When Hazel Barnes, the American translator of Sartre’s magnum opus Being and Nothingness, tried to meet up with the author in Paris, he canceled at the last minute with an excuse so pathetic that it would have been absolutely offensive had Barnes not handled the rejection with such grace. She never would get to meet Sartre, but she did correspond with Camus, and she liked him, a lot.
Indeed, in the contest of character, Camus bests Sartre time and time again, as was made strikingly clear more recently in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. In it, James holds Sartre in contempt, but is unabashedly laudatory about Camus.
The tone of Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning is more sober than that of James’ essay, but certainly reverential. We are told: “Whether seen from Tipasa or Paris, Camus remains the man whose life stands as witness to a kind of desperate heroism,” and this may be why he continues to exert a profound influence on generations of readers.
Zaretsky points out that Camus repeatedly denied that he was a philosopher, and this is evident both in the style and content of Camus’ work. Whereas philosophers have the tendency to make bold statements about abstractions such as freedom or justice, Camus instead preferred to speak “crudely” of the violent means undertaken to achieve them.
At a conference where he was challenged by an Algerian student to speak out on the war erupting in Algeria, Camus patiently responded: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”
Camus’ ethics are basically the ethics of ambiguity, and it is surprising that Zaretsky makes no mention of Beauvoir’s seminal book of the same title, though ultimately it is perhaps a good choice; Zaretsky’s short book (just over 200 pages with notes) is Camus through and through. What emerges is the paradoxical portrait of an exceptional everyman: imperfect, plagued by doubt, melancholic, flawed, but also sensitive, hopeful, passionate and heroic.
That Camus was human, all too human, is evident in the fact that, though a vehement opponent of the death penalty, towards the end of France’s occupation, he “suppressed his deeply rooted aversion to capital punishment, not only justifying but demanding the death penalty for those whose wartime collaboration led to the death of Frenchmen.” Though reexamining those arguments “chills the blood,” Zaretsky tells us that it also “speaks to Camus’ moral resilience that he eventually renounced this position, admitting publicly that he had been wrong.”
A Life Worth Living reveals much about Camus, the times he lived in and wrote against; fortunately, Zaretsky focuses on Camus’ existential situation as opposed to, say, his personal life. Zaretsky mentions Camus’ marital infidelities, for instance, but thankfully passes over any discussion of them. Readers interested in salaciousness will need to look elsewhere, but those looking for a better understanding of the context in which Camus penned his books and essays on murder, torture, suicide, silence and rebellion will find much to ruminate on: Camus’ thoughts on the moral need for imagination, his claim that tragedy is more ethical than melodrama, and that rebellion is better than revolt, among others.
Zaretsky is especially adept at seamlessly weaving Camus’ own words into the text, and the result is that the reader feels almost as though she is reading Camus as opposed to a biographer. This is not to say that Zaretsky is unwilling to challenge Camus: he does so when drawing attention to Camus’ brief support for capital punishment, and again with respect to Camus’ claims about suicide.
For Camus, suicide was an act of bad faith because it “accepts—embraces, even—a life and world devoid of meaning and importance.” The absurd man chooses life, and rebels against meaninglessness. But Zaretsky, citing the case of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor who immolated himself inside the offices of the Tunisian government in 2010 after being shaken down by corrupt policemen, argues that suicide may also be rebellion. “In effect, Bouazizi asked: How can you expect me to accept the life you impose on me?” Zaretsky rightly points out that suicide might very well be an act of self-affirmation rather than defeat, a claim I remember being asserted shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in regards to those who jumped from the towers to their deaths. Condemned by the terrorists to a fiery death, the jumpers in effect said No, and chose their own.
In Deadeye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut writes: “You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages—they haven’t ended yet.” I believe this is true, and that this is why Camus—by way of his writings, his speeches, and even his silences—continues to speak to us. “Where he alive today,” Zaretsky says, “Flaubert might add to his Dictionary of Received Ideas: Camus: a good man in dark times.” Similarly, Zaretsky’s book is good reading for dark times, a wonderfully written monograph about an absurd hero whose life serves as a reminder that, “while we have no reason to hope, we must also never despair.”