Should we read Camus?

 Albert Camus died fifty years ago in an absurd car crash which froze his existentialist reputation for ever and left his philosophical rival, Jean-Paul Sartre, as the unchallenged spokesman of post-war French Philosophy. Camus has long suffered from a reductive reading of his works and a superficial appraisal of his contribution to the central ethical and political questions still at the heart of the human condition. Unlike his fellow-intellectuals, the author of The Outsider was not brought up in a wealthy middle-class family, but in a poor working-class district of Algiers where his widowed, illiterate mother worked as a cleaning lady. Camus grew up among the Arab children of Bellecourt, playing football and enjoying the simple pleasures of the sun-drenched local beaches. It is out of such everyday experiences that the young Camus developed his personal philosophy, rooted in an uncompromising love for life as an endless source of sensory pleasures. While Camus’ novels celebrate the simple virtues of solidarity and human decency, his philosophical essays step back from the intellectual conformity of the age and return to the lyrical purity of ancient philosophy.

Among the Roman ruins of Tipasa, the young Camus encountered his first and fundamental revelation: the beauty of this world reconciles man of the absurdity of his existence as happiness is nowhere to be found but in the total acceptance of and fusion into the present moment. Camus avoided the dangers of both hedonism and faith as enemies of reality and our human happiness. The hedonist enjoys the present moment as potentially his last one and, in this respect, soon becomes caught in the endless, futile repetition of the same ‘perfect’ moment of pleasure. The believer, on the other hand, is on an equally mistaken path as he is prepared to suspend his earthly happiness in the name of an ‘alleged’ heavenly bliss. Camus’ position is resolutely realistic and stoical: even if God does not exist, we, at least, do share a constantly renewed sense of wonderment which lies at the very heart of our human existence. Reading ‘Return to Tipasa’ (in ‘Summer’) is more than a philosophical exercise. It is an exhilarating physical experience as we breathe the purest air and admire the clearest Mediterranean sky in the company of a man whose works shine like an inexhaustible sun onto a world seemingly imprisoned in its own darkness.

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