Albert Camus


Albert Camus was born on 7 November 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria. His father, Lucien, died in 1914, during World War I's Battle of the Marne. War was to remain a constant throughout Camus' life -- and his literature.

Camus' mother was left to raise her son alone, in extreme poverty. Widowed and nearly deaf, there was little possibility of her earning a reasonable income. She moved the family to Rue de Lyon, in the Belcourt section of Algiers. Belcourt was a crowded, almost third-world neighborhood. The family was forced to move to the region so a grandmother could raise Albert and his older brother. Albert's grandmother was dying of liver cancer, while an uncle living in the house was paralyzed. Camus' family represented all human misery and misfortune.

According to Camus' accounts, his mother was permanently melancholy. To escape this home life, Camus buried himself in studies and participation in local athletic teams. He distinguished himself in sports as a leader and competitor. In academics, Camus also excelled. When Camus entered the local Belcourt schools, an instructor named Louis Germain noticed young Albert's intellect. The teacher tutored Albert, helping him pass the lycée entrance exams in 1923. A lycée is an exclusive secondary school for students destined to university -- as Albert was.

An important step out of poverty, Camus was accepted into the University of Algiers' school of philosophy. In 1930, his studies were interrupted by severe tuberculosis. The disease took one of his most important possessions -- his strength. As a result of the disease, Camus reduced his studies to a part-time pursuit. Albert would attend lectures at the University of Algiers from 1932 through 1953, never losing his enthusiasm for learning.

Between 1931 and 1935, Camus worked in a string of low-paying jobs, including positions as a police clerk and salesman. He also had a brief marriage during this period, which ended in divorce. Sadly, Camus wanted to be a teacher, but could never pass the medical exam due to his tuberculosis.

While a student at the University, Camus joined and left the Communist Party. His stormy relationship with the party continued throughout his life. Still, he remained a socialist, and founded The Workers' Theater in 1935. The Workers' Theater was intended to present socialist plays to Algiers' working population. Camus hoped to educate the workers, in accordance with his own beliefs. The theater company survived until 1939.

Between 1937 and 1939, Camus wrote for the Alger-Republicain, a socialist paper. As a reporter, he compiled a detailed account of the lives of poor Arabs in Kabyles. Camus later published a collection of essays on the conditions and ethnic discrimination faced by the Arabs in Actuelles III. In late 1939 and early 1940, he edited another socialist paper, the Soir-Republicain. His editorship lasted only a few short months, as the paper closed in the midst of tensions between Algiers and France.

In 1940, Camus left Algiers for Paris, hoping to establish himself as a reporter in the leftist press. Unfortunately, the German army invaded France, and Camus returned to North Africa. The invasion of France left a terrible impression upon Camus.

Camus remarried in Africa, and found a teaching position in Oran. During the coming year he produced some of his greatest essays and short stories. In less than a year, Camus wrote drafts of The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Plague. In addition to these works, Camus filled notebooks with his thoughts on philosophy and politics.

In 1941 Camus was compelled to return to France and join the French Resistance. He joined a clandestine resistance cell known as "Combat" -- also the name of the organization's newspaper. Camus became editor of Combat in 1943, editing the newspaper for four years. His columns and reports often called upon people to act in accordance with strict moral principals. It was during this period that Camus formalized his philosophy that human life was sacred, no matter how inexplicable existence of life might be.

Following the war, Camus toured the United States. Camus found that French Existentialism, as promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre, was widely misunderstood as a philosophy of hopelessness. Camus did hold that life was absurd -- defying logical explanation, and ultimately irrational. However, Camus considered life valuable and worth defending. While the American public thought existentialism was devoid of morality, Camus' experiences in Algiers and France had led to a strong ethical system.

In 1944, at the age of thirty-one, Camus was a leading voice of social change. He belonged to no political party and was fiercely independent. His rejection of Marxism led to attacks from the Communists in France and other countries. Camus responded by attempting to for a socialist party of his own. While the political party never matured, it was clear Camus spoke for many French workers.

Camus succumbed to illness in 1949, a relapse of his tuberculosis accompanied by other difficulties. For two years he remained in seclusion, writing and publishing political essays. Camus recovered in 1951, and published The Rebel, a collection of his thoughts on metaphysical, historical, and artistic rebellion. The book so angered some of his counterparts that he was ostracized by many French intellectuals. It was this work that led to Camus' split with long-time friend Jean-Paul Sartre.

The stress of The Rebel's reception among philosophers and historians led Camus to seek out more relaxing work. He spent the next few years translating his favorite plays. This work as a translator led to successful French-language productions of plays by Larivey, Buzzati, and William Faulkner.

The Fall was published in 1956, marking Camus' return to novels. The book was well received, bringing Camus back into favor in intellectual circles. The following year, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It seems almost fitting that Camus died at the pinnacle of his career as a writer. Camus died in a freak automobile accident near Sens, France, on January 4, 1960. Among his papers was the novel The First Man, a fictionalized account of his family history. This novel was published in 1995, leading to renewed interest in Camus and his works.

Algeria, a Main Character

Albert Camus' French Algerian heritage found its way into many of his works -- and his politics. His last work, The First Man, published 35 years after his death, is as much about Algeria as Camus' own history. In fact, Camus was as loyal to France and Algeria as to any person or philosophy. Despite its heat, poverty, and social unrest, Camus loved Algeria. His exile from the colony seemed to only increase his passion for it.

Algeria is the setting for most of Camus' works. Its sun is key in The Stranger, The First Man, and other stories. Even stories meant to be metaphors about France and Nazi occupation are set in Algeria; The Plague could have been set anywhere, but Camus chose Algeria. In this sense, Algeria is a "main character" in Camus' fiction. However, it is the political role of Algeria in Camus' life that is interesting to students of politics and philosophy.

Biographer David Mairowitz theorizes that Camus' attitude toward Algeria was shaped by the culture of the colony. As a boy, Camus was exposed to a system constructed to reeinforce the myth that French colonies were merely the reconstruction of the Roman Empire. Colonialization was not conquest but reunification of a great Empire. Algerians, it was believed, would eventually merge into a common culture. Camus carried this belief until his death; he envisioned an Algeria in which Moslem/Christian and Arab/Gaul divisions ceased to be important. He never understood the deep distrust and hatred of the Algerians.

France is the mother country with her kings and châteaux, and young Moslems as well as pieds-noirs are imbued at school with the idea of a common heritage between the two countries, learning -- cynically -- about "our ancestors the Gauls," while being taught virtually nothing of the thirteen centuries of Algerian history between the Roman and French colonizations.

When, 130 years later, French Algerians are forced to leave, they will not see themselves as victims of de-colonization, but as having been kicked out of their own country.
- Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 19

Human rights and equality preoccupied Camus. His politics were decidedly "left-wing" and socialism appealed to Camus because it promised to equalize some social inequities. However, in life Camus was not able to treat Arabs as he did his French comrades. Even when trying to write sympathetically of the Arabs in Algeria and the poverty in which they were forced to live, Camus still leaves the impression that the Arabs need to be "civilized" by the French culture. It was not that Camus did not try to support and aid the Arab population, but like many liberals he failed to realize his support was accompanied by a form of condescension.

What sets Camus apart from many existentialists and modern philosophers in general is his acceptance of contradictions. Yes, Camus wrote, life is absurd and death renders it meaningless -- for the individual. But mankind and its societies are larger than one person.


Before commenting upon the works of Albert Camus, I should first make a rather bold statement: I consider him to be an existentialist. It is fashionable in academic writings to now drop the label from almost every "existentialist" -- especially since only Sartre seems to have embraced the label, and then only for a brief time.

The Stranger (l'Étranger, Written 1938, Published 1942; 1946 English)

The Stranger defines Camus for most Americans. The novel is simple, with none of the diversions common in popular literature. The main character is not a hero, has no "true" love affair, and the pursuit of money and power never enters into the story. The Stranger is an honest atheist, willing to accept his life as it happens.

Analysis of the novel should begin by recognizing the story's basic structure. There are three deaths which mark the beginning, middle, and end of the story. First, Meursault's mother dies. This death occurs before the narration starts, but marks the start of Meursault's downfall. In the middle of the tale we have the death of an Arab. The defining events in The Stranger are set in motion by Meursault's murder of the Arab. One day, walking toward a cool stream, Meursault is blocked by an Arab. It seems the Arab draws a knife, as Meursault sees a flash of light from the blade. Meursault then kills the Arab, believing this to be an act of self-defense. At the end of the novel, Meursault is executed.

Meursault is an anti-hero, at best. His only redeeming quality is his honesty, no matter how absurd. Meursault does not believe in G-d, but he cannot lie. This inability to falsify empathy condemns him in the eyes of others. While Meursault is executed for killing an Arab, he is hated for not expressing deep emotion when his mother dies. Meursault has faith in nothing except that which he experiences and senses. He is not a philosopher, a theologist, or a thinker. Meursault exists as he is, not trying to be anything more than himself.

Why do people recognize Meursault as a plausible character? After two World Wars and other sufferings, many people came to (or tried to) live life much as Meursault. They lost the will to do more than exist. there was no hope, no desire. The only goal for many people was survival. Even then, the survival seemed empty. We learn just how empty Meursault's existence is through his relationships. He is not close to his mother; we learn he does not cry at her funeral. He does not seem close to his mistress, Marie Cardona. Of his lover, Meursault states, "To me she was only Marie." There is no passion in Meursault's words.

Readers should note an Arab is killed. Arabs were traditionally the targets of racism in Algiers. In Algiers, the more French one was the more important the individual. This might explain why it was more upsetting to the court that Meursault was not respectful of their societal norms... killing an Arab was a minor offense.


1913 November 7 Born in Mondovi, French Algiers.
1914 Father, Lucien, killed in World War I, Battle of the Marne.
1930 Treated for tuberculosis.
1935 Founds The Workers' Theatre to educate and entertain the working class of Algiers.
1937 Began writing the collection of essays known as the Algerian Essays.
1938 Joined the reporting staff of the Alger-Republicain.
1939 The Workers' Theatre closes.
1940 Left Algeria for Paris, then left after the Nazi invasion.
1941 Returned to France to join the French Resistance Movement.
1942 Publishes The Stranger.
1943 Becomes editor of the Parisian Daily Combat, a French Resistance newspaper.
1943 June 2 Meets Jean-Paul Sartre.
1951 Publishes The Rebel, a study of revolt and rebellion. The book's criticisms of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party lead to a split from Sartre.
1956 The Fall published, a study of fraud and guilt.
1957 Awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
1958 Actuelles III is published, a collection of Camus' columns on the condition of Arabs in Algeria.
1960 Publishes Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.
1960 January 4 Died in Sens, France in an automobile accident.



The Myth of Sisyphus

The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the State. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action. The Myth of Sisyphus, ch. 1 (1942)

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. The Myth of Sisyphus, ch. 4 (1942)

Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future. The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays, "The Artist and His Time" (1942)

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest -- whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories -- comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. The Myth of Sisyphus, "Absurdity and Suicide" (1942)

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Last words of The Myth of Sisyphus(1942)

The Rebel

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is. The Rebel, Introduction (1951)

From Paul to Stalin, the popes who have chosen Caesar have prepared the way for Caesars who quickly learn to despise popes. The Rebel, part 2, "The Rejection of Salvation" (1951)

Nihilism is not only despair and negation, but above all the desire to despair and to negate. The Rebel, part 2, "The Rejection of Salvation" (1951)

On the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence -- through a curious transposition peculiar to our times -- it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself. The Rebel (1951)

Marxism is not scientific: at the best, it has scientific prejudices. The Rebel, part 3, "State Terrorism and Rational Terror" (1951)

The most eloquent eulogy of capitalism was made by its greatest enemy. Marx is only anti-capitalist in so far as capitalism is out of date. The Rebel, part 3, "State Terrorism and Rational Terror" (1951)

Instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are. The Rebel, part 3, "Rebellion and Revolution" (1951)

Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. The Rebel, part 3, "Rebellion and Revolution" (1951)

A regime (the Third Reich) which invented a biological foreign policy was obviously acting against its own best interests. But at least it obeyed its own particular logic. The Rebel, part 3, "State Terrorism and Irrational Terror" (1951)

To insure the adoration of a theorem for any length of time, faith is not enough, a police force is needed as well. The Rebel, part 3, "The Regicides" (1951)

Revolution, in order to be creative, cannot do without either a moral or metaphysical rule to balance the insanity of history. The Rebel, part 3, "Rebellion and Revolution" (1951)

Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion. The Rebel, part 3, "Rebellion and Revolution" (1951)

More and more, revolution has found itself delivered into the hands of its bureaucrats and doctrinaires on the one hand, and to the enfeebled and bewildered masses on the other. The Rebel, part 3, "State Terrorism and Rational Terror" (1951)

One leader, one people, signifies one master and millions of slaves. The Rebel, part 3, "State Terrorism and Irrational Terror" (1951)

To be really realistic a description would have to be endless. The Rebel, part 4, "Rebellion and Style." (1951)

The society based on production is only productive, not creative. The Rebel, part 4, "Creation and Revolution" (1951)

In order to exist just once in the world, it is necessary never again to exist. The Rebel, part 4 (1951)

Just as all thought, and primarily that of non-signification, signifies something, so there is no art that has no signification. The Rebel, part 4 (1951)

The French Revolution gave birth to no artists but only to a great journalist, Desmoulins, and to an under-the-counter writer, Sade. The only poet of the times was the guillotine. The Rebel, part 4 (1951)

Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom. The Rebel, part 5, "Historic Murder" (1951)

We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others. The Rebel, part 5, "Moderation and Excess" (1951)

Lucifer also has died with God, and from his ashes has arisen a spiteful demon who does not even understand the object of his venture. The Rebel, part 5, "Moderation and Excess" (1951)

Men are never really willing to die except for the sake of freedom: therefore they do not believe in dying completely. The Rebel, part 5, "Historic Murder" (1951)

Children will still die unjustly even in a perfect society. Even by his greatest effort, man can only propose to diminish, arithmetically, the sufferings of the world. The Rebel, part 5, "Beyond Nihilism" (1951)

The rebel can never find peace. He knows what is good and, despite himself, does evil. The value which supports him is never given to him once and for all -- he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly. The Rebel, part 5, "Nihilistic Murder" (1951)

The Fall

I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. The narrator (Jean-Baptiste Clamence), in The Fall (1956; p. 7)

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall, (1956; p. 43)

True debauchery is liberating because it creates no obligations. In it you possess only yourself; hence it remains the favorite pastime of the great lovers of their own person. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956; p. 77)

Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956; p. 99)

We are not certain, we are never certain. If we were we could reach some conclusions, and we could, at last, make others take us seriously. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956)

On suicide: Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to your skepticism. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in The Fall (1956; p. 56)

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death

Man wants to live, but it is useless to hope that this desire will dictate all his actions. Resistance, Rebellion and Death, "Reflections on the Guillotine" (1961), The failure of capital punishment to act as a deterrent.

The society of merchants can be defined as a society in which things disappear in favor of signs. When a ruling class measures its fortunes, not by the acre of land or the ingot of gold, but by the number of figures corresponding ideally to a certain number of exchange operations, it thereby condemns itself to setting a certain kind of humbug at the center of its experience and its universe. A society founded on signs is, in its essence, an artificial society in which man's carnal truth is handled as something artificial.
Lecture, Dec. 1957, University of Uppsala, Sweden (published as "Create Dangerously," in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, 1961)

There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed. Resistance, Rebellion and Death, "Reflections on the Guillotine," Last words (1961)

Other Works

More and more, when faced with the world of men, the only reaction is one of individualism. Man alone is an end unto himself. Everything one tries to do for the common good ends in failure. Notebooks 1935, 1942 (1962), March 1940 entry.

If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man. Address, 1948, to monks of Latour-Maubourg (published in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, "The Unbeliever and Christians," 1961)

To know oneself, one should assert oneself. Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself. We continue to shape our personality all our life. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die. Notebooks 1935, 1942 (1962), entry for May 1937

To live is to hurt others, and through others, to hurt oneself. Cruel earth! How can we manage not to touch anything? To find what ultimate exile? American Journals (1978), entry for 1 Aug. 1949.

The Poor Man whom everyone speaks of, the Poor Man whom everyone pities, one of the repulsive Poor from whom "charitable" souls keep their distance, he has still said nothing. Or, rather, he has spoken through the voice of Victor Hugo, Zola, Richepin. At least, they said so. And these shameful impostures fed their authors. Cruel irony, the Poor Man tormented with hunger feeds those who plead his case. "Jehan Rictus, Poet of Poverty," in Sud (Algiers, May 1932; repr. in Youthful Writings, 1976)

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. The fool, in "Intuitions" (written Oct. 1932; published in Youthful Writings, 1976)

Human relationships always help us to carry on because they always presuppose further developments, a future -- and also because we live as if our only task was precisely to have relationships with other people. Notebooks 1942, 1951 (1964), Jan. 1943 entry.

It is normal to give away a little of one's life in order not to lose it all. Notebooks 1935, 1942 (1962), entry for 22 Nov. 1937.

We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves. Notebooks, vol. 3 (1966), entry for 7 Sept. 1939


Brée, Germaine; Camus, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1959, 1961)

Cohen-Solal, Annie; Sartre: A Life, (New York: Pantheon, Random House, 1985, 1987)

Cruickshank, John; Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt, (London: Oxford University Press, 1959)

de Beauvoir, Simone; Adieux, (New York: Pantheon / Random House, 1981, 1984)

Hayman, Ronald; Sartre: A Biography, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987)

Mairowitz, David Zane, and Korkos, Alain; Introducing Camus, (New York: Totem Books, 1998)
ISBN: 1-84046-000-8

Parker, Emmett; Albert Camus the Artist in the Arena, (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965)