Saturday, March 21, 2009

Camus and the Necessity of Unbelief

"Le monde est beau, et hors de lui, point de salut." ("The world is beautiful, and beyond it there is no salvation.") Albert Camus, L'Ete

I was first attracted to the writings of Albert Camus in my late teens. The qualities I found there were an intellectual fearlessness and a love of sensuality for its own sake. James Wood is a literary critic and the author of a novel, The Book Against God. The following essay was first published in The New Republic in its November 8, 1999 issue.

Camus and twentieth-century clarity

The Sickness Unto Life


The tradition of atheism and agnosticism has been somewhat shallow, philosophically speaking. It has had a tendency to harden into hob-nailed anti-clericalism, or to soften into rationalist serenity. There is a veering between a rather charming optimism and a rather petty naughtiness. One thinks of the calm ironies of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, in which the heaven of the ancients is likened to no more than "the little fluff" that surrounds the cocoon of the silkworm, or of Hume mocking the idea that heaven could be large enough to contain millions of souls. For many unbelievers, it seems self-evident that religion is not our salvation, and thus hardly worth the argument. For Stendhal, to judge from his fiction, the priests are all hypocrites, and therefore religion is all hypocrisy and nonsense.

The deepest struggle with Christianity may well be bloodily intramural. Thus the fiercest objectors to Christianity are often themselves believers; their belief is doubt-intoxicated, while by contrast the atheists are merely drunk on certainty. Perhaps the most formidably skeptical book in the history of theology, Pierre Bayle's Historical and Skeptical Dictionary, appears to have been written by a Christian. It logically devastates one orthodox position after another, only to return, at the end of each entry, to its own thinly orthodox position--that Christianity is not rational, that if we were rationalists we could not possibly believe in it, and that therefore we cannot be rationalists and should simply cleave all the more strongly to our thoroughly irrational faith. One understands why there has been argument since the publication of this book in the seventeenth century over the ratio of Bayle's blasphemy to belief.

Bayle, who influenced Melville's religious torments, is hardly alone. Kierkegaard often seems to oppose the prison of Christianity with all his loathing, before masochistically deciding that one can live only within that same prison. "One must be quite literally a lunatic to become a Christian," he writes in his Journal. In Works of Love, he argues that the Christian preacher should preach "against Christianity." And that troubled believer, Dostoevsky, in the "Grand Inquisitor" section of The Brothers Karamazov, delivers a hammer-blow to the cathedral-door of orthodox faith.

To all this, Camus is a fierce exception. Although he was not of course a Christian, it is within this tradition of unstable belief that his thinking breathes its unbelief. It is in this respect that The Myth of Sisyphus constitutes an exception to the discourse of atheism and agnosticism. For Camus does not proceed as if theology can simply be killed off by philosophy or by philosophical arguments. He proceeds as if religion is best countered by a rival form of belief, the belief that one cannot, must not believe in God.

Sartre and others dismissed Camus's essay for its muddled philosophy. But The Myth of Sisyphus is not a treatise, it is a tract, a tract aimed at evacuating God, and a promise to live by the rigor of that evacuation. It is an oration, a personal statement written by a young man living in narrow exile in Paris during the bleakest early days of the Second World War. This young man offers a necessarily vulnerable summation of the little that he has so far learned: "I don't know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it."

Faced with this vulnerability, we should not mark Camus as if he were sitting a metaphysical exam, but judge his essay as a work of art. That is to say, we should judge it by the dignity of its argumentation, not by the rigor of its proofs; by the beauty of its effort, not by the conclusiveness of its attainment. In this light, it is indeed a moving and impressive work, still able to stir those readers willing to waver.


Camus cannot know that God does not exist; he is determined to believe that God cannot exist. Camus opposes religious faith not with rationalism but with a negative faith of his own, a faith in negation. Often he seems to invert the processes of the religious beliefs that he criticizes. In particular, his work can seem to be a reply to Dostoevsky and to Kierkegaard, and to the battered paradox whereby those two writers acknowledge the absurdity of the universe only to embrace more strongly the scandal of belief in God. While Kierkegaard insists, in The Sickness Unto Death, that Christianity "begins" with the concept of sin, Camus insists again and again that we are innocent. While Kierkegaard argues that paganism is no more than being in a state of despair but being ignorant of it, Camus delights in paganism, and in a paganism that is not ignorant of itself but self-aware and relentlessly vigilant. While Dostoevsky proposes suicide as the only logical response to an awareness that God does not exist, Camus proposes that the person without God must not kill himself, but realize instead that he is condemned to death, and live his life saturated with that terrible knowledge. Camus proposes, in place of faith, awareness itself.

As both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky seek a world with meaning, so Camus, because of his sense that the world is "unreasonable," is thirsty for meaning. He has none of the rationalist's calm at the idea of an entirely rational universe, and none of the agnostic's serenity that it does not matter that the universe is meaningless. It matters very much to Camus, and it is the contradiction between what he calls "the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world" that drives him towards the position that he calls "the absurd."

He writes that Moby-Dick is a truly "absurd" novel, and like Melville he appears at times not quite able to relinquish the idea that God does not exist. At such moments, it is not so much God's absence that seems to provoke him, but God's silence. In his hunger for religious meaning, Camus sometimes resembles the Melville who complained in Pierre that "Silence is the only Voice of our God . . . how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?" And like both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, whom Camus criticizes for their "leap" into irrational faith, Camus is forced into his own kind of leap, which is the assertion--and it is not much more than this--that we must oppose the world's meaninglessness with our revolt, our freedom, and our passion.

Camus's own leap begins in his apprehension that the world lacks providential meaning, and that therefore human beings must be meaning's providers. This is our "absurd" task. Camus feels the meaninglessness of life because he cannot believe in God, or in transcendent design, and because he sees clearly that everything he does is menaced by death. The Myth of Sisyphus is an extraordinarily death-visited book. Indeed, throughout Camus's work, and above all in The Stranger and The Plague, the very image of the human is the man condemned to death.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, the "absurd man" is the man walking toward the hangman's noose who sees, in a burst of freedom just as he mounts the scaffold, a shoelace or some such triviality of life from the corner of his eye. It is understood throughout the book that death at every moment makes life a broken circuit. Reading Camus, we feel that death stands at the end of our lives as an enormous negation, the assassin of memory, a kind of official torturer telling the poor citizen: "You saw nothing, you did not experience the things you thought you experienced. You did not live. You are erased."

Little more strongly marks Camus's apparently anti-religious thought as secretly religious than his sense that death poses a metaphysical problem for life. For many rationalists or atheists, the fact that we die is not such a large problem: death is merely a dark continuation of the general meaninglessness--it is merely, as it were, the even smaller print to the already small print of life. Death only becomes a problem for those religious believers who see life as something more than material existence, which is why Christians must announce that death has been conquered by Christ.
Inverting this, Camus tells us that death conquers us. He believes death is a problem because he works within the essentially religious apprehension that life, if it is to have have meaning, must in some way be extended. The religionist has a solution to this, of course, and locates that extension in heaven, in eternal life. Camus's secular solution lies in an extension of life in life itself, a kind of aeration of life. Camus eventually finds the figure of this extension, for better or worse, in the idea of repetition, and especially in Sisyphus's repeated task of rolling his rock up the hill. But this is really a figurative or metaphorical extension, something a little like the idea of repeated curtain calls, or of adding extra songs to a concert; and indeed, Camus announces that the absurd person must concentrate on a greater quantity of experiences, not on a greater quality: more life, not purer life. Camus cannot evade death; instead he will (in both senses of the word) entertain death, and keep it busy.

Aware that life is futile, Camus feels himself a stranger to it. He wrote The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger almost simultaneously, in the late 1930s and in the first few months of 1940, finishing the essay in Paris, far from his native Algeria. Exile and estrangement, though used a little loosely by Camus, are imbued with metaphysical resonance. Camus describes himself as awakened to the absurdity of life, for "in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity."

The biographical hint--the young Frenchman from Algeria condemned to an uneasy life in Paris--is there, of course, in this language of exile. Yet Camus rings meaning from these words so that they become a metaphorical fluid in which his enquiry can swim. The stranger or the exile is absurd, painfully awake to the impossibility of reconciling himself to his situation. He cannot return to the homeland, to the Eden of consolation. Camus finds fault with the Christianity of Kierkegaard and the existentialism of Jaspers because, in ultimately deciding to find rational "a world [they] originally imagined as devoid of any guiding principle," they fall prey to "the spirit of nostalgia." Husserl, too, proposes an abstract "leap" that Camus refuses, because it m eans "forgetting just what I do not want to forget": the unreasonableness of the world.

So Camus refuses nostalgia, though he admits to living under its shadow: "It is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together." He admits freely enough to "my appetite for the absolute and for unity." The "contradiction" between that appetite and its disappointment constitutes the absurd. The absurd person, then, cannot leap into any kind of faith or belief, because this is a leap into forgetting; but Sisypheanism is a most vigilant remembering of exile, a permanent remembering.

Sisypheanism is refusing to forget where one is from (Eden), where one toils (exile), and where one is headed (death). The pain of the absurdity, as Camus seems to suggest, is that one can admit to the spirit of nostalgia but one cannot enact it. Camus can dream of his lost country, but he cannot return to it. In other words, he is not a nostalgic so much as an elegist; in a sense, The Myth of Sisyphus is an elegy for belief.


The Myth of Sisyphus proposes to substitute a tragedy of repetition for the ordinary, unwitting comedy of repetition. The absurd person is someone who has seen through the ridiculous repetitions of daily life, the gray routine and the stifling calendar of existence: "Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm--this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the `why' arises [le `pourquoi' s'eleve] and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement." Suddenly, the absurd person sees through this routine, and "the chain of daily gestures is broken." Now everything begins to seem pointless and comical: "At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime make silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him but you see his incomprehensible dumb-show: you wonder why he is alive."

Henri Bergson, in his essay on comedy, offers one definition of the comic as watching a room full of dancers but with one's own ears stopped so that one cannot hear the music. Bergson also finds a strand of comedy in the idea of the human turned into a machine, and in the idea of repetition, of repeated meaningless actions. Both Bergson and Camus, then, find in modern industrial society an emblem of the comic. Camus, of course, is concerned not merely to laugh, but to find some kind of solution, outside the religious, to this comic-uncomic "chain of daily gestures." One cannot escape this comedy, but one can at least metaphysicalize it, and see it in its largest universal dimension, and then resist it, fight it with Pyrrhic integrity.

The first step is to turn the comic into the absurd, to convert futile daily repetition into eternal Sisyphean repetition. The comic becomes the absurd precisely when we are made to see its comedy: the absurd is, in part, the awareness that life is a comic dumbshow. Then the absurd person must begin the long, always repeated struggle against the terms of that dumb-show. This is a fight that is never over, that lasts exactly the duration of a life, that is indeed a life--which is why the absurd person cannot commit suicide. And because it is a chain of repetitions, the absurd life may be hardly discernible as different from ordinarily comic daily routine. Formally, it may not look very different. Presumably, the absurd person may go to work, and stand in the subway with everyone else. Internally, of course, the absurd life is entirely different, because the absurd person knows the difference between ignorant routine and rebellious repetition.

It is this moment at which the comedy of repetition turns into something like tragic repetition, what Rieux in The Plague calls "a never-ending defeat." The absurd person is fighting the terms of existence, the sentence handed down by non-existent gods: "If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine-guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd." (One sees why Camus considered Moby-Dick an absurd novel.) The absurd spirit might be said to be tragic stoicism: "Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage." This struggle "implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a continuous dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest) . . . The absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to." And so Camus rises to his stubborn declaration: "I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone." He continues: "the absurd is sin without God. It is a matter of living in that state of the absurd."

Why is the absurd "sin without God"? Again, we see how Camus inverts all religious categories, in the process converting them out of their baleful literalism and into the metaphorical. The absurd is like living sinfully because Camus means that, like sin, we cannot escape it: it is a kind of original sin but without the origin, which would be God. It is the sentence passed on us by life. (Here one feels the inevitable shadow of Augustine, the great proponent of original sin, on whom Camus wrote a thesis. And, indeed, throughout his life, Camus may have been "answering" Augustine more systematically than perhaps he knew. For in place of Augustine's asceticism, Camus proposed pagan sunlight, in place of Augustine's sex-recoil, Camus proposed--and enacted--the role of the seducer.) For if it were passed by God it would become a religious problem. Yet Camus is not like one of those rationalists who believes that once God is removed from the picture, metaphysical problems disappear. Quite the contrary. Camus believes that once God is removed, our religious problems end, but our metaphysical problems begin.

They begin with death. Yet Camus's answer to death is more active than the notion of stoicism perhaps suggests. There is no resignation involved; always an endless signing-on to new tasks. Obviously, says Camus, the absurd person cannot commit suicide. For suicide, "like the leap [of religious faith], is acceptance at its extreme. Everything is over and man returns to his essential history." To kill oneself is to allow both life and death to have had dominion over one. Determining to live in the absurd, on the other hand, is "simultaneously awareness and rejection of death."

So the absurd man begins the battle. What does he do? Here, Camus's argument is somewhat vulnerable. For it is here, if his proposals are to be usable, that Camus must reconvert his struggling metaphors--and what is Sispypheanism but a furious metaphor?-- into the literalism of actual struggles, as actual people might live them. It is merely metaphorical (or rhetorical) to speak of fighting the terms of the absurd with "my revolt, my freedom and my passion." But Camus--and it is part of his appeal as a writer--wants to be more local than this, more practical than the merely metaphorical. He would like to suggest a number of possible absurd roles or lives.

He proposes "the seducer," "the actor," "the conqueror" (who is always engaged in "a campaign in which he is defeated in advance"), and "the writer." These, says Camus, are examples of people who live many roles, and who, in living so much, flourish a pagan provisionality in the face of the narrow absurd. In other words, these people are rebelliously alive, and in being so, they defy the absurd. For the absurd man must substitute "the quantity of experiences for the quality . . . What counts is not the best living but the most living."

The suspicion is stirred in the reader that although Camus is writing as if he has forsaken the figurative and rhetorical for the literal and usable, he is merely applying the figurative and the rhetorical to actual lives. Indeed, what he seems to like about the roles he has chosen is that they involve acting, they involve an inhabiting of the metaphorical, a dressing-up in likenesses of various kinds. And one notices that as soon as Camus describes the strategies of these lives of rebellion, he merely repeats the large exhortations of the earlier theoretical passages. The seducer, the conqueror, the actor and the writer are symbolic figures, on which to hang symbolic possibilities of revolt. (They also seem, as models, painfully limited by their epoch: decidedly French masculine ideals in a time of war.)

Though Camus would not admit it, he can counter the terms of the absurd only with a leap of his own, a leap into negative faith. "Being aware of one's life, one's revolt, one's freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum." Camus's leap may perhaps not at first resemble one, and this is partly because he so widens the terms of what constitutes "revolt" that his leap may involve nothing more than simply remaining alive, simply refraining from killing oneself. Where Kierkegaard demands a fierce and fateful choosing of God, where Dostoevsky demands a grotesque paradoxical decision to see the horror of the world and then to use it as what Camus scornfully calls a "tremplin d'eternite," a springboard to eternity, Camus tells us, in effect, that we cannot avoid the leap unless we kill ourselves. Camus does not quite say anything as simple as "We can only choose life," but that is the brunt of his assertion.

And in the end, this, too, is only a religious assertion, a determination, a faith. Camus proves nothing. Nor is he necessarily right, even within the terms of atheism. Perhaps Camus is right that to kill oneself would be to allow death to have dominion, and that to live rebelliously is to both be aware of and to reject death. But these are the essentially religious terms--or the shadows of religious terms--that Camus has himself inherited and adapted. One can imagine another atheistic argument for rebellion that also advocated suicide: Kirilov, in The Possessed, believes that only when we all have the courage to kill ourselves, will we be free. Or one can imagine another argument that did not involve rebellion but a certain kind of resignation: the Czech novelist Karel Capek liked to say that "a short life is better for mankind, for a long life would deprive man of his optimism." In other words, in place of Camus's mixture of tragic stoicism and pagan revolt, there might exist a more simply tragic vision (as in Sophocles and King Lear), or a more blandly stoical acceptance (as in Epicurus and Lucretius).

The difficulty of Camus's proposal for rebellion is that at times he seems merely to be describing life itself, which is tautological. And if he is only describing life itself, he is also describing it metaphorically, at a remove--as an endless campaign of defeats, a choosing between roles, a vigilance, living like the condemned man and so on. These images are powerfully worked in his fiction, and perhaps fiction is where they most happily breathe: one remembers the image of Grand in The Plague, writing again and again the first sentence of his novel. But The Myth of Sisyphus is not a novel, and there is a danger that when Camus comes to tell us how we can live with the absurd, he can do no more than tell us to do what we already do (which is live)--but tell us to live figuratively, to live as if.

Nothing is more obviously an example of this figurative tendency than his choice of Sisyphus as the ultimately absurd man. Sisyphus is condemned to roll his rock up a hill, so that it can roll back down. Then Sisyphus's task begins again. Here is the emblem of the absurd, says Camus, of our repeated struggle against the obscure terms of our existence. But, adds Camus, there may be a moment when Sisyphus is walking back down the hill when he is briefly free, when he is "superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock." Sisyphus, then, is both prisoner and rebel.

This is moving, and Camus writes with great delicacy at the end of his essay. But it is movingly useless. What moves us, in part, is the spectacle of Camus's belief; what moves us is that Camus's emblem of the absurd is so hopelessly metaphorical, but that Camus believes in him so fiercely, and so sympathetically describes his fate and his revolt, that Sisyphus appears to be real to Camus, and becomes almost actual for us. This is the quality of Camus's thought, and it is why he is such a powerful novelist: he takes religious terms, turns them into secular metaphor, and then, by dint of his sympathetic concentration on them, appears to reconvert them back into an unmetaphorical, usable reality. What he does, in fact, is act as if they were real while using them metaphorically. We are reminded that his essay is not philosophy at all, but a kind of storytelling.

Sisyphus is not only a metaphorical answer to the terms of the absurd, but also a religious one. Camus had perhaps read Kierkegaard's essay Repetition, in which Kierkegaard describes the various ways in which the pleasure we take in life is menaced by repetition. We fall in love, for instance, but then repetition takes over, and kills the originality and novelty of our experience. Characteristically, Kierkegaard concludes, somewhat arbitrarily, by asserting that the only way to outwit ordinary repetition is by making it religious, and by seeing repetition as the truly religious way of life. Repetition, writes Kierkegaard, is "a religious movement by virtue of the absurd." The final repetition, of course, is eternity itself, in which heavenly existence repeats itself endlessly. Kierkegaard's proposal is the absolute opposite of Camus's.

Camus makes no mention of Kierkegaard's essay, but he was of course familiar with the notion of eternity as a kind of repetition-without-repetition. The Christian wants religiously to extend life, and finds this extension, as I mentioned earlier, in heaven, in its repetition without end. Camus wants to extend life on earth, and can do this really only by inflating a metaphor, an emblem. This is not necessarily a weak inversion if, as the atheist thinks, the Christian heaven has only ever been a metaphorical emblem anyway. Seen in this light, Camus offers his secular metaphorical extension for the Christian metaphorical extension, his secular repetition for Kierkegaard's eternal repetition. He offers Sisyphus's hell for the believer's heaven. Earlier in his essay he writes that "the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." This is Camus's eternity: an endless repetition of presents. And since, unlike the literalist Christian vision, we die and are cancelled--since heaven does not exist--Camus can make this repetition endless (or eternal) only with the help of the flexibility of artistic metaphor. For life is short, but art is long, especially the art of metaphor.

So is Camus's rebellion only metaphorical and not actual? Perhaps not. His own conduct in the war suggests otherwise. And four years after Camus finished his essay, Primo Levi faced an intolerable temptation in a concentration camp. It was a temptation to pray, and Levi, vigilant and lucid as perhaps Camus could not have imagined or feared, resisted the temptation. He gives an account of the episode in The Drowned and the Saved. Instinct with Camus's language of lucidity and absurdity, it is an extraordinarily "rebellious" passage of secular writing:

I too entered the Lager as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated
and have lived to this day; actually, the experience of the Lager with its
frightful iniquity has confirmed me in my laity. It has prevented me, and still
prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice .
. . I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the
temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in the October of
1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death.
Naked and compressed among my naked companions with my index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the "commission" that with one glance would decide whether I should immediately go into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.

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