was reflected in the title of another essay, “Neither Victims, Nor Executioners.” To achieve a workable but admittedly imperfect state, thought itself must recognize its limits. Those who seek “absolute freedom,” just like those who seek “absolute justice,” quickly convince themselves that they need both to deny others freedom and to commit murder, becoming “fastidious assassins” and “Christs of violence.” Even absolute “virtue,” he comments, is more proud than wise. Only limited freedom and justice—which are given actual form and content by moderation and humane realism—can hope to achieve what is achievable by limited, flawed creatures like ourselves.

Camus observed that the French Revolution, in its boundless scope, produced no great art for this very reason. Its lust for absolute freedom and absolute justice choked off living forms, the necessary shapes of real creativity: “Rebellion in itself is moderation. And it demands, defends, and recreates it throughout history and its eternal disturbances . . . . Origin of form, source of real life, it keeps us always erect in the savage, formless movement of history.” This explains much that has gone even further awry in the art world since his day.

In the closing pages of The Rebel, Camus asserts that nihilism and totalitarianism, those twin offspring of absolute freedom and absolute justice, flow from a deep disorder in Europe:

The men of Europe, abandoned to the shadows, have turned their backs upon the fixed and radiant point of the present. They forget the present for the future, the fate of humanity for the delusion of power, the misery of the slums for the mirage of the eternal city, ordinary justice for an empty promised land. They despair of personal freedom and dream of a strange freedom of the species; reject solitary death and give the name of immortality to a vast collective agony. They no longer believe in the things that exist in the world and in living man; the secret of Europe is that it no longer loves life.

He tried to bring that voice of moderation to the Algerian situation. Camus was one of the few to propose a fair deal for both the Muslims (who were plagued by racism) and for the pieds noirs (who were largely poor working people). In the sharp divisions of French politics, however, that stance benefitted neither party. The left knew little of Algeria, but used the myth of wealthy French capitalist exploiters to good advantage in Paris. The right was no better, calling for even harsher measures to repress revolt. Camus was a man of “order,” but not of that kind.

He proposed a “civilian truce,” meaning both sides would agree not to attack civilians. It had little chance of being adopted, but he wanted to make people declare themselves publicly for or against innocent civilians. Decent people, he insisted, always prefer truces, dialogue, and reconciliation in such conflicts. But Algeria in the 1950s had already passed beyond the point where the main actors on either side believed that talk would resolve anything. When Camus made his proposal in an Algerian theater, demonstrators outside called for his death.

France was embroiled in an early form of the turmoil that now engulfs the whole Middle East and much of North Africa. As is true in other parts of the Muslim world today, there really was no Muslim nationality in Algeria, beyond what was useful for certain groups seeking revolution and independence. Then, as now, international actors were involved. Camus was wary of any group with “peace” in its name, which was in those days and for decades to come often a marker of a Soviet front. The truth, a complicated truth, lay elsewhere: “Algeria is not France, it isn’t even Algeria, it is that unknown land which a cloud of blood hides from its incomprehensible natives, bothersome soldiers, and exotic Frenchmen. Algeria is the absent one, whose memory and abandonment pain the hearts of a few people.”

Algeria was personal and especially troubling for one of those pained hearts who lamented the destruction of a way of life. That may be why he began writing The First Man, a kind of saga about people coming to Algeria for the first time from European nations. People who knew him say the rich prose of that work, so unlike the earlier spareness, is most like Camus’s living voice.

But Algeria was not the only thing troubling Camus’s personal life. His relations with his second wife, Francine, were bad because of his multiple infidelities. His secretaries had to keep lists of women who could be put through and those who could not. Camus wrote to five separate women the week before he died, telling each she was “the love of his life,” which might have strained even Don Juan. Francine went through some major bouts of depression, two suicide attempts, and painful treatments, including twenty-three electroshock sessions. It’s clear that Camus’s long, and his deepest, affair, with the French actress Maria Casarès, was preying on her mind. And feeling an acute sense of guilt, Camus could not bring himself to leave her. When he claimed to want to write a play that combined Don Juan and Faust and would explore love, no doubt he would have had to deal with something he called elsewhere “the solitude of promiscuity.”

It’s in this twin turmoil of Algeria and his personal life that The Fall grew, rapidly and unexpectedly, from a brief story intended for the collection Exile and the Kingdom,into a novel, the last and most personal published in his lifetime. Camus was having panic attacks at the time and experiencing writer’s block, and The Fall seems to have been some kind of breakthrough. For a man who claimed not to be a believer, it’s curiously charged with religion. (The original working title had been The Last Judgment.) In it, Jean-Baptiste Clamence calls himself and his interlocutor “Sadducees.” They both have money and don’t share with the poor. Clamence lives in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, or what’s left of it, after the Nazis. In a way, he says tartly, you have to admire their efficiency in killing 75,000 Jews: “When one has no character, one has to adopt a method.”

The center city with its concentric canals, he notes, are like the circles in Dante’s Inferno. But it’s a bourgeois hell, one where Europeans cannot go any further in “fornicating and reading the newspapers” except in their dreams of avarice and exotic escapes. At the same time, the “judge-penitent” claims that he does not judge—or rather, he’s clear-eyed about everything and everyone, not least about his own guilt, and lets it speak for itself.

That guilt is tied to a specific incident. Clamence was crossing the Pont des Arts one evening when a woman jumped into the Seine. She drowned, and perhaps would have died whatever he had done. But he didn’t do anything, all the more humiliating because he had been a brilliant human rights lawyer, passionately defending the defenseless, a man known for his kindness and modesty—all, he confesses now, for his own selfish glory and vanity. It’s difficult not to identify Clamence and his creator here. Camus, too, has been unwilling to put himself out for a suicidal woman, his wife. And when he was drunk one evening, he even admitted to his typist that he’d had a similar experience to Clamence’s on a Paris bridge.

Camus/Clamence is not the first to notice that public virtue may be linked with private vice, here a desire for public acclaim. But usually the vice is excused if the public benefit is large enough. In The Fall, however, the failure to help a depressed and suicidal woman changes everything. As in most traditional religious thought, the truths about the human heart are eternally real. Clamence was walking across the Pont des Arts on another occasion, when he heard a mysterious burst of laughter, which he takes as a mocking judgment on his life. He gives up his false Parisian personality and flees to the life of an Ancient Mariner–like figure in Amsterdam.

But his mind remains in the City of Lights. Like Camus, he’s aware of his own cowardice and falsehood, that he’s not much different—other than that awareness—from the Parisian literary set he despises. He even claims one of them told him that they, too, have their false public personae: “Believe it, eighty percent of our writers, if only they didn’t have to sign their names, would write and hail the name of God. But they sign their names . . . because they love themselves, and they hail nothing at all, because they hate themselves.”

In “Jonas,” another story with autobiographical elements written around the same time, the title character, a painter, is described with a little more sympathy: He “believed in his star. Indeed, he believed solely in it, although he felt respect, and even a sort of admiration, for other people’s religion. His own faith, however, was not lacking in virtues since it consisted in acknowledging obscurely that he would be granted much without ever deserving anything.” And he extends a certain charity to other artists: “They’re not sure of existing, not even the greatest. So they look for proofs, they judge and condemn. That strengthens them; it’s a beginning of existence . . . . I’m not sure of existing. But someday I’ll exist, I’m sure.”

This hunger finally to exist is wrapped up in religious as well as artistic questions. Camus was not exactly a believer or a convinced atheist of the usual sorts. When he was adapting Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun for the French theater, he was asked about its religious dimension. “It’s true that I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I’m an atheist, and I would agree with Benjamin Constant, who thought a lack of religion was vulgar and even hackneyed.” He’s questing and enigmatic, something like Ivan Karamazov, his favorite character in his favorite novel by his favorite author. He’s more indignant over suffering and injustice than hardened in a stance against God. In this, Camus was somewhat in the Samuel Beckett mode: “God doesn’t exist, the bastard.” He still might exist and be a bastard for all he seems to allow.

But that outrage did not drive Camus into the modern religion of “reason,” at least not in the strong sense of French rationalism. His forays into truth, doubts, and hesitations pull back from certain logical consequences because they lead to inhumanity; there’s a different kind of reason, a tempered reason, that he’s slowly discovering. And a rare sort of what should probably be called belief. 

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and editor in chief of the online publication the Catholic Thing.

Image by Dietruch Lieo via Creative Commons. Image cropped