Albert Camus: Humanism and Tragedy

By Paul Dean

In 29 April 1955, Albert Camus gave a lecture “On the Future of Tragedy” at the French Institute in Athens. Tragedy for Camus, as for most people, was associated particularly with the drama. He seems not to have considered the possibility of tragic fiction, although of course there are numerous tragic episodes in his fiction. By the time Camus gave this lecture he had 20 years of reflecting on the subject behind him, as well as considerable experience as a dramatist, actor, and man of the theater generally. All his original plays were already completed and only two adaptations were yet to come—although they were both significant works, Requiem pour une nonne from Faulkner’s novel in 1957, and Les Possédés from Dostoyevsky’s in 1959. My suggestion in this essay is that Camus’s sense of tragic drama, and the tragic generally, was significantly influenced by his lifelong quest for a viable form of humanism.

Camus’s historical survey of the development of tragedy, in his Athens lecture, is conditioned by his opening question: is modern tragedy a possibility in 1955? He observes that the two great periods of tragic drama in Western Europe, those of ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe, came at key turning points in history. These were epochs in which rationalism and the cult of the individual were in conflict with a view of Man and the universe as bound together by the divine. Psychology replaced religion as the major explanatory principle of human action. Human beings were dissatisfied with the old worldview but had yet to find a workable replacement. Such, Camus says, is the situation in 1955, but can tragic expression be given to this “internal division”? (III.1119—all references are to the four-volume Pléiade edition of Camus’s works (2006–08), and all translations are my own.) Artaud’s concept of “theater of cruelty” had been formulated in 1938, and Camus’s first play, Caligula (original version 1944, revised 1958), conforms to many of its prescriptions, although we can’t be sure Camus knew Artaud’s work at that point. Caligula (the character) was described by Camus in an interview in 1945 as committing “the most human and the most tragic of mistakes”; the play is “a tragedy of the intellect” because the emperor fails to realize that he can’t deny the right of others to live without thereby granting them the right to destroy him in turn (I.447).

Camus argues in his lecture that the tension essential to tragedy springs from a situation in which moral choice is between two courses of action, neither of which is either wholly right or wholly wrong (a view intriguingly close to that of Isaiah Berlin). Tony Judt, the British political theorist and historian, points out in The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (1998) that this grounding of ethics in responsible choice, rather than parti pris conviction and active political engagement, marked Camus off from other prominent French intellectuals of the time. Already in 1943 he was writing in his notebook, “What makes a tragedy is that each of the opposing forces is equally legitimate, equally entitled to exist. Weak tragedy comes from setting illegitimate forces in motion; strong tragedy comes from making everything legitimate” (II.1001, original italics). Greek tragedy decrees that there are limits beyond which we pass at our peril, yet we can never be sure where the limit is. The tragic protagonist is a rebel, and the greater his struggle for the right choice, the greater the potential for tragedy. The equilibrium between order and self-assertion is crucial: “The hero denies the order which strikes him down, and the order strikes because it is denied.” These two opposed forces are symbiotic. “Tragedy moves between the poles of extreme nihilism and boundless hope” (III.1123). Fate may be intolerable but to deny it is even more so. Sophocles, according to Camus, saw this, but Euripides tipped the balance in favor of the psychology of the protagonist; his Prometheus is finally pardoned. Shakespeare’s tragic figures battle against obscure cosmic forces whereas those of Corneille exalt individual moral virtue, thereby, in Camus’s view, bringing tragedy itself to an end.

Tragedy in the West, then, Camus concludes, occurs at periods of history when human beings are poised midway between a divinely ordered and a human-centered world. The 17th century saw the death of the tradition; the Romantics wrote no tragedies, only dramas, indeed melodramas. The Romantic hero in his splendid isolation can be magnificent, but hardly tragic, since he will admit no claim superior to his self-assertion. What, then, of the world of 1955? We have seen, Camus says, what the exaltation of impersonal reason and logic can lead to, and equally what wreckage has been made by the idolatry of dictators. Yet even here lie our grounds for the hope that modern tragedy is possible, for we are people who rebel in the conscious knowledge that rebellion has limits, who demand freedom but accept certain necessary constraints. No modern tragedy, however, can be written in the old manner. Myths look outmoded; our conception of evil has been horribly enlarged. A heroic style would be dangerously close to ranting. A tragic idiom is needed now, remote yet commonplace, lucid yet retaining an element of mystery. So “we have seen Greek tragedy re-emerging in our time, but in the only ways possible to extreme individualists,” mingled with a fantastic humor as in the work of Gide or Giraudoux (III.1125). (Or, we might add, Beckett—did Camus know of En attendant Godot?) We need not reject the sacred but we need to recast it in a contemporary mold; the medieval drama could not be tragic because the balance of power is always in God’s favor. Modern tragedy is not impossible, its birth pangs are in evidence, but its flowering, if flowering there is to be, has yet to come. Such is the conclusion of Camus’s argument. Two years later he was to declare, “the problem of modern tragedy, together with the technical challenges of production, is the only one of interest to me in the theater” (III.844).

Camus had realized the point about the non-tragic nature of sacred drama very early in his career. Indeed, it was already preoccupying him when he wrote his dissertation for the Diplôme d’études supérieures at Algiers University in 1936, on Neoplatonic and Christian meta-physics. Here we find him examining the cultural change from Greek thought, which puts Man at the center of things and locates tragic conflict in the incompatibility of human desires and divine decrees, to Christian doctrine, which relegates the human race to fallen status and transfers the status of tragic protagonist to God himself. Yet Christian tragedy cannot be pure in form, for the death on the Cross is followed by the triumph of the Resurrection. For this effort, which occupies 82 closely printed pages in the Pléiade edition, he received 28/40 and the comment ‘Bien’ (I.1424)!

Tony Judt reminds us that Czeslaw Milosz, in his obituary on Camus, detected what Judt calls a “suppressed theological bent” throughout Camus’s work, not just in this early essay. Camus, I think, would have rejected that description but, as Judt later says, he has more affinities with Pascal than with Sartre, and the earnestness of his moral enquiry was not typical of the time. His work as a playwright was done against the background of his two major philosophical essays, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942) and L’Homme révolté (1951). In these he mapped out both a history of humanism and a body of radical socio-political thought, which transformed our idea of tragic experience. Humanism, as Camus understood it, was not simply the humanism of the European Renaissance with its emphasis on classical learning, education, and civic virtue; although, as a child of the Enlightenment, he certainly valued all those things. In tension with those ideals was the decisive break with religion made by the modernist intellectual tradition, running down from Hegel and Marx to Nietzsche, passing through Dostoyevsky and Kafka. If God does not exist, the quest for meaning is ours alone, and tragic experience ceases to be a matter of punishment for offence against the sacred (as in the Bacchae) or of unwitting transgression of the inalterable laws of Fate (as in Oedipus Tyrannus). Instead, the individual’s search for self-definition in an arbitrary universe may become tragic through failure, error, or disappointment. Tragedy may also arise from the clash between the individual and society, the “One and the Many” of Greek philosophy, or between one social class and another, as witness, the history of violent revolution and warfare which stained the 20th century and continues to this day. But this kind of tragedy is a tragedy of waste and failed potential, frustrated ambition and unfulfilled dreams. Camus argues that totalitarian states throughout history have sought to replace religion in their demand for absolute obedience and blind faith. We are reminded that the word “tragedy” derives from the sacrificial scapegoat of ancient ritual. Those who are the victims of this modernist tragic universe sacrifice themselves for a higher good, or are sacrificed by others to whom they represent a threat or a rebuke. Camus, who had lived through the Second World War in occupied France, needed no textbooks to tell him this.

In Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus explores the concept of the Absurd historically, showing how it has shifted the parameters of tragedy. The downfall of Oedipus is triggered by the knowledge of the truth about himself, which, in strict accordance with classical ethical principles, he has attained (I.302f). His tragedy lies in the irresistible logical sequence by which he delivers himself over to his own judgement. In a secular mythmaker such as Kafka, we find a “concealed complicity, in tragedy, between the logical and the run-of-the-mill” (I.308). Gregor Samsa is more anxious about getting into trouble for not turning up to work than he is about having been turned into an insect. The inability of K. to discover the crime of which he is accused, or to gain access to the Castle, is a matter of bureaucratic frustration rather than of meta-physical enquiry. Camus had obviously learned this lesson from Kafka when he wrote L’Étranger, which is contemporary with Le Mythe (both published in 1942). The Absurd, as the word suggests, has a tragicomic aspect: the pure, distilled form of classical tragedy is diluted by elements of the grotesque, even the farcical (again, one thinks of Beckett). The human hunger for meaning is both noble and pointless: our tragedy is that we know this, yet persist in our search.

L’Homme révolté, written almost a decade later with the benefit of hindsight gained during the war, is a more comprehensive, ambitious and learned work than Le Mythe, more marked by Camus’s own experiences. In a reply to critics of the book, written in 1952 but not published in his lifetime, he admitted that he himself had lived in a nihilistic state of indifference to moral values until forced by the events of the war to seek a viable raison d’être. In this book we find a sustained insistence on the reality of an essential human nature, which makes an implicit critique of the existentialism of Sartre. It also calls into question the claim made in the title of Sartre’s celebrated lecture of 1945, L’existentialisme est un humanisme. Sartre maintained that each human being at birth is a tabula rasa: “there is no such thing as human nature, since there is no God to imagine it.” The authentic individual will continually recreate him- or herself according to changing circumstances; there is no stable “I” at the core of a life. Existence precedes essence, Sartre believes: a view which Camus described as a vulgar error. Like Camus, Sartre quotes Dostoyevsky’s “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permissible,” but he draws the conclusion that there can be no universal moral laws, and that we must therefore create our own values, whereas Camus believes that some things may be impermissible even if God doesn’t exist, because there are some universally recognized moral sanctions. Sartre says we cannot expect others to help us since there is no common humanity in whose name we could appeal to them; we are responsible only for, and to, ourselves. Camus reacts furiously against this: “That explains the complete disappearance of compassion in their world populated by aggressive old men” (IV.1187). Camus regards such a view as a license for dictatorship, which can treat other people as objects to be used at one’s convenience (he had already tackled this in Caligula). Sartre’s argument is not always consistent; he says on the one hand that no one can transcend the limits of his or her own subjectivity, yet on the other that every choice made by an individual is also a choice made on behalf of all. He distinguishes two kinds of humanism, one, which he calls the classical kind, which makes of humanity the supreme touchstone of value. This he calls absurd, since “it is inadmissible for one man to pass judgement on the whole human race.” Existentialist humanism, however, admits a transcendent dimension, not that of God but that of man “for ever beyond himself . . . not closed in on himself but ever-present in a human world.”

However we understand Sartre’s humanism, it’s clear that it is not that of Camus. There is a key formulation in a notebook entry of 1946, in which Camus reflects that German philosophy has replaced the phrase “human nature” by “the human situation,” History replacing God and modern tragedy replacing the equilibrium of the Greeks. Existentialism, he adds, has pushed this even further: “But, like the Greeks, I believe in nature” (II.1066). The introduction to L’Homme révolté is an eloquent protest against the absurdity of the Absurd, suggesting the author now has reservations about L’Étranger. He perhaps remembered Sartre’s review of that novel in 1943 (reprinted in Situations I, 1947), which referred approvingly to its lack of transcendence. Given that, as we’ve just seen, Sartre admits the notion of transcendence in the sense of human striving for self-development, I imagine that what he is approving in Camus is rather the lack of the metaphysical. In L’Homme révolté, as we’ll see, transcendence is rehabilitated in Sartre’s sense.

In 1946, also, Camus wrote in his notebook: “Apparently it remains for me to discover some sort of humanism. I’ve nothing against humanism, of course. I just find it wanting. And Greek thought, for instance, was something other than humanism. It was thought which found a place for everything” (II.1065). What this seems to mean is that Greek tragedy affirmed an intimate relationship between Man and Nature, including the supernatural, each of which could react upon the other two with potentially tragic consequences. Some 20th-century philosophy, however, has severed the ties between human beings and the natural world, rejecting anthropomorphism as sentimental self-delusion. This is the case argued by Alain Robbe-Grillet in his important essay “Nature, humanisme, tragédie,” written in 1958 and included in Pour un nouveau roman (1961). Robbe-Grillet sees tragedy as a face-saving exercise, “an attempt to compensate for the distance between people and objects . . . The last invention of humanism,” and on that account to be rejected. He criticizes both L’Étranger and La Nausée for relying illegitimately on the pathetic fallacy, smuggled in under the guise of metaphor. Camus’s problem is that he seeks a humanism which will respect the alienation and isolation of the individual, while also insisting that if, as Sartre maintained, meaning is something we have to make for ourselves, it can nonetheless be shared once made.

To deny the possibility of value judgements, Camus points out, is to make such a judgement; to assert that life has no meaning is to assume a philosophical position. Absurdity should be the starting point, not the conclusion, of an individual’s attempt to understand the world. Every act of rebellion is an affirmation that takes the rebel beyond the confines of himself. This looks like Sartre’s “for ever beyond himself,” but is actually quite different, since “the analysis of rebellion leads at least to the suspicion that there is such a thing as human nature, as the Greeks believed, and contrary to the tenets of contemporary thought” (III.73). The rebel invites assent from like-minded people, in an adaptation of Descartes: “I rebel, therefore we are” (III.79). The tyrannies of history have all aimed to destroy this community of free enquiry by converting it into a collective obeying the dictates of the law, or a Rousseauian General Will, or the destiny of a race or nation, or the despotism of an absolute ruler. Ironically—and this is a point which Sartre missed in relation to Marxism—such systems end by replacing the religion from which they claimed to free their followers. Camus bitingly remarked, when asked about the humanism of Marxists, that “these humanists are accusers of humanity” because “they reject Man as he is in the name of Man as he is to be. This pretension is religious in character” (III.452).

As I suggested earlier, Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God did not abolish tragedy but merely shifted its parameters; indeed, in some ways made it more agonizing, for the death of a child (such as Judge Othon’s son in La Peste), however appalling, is still more appalling if it is arbitrary or meaningless. The execution of Louis XVI may have seen the end of the concept of divine right but merely created a vacuum, which was filled by the Terror. Both the Enlightenment worship of reason and Hegel’s dialectic reject essential humanity, such as Antiquity believed in, replacing this with the belief that Man “is not a finished creation, but an enterprise of which he can be partly the creator,” a position very close to that of Sartre (III.175). The way is thus open for the Existentialist “construction” of the Self, the view of Man as no more than “a play of forces” who—or which—“must come down to a rational and social ‘Me,’ an object of calculation,” in short, “a thing” (III.266). For Marx, Hitler, or Stalin, human beings become objects to be used. The Transcendent is abolished.

For the victims of these totalitarian systems, however, Camus continues, the Transcendent reappears. Dedication to a cause, and willingness to die for it, bespeaks commitment to something felt to be higher than the self. After the first act of terrorism in Russia in 1878, when a young woman assassinated the Governor of St. Petersburg, a new idea of martyrdom was born. Formerly, people had sacrificed themselves because of their beliefs, often beliefs in God. Now, the sacrifices were motivated not by beliefs but by ideals and hopes, embodied not in a deity but in other people—those to come, for whose freedom and brotherhood the terrorists of the present gave their lives (III.203). (Camus seems to adopt here the very position that he criticized in Sartre, the preference of the people of the future to those of the present.) The suicide of the terrorist, or his acceptance of execution, thus becomes an affirmation of common humanity. Institutionalized legal systems or penal codes are of no relevance to such believers. This was the case for Meursault in L’Étranger, but his indifference was based on rejection of institutionalized hypocrisy, not on identification with his fellow men; it’s open to question whether one can speak of tragedy in relation to this book, whereas with La Peste the case is very different. In 1955, in a preface to the American translation of L’Étranger, Camus famously described Meursault as “the only christ we deserve” (“christ” deliberately with a lower-case “c”), admitting that this had an ironic tinge, but justifying it by saying that Meursault was “a man who, without striking any heroic attitude, agrees to die for the truth” (I.216). The truth in question, however, is Meursault’s own truth. His death has no redemptive effect. (Camus would later observe wryly, “Christ didn’t make landfall in Algeria” (IV.929).)

In between Le Myth de Sisyphe and L’Homme révolté Camus wrote his play Le Malentendu (1944, revised 1958). This was based on a newspaper report of 1935. A man (named Jan in the play) who had been away from home for 20 years, and had made a considerable amount of money in that time, returned to the hotel kept by his mother and sister, intending to surprise them and reveal his good fortune. They did not recognize him and he thought it would be a good joke to conceal his identity until the next day, so he put up at the hotel as a guest, but he told them about his money and they murdered him during the night, both committing suicide when the truth was discovered. This incident had already been mentioned in L’Étranger where Meursault had read about it in his cell and had reflected that, in a way, it served the son right for trying to play tricks. When Le Malentendu was published together with Caligula, L’État de siège and Les Justes, in translation in 1957, Camus wrote an important preface in which he described it as “an attempt to create a modern tragedy” and to “endow present-day characters with tragic speech.” This involved finding a style “sufficiently natural to be spoken by people of our time, and sufficiently unusual to connect with the tone of tragedy” (I.448). Camus’s attempt to distance us from his characters, and to create dialogue marked by a gnomic brevity, results in a singularly grim and constricted piece, deliberately deprived of grandeur or moral insight. If one thinks of J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904) one can feel the effect in Camus’s play of the lack of a metaphysical plane of meaning. When Maria, the sister who now realizes she and her mother have murdered her brother, calls upon God, her only answer comes from the old servant, mute until that point, who refuses to offer her any comfort or pity. In a draft for the programme, Camus quoted D. H. Lawrence (who incidentally thought Riders to the Sea the only genuine tragic drama since Shakespeare): “Tragedy ought to be a great kick at misery” (II.895). I would like to know where Camus had come across this, which occurs in one of Lawrence’s letters. He made a similar comment himself, but far more witheringly, in his review of Sartre’s La Nausée (1938). “The mistake of a certain kind of writing,” Camus pronounced, “is to believe that life is tragic because it’s unhappy” (I.795). Le Malentendu, which observes the classical unities, proceeds like Oedipus Tyrannus according to a logic whereby the victim brings about his own death unwittingly by his actions, but without Sophocles’s sense of malevolent or impersonal Fate. The play, in fact, enacts a reversal of Sophocles: Oedipus brings about his own destruction by his failure to recognize his parents, whereas Jan is destroyed by his family’s failure to recognize him, and by his own blindness (metaphorical, rather than literal as with Oedipus) to the possible consequences of his actions.

For all its reminiscences of Sophocles, the mode of Le Malentendu remains naturalistic. Camus was determined not to resort to myth but to create what he called a “tragedy in a lounge suit” (I.1338). It’s therefore intriguing to see, in his notebooks for 1952, a sketch for an adaptation of Euripides’s Bacchae. Camus clearly knew of the two separate aspects of Dionysus in Greek mythology, the god of wine and ecstasy who was a late addition to the Pantheon, and Dionysus Zagreus, who was associated with the earth and the underworld in the Orphic mystery religions. (Zagreus is the name of a character in Camus’s abandoned early novel La Mort heureuse.) Both appear in the notes, which are brief, elliptical, and hard to interpret, but the idea seems to be that the exemplary life is one that combines the twin aspects of Dionysus, the rational and the sensual; if either one predominates, or is completely absent, destruction will follow. In Euripides’s play, King Pentheus of Thebes is torn to pieces for refusing to worship Dionysus; in Camus’s sketch he is reassembled and granted a second chance to learn wisdom, only to be dismembered again at the end, a martyr to reason as he had once been to instinct. Once more we can see Camus stressing the need for an equilibrium between equally valid ethical choices.

I mentioned earlier the discussion of the first Russian terrorists in L’Homme révolté. Camus developed this in Les Justes (1949) and in the Dostoyevsky adaptation. Les Justes, which is based on real events of 1905, acquires added significance when we remember that the Vichy government classed the Resistance as a terrorist movement. The play opposes the pure revolutionary zealot, Stepan Fedorov, to the humanitarian Ivan Kaliayev, nicknamed “the poet,” who refuses to assassinate the Grand Duke when he sees him accompanied by his wife and children in the carriage. Two days later, when the Grand Duke rides out alone, Kaliayev accomplishes the deed, and is executed having refused the offer of his victim’s widow, a Christian, to obtain a pardon (all of this actually happened). In prison, Kaliayev says to Skouratov, the chief of police, “I threw the bomb at your tyranny, not at a man.” Skoutratov drily retorts, “No doubt. But it was a man who received it” (III.38). Kaliayev has learned to talk like Fedorov, who found his compassion for the Grand Duchess and her children a contemptible weakness, but the price to be paid for this is dangerous abstraction. To reduce human beings to embodiments of economic or historical forces, as Marx did; to act in the name of a Utopia to come, a Promised Land ever in view but never attained, is to surrender to what Camus calls, in L’Homme révolté, a “blind romanticism” (III.241) and to replace “the sovereignty of persons” in which “men are bound together by ties of affection” by “the empire of things,” in which “men unite in denunciation,” with the result that “the city which aspired to be a fraternity becomes an ant-heap of isolated individuals” (III.267). Like Meursault in his cell at the end of L’Etranger, Kaliayev refuses offers of help and understanding. He has made himself proof against appeals to his humanity; he doesn’t want to be thought of as a human being, and he rejects the possibility of pardon because it would sully the purity of his sacrifice. The Grand Duchess’s Christian compassion is a threat to his view of the world. In this he may seem like Meursault, who rejects the prison chaplain; but, unlike Meursault, Kaliayev is an idealist.

Camus, then, seems to take “humanism” to refer to the recognition of an irreducible core of values which human beings have in common. To speak of “humanity” in the mass is an unprofitable abstraction; one doesn’t feel for “humanity” but for individuals or groups of human beings. Camus’s humanism is not codified into religious doctrines or political manifestoes, but is motivated by an instinct for dignity, freedom, respect for oneself and for one’s fellows. Yet freedom does not mean a license to do exactly as one likes; it means acknowledging the responsibility that we share for each other, which will (or at any rate should) set limits to what we are willing to do. In times of crisis or oppression, we have a duty to bear witness to these truths and to show solidarity with those who are persecuted because of them. It is at these pressure points, when we are torn between our membership in a community and our consciences as individuals, that tragedy potentially occurs. To affirm our unity with our fellows is one expression of humanism, but to stand against them may be another. There is no virtue in the kind of solidarity which means slavery, just as there is none in the kind of freedom which means indifference to natural bonds. “The tragedy isn’t that one is alone,” Camus remarks ironically, in a notebook entry of 1952, “but that one can’t be” (IV.1143). We cannot, to use the words of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, “stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin.”

The search for a form of tragedy that could be intelligible in the modern world, that could do justice to the predicament of 20th-century human beings without offering comforting illusions, was something Camus never abandoned. His notebooks abound in reflections on this topic and its relation to a humanism he was constantly re-examining. For all his generosity of spirit and compassion, which shines out of his wartime underground journalism above all, there were consolations he could not endorse. This clarity of purpose persists in his last two works for the stage. In Requiem pour une nonne he omitted much of the last part of Faulkner’s novel in which the condemned servant, on the eve of her execution for infanticide, professes Christian faith and, despite having been a prostitute and drug-taker, is held up for our admiration as a kind of saint. For Camus she was a tragic figure, but not a martyr. And in Les Possédés, the last major work he completed in his lifetime, he aimed to be faithful to the trajectory of the novel, which he described as passing “from satirical comedy to drama, then to tragedy” by adopting “a certain realism in order to arrive at a tragic style” (IV.537). He retained Dostoyevsky’s passionate inquiries into religion but was careful to point out that his motive was fidelity to his original, rather than personal commitment (IV.550). Those who scented a belated odor of sanctity were disappointed. “If I translated a Greek tragedy and put it on stage,” he remarked sardonically, “nobody would ask me if I believed in Zeus” (III.853). For Camus there was tragedy enough in the human world as we experience it, and he considered it our responsibility to uphold whatever beliefs we can honestly assent to, against the forces which would reduce us to helpless puppets or cowering victims.