Archive for the ‘french literature’ tag
In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer. — Albert Camus, “Return to Tipasa,” 1952
An online friend of mine has the above quote as one of her signatures in a forum that we both frequent. I don’t recall having ever come across it before seeing her signature, and I told her how profound I thought it was (or some paraphrase of that). I then said that I bet I could write an entire essay on just that sentence. After some prodding from her, I said I would write some thoughts on it after I finished the last John Brown post. So, with that said, here it goes.
I should make a concerted effort sometime to count every time the word “sun” is mentioned in Camus’ existentialist work, “The Stranger” (1942) or in his native French, “L’Étranger.” This is the book that came into my mind upon reading the quote from “Return to Tipasa,” and I will explain why.
Although some would argue whether Camus was actually an existentialist or not, his book about a murder on a sun-drenched beach drips with existential thought. Camus, not much for labels, seemed demure about having that particular one placed on him. Some say, rather, that he more closely followed absurdism. I would argue that absurdism is at least tightly bound up with existentialism or falls under the latter altogether.
Readers can follow the Wikipedia links above for explanations of the different strains of philosophical thought, but generally, existentialism is the idea that humans are self-determining beings responsible for their own choices in a seemingly meaningless universe. Some existentialists, like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard were actually believers, but when I refer to existentialism here, I’m referring to the unbelieving segment of existentialists.
Now back to that beautiful winter and invincible summer. Camus in “The Stranger” uses the sun (typically signified by summer or spring) to justify in himself all sorts of emotions, from gaiety to annoyance. Here is the book’s main character, Mersault, narrating the story near the end of Part I:
Masson wanted to go for a swim, but his wife and Raymond didn’t want to come. The three of us went down to the beach and Marie (Mersault’s love interest) jumped right in. Masson and I waited a little. He spoke slowly, and I noticed that he had a habit of finishing everything he said with “and I’d even say,” when really it didn’t add anything to the meaning of his sentence. Referring to Marie, he said, “She’s stunning, and I’d even say charming.” After that I didn’t pay any more attention to this mannerism of his, because I was absorbed by the feeling that the sun was doing me a lot of good. The sand was starting to get hot underfoot. I held back the urge to get into the water a minute longer, but finally I said to Masson, “Shall we?” I dove in. He waded in slowly and started swimming only when he couldn’t touch the bottom anymore. He did the breast stroke, and not too well, either, so I left him and joined Marie. The water was cold and I was glad to be swimming. Together again, Marie and I swam out a ways, and we felt a closeness as we moved in unison and were happy.
A few minutes later on the shore:
Soon afterwards Marie came back. I rolled over to watch her coming. She was glistening all over with salty water and holding her hair back. She lay down right next to me and the combined warmth of her body and from the sun made me doze off.
So, in these passages, Camus sets up the sun as a source of warmth and happiness for Mersault. Later in the book, it will push him to murder an Arab, which would lead to his trial and execution.
Here’s a brief explanation of the shooting from shmoop.com:
Just as Meursault is about to turn around, to leave the beach altogether, we hear this line: “But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back.” “But,” he says. He would have left, but the sun was too intense. The sun “[makes him] move forward” toward the spring (and therefore, toward the Arab).
Whether instilling warm feelings in Mersault or agitation, the sun (or summer itself) is clearly established as a powerful force in the novel. Since “Return to Tipasa” was written 10 years after “The Stranger,” the sun/summer dichotomy must have still been pervasive in Camus’ mind. It should be clear at this point, but the “middle of winter” part of the above quote seems to point to a person’s darkest hours, hours of depression or loneliness or loss, while the invincible summer seems to denote the brighter moments in a person’s life, or the times in life in which a person feels the strongest, happiest or most alive.
And here we come to the profound implication: Camus seems to suggest that in his darkest hours, man can actually feel his strongest and most alive, that out of wreckage can come hope, out of despair can come scorn, out of heartbreak can come consummation. If the “scorn” statement sounds shocking, that’s because it is, but witness another astonishing line from Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus:”
There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.
We see the implications of the invincible summer played out, first, in Camus’ essay about Sisyphus, in which Camus imagines that Sisyphus, condemned to push an ever-tumbling boulder up a mountain over and over again, as a man at peace.
Here are a couple important lines:
You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Thus, even in anguish or monotony or hard labor or loneliness or depression, a man can find peace, if not in existence itself, in the struggle “toward the heights.” That, to me, is existentialism in a nutshell.
Or, in Mersault’s case, in facing an execution. While Camus himself may have not been apt to welcome labels upon himself, the final passage of “The Stranger” is sun-drenched in existential thought and imagery, and it deserves an airing here. Mersault is in the final moments of his life, and as dawn breaks, his execution for murdering the Arab looms:
I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up with the stars in my face. Sounds of the countryside were drifting in. Smells of night, earth, and salt air were cooling my temples. The wondrous peace of that sleeping summer flowed through me like a tide. Then, in the dark hour before dawn, sirens blasted. They were announcing departures for a world that now and forever meant nothing to me. For the first time in a long time I thought about Maman (his deceased mother). I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life, she had taken a ‘fiance,’ why she had played at beginning again. Even there, in that home where lives were fading out, evening was a kind of wistful respite. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
So, like Sisyphus, in a moment that would shake most anyone to utter despair, Mersault is happy. And here is the consummation for Mersault and for the “Return to Tipasa” quote: Mersault had lived. He had experienced good times and bad, but in both, he found peace.
Or, as Camus said in one part of “The Myth of Sisyphus:”
To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. … The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.