This will be the second to last post in this series, as I hope to do one focusing Camus’s conception of art — perhaps in comparison with Adorno’s, which he definitively contradicts in his notion of art as rectifying.
My preceding posts stayed on the level of abstraction, something which one might construe as a mishandling of a book which condemns abstraction as the inhuman evil of a vile totalitarian sphere which subordinates “the good” under a universal reign of terror, a state in which there is no mercy nor affirmation, nothing which is not worthy to perish in the light of some new ideal — a reign of “absolute negation”, as he puts it. Camus good is solidarity — the union of friendship and loyalty, those candle flames in the dark of a cruel world, which will, if he is to be believed, never be fully rectified and which will never — no matter how it improves — become a utopia.#
I believe he is correct in his firm assertion of the eternity of some form of misery, though we rectify all we can through our art and our technology, but his world — though he changes the terms — is nothing but the world of mediocrity, of effectless courage, of a poetic pretense which makes life bearable for us who suffer in the ghettos of the spirit (and that, curiously enough, is not to be found in actual ghettos): a weak form of religion, a metaphysical assertion of an ethics — though limited to the human sphere — which is absolute in its relativity, or relation, to us. He laments the atrocities which a concept of a infinitely malleable nature in man produce, praises moderation and humility, defines rebellion as an egalitarian sentiment for equality for all men predicated on their shared nature which goes beyond itself should it violate the right to life of even those who deny the same right in them. Take the mediocrity of liberal politics and sprinkle it with Parisian style and you have The Rebel. How I want to believe the feelings it evokes in me — the sense of solidarity, of absolute moral principles (such as the moral equivalence of all lives), of a conventionality dressed in wolves clothing, rectifying the world in giving it the sense it lacks in itself — but how can I? Equally, how can I not?
I am at a crossroads with this book, a forking path which is more than a choice of critical stance on a work of philosophy — a philosophy which still retains the naive conceptual permeability of ideal and history, agent and structure, makes one think of simpler times when concepts of God, good, and evil still held a gravity — but is more the decision about the nature of my projection into the future: do I choose to accept this life, the limitations of human thought and sanity, affirm the megerest of philosophical figurations for their actionability and their comforting sense of community or do I press the horizon ever onward, attempting to eek out from my frayed mind constructs beyond personality, beyond known errors and into the risk of new ones? Do I choose his condemned All or Nothing? Truth or insanity? (Or, truth and insanity — as it often enough goes.) Do I choose the concepts of good and evil, which Camus so defends as based upon the ethical nature of the human being — an unexplainable and absurd nature as it may be? Do I ground myself in something or jump into what is only madness for those who become lost within it (but a tempting darkness, a beckoning leap beyond such a small world as ours)?
What is it in man which rebels against his condition and affirms the rectitude of what should be against what is? This is the question Camus asks; but, equally, I ask: what is it that drives man beyond the concepts of the previous generation, ever further from any stability, any comforting truth or static factor? What is the draw of that endless motion — which is analogous to the endlessly vivisecting and complexifying philosophical current — that Camus so condemns in Fascism and in state communism? Why does part of me balk at his thought as simplistic, as weak and sentimental — childish — while still the part of me that is a child, that grandiloquent believer, finds it so dear to his heart? I don’t believe I am ready to take a stance on this work, don’t think I’m ready to cast off into stormy seas in search of a new nature, nor am I ready to commit to this one which persists despite its constant failing and it’s continuing irrelevance. (I too am moderate in some regards, or attempt to be.)
Camus stands, on my current horizon, as the most reasonable figuration of what I can understand as valid — reasonable in the conventional sense — but he is not daring, does not excite me, only fills me with a sense of safety, of stepping back from a ledge. I understand how Johnny could declare Camus a life saver, for I could see myself saved, could see myself a believer in yet another absurdity which is precisely acceptable for recognizing itself as such, but… will I allow myself that luxury? What draws me to suffering, to a complete annihilation of what I currently am — accomplished in stages though it may be?
General Philosophical Quibbles , and The Negation of The Universal
Camus philosophizes as man — an individual embodied even in philosophizing — yet we increasingly come to the disembodied in philosophy, to a pure immanence of mind to its objects, if not literally, in the removal of the subject qua human and its replacement with subject as instrument whose data must be parsed. Can such a philosophy survive except wherein philosophy is closest to fiction? Camus is not “a coordinator of things said”, a la Merleau-Ponty, but judger of things valued, a heart which bleeds and beats with compassion for the world, a declaimer of murder, of injustice, of an undefined crime, and a vague right of man that exist only by its assertion. He defies the merging of value with a science, the human with its objects — attempts to keep that separation which is man’s moderate refusal, his conditioned acceptance, from what merely is or what absolutely should be at the expense of all else. Sartre is the proclaimer of hard truths — at least as he sees them — and of a misery which cannot be resolved, while Camus speaks too of irresolvable contradiction but also man’s ability to find meaning through a mutual recognition of shared dignity within those eternal riddles. There is meaning possible — even where it is rejected in the name of one concept or another — but that meaning is never necessary, always chosen and always fragile. Existentialism recognizes absolutely that man must create his own meaning, but Camus is holding on to a nature which would be able to source that meaning and source it universally. Declaring human nature only choice, only a nihilation of the past and a projection toward the future in conjunction with a meager facticity is still in some sense a universal, but it is a universal empty of content, the universal recognized as only an emptiness to be filled, of the ethical sphere — the sphere of a chosen becoming — as only a choice and never a necessity. Camus comes close to convincing me in some more substantial nature, something which is not so open to choice but which has implications for the justice and dignity of “man” and which declares that conceptual man follows — at least partially — from natural man.
The profound conflict of this century is perhaps not so much between the German ideologies of history and Christian political concepts, which in a certain way are accomplices, as between German dreams and Mediterranean traditions, between the violence of eternal adolescence and virile strength, between nostalgia, rendered more acute by knowledge and by books and courage reinforced and enlightened by the experience of life—in other words, between history and nature.
In other words, he sees the conflict between history — as the becoming of man which denies his nature in the process of accomplishing that nature — and between a nature which is an essential being expressed through but always existent in history. While he references Hegel as the philosopher of becoming, of an eternal not yet (even if Hegel believed history accomplished during the reign of Napoleon), Sartre, in his concept of consciousness as a nothingness which can never truly be, is equally a philosopher of eternal becoming and equally implicated in this conflict.@ Adolescence, in Camus figuration, is the time of becoming, but adulthood, that is when one has being, a stable point from which to view history and modify that history from somewhere, if not outside, at a distance. In adulthood, becoming is mitigated, subordinated to good already existent, to “the grandeur of life”, or at least must vye with that already existent good. This is the position of someone who dwells in the existent good, who is not overcome by misery, who, though he is close enough to see misery, is far enough to deny that it has totally permeated life and that such a life of misery is not worth living. I too am in that position, but I understand those who can find nowhere outside of misery, can understand the absolute nihilism of one who in fact has nothing, not even a nature — and is not the visceral sense of being progressively destroyed by the society we live in? (It is a constant battle to feel I have anything analogous to the nature Camus speaks of, to feel any solidarity with some common source of man.)
While Camus sees the degradation of human dignity in the denial of the human for a constant praxis of ‘becoming-what-one-isn’t’, perhaps that sense of dignity he feels is missing in those who choose such a praxis; perhaps the struggle for what they aren’t is all they have left. There is sometimes dignity in recognizing that separation does exist, that there are monstrous circumstances that create beings outside the universal, outside of any intelligibility, and while we may seek to mitigate the spread of their negation, we must also recognize that our moderation — our intelligibility — was made possible by a system which produced their absolute negation. There is good and evil, and then there is that which has been created without such categories, which has never known the dignity and universality such categories entail — let us not condemn them, but mourn for them, fight them when we must, but with sadness in our hearts. They are not our brothers, our sisters, or our fellow human beings except in the sense of could have been so — and that isn’t their fault, nor completely ours.% (Man is something one is made into — man is defined by his culture and his contextualization as such — and not all are so lucky, or unlucky, depending on your stance, to have been made so.) Perhaps the time of the human has ended, perhaps there is something — not “better” than man, unfortunately — but beyond him coming, something which is not universal, which negates universality in the roar of an implacable individual suffering. To recognize that there is a inhuman humanity, a living death, so to speak, is — though unrecognized in this case — to declare that man can be other than he is, that man is something one becomes and something one can become other than. In defining a position which negates universality and creates separation, one declares that there is a position outside universality and that it is a position that one can occupy; i.e., in defending man against the Un-man, one is recognizing the Un-man’s existence.
Camus’s Horseshoe Theory
Camus advocates the middle way through irrationality and rationality: neither operating in complete rationality — which would allow mUrDer — nor complete irrationality — which would make his “civilization” impossible.* He writes:
[T]he desire for unity not only demands that everything should be rational. It also wishes that the irrational should not be sacrificed. One cannot say that nothing has any meaning, because in doing so one affirms a value sanctified by an opinion; nor that everything has a meaning, because the word everything has no meaning for us. The irrational imposes limits on the rational, which, in its turn, gives it its moderation. Something has a meaning, finally, which we must obtain from meaninglessness.
This obtaining meaning from meaninglessness but still operating rationally upon it is what Camus is advocating (and something I often enough advocate). The irrational source of value is, for him, the rebellion through which man declares his dignity against that which would deny it, but in being an assertion as man rather than as an individual — as Stirner’s unique one (a notion which Camus critiques) — this assertion is normative, makes the claim for all men, even for that man who is perpetrating the infringement which gives rise to the assertion of dignity. From this “fact”, Camus asserts that revolutionary murder is unjust because it contradicts the normative foundation of rebellion; in murdering an oppressor, you deny the common human dignity which you share with the oppressor and which inspired you to stand up for that dignity initially. The only way through rebellion is moderation and a normative claim which would eliminate “silence between men” — or so Camus thinks.
As for Murder which a revolutionary might find necessary, Camus grants that this may be a moral action only if the rebel consents to die afterwards himself. If the rebel asserts the equality of all men, on taking life, he must die — this is Camus’ poetic logic — and it does have a sort of primitive appeal. To live by the sword is often enough to die by the sword, but not from equity or from some innate symmetry — rather, from the nature of enmity and war, from a conflict which culminates only in one force giving up its claim to domination, or, in the case of some revolutionary struggles, the claim for recognition all together. Camus writes:
From the moment that he strikes, the rebel cuts the world in two. He rebelled in the name of the identity of man with man and he sacrifices this identity by consecrating the difference in blood. His only existence, in the midst of suffering and oppression, was contained in this identity.
Essentially, this misses the fact that the act of rebellion is inspired by an initial split preexisting. The rebel rebels against that which is separate from himself and imposes itself externally. His separation from those who oppress him is not merely metaphysical — neither do I think revolutions are driven by metaphysics — but material, juridical, and systemic. It’s all very well to talk about the abstract equality of all men, about its inviolability, but oppression — while it may be manifested in abstract beliefs — is not a matter of metaphysics, but of bodies and peoples. Camus himself advocates for localizing rebellion, in autonomous groups of interests being the grounds for struggle, yet he still believes that rebellion should be predicated on universality. The sole right of the universal over individual struggle, this is precisely a method of excluding all those who haven’t been assimilated into the mental structures of “civilization”. Camus prefigures the aporias of contemporary moderate thought and enlightenment liberalism — or liberalism predicated on enlightenment premises. Ah, “to learn to live and to die, and, in order to be a man, refuse to be a god”— what a sentiment! But, there will always be those who find it acceptable to play god — revolutionaries and conservatives alike — and they would rejoice at the timidity of others, of their refusing to play god, when god is being played regardless. No man can completely determine others, but there is the sphere of culture — and of cultural war — in which agents vye for the determination of common morality and prejudice, vye for control over the law and the production of ideas and the control of platforms, and this war is “beyond good and evil” — not that actions within it can’t be judged as good or evil.& Camus, in seeking to predicate a “universal limit” to rebellion, even in the name of some originary, common experience — which is of dubious existence — is playing god.$ Any concept which applies to all men, seeks to assert a human nature and its necessary implications, is an assertion within the sphere of divinity, in the sphere of the absolute, no matter how relatively qualified. The human universality of moderates is essentially immoderate in its projection of an immoderate scope of application — in daring to declare itself universal.