“Even My Revolts Were Brilliant with Sunshine”: The Solar Humanism of Albert Camus

July 27, 2018

“The sun that reigned over my childhood freed me from all resentment.”

“If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

Those words marked a turning point for French-Algerian author Albert Camus. The context was the Algerian war for independence, which Camus ultimately opposed. He made the statement after revolutionaries began planting bombs on tramways in Algiers, where his mother still lived.

Jean-Marie Apostolidès, playwright, psychologist, and French professor at Stanford, and Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison trace Camus’s long intellectual and spiritual journey, from his impoverished Algerian childhood to the car crash that killed him at the age of 46. In particular, they discuss his complex relationship with fellow traveller Jean-Paul Sartre, who was the greater philosopher and the more rigorous thinker of the two, while Camus was the greater writer and perhaps the greater soul. Their conflict fascinates intellectuals in France and around the world to this day.

“Camus’s strong bond with his mother is beyond and sometimes against words,” says Apostolidès. Yet Camus’s own mother never read a word of his many books. She was illiterate, half-deaf, and a speech impediment made it difficult for her to hold a conversation.

Apostolidès notes it would be a mistake to think of Camus’s adult life as serene and happy: he had several alcoholic crises, and his family life was undermined by his promiscuity. Yet his psyche was shaped by his sun-drenched childhood in Algeria, so strongly at odds with the bourgeois French upbringing of Sartre, who attended Paris’s premier École Normale. The Nobel Prizewinning Camus held to “the wisdom of a different tradition,” says Harrison, describing the sensibility of the Mediterranean basin and African that was a world away from the Nietzschean northern temperament of Europe. As a result, Sartre was interested in the arc of history; Camus was interested in l’instant of plays, journalism, theater.

“This was the main idealogical divide between the solar humanism of Albert Camus and the militant Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre,” says Harrison. “For Sartre, history was everything, and those who allied with it had to change the world, at all costs. For Sartre, there’s nothing redemptive in the sun and sea.” Sartre kept his “eyes fixed on the Medusa head of reality.”

“That is finally the decisive difference between Sartre and Camus, and the reason why the dustbin of history awaits the one, and not the other.”

“I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine. Poverty prevented me from thinking that all was well in the world and in history; the sun taught me that history is not everything.”

Professor Apostolidès is interested in avant-garde artistic movements such as dada, surrealism, and situationist international, as well as the theory of image, literary theory, and Francophone literature. He is also a psychologist and a playwright whose work has been staged in Paris, Montreal, and New York.

He has been teaching in the United States since 1979, first at Stanford University (1979–1981), then at Harvard (1981–1987). In 1987 he returned to Stanford where he is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French. He teaches literature and drama.

His literary criticism focuses on the place of artistic production in the French classical age and in modern society, whether court pageantry during the reign of King Louis XIV (Le Roi-Machine, 1981), or the role of theater under the ancien régime (Le Prince Sacrificié, 1985), or mass culture in the 1950s (Les Métamorphoses de Tintin, 1984). Some of his books include: L’Affaire Unabomber (1996); Les Tombeaux de Guy Debord (1999); L’Audience (2001); Traces, Revers, Ecarts (2002); Sade in The Abyss (2003); Héroïsme et victimisation (2003); Hergé et le mythe du Surenfant (2004); Cyrano. Qui fut tout et qui ne fut rien (2006); Dans la peau de Tintin (Les Impressions nouvelles, 2010); and Debord: Le naufrageur (2016).