Friday, 5 June 2015

The Rebel - Albert Camus


So, back to square one. Back to Albert Camus and back to the reason for existence. Oh, what desperate lives we lead! What a merry song and dance it all is as we head toward our execution! Isn't life just one long St Vitus dance in the End of Days?
So what to do? If we care to, how can we make sense of it all? What might give life cause or meaning? 'Find the answer within' said once a man from Liverpool and he wasn't wrong but rather than using our hands to dig as we scrabble around in the dirt, why don't we get ourselves some shovels? Or use dynamite! Anything to just make or blast a hole in the fabric of our being so that we may peer within and find the answer we're seeking. To fall to Hell or soar angelic, try a pinch of psychedelic! I'm using metaphors here, of course, so let's cut to the quick shall we? What I'm really saying is: Read a book.

Having explored the Absurdity of life and the question of suicide in The Myth Of Sisyphus, moving his philosophy forward, Albert Camus delved into the subject of revolt, rebellion and revolution; substituting Descartes' 'I think therefore I am' for 'I rebel therefore we are'. Solitude in an absurd world, he deduced, could turn into significant solidarity.
'What is a rebel?' Camus asks. 'A man who says No: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.' he answers. 'He is also a man who says Yes as soon as he begins to think for himself.' In rebelling, a person chooses what is preferable to what is not, and in the process knowledge is born and conscience awakened. An attitude of All or Nothing is adopted and when thinking in absolutes this notion of All or Nothing is an important one. The 'All' that the rebel gains knowledge of might well be obscure and whether it's called freedom or anarchy or whatever, it's still enough to live for, to fight for, and to die for. It's that or the awakened conscience be destroyed by the governing power, be it physical or metaphysical. Better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees, as my mother once advised me when I was a child - as she loaded petrol bombs into crates during the Brixton riots.

Camus, of course, was a philosopher par excellence who delved deeper than most, so when he writes something like 'I rebel - therefore we exist', you just know it isn't simply a throwaway statement but something that's been arrived at through a lot of very deep thought. The Rebel is that thought, along with the investigation, the critique, the analysis, the blood, the sweat and the tears shed to arrive at such a statement. All captured and laid down in words that flow seamlessly.

Six years it took Camus to write The Rebel and the end result is a work of intellectual genius. Step by step he wades into the mire leaving no stone unturned. Starting with a discourse on metaphysical rebellion he throws up Sade as an ultimate example of someone who rebels against all creation, then throws up Baudellaire as an example of dandyism and rebellion against a world dedicated to death. 'To live and die before a mirror' Baudellaire is quoted as saying but if the mirror is other people then when he's alone there is no mirror, and for the dandy to be alone means not to exist.
As to be expected, Dostoyevsky is introduced as the point at which All or Nothing becomes All or No-one, referring specifically to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. Nietzsche is also entertained, with Camus highlighting some of his ingenious conclusions such as God being dead having been killed by Christianity, socialism being only a degenerate form of Christian decadence, and deeds not faith being Christ's real message. Camus, in fact, writes very supportingly of Nietzsche and tries to wrestle him back from Germany's national socialists who claimed him for their own.

For Camus, 1789 and the French Revolution is the point at which the divine right of Kings is done away with, underscored by the execution of Louis XVI. 'We do not want to condemn the King,' says Danton 'We want to kill him.' What is different about this particular regicide, however, is that for the first time it's the principle of the King, not the person that is being attacked because monarchy, as Saint-Just explains, is not a King, it is crime. Not a crime, but crime itself.

Hegel is mulled over and certain aspects of his philosophy pronounced as suspect before shifting attention to Russia where Bakunin is declaring the State as being the incarnation of crime, and is seeking 'the universal and authentically democratic Church of freedom'. Bakunin is eclipsed when it comes to All or Nothing, however, by Nechagev who even Bakunin is taken aback by.
Faced with the unwillingness of the oppressed to rise up with them and march forward to their liberation, the anarchists and revolutionaries stand alone against autocracy and from here individual terrorism is elevated into a principle. This is the point at which terrorists are born.
According to Camus, 1905 marks the highest peak of revolutionary momentum where 'in the midst of a world which rejects them, the anarchists, one after another, like all courageous men, try to reconstruct a brotherhood of man'. But whilst individual terrorism hunts down the last representatives of divine right, State terrorism is getting ready to destroy divine right definitively, at the very root of human society.

So to the rise of the Fascist State as embodied by Hitler's Germany and though it was a revolution of sorts, it was one that had no hope of a future. Rather, it was 'a primitive impulse whose ravages were greater than its real ambitions'. Interestingly, the destruction of Lidice is cited as an example of the utter emptiness of the Nazi, servile soul with only the power to kill and degrade left to fill it in any way. (And for anyone reading this who doesn't know what Lidice is, I would urge them to Google it. Moreover, if anyone doesn't know about Lidice then they perhaps should wonder why - in 2015 - this might be?).

And then to Marx, Lenin and the Russian Revolution - and perhaps the instigating factor for Camus writing The Rebel? Camus knew full well that what he was writing about Marxism was going to lose him friends and gain him enemies, and he was right. Most famously, The Rebel and in particular the criticism of Marxism within its pages caused a fall-out with Sartre that was never repaired - and it's easy to see why. Camus cuts deeply into Russian communism with scalpel precision leaving it dissected on a slab with its guts exposed. It's not a pretty sight. The establishment of the Russian proletarian State and Lenin's admission that there was nothing to guarantee the advent of the higher phase of communism signifies for Camus the death of freedom, leading logically to the betrayal of Makhno and the crushing of the sailors of Krondstadt. (Remember Lidice but don't also ever forget Krondstadt). As Camus puts it in summing up: Fascism represents the exaltation of the executioner by the executioner, whilst Russian communism represents the exaltation of the executioner by the victim.

Can The Rebel be criticised? Of course it can, and Les Temps Modernes under the editorship of Sartre tore it to pieces shortly after it was first published. I do wonder, however, if criticising it serves any purpose? Much better, I suspect, that it be discussed or if it is to be criticised then it be constructive criticism. There's much about The Rebel that warrants thinking about even though since first being published in 1950 the world has moved on somewhat. The Berlin Wall, for a start has since fallen and neo-liberalism is now the order of the day. And not to mention amongst many other things Pol Pot, Year Zero, the Thatcher/Reagan axis, 9/11, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and of late the unswerving ambitions of Islamic State. What Camus wrote in 1950, however, is still absolutely relevant today if not more so. It's even possible to view David Cameron's government through Camus' prism.

Camus was killed in 1960 in a car crash so the world was left never knowing where his genius might have taken him next. What he left the world in the form of The Rebel and all his other books, however, is more than enough to keep us going though it doesn't end there. Camus isn't the be all and end all as there's plenty of other books to read in addition to the ones that he wrote. But he's certainly a good starting point.

John Serpico


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your analysis of 'The Rebel', although I'm slightly ashamed to say that I have never read it. You have prompted me to put this right as soon as I can.

  2. If you do ever get round to reading it (because as I point out, there's plenty of other books to read in addition to the ones that Camus wrote) I think you should write some kind of review of it.
    In fact, I think you should review any book you read - in your own inimitable style. It would have been interesting, for example, to read your thoughts on Viv Albertine's memoir (in addition to what you wrote about influences).

  3. Yes, it would be good to write about books more - though perhaps my academic history of a degree in English is not the best qualification (oddly). I sometimes think that folk would be rather bored to hear about most of the books I read. We'll see.