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Ingenious: Albert Camus

A reconstructed conversation with the great writer about science and the absurd.

I had always dreamed of meeting Albert Camus and so was thrilled when he appeared at Lucey’s Lounge, a dark and yellowy lit bar…By Kevin Berger

I had always dreamed of meeting Albert Camus and so was thrilled when he appeared at Lucey’s Lounge, a dark and yellowy lit bar in Brooklyn. The Algerian writer had graciously agreed, or so it seemed, to be interviewed about absurdity, the concept in philosophy to which his name is forever attached. He was as casually handsome as a film star off the set, though a tad overdressed for this warm night, perspiring in a gray suit and vest, his black tie undone. He paid for our scotch-and-sodas with cash—“Your national drink, is it not?”—and left a generous tip. “No one ever has change in this country,” he said with a weary smile.

Arriving from his home in Paris, Camus was torn about New York. “The heart trembles in front of so much inhumanity,” he remarked. Equally entranced and repelled by Times Square, he felt in rhythm with the midtown traffic, the gilded skyscapers piercing the blue sky. Although the city’s anxious circus had exhausted him, he seemed at ease in this Brooklyn neighborhood, Gowanus, which was barely hanging on to its industrial past. We sat on a bench outside the bar as subway trains rattled along the track overhead. Camus smoked aimlessly.1

This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

Celebrated for his novels, including The Stranger and The Plague, and his philosophical essays, notably The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus, seldom noticed by critics, thought about science and the scientific principle, and referred to them in his work. He was a close friend of Jacques Monod, a French biochemist, who won the Nobel Prize for illuminating key processes in how genes manufacture proteins. Monod was outspoken, and not long after World War II published a scathing essay in the French newspaper, Combat, formerly edited by Camus, of Soviet science, and in particular Soviet scientist Trofim D. Lysenko, who maintained heredity resulted not from internal genetic processes, but was shaped by environmental forces; as a result, humans could intervene and modify plants and animals in any way they desired. As a pioneering geneticist, whose experiments helped prove genetic mutation could be a strictly internal process, and what’s more, influenced by chance, Monod punctured the bubble of social engineering, and the science from which it supposedly derived. “Lysenko’s claim that Mendelism must be incorrect,” he wrote, “is, of course, completely absurd.”2

Monod had long admired Camus, and after the pair became friends—a mutual acquaintance said at dinner parties the scientist and writer would complete one another’s sentences—he clearly influenced Camus. In his book The Rebel: An Essay on Man In Revolt, Camus, though he doesn’t mention Monod by name, seemed to be drawing on the scientist’s experience and authority in attacking Marx and communism. I was anxious then, back in Brooklyn, to hear what Camus had to say about science, as he detailed his philosophy of the absurd for me.


I love this line from The Myth of Sisyphus, “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” What do you mean?

A day comes when a man notices or says that he is 30. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.3

In other words, we know we’re going to die someday. Then what?

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.4

Science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor.

How does this feeling color the perceptions of people?

At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them.5

Give me an example.

A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: You wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are … is also the absurd.6

I think everybody has experienced that shock of clarity—the moment when the universe seems pointless. Our senses seem to come alive to the “scents of grass and stars at night,” as you say.

Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue.

You tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more.7

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The sciences provide the most accurate descriptions of the world. Science is windows into reality. I don’t mean to sound too fanciful, but I would say that’s poetry. So what’s the problem?

You give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure. A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations.8

So it’s imposing order on the world to which you object? I follow. Science, though, doesn’t fix the world in place. It is always thinking. So are you saying reason, when it shapes the world into a single mold, is absurd?

Intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd. Its contrary, blind reason, may well claim that all is clear; I was waiting for proof and longing for it to be right. But despite so many pretentious centuries and over the heads of so many eloquent and persuasive men, I know that is false. On this plane, at least, there is no happiness if I cannot know. That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh. They have nothing to do with the mind. They negate its profound truth, which is to be enchained. In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’s fate henceforth assumes its meaning. A horde of irrationals has sprung up and surrounds him until his ultimate end. In his recovered and now studied lucidity, the feeling of the absurd becomes clear and definite.9

The rose petal, the milestone, or the human hand are as important as love, desire, or the laws of gravity.

So true clarity of mind is to see the world as absurd?

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.10

Don’t you think embracing the irrational can also be transcendent? Isn’t that what philosophers of phenomenology are talking about? They want to describe phenomena, peel back clichés, and get to the heart of our experiences, no?

The spiritual universe becomes incalculably enriched through them. The rose petal, the milestone, or the human hand are as important as love, desire, or the laws of gravity. Thinking ceases to be unifying or making a semblance familiar in the guise of a major principle. Thinking is learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment. What justifies thought is its extreme consciousness.11

Exactly. That sounds pretty great to me. Why do you object to phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl?

Husserl’s manner of proceeding, in the beginning, nevertheless negates the classic method of the reason, disappoints hope, opens to intuition and to the heart a whole proliferation of phenomena, the wealth of which has about it something inhuman. These paths lead to all sciences or to none. This amounts to saying that in this case the means are more important than the end. All that is involved is “an attitude for understanding” and not a consolation … In other words, phenomenology declines to explain the world, it wants to be merely a description of actual experience. It confirms absurd thought in its initial assertion that there is no truth, but merely truths.12

The writer Sarah Bakewell has some wonderful insights into the phenomenologists in her book, At the Existentialist Café, which, by the way, gives you a top billing. She writes perception, as the phenomenologists see it, is “all the senses working together holistically.” She quotes another leading phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “In the movement of the branch from which a bird has just left, we read its flexibility and its elasticity.” I love that. But I see what you mean by the danger of personal truths. This moment in time feels particularly slippery. Everybody feels they have a right to make their own facts, and nothing holds us together. It’s terrifying, really.13

There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future. That is natural. But it is just as natural that he should strive to escape the universe of which he is the creator.14

What’s the real problem with any unifying theory about the world?

It aims to enumerate what it cannot transcend. It affirms solely that without any unifying principle thought can still take delight in describing and understanding every aspect of experience. The truth involved then for each of those aspects is psychological in nature. It simply testifies to the “interest” that reality can offer. It is a way of awaking a sleeping world and of making it vivid to the mind. But if one attempts to extend and give a rational basis to that notion of truth, if one claims to discover in this way the “essence” of each object of knowledge, one restores its depth to experience. For an absurd mind that is incomprehensible.15

Let’s get to the heart of the matter. What’s the real benefit of an absurd view?

To shed light upon the step taken by the mind when, starting from a philosophy of the world’s lack of meaning, it ends up by finding a meaning and depth in it.16

How does a break between the world and the mind—as you define the absurd—bring us meaning and depth?

At this moment the absurd, so obvious and yet so hard to win, returns to a man’s life and finds its home there. At this moment, too, the mind can leave the arid, dried-up path of lucid effort. That path now emerges in daily life. It encounters the world of the anonymous impersonal pronoun “one,” but henceforth man enters in with his revolt and his lucidity. He has forgotten how to hope. This hell of the present is his Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’s heart. None of them is settled. But all are transfigured.17

But hell can endure for only a limited period, and life will begin again one day.

Is this why, in a pointless world, we should not just kill ourselves?

The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises. According to absurdist reasoning, such a solution would be the equivalent of flight or deliverance. But it is obvious that absurdism hereby admits that human life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible and since, without life, the absurdist wager would have no basis. To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive.18

You write and talk like a philosopher. Would you call yourself one?

I am not a philosopher, because I don’t believe in reason enough to believe in a system. What interests me is knowing how we must behave, and more precisely, how to behave when one does not believe in God or reason.19

Maybe that’s the final lesson of seeing the world as absurd: It teaches us how to live.

In a certain way, the absurd, which claims to express man in his solitude, really makes him live in front of a mirror. And then the initial anguish runs the risk of turning to comfort. The wound that is scratched with such solicitude ends by giving pleasure. Great explorers in the realm of absurdity have not been lacking. But, in the last analysis, their greatness is measured by the extent to which they have rejected the complacencies of absurdism in order to accept its exigencies … To escape complacency, absurdist reasoning then discovers renunciation. It refuses to be sidetracked and emerges into a position of arbitrary barrenness—a determination to be silent—which is expressed in the strange asceticism of rebellion.20

How do you define rebellion?

Rebellion in itself is not an element of civilization. But it is a preliminary to all civilization. Rebellion alone, in the blind alley in which we live, allows us to hope for the future of which Nietzsche dreamed: “Instead of the judge and the oppressor, the creator.” … Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile.21

Give us an example of rebellion as creation.

Ernst Dwinger in his Siberian Diary mentions a German lieutenant—for years a prisoner in a camp where cold and hunger were almost unbearable—who constructed himself a silent piano with wooden keys. In the most abject misery, perpetually surrounded by a ragged mob, he composed a strange music which was audible to him alone. And for us who have been thrown into hell, mysterious melodies and the torturing images of a vanished beauty will always bring us, in the midst of crime and folly, the echo of that harmonious insurrection which bears witness, throughout the centuries, to the greatness of humanity. But hell can endure for only a limited period, and life will begin again one day.22

You invoke science, and the scientific principle, repeatedly to criticize Marxism. Why?

Marxism is not scientific; at the best, it has scientific prejudices. It brought out into the open the profound difference between scientific reasoning, that fruitful instrument of research, of thought, and even of rebellion, and historical reasoning, which German ideology invented by its negation of all principles. Historical reasoning is not a type of reasoning that, within the framework of its own functions, can pass judgment on the world. While pretending to judge it, it really tries to determine its course. Essentially a part of events, it directs them and is simultaneously pedagogic and all-conquering. Moreover, its most abstruse descriptions conceal the most simple truths. If man is reduced to being nothing but a character in history, he has no other choice but to subside into the sound and fury of a completely irrational history or to endow history with the form of human reason.23

So the issue for you is communism’s social engineering amounts to pseudoscience, a perversion of scientific progress?

The progress of science, since Marx, has roughly consisted in replacing determinism and the rather crude mechanism of its period by a doctrine of provisional probability. Marx wrote to Engels that the Darwinian theory constituted the very foundation of their method. For Marxism to remain infallible, it has therefore been necessary to deny all biological discoveries made since Darwin. As it happens that all discoveries since the unexpected mutations established by De Vries have consisted in introducing, contrary to the doctrines of determinism, the idea of chance into biology, it has been necessary to entrust Lysenko with the task of disciplining chromosomes and of demonstrating once again the truth of the most elementary determinism.24

What do you think of that kind of social determinism?

That is ridiculous … The 20th century has also witnessed the denial of the principle of indeterminism in science, of limited relativity, of the quantum theory, and, finally, of every general tendency of contemporary science. Marxism is only scientific today in defiance of Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein, and all the greatest minds of our time. After all, there is really nothing mysterious about the principle that consists in using scientific reasoning to the advantage of a prophecy. This has already been named the principle of authority, and it is this that guides the Churches when they wish to subject living reason to dead faith and freedom of the intellect to the maintenance of temporal power.25

Today in the United States, economic and social classes are growing apart. You write industrial production, which Marx encouraged, created a new social stratum, the technicians. Can you elaborate?

The ideal, so dear to Lenin, of a society in which the engineer would at the same time be a manual laborer is in conflict with the facts. The principal fact is that technology, like science, has reached such a degree of complication that it is not possible for a single man to understand the totality of its principles and applications. It is almost impossible, for instance, for a physicist today to have a complete understanding of the biological science of his times. Even within the realms of physics he cannot claim to be equally familiar with every branch of the subject. It is the same in technology. From the moment that productivity, which is considered by both bourgeois and Marxist as a benefit in itself, is developed to enormous proportions, the division of labor, which Marx thought could have been avoided, became inevitable … Division of labor and private property, he said, are identical expressions. History has demonstrated the contrary. The ideal regime based on collective property could be defined, according to Lenin, as justice plus electricity. In the final analysis it is only electricity, without justice.26

There’s a short passage in your essay, “Return to Tipasa,” about visiting the Algerian town you loved when you were growing up, after World War II. The passage seems to flow out of a hard-earned self-awareness. It’s wistful and beautiful and even optimistic. Can you quote it for us?

“I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new constructions or our bomb damage. There the world began over again every day in an ever new light. O light! This is the cry of all the characters of ancient drama brought face to face with their fate. This last resort was ours, too, and I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”27


Footnotes

1. A little fun with a legend. Camus was born in 1913 and died in a car accident in 1960. He was 46. All of his “answers” in this reconstructed interview, with one exception (Footnote 19), are drawn from his writings. His remark, “the national scotch and soda,” appears in his essay, “The Rains of New York,” included in Lyrical and Critical Essays, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, published 1968. The other quotations about New York are from his book, American Journals, translated by Hugh Levick, published 1989.

2. It took scientist Sean B. Carroll, rather than any Camus biographer or critic, to unearth, through some wonderful investigative reporting, Camus’ friendship with Jacques Monod. To learn about Monod, an extraordinary scientist and fearless social advocate, and his mutual friendship with Camus, read Carroll’s 2013 book, Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize. The Monod quote about Lysenko is from Brave Genius. As is this timely Monod remark: “Whenever objectivity, truth, and justice are at stake, a scientist has the duty to form an opinion, and defend it.”

3. The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, translated by Justin O’Brien, published 1955. Vintage International edition, p. 14

4. Ibid, p. 6

5. Ibid, p. 15

6. Ibid, p. 15

7. Ibid, pp. 19-20

8. Ibid, p. 20

9. Ibid, p. 21

10. Ibid, p. 21

11. Ibid, p. 26

12. Ibid, p. 43

13. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, by Sarah Bakewell, published 2016, p. 232

14. Ibid, pp. 31-32

15. Ibid, p. 44

16. Ibid, p. 42

17. Ibid, p. 52

18. The Rebel: An Essay on Man In Revolt, by Albert Camus, translated by Anthony Bower, published 1956. Vintage International edition, p. 6

19. Quoted in Albert Camus: A Life, by Olivier Todd, translated by Benjamin Ivry, published 1998, p. 408

20. The Rebel, p. 8

21. Ibid, p. 273

22. Ibid, p, 276

23. Ibid, p. 219

24. Ibid, p. 219. “De Vries” is Hugo De Vries (1848 – 1935), a Dutch botanist and geneticist, key in discovering the role of genetic mutation in evolution.

25. Ibid, p. 220

26. Ibid, p. 213

27. “Return to Tipasa,” published in 1952, included in The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 202


Lead Image: Lipnitzki / Getty Images

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