Camus’ existential nihilism is beautiful, and joyful. I think that is what surprised me the most. “In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time.”
Camus radiates the warm, comforting, safe power of Europe in modernity, the Europe we all think of when we consider Paris, her poets and philosophers arguing late into the night under the protective golden dome of the city of light. They had survived two world wars, they had fought off the Stalinists, they had embraced themselves and increasingly each other – eschewing the weariness and sorrow of the immediate post-war days. Why not embrace the amazing art of living in the all-consuming “now”? The world is meaningless? Let’s fill it with pleasantness and love. Camus’ existential nihilism has nothing of Nietzsche’s cold German bitterness, it is an expression of joy.
“The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt” is Camus’ attempt to introduce a new humanism, one not rooted in Christianity, though the work is deeply religious even as it denies the power of faith to give life meaning; and it is clear that Camus himself understood a great deal about Christianity though this understanding appears to have been insufficient for his philosophy. Nor in atheistic thought, and Camus reserves harsh criticism for those who seek to replace “rebellion” with Revolution which is, to him, an act only of destruction. Camus’ is a “third way”, a Gnostic secularism, a new humanism with humanity at the center of the considerations of man.
“The Rebel” is a treatise on rebellion – as man is a fundamentally rebellious creature, finding his own humanity in his acts of rebellion. “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken the light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of the winter, I finally learned within me there lay an invincible summer.”
Camus rebellion is an act of awakening.
He reserves especially harsh words for what he calls the ‘dandy’: “The dandy creates his own unity by aesthetic means. But it is an aesthetic of singularity and negation. ‘To live and die before a mirror’: that, according to Baudelaire, was the dandy’s slogan. (…) He can only exist by defiance. (…) The dandy rallies his forces and creates a unity for himself by the very violence of his refusal. Profligate, like all people without a rule of life, he is coherent as an actor. But an actor implies a public; the dandy can only play a part by setting himself in opposition. He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others’ faces. Other people are his mirror.” I think we all know who the “dandies” who claim the mantle of “rebellion” (maybe ‘resistance’?) are today, don’t we?
In turn Camus reserves his greatest praise for the novel. “The world of the novel is only a rectification of the world we live in, in pursuance of mans’ deepest wishes. (…) The suffering, the illusion, the love are the same. The heroes speak our language, have our weaknesses and our strength. (…) But they, at least, pursue their destinies to the bitter end (…) they complete things that we can never consummate.” Camus, a novelist himself, sees the novel as the fulfillment of his rebellious existential nihilism, achieved through acts of creation which are the consummation of the human experience. “Every act of creation, by its mere existence, denies the world of master and slave. The appalling society of tyrants and slaves in which we survive will find its death and transfiguration only on the level of creation.”
Camus existential nihilism is powerful because it is not bitter. It takes no time shaking its fist at fellow man. Nor does it shake its fist at the creator in heaven, accepting what we have here as our lot and finding the joy in our acts of rebellious creation. “’I believe more and more,’ writes Van Gogh, ‘that God must not be judged on this earth. It is one of His sketches that has turned out badly’.” In that, at least, Camus and I are in full agreement.