​​​​David Sprintzen

Camus: A Critical Examination


            “Nothing authorizes me to pass judgment upon an epoch with which I feel in complete solidarity. I judge it from within, blending myself with it. But I reserve the right, henceforth, to say what I know about myself and about others on the sole condition that by so doing I do not add to the unbearable suffering of the world, but only in order to locate, among the obscure walls against which we are blindly stumbling, the still invisible places where doors may open.” (A/11, 83)

Few writers have achieved greater public recognition than Albert Camus. Honored with the Nobel Prize for "his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times," his works have fascinated the literate public from the moment of their emergence during the Second World War. Camus has been at the center of the passionate controversies that have rocked the modern world: from existential anxiety in the face of the death of God, and the absurdity of human existence, through practical struggles around capital punishment, social injustice, and national liberation, to growing concerns about torture and systemic violations of human rights.

Numerous and extensive as have been the treatments of his work, whether in the popular press or in academic periodicals, few have adequately appreciated its cultural significance. Small wonder that academics often treat his work as if it were simply the product of a previous era. I believe that judgment is deeply flawed, and that Camus's work remains of vital interest to a civilization now struggling to come to terms with a scientific and technological vision deeply at odds with the religious perspective from which its cultural meanings have historically derived. What is more, I intend to show that his analyses offer constructive suggestions for the dilemmas of our age and that we neglect them at our peril.

Such reflection gains increased urgency in an era in which world wars and mass genocide threaten to be surpassed by nuclear annihilation -- a capacity that few now doubt is within our collective power. Addressing our civilization at its metaphysical and mythic roots, Camus seeks to diagnose those interior forces seemingly propelling us toward destruction; to explore their inner logic in order to suggest the preconditions of, and the practical steps required for, a cultural rebirth. In a world without transcendent significance, in which we are all condemned to death, what, he asks, are the possibilities for an honest and clear-sighted coming to terms with our condition? Can we not find a way to celebrate our life on this earth in dignity and self-respect? And what are the paths that lead in that direction?

It is therefore as a thinker at grips with the drama of Western civilization, which was the conceptual horizon of his world, that his work is considered here: to listen carefully to its contemporary resonances, while exploring its Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots. Why have so many been drawn to him, both ennobled and perplexed by his writings? And why does his work continue to receive a respectful reading by, the literate pubic, despite its being all but out of fashion among the intelligentsia? In part, I suggest, this is because he addresses the deepest mythic level of our being. And not by inadvertence.

Of his plays he wrote, "There is no theater without language and style, nor any dramatic work which does not, like our classic drama and the Greek tragedians, involve human fate in all its simplicity and grandeur" (CTOP, x). The simplicity and grandeur of human existence as experienced in the twentieth century is the context of all he lived and wrote. Settings cut to the bone: the essentials grasped; the central dramatic myths explored in whose terms we confront our destiny. Such is the core of Camus's work. Small wonder then that his titles have such a mvthic resonance: The Stranger, The Plague, "The Misunderstanding," The Fall "The State of Siege," Two Sides of the Coin, Exile and the Kingdom, The Rebel, "The Just," Summer, Nuptials, and (uncompleted) The First Man.

Focusing upon the central drama of the West -- its root metaphors or metaphvsic, its agony and its future, its exile and its kingdom -- his work speaks to us at a level below that of conscious awareness. Precisely because it touches the deepest sources of our being, it engages us even when we arc not aware of its force. It subtly confronts us with a mirror and seeks to mark out a tortuous and risky path toward our natural salvation. By accepting the invitation it offers and the challenge it demands, we can learn about ourselves through direct encounter with this mythological mirror.

Why then have most academics dismissed him as dated, a product of the immediate post-war period, and not very profound? While his craftsmanship is invariably admired, his positions are not carefully studied. Thus his work appears in considerations of modern, especially, European, literature, as well as in analyses of the cultural scene in postwar Europe. But little serious attention is paid to its content. Certainly not by philosophers or political theorists. Ironically, given the antireligious thrust of his writings, an exception might have to be made for sectors of the theological community.

In a sense, Camus has fallen through the cracks in our intellectual subculture. But this work seeks to rectify that serious omission.