Committed Writings by Albert Camus contains Letters to a German Friend, Reflections on the Guillotine and The Nobel Speeches (Acceptance Speech and Create Dangerously) with a Foreword by Alice Kaplan.
Books come into my life for all sorts of reasons.
Before working in a bookshop, I bought books for myself very deliberately and carefully. I always read the first couple of pages beforehand and I tended to stick to known (and loved) authors. If I was spending my hard earned money on a full price book then I wanted guaranteed success! I would borrow more experimentally from the library, or friends would lend me a book or I would be given a gift that would lead me down new paths.
Markets, garage sales and second hand bookshops would see me go a little crazy picking up books I had vaguely heard about or been recommended. In my thirties I joined my first book group, which broadened my reading range, although I resented reading books I didn’t end up enjoying. (‘Enjoying’ is a generous term that includes such things as pleasure, edification, fascination, instructional, page-turning, eye-opening, surprise and excellence.)
Jump forward to my life in Sydney and working in an Independent bookshop. One of the perks of the job is free books. By free, I mean advanced reading copies and damaged copies. Most of these are completely random, although requests can be made that our reps try really hard to satisfy. They know if we read and love a book, we can hand sell it for months (even years) to come. During this time my reading range has exploded. I will try all sorts of things simply because the opportunity is in front of me.
For instance, last year I read Albert Camus’ The Plague. This made me curious about Camus, his philosophy and his politics, so when his Committed Writings popped up on our staff reading shelf, I decided to bring it home. Yes, I could have sourced most of these essays online, and satisfied my curiosity that way, but I’m still one of those readers who prefers a real book. I like to underline and asterisk and make notes as I go.
Left to my own devices, I may never have read this book, but when luck and opportunity play their parts it almost seems churlish not to do my bit!
Was my curiosity satisfied?
Yes. For instance, I learnt just how much and why Camus was so opposed to the death penalty. This then informed my recent read of Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan where de Vigan talked about her teen years in France and the build up to the abolition of capital punishment in 1981. Although Camus did not live to see this moment (dying twenty years earlier) it was something he had been advocating for throughout his life. Thanks to reading this essay, I felt like I had more information with which to understand and appreciate one small section of de Vigan’s family memoir. It made for a richer reading expereince.
Some of these pieces have been previously published in other collections, however in 2020 Penguin decided to bring these particular ones together as examples of Camus’ moral position of ‘mistrust of rigid ideologies and his commitment to human solidarity.’
Alice Kaplan wrote the Foreword for this edition.
She tells us that for Camus, ‘commitment was always a form of vigilance – a refusal of complacency, of coercive abstractions and murderous ideologies.’ He was also attuned to the limitations of commitment. She claims that these essays show the three sides of his commitment – ‘a passionate confrontation with Nazi ideology‘, a commitment to human dignity in his position for the French abolition of the death penalty, and the ‘commitment to create‘.
It was also a timely reminder for me, that despite the overwhelming daily news coming our way about the Covid-19 pandemic, other generations had lived through and survived interesting times of their own.
Camus never stops asking how it is possible to live in a time of catastrophe...to struggle against the horror without giving into easy answers.
Letters to a German Friend (1943, 1944, 1945):
- Consists of four letters dedicated to his friend René Leynaud, who was a Combat resistance fighter captured & killed by the Nazi’s in Lyon June 1944.
- Epigraph – Pascal – A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once.
- I had to keep reminding myself that these letters were written DURING the war years and during Camus’ time as a member of the French Resistance.
- They were published ‘underground’ in the third year of the Nazi occupation of France.
- These letters and his work on the underground newspaper, made Camus a national hero.
- Kaplan reminds us that these letters were written to help the French ‘to come to terms with the French defeat and how to fight‘.
- Despite Camus’ distaste for rigid ideology, he did not seem so opposed to nationalistic propaganda when it suited.
- In the Preface for the Italian Edition, included in this collection, Camus describes his reluctance to have these letters published after the war – ‘they were written and published clandestinely during the Occupation. They had a purpose, which was to throw a some light on the blind battle we were then waging and thereby to make our battle more effective‘. They may now appear unjust.
- He now considers the ‘you’ to be the Nazis not Germans in general and the ‘we’ to be free Europeans not just Frenchmen.
- He agreed to publication because he felt that free Europe was ‘still wide of the mark‘ and torn by national politics.
- He views his letters as ‘a document emerging from the struggle against violence’.
- I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.
- We are fighting for the distinction between sacrifice and mysticism, between energy and violence, between strength and cruelty, for the even finer distinction between the true and the false, between the man of the future and the cowardly gods you revere.
- For three years you have brought night to our towns and to our hearts. For three years we have been developing in the dark the thought which now emerges fully armed to face you.
- You speak of Europe, but the difference is that for you Europe is a property, whereas we feel that we belong to it.
- I know that all will not be over when you are crushed. Europe will still have to be established. It always has to be established. But at least it will still be Europe.
- You saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must…create happiness in order to protect against the universe of unhappiness.
- I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man.
- We want to destroy you in your power without mutilating you in your soul.
Reflections on the Guillotine (1957):
- Camus begins with an incident told to the family by his father after witnessing a public execution in 1914 and its physical impact on him.
…it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.
- Camus discusses the unsuccessful nature of the death penalty to actually curb crime, the negative effects on the executioners as well as those who chose to be executioners to satisfy their murderous tendencies, the morality surrounding retribution or retaliation which lies at the heart of the death penalty, the role of alcohol in ‘bloodthirsty crimes’, the number of times when innocent people have been imprisoned and/or executed, the lost opportunity for the guilty to repent or reform, the role of Catholicism in the history of capital punishment, the problem with absolutes (good versus evil), and our duty to defend individuals against State oppression.
- For another example of an author against the death penalty read George Orwell’s 1931 short essay, ‘A Hanging’, where he narrates the execution of a condemned man in a Burmese prison:
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive.
- Camus ends with the hope that would become an actuality twenty years after his death – ‘In the unified Europe of the future the solemn abolition of the death penalty ought to be the first article of the European Code we all hope for.’
Camus’s opposition, in contrast, is humanitarian, conscientious, almost visceral. Like Victor Hugo, his great predecessor on this issue, he views the death penalty as an egregious barbarism—an act of blood riot and vengeance covered over with a thin veneer of law and civility to make it acceptable to modern sensibilities. That it is also an act of vengeance aimed primarily at the poor and oppressed, and that it is given religious sanction, makes it even more hideous and indefensible in his view.Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Nobel Speeches:
- Acceptance Speech: I cannot live as a person without my art.
- Create Dangerously: What characterizes our times, in fact, is the tension between contemporary sensitivities and the rise of the impoverished masses. We know they exist, whereas before, we tended to ignore them….we must know that we cannot hide away from communal misery, and that our sole justification, if one exists, is to speak out, as best we can, for those who cannot.
I confess that I found these essays heavy going most of the time and they took me several months to complete. But I am slowly building up a picture in my mind of the kind of man that Camus was – his passions, interests and political persuasions. And I am happy to put some of my time and effort towards such a project. It is my small way of trying to make meaning out of this life we live.
I am gratified to know that there are people in this world who think deeply about such important topics and are able to articulate these thoughts to the rest of us.
Existentialism is a philosophy that appeals to me, or more accurately, resonates with my own views of the world. But I have not read widely or deeply on the topic despite spending hours of my life mulling over its meaning or meaninglessness. If only I had the time to read and think and wonder and write as much as I wanted to!
Maybe, though, unlike Camus, it’s a simple case of me not having enough passion and commitment to dedicate myself to the cause.
(FYI: With this post, I have now caught up on the backlog of read-but-not-reviewed non-Australian books – just in time for AusReading Month in two more days. That leaves me with five read-but-not-reviewed Australian books to finish some time in November!)
Book: Committed Writings Author: Albert Camus Translator: Justin O'Brien ISBN: 9780241400401 Published: 17 December 2020 Imprint: Penguin Classics Format: Paperback
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.