The Nature of Existence
There are a few passages in Milan Kundera's 2008 essay collection The Curtain where he talks of Jean Paul Sartre and others' dismissal of Camus, a dismissal Kundera credits chiefly to snobbery. In an essay from the midsixties, 'He was my Teacher', Gilles Deleuze disdainfully regards Camus as a minor figure and Sartre of far greater significance. Was Deleuze merely echoing the low opinion of Camus that many in France had been offering for a number of years, long before Camus' early death in 1960? We don't want to make the following piece on Camus's short story collection a biographical account of bitching in Parisian literary and philosophical circles, yet it allows us a way into Camus' Exile and the Kingdom. Most especially if we think of 'The Artist at Work', a story about a painter who becomes increasingly famous and whose popularity extends to intrusions into his own apartment, with friends, artists and creative people regularly visiting to the inevitable eventual detriment of the artistic output. "Consequently, his mail piled up, the disciples would allow no falling off, and society people now thronged around him." Everybody has an opinion on Gilbert Jonas's work, and after a while not all of it is positive. One of his true and trusted friends, Rateau, gets informed one day that Jonas is losing his talent when someone says, "Well, take my word for it, he's on the decline...you can't resist success. He's finished." Surrounded by envy, disdain and mediocrity, Gilbert eventually retreats to an attic space, determined to work alone if he cannot produce at all with others around him. Initially, he doesn't even have light enough to paint, but it almost doesn't matter. "What are you doing up there", someone would ask, "I'm working" Jonas replied. "Without light?" The narrator tells us "he was not painting, but he was meditating. In the darkness and this half-silence of the desert or of the tomb, he listened to his own heart."
The story plays a little like a variation and inversion of Doris Lessing's great story 'To Room Nineteen', and both of them suggest the famous Virginia Woolf text 'A Room of One's Own'. However, where Lessing offers a woman unable to find inner peace partly because of the quiet that surrounds her, and retreats to the titular room; in Camus' tale the problem is the social hubbub: his small apartment is as full of people as Susan's large house is empty, but both move to the same area of existence taking into account Camus' claim that "art and suicide come from the same place." Jonas "was alive, he listened to this silence within himself, he was waiting for his star, still hidden but ready to rise again, to burst forth at last, unchanged and unchanging, above the disorder of those empty days." Lessing notes near the end of 'To Room Nineteen', "that the demons were not here. They had gone forever, because she was buying her freedom from them," as Susan moves towards gassing herself. "She was slipping already into the dark fructifying dream that seemed to caress her inwardly, like the movement of her blood".
Both Lessing and Camus, if in quite different ways, are interested in the question of the self versus the social, but also in a broader question, one that incorporates the presence of Africa and other'exotic' locations in their work, and the notion of listening to one's heart in all its manifestations. This question isn't always one of inner integrity, in the usual sense of being true to oneself: often the truth barely concerns the self at all. The question in Camus's work (as it often happens to be in Lessing novels like The Grass is Singing and the Martha Quest books also) is frequently one of not listening to oneself, but to the wind, the sun, the sea, the elemental. Up in the attic Jonas says "Shine, shine...don't deprive me of your light." In such a moment he resembles Janine in 'The Adulterous Woman' and D'Arrast in 'The Growing Stone', other stories in the collection. One surrenders not to the social that shrinks the self, evident in aspects of the 'Artist at Work' as Jonas is surrounded by the social milieu, nor the attacks made upon his own character in the Paris literary scene, but to the natural environment. In 'The Adulterous Woman', Janine goes out into the cold North African night and allows herself to be ravished by the desert's mysteries. "In the vast reaches of the dry, cold night, thousands of stars were constantly appearing, and their sparkling icicles, loosened at once, began to slip gradually towards the horizon." "Breathing deeply, she forgot the cold, the dead weight of others, the craziness or stuffiness of life, the long anguish of living and dying." Her adultery is with nature, as she sneaks out of the room to snatch time with the cosmos. She is 'cheating' on her husband but being true to a figure much larger than herself.
In the 'Growing Stone' it isn't the cold and the North African desert, but the heat and humidity of the Brazilian terrain that transforms engineer D'Arrast. He takes over the ritual carrying of a stone after the man whose duty it is to carry it is too hung-over to fulfil the task. D'Arrast is hung over too, with "his head in the vice of a crushing migraine" he "had awakened after a bad sleep, a humid heat was weighing upon the town and the still forest." A cook attempts to carry the stone but "the cook advanced again with his jerky trot, not like the man who wants to progress but as if he were fleeing the crushing load, as if he hoped to lighten it through motion." Eventually, he cannot go on and collapses with tears streaming down his face. D'Arrast takes up the task, with the stone weighing painfully on his head, "he needed all the strength of his long arms to lighten it. His shoulders were already stiffening when he reached the first streets on the slippery slope." But he also began to feel "rising within him a surge of obscure and panting joy that he was powerless to name." "Standing in the darkness, D'Arrast listened...without seeing anything, and the sound of the waters filled him with a tumultuous happiness."
As in 'The Adulterous Woman', a white man loses himself to the environment and finds something essential in that loss. Now if critics would sometimes talk of Borges's hard words, philosophical words, that give his stories an intellectual inevitability, Camus the philosopher who also wrote fiction, nevertheless uses what we might call hyperbolic words; words here that are not hard but strangely soft and indeterminate. What exactly is a "tumultuous happiness ", we might wonder, or a "surge of panting joy". In 'The Adulterous Woman' we notice, "the cold air she was gulping began to glow amidst her shivers," "the bright air seemed to vibrate around them with a vibration increasing in length as they advanced, as if their progress struck from the crystal of light a sound wave that kept spreading out." This is often the type of language D. H. Lawrence would use to try and capture the further reaches of consciousness caught by the intensities of nature. Where Borges moved towards a metaphysics of hard words to describe metaphysical conundrums, Camus offers soft words as he insists on the manner in which man is overwhelmed by the natural environment. Such a problematic needs not simply descriptive words, the names of trees, rock formations, flora and fauna, but a language that can give emotional specificity to nature's capacity to work on and obliterate aspects of the self. In 'The Adulterous Woman', Camus says Janine's "entire belly [was] pressed against the parapet as she strained toward the moving sky; she was merely waiting for her fluttering heart to calm down and establish silence within her. The last stars of the constellation dropped their clusters a little lower on the desert horizon and became still."
Give yourself to nature but lend yourself to others, Camus might say, paraphrasing Montaigne. One can dissolve into the natural world, but be wary of those who want to disintegrate one's identity into the social, into the mechanics of one's existence rather than its biology, geology, cosmology. There are numerous passages in Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus on this point, where he talks of the absurd human condition, the daily grind that one day suddenly has no longer any meaning. In The Outsider, there is perverse integrity to Meursault's inability or refusal to cry at his mother's funeral and yet claiming he shot a man because of the sun. Superficially one might see in such responses a cold dissembler refusing to take responsibility for the deed, but there are different types of actions, with the culpability dependent upon the place from which the deed comes. Is it socially motivated or naturally motivated? For Meursault to make sure he cried at his mother's funeral would be to concede to social expectation as it would equally be contrary to his feelings. In saying he shot a man because of the sun is socially unacceptable but personally understandable. From Camus' point of view, to refuse the tears that won't readily come, to confess that there was no deeper motivation for killing than the weather: these are acts of existential integrity. The first refuses the readily social; the second admits the impact of the natural.
We can now look again at 'The Artist at Work' and 'The Adulterous Woman'. The character in the former story who says that Jonas is finished acts not with the singularity of the individual, nor the multiplicity of nature, but no more than the polyphony of the social. He offers a ready-made opinion with no substantiation to Jonas's good and old friend, Rateau. "An artist who is on the decline is finished. Just see, he has nothing in him to paint anymore." As Jonas is painting, he is also being painted by someone from the government, an official artist who is painting Jonas as a sign of his establishment status: the painting will have the same title as Camus' story, 'The Artist at Work'. He's being painted himself and will be hung in a museum. The sense of assumption and lack of substantiation offered by the critical person here indicates someone who might have a point yet needn't be taken seriously. What he reveals it seems is less the artist's increasing mediocrity, than his own toxic personality. Later this is obviously how Rateau sees it when he later tells Jonas who believes that everybody is kind to him, "Watch out. They're not all good." Rateau may also wonder whether Jonas is working as efficiently and effectively as he might, but does so in a singular rather than polyphonous way: he understands Jonas, not the general opinion, the doxa. In a key exchange between them, Jonas says that artists are generally insecure. "They're not sure of existing, not even the greatest. So they look for proofs; they judge and condemn. That strengthens them; it's a beginning of existence." Rateau in returns asks "And what about you?...Do you exist? You never say anything bad about anyone..." "No I'm not sure of existing. But some day I'll exist I'm sure."
How might one ask does one exist, possess existence, live existentially? Camus would reply by saying through singularities and multiplicities: by personal integrity and natural awe. In 'The Artist at Work', Jonas achieves this singularity by retreating up into the attic and waiting for the flame to return. For several days he has seen so little of his wife and child while he's been reclusively in the loft that when Rateau arrives he leans out of the hatch and asks how they are. In 'The Adulterous Woman', Janine also escapes to be alone, leaving her hotel room to be ravished by the desert. This isn't inner communion; more outer communion as she seeks oneness with nature, with the mysteries of the desert landscape. "Janine could not tear herself away from contemplating those drifting flares": the stars.
The word that comes back again and again here is cold as well as numerous allusions to it. It is a word used throughout the story, even in the first paragraph when the narrator bluntly announces "the weather was cold", but it is in the latter part of the story, from the moment she leaves the hotel and goes into the night, that Camus emphasises how cold it is. "The cold, no longer having to struggle against the sun, had invaded the night", "the cold air she was gulping down", "the muffled crackling of stone that the cold was reducing to sand", "the dry, cold night", "breathing deeply she forgot the cold." This a Lawrentian sense of repetition, where the same word gets repeated like an incantation. There are also, though, numerous variations: Camus talks of those "sparkling icicles", and also that "the air burned her lungs with...cutting effect."
If the heat leads Meursault to murder, the cold leads to an unusual form of infidelity in 'The Adulterous Woman'. When Janine returns to the room and to her husband, we're aware of the limitations of the practical, efficient man next to the forces of nature. He is described at the beginning of the story as a man "with wisps of greying hair growing low on a narrow forehead, a broad nose, a flabby mouth, Marcel looked like a pouting faun...his heavy torso would slump back on his widespread legs and he would become inert again and absent, with vacant stare." But she married him, because "above all, she liked being loved, and he had showered her with attentions. By so often making her aware that she existed for him he made her exist in reality. No, she was not alone..." But Camus might add that she was neither singular nor multiple as we again notice the question asked by Rateau in 'The Artist at Work'. What makes someone exist? At the end of the story when Janine returns to the room, "she was weeping copiously". Her husband looks at her without understanding and she says "it's nothing, dear...it's nothing." The gap between being swallowed up by nature and recognised by her husband is clearly huge, as the social norms of her spouse are irrelevant next to the forces working upon her.
In 'The Renegade', Camus's first person narrator is a missionary in Africa who wonders about his past zealousness in relation to his present state. A Protestant child converted to Catholicism, the narrator was daily tutored by a priest who promised him great adventures as a missionary. Instead we find the narrator with his tongue removed after realising that the one true thing they told him at the Seminary in Algiers was that the locals "are cruel" as he finds them "ignorant of pity". He had fled the seminary, robbed the treasurer's office and cast off his habit, and swears after his ordeal that he hopes the savages "will mutilate my people as they had mutilated me." Camus tells the story in the first person as the ravings of a mutilated, emptied out man, as the opposite of an integrated figure in mental shape or physical form. Caught between the sanctimoniousness of missionary Catholicism, and native beliefs, all that seems real now is the biting cold at night and the intolerable heat during the day.
The narrator in 'The Renegade' is a man divided, an existential failure ranting from his pain and misery. The schoolmaster in 'The Guest', Daru, would seem to be the opposite. One day the French-Algerian central character sees two men, one on horseback pulling a rope, and another man walking behind him his hands tied to it. The latter is an Arab who's been accused of killing his cousin. The gendarme wants Daru to deliver the man to Tinguit, twenty kilometres away. But will Daru consequently also be seen as a renegade, a traitor, betraying the Arabic people who are his pupils? "I won't hand him over", Daru says, but Balducci the gendarme insists: "It's an order my boy, and I repeat it." When Balducci leaves, Daru curses his ill fortune, and also the Arab. After Daru cooks for the Arab and eats with him, he finds himself angry. "That man's stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honour. Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation. And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away." Though Daru treats him well and suffers a crisis of conscience in how best to deal with the situation, after he walks for a while before sending the Arab off into the desert to make his own way to Tinguit, aided by the sugar, dates, bread and a thousand francs Daru gives him, he returns and sees on the school blackboard: "You handed over our brother. You will pay for this."
Both 'Renegades' and 'The Guest' are stories about 'traitors'. Yet while the narrator in 'Renegades' is treacherous through his own actions; in 'The Guest', Daru is caught in an impossible bind. Who is he to side with: his own people or the Arabs? What would seem to be the best compromise from his point of view may turn out to be the worst: the Arabs feel he has betrayed them; the French Algerians may claim he has not followed through on his legal obligations. Yet one feels the centre holds, that Daru remains an integrated being who, if asked, could claim far more confidently than the narrator in 'Renegades' that he exists.
The question Camus generally asks throughout Exile and the Kingdom, for all its fascination with biting cold and horrible heat, for the emptiness of the desert and the fulsomeness of the jungle, is what is it to exist, whether as an artist, as a woman, as a French teacher in a colonial country, a visiting engineer in the tropics. Nature is of course absolutely vital to Camus's stories here, as it would prove so important to The Outsider, and the novel with which it bears many similarities, A Happy Death. He is, much more than Sartre (and this is not at all a value judgement), a sensuous existentialist, yet the questions he asks are those of existence and identity. The social is clearly so often presented as the weakened self, whether that is the marriage of Janine, the legal obligations placed upon Daru, or the artist milieu Jonas is swarmed by in 'The Artist at Work'. Whether Camus was finally impervious to the gossip and backbiting surrounding his own life is one thing, but, certainly, its irrelevance to a meaningful existence is vital to the work.
© Tony McKibbin