Heart of Steel: Camus Revivifies Courage

Danielle Katz

Much of existentialist philosophy is rather sterile. In its theoretical examination of responsibility and freedom, its insistence that meaning is relative, and its exhortations to confront the absurd and to find and construct our own meaning, it seems to inadvertently ignore the real, material, and emotional experience of human being in the world. The writing of Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, takes a rather cold and uncompromising approach to the concept of freedom; he asserts that people must bear the full burden of responsibility for their successes and failures, happiness and despair, and moreover, that in choosing a particular path, man chooses not only for himself, but for all of mankind. Journalist Adam Gopnick points out Sartre’s detached, indifferent attitude, suggesting that Sartre was less concerned about whether his ideas resonated within and for the lives of others and more concerned about whether they garnered him popularity in the press and the support of the French Communist Party. “Sartre’s great sin,” argues Gopnick, “was not his ideology, which did indeed change all the time. It was his insularity.” While empowering and even optimistic, Sartre’s ideas are rooted in the abstract and neglect a certain element of the human experience that is incommunicable via conventional language and a rationalistic approach. These ideas, compelling in theory, are difficult, if not nearly impossible, to implement in practice. They simply are not compatible with the emotional turmoil and physical suffering that characterize life in our world.

This concern for raw human experience is present, however, in the work of Albert Camus, an existentialist philosopher, novelist, and Sartre’s contemporary. Camus, writing from a time period during which humans were treated as dispensable and their lives were being discarded en masse, brings this visceral aspect of human existence into relief. Camus’s philosophy is at once more accessible and more applicable because of his sensitivity toward the struggle of being human. Sartre was a fervent believer in the Marxist ideal and whatever sacrifice might be necessary to achieve it; meanwhile Camus, as Gopnick confirms, “thought that all systems of ideal government were wrong, and all atrocities equally atrocious.” Camus felt that no cause or principle was grand enough to justify the taking of even a single human life. In his writing he calls attention to the fact that, in the absence of meaning, the indifference of the universe, and the overwhelming absurdity that the lucid person must face, life is the only certainty and thus the most valuable entity, to be preserved at all costs.

Camus’ persistent reaffirmation of the importance of human life includes various references to a certain “human heart”. This mention of the heart, anomalous in philosophical writing, is even more unexpected in Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger, in which the narrator Meursault does not seem to possess any of the qualities traditionally associated with the “human heart”. Why is Camus so intent on bringing such a fleshy, organic concept into the abstract realm of existentialist philosophy? Perhaps he wishes to replace our conventional definition of the human heart—the center of love, compassion, sensitivity, and spirituality—with an entirely new conception. In both The Stranger and his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, published later that same year, Camus posits that the heart serves a higher purpose than the passively emotional role we have previously assigned to it; it is instead a source of courage, rebellion, and the continual rebirth that constitutes freedom. Interestingly, Camus characterizes this heart as the source of nostalgia, the longing for meaning from which feelings of absurdity and abandonment arise, as well as the stubborn, relentless will that is determined to grapple with this absurdity and forge its own sense of meaning from the struggle itself.

The development of this novel concept of the heart occurs throughout Camus’s illustrations of both Meursault and Sisyphus, two absurd heroes who are aware of the futility of their situation but nonetheless refuse to succumb to despair. Their realization of this futility results from the clash between an inherent human craving for meaning and the disillusioned discovery that none exists. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes, “What is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” (455). Camus thus posits that the heart contains this nostalgia, the “wild longing for clarity,” but it does not let this desire overwhelm or consume it. Though the heart yields this demand for understanding, purpose, or unity, it does not yield to the demand; rather, it turns around and combats the threat of despair that has been thrust upon it. “The reason is impotent when it hears this cry from the heart,” Camus declares (Sisyphus, 459). In light of the shocking realization of the absurd, the intellect is paralyzed; the role of coping, healing, and moving forward is thus left to the heart, the source of strength and an irrational, unconditional perseverance.

This simultaneous awareness, acceptance, and rebellion against absurdity constitute a unique brand of courage that is manifest in both heroes. Sisyphus’s rebellion consists not only in his refusal to return to the underworld to receive his punishment, but also in his insistence, upon being forcibly dragged back down and set to the eternal task of rolling a rock up a mountainside, in going about his absurd role with a defiant optimism. In his refusal to resort to despair and agony, he mocks both the gods responsible for devising his torture and the absurd nature of the torture itself. Gopnick suggests that we can all be more like Sisyphus: “Learning to roll the boulder while keeping at least a half smile on your face…is the only way to act decently while accepting that acts are always essentially absurd.” By challenging ourselves to find spontaneous joy in repetition, to re-envision our meaningless toil as a sacred duty, we can overpower our torment rather than letting it consume us. Camus writes of Sisyphus that “he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock…The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Sisyphus 492). The ceaseless struggle, which both originates in the heart and nourishes it, has only two alternatives: suicide, a complete escape from the absurd universe; or regression into a pre-lucid state, in which one acknowledges absurdity and then chooses to take comfort in a unifying set of beliefs that makes life more manageable. Either option entails giving in to the absurdity, acknowledging that it is too powerful to allow a conscious, lucid existence to be worth living. This failure to rebel against absurdity, Camus asserts, leads to its disintegration. He writes, succinctly and somewhat paradoxically, “The absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to” (Sisyphus 463). Sisyphus refuses to either succumb to or escape the absurd by demonstrating that one can derive a sense of meaning, happiness, and fulfillment from the futile labor that is an unavoidable part of human existence.

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Sisyphys (1548-1549) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, Meursault, protagonist of The Stranger, rebels by upholding his own sense of meaning even when the arbitrary “machinery” of the Algerian justice system condemns him to death. On the evening before his execution, he does not throw up his hands and mourn the futility of his existence or the cold indifference of the universe; rather, he celebrates the beauty of the natural world that he will soon depart. “Smells of night, earth, and salt air were cooling my temples. The wondrous peace of that sleeping summer flowed through me like a tide,” Meursault divulges to his readers (Camus, Stranger 122). His obstinate focus on the physical, sensual pleasures of the earth stands in contrast to the prison chaplain’s attempts to coerce him into adopting abstract Christian beliefs. The chaplain, an embodiment of the compulsion toward self-soothing by means of self-deception, receives the brunt of Meursault’s frustration and indignation: “I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy,” narrates Meursault (Camus, Stranger 120). Rather than adopting a promising new faith that provides ‘love’ and forgiveness, he speaks authentically of the outrage in his heart. Its pride and self-sufficiency are too great to allow reassuring dogmas any place. This heart is the source of the courage that compels Meursault to endeavor lucidly onward toward his inevitable death without hope or consolation.

The strength to live without illusion, to face harsh reality with composure, is another capacity of the heart as Camus imagines it. Camus writes that the struggle of the human heart with the meaningless world “implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair)” (Sisyphus 462). Sisyphus knows he is condemned to eternal punishment; as he crests the mountaintop, he watches his rock roll back toward the base, perfectly aware of the perpetual struggle ahead of him. But he does nothing to mitigate this awareness. He simply accepts it and derives pride and even joy from the struggle itself. “To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it,” states Camus (Sisyphus 480). Sisyphus, together with other men and women who have rid themselves of their “blinders,” is aware of the limited nature of both his intellect and his physical being. He does not harbor any false hopes that his situation will improve, that he will somehow reach a higher understanding, or that he will escape the fate that awaits us all. Prior to his compulsory return to the underworld, Sisyphus does not fear what lies ahead of him, nor does he hope for mercy from the gods that have condemned him; rather, he revels in the “sparkling sea and the smiles of earth” while this reality exists for him (Camus, Sisyphus 490). Once set to his eternal task, he does not wish to relive the pleasures of earthly existence. He is not reliant on an imagined future to sustain him in the present.

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Courtesy SkyscraperCity.

The same can be said of Meursault, who refuses to indulge in hope during his prison stay. Meursault harbors no illusions of escape or survival. He briefly entertains fantasies of transcending the justice system, of learning that another prisoner before him had successfully done so—“My heart would have taken over from there,” he claims (Camus, Stranger 109). At this instant it appears as though Meursault views his heart as an instrument of hope and believes that merely imagining the possibility of escape would give him the strength he needed to carry on. But he quickly discovers the flaw in this view: “Of course, hope meant being cut down on some street corner, as you ran like mad, by a random bullet” (Camus, Stranger 109). Meursault realizes that hope amounts to self-deception that ultimately leads to a passive relinquishment of oneself to the absurd, the very fate that, in hoping, he would have tried to avoid. He decides that his heart, rather than waste its energy, should instead serve to fortify him against the fear he may face as certain death approaches. He tells the reader, “I was sure about me, about everything… sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me” (Camus, Stranger 120-1). In a firm and absolute acceptance of his situation Meursault gains a sense of empowerment and self-ownership. He knows that as a condemned man, he can no longer control his fate, but he can still control his attitude toward it. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes, “A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future” (463). Meursault decides that although his future is out of his hands, it need not overwhelm his present state of being; he refuses to assume a victim mentality. In his deliberate abdication of hope, he sets himself free.

Camus’s absurd hero demonstrates yet another capacity of the human heart: the courage to live with the human condition rather than trying to cure oneself of it. Sartre, in his essay A Commentary on The Stranger, writes of Meursault, “He was happy, he did as he liked, and his happiness does not seem to have been affected by any inner gnawing… which stems from the blinding presence of death” (85). Indeed, Meursault has a startling capacity to feel content and even carefree in the face of death. While at his mother’s funeral, he contemplates his drowsiness and desire to go for a walk in the country; upon murdering a stranger on the beach, he seems to notice only the blinding sunlight. Where most people might experience grief or guilt, Meursault focuses on more immediate sensations. His caprice is alienating and rather disturbing, and it results simply from the fact that he does not confine himself to the social norms that dictate how one should feel and act. He does not see himself as an enlightened individual, nor does he attempt to place himself on any sort of higher moral plane. In recounting a meeting with his attorney, Meursault tells the reader, “[The lawyer] asked if I had felt any sadness that day. The question caught me by surprise…Nevertheless I answered that I had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself” (Camus, Stranger 65). Meursault does not attempt to impose any greater meaning on his existence or try to gain a deeper understanding of himself.  Because he finds satisfaction in simple pleasures, he feels no need for introspection. Camus reminds us in his Preface to The Stranger that dishonesty extends beyond proclaiming an untruth; it also involves expressing more than one feels. Most individuals regularly suppress their authentic feelings and mask them with more outwardly acceptable behavior, putting on an act for whoever might be watching. Yet Meursault refrains from engaging in this type of falsehood, a condition that Sartre calls “Being for Others” (Being and Nothingness). The opinions and judgments of others are irrelevant; what matters to Meursault is his own unbridled authenticity.

Nor does Meursault attempt to spiritually or intellectually transcend his situation. “Living like a prisoner and trying to adapt to a new life is ‘irksome’ for [Meursault], especially during the early days, while his mind still thinks like a free man…It takes a few months for him to think like a prisoner,” explains Ashkan Shobeiri, lecturer at TATI University College (840). Even in prison, Meursault refrains from mental self-liberation; rather than continuing to view himself as a free man in chains, he eventually redefines himself as a prisoner. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes of Kierkegaard’s attempts to escape the “human condition”:

The important thing… is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments. Kierkegaard wants to be cured… The entire effort of his intelligence is to escape the antinomy of the human condition… Intelligence alone in him tries to stifle the underlying demands of the human heart” (468).

Kierkegaard, suggests Camus, engages in a frantic intellectual struggle to elevate himself above human strife by meditating on a rational solution, or “cure.” His heart, meanwhile, opposes his intellect. It houses the sense of pride that compels him to courageously accept the conditions of his humanity—namely, his responsibility for self-creation and the duty of perpetual rebellion against absurdity. Meursault does not let his intellect, with its desire for rational explanations and escape from suffering, override his heart’s desire to face his situation head-on and find peace within it.

The courage of the human heart is also visible in Camus’s characters’ ability to embark on new spiritual journeys even when the end of life is near. Meursault, on the eve of his execution, reflects on his mother’s final choices: “I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a ‘fiancé,’ why she had played at beginning again…So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again” (Camus, Stranger 122). His elderly mother’s decision to establish a new romantic relationship, to “fall in love” again, an endeavor more typically undertaken by younger people, is a testament to her sense of freedom. Rather than shying away from life in the face of death, his mother discovers that, in the absence of transcendence, these last few moments of life are all that she has, so she boldly re-creates herself. She thus exhibits a freedom from self-definition based on past or future; she is born again in each moment with a new capacity for appreciation of life and her world. This is reminiscent of the definition of freedom as proposed by philosopher Hannah Arendt: “Freedom, as we would say today, was experienced in spontaneity… Man is free because he is a beginning and was so created after the universe had already come into existence… Because he is a beginning, man can begin” (164-6).  Meursault’s mother exhibits this spontaneity in her unpredictable, unconventional choices within the confinement of her retirement home. She is able to shed her weariness and despair—“For the first few days she was at the home she cried a lot,” recounts Meursault—and act free from the burdens and constraints of her past (Camus, Stranger 5). She embodies the spirit of beginning by creating a new life for herself.

Arendt’s concept of continual rebirth, renewal, and spontaneity as constituents of freedom can also be applied to Sisyphus. Each time he reaches the bottom of the mountain and prepares to repeat the task of rolling his rock up the hill, to begin again, he faces the choice of how he will go about this task. And, as Camus would have us believe, he chooses each time to approach his punishment with a feeling of purpose indicative of a deeper sense of happiness. Each repetition involves an active decision, and each decision presents Sisyphus with the opportunity to redefine himself. In his essay The Rebel, published in 1951, Camus writes, “To be free is, precisely, to abolish ends. The innocence of the ceaseless change of things, as soon as one consents to it, represents the maximum liberty” (64). Once both Maman and Sisyphus are able to “abolish ends”—that is, to renounce either death or eternity as a goal or a source of consolation—they are able to appreciate the value of actions, experiences, people, and things in themselves, rather than any greater purpose they might serve. Only then are they able to open themselves up to the “ceaseless change” of continual rebirth through self-redefinition.

Camus redefines not only the concept of the human heart, but also that of love. This is apparent in the hidden, unconventional love that Meursault has for his mother. At the outset it seems that Meursault feels no love for his mother at all. Having placed her in a rest home rather than caring for her himself, he attends her funeral without shedding a single tear; indeed he is more troubled by sleep deprivation than grief. The day after the funeral, he “was out swimming, starting up a dubious liaison, and going to the movies, a comedy, for laughs” (Camus, Stranger 94). Meursault’s apparent apathy in the days following his mother’s death is importantly used against him, as incriminating evidence, by the prosecuting attorney in his murder trial. But the fact that Meursault’s treatment of his mother is not compatible with the traditional definition of love does not necessarily mean that Meursault feels no affection for her. In his Commentary on The Stranger, Sartre quotes Camus: “We call love that which binds us to certain human beings based solely on a collective way of seeing for which books and legends are responsible” (82). Given our preconception and misguided understanding of love, we focus on Meursault’s ‘failings’ as a devoted son and hastily assume that his relationship with his mother was cold and detached. In fact, Camus provides so little information about the history of this relationship that such a conclusion verges on speculation. One could just as easily infer, as does Sartre, that Meursault indeed loved his mother, and merely expressed it in terms different from those familiar to the reader. For example, Sartre points out that “[Meursault] still calls his mother by the tender, childish name of “Mama,” and he never misses a chance to understand her and identify with her” (84). Sartre goes on to quote Camus once more: “All I know of love is that mixture of desire, tenderness, and intelligence that binds me to a particular being” (Commentary 84). This ‘mixture’ of simple emotions and awareness is love in its most pure and basic form. The form of love “for which books and legends are responsible” is a muddled, complicated version of this essential emotion, and because it involves grandiose gestures and declarations, we deem it to be of a higher order. But Meursault does not subscribe to this hierarchy. He refuses to perform any excessive demonstrations of ‘love’ simply for the benefit of whoever might be watching; doing so would result in an inauthentic representation of his feelings. Rather than publicly displaying his private emotions, and thus further engaging in Sartre’s “being-for-others,” Meursault exists as a pure “being-for-himself,” one who is focused on his own existence and consciousness. He is content to treat his mother with his own subtle variation of love, regardless of how his society subsequently chooses to perceive him.

—Courtesy Rishian Delon, BBC

Camus, in his depiction of Meursault, re-envisions romantic love as well. Meursault’s relationship with Marie, his mistress, seems shallow and limited to a base attraction. One evening, she asks him if he wants to marry her, and he recounts, “I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her” (Camus, Stranger 41). In telling Marie that he “probably” doesn’t love her, Meursault supposes that Marie is approaching the topic of love from a conventional perspective—one that is modeled in the tales and legends, involving passion, commitment, and sacrifice. Because he does care about her, he speaks to her with absolute sincerity rather than placate her by pretending to mirror her feelings. The fact that Meursault is not willing to commit to marriage does not indicate that his variation of love is lesser than Marie’s; rather, it is of an entirely different quality. Sartre writes,

The words ‘to love’ are the most meaningless of all… Meursault thinks and acts in a different way: he has no desire to know these noble, continuous, and identical feelings. For him, neither love nor even romantic relationships exist. All that counts is the present—the concrete (Commentary 83).

In the case of Meursault and Marie’s relationship, the words ‘to love’ are meaningless because they hold a different meaning for each individual. For Marie, love is a lasting, continuous emotion that arises from myth and is consummated in marriage. For Meursault, it is a connection reborn in each new moment, existing only in the present. He describes to the reader an idyllic moment: “Together again, Marie and I swam out a ways, and we felt a closeness as we moved in unison and were happy” (Camus, Stranger 50). It is in these simple, fleeting moments of pleasure that Meursault experiences love, and it is based on this pure, unfiltered emotion that Camus bases his definition.

Through his depiction of the mythical hero Sisyphus and his modern fictional counterpart Meursault, Camus imagines a new capacity for courage that leads in an unconventional direction: away from hope, faith, and a traditional concept of love and toward the acceptance of reality in all of its harshness and grandeur. This reality involves the unceasing struggle of all people as they encounter the futility of their own existence and must create their own meaning. Yet the raw brutality, apathy, and meaninglessness of our world is equaled in magnitude by the strength of the human heart. Camus’s writing suggests that the beauty of the heart lies not in its capacity for sensitivity or compassion but in its strength and relentless determination. It enables us to move forward free of illusion and self-deception, and it furnishes us with the power to rebel against the absurdity that compels us to resort to despair. By developing flat, static heroes whose most salient trait is their possession of this exceptional courage, Camus demonstrates that this characteristic is the most critical part of a human being. In spite of his repudiation of the concept of hope, Camus leaves his readers with a note of optimism: “Everything considered,” he writes, “a determined soul will always manage.”

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. “What Is Freedom?” Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin, 2006. 143-69. Print.

Camus, Albert. “From The Myth of Sisyphus: An Absurd Reasoning.” Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: Modern Library, 2004. 442-92. Print.

Camus, Albert. Preface. Preface to The Stranger. N.p.: n.p., 1955. N. pag. BearSpace. Baylor University. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954. Print.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage International, 1989. Print.

Camus and The Stranger. British Broadcasting Corporation, n.d. Television. YouTube. Rishian Delon, 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Gopnik, Adam. “Why We Love Camus.” The New Yorker 88.8 (2012): n. pag. The New Yorker. 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Commentary on The Stranger.” Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University, 2007. 73-98. Print.

Shobeiri, Ashkan. “Meursault: An Absurd and Happy Man.” Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences 7.2 (2013): 838-45. Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

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