Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Michael Azar: The stranger, the mother and the Algerian revolution -- A postcolonial reading of Albert Camus

The stranger, the mother and the Algerian revolution: A postcolonial reading of Albert Camus
by Michael Azar

The purely existential themes of The Stranger hide Camus' critique of the discriminatory nature of French rule in Algeria. Yet Camus never entirely renounced the civilizing premise of colonialism. The reason lies in his relation to his mother, writes Michael Azar on the fiftieth anniversary of Camus' death.

In The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus seeks his own answer to the question that Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche have bequeathed to us: is it possible to live without God, without any hope of salvation as death looms? At first sight the outlook is bleak: we are, says Camus, thrust into existence as into an exile with no return. From the viewpoint of eternity, we are passions that can never be satisfied, cries that go unheard. Human beings and the world do not mix. He sums up man's tragic existence in one word: the absurd. It emerges from the fracture between the soul's desperate desire for clarity and the incomprehensibility of reality, the gap between our craving for meaning and the cold grave that awaits us. Camus understood early on that reason – the traditional weapon of philosophy – would always be powerless to address the futile, ill-fated game of existence.

Even so, the work essentially represents a manifesto for revolt and the ecstasy of life. It is a passionate revolt that answers the question of the meaning of life: if there is any raison d'être worthy of the name, it is born of a piece of trembling flesh. Desire, affection and generosity: these are the bread and wine of the mortal human being. Anyone who does not live to serve an immortal Creator must become a creator himself. The absurd man, as Camus calls his hero, transforms his days into a work of art, a defiant celebration of the battle which, as he knows from the outset, must eventually end in his death. Camus quotes Nietzsche: "It is not a question of eternal life but of being eternally alive."[1] It is the destiny of the absurd man to try to make something out of the nothingness, to grasp his life from death itself. Sisyphus shows us the way: happiness is the leap we make both with and in spite of our burden.

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