What can we learn from Albert Camus about being a rebel and a hacker?
My friend Lex Paulson has organized public lectures for a few years at the famed Shakespeare & Co Library in Paris. Today we will read “The Rebel, an essay on Man in Revolt” from Albert Camus with a few friends.
Written in 1951, this book on the relation between revolution and violence follows closely the publication of “The Stranger”.
It ignited a passionate debate, even leading to a breaking between Sartre and Camus, with Sartre declaring “our friendship was difficult, but I will regret it”.
For L’Homme Révolté was both a philosophic and a political tract.
Though Camus maintained that he was only an artist, he was a committed writer and has a strong collective and political impact in his time writing pieces of “Littérature Engagée”. As such, “The Rebel” first represented an effort to better formulate the doctrine of Stoic protest against mass suffering that had formed the central theme of his previous novels.
But as a political polemic, Camus’ book dealt with terror and terrorism, a question that is still going being debated today, with people endlessly trying to justify the violence of terrorists through the actions of their victims.
From there, he also took on the absurdity of the popular belief that everyone should be a rebel, and that the need for revolution could justify anything.
On that issue, Camus offered a telling answer to French neutralists such as Sartre or Merleau-Ponty. Building on the absurdity of Life, he denounced the absurdity of their petty calculations, trying to equate one life with another, trying justify one death by another. Writing against “nihilism”, and the “revolt of the dandys”, he considered that people should instead concentrate on keeping creative, a position that would echo to the entrepreneurial ethos of today.
The first striking element of the book is the epigraph from Hölderlin in “The Death Of Empedoclus”:
“And openly I pledged my heart to the grave and suffering land, and often in the consecrated night, I promised to love her faithfully until death, unafraid, with her heavy burden of fatality, and never to despise a single one of her enigmas. Thus did I join myself to her with a mortal cord.” (you can watch it here being played in German by Andreas Von Rauch at 26').
The description of the absurdity of life, life actions and life goals is a starting point. Then, with striking elegance, Camus, defines a rebel:
“What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion.”
He shows the absurdity of being rebel who rebellion against the judgment of others is of course a judgment in itself:
“Despair, like the absurd, has opinions and desires about everything in general and nothing in particular. Silence expresses this attitude very well. But from the moment that the rebel finds his voice — even though he says nothing but “no” — he begins to desire and to judge…”
And goes quoting René Char to defend the idea that violence is always without victors:
“Obsession with the harvest and indifference to history,” writes René Char admirably, “are the two extremities of my bow.” If the duration of history is not synonymous with the duration of the harvest, then history, in effect, is no more than a fleeting and cruel shadow in which man has no more part. He who dedicates himself to this history dedicates himself to nothing and, in his turn, is nothing.”
From this, Camus can go on describing how people should stop trying to understand or justify what they can’t, and how they should try to think more clearly, in a more enlightened way, taking action and achieving what he will call “la pensée de midi”, improperly translated as “thoughts at the meridian” in english.
“At the high noon of the mind, the rebel refuses bliss to share the common fate and struggles. […] Our brothers breathe the same air as us, and Justice is alive.”
The book is surprisingly modern in the way it confronts the justifications for violence and the relativity of postmodernism. Many recent critics have tried to downplay its impact and importance over the years, trying to limit its scope to the Parisian debates of communist circles in the 50s. On the contrary, it is striking by the quality of its argumentation, taking on problems and questions that are at the center of today’s intellectual life.
In an era when everyone and every company wants to market itself as a rebel and a hacker, what better book to read to understand how futile this is?
Perhaps a true French reactionary, in his book and in his texts, Camus had more interest for Style than for Logics, but that’s probably what makes him transcendental if not immortal, as Hölderlin in a way, but essentially as Empedocles and the Greeks philosophers he felt so inspired by.