Nowadays Albert Camus is lumped together with a few other post-war philosophers under the much misunderstood label “Existentialist.” To his own generation, however, Camus had earned his unique cred as part of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. He had faced death every day for years and come away from the experience calm, sensible, and . . . philosophical.
Not only did the Algerian-French Camus participate in combat operations, but he also risked his life writing for an underground Resistance paper called Combat. In that paper in October of 1944, Camus wrote about a friend who had been recently executed by the Nazis. He wrote this: “if we are still here, this is because we did not do enough.”
At first glance, this sounds like classic survivor’s guilt: why did my friend die and I did not? On a deeper level, I think Camus expresses the feelings of most activists: if I’m still alive, I haven’t done enough.
After all, how much is enough? If we’re trying so hard, why doesn’t anything positive ever happen?
Perhaps too many of us get up in the morning and think, OK, today I will achieve world peace . . . . Or something of the sort. And then, reality sets in with its complications. And we despair.
As one counter to despair, we have the testimony of Camus’s war era writing. He didn’t know how it would all turn out, but that did not stop him from hoping and eloquently continuing in the struggle.
Have you seen the 1990s era cartoon Pinky and the Brain? In each episode Pinky — the sidekick — says: “Gee, Brain. What are we going to do tonight? Brain always replies: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.”
I suspect that was Camus’s driving purpose: to take over the world for culture and debate and good humor in the face of the various totalitarianisms that haunted his lifetime on this planet.
Was he a fool for trying?
I struggled a long time against one of the sayings of Jesus: “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11). How egotistical is that? Yet, nowadays, I see it as a simple statement of fact. Jesus knew that humanity would never solve our problems. Perhaps he thought some god or other would sweep in and fix everything. Camus . . . and I . . . don’t think so.
So what? So what!
As an epigraph to one of his letters in Combat, Camus quoted Etienne Pivert de Senancour: “We are mortal. That may be; but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems justice.”
You and me, we’re lucky: the Gestapo is not likely to show up on our doorstep today. But despair at all the human problems that there are to solve might show up.
Camus is there to tell us to buck up: he is not alive; yet we may look at his life and see that he did do enough. Until his dying day, Camus resisted extremism — both publicly and in his own mind — in all its forms.
That may be the boldest — and most extreme — statement any of us can make.