The opening lines begin with what Camus called the first and most urgent of questions: If the world has no meaning, why live? If life is pointless, why not end it? Logic would favor suicide. Or so it would seem. But Camus quickly points out that absence of meaning is not why people commit suicide. People who commit suicide already have meaning in their lives. What they don’t have is a life. They commit suicide because they have no dignity, no self-respect, no pleasure, no honor, no value. They are checkmated in humiliation, without the minimal elements of a satisfactory existence.
Camus concludes with a startling statement: “Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” The idea stops us on the page; we have to think about that. Camus is saying, by inference, that the things that make our life worth living are in our own hands. Forget about God. What people need is not an abstract benediction but concrete means to live with dignity and self-respect. Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.
[N]othing is so characteristic of Camus as his refusal to give answers that would be merely logical, to ignore the diversity and the contradictions of experience. The theme of The Myth of Sisyphus, a collection of philosophical essays, is the absurdity of the Absurd, the impossibility of making a logical rule out of it. Pessimism or optimism. God or suicide. Reason or Unreason. These are all attempts to jump out of the real problem by giving it a final solution. Camus calls them “refusals to acknowledge.” In the same way, despair is the most intimate reality of man. To make of it a moral rule would be at the same time to debase it and to get rid of it. “Against eternal injustice, man must assert justice, and to protest against the universe of grief, he must create happiness,” says Camus in his Letters to a German Friend, written in the thick of the battle and probably the noblest document of the state of mind of the European Resistance.
Albert Camus speaks of happiness against a background of despair, and that is why his voice rings true. Aware as he is of the absurd, he stresses nothing like clear consciousness. And from the ultimate loneliness of man, he draws one consequence, which is the necessity today of reestablishing real communication among men, these “brother enemies” divided more than ever before by false thoughts and violence.
It’s worth remembering that Camus was born in Algeria, a place that loomed large in the French politics of his day. Tim Allen elaborates:
Camus didn’t hesitate to affirm the influence of his African years on his life’s work. Writing in 1958 in the preface to a new edition of his first collection of Algeria-centric essays, L’envers et l’endroit (sometimes translated as The Wrong Side and the Right Side), Camus states, “I know that my inspiration is in The Wrong Side and the Right Side, in this world of poverty and light where I lived for so long and whose memory still keeps me away from the two opposing dangers that menace every artist: resentment and satisfaction. […] I was placed halfway between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all is well in this world and with history; the sun taught me that history isn’t everything.” …
Perhaps befitting his intercultural status as a pied-noir (that is, a person of European descent living in French North Africa), Camus wholeheartedly embraced this notion of the halfway. His decision, however, often meant that he had to blaze his own trail, and consequently expose himself to strident criticism. During the Algerian War, for instance, Camus famously refused to support the cause of Algerian independence and did not condemn outright the atrocities committed by French soldiers. Though Camus vocally opposed the violence of war in all of its forms, and wrote frequently about the suffering of native-born Algerians under French colonial rule, he could not bring himself to reject the pied-noir community that had raised him. Algerian resentment over the perceived offense lingers to this day.
Here’s how Camus described the writer’s task in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (excerpted in the above video), a task that consisted, for him, of two core principles – “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression”:
[T]he writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise, he will be alone and deprived of his art. Not all the armies of tyranny with their millions of men will free him from his isolation, even and particularly if he falls into step with them. But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the writer out of his exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence, and to transmit it in order to make it resound by means of his art.