In 1957, Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) became the second youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” (It was with this earnestness that, days after receiving the coveted accolade, he sent his childhood teacher a beautiful letter of gratitude.)
More than half a century later, his lucid and luminous insight renders Camus a timeless seer of truth, one who ennobles and enlarges the human spirit in the very act of seeing it — the kind of attentiveness that calls to mind his compatriot Simone Weil, whom he admired more than he did any other thinker and who memorably asserted that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Nowhere does Camus’s generous attention to the human spirit emanate more brilliantly than in a 1940 essay titled “The Almond Trees” (after the arboreal species that blooms in winter), found in his Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library) — the superb volume that gave us Camus on happiness, despair, and how to amplify our love of life. Penned at the peak of WWII, to the shrill crescendo of humanity’s collective cry for justice and mercy, Camus’s clarion call for reawakening our noblest nature reverberates with newfound poignancy today, amid our present age of shootings and senseless violence.
At only twenty-seven, Camus writes:
We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.
Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. “Tragedy,” [D.H.] Lawrence said, “ought to be a great kick at misery.” This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.
In a sentiment evocative of the 1919 manifesto Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — which was signed by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Stefan Zweig, and Hermann Hesse — Camus argues that this “kick” is to be delivered by the deliberate cultivation of the mind’s highest virtues:
If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.
But where are the conquering virtues of the mind? The same Nietzsche listed them as mortal enemies to heaviness of the spirit. For him, they are strength of character, taste, the “world,” classical happiness, severe pride, the cold frugality of the wise. More than ever, these virtues are necessary today, and each of us can choose the one that suits him best. Before the vastness of the undertaking, let no one forget strength of character. I don’t mean the theatrical kind on political platforms, complete with frowns and threatening gestures. But the kind that through the virtue of its purity and its sap, stands up to all the winds that blow in from the sea. Such is the strength of character that in the winter of the world will prepare the fruit.
Elsewhere in the volume, Camus writes: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Each time our world cycles through a winter of the human spirit, Camus remains an abiding hearth of the invisible summer within us, his work a perennial invitation to reinhabit our deepest decency and live up to our most ennobled nature.
Complement this particular excerpt from the thoroughly elevating Lyrical and Critical Essays with Nietzsche on what it really means to be a free spirit and Susan Sontag on how to be a moral human being, then revisit Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons and our search for meaning.
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