Albert Camus: French Writer and Philosopher

Albert Camus Biography
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Albert Camus. Studio Harcourt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Albert Camus was an Algerian-born French writer, journalist, and philosopher, whose works have contributed to the rise of the philosophical theory of Absurdism.

Camus is often regarded as one of the most influential writers and philosophers of the 20th century.

Early Life

Albert Camus was born on 7th November 1913 in the small coastal town of Mondovi (present-day Dréan) in French Algeria (now Algeria), to Lucien and Catherine Camus.

Barely a year after Camus was born, his father, who was a poor French agricultural worker, died in the Battle of the Marne during the First World War.

The Camus family was not well-to-do and they lived in the Belcourt section of Algiers without many basic material possessions.

As Camus was a second-generation French born in Algeria, he was often called pied-noir, meaning black foot, although, as a French citizen, he enjoyed more rights than the native Arabs.

Camus developed a love for swimming and football (soccer) early on in his childhood.

Early Education

In 1924. Albert Camus, aged 10, gained a scholarship at a prestigious secondary school near Algiers.

From 1928 onward, Camus began playing as a goalkeeper for the Racing Universitaire d’Alger junior team. The sense of team spirit, common purpose, and fraternity involved in the sport greatly appealed to him.

However, in 1930, at the age of 17, Camus was diagnosed with tuberculosis, bringing an end to any football ambitions he might have had. As it is a transmitted disease, he moved out of his family home and began staying with his uncle Gustave Acault, who was a butcher.

Early Interest in Philosophy

While suffering from tuberculosis, Albert Camus also took up odd jobs such as a car parts clerk, an assistant at the Meteorological Institute, and a private tutor.

It was during this period that Camus began studying philosophy under the tutelage of his philosophy teacher Jean Grenier. Grenier, who was a French writer and philosopher, would have a major influence on the young Camus.

Camus became interested in the ancient Greek philosophers and in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. This formed the foundation of his early philosophical views.

After enrolling at the University of Algiers in 1933, at the age of 19, Camus developed an interest in the philosophy of the early Christian philosophers. But the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche had a radical effect on his thoughts, prompting him to lean more toward atheism and pessimism. He also began reading the works of novelist-philosophers such as Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Stendhal.

The philosophical works of these writers and philosophers had a great impact on him and his philosophical views.

Relationship with Simone Hié

In 1933, Albert Camus, aged 19, met Simone Hié, who was then the partner of a friend of his. By the following year, he was in a relationship with her while she suffered from a morphine addiction, which was a drug she used to ease her menstrual pains.

Although his uncle Gustave was against their relationship, Camus went ahead and married Simone and helped her fight her addiction. He was only 20 years old.

However, their marriage was short-lived. Barely two years into their marriage, Camus found out about her affair with her doctor and the two got a divorce in 1936.

Early Involvement in Politics

In 1935, Albert Camus joined the French Communist Party (PCF) with the intention to fight the inequalities between the natives of Algeria and the Europeans. Although he did not consider himself a Marxist, he saw communism as a springboard and asceticism that could prepare the ground for more spiritual activities.

However, a year later, he left the PCF and joined the newly-independent Algerian Communist Party (PCA) at the suggestion of his mentor Grenier. The PCA was dedicated to the cause of Algerian independence from French rule and Camus’ primary role in the party was to organize the Workers’ Theater. Simultaneously, during this period, he was also associated with the Algerian People’s Party (PPA), a moderate nationalist and anti-colonialist party.

Shortly thereafter, Camus was expelled from the PCA for refusing to follow the party line. He had begun to mistrust bureaucracies whose goals were targeted at efficiency rather than justice. But he continued to be involved in the theater and renamed the group Theater of the Team.

Some of the scripts he wrote for the theater became the basis for his novels later on.

Working for the Alger Republicain

In 1938, Albert Camus began working for the leftist newspaper Alger republicain. By then, he had developed strong anti-colonialist feelings after witnessing the harsh and unjust manner in which native Arabs and Berbers were treated by the French authorities.

He also developed anti-fascist sentiments after looking at the rise of fascist regimes in Europe. The political situation in Europe, with its dramatic rise in authoritative fascist governments, deeply worried him.

In 1940, the Alger republicain was banned by the French authorities for its opposition to colonialism.

Moving to France

After the Alger republicain was banned, Albert Camus moved to Paris and took up a job as editor-in-chief of the French newspaper Paris-Soir.

The onset of the Second World War had begun to affect France and Camus volunteered to join the army but was rejected due to his history with tuberculosis. As the German army approached Paris, Camus fled the city for Lyon, where he ended up marrying French mathematician and pianist Francine Faure on 3rd December 1940.

Camus was laid-off from Paris-Soir and he and Francine moved to the coastal city of Oran in northwest Algeria, where he began teaching in primary schools.

During this period, he began working on his first cycle of work which dealt with the absurd and meaningless. The cycle would include a novel, The Outsider or The Stranger (published in 1942), a philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (published in 1942), and a play titled Caligula (published in 1944).

Each of Camus’ cycles of work would include a novel, an essay, and a theatrical play.

Due to his tuberculosis, Camus and Francine moved to the French Alps on medical advice.

It was during this period that he began working on his second cycle of work that dealt with revolt and rebellion. The second cycle would include the novel The Plague (published in 1947), the philosophical essay The Rebel (published in 1951), and the play The Just Assasins (published in 1949).

Camus then made his way to Paris, where he met and befriended well-known intellectuals of the time such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de BeauvoirAndré Breton, and several others, quickly becoming a part of their circle. Through this circle, he met Spanish-French actress Maria Casares, with whom he would go on to have an affair.

By the mid-1940s, Camus had begun gaining some recognition for his first cycle of work.

Role in the Resistance Movement

Upon arriving in Paris during the French occupation, Albert Camus began working as a journalist and editor for the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance, Combat.

Since the newspaper was banned and operated underground, Camus wrote his articles under a pseudonym and used false identity cards to avoid being captured.

During this period, he also wrote a collection of essays explaining why resistance was important and necessary. The essays deal with conflicts near the Mediterranean, the Algerian War of Independence, totalitarianism, capital punishment, the role of an artist, etc.

This collection of essays would only be published in 1960, shortly after Camus’ death, under the titles Letters to a German Friend and Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.

Post War Years

By the time the war came to an end in 1945, Albert Camus had become an established and celebrated writer who was also praised for his active role in the underground resistance movement. He was also invited to give lectures at various universities in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe.

By 1951, Camus had completed his second cycle of work after the publication of The Rebel, which attacked totalitarian communism and promoted libertarian socialism. Although the book received great interest from the intellectuals of the time, it was criticized by his contemporaries such as Sartre, who were upset by his rejection of communism and thought his views to be reactionary.

Sartre wrote a critical response to the work in a review in 1952, thereby bringing an end to their on-again, off-again friendship. His relations with Marxists and Existentialists worsened after the publication of the book.

Advocating European Integration

Albert Camus was an ardent advocate of European integration and was even an active member of multiple organizations working toward that cause.

In the year 1944, Camus founded the French Committee for the European Federation. And in 1947, he helped establish the Groupes de Liason Internationale (GLI), a trade union movement in the context of revolutionary syndicalism.

He firmly believed that Europe could only evolve along the path of economic progress, democracy, and peace if the independent nation-states become one single federation.

Camus and Anarchism

Albert Camus was believed to have anarchist sympathies and many considered him an existential anarchist or an anarcho-syndicalist.

He firmly opposed any kind of authority, centralization, and exploitation, and even rejected political violence in general, with very few exceptions.

His anarchist tendencies led him to write for several anarchist publications such as The Proletarian Revolution, Workers’ Solidarity, and The Libertarian. He even attended meetings of the Anarchist Student Circle. Through the 1950s, Camus’ anarchist tendencies intensified as he witnessed the moral degradation of the Soviet Union.

Needless to say, his pacifist views led him to strongly condemn the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He even went as far as to resign from his human rights work for UNESCO after the UN recognized Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco.

Camus has often been described as a moralist for his belief that morality must guide politics.

The Nobel Prize in Literature

In 1957, Albert Camus became the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel prize in Literature at the age of 44. He was given the prize for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.

The news came as a shock to Camus himself, who believed that French writer Georges Andre Malraux would be awarded the prize that year.

Camus became the first African-born writer to ever be awarded the prize. He used the money from the prize to stage a play, The Possessed, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons.

Shortly thereafter, he began working on an autobiographical novel, The First Man, based on his childhood in Algeria. He believed the novel would be his finest work. Sadly, he passed away before he could complete it.

Death

On 4th January 1960, Albert Camus, aged 46, died in a car accident near the commune of Sens, in Le Grand Fossard in the town of Villeblevin.

Camus was traveling in his publisher Michel Gallimard’s car, along with Gallimard’s wife and daughter, when the car crashed into a plane tree on a long straight stretch of Route Nationale 5. Camus, who was sitting in the passenger seat, died instantly. Gallimard died a few days later, while his wife and daughter were left unharmed.

The unfinished manuscript of The First Man, about 144 pages, was found at the accident site. The novel would later be transcribed by Camus’ daughter and published in 1994.

Camus was buried in the Lourmarin Cemetery, Vaucluse, where he had lived.

In his obituary, William Faulkner said, “When the door shut for him he had already written on this side of it that which every artist who also carries through life with him that one same foreknowledge and hatred of death, is hoping to do: I was here.” And Sartre paid tribute to Camus’ heroic stubborn humanism in a eulogy.

A monument to Camus was later built in Villeblevin.

The Philosophy of Camus

Although Camus’ philosophy is often associated with existentialism, Camus himself vehemently rejected such association and categorization of his philosophy.

His philosophy is now mostly associated with Absurdism, meaning that which is meaningless and where man’s existence is absurd because his contingency finds no external justification. According to Absurdism, man is part of an unintelligent universe, and, therefore, human values are not founded on any solid external component.

Camus described the Absurd as the confrontation between human needs and the unreasonable silence of the world. His philosophy deals with this absurdity of life and the inevitable and inescapable ending, meaning death.

Why then must one continue to live if their existence is meaningless? Why must one not choose to end one’s life? To these questions, Camus has a positive and optimistic answer. He suggests that one must simply accept that absurdity is part of one’s life and embrace it and live with it.

Camus believed that suicide was a renunciation of human values and freedom, and, therefore, must not even be considered, although he admitted that the question of suicide was something that arose naturally as a solution to the absurdity of life.

Legacy

Albert Camus is widely regarded as one of the most influential and important writer-philosophers of the 20th century. His works have become more popular after his death, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when interest in his philosophy soared as an alternative road to communism was sought.

Over the years since his death, his books The Stranger and The Plague have become two of the most well-known and widely read books of philosophical fiction.

A decade after his death, his first attempt at a novel, A Happy Death, written between 1936 and 1938, was published in 1971.

Each of Camus’ cycles of work dealt with a theme with the use of a pagan myth and biblical motifs. The first dealt with the pagan myth of Sisyphus and the biblical motifs of exile and alienation. The second dealt with the pagan myth of Prometheus and the biblical motifs of revolt or rebellion. And the third dealt with the pagan myth of Nemesis and the biblical motifs of the Kingdom.

In his lifetime, Camus maintained a largely neutral stance on the Algerian War of Independence. Instead, he advocated a pluralistic and multicultural Algeria. He also condemned the political violence undertaken by the parties involved in the war. But Camus was termed a reactionary for his views, and they led to much controversy and criticism of his neutral stance.

At a time when writers, artists, and intellectuals were quick to take political and ideological sides, Camus had the courage to think independently and have his own singular point of view on political and philosophical matters.

Camus will forever be remembered for being an ardent humanist and pacifist, who advocated civil rights, equality, dialogue, and political tolerance.