Albert Camus—political dissident, journalist, novelist, playwright, and philosopher—was born 100 years ago today in French Algeria. Camus’ modest childhood circumstances, marked by the death of his father in WWI when Camus was an infant, and his devotion to his deaf, illiterate mother, seem to have instilled in him a modesty that shrank from his unavoidable literary fame. In his 1957 Nobel acceptance speech (above, in French with English subtitles), Camus opens with an expression of modesty. After thanking the dignitaries present, he says:
I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress, accustomed to living in the solitude of work or in the retreats of friendship: how would he not feel a kind of panic at hearing the decree that transports him all of a sudden, alone and reduced to himself, to the centre of a glaring light? And with what feelings could he accept this honour at a time when other writers in Europe, among them the very greatest, are condemned to silence, and even at a time when the country of his birth is going through unending misery?
Camus’ concerns display another defining characteristic: his sense of writing as a political act, which he honed as a journalist for leftist and anti-colonial newspapers, most notably France’s resistance paper Combat, edited by Camus from 1943 to 1947. It was during these war years that Camus produced some of his most well-known work, including his essay The Myth of Sisyphus and novel The Stranger, and struck up a friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre, who also wrote for Combat. The friendship eventually went sour, in part due to Camus’ unwillingness to accept the persecutions and abuses of state power manifested by Communist regimes (Camus had been kicked out of the Communist party years before, in 1937, for refusing its dogmas).
Just as Camus could not place party over people, he would not elevate art to a special status above the political. Says Camus in his Nobel speech above: “I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men… it obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth.” Believing strongly in the social duty of the artist, Camus describes his writing as a “commitment” to bear witness to “an insane history.” After outlining the special mission of writing, the “nobility of the writer’s craft,” Camus returns near the end of his speech to modesty and puts the writer “in his proper place” among “his comrades in arms.” For a writer who identified himself solely with his “limits and debts,” Camus left a singularly rich body of work that stands outside of party politics while actively engaging with the political in its most radical form—the duties of people to each other in spite of, or because of, the absurdity of human existence.