Albert Camus' reception of the ancient world is a subject deserving greater consideration than it has currently received. This article will discuss the importance of Greece and Rome in Camus' Absurd cycle and its implications in the context of colonial Algeria. I begin with an analysis of Camus' instinctive polarization of Greece and Rome Greece as artistic and democratic; Rome as violent and imperialist , before arguing that this antithesis was vital in two of Camus' most lasting creations: Sisyphus and Caligula. These receptions will then be situated within the political and literary contexts in which Camus wrote, particularly that of colonialism.
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Albert Camus' reception of the ancient world is a subject deserving greater consideration than it has currently received. This article will discuss the importance of Greece and Rome in Camus' Absurd cycle and its implications in the context of colonial Algeria. I begin with an analysis of Camus' instinctive polarization of Greece and Rome Greece as artistic and democratic; Rome as violent and imperialist , before arguing that this antithesis was vital in two of Camus' most lasting creations: Sisyphus and Caligula.
These receptions will then be situated within the political and literary contexts in which Camus wrote, particularly that of colonialism.
Camus' reception of the ancient world reveals much about his complex relationship with Algeria. Even as he rejected the Latinizing tropes of previous colonial writers, his own concept of Graeco-Mediterraneanism was equally predicated on Eurocentric discourses.
Camus' vision of the ancient world goes to the heart of understanding not only his Absurd literature but ultimately, I suggest, reveals a writer at a crossroads between Europe and Africa. In the fifty years that have passed since Albert Camus' death he has become recognized as one of the most important figures in modern French literature. Receiving his Nobel Prize in , he was asked in a Question and Answer session if he considered himself an existentialist.
He replied I am not an existentialist, although of course critics are obliged to make categories. I got my first philosophical impressions from the Greeks, not from nineteenth century Germany. Camus represents a vitally important example of classical reception in two major ways. First, he sits at a confluence of European thought about Classics that reaches back as far as the Enlightenment. Ancient Greece held a particularly significant place in the French imagination, extending from the works of Voltaire and Chateaubriand through to Gide and Malraux.
Camus' use of Greece plays a formative role in his interaction with this tradition. It also demonstrates the influence of Romantic literature on his work, present in his obsession with myth and his reverence of antique ruins. Equally, his use of Greece brought him in to contact with the contemporary resurgence of ancient mythology in the writings of Anouilh, Sartre, Cocteau and Giradoux. Camus' literature exists at the juncture between modernity's uses of myth and the more traditional idealized and romanticized vision of Greece.
His Greece was both a place of idealized beauty and cultural and artistic pre-eminence but also a theoretical construction that he used to illustrate his key philosophical and political arguments.
The second context of major importance is Camus' Franco-Algerian identity. In the literature of French Algeria there was a long tradition of using classical motifs both to justify colonialism and later to integrate the European and non-European populations.
Camus' perspective on Greece and Rome was inevitably informed by these traditions. Camus was not only influenced by the literary traditions but also by propagandistic appropriations by Algerian colonialists and European Fascists. The example of Camus is instructive as he sits at a crossroads between Europe and Africa at a period of intense colonial activity. His interest in Classics tells us a great deal about how essential the discourse of classicism was to European imperialism. It also raises larger questions about why an Algerian writer should identify so closely with Greek culture and what this says about the culture and society of the colonizers.
This article will attempt to provide an introduction to thinking about Camus and the classical world, focusing on his Absurd works. Not only does this period contain perhaps his most explicit interactions with antiquity but they also demonstrate a key aspect of Camus' thought: the binary opposition between ancient Greece and ancient Rome.
Studying this opposition demonstrates not only how Camus was able to shape classical narratives to his own philosophy, but also how this fascination with antiquity was implicated in the intensely volatile period of its composition.
The idea of Greece permeates Camus' writing. For Camus, Fascism and war had their roots in the modern alienation from the values of Greece. We have exiled beauty, the Greeks took up arms for her.
It is the first difference, but a long-standing one. Greek thought was always founded on the idea of limits. It pushed nothing to the extreme, neither reason, nor religion, because it denied nothing, neither reason nor religion. It gave everything its share, balancing shadows with light. Our Europe on the contrary, embarking on the conquest of totality, is the daughter of excess.
It denies beauty as it denies everything that it does not exalt. Narrow paths bordered by barbary and fig trees, olive, carob jujube trees. On these paths you meet men with brown faces and clean eyes, leading donkeys laden with olives … Greece? No, Kablyia. And it is as if suddenly, across the centuries, the whole of Greece had suddenly been set down between the sea and the mountains, reborn in its ancient splendour.
This direct contrast between Greece and Rome features in much of Camus' writing. For Camus, the term Caesar became a byword for tyrannical leadership, be it fascist or socialist. Importantly, Rome is always characterized by the rule of the Caesars, Greece as a democratic, free and peaceful state.
Athens' military imperialism and the democracy of the Roman Republic receive no mention in Camus' work but this is less paradoxical than it may seem: his concepts were, after all, clearly not historical.
Rather his selective understanding of the cultures of Greece and Rome demonstrates that they were ultimately both constructions of his own imagination. Considering this opposition gives a new and important context to the works for which Camus is perhaps best known: his Absurd cycle.
The Absurd works were composed in the late s and early 40s and mark the first major phase of Camus' literary career. Weyembergh describes the essay as fully accepting the landscape of Nietzschean thought, the total absence of god and the spectre of the nihilistic impulse. Camus' Le Mythe de Sisyphe deals with one of post-religious philosophy's most pressing questions: if one accepts the meaninglessness of existence, what is the justification for continuing to live? The essay begins there is only one philosophical problem that is truly serious, it is suicide.
Judging whether life is or is not is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Cursed to push a rock to the top of a mountain for eternity, a meaningless and unceasing endeavour, Sisyphus is a personification of the Absurd condition. Camus was interested specifically in the moment when Sisyphus is forced to watch the rock roll back down the mountain and unquestioningly follow it to begin his labour again.
It is during this return, this pause, that Sisyphus interests me … I see this man going back down with a heavy yet equal step towards the torment of which he will never know the end … in each of these instants, where he leaves the summits and sinks bit by bit towards the lair of the gods, he is superior to his destiny. He is stronger than his rock. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Archambault has written a thorough study of Camus' classical sources, particularly the influence of Aeschylus, Homer, and Thucydides. His most memorable pages on Sisyphus are almost entirely the product of school book sources. It is clear that Camus has incarnated a figure of Sisyphus quite differently from one we would recognize.
He effectively inverts the traditional and familiar. Sisyphus becomes a model of eternal contentment rather than eternal suffering. This is a conscious attempt to defy expectations and to disrupt tradition. Camus immediately decentres the myth, choosing not to focus, as previous artistic depictions have, on the moment of Sisyphus' agonizing struggle but rather on the moment when he walks down the mountain.
This moment is absent from most depictions yet he makes it his prime focus. In focussing on this normally assumed moment, Camus is interacting with the myth rather than simply retelling. Both the myth's focal point and its conclusion are inverted — and in this Camus mirrors the structure of his argument. We expect a miserable, eternally suffering Sisyphus so Camus presents us with an eternally satisfied one.
Equally, despite the seemingly bleak and devastating conclusions of a meaningless universe, his argument demonstrates that happiness is possible, indeed natural.
Engagement and refutation of a traditional depiction of myth helps Camus reinforce his conclusions. He engages with and challenges expectations in order to strengthen his conclusion.
Sisyphus is also an example of the function mythology has played in philosophical discourse. Greek mythology has become a symbol of philosophical discourse, a part of the vocabulary of European philosophy, from Nietzsche's Dionysus to Freud's Oedipus. A larger discussion of this phenomenon would be impossible here, but clearly Camus was interacting with this tradition and attempting to engage with it in his own use of myth.
Sisyphus also allowed Camus an unbridled freedom to follow the Absurd to a conclusion not bound by practical limitations. The essential malleability of mythology permits him to mould it to fit his philosophy. Perhaps at a deeper level, mythology can be seen as a mask behind which the writer can hide. For a work that rejects religious solutions, this sense of gravity and grandeur could not be achieved with the use of biblical figures generations of Christian philosophers had done before.
Again, Camus is intentionally interacting with this tradition and attempting to find a secular equivalent. Sisyphus is a martyr to the Absurd who teaches through his suffering. Of most significance is that Camus' positive example of how one can live with the burdens of the Absurd comes in the form of a Greek myth.
Sisyphus is the most famous example of this but Camus used Greek mythology in this way in a number of essays. A reference in his notebooks demonstrates that the major movements in his thought were conceived around mythic themes: I. The myth of Sisyphus Absurd — II. The myth of Prometheus revolt — III. The myth of Nemesis. Greek mythology was a vital part of Camus' intellectual expression. It is essential to note that in each of the cases above the myth is deployed as an affirmative and positive exemplar.
The antidotes to modern problems are located in these ancient models. It cannot be considered an accident that the mythology chosen to embody these ideals is that of ancient Greece, a culture that Camus understood as containing the key to humanity's potential for happiness and virtue. This impression is fundamentally strengthened when one considers the substantial departure from Sisyphus, which occurs in the Absurd work located in a culture Camus viewed as the antithesis of Greek virtue: ancient Rome.
Caligula is the best known and most successful of Camus' plays. His first draft of the play was completed in but the final and much changed version was published in Caligula conversely has absolute power. This leads to the revolution of his subjects both against his tyrannical rule and against the eradication of meaning from their lives.
The play's first performances temporal proximity to the end of the Second World War has also led audiences to see in the figure of Caligula as a representation of the rise of the European dictator. Caligula is conceived in a similar mode to Le Mythe de Sisyphe in so far as once again Camus actively seeks to disrupt the familiar image of the Emperor and invert expectations. Caligula is presented in the ancient historical accounts as an insane tyrant and it is this concept that most artistic interpretations of the Emperor have adhered to.
Stephens Doris T. Dardanidae ventent mitte hanc de pectove curam ; sed non et venisse volent. Bella, horrida bella et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno. VI, Classis invectas Thybridis undam non, ut veve, meas effugit nuntius auvis ; ne tantos mihi finge metus ; nec regia Iuno immemov est nostri.
Le Mythe de Sisyphe