What Made Camus Great?

by Matthew Sitman

Reviewing Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, Ian Marcus Corbin attributes it to the writer’s “singular commitment to concrete reality” and “determination to not just think, but also to look“:

There is no way for a thinker—or indeed, a user of language—to eschew abstraction entirely, of course, but Camus was deeply attuned to the dangers of excessive abstraction. This may not sound particularly heroic, but it can be, and it certainly was in Camus’s day. Camus’s peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction. The Left Bank bien pensants were, with few exceptions, stalwart armchair Marxists, obliquely aware that the divine dream of the worker’s paradise was exacting a brutal toll on the actual humans of the Soviet bloc, but blissfully unmoved by this fact. Camus publicly, angrily, charged that their fixation on beautiful ideas made them insensate to the ugly cost such ideas imposed on the much-beloved proletariat. And indeed, it is now difficult—impossible—to think Camus wrong.

Zaretsky quotes the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who writes of the Stalinist horrors with chilling coolness, explaining that only the unfolding of history will “give us the final word as to the legitimacy of a particular form of violence.” Camus righteously fumes in response that “man has been delivered entirely into the hands of history … because we live in a world of abstraction, a world of bureaucracy and machinery, of absolute ideas and of messianism without subtlety.” Camus’s rejection of blood-draining Stalinist abstraction put him far out of favor with his peers, most notably his once-close friend Jean Paul Sartre, who publicly denounced him for his political apostasy.

Claire Messud picks up on another aspect of Camus’s thought – his complicated relationship to Christianity. She praises Sandra Smith’s recent translation of The Stranger for realizing the subtly religious aspects of his prose:

Camus, of course, was more complex in his atheism than we might commonly expect: he was an atheist in reaction to, and in the shadow of, a Catholicism osmotically imbued in the culture (of the French certainly, but of the pieds noirs in particular). The inescapable result is that his atheism is in constant dialogue with religion; in L’Étranger no less than in, say, La Peste.

Sandra Smith has, in her admirable translation, plucked carefully upon this thread in the novel, so that Anglophone readers might better grasp Camus’s allusions. Here is but one key example: the novel’s last line, in French, begins “Pour que tout soit consommé,...” which [Matthew] Ward translates, literally, as “For everything to be consummated.” But as Smith points out, the French carries “an echo of the last words of Jesus on the Cross: ‘Tout est consommé.’” Her chosen rendition, then, is “So that it might be finished,” a formulation that echoes Christ’s last words in the King James translation of the Bible.

Previous Dish on Camus here, here, here, and here.