10. On the ecological imagination of Albert Camus
From ‘Don Juan Faust’ to Euphorion
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus was explicit regarding the relationship between the theatre and the body. On the stage, he wrote: ‘The body is king.’ This relationship can be traced, for example, through the evolution of an idea for a play which Camus never lived to write, but which in 1956 he planned to include in his third cycle of works. Interestingly, this is an idea which Camus meditated on for nearly 20 years, long before he even began writing The Plague – which was part of the second cycle of works – and which he continued to reflect upon thereafter.
The first seed was noted in December 1938, after considering the literary figure of Faust. In Goethe’s version – which the German writer worked on from the late 18th century into the 19th century – Faust does a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul in the next world for all the goods of this world. But Camus inverts the idea: ‘Faust the other way round,’ he writes. His devil – ‘who wears a sports coat and likes to say that cynicism is the great temptation of intelligence’ – says to Faust: “You can strike a bargain with God, and in exchange for the goods of the next world you can sell him your body.”
After a pause, the devil lights an English cigarette and says: “And that will be your eternal punishment.”
In April-May 1940, around the time of completing The Stranger, when Camus was already thinking of his second cycle of works, on the theme of rebellion, he jotted down the idea of doing a play about Don Juan. He was at that time still finalising The Myth of Sisyphus, and Don Juan was included in there as a carnal figure that rebelled against the absurd; Don Juan being also a character Camus earlier played on the stage in Algeria, based on Pushkin’s text, The Stone Guest (1830). In October 1942, just before the border closed, exiling Camus in France, he had reflected, in particular, on an earlier version of the story: Molière’s Don Juan (1665).
It was not until 1951, however, after he had already published The Plague, and more recently, The Rebel, that Camus started thinking about Faust once more. Soon after, in 1952, although he had not followed through with his earlier idea to write his own play about Don Juan, he was by then considering writing an adaptation of Molière’s version of the story. That same year, he was also reading Benjamin Constant’s diaries, noting Constant’s meeting with Goethe, and his criticism of Goethe’s Faust, regarding Constant’s disdain for those who despise life and renounce it. The following year Camus was still thinking about the figure of Faust, and perhaps contemplating his earlier idea of an inverted Faust story, but then, in 1954, Camus fused these two ideas – regarding Faust and Don Juan – mentioning, for the first time in his notebooks, the idea of ‘Don Juan Faust’.
For the remaining six years of his life, Camus continued to entertain this hybrid theme, which was focused almost entirely on the value of the human body.
‘Don Faust. 1st scene or prologue – Faust asks to know all and have all. “Thus, I will give you seduction,” the devil says. And Faust becomes Don Juan.’
And then, after deciding to include this play in his third cycle of works, Camus notes: ‘Faust is rejuvenated as Don Juan. The wise and old spirit in a young body. Explosive combination.’
This reconsideration of Faust in the early 1950s was, in part, prompted by Camus replying to public criticism of his book, The Rebel. In a text, unpublished during his lifetime, but written during this period, Camus reflected at length on Faust in relation to his own argument regarding rebellion and limits.
Nineteenth-century ideology, at least in those versions that currently hold sway over European intelligence, has turned away from Goethe’s dream, which, with Faust and Helen, unified contemporary Titanism and ancient beauty, giving them a son, Euphorion. The contemporary [mid-20th century] Faust wanted to have Euphorion without Helen, with a kind of lascivious and proud delight. But he has only been able to give birth to a laboratory monster instead of the wonderful child. I haven’t claimed that Faust was wrong in being who he was, but only that, in order to be and to create, he could not do without Helen. I have not counterposed the Mediterranean to the European – a vain undertaking – but asserted that the latter had sufficiently proven that it couldn’t do without the former. Neither Faust without Helen, nor Helen without Faust, that’s what I believe. Goethe, who had his prophetic moments, made Euphorion die, too beautiful for the suffering of this world. For my part, I just believe – and this is the meaning of my book [The Rebel] – that it’s up to us to keep Euphorion alive.
This harkens back to an idea which Camus wrote in a lyrical essay from 1948, called “Helen’s Exile”, which argued that the Ancient Greeks, who understood the idea of limits, would go to war for beauty, while the contemporary mind, abandoning such limits, had exiled beauty and retreated into abstract History. It was this argument that Camus was at that same time expanding in his writing of The Rebel, and which he later returned to, in defending his much misunderstood book.
In doing so, however, and by linking this idea to a reconsideration of the Faust myth, Camus was also setting in train an idea which he would follow over the next several years, in his third cycle of (uncompleted) works, regarding the theme of ‘Don Juan Faust’.
What is interesting about this reimagining of the figures of Don Juan and Faust is that by inverting Faust, the story becomes grounded in the body, but then, through including Helen, it is expanded to also incorporate nature.
In his notebooks, where he first outlined parts of his defence of The Rebel, in this section regarding Faust, Helen, and Euphorion, Camus writes: ‘They wanted to repudiate beauty and nature simply for the profit of the intelligence and its conquering powers.’ This simply restates what he had already argued in “Helen’s Exile”, four years earlier; adding, however, that nature and the limits it imposes on humanity can never really be repudiated. ‘Nature is still there, nevertheless,’ he writes. ‘Her calm skies and her reason oppose the folly of men.’
In his youth Camus loved playing soccer and swimming in the ocean. His tuberculosis – which we have already examined here – imposed severe limitations on these activities, and showed Camus how he had taken such moments for granted. ‘A fortunate illness had taken me away from my beaches and my pleasures,’ he wrote in 1951. Henceforth, such moments, which had become rarer, were accompanied by an acute awareness and fresh appreciation. From the moment he began keeping his notebooks, in 1935, until his death in January 1960, Camus would continue to write descriptions of his experiences of the natural world. In August of that first year, for example, when he was 21 years old, the first instance of this outlines an incoming storm:
Storm sky in August. Gusts of hot wind. Black clouds. Yet in the east a delicate, transparent band of blue sky. Impossible to look at it. Its presence is a torture for the eyes and for the soul, because beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.
In December 1959, when he was 46 years old, the final notebook entry that references the natural world – less than a month before his death – is actually a recounting of a scene from William Faulkner’s 1954 novel, The Fable, which had only recently appeared in French.
In “Parabole” the one condemned to death who said that he was innocent, then acknowledged that he was not, resigned himself. Then, beneath the noose, he sees a bird flying toward a branch and alighting there where it begins to sing; he seizes the noose then and shrieks that he is innocent.
In fact, the actual passage that Camus refers to here in shorthand very closely addresses many of the same themes that Camus was by then exploring in his ‘Don Juan Faust’ idea. In Faulkner’s novel, a man condemned to death, has made his peace with God, and was even impatient for the moment when he would be free from his ‘mortal body’ and his soul would be transported to heaven. But just before the moment came, on the gallows, he heard a birdsong, and he immediately, in his heart, rejected ‘heaven, salvation, immortal soul and all’, for this ephemeral experience on earth – but this realisation came too late, and he was hanged.
This fundamental awareness of nature in Camus’ thinking provides a necessary corollary to his focus on the body. The body, as a natural entity, is the constant link and pull to the natural world. And just as Camus was concerned with the body as providing the limits for thought – as we examined here – so too nature provided him with the limits for the actions of the body, and these vectors come to exhaust almost all of his attention. ‘The great free love of nature and the sea absorbs me completely,’ he wrote in one of his lyrical essays in 1939. More generally, his first two collections of lyrical essays are co-ordinated around these themes of the body and nature, but by way of the theme of illness as that which reveals the limits of one, in order to open up an awareness of the other, and vice versa. In this way, it is this consciousness of the body and nature that accompanied Camus’ imaginary negotiations with his own tuberculosis, as it came to structure both his essays and his later fiction – culminating, as we examined here, with The Plague.
At the heart of this experience is one of the main sources of what Camus soon began referring to as the absurd. ‘As I lie in the burning heat of these immense dunes, the world seems to shrink down to no more than a cage of heat and blood. It goes no further than my body. But if a donkey brays afar off, then the dunes, the desert, and the sky fall into place. And then they lie at an infinite distance from me.’ It is that ‘infinite distance’ which characterises the absurd, between a body that is but a part of the natural world, a world which in its entirety is indifferent to each part, and a human consciousness that attempts to escape from this underlying shared reality by replacing the world’s indifference with the narrow illusion of a certain and unified knowledge.
In his essay, “Summer in Algiers”, from his 1939 collection, Camus pursues this tension between what he identifies as an awareness of death and his love of life – between his body and the present moment, on the one hand, and their inevitable fate, on the other hand – but within the limitations of the Algerian landscape. ‘One probably has to live a long time in Algiers to understand how desiccating an excess of nature’s blessing can be,’ he writes:
There is nothing here for people seeking knowledge, education, or self-improvement. The land contains no lessons. It neither promises nor reveals anything. It is content to give, but does so profusely. Everything here can be seen with the naked eye, and is known the very moment it is enjoyed. The pleasures have no remedies and their joys remain without hope. What the land needs are clear-sighted souls, that is to say, those without consolation. It asks that we make an act of lucidity as one makes an act of faith.
In this context, it is more than a curiosity to note that for a period between the publication of these first two collections of lyrical essays, Camus’ day job was as an assistant at a meteorological institute, associated with the University of Algiers. From about December 1937 to September 1938, Camus spent his days working on a project to establish a nearly 30 year record of the Algerian climate, by collating decades of meteorological data, monthly and annually, from approximately 355 weather stations scattered across Algeria. This included rainfall, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. Completing that, he began a project measuring atmospheric pressure across North Africa. This experience, this daily discipline, only sharpened his already heightened awareness of the vagaries of the natural world. ‘Such at least is the bitter lesson of summers in Algiers,’ he wrote in an essay he began writing during this period: ‘But already the season trembles and the summer passes. After so much violence and tension, the first September rains are like the first tears of a liberated land, as if for a few days this country were bathed in tenderness.’
At the same time he was also working on the final draft of his first novel, A Happy Death; a work in which rain becomes a recurring motif, both literally and figuratively, to bring together the natural world within which Mersault moved, and the inner awareness of his own character moving through that world. In one and the same scene, for example, when Mersault meets with Zagreus – the man he will soon kill – the scene is framed by detailing variations in rainfall. Mersault arrived ‘during a light rain’ and then ‘the rain turned into a downpour’. Figuratively, in the same scene, ‘a dim melancholy past that flooded Mersault's heart the way the rain had soaked his shoes’. And then, a further aside regarding different types of precipitation: ‘the falling vapor – neither a mist nor a rain – had washed his face like a light hand.’ Mersault then uses the rain to describe his thinking to Zagreus: “Everything else that would happen to me would be like rain on a stone. The stone cools off and that’s fine. Another day, the sun bakes it. I've always thought that’s exactly what happiness would be.” In the same scene, it even rains inside the house: ‘For the first time a few raindrops fell down the chimney. The fire hissed.’ And so on, throughout the manuscript, references to rain following Mersault.
Although Camus was only at the institute for a short time, his efforts there made an impact beyond the literary. In 1946 – a year before the publication of The Plague – Paul Seltzer, who also worked with Camus at the institute in the late 30s, published a book, Le Climat de l’Algérie, which used the data collated by Camus to examine the climate of Algeria, with Camus acknowledged in the book for his technical assistance.
Camus is not often considered for his ecological imagination. This is perhaps because he ensured that his experience of nature, and his writing about it, never elevated ‘nature’ to some abstract ideal or concept. Just as he had rejected those who preferred ‘systematizing the body’ to the body itself – as we examined here – so too, he resisted any attempt at systematising the natural world. Even as his brief time as a technical assistant at the meteorological institute sharpened his appreciation of the vagaries of the natural world, it also heightened his understanding of the difficulty in subordinating that reality to some rational construct. At the institute, there were often gaps in the data, when particular stations didn’t report for particular months, or didn’t gather particular types of data. Camus had to fill in the gaps of this data by looking at nearby stations and averaging out the difference. Even with these constructions to paper over gaps in reality, he felt that even with the best available data such attempts always contained an arbitrary element. Nature always surpassed the capacity to conceptualise it and fix it in place.
In late 1938, around the time he left the institute, he wrote in his notebooks:
Method used in meteorology. The temperature varies from one moment to the next. It is something too fleeting to be established in mathematical concepts. Here, observations are arbitrary slices of reality. And only the idea of an average enables us to offer an image of this reality.
It is perhaps no coincidence that at the same time – and only a few pages later in his notebooks – Camus repeats this description in his reflections on the relationship between a work of art and the global experience of the artist’s life. ‘It is right when the work of art is a section cut out of his experience,’ he wrote, ‘the facet of a diamond in which the gem’s inner luster is reflected but not exhausted.’ In this way, how these slices of reality were averaged out and generalised in order to provide an image of reality, provided Camus with a literary method that could very well be described as being meteorological.
In his writing, he was often given to a certain lyricism regarding nature, especially in his youthful essays, and in his personal notebooks, but he never conceptualised it. Even before he started at the institute he knew his descriptions were always inadequate, but that was the whole point.
I describe and say: “This is red, this blue, this green. This is the sea, the mountains, the flowers.”... Yet even here, I know I shall never come close enough to the world.
For such descriptions are predicated upon a separation between subject and object, which Camus rejected. He distinguished in these essays between living and expressing, and his concern in these pages was with living, and finding a language adequate to that experience. As he states in “The Desert”: ‘Living, of course, is rather the opposite of expressing.’
In this, Camus’ work can be considered as operating within a literary field associated with the pre-Platonic Greeks; an association which Camus himself consciously made. Giambattista Vico, in the 18th century, described this period of language as ‘poetic’; just as Northrop Frye, in the 20th century, referred to it as ‘hieroglyphic’, in the sense that there is little emphasis on a distinction between subject and object, and more of a concern with establishing metaphorical identifications between words and things, and with using language to establish such identifications between things. This is distinguished from more ‘hieratic’ language, which Frye associates with Plato and philosophy more generally. Significantly, this prior use of language – the poetic/hieroglyphic – also precedes and resists allegory, associated more with the hieratic period and beyond – which is also consistent with Camus’ literary imagination, as we examined here, and so goes some way to confirm this suggestion.
For Camus, the ground for this identification is the human body as the point of contact between himself and the natural world. This can be seen, for example, in this remarkable passage from his 1938 essay, “The Wind at Djemila”:
I felt myself whipping in the wind like a mast, hollowed at the waist. Eyes burning, lips cracking, my skin became so dry it no longer seemed mine. Until now, I had been deciphering the world’s handwriting on my skin. There, on my body, the world had inscribed the signs of its tenderness or anger, warming with its summer breath or biting with its frosty teeth. But rubbed against for so long by the wind, shaken for more than an hour, staggering from resistance to it, I lost consciousness of the pattern my body traced. Like a pebble polished by the tides, I was polished by the wind, worn through to the very soul. I was a portion of the great force on which I drifted, then much of it, then entirely it, confusing the throbbing of my own heart with the great sonorous beating of this omnipresent natural heart. The wind was fashioning me in the image of the burning nakedness around me. And its fugitive embrace gave me, a stone among stones, the solitude of a column or an olive tree in the summer sky…. And never have I felt so deeply and at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.
These experiences also came to structure Camus’ argument in The Myth of Sisyphus. ‘The mind’s first step is to distinguish what is true from what is false,’ Camus writes, and then he sets the parameters of this ‘first step’, without straying from the experiential limits of the natural world: ‘Of whom and of what indeed can I say: “I know that!” This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.’ Here this physical world, and his thinking about it, is limited to the contours of the natural:
And here are trees and I know there gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine.
Earlier in the same book, Camus’ thinking turned on the question of bodily self-destruction, on asking whether or not the body itself can be brought into question, only to see, in the rejection of suicide, a reversal of this initial problem in terms of the final understanding that the body itself cannot be so questioned. Here he expands that thought, and its response, to incorporate also the natural world, the very ground of the body. The rejection of suicide, both physical and intellectual – be it in the form of a philosophical system, a religious doctrine, or a political ideology – is here extended to also safeguard against the negation of nature.
Prior to the 17th century, the term for suicide was self-murder, which was extended to include, not only directly killing oneself, but also putting oneself in harm’s way, or indirectly creating the conditions within which one eventually dies. In this broader, but very real sense, this negation of nature, the transgression of its limits and capacities, could very well be described, for the human bodies which rely upon it, as a form of suicide.
And this points to what is interesting in Camus’ ecological imagination, because, in order to keep it vital, he ensured he did not succumb to the very act of eluding – what he called a ‘leap’ – which he criticised in The Myth of Sisyphus, and which he there referred to in these terms of suicide, both figural and literal. Nature, for Camus, is not an object, over and against which some subject emerges, which then delineates itself through this false separation. And so, his thinking about nature does not result in some form of environmentalism – a doctrine of nature – that considers the natural world as transcending humanity, as having some meaning separate from us, but which, at the same time, imposes on us as if from the outside a form of moral behaviour. Camus’ point is the opposite: it is not that nature transcends humanity – it is that humanity does not transcend nature. The natural world circumscribes the limits within which the human world operates. Likewise, the human world is circumscribed by the limits of the human body, to the degree that the body is part of this natural world. This constitutes also the limits to our thinking – even when that thinking is concerning our experiences within and of nature.
Previously, in arguing how Camus’ theatrical imagination – grounded in the body – underpins his literary imagination generally, I showed that one of the consequences of this is that it offers him a unique perspective in approaching characters and their narratives; one based, not in some disembodied concept, standing on the outside and looking in at such a character – as subject to object – but an understanding enacted in and through the body, standing on the inside and looking out. His literary fiction being as much acted and directed, by him, as they are composed. In the context of the current analysis, in arguing that Camus’ ecological imagination underpins and reinforces both his theatrical and literary imagination, I would likewise argue that his perspective on the natural world is not of somebody standing on the outside and looking in, but as a body standing on the inside and looking over the natural world within which his – and our – possibilities find their limits.
From within these physical limits, for Camus, an ethical orientation emerges. It is an orientation which provided a deep background to The Plague (as we will examine in the next instalment). An ethic out of which rebellion is born, and within which such rebellion is given its value and purpose.
And that purpose is, in part, to keep Euphorion alive.
Next week we will examine how Camus’ ecological imagination influenced the composition of The Plague.
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