What a Writer Seeks

’I am not a painter of the absurd, and I do not believe in the literature of despair.”So replies ALBERT CAMUS to those who have labeled him Existentialist and to those who would wish him to be. Essayist, playwright, journalist, Albert Camus’s highest distinction has been as a novelist, and in The Stranger and The Plague he has proven himself as one of Frances leading writers. His eloquence and vigor have been faithfully rendered in this translation by Patricia Blake.

by ALBERT CAMUS

IT is difficult today to have the appearance of what one is. But it is sometimes impossible to be what one appears. In my case, I feel acutely helpless and I should like to apologize, without fuss or false shame.

Before being known, a writer in our time must accept having a small number of readers. A healthy condition. But from the moment his reputation begins to boom, when he becomes material for a newspaper article, then he has every prospect of becoming known to a great number of people who will never read him. Then he will be known, not for what he is, but according to the image created by a hurried but infallible reporter. The image will be false or ridiculous — or both — as the case may be. The fact is that to make a name in literature today, it is not absolutely necessary to write books. Jl is enough to be said to have written one which the evening papers have reviewed, and on which one may henceforth sleep. But the man who actually aspires to writing real books must resign himself either to remaining anonymous or to accepting the gift of a name not his own.

I might add that if this condition is unhealthy, it is none the less edifying. Doctors know that certain diseases are desirable: those which compensate in some way for functional disorders which might otherwise upset the equilibrium of the organism. There exist auspicious constipation and providential arthritis. The deluge of words and hasty judgments which today submerges all public activity in a sea of frivolity has not been without value, however. In a nation where his craft is given such disproportionate importance, the French writer has learned a lesson in modesty. Seeing one’s name in certain papers and magazines is such an ordeal that the soul is bound to profit thereby. Thus Wilde began to learn humility and his true destiny when, having exchanged the dandy’s necktie for the prisoner’s sackcloth, he was forced to live among the scoundrels and the unlucky. Blessed be the society which, at so little expense to itself, teaches us daily, by its very acts of tribute, that the grandeurs it worships are nothing. Our press is like the fires of gun-wad which Alexander the Sixth often prepared as a reminder that the glories of this world are but smoke and ash.

But these considerations are much too solemn for my subject. It is enough to say that the writer must be resigned, with good humor if possible, to the distorted image of himself that litters the waiting room and the beauty parlor. Thus Sartre is supposed to preside each night at smoky bacchanals, where nymphs have flowing hair, and fauns funereal fingernails. Where does he find the time to fill whole shelves with his collected works? In reality this writer, like many of his colleagues, sleeps at night in order to be able to spend long hours at his desk every day, and drinks mineral water to spare his fiver. Despite this, the average Frenchman, whose Saharan sobriety and fierce cleanliness are notorious, is indignant at the thought that one of our most famous writers teaches that one must get drunk and not wash. Other examples are not lacking. I myself can furnish an excellent recipe for acquiring a reputation for austerily with a minimum of effort. In fact, I bear the weight of this reputation — a great joke among my friends. A good beginning, for example, is to decline the honor of accepting a dinner invitation from a newspaper editor one does not respect. That this might be an act of common decency is inconceivable. Your refusal suggests a tortuous infirmity of the soul. Who could guess that you refuse to dine with the editor simply because you have no respect for him — or because you fear boredom more than anything on earth? And what is more boring than a typically Parisian dinner party?

One must therefore be resigned. But when talking in honest company, one can at least try to settle some misunderstandings. In my case, it is a good thing to repeat now and then that I am not a painter of the absurd, and I do not believe in the literature of despair. Of course, I did write an essay about what I called the notion of the absurd. But, after all, one can write about incest without feeling the need to assault one’s poor sister. I have never heard that Sophocles murdered his father or dishonored his mother. The childish idea that every author writes necessarily about himself is one of the relics of Romanticism. A writer may be primarily concerned with others, or with his period, or with familiar myths. Even if he happens to put himself on stage, it is unusual to hear him speak of what he really is. A man’s work often retraces the history of his nostalgias or his temptations — almost never his own history — especially if the work pretends to be autobiographical.

If I were to allow myself an opinion about my work, I think I would say that I am an objective writer. By objective I mean a writer who never allows himself to become the subject of his work. But the contemporary fashion to mistake the subject for the author does not allow the writer this relative freedom. Hence, I have become the prophet of the absurd. But what else have I done but reflect on an idea I found current in the streets? That I nourished this idea, like the rest of my generation, goes without saying. But I have kept my distance in order to treat it and determine its logic. If my books were to be read, they would suffice to prove it. However, to be up to date, it is convenient to exploit the formula rather than the nuance. The formula having been chosen, I am as absurd as ever.

It would take too long to explain that, given the kind of experience which interests me and about which I happen to write, the absurd cannot be assumed as a starting position, just as (keeping a due sense of proportion) Cartesian doubt, being methodical, did not suffice to make Descartes a skeptic. Simply stated, it is frivolous to attribute to me the notion that nothing has meaning, and that one must despair of everything. Without going any further, I might add that just as there can be no absolute materialism because the very formulation of these words indicates the existence of more than matter, so there can be no total nihilism. To say that everything is meaningless is to express something which has meaning. Rejecting all meaning in the world amounts to rejecting all value judgments. But to be alive and, for example, to nourish oneself are in themselves value judgments. One chooses to go on living the moment one does not allow oneself to die, and in that choice one must recognize that fife has value, however relative.

What, after all, does “literature of despair” mean? Despair is silent. And even silence has a meaning if the eyes speak. True despair is failure, agony, death. If despair speaks, if it reasons, and above all, if it writes, then from that moment on. we are not alone, nature is justified, love is born. “ Literature of despair” is a contradiction in terms.

Of course I am not a certain kind of optimist. I grew up to the drumbeat of the First World War, and since then our history has been murder, injustice, and violence. But true pessimism, the kind that is common today, consists in exploiting all the cruelty and infamy of our time. I, for one, have never ceased to struggle against this degradation, and I hate only the cruel. In the lower depths of our nihilism, I have searched only for reasons to transcend it. Not out of virtue, or because I am blessed with rare loftiness of spirit, but because of an instinctive fidelity to the light which shines at our birth, and which, for thousands of years, has taught men to hail life, even in suffering. Aeschylus is often despairing, yet he radiates warmth and light. At the center of his universe we do not find a thin meaninglessness, but an enigma—a meaning so dazzling that we can hardly decipher it. Thus our charred history must be intolerable to those unworthy, yet stubbornly faithful, sons of Greece who subsist somehow in this lean cent ury. Yet they have come to endure it, because they want to understand it. There exist a few men at the center of whose work, however dark, burns an indomitable sun. I am far now from the country which first showed me that light, yet I am faithful still; its rays have found and nourished me even in the city of shadows, where fate holds me.

Let Alexander’s fires burn. What does it matter how we appear? What we are and what we are to be— that is enough to fill our lives and spend our strength. Paris is a cave where men seeing their own shadows move restlessly on the wall take them for reality. But far from Paris we have learned of the light that shines at our backs. We have learned that we must turn around, breaking our bonds, to face it, and that it is our task on earth to learn its name. Once the bonds are broken, the rest, all the rest, comes untied. Surely every writer is searching for his own truth. If he is great, each work brings him closer to it, or at least gravitates nearer to this center, the hidden sun, where all things must one day be consumed. If he is mediocre, each work carries him away and the center is everywhere, the light diffused.

Only those who love the writer can help him in his obstinate search; and then, too, those who by loving or creating, themselves, find in their passion the measure of all passion, and hence may judge. The others, those who speak every day, have nothing to teach him.