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THE MAKING OF A WRITER (from ‘Albert Camus 1913-60’ by Philip Thody pp19-25)

…Man's loneliness is particularly tragic in L'Envers et l'Endroit (‘The Wrong Side and the Right Side’) because all possibility of a religious solution is denied, and because man is shown as unable to find any kind of happiness in his own thoughts. This is emphasised in the third of the essays, La Mort dans l'Ame, (‘The Death of the Soul’) in which Camus describes his own experiences when travelling in Czechoslovakia and spending a week alone in Prague. There, in a city where he knew no one and could not speak the language, he was, as he says, 'reduced to despair by this disappointing tête-à-têtewith myself and with my own poverty stricken thoughts'. Yet this essentially Pascalian view of man - Camus repeated with approval, in 1944, Brice Parain's remark that 'Any philosophy which does not refute Pascal is useless' - is nowhere presented as leading to an acceptance of religion. As the ironic misquotation of Pascal in the first essay showed, Camus considered that, as he said, 'it is sufficient for the hope of life to return again for God to be powerless against the interests of man'. Religion, like man's other activities, offers only fleeting and illusory benefits. In many ways L'Envers et l'Endroit is the most depressing of Camus's early works, for it holds out no possibility of escaping from loneliness and frustration. The world is beautiful, but contains no comfort or consolation for man. If his youth fades, or if he moves to a sunless country, the happy barbarian of the Algerian beaches cannot avoid the encounter with unhappiness.

This is brought out in a passage where Camus explains the meaning of the title which the essays have and the image it suggests of the right and wrong sides of a piece of cloth. 'I am linked to the world,' he writes, 'by all my acts, to men by all my pity and gratitude. Between these two sides ('cet envers et cet endroit') I do not wish to choose, I do not wish a choice to be made.' The correct attitude, he maintains, is to remain aware of the contradiction between the beauty of the world and the sufferings of man, to allow neither to be overwhelmed by the other, but to cultivate the tension which the conflict between them brings into being. There is here an important link with Le Mythe de Sisyphe, for Camus will develop this idea in the later essay by suggesting that tension similar to this is psychologically healthy and morally noble. The only virtue which he is prepared to recognise, in both L'Envers et l'Endroit and Le Mythe de Sisyphe, is that of lucidity: one should remain aware of the 'absurd simplicity of the world,' while at the same time living 'as if' values existed. 'Don't let them tell you any stories,' he writes. 'Don't let them say of the man condemned to death that: "He's going to pay his debt to society," but; "They're going to chop his head off." It doesn't seem much. But it makes a little differ­ence all the same. And then, there are people who prefer to look their fate straight in the eye.'

L'Envers et l'Endroit does indeed show a swing away from what Camus referred to in 1952 as 'le total abrutissement du soleil' (‘The Total Brutishness of the Sun’) and towards amore reflective and critical attitude to experience. Basing oneself on the remarks which Camus made in his preface to Grenier's essays, is possible to distinguish three stages in his early intellectual development. The first which goes up to the age of twenty and rather curiously includes both his first attack of tuberculosis and his recovery from it, is one of instinctive, animal enjoyment of the life of the senses. It was perhaps to this period that he referred when he made Jean Tarrou, in La Peste, (‘The Plague’) say that 'When I was young, I lived with the idea of my innocence, that is to say, with no ideas at all.' Then comes the shock of discovery when he read Grenier's Les Iles, (‘The Islands’) understood the reason for his 'sudden melancholies' and ceased to live 'in sensations, on the surface of the world, among colours, waves and the fine scent of the earth'. This awakening produced L'Envers et l'Endroit, with its reaction in favour of an insistence upon the darker side of experience and on the value of intellectual awareness. Then, this time in a movement away from the atmosphere of L'Envers et l'Endroit, comes the triumphant reaffirmation of the life of the body in Noces, (‘Nupitals’) the song of the nuptials between man and the earth which contrasts so sharply with the detached irony of the mood of the first essays.
Clearly, such an imaginary biography leaves much to be desired. When a photograph exists of Camus in the dark suit and white armband of the little boy taking his First Communion, it is hard to see how he was 'brought up outside traditional religions'.1 It leaves on one side the question of how he combined the ironic nihilism of L'Envers et l'Endroit with his membership and rejection of the Communist Party in 1934, or how he was later to be at one and the same time the happy pagan of Noces and the socially conscious journalist of L'Alger-Republicain. Nevertheless, it does explain the difference of atmosphere between L'Envers et l'Endroit and Noces, as well as foreshadowing the movement from the reve­lation of the absurd to the discovery of joy in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. For Noces continues many of the themes of L'Envers et l'Endroit but looks at them, as it were, from the more flattering side of the cloth. As Camus wrote in Le Mythe de Sisyphe in 1943, 'One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.' Noces was such a manual, and the concept of 'the absurd' which Camus was to make so popular in 1943 stems from his insistence in L'Envers et l'Endroit that there is no ultimate consolation for human loneliness and the completeness of death. Yet what was a pretext for sombre meditation in L'Envers et l'Endroit leads to intense and satisfying happiness in Noces.

       The idea of happiness is indeed not absent from L'Envers et l’Endroit, and it inspires one of the best essays in the book, L'Amour de vivre, (‘The Love of Living’). But it is linked in the first essays with two feelings which appear only intermittently in Noces: those of despair and of an indefinable aspiration towards some unknown and unattainable ideal. 'There is no love of living without despair of life,' he wrote in L'Envers et l'Endroit, when describing his contemplation of the sun-drenched countryside of the Mediterranean countries, and added to this epigram a definition of 'love of living' as 'a silent passion which was perhaps going to escape me, a bitterness beneath the flame’. It is this awareness which Camus said he owed to the influence of Les Iles and writes with less irony and  more enthusiasm of the full satisfaction to be gained in the physical joys of life.
It is because Camus feels so completely at home in the physical world that he does not, in Noces, stress the world's basic indifference which obsesses him in L'Envers et l'Endroit, and that the whole tone of the book, with the picture which it gives of the young Camus, is unlike that suggested by the first essays. The Camus described by Emmanuel Robles as 'essentially a creature of the sun, made for the simple and intense life of the Mediterranean shores' was also the Camus who wrote this profession of con­fidence in the world in the first essay in the book, Noces a'Tipasa: 'I must be naked and then dive into the sea, the scents of the earth still about me, wash off these scents in the sea and consummate on my own flesh the embrace for which, lips to lips, earth and sea have for so long been sighing.' The whole of this essay is the description of the completely satisfying experience which Camus has when he enters into communion with nature, and it introduces a hymn to joy which is taken up in different ways throughout the book. At Tipasa, the sea 'sucking at the rocks with the sound of kisses,' the mountains 'moving with confident and certain rhythm to crouch down in the sea,' the 'melody of the world' which comes through the gaps in the wall of the Christian basilica at Sainte-Sala, all strengthen Camus in his realisation that here man is offered a happiness which is made for him and which is always within his reach. At the end of a day spent swimming, and walking through the flower-strewn ruins of Tipasa, Camus sits on a park bench and meditates on the fullness of the happiness he has found. 'I watched the shapes of the countryside merge in the growing twilight. My cup was brimming over. Above my head hung the buds of a pomegranate tree, closed and ribbed like little fists which held all the promise of spring. There was rosemary behind me, and I could smell the alcoholic tang of its leaves. I could see hills through the gaps of the trees, and, further in the distance, a strip of sea above which the sky, like the sail of a boat motionless for lack of wind, rested with all its tenderness. I felt a strange joy in my heart, the very joy which is born of a clear conscience. There is a feeling which actors have when they know they have played their part well, that is to say when they have made their own gestures coincide with those of the ideal character they have been representing, taken up a position in a picture made for them in advance and suddenly brought it to life with the beating of their own heart. This was exactly my feeling: I had played my part well. I had done the task which awaited me as a man, and the fact that I had known joy all one livelong day seemed to me not an exceptional success but the whole-hearted fulfilment of a condition which, in certain circum­stances, makes it our duty to be happy.'
Even when, as on a windy day at Djemila, Camus feels not the 'inner quietness of love satisfied' but rather a full aware­ness of his coming death, this sense of communion with the world is not destroyed. Indeed, throughout Noces the idea that death is inevitable merely adds to Camus's determination to enjoy fully and completely the pleasures vouchsafed to him. It is when the wind has almost destroyed his feeling of his own individuality, when he has been 'polished by the wind, worn through to the very soul . . . mingling the beating of [his] heart with the great, sonorous heart-beats of the ever present heart of nature' that he realises the full extent of the satisfaction which his complete identification with the world and his refusal to seek out any other values can give him.

     ‘Few people understand that there is a refusal which has nothing to do with renunciation. What meaning can words like “future”, “improvement”, “position" have here? What can be meant by “the heart’s progress"? If I obstinately refuse all the “later on” of the world, it is because I do not want to give up my present riches. I do not want to believe that death opens out on to another life. For me it is a closed door. I don’t say that it is “a step the we must all take”: but that it is a horrible and dirty adventure. All the solutions which are offered to me try to take away from man the weight of his own life. And, watching the heavy flight of the great birds of Djemila, it is exactly a certain weight that I ask for and receive. I have too much youth in me to speak of death. But if I were to speak of it it is here that I should find the precise word which would, midway between horror and silence, express the conscious certainty of a death without hope.’

     This communion with nature, this instinctive wisdom of the body, and this rejection of all attempts to clothe the thought of final annihilation in comforting myths are also qualities which Camus finds and appreciates in the essentially pagan civilisation of North Africa. The essay L'Ete' a' Alger (‘Summer in Algiers’) is a long defence and illustration of the virtues of Camus's own countrymen who come of a race which 'born of the sun and of the sea, alive and full of vigour, derives its greatness from its simplicity and, standing upright on its beaches, addresses a smile of complicity to the shining smile of the heavens'. Such a people, Camus writes, have the touch of barbarity typical of all races who have created a new civilisation, and he suggests that they are, perhaps at this very moment, in process of 'modelling the face of a new culture where man's greatness will perhaps find its true likeness'. If they did succeed in doing so, it would apparently be one where man would have to resign himself to the unhappiness of old age, abandon the vague quest for something more permanent described in L'Envers et l'Endroit, and accept that the important part of his life is finished when he is over thirty. 'Men find here,' writes Camus, 'throughout the whole of their youth, a life which is made to the measure of their beauty. Then afterwards, their life goes down towards forgetfulness. They have placed their bets upon the body, and they knew that they would lose. In Algiers everything presents a refuge and an occasion for triumphs to those who are young and alive: the bay, the sun, the red and white games of the seaward terraces, the flowers and the sports stadiums, the young girls with smooth legs. But for anyone who has lost his youth, there is nothing to which he can cling and not a single place where melancholy can seek refuge.'

Men must accept that there is no other truth than that of the body, and, for Camus, it is the fact that the Algenans do this which gives them their particular virtue. It is a virtue which Camus took from them and made into one of the important ideas in Le Mythe de Sisyphe,  The men who were 'gods of the summer at the age of twenty because of their thirst for life, and who are still gods when they live completely without hope', have never committed a sin against life. For, writes Camus, 'if there is a sin against life, it is not so much to fall into despair as to hope for immortality and elude the implac­able grandeur of the life we have'. The essential virtue is to recognise that there is no solution to the problem of human mortality, that no consolation of another life can be offered to man, and that he must be satisfied with 'stones, stars, and flesh, and those truths which the hand itself can touch'. Camus's rejection of religion is more absolute in Noces than it was in L'Envers et l'Endroit because the emotional grounds for it have changed. In L'Envers et l'Endroit, religion is presented as an illusory consolation which can never seriously rival the activities of real life. In Noces, the suggestion is rather that even if the hope and comfort offered by religion did happen to be true, this would by no means be a good thing: man would thereby lose that intensity of joy which can, in Camus's view, come only from his awareness of the absolute finality of death. In L'Envers et l'Endroit there is the suspicion of a nostalgic hankering after an impossible religious belief. In Noces, on the other hand, Camus's humanism takes on for the first time something of the defiant quality of Le Mythe de Sisyphe and L'Etranger.