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Posts tagged ‘Camus’

The Sea Close By

The Sea Close By - Albert CamusThe Sea Close By – Albert Camus

“I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable.”

So begins one of the most lyrical and beautiful extended metaphors for the well lived life ever written. One long dream-like recollection of many journeys strung together, the passage captures an essential experience of travel: the disconnection from place and possessions caused by the inevitable surrender to elements greater than oneself.

“We sail across spaces so vast they seem unending. Sun and moon rise in turn, on the same thread of light and night. Days at sea, even and indistinguishable as happiness…”

Few stories show the aptitude of prose, in manipulating time and distance as much as conveying meaning, as Camus’s short descriptive essay. Camus’s capacity to travel a vast distance in a sentence – “Beyond, the Ocean lies everywhere, on one side we pass by the Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, the meridians wed the lattitudes, the Pacific drinks the Atlantic … Suddenly, one morning the seagulls disappear. We are far from any land, and alone, with our sails and our engines” – that capacity is equalled only by his ability to stall his prose and capture a single moment of unbridled natural pleasure: “Day breaks over a surging sea, full of steel spangles.”

The seemless shifting from fast to slow and back again transmits the dreamlike state of the traveller as he submits to the spacelessness of travel, the lack of confines, the disregard for direction that comes with constant movement: “Today, on the contrary, I have all the air I need, all our sails slap in the blue air, I am going to cry out with speed, we throw our sextants in the sea.”

His passion for the sea lies in stark contrast to his feelings for the land (“Without space there is neither innocence nor liberty!”). On the land he describes only indifference. The magic of the sea is absent, his attitude to life limp and disaffected (“It is at funerals that I excel myself”).

“Men praise me, I dream a little, they insult me, I scarcely show surprise. Then I forget, and smile at the man who insulted me, or am too courteous in greeting the one I love. What can I do if all I can remember is one image?”

But what is most striking, appealing, is the proximity of Camus’s most vivid passages – his most animate spirit expressing itself in words – when life is at its most proximate to death. The paradox of space and nature, transience and permanence lends Camus’s writing a special poignancy. “Rivers and streams pass by, the sea passes and remains. This is how we must love, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.”  His funereal treatment of life on land, in community, shrouds the story in death, but in the rigid social structures that death is lent a futility that is abundantly absent from Camus’s life at sea.

“What man who cherishes the sea and loneliness will ever stop himself from loving the obstinate madmen who, clinging to planks and tossed by the mane of immense oceans, chase after islands long adrift.”

It is in death that Camus paints the happiness of this life, in the refusal to submit to structure, to conformity and instead to follow the winds and the seas, to pass by great continents in a sentence, to marvel at the gifts of the sea and to wish always to return to the sea’s cool grasp and ultimately in his acceptance of death and the sea as the forces of spiritual liberation from man’s own inadequacy of spirit: “If I were to die, in the midst of cold mountains, unknown to the world, cast off by my own people, my strength at last exhausted, the sea would at the final moment flood into my cells, come to raise me above myself and help me die without hatred.”

The Editors

Exile and absurdity

the-plague2The Plague – Albert Camus

When The Plague was first published in 1947, France was recovering from the horrific experience of the Second World War.  For this reason, Camus’ is a novel that is rarely read outside the context of the Nazi occupation of France and the effect this had on the lives of thousands of ordinary men and women in that country.  Camus was well placed to write about this, as the editor of Combat from 1943 to 1947 he was actively involved in the French resistance movement, and The Plague is usually read as an allegory of the fight against Nazism and oppression.  Whilst there is no doubt that the French resistance hangs heavily over this book, the author’s personal attachment to it runs deeper.  For example, Camus was stranded in France when the Germans invaded in 1942, cutting him of from his wife and child in Algeria.  As such, it is a novel about exile as much as it is a novel about resistance.

Perhaps one of the key features of The Plague, and certainly one of the reasons it stands out from other post-war French novels dealing with the fight against the Nazis, is that it does not glorify its characters’ struggle: the war against the illness that threatens to eradicate the population of Oran is a war that is waged in a routine, thoroughly unexciting fashion.  Dr Rieux, the narrator and protagonist of the novel is the embodiment of this attitude, and is portrayed throughout as the ultimate professional, approaching his daily medical work with methodical diligence.  This is not to say that Rieux is not a hero, for he is certainly that, but he is more demanding and complex than your average knight in shining armour.  In fact, to understand him properly we must draw from Camus’ other work, most importantly his philosophical writing.  The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942, is the text that introduces us to the Camusian concept of the “absurd hero”, and in many ways Rieux is a Sisyphus of the real world, repeatedly rolling a rock up a hill in the knowledge that the ordeal will never end.  By analogy, therefore, the struggle against the plague is not just an allegory of the fight against oppression and Nazism, but of the fight against the absurdity of the human condition.  As such, there can be no final victory or climactic liberation: Camus’ war is a war that is won and lost in the mind.

“But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”

The above is a comment by Rieux, but it could well be ascribed to Camus himself.  And yet the doctor is not simply the author’s avatar, and the easy identification of Camus with his hero and narrator is not actually that straightforward.  For starters, Camus was not a doctor, he was a journalist and writer, like the character Rambert, the stranger to Oran who plans to escape the city’s quarantine and return to his wife and child in Paris.  Of course, once you have started looking for Camus in his characters, you find him in most, and this gives the novel a disconcerting realism, as if all the contingencies of life are played out from the same starting point.  Here, we begin to edge towards the existentialist in Camus, a label he was always uncomfortable with, perhaps because, having been both a pacifist and a resistance fighter, a Communist and a non-Communist, he understood the uncertainty of life.

The Editors

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