The Artist as Prophet

Notebooks, 1942-1951.
by Albert Camus.
Translated from the French and annotated by Justin O'Brien. Alfred A. Knopf. 270 pp. $5.00.

The literary interest and philosophical importance of this, the second volume of Camus's notebooks, are bound up with the period covered. It is the period in which Camus published The Stranger, his first novel, and the powerful essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” both of which appeared in 1942. It is also the period during which he wrote and published The Plague and The Rebel, as well as some of his most notable plays, among them The Misunderstanding. It is, in short, a period of intense creativity in the life of quite possibly the most profoundly prophetic artist of the 20th century.

The first volume of the Notebooks, for all its interest as a collection of Camus's guiding themes and commentaries, culled from two decades of reading, and of tentative drafts of works to come, cannot really compete with this volume in importance; not, at least, to those who are more concerned with Camus's self-revelations for the light they throw upon the philosophical and prophetic qualities of his mind than upon the literary sources and directions of his work. And for all the undoubted literary importance of Camus, it is likely that his profoundest impression will prove, a century hence, to have been made upon the post-Christian prophetic tradition rather than upon literature as such.

What Philip Rieff, in his important book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, has recently written of Camus is relevant here: “That he [Camus] tried seriously and with high artistry to clarify a post-Christian symbolic that could combat the emergent culture, measures the great contemporary importance of Albert Camus as a writer. Camus accepted the possibility that spiritual preceptorship in modern culture has fallen to the literary intellectual. Without a language of faith, Camus wrote in a mood far more conservative' than that of many advanced and enlightened Christians.”

It is irresistibly to the religious and the prophetic elements in Camus that we keep coming back in the mosaic of nihilism and affirmation, of homely parable and sophisticated vision, of skepticism and militancy in Camus's works. His rejection of all existing religion, of even the terminology of religion, has no more to do with the matter than does his preoccupation with the absurd in modern society. The great prophets-Moses, Jesus, Buddha among them—would not have passed muster as “religious” thinkers in their day. To write “religiously,” indeed, is probably as sure a sign of early mortality in the prophetic tradition as consciously writing “poetically” is of one's early extinction in the poetic tradition. There is surely no more reason for wonderment that the seeds of prophecy may today lie in the works of a profoundly literate French novelist than that they once lay in the utterances of an uneducated Jewish carpenter.

Most of the familiar checkpoints in the lives of the ascetic and saintly are to be found in the Notebooks. We may start with chastity. “Sexual life was given to man to distract him perhaps from his true path. It's his opium. With it everything falls asleep. Outside it, things resume life. At the same time chastity kills the species, which is perhaps the truth.” And, six entries farther, we are told: “Sex leads to nothing. It is not immoral but it is unproductive. One can indulge in it so long as one does not want to produce. But only chastity is linked to personal progress.” Chastity is a recurrent reflection in Camus, reaching its peak in the Augustinian declaration that sex leads to a philosophy of the non-significance of the world: “Chastity, on the other hand, gives the world a meaning.”


There is the familiar preoccupation with solitude, its restorative virtues and its cankering doubts: “Four months of ascetic and solitary life. The will, the mind, profit from it. But the heart?” And the motivations of withdrawal: “I withdrew from the world not because I had enemies, but because I had friends. Not because they did me an ill turn as is customary, but because they thought me better than I am. I was a lie I could not endure.” The renunciation of the rational: “Everything worthwhile today in the contemporary spirit is located in the irrational. And yet everything that prevails in politics professes, kills, and dominates in the name of Reason.” The consecration of poverty: “What can a man better desire than poverty? I have not said misery nor the hopeless toil of the modern proletariat. But I do not see what more can be desired than poverty linked with active leisure.” The poor in heart, the humble : “French workmen—the only ones among whom I feel at home, whom I want to know and to ‘live’ among. They are like me.” The hierarchy of being : “Dishonesty of the artist when he pretends to believe in the democracy of principles. For then he negates the most basic thing in his experience, which is the great lesson of art: hierarchy and order. The fact that such dishonesty is sentimental doesn't help. It leads to the slavery of the factories and concentration camps.” And if we look for parables, where better than to The Plague and to The Rebel?

Revolt is perhaps the single most recurrent subject of Camus's entries during this period. Repeatedly, we find him reflecting on its implications, its necessary character, and its consequences, given the kind of world we live in. There are references to the aesthetics of revolt, to both the morality and the immorality of revolt. The following three passages are sequential in thought, though widely separated in the Notebooks. “Revolt. Chap. I. Ethics exists. The immoral thing is Christianity. Definition of an ethics against intellectual rationalism and divine irrationalism.” This is followed twenty pages later by: “Revolt. The human effort toward liberty and its habitual contradiction: discipline and liberty die at their own hands. Revolution must accept its own violence or be denied. . . . My effort: show that the logic of revolt rejects blood and selfish motives. And that the dialogue carried to the absurd gives a chance to purity.” The third passage is headed by the words, “Relation of the absurd to revolt,” and it marks Camus's equal concern with the problems of individuality and responsibility. I cite here only the first three sentences of the passage (which, as a whole, is a sketch, we are told by the editor, for the first chapter of The Rebel) . “If the final decision is to reject suicide in order to maintain the confrontation, this amounts implicitly to admitting life as the only factual value, the one that allows the confrontation, ‘the value without which nothing.’ Whence it is clear that to obey that absolute value, whoever rejects suicide likewise rejects murder. Ours is the era which, having carried nihilism to its extreme conclusions, has accepted suicide.”

Closely paralleling revolt in thematic importance in the Notebooks is responsibility. The latter is, in fact, the almost invariable context of the former, for it is another mark of the prophetic ambience of Camus's writing that responsibility is his most insistent and pervading question: responsibility to whom, when, why, and how. Almost everything flows eventually through this channel in Camus. And it is here that he comes to Sartre. Camus could easily have written or at least entered the following passage which I have taken from Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism: “We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”


No one goes farther than Camus in the effort to resolve the paradox implicit in the existentialist's premise of “metaphysical abandon,” that is, a world in which “everything is indeed permitted” (Sartre's words) and, at the same time, a morality so powerful that everything, far from being permitted, must in fact be relentlessly examined with the view of opposition as well as affirmation. Perhaps no one exceeds Sartre, at his greatest, in the metaphysics of this resolution, but in Camus the resolution of the paradox is more prophetically aflame. Camus writes of man: “Once he has reached the absurd and tries to live accordingly, a man always perceives that consciousness is the hardest thing in the world to maintain. . . . So he perceives that the real problem, even without God, is the problem of psychological unity (the only problem really raised by the operation of the absurd is that of the metaphysical unity of the world and the mind) and inner peace. He also perceives that such peace is not possible without a discipline difficult to reconcile with the world. That's where the problem lies. It must indeed be reconciled with the world. It is a matter of achieving a rule of conduct in secular life.”

Elsewhere he writes: “One cannot be capable of commitment on all planes. At least one can choose to live on the plane on which commitment is possible. Live according to what is honorable in oneself and only that. In certain cases this may lead to turning away from human beings even (and above all) when one has a passion for human beings.”


Does such an adjuration amount only to an exalted moral solipsism? Neither in principle nor in life so far as Camus is concerned. I could quote entries from the Notebooks but it is better to recall another aspect of the period in which Camus wrote his Notebooks. The years 1942-46 marked—do we already begin to forget?—the Occupation, the Liberation, the horror of the first disclosures of Dachau and Belsen, and the beginnings of the metamorphosis of Allied victory into the Cold War. If Camus had not written a single novel or play, these Notebooks would be of interest, for no one was more deeply engaged than he in the war against Nazism. As Justin O'Brien writes in his valuable biographical note: “From late 1943 until the Germans were driven out of France, Albert Camus played an evermore important and increasingly dangerous role as a highly articulate spokesman for the intellectual underground and as a member of an intelligence network. Even though many of his friends and associates were arrested, often tortured and executed, he carried on with his stirring editorials and his day-to-day clandestine activities.”

It is well that this aspect of Camus's life be emphasized, for as the years pass it will be less and less easy for those approaching Camus for the first time simply through his novels or plays—or even, for that matter, through the entries in such a volume as this, entries made, many of them, in the shadow of Nazi terror—to remember that somehow there was united in one mind an intelligence so dispassionate that even Nazism could be seen sub specie aeternitatis but, with it, a passion that made for incessant and unyielding resistance to Nazism; not simply philosophical or tractarian resistance from his native Algeria, where he might easily have stayed with his wife and children instead of returning to the mainland in 1941, but resistance that was never far from physical torture and death at the hands of Germans in Paris.

Cardinal Newman once wrote that men will die for a dogma who will not even stir for a conclusion. This may be true, though the cognitive line between dogma and conclusion is not an easy one to trace. Of Camus, however, it is sufficient to say that he is proof of the reconcilability of a metaphysics and a logic of the absurd and of a moral commitment to justice that not the most ardent Christian or Jew or nationalist or socialist or democrat exceeded.

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