Stop me if you’ve already heard this quote. You will find it on greeting cards and T-shirts, at the bottom of emails and the top of posters, on key chains and coffee mugs — including the chipped and scratched one sitting next to my laptop. It was a gift from someone who, if he knew me better, would not have given it to me. It is a line, at least when ripped from its context, that’s suited for a coffee mug, less inspirational than insipid.
The line is taken — better yet, pried — from “Return to Tipasa,” the second to last of the works included in Personal Writings, a newly repackaged and reissued collection of essays by Albert Camus (ably translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy and Justin O’Brien). For those looking for a chapbook of quotations to start each day, be forewarned. The French Algerian writer did not do inspiration.
Or, at least, not the sort of inspiration found on coffee mugs. This collection of essays reminds us that Camus offered a more difficult kind of inspiration — the sort that does not put us at ease but makes us uneasy; the sort that does not gloss life but gazes at it with open eyes. As he writes, “I want to keep my lucidity to the last, and gaze upon my death with all the fullness of my jealousy and horror” — a line that, when all is said and done, has said and done it all.
Don’t bother Googling for a coffee mug embellished with this vow. I tried and came up empty.
In her sharp and sympathetic foreword, Alice Kaplan observes that, for readers who know Camus only as the author of The Stranger, the “lush emotional intensity of these early essays and stories will come as a surprise.” Yet I confess that, even for someone who knew this side of Camus, I was again, as I reread the pieces, surprised by their Dionysian intensity.
The lyricism is especially bracing today, when even Dionysus would think twice before throwing a bacchanalia. For Camus, the lyrical sentiments were deeply rooted in the physical and human landscape of his native Algeria. They flowed from the childhood he spent in a poor neighborhood of Algiers, where he was raised by an illiterate and imperious grandmother and a deaf and mostly mute mother in a sagging two-story building, whose cockroach-infested stairwell led to a common latrine on the landing.
That latrine plays a pivotal role in his unfinished novel, The First Man (published posthumously in 1994). Wishing to keep the change he received after going to the store, Camus’s adolescent alter ego tells his grandmother that it had fallen into the latrine pit. Without a word, she rolls up a sleeve, goes to the hole, and digs for it. At that moment, Camus writes, “he understood it was not avarice that caused his grandmother to grope around in the excrement, but the terrible need that made two francs a significant amount in this home.”
Yet, like Sisyphus with his boulder, Camus claims his impoverished childhood as his own. In his preface to his first collection of essays, The Wrong Side and the Right Side (1937), Camus recalls that his family “lacked almost everything and envied practically nothing.” This is because, he explains, “poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history.” Yet, at the same time, “the sun taught me that history was not everything.” Poverty was not a misfortune, he insists. Instead, it was “radiant with light.”
Radiance washes across the early essays, at times so fulsomely that it is hard to keep your head above the cascade of words. During an earlier visit to Tipasa, the sun-blasted pile of Roman rubble that overlooks the Mediterranean, Camus seems quite literally enthused — filled by the gods — as he goes pagan. This place, he announces, is inhabited by gods who “speak in the sun and the scent of absinthe leaves, in the silver armor of the sea, in the raw blue sky, the flower-covered ruins, and the great bubbles of light among the heaps of stone.” It is here, he declares, “I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky. It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure.”
Yes, it is surprising to think of the iconic black-and-white figure, wrapped in a trench coat and smoking a Gauloise, as the author of these words. It is more surprising, perhaps, to learn that before he wrote these words (or, for that matter, ever wore a trench coat), Camus had declaimed them while wandering with two friends through the Roman ruins. Yet this lyricism does burst through the austere prose of his novels, as when Meursault finds himself alone on the light-blasted beach with the “Arab” in The Stranger (1942) or when Rieux and Tarrou go for their nocturnal swim in The Plague (1947).
The lyricism of these essays — which run from the mid-1930s, when he was still an obscure twentysomething trying to become a writer, to the early 1950s, when he had become a celebrity who found writing a terrifying burden — reflects another trait Camus shared with Sisyphus. Like that ancient Houdini, who hated Hades with the passion of a lover of the sun, Camus hated ideologies and abstractions with the same passion, tying him fast to the one life and one world he would ever know. “There is no superhuman happiness, no eternity outside the curve of the days,” he writes in “Summer in Algiers.” All there is, he concludes, are “stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.”
Camus’s childhood was radiant with light, but also steeped in silence. Sharing the Algiers apartment was his Uncle Etienne, who spoke with difficulty and communicated mostly through hand gestures and facial expressions. His mother, Catherine Hélène Camus (née Sintès), lost most of her ability to speak when informed of the death of her husband, Camus’s father, during the First Battle of the Marne. And it is his mother who occupies the epicenter of the silence that enveloped Camus’s early life.
In one of his earliest essays, “Between Yes and No,” he writes that his mother spent her days cleaning other people’s homes and her nights thinking about nothing at her own home. She thought about nothing, he explains, because “[e]verything was there” at the apartment: her two children, her many tasks, her few pieces of furniture, her one memento of her husband (the shell splinter removed from his skull). Her life was filled — what was there left to say? In an indelible portrait, Camus writes that, as a child, he would stare at his mother, who would “huddle in a chair, gazing in front of her, wandering off in the dizzy pursuit of a crack along the floor. As the night thickened around her, her muteness would seem irredeemably desolate.” Watching her, the boy is at first terrified by this “animal silence,” then experiences a surge of feeling that he believes must be love, “because after all she is his mother.”
This maternal silence, which soon came to assume a metaphysical presence, became the center of his work. Camus had striven his entire life, he writes in his preface to The Wrong Side and the Right Side, “to rediscover a justice or a love to match this silence.” By its refusal of words, Catherine Camus’s love for her son — like Cordelia’s for her father — was the greatest of loves. Recognizing this, though, did not fully reconcile Camus to the fundamental strangeness of his mother’s presence. What he wanted most in the world, he wrote in his notes for The First Man, was never to be had — namely, for his mother “to read everything that was his life and his being. […] His love, his only love, would forever be speechless.”
Invincible summers suggest indestructible hopes. But Personal Writings reminds us that, just as Camus did not do inspiration, so he also did not do hope. Hope is for suckers like Epimetheus, who disregards his brother Prometheus’ warning and opens Pandora’s box. In that mass of evils, Camus writes, the “Greeks brought out hope at the very last.” Contrary to coffee mug sentiments, hope is, Camus explains, the most terrible of all the evils because it is “tantamount to resignation. And to live is not to be resigned.”
This explains Camus’s paradoxical claim that while there is no reason for hope, that is never a reason to despair. As we face our era’s many crises, a glance at the volume’s shortest essay, “The Almond Trees,” might help. Writing these few pages soon after France declared war on Germany in 1939, Camus tells the reader that the first thing “is not to despair.” Instead, we must simply unite and act:
Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. […] [I]t is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks we take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.
The quote runs a bit long, but still, it’s a quote I’d like to see on a coffee mug.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, will be published next February.