“I remember that when I was eighteen years old, it seemed to me that the very hours of sleep deprived me of life. I had a furious and eager thirst for everything that awaited me, people I didn’t know, words I had not yet said, works, books, men. And I could not give any of that up. I am not sure that I have changed.” These words, written only five years after the experience they describe and remarkable for the self-knowledge they show in such a young man, give us one reason why many have been fascinated by French writer Albert Camus: his insatiable and unmistakable love of life.
Most people today, if they know him at all, have met Camus in the rather painful and, usually, fruitless exercise of reading his first novel, The Stranger, in high school. The Stranger is an “existentialist” novel about the pointlessness of a certain type of existence in the first half of the 20th century. Camus regarded the experience of cosmic absurdity as a necessary first phase in confronting modern nihilism. His subsequent work went on to affirm certain human values that even seemed at times to point toward a kind of religious viewpoint. But that Camus is much less known for reasons difficult to fathom (I may be just a bit too cynical in thinking that teachers, like students, prefer short texts such as The Stranger that are also deeply enigmatic, so that they do not require a very careful reading). In any case, Camus’s very different later works such as The Fall, a story of acknowledged sin and repentance, and Exile and the Kingdom never made their way into the standard reading lists, distorting even what little is known of him.
Camus was born in 1913 into a poor family in then-French Algeria. He never knew his father, who died the next year in the Battle of the Marne. So Camus was brought up in the poor Belcourt quarter of Algiers by his mother, grandmother, and other relatives. Despite a meteoric rise to the stratospheric summit of France’s elite culture, he never lost touch with these origins; indeed, he found in them a richness and reality that kept him from ideologies and political movements that professed love for ordinary people in theory but rode roughshod over them in practice.
One figure, 15 years his senior, who came early into his life and remained as a kind of intellectual father-figure until Camus died in a car accident shortly after winning the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature, was a significant French writer in his own right, the philosopher, essayist, and mystic Jean Grenier. Camus publicly acknowledged his debt to this master throughout his life, another way in which he differed from other great modern authors, who generally have tended to portray themselves as self-made geniuses, radically independent of any intellectual patrimony—indeed, engaged in a Hobbesian intellectual struggle to best all competitors.
Camus deftly exploded this pretension in the introduction he wrote to Grenier’s magical little book, Les Iles (Islands), which reflects a different reality that had transpired between the two men: “Among the half-truths that delight our intellectual society this stimulating thought can be found— that each consciousness seeks the death of the other. At once, we all become masters and slaves, dedicated
to mutual annihilation. But the word master has another meaning, linked to the word disciple in respect and gratitude…. Mind thus engenders mind, from one generation to another, and human history, fortunately, is built as much on admiration as on hatreds.”
Their touching relationship, long known to students of Camus’s work, can be traced more fully now with the publication of Albert Camus & Jean Grenier: Correspondence 1932-1960 (University of Nebraska Press), translated by Jan F. Rigaud. These letters record a lifelong intellectual and spiritual friendship. Grenier began it by going out of his way as Camus’s teacher to visit him in his poor home. Camus was encouraged by this show of respect to exert himself in order to become a worthy conversation partner. More concretely, Grenier convinced Camus’s poor family to let him continue his education.
This had intellectual as well as personal dimensions. Grenier oversaw Camus’s thesis on “Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism,” a subject that attracted master and pupil alike for its intrinsic interest—a comparison of two high points of the human spirit, one Christian, one pagan—but also because it was a subject that had engaged a great ancient predecessor in the region, St. Augustine. Both were open to a larger horizon than was typical among contemporary intellectuals. Or as Camus was to formulate it later, Grenier “prevented me from being a humanist in the sense that it is understood today—I mean a man blinded by narrow certainties.” Contrary to almost the whole of modern French thought, Camus believed that it was better to be “a good bourgeois than a bad intellectual or a mediocre writer,” and he and Grenier strove to avoid the vanity and self-deception endemic to French intellectuals.
Both had intermittent attractions to Christianity, especially Catholicism, because, as Grenier put it, it reflected the principle that there is “no truth for man that is not incarnatedf And Grenier could be merciless toward what he believed was a “dilettantism of despair” among many French intellectuals. But they were also put off by the harsh tone of many people in the French Church at the time, which seemed particularly offensive because of the Church’s historical failings, as they saw it. Camus confesses at one point: “Catholic thought always seems bittersweet to me. It seduces me then offends me. Undoubtedly, I lack what is essential.” That may be true, but it is also a sad commentary on Catholic history in France that these two good men, flawed and perhaps blinded as they may have been by certain modern intellectual currents, felt such ambivalence. The sense of guilt (personal and universal) in the later Camus is so palpable and profound that many people believe that had he not died at age 47, he would have eventually become a Christian. It’s a pious wish, but I have always thought it ignored certain invincible circumstances. These letters have not changed my mind.
But what a wonderful record of human honesty and affection they offer, especially for our time. Both had seen the results of murderous philosophies of human perfection, and Camus would be pilloried by the French intellectual establishment, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre, for his deep critique of Marxism in his L’Homme Revolte (The Rebel). In it, Camus argued that we have an obligation to rebel against injustice but must never allow that just impulse to become absolute revolution against the human condition. Because when we do, we turn into perpetrators of injustices worse than those we seek to eliminate. Or as he put it in the opening sentence of that work, a line that could almost serve as a motto for his and Grenier’s work in the face of so much that was— and is—simply mad among French intellectuals: “There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic.”