Camus: L'Homme révolté
I've been thinking recently on the best advice I can give my students. Usually, it's the same advice I tend to give myself, though not always the same prescription. Today, I began reading one of Albert Camus' greatest works before he died in an automobile accident in 1960. The Rebel, originally L'Homme révolté (though I prefer the Spanish, El Hombre Rebelde) is (quote from the backcover) "Camus's 'attempt to understand the time I live in' and a brilliant essay on the nature of human revolt." I wish to include an excerpt here, the opening three paragraphs, perhaps you might find the same resonance with his words as I have. It's about freedom.
What is a rebel? A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes as soon as he begins to think for himself. A slave who has taken orders all is life, suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying 'no'?
He means, for instance, that 'this has been going on too long', 'so far but no farther', 'you are going to far', or again 'There are certain limits beyond which you shall not go.' In other words, his 'no' affirms the existence of the borderline. You find the same conception in the rebel's opinion that the other person is 'exaggerating', that he is exerting his authority beyond a limit where he infringes on the rights of others. He rebels because he categorically refuses to submit to the conditions that he considers intolerable and also because he is confusedly convinced that his position is justified, or rather, because in his own mind he thinks that he has the right to...'. Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified. It is in this way that the rebel slave says yes and no at the same time. He affirms that there are limits and also that he suspects--and wishes to preserve--the existence of certain things beyond those limits. He stubbornly insists that there are certain things in him which 'are worthwhile...' and which must be taken into consideration.
In every act of rebellion, the man concerned experiences not only a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights but also a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself. Thus he implicitly brings into play a standard of values so far from being false that he is willing to preserve them at all costs. Up to this point he has, at least, kept quiet and, in despair, has accepted a condition to which he submits even though he considers it unjust. To keep quiet is to allow yourself to believe that you have no opinions, that you want nothing, and in certain cases it amounts to really wanting nothing. Despair, like Absurdism, prefers to consider everything in general and nothing in particular. Silence expresses this attitude very satisfactorily. But from the moment that the rebels finds his voice--even though he has nothing to say but no--he begins to consider things in particular. In the etymological sense, the rebel is a turncoat. He acted under the lash of his master's whip. Suddenly he turns and faces him. He chooses what is preferable to what is not. Not every value leads to rebellion, but every rebellion tacitly invokes a value.
Camus addresses topics that are as relevant today as they were in his own time. Sub chapters include Individual Terrorism, State Terrorism and Irrational Terror, State Terrorism and Rational Terror, and of particular and personal concern, Rebellion and Art, which opens:
Art is an activity which exalts and denies simultaneosly. 'No artist tolerates reality', says Nietzsche. That is true, but no artist can ignore reality. Artistic creation is a demand for unity and a rejection of the world. But it rejects a world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is. Rebellion can be observed here in its pure state and it its original complexities. Thus, art should give us a final perspective on the content of rebellion.
Albert Camus. The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower. London: Penguin Books, 1951.
Camus was Algerian born, and throughout his life, dealt with the conflicts and times of being so in a personal way. I am coming to identify with that condition. Even though traces of the words "No Exit" still mark my chest, I am finding Sartre (in particular his political affinities) fading from the skin, or remaining, as it were, superficial and finding the Camus, with his humanistic and often unresolved interrogations, penetrating and persistent.