Albert Camus: The Life of Dialogue

Albert Camus: The Life of Dialogue


By comparison with the work of men like Koestler, Silone and Orwell, Albert Camus’ writing has always seemed to me somewhat grandiose and porous. He lacked Koestler’s capacity for sustained argument, Silone’s mixture of humor and humaneness, Orwell’s gritty concern for facts. To be sure, Camus never succumbed to the casuistry of the later Koestler or the occasional anti-intellectualism of Orwell; but except for The Stranger, his one first-rate novel and his deepest exploration of the problem of nihilism, Camus’ work had a disturbing quality: all too often he seemed to be making a speech.

To note these reservations is to do that, and no more; it is surely not to deny that Camus deserved much of the praise that has been rendered him. As a man reflecting upon the life of our time, Camus could be, in his very bewilderment, an enormously sympathetic figure. His mind was not really fecund, like Sartre’s, but then he never became infatuated, again like Sartre, with his own dilemmas and agilities. Camus really preferred the truth to everything else, even to his own security as an intellectual. In defense of the values by which he tried to live, he could be properly intransigeant; but he was also ready to bend before the waywardness of impulse, the needs of personal feeling, the claims of the body. Real virtues, and in our time among the greatest a writer could have. But they were virtues that also brought with them two significant weaknesses: a temptation to reduce humanism to a mere literary device and an incapacity to embody his moral sentiments as political ideas.

To some extent, these weaknesses reflect the dilemma of the post-Resistance intellectuals in France who refused to surrender themselves to any total ideology yet felt a need for some principle by which to guide their public life. The hopes nurtured by the Resistance having been so sadly dissipated, they began to fall back upon large and unprovisioned sentiments of fraternity, sentiments without which little else can be worth while but which in themselves seldom lead to concrete realizations in life or art. Perhaps that is one reason Camus’ reflections tend to go soft and his fiction seems thin-blooded.