Why shall we bother about the legacy of Albert Camus – who died in 1960? Why now? The answer to these questions can be found in the reality of today. Our world and the way we live now have all the hallmarks that made Camus more relevant today than ever before. The world of his time was chaotic; through first and second world wars, followed by colonial conquests and other nationalist wars that, in those days littered the world with tears and blood.
Another cycle of that absurdity or even worse plays out every now and then. Hatred everywhere. Killings, injustice, staggering poverty, increasing violence and so many other confusing happenings that make everything look absurd. It was the absurdity of life then that gave a shape to ‘existentialism.’ Even though Camus had severally disassociated himself from this school, but his name kept surfacing on the front row of exponents of this school of thought. Life goes on, and ‘anything can happen to anyone, anywhere.’
Every writer chooses what to focus on; for Camus the priority is what the Nobel Prize committee described in 1957 as his “clear-sighted earnestness (that) illuminates the problems of human conscience.” One can rightly say, Camus was able to use imagination in examining those ‘inner’ things that dominate the mind of human beings. Why would there be war? Why would many people live on the edge of poverty? Why those who work with much hardship live more miserable life? Why are the majority (almost) everywhere live below or slightly above poverty line? Why would there be more wealth and more abject poverty? Why is it so difficult, or is it impossible? – to ensure justice among people and make the world a better place for everyone? Why is human search for happiness illusionary? Why is more money spent on war than providing food, healthcare and shelter to the people who are in dire need? Why at all should human life be lost to hunger?
Our futile effort searching for meaning of the way our world goes can often provoke perpetual anger and hopeless. So much expectations out of the morality of right and wrong can evoke inconclusive inner debates.
One of the famous works of Camus is ‘The Stranger’ (1942). The major character in this novel Meursault learnt about the death of his mother through a telegram. He was not moved, he was in fact ‘indifferent’ to such a tragedy. He refused to conform to human traits of grief. He refused to be ‘diplomatic’ by telling the truth. The novel demonstrates how being different or indifferent to society’s expectations can make one a ‘stranger’ in his own society. While other characters in the novel had proper names, other were generalized. This brings out another meaning in the debate on justice and equality in every human society.
In ‘The Plague’ (1947) Camus tells the story of a town called Oran facing a plague. It began with the deaths of thousands of rats that at the beginning people ignored. When the town realized the danger and decided to take action – even the action taken became another calamity. There was also a theme of the ‘blame game’; at the onset everyone thought the plague will wither away on its own, but when it didn’t, everyone began to blame everyone. No one was interested in taking responsibility. Human beings often happen to find themselves in a given country, in a part certain part of a country, or in a given town. Confinement. And when calamity comes there bound to be a question like; why was I confined to this place. This triggers another debate on the notion of freedom and fate.
In 1956, Camus published ‘The Fall’ – about judgment and justice. The tendency of human beings judging others and detesting being judged. Through the main character Clamence we came face to face with the many contradictions in man’s notion of himself.
Is justice elusive? This is a lifelong question Camus addressed in this novel. ‘A Happy Death’ though written between 1936-1938 was published posthumously in 1971. The title says a lot about the story of a man’s search for happiness through time and money.
Camus stands out for his emphasis on personal liberty, freedom and truth. His works also show the futility of the search for meaning. His idea of ‘benign indifference’ is about revolt against expectations of the society and conformity.
In many cases Camus is described as a philosopher. His works are proof of this. His courage in taking note of the inner crisis of human existence, and the many contractions that raise and dash hope – almost daily. Human beings whoever they and wherever they live struggle every day to survive each day, trying to make sense of events, incidents and accidents. People always fonder over their future and fate within the space they found themselves. In so many ways life leaves us all with many questions but few answers. Camus, who died in a car accident at 46 devoted his life to exploring difficult questions of existence than any other writer of his time.