Albert Camus (7 November 1913 – 4 January 1960) was an Algerian-born French author, philosopher, and journalist who won the Nobel prize in 1957. He is often associated with existentialism, but Camus refused this label. On the other hand, as he wrote in his essay The Rebel, his whole life was devoted to opposing the philosophy of nihilism. On the subject of his belief or not in God, he writes in the third volume of his notebooks: "I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist."
In 1949, Camus founded the Group for International Liaisons in the Revolutionary Union Movement, according to the book Albert Camus, une vie by Olivier Todd, a group opposed to the atheist and communistic tendencies of the surrealistic movement of André Breton. Camus was the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (after Rudyard Kipling) when he became the first African-born writer to receive the award, in 1957. He is also the shortest-lived of any literature laureate to date, having died in an automobile accident only three years after receiving the award.
Camus preferred to be known as a man and a thinker, rather than as a member of a school or ideology. He preferred persons over ideas. In an interview in 1945, Camus rejected any ideological associations: "No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked…
Camus joined the French Communist Party in the Spring of 1935 seeing it as a way to "fight inequalities between Europeans and 'natives' in Algeria", he did not suggest he was a Marxist or that he had read Das Kapital, but did write that "[w]e might see communism as a springboard and asceticism that prepares the ground for more spiritual activities". In 1936, the independence-minded Algerian Communist Party (PCA) was founded. Camus joined the activities of the Algerian People's Party (Le Parti du Peuple Algérien), which got him into trouble with his Communist party comrades. As a result, he was denounced as a Trotskyite and expelled from the party in 1937. Camus went on to be associated with the French anarchist movement. The anarchist Andre Prudhommeaux first introduced him at a meeting in 1948 of the Cercle des Etudiants Anarchistes (Anarchist Student Circle) as a sympathiser who was familiar with anarchist thought. Camus went on to write for anarchist publications such as Le Libertaire, La révolution Proletarienne and Solidaridad Obrera (the organ of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT). Camus also stood with the anarchists when they expressed support for the uprising of 1953 in East Germany. He again stood with the anarchists in 1956, first with the workers’ uprising in Poznan, Poland, and then later in the year with the Hungarian Revolution.
In 1934, he married Simone Hie, a morphine addict, but the marriage ended as a consequence of infidelities on both sides. In 1935, he founded Théâtre du Travail — "Worker's Theatre" — (renamed Théâtre de l'Equipe ("Team's Theatre") in 1937), which survived until 1939. From 1937 to 1939 he wrote for a socialist paper, Alger-Républicain, and his work included an account of the peasants who lived in Kabylie in poor conditions, which apparently cost him his job. From 1939 to 1940, he briefly wrote for a similar paper, Soir-Republicain. He was rejected by the French army because of his tuberculosis.
In 1940, Camus married Francine Faure, a pianist and mathematician. Although he loved Francine, he had argued passionately against the institution of marriage, dismissing it as unnatural. Even after Francine gave birth to twins, Catherine and Jean, on 5 September 1945, he continued to joke wearily to friends that he was not cut out for marriage. Camus conducted numerous affairs, particularly an irregular and eventually public affair with the Spanish-born actress Maria Casares. In the same year Camus began to work for Paris-Soir magazine. In the first stage of World War II, the so-called Phony War stage, Camus was a pacifist. However, he was in Paris to witness how the Wehrmacht took over. On 15 December 1941, Camus witnessed the execution of Gabriel Péri, an event that Camus later said crystallized his revolt against the Germans. Afterwards he moved to Bordeaux alongside the rest of the staff of Paris-Soir. In the same year he finished his first books, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. He returned briefly to Oran, Algeria in 1942.
After the war, Camus began frequenting the Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris with Sartre and others. Camus also toured the United States to lecture about French thinking. Although he leaned left politically, his strong criticisms of Communist doctrine did not win him any friends in the Communist parties and eventually also alienated Sartre.
In 1949 his tuberculosis returned and he lived in seclusion for two years. In 1951 he published The Rebel, a philosophical analysis of rebellion and revolution which made clear his rejection of communism. The book upset many of his colleagues and contemporaries in France and led to the final split with Sartre. The dour reception depressed him and he began instead to translate plays.
Camus' first significant contribution to philosophy was his idea of the absurd, the result of our desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither, which he explained in The Myth of Sisyphus and incorporated into many of his other works, such as The Stranger and The Plague. Despite the split from his "study partner," Sartre, some still argue that Camus falls into the existentialist camp. However, he rejected that label himself in his essay Enigma and elsewhere (see: The Lyrical and Critical Essays of Albert Camus). The current confusion may still arise as many recent applications of existentialism have much in common with many of Camus' practical ideas (see: Resistance, Rebellion, and Death). However, the personal understanding he had of the world (e.g. "a benign indifference", in The Stranger), and every vision he had for its progress (i.e. vanquishing the "adolescent furies" of history and society, in The Rebel) undoubtedly sets him apart.
In the 1950s Camus devoted his efforts to human rights. In 1952 he resigned from his work for UNESCO when the UN accepted Spain as a member under the leadership of General Franco. In 1953 he criticized Soviet methods to crush a workers' strike in East Berlin. In 1956 he protested against similar methods in Poland (protests in Poznań) and the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution in October.
He maintained his pacifism and resistance to capital punishment anywhere in the world. One of his most significant contributions to the movement against capital punishment was an essay collaboration with Arthur Koestler, the writer, intellectual and founder of the League Against Capital Punishment.
When the Algerian War began in 1954 it presented a moral dilemma for Camus. He identified with pied-noirs, and defended the French government on the grounds that the revolt in Algeria was really an integral part of the 'new Arab imperialism' led by Egypt and an 'anti-Western' offensive orchestrated by Russia to 'encircle Europe' and 'isolate the United States'. Although favouring greater Algerian autonomy or even federation, though not full-scale independence, he believed that the pied-noirs and Arabs could co-exist. During the war he advocated civil truce that would spare the civilians, which was rejected by both sides who regarded it as foolish. Behind the scenes, he began to work for imprisoned Algerians who faced the death penalty.
From 1955 to 1956 Camus wrote for L'Express. In 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature "for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.", officially not for his novel The Fall, published the previous year, but for his writings against capital punishment in the essay Réflexions sur la Guillotine. When he spoke to students at the University of Stockholm, he defended his apparent inactivity in the Algerian question and stated that he was worried about what might happen to his mother, who still lived in Algeria. This led to further ostracism by French left-wing intellectuals.
As he wrote in L'Homme révolté (in the chapter about "The Thought on Midday") he was a follower of the ancient Greek 'Solar Tradition' (la pensée solaire). So, not only he was the leader of the French resistance movement "Combat" but he also set up in 1947-8 the Revolutionary Union Movement (Groupes de liaison internationale - GLI) which was formed in 1949 and can be described as a trade union movement in the context of revolutionary syndicalism (Syndicalisme révolutionnaire). For more, see the book : Alfred Rosmer et le mouvement révolutionnaire internationale by Christian Gras).
His colleagues were Nicolas Lazarévitch, Louis Mercier, Roger Lapeyre, Paul Chauvet, Auguste Largentier, Jean de Boë (see the article: "Nicolas Lazarévitch, Itinéraire d'un syndicaliste révolutionnaire" by Sylvain Boulouque in the review Communisme, n° 61, 2000). His main aim was to express the positive side of Surrealism and Existentialism, rejecting the negativity and the nihilism of André Breton and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 1944 Camus founded the "French Committee for the European Federation" (Comité Français pour la Féderation Européene -CFFE) declaring that Europe "can only evolve along the path of economic progress, democracy and peace if the nation states become a federation".
From 1943, Albert Camus had correspondence with Altiero Spinelli who founded the European Federalist Movement in Milan (see Ventotene Manifesto and the book "Unire l'Europa, superare gli stati", Altiero Spinelli nel Partito d'Azione del Nord Italia e in Francia dal 1944 al 1945-annexed a letter by Altiero Spinelli to Albert Camus).
In 22-25 March 1945, the first conference of the European Federalist Movement was organised in Paris with the participation of Albert Camus, George Orwell, Emmanuel Mounier, Lewis Mumford, André Philip, Daniel Mayer, François Bondy and Altiero Spinelli (see the book "The Biography of Europe" by Pan Drakopoulos). This specific branch of the European Federalist Movement disintegrated in 1957 after the domination of Winston Churchill's ideas about the European integration.
Three essays by Dr. Miho Takashima in the International Journal of Humanities ("Revolt and Equilibrium: A Comparative Study of Nineteen Eighty-Four and L'Homme Révolté, the Views and Struggles of Orwell and Camus", "Art and Representation: A Comparative Study of George Orwell and Albert Camus on their Literary Works", and "George Orwell and Albert Camus: A Comparative Study – Their Views and Dilemmas in the Politics of the 1930s and 40s") explore the relation between the work of the French writer Albert Camus and the English writer George Orwell.
Takashima argues that Orwell—perhaps intentionally, in order to warn the intellectual elite—compromised with "Big Brother", while Camus confronted with The Plague. This is observed not only in the comparison between Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Rebel but, especially, in Camus' play The State of Siege. This theatrical play was written together with the novel The Plague and the essay The Rebel. It is the work which—according to Camus himself—represents him best and is a response to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The hero, Diego, opposes the totalitarian dictator named Plague, and dies in order to set a Spanish town free from the Inquisition.
The State of Siege is a work against totalitarianism, written in the same epoch when Camus' idol, George Orwell, wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. The play includes an allegorical reference to the end of Orwell's novel.
The original title of The State of Siege was The Holy Inquisition in Cadix. In the French edition of the book, Camus has included an essay under the title "Why Spain?". In this polemical text, he answers his Catholic friend Gabriel Marcel who criticized him for setting the plot in Spain. Here Camus expresses his opposition to the totalitarian regimes of the West, and to the behavior of the Vatican and the Pope during World War II. The most important phrase of this essay is "Why Guernica, Gabriel Marcel?".
Camus died on 4 January 1960 in an automobile accident near Sens, in a place named "Le Grand Fossard" in the small town of Villeblevin. In his coat pocket lay an unused train ticket. It is possible that he had planned to travel by train, but decided to go by car instead.
The driver of the Facel Vega car, Michel Gallimard — his publisher and close friend — also perished in the accident. Camus was interred in the Lourmarin Cemetery, Lourmarin, Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France.
He was survived by his twin children, Catherine and Jean, who hold the copyrights to his work.
After his death, two of Camus' works were published posthumously. The first, entitled A Happy Death published in 1970, featured a character named Meursault, as in The Stranger, but there is some debate as to the relationship between the two stories. The second posthumous publication was an unfinished novel, The First Man, that Camus was writing before he died. The novel was an autobiographical work about his childhood in Algeria and was published in 1995.
His early thoughts on the Absurd appeared in his first collection of essays, L'Envers et l'endroit (The Two Sides Of The Coin) in 1937. Absurd themes appeared with more sophistication in his second collection of essays, Noces (Nuptials), in 1938. In these essays Camus does not offer a philosophical account of the Absurd, or even a definition; rather he reflects on the experience of the Absurd. In 1942 he published the story of a man living an Absurd life as L'Étranger (The Stranger), and in the same year released Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), a literary essay on the Absurd. He had also written a play about a Roman Emperor, Caligula, pursuing an Absurd logic. However, the play was not performed until 1945. The turning point in Camus' attitude to the Absurd occurs in a collection of four letters to an anonymous German friend, written between July 1943 and July 1944. The first was published in the Revue Libre in 1943, the second in the Cahiers de Libération in 1944, and the third in the newspaper Libertés, in 1945. All four letters have been published as Lettres à un ami allemand (Letters to a German Friend) in 1945, and have appeared in the collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.
Meursault, the Absurdist hero of L'Étranger, is a murderer who is executed for his crime. Caligula ends up admitting his Absurd logic was wrong and is killed by an assassination he has deliberately brought about. However, while Camus possibly suggests that Caligula's Absurd reasoning is wrong, the play's anti-hero does get the last word, as the author similarly exalts Meursault's final moments.
Camus' understanding of the Absurd promotes public debate; his various offerings entice us to think about the Absurd and offer our own contribution. Concepts such as cooperation, joint effort and solidarity are of key importance to Camus.
Camus made a significant contribution to a viewpoint of the Absurd, and always rejected nihilism as a valid response.
"If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has a meaning." Second Letter to a German Friend, December 1943.
What still had meaning for Camus is that despite humans being subjects in an indifferent and "absurd" universe, in which meaning is challenged by the fact that we all die, meaning can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by our own decisions and interpretations.
Camus' well-known falling out with Sartre is linked to this opposition to totalitarianism. Camus detected a reflexive totalitarianism in the mass politics espoused by Sartre in the name of radical Marxism. This was apparent in his work L'Homme Révolté (The Rebel) which not only was an assault on the Soviet police state, but also questioned the very nature of mass revolutionary politics. Camus continued to speak out against the atrocities of the Soviet Union, a sentiment captured in his 1957 speech, The Blood of the Hungarians, commemorating the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, an uprising crushed in a bloody assault by the Red Army.
Camus was once asked by his friend Charles Poncet which he preferred, football or the theatre. Camus is said to have replied, "Football, without hesitation."
Camus played as goalkeeper for Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA won both the North African Champions Cup and the North African Cup twice each in the 1930s) junior team from 1928–30. The sense of team spirit, fraternity, and common purpose appealed to Camus enormously. In match reports Camus would often attract positive comment for playing with passion and courage. Any aspirations in football disappeared at age 17, upon contracting tuberculosis—then incurable, Camus was bedridden for long and painful periods.
When Camus was asked in the 1950s by an alumni sports magazine for a few words regarding his time with the RUA, his response included the following:
Camus was referring to a sort of simplistic morality he wrote about in his early essays, the principle of sticking up for your friends, of valuing bravery and fair-play. Camus' belief was that political and religious authorities try to confuse us with over-complicated moral systems to make things appear more complex than they really are, potentially to serve their own needs.
Anti-folk singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis references Camus, as well as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, in a 2005 song, "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" in the line, "And I'm sure the thing is probably Dylan himself too, stayed up some nights wishing he was as good as Ginsberg or Camus."