Camus, nature, self

French writer Albert Camus exemplifies the ability to carve out a philosophy of life, a philosophy of solitude, from experience and nature. Not that all his writings don’t likewise brim with intellectual concerns and a passionate awareness of what matters in the world. It is, rather, that a purity and heartfelt sense of presence, especially in the earlier “lyrical” essays, conveys a fullness, even a sensual quality. For Camus, born in Algeria and a child of the Mediterranean Sea, that quality is best conveyed by climate and the sea.

Camus does not like cold northern cities: Prague, Paris, New York. Of Prague he writes: “I was suffocating, surrounded by walls.” In New York, high atop a skyscraper hotel where he sleeps fitfully, Camus writes that he hears a far-away tugboat and is relieved to remember that the city is on an island and that the sea is not far away.

“Nuptials at Tipasa” is full of the scent and wild colors of flowers, glaring stone ruins, the shadow of distant desert hills. Nature is sufficient to bring Camus life and philosophy. The ancient mystery religions of Greece only required that aspirants open their eyes to what was around them. Does not the “Hymn to Demeter” cry: “Happy is he alive who has seen these things on earth.”

Plunging into the warm salty sea is a rhapsodic venture:

The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there’s nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. … Everything here leaves me intact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living.

And this is the gist of what we call too pretentiously “personal development”: to life surrendering nothing, to “don no mask.”

Camus haunts the villages and towns of North Africa, the grand cities of Europe, alone. He exemplifies the alienated, the existential, the “stranger” or “outsider” of the title of his most famous novel (“The Stranger”) who is too dazzled by the natural elements to understand the madness of society around him. Not that Camus did not understand it thoroughly. Rather, he did not abide by it, suffering the loss of his compatriots’ esteem even while gaining the esteem of the whole world for his fierce defense of the individual and of liberty. (He wanted France and Algeria to be reconciled, but no one in France or Algeria wanted it.)

Camus wrote no essay or fiction on solitude as such, but he touched upon the ultimate solitude of existence in every page he presented. Wrapped in nature and what he called the “absurd” makes hard work to extract an easy summary of his philosophical impact on this topic of solitude. But solitude is linked to death, and to the meaninglessness of society and its delusions. A person is obliged to make his or her own meaning, and therein discovers not only freedom but the despair and tragedy of everyone else. At once a rebel from contrivance, a solitary becomes conscious of what binds everyone in a common but futile task. Self-realization, not mindless conformity, is the ironic (“absurd”?) way to reach out to others in the world and make a solidarity that will last at least a short time.

In a later essay, “The Sea Close By,” Camus writes of an ocean voyage where self is consumed by the vastness of the ocean, prompting reflection on our own final consumption.

Knowing that certain nights whose sweetness lingers will keep returning to the earth and sea after we are gone, yes, this helps us die. Great sea, ever in motion, ever virgin, my religion along with night! It washes and satiates us in its sterile billows, frees us and holds us upright. Each breaker brings its promise, always the same. What does each say? If I were to die surrounded by cold mountains, ignored by the world, an outcast, at the end of my strength, at the final moment the sea would flood my cell, would life me above myself and help me die without hatred.