Happy birthday to absurdist philosopher Albert Camus, who was born this day in 1913 French Algieria. Raised in poverty by his hearing-impaired, widowed mother, Camus went on to be one of the modern era’s great philosophers and political activists. Camus risked his life as a member of the French Resistance, writing for the underground newspaper “Combat”, continuing to contribute while many of his friends and comrades were imprisoned in concentration camps or summarily executed for their actions. Camus went on to win the Nobel prize for his work, and remained a vocal opponent of tyranny in all forms until his 1960 death in an automobile accident at the age of 46.
I’ve been a fan of Camus for most of my adult life, having first become aware of his work… well… I’ll be honest: because of The Cure’s “Killing an Arab”. As soon as I found out it was based on a Camus novel (The Stranger), I sought it out. I’ve loved his work (and The Cure’s, I have to say) ever since. Camus, along with Herman Hesse and Viktor Frankl did much to shape the course of my life. Like most people, I occasionally find myself troubled by thoughts of death, morality, injustice and existential absurdity, but it has been nice to to have Camus as a fellow passenger on my journey. I often wonder what Camus would have thought of post 9/11 America.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Sean B. Carroll, whose book Brave Genius chronicled an area of Camus’ life I wasn’t aware of: His lifelong friendship with the celebrated scientist (and fellow Nobel prize-winner) Jacques Monod. You might find that of interest. An except is below:
I have admired Camus for many years, but found his position on French Algeria to be a little disappointing. I got the feeling that this might have played a role in his later troubles with Sartre and the intellectual Left, although it wasn’t overtly stated as such. As a man who has spent some time researching Camus, how did you feel about that? It seems to otherwise complicate the image of a man who fought for freedom at every stage.
Algeria was a no-win situation for Camus. He abhorred the violence on both sides, and criticized both the terrorists and the French government for their excesses. After some time, he concluded that nothing he said publicly was able to mitigate the violence. Camus wanted a peaceful resolution with Algeria still connected to France in some way that accommodated its large French population. He was criticized by all factions, including the French Left, for his positions. So he decided to become silent on the matter in public, while working behind the scenes to appeal for justice in cases where Algerians were wrongly accused, and for clemency when young Algerians faced capital punishment…