The Riddle

In 1957, ALBERT CAMUS became the second youngest author to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. His tragic death in an automobile accident early in 1960 deprived the world of a philosopher, humanist, and novelist. The following essay, which appears in English for the first time, has been translated by Dorothy B. Aspinwall of the University of Hawaii.


FALLEN from the peak of the sky, waves of sunshine break brutally on the countryside around us. All is quiet in the midst of this din, and the southern Alps over there are but an enormous block of silence that I listen to incessantly. I prick up my ears, someone is running toward me in the distance, invisible friends call me, my joy mounts, the same joy as in past years. Once more a happy riddle helps me to understand everything.

Where is the absurdity of the world? Is it this splendor or the recollection of its absence? With so much sunshine in my memory, how could I have bet on nonsense? People around me are surprised; I too am surprised by it sometimes. I could answer them and answer myself that it was precisely the sun that aided me and that its light, by sheer accumulation, congeals the universe and its forms into dim and dazzling resplendence. But that can be said in another way, and faced with this black and white light which for me has always been that of the truth, I should like to explain simply my ideas about this absurdity that I know too well to tolerate a person’s discoursing on it without attention to shades of meaning. Speaking about it will, after all, bring us back again to the sun.

No man can say what he is. But sometimes he can say what he is not. A man is still searching, yet people claim that he has found a solution. A thousand voices are already telling him what he has found, and yet he knows that is not it. Search and pay no attention? Of course. But it is necessary, now and then, to defend oneself. I do not know what I am looking for, I name it cautiously, I take back what I have said, I repeat myself, I advance, and I retreat. Yet I am called upon to settle on names, or the name, once and for all. I rebel then; when you name something, isn’t it already lost? At least, that is what I can try to explain.

A man, if I am to believe one of my friends, always has two personalities, his own and the one his wife ascribes to him. If we replace “wife” by “society,” we shall understand that a formula, which the writer relates to the entire context of his awareness, can be isolated by the comments made on it and proposed to its author every time he wants to talk about something else. Words are like acts: “Did you give birth to this child?” “Yes.” “Then he is your son.” “It’s not that simple, it’s not that simple!” Thus Nerval, one foul night, hanged himself twice, first for his own sake because he was unhappy, and then for the myth about him, which helps some people to live. Nobody can write about true unhappiness, nor about certain types of happiness, and I shall not try to do so here. But it is possible to describe a myth and then to imagine, at least for a minute, that it has been dispelled.

A writer writes largely in order to be read (let us admire those who deny it, but let us not believe them). More and more in our country, however, he writes in order to gain that final distinction which consists of not being read. Indeed, the moment he can furnish the material for a picturesque article in our widely circulated newspapers, he has every chance of being known to quite a large number of people who will never read him because they will be satisfied with knowing his name and reading what has been written about him. He will hereafter be known (and forgotten) not for what he is, but for the picture that a hurried journalist has given of him. To make a name for oneself in the literary world, it is no longer necessary to write many books. It suffices to have written one that the evening newspapers have talked about and on which the writer’s reputation will henceforth rest.

Doubtless this reputation, great or small, will be arrogated. But what can one do about it? Let us rather admit that this inconvenience can be beneficial. Doctors know that certain illnesses are desirable; they compensate, in their own way, for some functional disorder which otherwise would create greater imbalances. Thus there are lucky cases of constipation and providential attacks of arthritis. The deluge of words and hasty pronouncements which today drowns every public activity in an ocean of frivolity teaches at least the French writer the modesty that he constantly needs in a nation which accords a disproportionate importance to his profession. To see his name in two or three newspapers that we know of is such a severe trial that it necessarily carries with it some benefit for the soul. Then praised be that society which, with so little trouble, teaches us every day, by its very homage, that the greatness it pays tribute to is worth nothing. As for the noise it makes, the louder it bursts, the more quickly it dies. It reminds one of the rubbish fires that Pope Alexander VI often used to have lighted in his presence in order that he might not forget that all the glory of this world is like passing smoke.

But let’s drop the irony. It will be enough for our purposes to say that an artist must resign himself good-humoredly to leaving around in the waiting rooms of dentists and hairdressers an image of himself of which he knows he is unworthy. I knew in this way a fashionable writer who had the reputation of presiding nightly over smoky orgies where the nymphs wore only their hair and where the fingernails of the fawns were in mourning. Doubtless one might have wondered when he found the time to compose works which occupied several library shelves. In reality, this writer, like many of his colleagues, sleeps at night in order to spend long hours working at his desk every day, and drinks mineral water for the sake of his liver. It is true, however, that the average Frenchman, with whose Sahara-like sobriety and touchy cleanliness we are acquainted, becomes indignant at the idea that one of our writers should teach the necessity of drunkenness and of not washing. Examples are not lacking. I can personally offer an excellent recipe for acquiring easily a reputation for austerity. Indeed, I bear the burden of this reputation, which gives my friends a good laugh (as for me, I would be more likely to blush for it, since I know so well that I am usurping it). It suffices, for example, to decline the honor of dining with the editor of a newspaper that one does not hold in esteem. Indeed, simple decency cannot be imagined without some twisted weakness of the soul. Moreover, nobody will go so far as to imagine that if you refuse the dinner invitation of this editor, it is perhaps because you do not have a high opinion of him, and also because more than anything in the world you fear boredom — and what is more boring than a truly Parisian dinner?

One must therefore resign oneself. But one may, when the opportunity presents itself, try to correct the direction of the attack, repeat then that one could not always be a painter of the absurd and that no one can believe in a literature of despair. Of course, it is always possible to write, or to have written, an essay on the notion of the absurd. But one can also write on incest without having attacked one’s unfortunate sister, and I have nowhere read that Sophocles had ever done away with his father and dishonored his mother. The idea that every author must write about himself and give us his own portrait in his books is one of the childish notions bequeathed us by romanticism. On the contrary, it is not at all unlikely that an author should be primarily interested in other people, or in his time, or in familiar myths. Even if he happens to cast himself in a role, it would be quite exceptional for him to talk of what he really is. A man’s work often retraces the story of his moments of nostalgia or of his temptations, almost never his true story, particularly when the work claims to be autobiographical. No man has ever dared to paint himself just as he is.

To the degree that it is possible, I, on the contrary, should have liked to be an objective writer. I call a writer objective who chooses subjects without ever taking himself as an object. But the contemporary rage to confuse an author with his subject could not grant him this relative freedom. Thus one becomes a prophet of the absurd. What else have I done, however, but argue about an idea that I found in the streets of my time? That I have harbored this idea (and that part of me still harbors it), along with all of my generation, goes without saying. I simply treated the idea with the perspective necessary to decide on its logicality. All that I have since been able to write demonstrates this adequately. But it is convenient to exploit a formula rather than a shade of meaning. The formula has been chosen; here I am, a writer of the absurd, as before.

What is the good of repeating that in the experience which interested me and on which I happened to write, the absurd can be considered only as a point of departure, even if the memory and the emotion of it accompany subsequent steps. Likewise, due allowances being carefully made, the Cartesian doubt, which is systematic, does not suffice to make a skeptic of Descartes. In any case, how can one limit oneself to the idea that nothing has sense and that we must despair of everything? Without going to the bottom of the matter, one can at least observe that, in the same way that there is no absolute materialism, since merely in order to fashion this word it is already necessary to say that there is in the world something more than matter, there is no total nihilism. From the moment one says that all is nonsense, one expresses something which has sense. Refusing all meaning to the world amounts to abolishing all value judgments. But to live, and, for instance, to take food, is in itself a value judgment. We choose to continue existing from the moment we do not let ourselves die, and thus we recognize a value, at least a relative one, in life. Anyway, what is the meaning of a literature of despair? Despair is silent. After all, silence itself has sense if the eyes speak. True despair is agony, tomb or abyss. If it speaks, analyzes, especially if it writes, immediately a brother stretches forth his hand to us, the tree is justified, love is born. A literature of despair is a contradiction in terms.

Of course, a certain optimism is not my strong point. I grew up. along with all the men of my generation, to the sound of the drums of the First World War, and our history since then has not ceased to be murder, injustice, or violence. But true pessimism, which does exist, consists of outdoing so much cruelty and infamy. For my part, I have never ceased to struggle against this dishonor, and I hate only cruel people. In the darkest days of our nihilism, I sought only for reasons to lead beyond the nihilism. And not from virtue, nor from a rare loftiness of soul, but from instinctive fidelity to a light where I was born and where for thousands of years men have learned to hail life even while suffering. Aeschylus is often despairing, yet he radiates and warms. In the center of his universe, it is not meager nonsense that we find but the riddle — that is to say, a sense that we decipher badly because it dazzles us. Similarly, to the unworthy but obstinately faithful sons of Greece who still survive in this gaunt century, the blight of our history can appear unbearable, but they bear it in the end because they want to understand it. In the center of our work, even if it is dark, shines an inexhaustible sun, the same that is shrieking today across the plain and hills.

After all that, the rubbish fire can burn; what does it matter how we appear and what we arrogate? What we are, what we have to be, is enough to fill our lives and to consume our effort. Paris is an admirable cave, and its men, seeing their own shadows moving on the inner wall, take them for the sole reality. It is the same with the strange and fleeting fame that this city bestows. But we learned, far from Paris, that there is a light behind us, that we must turn around, throwing off our bonds, to look at it directly, and that our task before our death is to seek through all the words to find a name for it. Each artist, doubtless, seeks his own truth. If he is great, each work brings him closer to it, or at least makes him gravitate still closer to this center, this hidden sun, where all must come to burn someday. If he is mediocre, each work takes him farther from it, and the center is then everywhere, the light diffused. But in his obstinate search the only people who can help the artist are those who love him and those who, themselves loving or creating, find in their own passion the measure of every passion, and then know how to judge.

Yes, all this noise, when peace would be loving and creating in silence! But one must know how to be patient. In just a little while, the sun will seal the mouths.