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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
Camus' second collection of essays, Nuptials, published in 1939, picks up the same ideas as those expressed in The Wrong Side and The Right Side but develops them further. The title of the collection refers to the idea of wedding human experience of life with the natural world. The essays included in the collection are:
Nuptials at Tipasa is a vivid account of Camus' relationship with the natural world. Here Camus writes about a harmony between the pride he feels in being a human and the pride seemingly shown by the world.
Yet people have often told me: there is nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. It is to conquer this that I need my strength and my resources. Everything here leaves me intact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and ardently how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living.1
In The Wind at Djemila Camus writes about death and illness. “I do not want to believe that death is a gateway to another life. For me, it is always a closed door.”2 A key theme with Camus, that notions of an afterlife diminish the ‘present wealth' of living in the natural world. Religion, and philosophy, to Camus, seeks only “to deliver man from the weight of his own life.”3 Of illness, something Camus is more than familiar with as a TB sufferer, he writes:
It is a remedy against death. It prepares us for it. It creates an apprenticeship whose first stage is self-pity. It supports man in his great effort to avoid the certainty that he will die completely.4
Camus goes on to say that there is a poverty of ideas about death in our civilisation. He will go to write two long essays on that subject, The Myth of Sisyphus, concerned with suicide, The Rebel, concerned with murder. Almost all his fiction will involve death. Some examples:
The Happy Death – explores whether it is possible to die happy.
The Stranger – the hero kills a man and is sentenced to death.
Caligula – kills frequently and is assassinated following the logic of ‘men die and they are unhappy.'
The Plague – bubonic plague strikes in the Algerian town of Oran.
The Fall – the title refers, in part, to a suicide involving a fall off a Parisian bridge. The hero is haunted by his inaction after witnessing the suicide.
The Malcontents – mother and daughter run a hotel, killing the guests.
The Just Assassins – anarchists plan an assassination and receive the death penalty.
Towards the end of The Wind at Djemila Camus writes the words that he heard when he was seventeen, lying in a hospital bed after being diagnosed with TB, “You are strong and I owe it to you to be honest: I can tell you that you are going to die.”5 This experience was a major influence in Camus' life. Coping with TB at the time of Camus' suffering meant long periods in hospital and painful procedures collapsing his lungs.
Of all the essays, Summer in Algiers is one that gives us the greatest insight into Camus' early thought. It is in this essay that Camus is at his most idealistic when writing about the Algerian working class. We also see, for the first time, the simple values that together form Camus' early ‘ethics'. Several of Camus' key ideas are covered in the essay.
The land contains no lessons. It neither promises or reveals anything. It is content to give, but does so profusely. Everything here can be seen with the naked eye, and is known the moment it is enjoyed.6
There are two key ideas here:
1. ‘The land can teach us nothing.' Camus has no mystical beliefs about the Earth, and he does not believe that learning about the natural world will teach us anything about human existence.
2. ‘[The land] is known the moment it is enjoyed.' The idea of simplicity. There is nothing more to our place the world than what we can immediately understand.
It is not surprising that the sensual riches this country offers so profusely to the sensitive person should coincide with the most extreme deprivation. There is no truth that does not also carry bitterness. Why then should it be surprising if I never love this country more than in the midst of its poorest inhabitants?7
Here again is the idea that happiness and suffering coincide together. Another key idea, with Camus, is the idea of people (especially the bourgeois) ‘complicating' the simple facts of the world with arguments designed to offer relief from the ‘wrong side' of life, offering ‘truths without bitterness'.
Thinking about the youth of Algiers, engaging themselves with sunbathing and swimming, Camus writes:
They just ‘like being in the sun.' It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of this custom in our day. For the first time in two thousand years the body has been shown naked on the beaches. For twenty centuries, men have strived to impose decency on the insolence of the Greeks, to diminish the flesh and elaborate our dress.8
It's worth noting here that Camus' university dissertation, entitled Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, was concerned with the way Christianity embraced the ideals of Ancient Greece. Camus dealt with the development of Christianity and how the religion came to shun the natural world and concentrate on the non-worldly and afterlife.
Summer in Algiers evokes the idea of harmony with the natural world. Camus compares the bronzing skin of the swimmers with the whiteness of the walls of the Arab city. He observes that the body starts off white, then bronzes before turning a tobacco brown. Camus compares this colour change to the walls of the Casbah which glows white in the sun.
And, as one moves into August and the sun grows stronger, the white of the houses grow more blinding and the skins take on a darker glow. How then can one keep from feeling a part of this dialogue between stone and flesh, keeping pace with the sun and the seasons.9
Here is a fourth key idea, harmony with the world. Let's recap these key ideas:
1. The land teaches us nothing.
2. The simpleness of life.
3. The attempt by some people to overcomplicate life.
4. Harmony with the world.
Camus will now discuss a simple ethic:
… I even think that virtue is a meaningless word in Algeria. Not that these men lack principles. They have their code of morality, which is very well defined. You ‘don't let your mother down'. You see to it that your wife is respected in the street. You show consideration to pregnant women. You don't attack an enemy two-to-one, because ‘that's dirty.' If anyone fails to observe these elementary rules ‘He's not a man,' and that's all there is to it.10
Camus' next sentence is key to his understanding of morality:
There are still many of us who observe the highway code, the only disinterested one I know.11
Camus is suspicious of other ethical codes. He believes that they are interested in avoiding the ‘wrong side' of life, overcomplicating matters to hide the truth about human existence. In the same essay, Camus will go on to talk of ‘sin' a word rarely, if ever, used in non-religious moral philosophy. Are the over complications, particularly moral ones, that Camus is referring to, particularly religious ones? Camus studied philosophy at university, so one can assume he was familiar with moral philosophy. Would he say that, for example, utilitarian approaches to morality are over complications. Are utilitarians disinterested?
Camus goes on to discuss the ‘hideous' cemetery on the boulevard Bru, “which is opposite one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world”.12 Again, we have the contrast between the ‘right side' of beauty and the ‘wrong side' of death. What is so hideous, for Camus, is that the whole cemetery appears to be designed to deny the finality of death. “Everything passes…” reads one of the gravestones “… but memory” it hastens to add. Most of the messages on the tombs and gravestones seem to be addressed to the dead in the second person singular, as if the dead can appreciate what is being said to them. In a particularly stark piece of writing, Camus comments on a stone that reads “Our memory will never abandon thee.”
- a gloomy pretence by means of which one lends a body and desires to what is, at best, a black liquid.13