Today would have been Albert Camus‘s 100th birthday.
I have had a crush on Albert Camus for a long time. C’mon… he’s hot, rebellious, an intellectual, and like most artists I’m madly in love with, dead… the ultimate unattainable.
Although he is often called an existentialist, Camus rejected that label (“Sartre and I are often surprised to see our names linked,” he once remarked.) Some critics and readers have instead called him an “absurdist,” which is sometimes thought of as the philosophy of the absurdity of the individual experience. However, Camus rejected this label as well. Camus’s philosophy is often called the “Paradox of Absurdity“:
The essential paradox arising in Camus’s philosophy concerns his central notion of absurdity. Accepting the Aristotelian idea that philosophy begins in wonder, Camus argues that human beings cannot escape asking the question, “What is the meaning of existence?” Camus, however, denies that there is an answer to this question, and rejects every scientific, teleological, metaphysical, or human-created end that would provide an adequate answer. Thus, while accepting that human beings inevitably seek to understand life’s purpose, Camus takes the skeptical position that the natural world, the universe, and the human enterprise remain silent about any such purpose. Since existence itself has no meaning, we must learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness. This paradoxical situation, then, between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer, is what Camus calls the absurd. Camus’s philosophy of the absurd explores the consequences arising from this basic paradox.
Camus’s intellect is even more impressive when you know his background. His father died when he was very little. His mother worked as a washer woman and was deaf. Mother and son lived in Algiers (the setting of one of my favorite short stories, “The Guest“) where Albert was eventually accepted into the University of Algiers. His first and most famous novel L’Etranger (The Stranger) was published in 1942.
In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960. He was just 46 years old. In addition to his body of work, his journals were published in 2008. Among these notes is a beautiful consideration on the purpose of art:
[Oscar Wilde] wanted to place art above all else. But the grandeur of art is not to rise above all. On the contrary, it must blend with all. Wilde finally understood this, thanks to sorrow. But it is the culpability of this era that it always needed sorrow and constraint in order to catch a glimpse of a truth also found in happiness, when the heart is worthy. Servile century.
Even people who have never read anything by Camus are likely to have encountered some of his musings. Here are a few of my favorites: