The Limits of Absurdity
By Robert ZaretskyMarch 23, 2016
ON MARCH 25, 1946, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, having left the rainforests of Brazil for the concrete canyons of New York City, confronted a social structure as complex and harsh as those he had found in the rainforests of Brazil. Moonlighting as the French Embassy’s cultural attaché, Lévi-Strauss received an unexpected visit from a group of French passengers who had just arrived on an American freighter, the Oregon. Immigration officials had detained one of them because he refused to give the names of friends who belonged to the Communist Party. Lévi-Strauss dispatched a colleague to the docks, and the French visitor, frazzled and frustrated, was finally released.
With this faintly absurd event began Albert Camus’s only visit made to America.
Camus was no ordinary tourist. France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sent him as an official representative of the recently liberated country. Who better to speak to American audiences about France’s experience of occupation and liberation? By 1944 and the liberation of Paris, the young French-Algerian writer was not just the author of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, both published to critical acclaim in occupied Paris. He was also the editor of Combat, the most influential underground paper of the French Resistance. With a suddenness that both touched and troubled him, Camus had become the one marketable export left to a bloodied and brutalized country: the French intellectual for whom ideas were a matter of life and death.
His friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, had preceded him to New York in 1945. Playing the role of existentialism’s John the Baptist, Sartre spoke at great length about Camus to a reporter from, of all places, the American edition of Vogue. Praising the new literature that had taken root in the liberated soil of France, Sartre declared, “its best representative is Albert Camus, who is thirty years old.” Under the pressure of occupation and resistance, Sartre observed, the metaphysical absurdity that marked Camus’s novel and essay had morphed into a form of political absurdity. While this explained the pessimistic nature of Camus’s work, it also represented an antidote to despair. “It was when he lost all hope that man found himself, for he knew then that he could rely only upon himself,” Sartre explained. “The constant presence of death, the perpetual threat of torture, made such writers as Camus measure the powers and the limits of man.”
It also made Camus measure the powers and limits of celebrity. When he followed Sartre’s opening act the following year, he seemed groomed for the starring role. Lithe and likable, smart and smooth, Camus struck more than one observer as a Gallic Bogart — a comparison that delighted many French, none more so than Camus. But hailing from a country ravaged by material scarcity, he was hardly dressed for the part. When The New Yorker journalist A. J. Liebling called on Camus the day after his arrival, he was astonished by the Frenchman’s “absurd suit,” whose lapels and cut, he wrote, seemed to predate the Great Crash.
But Liebling was also seduced by the visitor’s warmth and humor. They talked about the war just ended — Liebling had been in France for its liberation — and the peace just begun, about Paris and New York. Inevitably, Liebling quizzed Camus about his own work, bringing up the conclusion of The Myth of Sisyphus, which offers the image of the Greek hero condemned to roll a boulder up a mountainside for all eternity. “For a man arrived at such a grim conclusion,” Liebling noted in his “Talk of the Town” article, “M. Camus seemed unduly cheerful.” When Liebling asked why, Camus replied: “Just because you have pessimistic thoughts, you don’t have to act pessimistic. One has to pass the time somehow. Look at Don Juan.”
At interview’s end, we must imagine Liebling happy. And little imagination is needed to see his happiness when he was asked to play the master of ceremonies two days later at the McMillin Theater (since renamed the Miller Theatre), where Camus was scheduled to give a talk. Though he shared the marquee with two other French writers — one was Jean Bruller, who under the penname Vercors published the great resistance work The Silence of the Sea — Camus was the evening’s star. More than 1,200 people flocked to the hall; more than a few, one suspects, had a shaky knowledge of French but nevertheless grasped the event’s significance. Though he had seemed relaxed to Liebling two days earlier, Camus now felt the air of expectation filling the auditorium. He paused, if only for a moment, overcome by stage fright.
But this small crisis gave way to a larger crisis, one affecting us all. In “La crise de l’homme,” or “The Crisis of Man” — the title he gave to his talk — Camus set himself an enormous task. To a packed auditorium of mostly young Americans, he sought to convey the character and consequences of events that, while scarcely touching his audience, had ravaged Europe. “The men and women of my generation,” he began,
were born just before or during World War One, reached adolescence in time for the Great Depression, and turned 20 years old when Hitler took power. To complete our education, we were offered the Spanish Civil War, Munich, and another world war followed by defeat, occupation, and resistance.
This upbringing, Camus drily concluded, made for an “interesting generation.” Faced by the absurdity of these events, his generation had to find reasons to resist and rebel. Where, though, could they be found? Neither religion nor politics offered guidance, while traditional morality was a “monstrous hypocrisy.” On a continent swept by mass murder and terrorism, a world awash in nihilism, Camus’s generation was thrust into the most terrifying of contradictions. “We hated both war and violence, yet we had to accept both one and the other.” They confronted, in short, the crisis of man.
By way of illustration, Camus offered vignettes of life under the Nazi occupation. There is the concierge at a Gestapo building somewhere in Europe who enters an apartment where two men, suspected of resistance activity, are shackled and bloodied. When one of them asks for help, she replies with pride: “I never mind the business of my building’s residents.” And there is one of Camus’s fellow résistants, his head bandaged, led into an SS officer’s room where, the day before, his ear had been ripped off. The officer, who had overseen the torture, asks sympathetically: “Tell me, how are your ears?” Finally, there is a Greek mother who learns that the German soldiers who took her three sons hostage are about to shoot them. Pleading with the officer to spare them, he offers a compromise: a son can be freed, but the mother needs to choose which one. She points to the eldest, thus condemning her two other sons to death.
Camus tells his listeners that he did not choose these stories to shock them, but because they illustrate the crisis of man the world now confronted. The crisis, quite simply, is the fruit of a world where torture is not only practiced but evokes little more than indifference with the torturers and acceptance among its witnesses. When our response to the killing or torturing of a fellow human being is anything other than horror and outrage; when we consider the deliberate infliction of pain as no more disturbing than standing in line for our daily food rations; when we have reached this point, we must accept that the world will not improve simply because Hitler is gone. Scanning the hall, Camus declared: “We are all of us responsible and we are duty-bound to seek the causes of the terrifying evil that still gnaws at the soul of Europe.”
Against this bleak diagnosis of our condition, Camus offered a prescription nearly as bleak. While there was no reason for hope, this was not a reason to despair. We can solve this crisis, he announced, only “with the values we still have at hand — in a word, the awareness of the absurdity of our lives.” This was not metaphysical grandstanding, or the sort of language that sounds better in French than English. Camus was instead invoking the philosophical and moral themes that shaped the worlds of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. While neither was yet translated into English, many in the audience must have been aware of the opening lines to the latter book. “There is just one truly important philosophical question: suicide. To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” This question confronts us the day that, finding ourselves in “a universe suddenly divested of illusions and light,” we nevertheless insist on meaning. If our “irrational and wild longing for clarity” is met by “the unreasonable silence of the world,” Camus wonders, is suicide the only reasonable response? Is it possible, he demanded, “to live without appeal”?
But the audience perhaps did not know that Camus had since moved beyond these early works. Though the books had been critically acclaimed when they were published in 1942, Camus saw that events had outstripped the meaning of Meursault’s and Sisyphus’s solitary and singular rebellions. The time had come to reassess the limits of absurdity. What would the world make, he asked in his journal, of a thinker who announced: “Up to now I was going in the wrong direction. I am going to begin all over”? With relief, he realized that it didn’t matter.
This was not all that Camus now grasped. Absurdity, he saw, “teaches nothing.” Instead of taking this diagnosis as a fatality — instead of looking only at ourselves, as do Sisyphus or Meursault — we must look to others. We are, in the end, condemned to live together in a precarious, unsettling world. “The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love,” he wrote in the journal. “Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.” Love saves us from absurdity.
Four years later, when he stepped onto the stage at McMillin, Camus had thus left absurdity behind. What lay in front of him was rebellion. He had already completed The Plague — published the following year — and had begun the essay that would become The Rebel. In his talk, he sketched the themes that would inform the book. In a world shorn of sense, he stated, too many people had concluded that whoever succeeded was right, and whatever was right was measured by success. For those who resisted this conclusion, for those unwilling to live in a world of victims and torturers, neither faith nor philosophy offered a resource. Instead, the only source of justification “was in the very act of rebellion.” What we fought for, Camus concluded, “was something common not just to us, but to all human beings. Namely, that man still had meaning.”
But what could such a claim about meaning, well, mean in America? In this happy country, Camus suggested, his audience could not “see, or see only dimly,” what Europe had undergone. But they needed to know that there were men and women “who had seen this evil for years, still feel it in their flesh and see it in the faces of those they love.” They are now rising up, he warned “in a terrifying rebellion which risks to carry everything away.” But these rebels, Camus would subsequently make clear, form a particular breed. They reject not just metaphysical but also political absurdity: namely, a state’s insistence on giving meaning to the unjustifiable suffering it inflicts on its citizens. These rebels not only say “no” to an unspeaking universe but also “no” to an unjust ruler. They do not try to conquer but simply to confront a meaningless world and those who deny their humanity.
Most critically, however, the rebel imposes a limit on her own self. Rebellion is a defensive, not offensive, act; it is equipoise, not a mad charge against an opponent, one that demands attending to one’s own humanity as well as that of others. Just as the absurd never authorizes despair, much less nihilism, a tyrant’s acts never authorize one to become tyrannical in turn. The rebel, by embracing a “philosophy of limits,” does not deny his master as a fellow human being, she denies him only as her master; and she resists the inevitable temptation to dehumanize her former oppressor. In the end, rebellion “aspires to the relative and supposes a limit at which the community of man is established.”
At the end of his address, Camus invited the audience to join this rising tide of rebellion. “As for the American youths listening to us,” he announced, this generation of European rebels “respect the humanity that animates you and the freedom and happiness reflected in your faces. They expect from you what they expect from all people of good will: a loyal contribution to the dialogue they wish to establish in this world.” No sooner had he finished speaking than a Columbia official revealed that a burglar had broken into the ticket office and stole the evening’s earnings, all of which had been earmarked for orphanages in France. From the audience a voice suggested that everyone pay again on their way out; by the time the last person left the hall, there was more money in the register than the first time around. Justin O’Brien, a French professor at Columbia and Camus’s American translator, attributed this happy outcome to Camus’s “persuasive words.”
If these words did leave a mark on Americans 70 years ago, can they still do so? What, if anything, would Camus think about the absurdity of our current political climate? It is impossible to say, of course, but what is fairly certain is that he would be as perplexed today by Americans as he was in 1946. The audience’s reaction to the theft at Columbia impressed him deeply; in his journal he noted that it typified “American generosity.” What he found best in us, he wrote, was our “spontaneous friendliness and warmth.”
But other traits impressed him less. While he praised our generosity, he worried about our naïveté. Though he lauded our role in liberating France, he lambasted our decision to liberate the atom. Attracted by our hospitality, he was repelled by our superficiality. “The secret to conversation here,” he believed, “is to talk in order to say nothing.” In the one published work based on his visit to the US, a short essay titled “The Rains of New York,” he confessed that after several weeks in the city, he
still [knew] nothing about New York, whether one moves about among madmen here or among the most reasonable people in the world; whether life is as easy as all America says, or whether it is as empty here as it sometimes seems; […] whether it serves any purpose that the circus in Madison Square Garden puts on ten simultaneous performances in four different rings, so that you are interested in all of them and can watch none of them.
Camus’s confusion over Americans has become our confusion, while his observations cut as deeply today as they did 70 years ago. The 40 rings of our political circus, with its mixture of madness and reason, the easiness of the talk about torture and the emptiness of analyses by our media: all of this carries echoes from that night at the McMillin Theater. This confusion will not end soon, but what must begin, as Camus told his audience, is weighing our words. We need, he declared, “to call things by their proper names and understand that we murder millions of human beings when we allow us to think certain thoughts.”
Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013.
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