The Stranger, the Mother and the Algerian Revolution
by Michael Azar
In The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus seeks his own answer to the question that Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche have bequeathed to us: is it possible to live without God, without any hope of salvation as death looms? At first sight the outlook is bleak: we are, says Camus, thrust into existence as into an exile with no return. From the viewpoint of eternity, we are passions that can never be satisfied, cries that go unheard. Human beings and the world do not mix. He sums up man’s tragic existence in one word: the absurd. It emerges from the fracture between the soul’s desperate desire for clarity and the incomprehensibility of reality, the gap between our craving for meaning and the cold grave that awaits us. Camus understood early on that reason – the traditional weapon of philosophy – would always be powerless to address the futile, ill-fated game of existence.
Even so, the work essentially represents a manifesto for revolt and the ecstasy of life. It is a passionate revolt that answers the question of the meaning of life: if there is any raison d’être worthy of the name, it is born of a piece of trembling flesh. Desire, affection and generosity: these are the bread and wine of the mortal human being. Anyone who does not live to serve an immortal Creator must become a creator himself. The absurd man, as Camus calls his hero, transforms his days into a work of art, a defiant celebration of the battle which, as he knows from the outset, must eventually end in his death. Camus quotes Nietzsche: “It is not a question of eternal life but of being eternally alive.” It is the destiny of the absurd man to try to make something out of the nothingness, to grasp his life from death itself. Sisyphus shows us the way: happiness is the leap we make both with and in spite of our burden.
This insight is already there in the young Camus’ poetic meditations on the “home of the soul” which saw him come into the world in 1913: Algeria. It was here, in the generous sunshine of French Algeria, that the poet’s sensibility was formed. The 20-year-old’s reflections on the home country exude a sensual amor fati, a dream that the flesh might provide an escape from exile and conquer the absurd. Here he depicts the nuptial feast between people, the earth, the sun and the sea. His hometown, Algiers, writes Camus, worships the body, warmth and an eternal present. “For those who are young and alive everything in Algiers is a refuge and a pretext for continuous triumph: the bay, the sun, the red and white terraces facing the sea, flowers and sports grounds, the cool legs of young women.” The Algerians’ simple request for happiness amidst their daily misery reveals man’s innocence with regard to life and death.
Perhaps this identification with the vibrant bodies on Algeria’s beaches expresses an instinctive rebellion against the serious case of TB that had, since his adolescence, pitched the author between hope and despair. The disease threatens to deprive him forever of the Algerian sun he loves so much, and which, bedridden, he could glimpse from his window in the simple working-class suburb of Belcourt. “In this land that offers so much life, everything exudes a terror of death,” he writes from his sick bed. Anyone who understands how to live without hope in the future sees the moment as his only kingdom.