by Albert Camus
Whew. This is one book that I will unabashedly confirm my pride in having read. It was that difficult. In the past I probably would have given up on it. But I picked it up in honor of Camus’ 100th birthday and it would have been disrespectful to his memory to leave it unfinished.
What’s more, it was damn compelling and thought-provoking for a good chunk of the time. Not uniformly — there was a ton of stuff that just flew over my head — but all of the “Historical Rebellion” (Part III), for instance, was fascinating. “Metaphysical Rebellion” (Part II) was much more difficult, and whole sections of it (specifically “Dandies’ Rebellion” and “Poets’ Rebellion”) were inaccessible to me.
So what’s he saying? These are the highlights as I understand them: To rebel is to affirm a collective humanity — “I rebel, therefore we exist.” But it is also a negation, a defining of a limit — “Beyond this point you cannot go” — and Rebellion has always been inextricably linked with Revolution. But Revolution authorizes killing, so one of the biggest questions for proponents of Rebellion is whether or not murder is acceptable. If it is, you are on the road to “Totality,” as Camus calls it, but which I think of as Despotism. If murder is not acceptable, you’re pretty much screwed anyway because the State will silence you.
My absolute favorite section in the book (and indeed, it appears to be Camus’ favorite as well) is titled “The Fastidious Assassins” in the “Historical Rebellion” Part III. It concerns the Russian terrorists of the Socialist-Republican party in the early 20th century. These people, for Camus, were the perfect manifestation of rebellion in that they judiciously selected their targets, avoided incidental casualties, and voluntarily sacrificed their own lives in the wake of the murders they committed.
For Camus, voluntary self-sacrifice is the only conceivable justification for murder. Through death on both sides of the struggle, a new value can be given life.
Camus then proceeds to convincingly dismantle Marxism, specifically its pretentions toward science and rationality. And he returns again to the idea of limits, which is somewhat obscure the way he talks about it, but which actually makes sense the more you think about it. In this way he argues against Absolute Freedom, since that includes the freedom to kill and the freedom to reign over everyone else. Absolute Justice tramples upon freedom, since the common man is denied the freedom of determining what is just. The ideal road lies in both of them being limited and working together within those limits.
This is one of those books that makes your brain hurt. It was not a pleasurable read, but it was an important one, and occasionally an inspiring one. Whereas before I liked Camus a lot, now I love him. I will now have to re-read The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays