The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Albert Camus on How to Live Whole in a Broken World

Albert Camus on How to Live Whole in a Broken World

Born into a World War to live through another, Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) died in a car crash with an unused train ticket to the same destination in his pocket. Just three years earlier, he had become the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for writing that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience” — problems like art as resistance, happiness as our moral obligation, and the measure of strength through difficult times.

During WWII, Camus stood passionately on the side of justice; during the Cold War, he sliced through the Iron Curtain with all the humanistic force of simple kindness. But as he watched the world burn its own future in the fiery pit of politics, he understood that time, which has no right side and no wrong side, is only ever won or lost on the smallest and most personal scale: absolute presence with one’s own life, rooted in the belief that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Camus addresses this with poetic poignancy in an essay titled “The Wrong Side and the Right Side,” found in his altogether superb posthumous collection Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library).

Albert Camus

In a prescient admonition against our modern cult of productivity, which plunders our capacity for presence, Camus writes:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity?

Echoing the young Dostoyevsky’s exultant reckoning with the meaning of life shortly after his death sentence was repealed (“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart,” Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother, “that’s what life is all about, that’s its task.”), Camus adds:

What counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world?… What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness… I hold onto the world with every gesture, to men with all my gratitude and pity. I do not want to choose between the right and wrong sides of the world, and I do not like a choice… The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define the link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair?… In spite of much searching, this is all I know.

These reflections led Camus to conclude that “there is no love of life without despair of life”; out of them he drew his three antidotes to the absurdity of life and the crucial question at its center.

Couple with George Saunders — who may be the closest we have to Camus in our time — on how to love the world more, then revisit Wendell Berry’s poetic antidote to despair.

Published June 22, 2024




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