Books: The Rebel (Albert Camus)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-08-25 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

Product purchases
support this site.

Buy at Amazon

"We are as gods," Stewart Brand wrote in 1968 in the Whole Earth Catalog, "and we might as well get good at it." I encountered that quote a few years before I read The Rebel for the first time, when I was in my twenties (in the mid-Nineties or so). Camus's work felt like a book-length interrogation of the assumptions behind such a statement. If we are gods, how do we get good at it? And if we find in the process we are not, in fact, gods, what then? How can we live as a species, knowing now the temptation to righteous power will always exist even in (and maybe especially in) the best of us? And how do we let all that not get in the way of us getting very real boots off our very real necks? (No one has ever been saved by contented bystanders.)

It's bad form to judge ideas by your gut feelings about them. I had a hard time talking about how Camus's worldview felt more right to me than, say, Sartre's, because I knew that would come off as a weak argument to anyone who wanted, well, an argument. But after I started studying Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, that informed my sense of why I found Camus spot-on. He was not afraid of the idea that contradiction and paradox in our lives are often irresolute — that the quality of our lives is not ultimately dictated by how well we unravel such knots, because sometimes they can't be unraveled or even cut. What mattered was how well we could exist in spite of such things — and not just exist, but live; not just survive, but thrive. This was the true work of our lives — not that we were gods, but that we would always be questioning that fact, and we might as well get good at it.

The Rebel deals with one such contradiction, easily the one most central to modern political life: the idea that in resisting tyranny, we recreate it anew. The trick is to not fall prey to the idea that this absolves oppression, or that all moderation (including ineffectuality) is justified. The trick is to find the way forward, in whatever form it comes that does not include stepping on more necks. And there is no playbook for this, no flowchart of actions based on absolutely objective external conditions. There is only the judgment of time and one's peers, and one has to begin from those cold facts before you can make any progress at all.

Camus wrote the book in the years immediately following World War II, in the wake of absolute tyrannies that seemed like the perfect moral justification for absolute rebellions. That right there is one of the dangers Camus wanted to highlight, the trap of a morally perfect cause. His sympathies are absolutely with the oppressed, but he is uneasy with the idea that we have to justify bad things to defend good things. Uneasy, not out of weakness of resolve or cowardice, but because he can spell out any number of examples of how one innocuous justification can bloom into a thousand poisonous ones. Is all rebellion against tyranny doomed in turn to become tyranny, too? Or is that just the limits of our vision?

The book tours several kinds of rebellion: their motives, their flavor and texture, their consequences. Some are political; some cultural; some aesthetic. One example of the latter is de Sade and his literary thought experiments into absolute personal liberty. Far from liberating their creator in his prison, they only hemmed him in all the more, reifying his frustrations and demonstrating how absolute liberty for one degenerates into its opposite for most anyone else. Even in the theoretically unlimited space of the imagination, this tragedy still plays out. Outside, in the messy real world of others, it's even more tangled.

Purchase on Amazon

I was surprised (in a good way) to see Camus repudiate Marx's historicism in almost exactly the same terms that, say, Karl Popper had in The Open Society And Its Enemies. Marx's sympathies for the poor and his disgust with the outsized power of capital were all commendable, but they didn't justify the degeneration of his sociology into prophecy. For Camus, the whole point is that the future is unknown, that it is not inevitable in any sense — for that provides us with the greatest dangers, but also the broadest range of constructive possibilities.

What emerges over the course of Camus's various investigations is a sense that greater things are possible than a choice between the mob or the Grand Inquisitor. There will always be rebels as long as there is a human race, and with that, there will always be the moral quandaries of rebellion. But absurdity was not about shrugging haplessly in the face of such choices, but about living despite them — and that because the future is inherently unknowable, today's living despite such choices may give way to tomorrow's reconciliation between them.

Maybe that reconciliation is nothing more than the daily, even hourly, recognition of this tension — that it doesn't consist of a new politics first, but a new understanding, a new kind of human being from whom a new politics emerges. Camus does not tell us how to do that, but I prefer to think that is because he leaves it to us to do that work, to not tell us what to look for lest that be what we find. It's not about finding an answer that fixes everything, but about finding better ways to ask the questions that persist (how do we live? how do we resist?), and to never stop asking.

Tags: Albert Camus Karl Popper Sade absurdism books existentialism philosophy politics review