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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.
When I do happen to look for what is most fundamental in me, what I find is a taste for happiness. I have a very keen liking for people. I have no contempt for the human race. I think that one can feel proud of being the contemporary of a certain number of men of our day who I respect and admire… At the centre of my work there is an invincible sun. It seems to me that all this does not make up a sad philosophy?1
The passage above was part of Camus' answer to a journalist who asked: You yourself are often thought of as riddled with anguish. You are seen as a pessimistic writer. What do you think of this weighty reputation? It is certainly true that, for most people, Camus is seen as a pessimist, or nihilist. This, as we shall see, is the opposite of the truth. Camus' work suffers from not being read as a whole. It is easy to see how his philosophy is misunderstood if we look only at The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. Crucial insights into Camus' project can be gained from looking at his early essays, collected in two volumes: The Wrong Side and The Right Side (L'Envers et L'Endroit) and Nuptials (Noces).
The Wrong Side and The Right Side
Camus wasn't too happy at the reprinting, in 1958, of The Wrong Side and The Right Side. It is not that there is anything wrong with the essays in the collection, other than that they represent a Camus whose writing has yet to mature. He says himself: at twenty-two, unless one is genius, one scarcely knows how to write.2 First written in 1935-6 and then only printed in Algeria in limited edition, Camus refused all requests to reprint the collection until relenting in 1958. He wrote in the preface of the '58 edition:
There are no mysterious reasons for my stubbornness. I reject nothing of what these writings express, but their form has always seemed clumsy to me… A great vanity, it would seem, leading one to suppose that my other writings satisfy every standard. Need I say this isn't so? I am only more aware of the inadequacies in The Wrong Side and The Right Side than those of my other work.3
It is easy to criticise the collection as a standalone work. There is no real argument running through it and, in Cruickshank's words, there is a ‘vagueness' as to how his conclusions are reached. Having said this, if one wants to understand Camus then this collection cannot be overlooked. Contained in these first essays, penned by the young Camus, are the thoughts and feelings that will shape his philosophy to come. This is my primary interest in The Wrong Side and The Right Side – what does it tell me about Camus's attitude to life (and death)? Let's have a look at some of the thoughts and feelings expressed in the collection.
The Wrong Side and The Right Side is a collection of five essays:
The subject of the collection is happiness. The essays illustrate the temporary nature of happiness and how one's happiness is constantly contrasted with unhappiness and despair. In Love of Life Camus writes, "There is no love of life without despair of life.”4 The contrast of love for life with despair of life will run throughout both collections of essays and will eventually form the paradox of the absurd discussed by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Love of Love, unsurprisingly, covers ‘love of life' and, in the collection, immediately follows Death in the Soul. Camus actually wrote Death in the Soul after Love of Life but chose to put the essays in reverse order of writing, perhaps to better illustrate the idea that an upsurge in happiness often follows a period of isolation.
Camus visited Prague in 1936; he was experiencing problems with his marriage as well as with his health. He spent a few desperate days alone in the city, with no understanding of the language and limited funds. He wrote an account of this experience in 1937, included in The Right Side and The Wrong Side, under the title Death in the Soul.
Here I am, stripped bare, in a town where the signs are strange, unfamiliar hieroglyphics, with no friends to talk to, in short, without any distraction.5
The lack of language and money alienates Camus from his surroundings. He has nothing but himself and the world around him. The sun in Prague is not the same as in Algeria and the city is cold compared to the Italian countryside he will later luxuriate in. What Camus wants is to feel a harmony between himself and the world. In Prague, all he feels is isolation from the world as well as people.
In the first essay, Irony, Camus compares the vitality and love for life experienced in youth and the despair of the elderly. There is the elderly old woman, who is left alone in the corner to sit in the dark while the young people leave her to go to the cinema. An old man, who desperately tries to keep the attention of the young men with tall stories, knowing all the while that they are uninterested in what he has to say. And an old woman, who while alive bullied and dominated her family and when dead left behind no-one, sincerely wishing she were still alive. In the final paragraph, Camus writes:
None of this fits together? How very true! A woman you leave behind to go to the movies, an old man to whom you have stopped listening, a death that redeemed nothing, and then, on the other hand the whole radiance of the world. What difference does it make if you accept everything? Here are three destinies, different and yet alike. Death for us all, but his own death to each. After all, the sun still warms our bones for us.6
In the essay, from which the title of the collection is taken, The Right Side and The Wrong Side, Camus says:
I do not want to choose between the right and wrong sides of the world, and I do not want the choice to be made… The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define a link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair.7
The right side of the world is represented by happiness, often experienced as a surge of happiness when one feels a harmony between themselves and their place in the world. The wrong side is represented by the despair one feels when contemplating life, chiefly brought about by the thought of impending inevitable death. Camus claims, in this collection, that both ‘sides' are experienced as a fact of life. The correct way to live is to accept both these sides of life. Enjoy and relish the moments of happiness but accept that they are temporary and must come to an end. Camus is not suggesting that this is possible or offering advice on how to achieve this acceptance. Does he want us to accept our lives are temporary and, because of this acceptance, no longer despair, or simply accept that despair is inevitable, and not overcomplicate life by trying to evade it?
Camus also writes about a middle position, Between Yes and No. In this essay, he writes about an experience he had, in a café, in which he felt neither a great love of life nor a great despair. “Since this hour is a like a pause between yes and no, I leave hope or disgust with life for another time.”8 During this hour, he is able to stand back from his life and reflect on his position. In the essay, he relives childhood experiences in his mind during this period between yes and no.
There is also the idea brought up in the collection, not usually dwelled upon by commentators, of the importance of social interaction. Much of the suffering of the elderly observed in Irony, it seems to me, was not brought about by impending inevitable death but through isolation and the resulting loneliness. Camus suffered a similar isolation in Prague, something he admits that could have been avoided if he'd found the prostitute in ‘his restaurant' more alluring. His suffering is finally ended with the arrival of his friends. In Between Yes and No, Camus writes about the loneliness of his mother and the relationship between her and her son, as well as the indifference he feels for the father he never knew.
The subject of The Wrong Side and The Right Side is happiness and the key ideas are as follows:
1. Love of life. Experienced as a feeling of harmony between oneself and the world one inhabits.
2. Despair of life. Experienced as a feeling of hopelessness brought about by the disharmony between oneself and the world one inhabits.
3. The importance of social interaction.
There are no arguments or clear cut instructions on how to achieve happiness, other than the idea of simplicity. Camus suggests that the world is simple. He discovers this between yes and no. You live, have periods of happiness and periods of despair and then you die. He seems to be saying that the correct way to live is to accept this simplicity and not attempt to avoid the wrong side, or ‘no' by overcomplicating matters. This over complication comes from ideas that Camus will later refer to as consolations. He says at the end of Between Yes and No:
Yes everything is simple. It's men who overcomplicate things. Don't let them tell us any stories. Don't let them say about a man condemned to death: ‘He is going to pay his debt to society,' but: ‘They're going to chop his head off.' It may seem like nothing. But it does make a difference. There are some people who prefer to look their destiny straight in the eye.9