The French writer, Albert Camus was ‘a moralist who insisted that while the world is absurd and allows for no hope, we are not condemned to despair.’

Like this, the historian Robert Zaretsky presents Camus in the book, A Life Worth Living — with the subtitle, Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Camus was a moralist, but not a moralizer. He did not judge from a higher or more lucrative position, but tried to grasp what took place. He tried to create meaning where none was given.

Zaretsky organizes his portrait of Camus around five key-concepts: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity and Revolt. The concepts are strongly related; that is to say that certain points in Camus’ thinking are repeated, but never in a tiring way. On the contrary, Zaretsky develops an intimate portrait of Camus showing how it most likely was for him to be in this world. Camus is placed both in his historical context — whether it is the struggles between Algeria and France, or between Sartre and Camus — and in conversation with contemporary thinkers.

What do we learn about Camus?

Like Nietzsche, Camus detested any kind of resentment. He knew that being faithful was not a virtue in itself. Instead, one only ought to be faithful towards a life served in happiness. Happiness, therefore, seems to be the main thread in Camus’ struggle. Not as something shallow, but as an existential guide that could help him balance his thoughts. This is an interesting reading.

Happiness is, of course, a difficult task for Camus. First of all, the world is absurd. It is without any meaning. One must invent meaning, just as one must ‘create happiness in order to protect against the universe of unhappiness.’ At times one can only do so by being silent. As Camus says, ‘we do not write in order to say things, but in order not to say them.’

Camus was a pragmatic. He did not idealize life or describe it through theoretical abstractions. He wished to witness life as an experience — no matter how painful or beautiful it appeared. This practical approach caused him several problems, going from his battles with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, especially their idealized Marxism, to the confrontation with an Algerian student who, the day before Camus received the Nobel Prize in literature, criticized Camus for his silence over Algeria. At one point, Camus famously said: ‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’

Zaretsky portrays Camus as a real human being, albeit a bit more gifted than most of us. His most impressive achievement is, I think, that he succeeds in describing Camus’ quest for meaning as if it was a psychological case-study. Recent studies in psychology show that a one-sided quest for happiness can result in the opposite. Instead, having a purpose or being able to produce meaning is more important to make a life flourish. ‘Today,’ Camus said in an interview, ‘happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it.’ Sixty years later, happiness seems to be something quite ordinary, vague even, that the majority of people like to expose. And yet, whether eccentric or ordinary, a deep felt happiness — then as now — is something that requires ‘attention and effort.’ There is no quick fix for achieving a life worth living.

For Camus, suffering is part of thinking. It is related with one’s active involvement in life. Paying attention. Trying to make sense. One might realize that violence is ‘unjustifiable,’ because of one’s compassion and empathy. As a consequence, one acts. ‘Rebellion, Camus declares, is born of the spectacle of irrationality.’ Like the ancient Greeks, Camus based his thoughts on the idea of limits, Zaretsky says. Nothing should be carried to extremes. Nothing should be denied beforehand. The quest for meaning never stops.

I believe that Zaretsky’s book  is not only interesting for readers of Camus, laymen as well as scholars (i.e. scholars from various disciplines, e.g., literature, philosophy, history and psychology), but also for anyone who would like to change the state of things. It can serve as a toolbox for future moralist! Changing the world requires more than a glittering or candied ideal. In fact, it requires a courageous and honest sensuality that allows one to be touched by life and death as something real — an experience.

Camus questioned life from within this life, the only life there is. No appeal is possible. Still, if we trust Zaretsky, Camus lived a life worth living because of his ongoing quest for meaning, a quest that brought him moments of happiness. ‘For Camus, true nobility lies in lucid acceptance of the world, its beauties and its limits, its joys and its demands, its inhabitants and our common lot,’ Zaretsky concludes beautifully. Absurdity might ‘ambush us on a street corner or a sun-blasted beach. But so, too, do beauty and the happiness that attends it.’ All it requires is attention and effort.

This book is worth reading.

Finn Janning, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer.

Review first published in Metapsychology, Volume 18, Issue 30