Albert Camus, the Nobel Laureate who gave us two especially celebrated novels, The Stranger and The Plague, both set in his beloved Algeria, would have been 100 years old last year. Born on 7 Nov., 1913, in Dréan, 30 miles away from Tunisia, he emerged from the "Casablanca-style intrigue" as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the film perennially beloved by students and admirers of the French Resistance during World War II, when Casablanca was under the Nazi boot, and Paris an underground anti-Nazi bastion.
I was reminded of Camus’s history by a fascinating article by Joshua Hammer in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine. Entitled "Existential Hero," it is rather well done, especially as it relates the great writer’s sense of loneliness as a child, raised by an extremely poor and deaf Spanish illiterate, who labored daily as a charwoman. Evidently she motivated the boy Albert "to speak for those who had no voice." The silence which he experienced at home was evidently intensified during his frequent trips to the nearby Mediterranean seashores, for which he had a lifelong love. Detained by work in Prague once, he reminisced about his Algerian homeland "on the shores" of the sea, together with "the summer evenings, … so gentle in the green light and full of young and beautiful women."
Camus died in 1960 in an automobile accident in France; he had been traveling with his publisher.
When I was deeply involved in classroom lecturing in the theologate, I regularly introduced the seminarians to Camus’s works. For background I relied on philosopher Father Francis J. Lescoe’s classic, Existentialism With or Without God (Staten Island, Alba House, 1974). A priest of the Hartford Archdiocese, Father Lescoe acquired his doctorate in Toronto under the tutelage of Etienne Gilson and Anton Pegis. His book focuses not only on theists like Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, and Søren Kierkegaard, but also on reputed atheists like Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre.
Introducing seminarians to Camus and Sartre was a logical step in teaching them both bioethics and contemporary moral issues. During World War II, Camus served as Editor of the French underground resistance newspaper, Combat; a bout with tuberculosis barred both his becoming a professor in academia as well as his entering the military service.
Camus’s celebrated argument on behalf of moral absolutes helps us all understand that cooperation with evil is never ethically justifiable. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, existentialist Jean Paul Sartre and Camus engaged in a debate on moral absolutes. Camus,of course, defended their validity, with no exception, whereas Sartre argued for no restrictions on freedom of action, regardless of the issue – a philosophic form of libertarianism.
The verbal exchange occurred early one morning in a Parisian café. When Sartre began to emphasize his position, Camus’s rebuttal (abbreviated here) ran like this, according to Father Lescoe’s description of the famed event:
"Sartre was heatedly maintaining that man has infinite freedom, that there are absolutely no limits on what he does. Camus, on the other hand,…vehemently defended the opposite position … Camus then said to Sartre, ‘If freedom is really infinite, if it has no limits, then you can turn me over to the Nazis.’ (It was Camus who was the anonymous but highly admired writer of the editorials carried by the underground paper Combat. To expose Camus to the Nazis would have been a fatal blow to the efforts of the Resistance workers.) Sartre, who was also a member of the underground, protested that he could not do something so despicable and treacherous. To this, Camus made his famous reply, ‘Obviously, then, freedom must have certain limits.’"
Commentators continue to point to the intensely religious character of Camus’ s writings. One writer, for example, compares Camus’ view to the Catholic novels of Francois Mauriac and Graham Greene. Camus himself, in a 1956 interview with Le Monde, said that he "found in irreligioness something … yes something trite." Father Lescoe’s assessment is that Camus, if he had lived longer, would have taken some clear and positive position regarding spiritual and religious values. "One is not justified," he added, "to say more."
Besides, Camus’s The Fall demonstrates the devastating range of nihilism, the meaninglessness of "a life totally self-centered, unprincipled and unrelated." In other words, he was on his way in the great pilgrimage of life, and has so much to offer to mankind today.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.