It was on this day in 1913 that Albert Camus, the French Algerian novelist, essayist, director, and philosopher (amongst other things) was born in Dréan, Algeria. Though he resisted the title of philosopher, Camus’ writings, both essay and fiction, have had a huge impact on the philosophic mindset throughout the years. While not quite humanistic enough to be an existentialist, and not quite dreary enough to be a nihilist, Camus found an improbable common ground between the two. He seemingly believed in some redeeming features of humanity, though was never afraid to point out the glaring flaws as well.
Throughout his life Camus wrote several novels; The Stranger and The Plague representing two of his more famous works. It is with those credentials that he defends the existence and the need for art, and specifically the fictional novel, in his expansive “essay on man in revolt,” The Rebel. The basis of The Rebel is an examination of humanity’s propensity to revolt against powers large and small. The overarching rebellion, according to Camus, is that of humanity against the very nature of the human condition, specifically that our individual lives must end.
What, in fact, is a novel but a universe in which action is endowed with form, where final words are pronounced, where people posses one another completely, and where life assumes the aspect of destiny?
It is in the creation of the novel that Camus sees humankind’s desperate grasp for some sort of unity. Reality, as Camus sees it, is incomplete for the individual. We will never live as long as we’d like, never love as fully as we feel capable, and will never posses the unity that comes with a fulfilled life. Jean-Paul Sartre, a friend of Camus’, wrote of the despair that exists as part of the human condition; of realizing that regardless of what has been accomplished this life will end. Life is, as Camus notes, “without style,” and we “exhaust [ourselves] in trying to find formulas or attitudes that will give [us] the unit it lacks.” It’s no wonder that we desire some sort of escape, some sort of rebellion against forces that seem (and in fact are) insurmountable.
The novel creates destiny to suit any eventuality. In this way it competes with creation and, provisionally, conquers death.
For Camus the novel exists as proof of our displeasure with the human condition, and, ironically enough, that life simply doesn’t last long enough to suit us. So, we write novels to create a world that has unity, that allows us to fulfill our passions, to cheat death. We read novels to escape into a world that is similar enough to our own to be recognizable, but different enough to allow us the chance to hope for something that exists longer than the individual. I think it important to note that for Camus, that escape can just as easily come from a tragedy as a comedy. In fact, those stories that end in death are as important as those that are uplifting, as the desire for life in any form to carry on is more important than whether it was a positive or negative experience. The novel provides that continuation, and allows us to, at least for a time, imagine a world that is unified in its completeness.
The art of the novel can reconstruct creation itself, in the form that it is imposed on us and in the form in which we reject it. In one of its aspects, at least, this art consists in choosing the creature in preference to his creator. But still more profoundly, it is allied to the beauty of the world or of its inhabitants against the powers of death and oblivion. It is in this way that his rebellion is creative.