Wednesday 6 November 2013

Happy Birthday Albert Camus!

Collar up, cigarette lit, hair neatly
slicked back: Camus is still ready to
roll at 100.
It was always unlikely that Albert Camus was going to live to see his 100th birthday. Had he not died on that roadside in northern France in the January of 1960, then it is likely that the endless stream of cigarettes he liked to be photographed with would have caught up with him in the end. And then there were all the rumours of Soviet agents plotting against his life.

No, Camus was a man who was always going to live fast and die young, but in his 46 brief years he managed to become one of the 20th century’s most striking philosophical and literary voices.

Born on November 7th 1913 in what was then French occupied Algeria, Camus never forgot his homeland. He penned lovingly crafted essays on the place – most notably “Summer in Algiers” and “Return to Tipasa” – and two of his best known pieces of philosophical fiction - “L’Etranger” and “La Peste” - are set in the North African territory.

It was these works that helped cement Camus’ reputation as a fascinating critic of the absurd.

While some philosophers despaired at the entropic uncertainty of the world, its apparently barren moral landscape and lack of overarching meaning, Camus reveled in it.  In “La Peste” he explored the human capacity for altruism and selflessness, even in the face of apparently overwhelming opposition, while “L’Etranger” saw Camus questioning the arbitrary social conventions that decide our validity as modern human beings.

Along with Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, published in 1942, these texts provide the clearest picture of the great man’s groundbreaking take on absurdism, and perhaps offer an insight into his acrimonious philosophical falling-out with friend and fellow thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre.

But enough about the philosophy, what about the trenchcoat? Yes, Camus was the poster-boy for philosophy in the late 20th century. His snappy dressing, intellectual Gallic drawl and ubiquitous cigarettes made his image a regular fixture on the bedroom walls of college students all over Europe and the US. He was the James Dean of existentialist thought, and probably appreciated the absurdist sentiments contained in Dean’s picture “A Rebel Without a Cause”.

To put it simply, Camus is cool as hell and not a man to let a little thing like being dead stand in the way of his status as a philosophical maverick. Happy birthday Albert, many happy returns!

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