The upheavals of the early 20th Century in Europe produced several generations of our greatest intellectuals. The immediacy of political crisis, the rapid technological evolution of society, the possibility of revolution and the threat of economic ruination and war forced a number of men and women who might otherwise have remained removed from the public sphere to step into it in an attempt to shape their continent’s future. Art, philosophy and politics collided like no other time before or since.
Albert Camus is one such figure. Born in French Algeria on 7th November 1913, less than a year before the outbreak of the First World War, he moved to France at twenty-five after a tempestuous period of involvement with the Algerian Left. He worked with the Resistance during the Second World War, writing and later editing the anti-Nazi journal Combat and meeting Jean-Paul Sartre in 1943. After the war he became an increasingly vocal political critic, opposing both the American atom bomb attacks and the Soviet repression of eastern Europe. In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, as described during the presentation: “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times”. He was the second youngest recipient of the award, only older than Rudyard Kipling. He died in a car crash in 1960.
Camus made major contributions to both the literature and philosophy of the 20th Century, and, like Sartre, the two areas inform one another in his work. Terming his own ideology ‘absurdist’ – though regarded by many critics as in the same tradition as dada, surrealism and existentialism – his characters continually strain against a world apparently devoid of reason or progress. His first contribution to philosophy was centered around this very idea, that of the absurd. He believed it to be the result of a desire for clarity and understanding in a world that doe not offer either ideal. His most famous philosophical essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942), was written at the centre of his struggle against totalitarianism, and his later literary works such as La Peste (1947) and La Chute (1956) reflect these concerns.
At first a communist and later holding anarcho-syndicalist sympathies, Camus was nevertheless a committed proponent of European federalism. He worked with Altiero Spinelli, author of the ‘Venetone Manifesto’ and founder of the European Federalist Movement, and himself founded the organisation’s French division in 1944. Camus supported human rights and worked with UNESCO until 1952 when he resigned after the UN allowed Spain to become a member under the rule of General Franco. Camus strong devotion to his ideals demonstrates the tenacity required and difficulties encountered by great Europeans. He said at the time that the continent “can only evolve along the path of economic progress, democracy and peace if the nation states become a federation”. We at the PDU continue to follow after him today.
Image: “Albert Camus” courtesy of Mitmensch0812 via Flickr. Published under Creative Commons 2.0