Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Albert Camus’

22 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus on Our Search for Meaning and Why Happiness Is Our Moral Obligation

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Why “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” isn’t a luxury or a mere need but our existential duty.

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenged — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[...]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Reflecting on the parallels between Camus and Montaigne, Zaretsky finds in this ongoing chase one crucial difference of dispositions:

Camus achieves with the Myth what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed for Montaigne’s Essays: it places “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.”

For Camus, however, this astonishment results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world.

Camus himself captured this with extraordinary elegance when he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus:

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.

To discern these echoes amid the silence of the world, Zaretsky suggests, was at the heart of Camus’s tussle with the absurd:

We must not cease in our exploration, Camus affirms, if only to hear more sharply the silence of the world. In effect, silence sounds out when human beings enter the equation. If “silences must make themselves heard,” it is because those who can hear inevitably demand it. And if the silence persists, where are we to find meaning?

This search for meaning was not only the lens through which Camus examined every dimension of life, from the existential to the immediate, but also what he saw as our greatest source of agency. In one particularly prescient diary entry from November of 1940, as WWII was gathering momentum, he writes:

Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on my highlights from Albert Camus's journals. Click image for details.

For Camus, the question of meaning was closely related to that of happiness — something he explored with great insight in his notebooks. Zaretsky writes:

Camus observed that 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 too often, we know we are happy only when we no longer are.

Perhaps most importantly, Camus issued a clarion call of dissent in a culture that often conflates happiness with laziness and championed the idea that happiness is nothing less than a moral obligation. A few months before his death, Camus appeared on the TV show Gros Plan. Dressed in a trench coat, he flashed his mischievous boyish smile and proclaimed into the camera:

Today, happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it. As far as I’m concerned, I tend to think that one needs to be strong and happy in order to help those who are unfortunate.

This wasn’t a case of Camus arriving at some mythic epiphany in his old age — the cultivation of happiness and the eradication of its obstacles was his most persistent lens on meaning. More than two decades earlier, he had contemplated “the demand for happiness and the patient quest for it” in his journal, capturing with elegant simplicity the essence of the meaningful life — an ability to live with presence despite the knowledge that we are impermanent:

[We must] be happy with our friends, in harmony with the world, and earn our happiness by following a path which nevertheless leads to death.

But his most piercing point integrates the questions of happiness and meaning into the eternal quest to find ourselves and live our truth:

It is not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning comes from Harvard University Press and is a remarkable read in its entirety. Complement it with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit the story of his unlikely and extraordinary friendship with Nobel-winning biologist Jacques Monod.

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16 JUNE, 2014

Albert Camus on Happiness and Love, Illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

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“If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.”

In this new installment of the Brain Pickings artist series, I’ve once again teamed up with the wonderfully talented Wendy MacNaughton, on the heels of our previous collaborations on famous writers’ sleep habits, Susan Sontag’s diary highlights on love and on art, Nellie Bly’s packing list, Gay Talese’s taxonomy of New York cats, and Sylvia Plath’s influences. I asked MacNaughton to illustrate another of my literary heroes’ thoughts on happiness and love, based on my highlights from Notebooks 1951–1959 (public library) — the published diaries of French author, philosopher, and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, which also gave us Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

The artwork is available as a print on Society6 and, as usual, we’re donating 50% of proceeds to A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists. Enjoy!

If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.

When love ceases to be tragic it is something else and the individual again throws himself in search of tragedy.

Betrayal answers betrayal, the mask of love is answered by the disappearance of love.

For me, physical love has always been bound to an irresistible feeling of innocence and joy. Thus, I cannot love in tears but in exaltation.

The loss of love is the loss of all rights, even though one had them all.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.

It is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometimes humiliating, but the suffering of being cannot be, it is life.

The end of their passion consists of loving uselessly at the moment when it is pointless.

At times I feel myself overtaken by an immense tenderness for these people around me who live in the same century.

I have not stopped loving that which is sacred in this world.

Get the print here.

For more literature-inspired art benefiting some favorite organizations, dive into the artist series visual archive. For more of MacNaughton’s own fantastic work, see her book Meanwhile in San Francisco and her illustrations for The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert and Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2013

Albert Camus on Happiness, Unhappiness, and Our Self-Imposed Prisons

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“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.”

“For the first time in history,” Bertrand Russell asserted in reflecting on the impact of the Industrial Revolution, “it is now possible … to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness.” Indeed, we’ve pounced on that chance with overzealous want: Ours is a culture so consumed with the relentless pursuit of happiness, its secrets and its science, that it layers over the already uncomfortable state of unhappiness a stigma of humiliation and shame. But unhappiness can have its own dignity and can tell us as much, if not more, about who we are than happiness. That’s precisely what French philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus considers in a portion of his private writings, collected in Notebooks 1951–1959 (public library).

In a meditation on Oscar Wilde’s relationship with art, Camus considers the notion of sorrow, the exorcism of which is one of art’s 7 therapeutic functions, and adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

[Oscar Wilde] wanted to place art above all else. But the grandeur of art is not to rise above all. On the contrary, it must blend with all. Wilde finally understood this, thanks to sorrow. But it is the culpability of this era that it always needed sorrow and constraint in order to catch a glimpse of a truth also found in happiness, when the heart is worthy. Servile century.

In a 1956 letter to a hospitalized friend, Camus explores how body and mind conspire in sorrow and happiness:

The solidarity of bodies, unity at the center of the mortal and suffering flesh. This is what we are and nothing else. We are this plus human genius in all its forms, from the child to Einstein.

No, … it is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometimes humiliating, but the suffering of being cannot be, it is life. … What you must do now is nothing more than live like everybody else. You deserve, by what you are, a happiness, a fullness that few people know. Yet today this fullness is not dead, it is a part of life and, to its credit, it reigns over you whether you want it to or not. But in the coming days you must live alone, with this hole, this painful memory. This lifelessness that we all carry inside of us — by us, I mean to say those who are not taken to the height of happiness, and who painfully remember another kind of happiness that goes beyond the memory.

Sometimes, for violent minds, the time that we tear off for work, that is torn away from time, is the best. An unfortunate passion.

Camus later revisits this osmosis between the physical and the metaphysical in a poignant reflection on our self-imposed prisons of unhappiness:

It is not true that the heart wears out — but the body creates this illusion.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.

“All true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, and yet, as Camus so stirringly reminds us, order itself, when worshiped too blindly and rigidly, can consume our fragile chance of happiness.

Complement Notebooks 1951–1959 with the story of Camus’s unlikely and extraordinary friendship with pioneering biologist Jacques Monod.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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