Increasingly since the Romantics, such as Chateubriand, the writer in France has presented that double image of timeless originator and commentator on the actual that French culture regards as the completeness of literary existence. The writer who came closest to doing this in the modern era, was most likely the Algerian born novelist, playwright and essayist Albert Camus.
In Camus, many in France saw the converging of all the chief strands of their moral, intellectual and aesthetic concerns. His work came to embody for them the main elements of the spiritual crisis through which France had been passing. That the rest of the world largely shared his country’s esteem for Camus is, of course, a testimony to the more than local validity of art, but also to France,s continuing pre-eminence in the dominion of the mind. France is still a nation from which one is to expect portents, revelations, and prescriptions for renascence.
From the moment he made his entrance, both triumphant and shy, upon the literary scene he seemed the incarnation of everything the French public had been waiting for. He was a writer who combined the memory of suffering with an articulation of hope, confident thought with a recognition of chaos, a love of beauty, and an awareness of tragedy. That Camus, or any writer, should have been awaited with such fervor is a measure both of the degreee to which literature perennially matters to the French and of the extraordinary circumstances of the epoch in which he came to their attention.
Camus’ first book, ”The Stranger” , was published in 1942, at perhaps the lowest point of French morale under the German occupation. This short novel,clinical, pure, with an almost unbearable honesty, struck a chord in readers starved for authentic words and for hope no matter how austere. The ”Stranger” of its title is a young office worker who heedlessly shoots an Arab on a bright Algerian beach. It is a non-political, not even passionate crime; a meaningless act of violence induced by ”the sun”. But while he is in prison, awaiting execution, Camus’ stranger discovers the minimum ground of existence; that being that all men alike are condemned to die. To face this certain fact is the beginning of mastery over life’s terrors and unreason. In all this, Frenchmen found a text for the times.
When the same year Camus’ ”The Myth of Sisyphus” appeared, his reputation grew. It was a set of essays the reinterpreted in a startling way the Greek myth of a man condemned eternally to roll a rock uphill. Nothing could be more hopeless and bereft of meaning on the face of it, yet Camus declared that it was precisely the acceptance of his task that Sisyphus could find justification and even happiness; a higher fidelity that negated the gods and raises rocks: ”The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus’ philosophy, as he expressed it in ”The Stranger” and ”The Myth of Sisyphus”, rested on the recognition that the human condition is intolerable because it eludes our reasoning. The world is not absurd. This is what separates Camus from the existentialists. However, we feel it to be . The certainty of death undermines all our hopes and privileges. Our nostalgia for meaning confronts an irrational, silent universe, so that we are led to conclude that life is meaningless and therefore without value.
In these early works Camus saw a possible victory in the mere acknowledgment of this truth, in admitting the absurdity of life but in preserving, like Sisyphus, in the face of what seems unacceptable. Life may be unreasonable, but he persuades us that it is infinitely valuable, and that any attempt to evade it is a defeat. Thus, we are destined to find meanings within the dilemmas of existence.