19 October 2020

On today’s show, Sean talks with Robert Zaretsky, a professor at University of Houston and the author of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus & the Quest for Meaning.

In 1957 French-Algerian writer, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was 44 years old, the second youngest person to ever receive the award. Fifteen years earlier, during the height of World War II, Camus stunned the world with the essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, and the novel, The Stranger. Camus explores the idea of finding meaning in life, especially during times of great struggle like war, the plague, and personal tragedy. Camus was a free thinker and a champion of the human experience. Camus ultimately teaches us that we should avoid ideologies and rather search for meaning in our relationships with others and in our love of life.



  • The life of Albert Camus, especially his role in the French Resistance during World War II
  • How to continue moving forward with our lives when things happen that we did not expect
  • How to find meaning in struggle
  • Why it’s important to rebel against injustice by avoiding a revolution
  • How we find meaning through relationships
  • Why love for others and love of life is the ultimate source of our happiness


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Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present due to platform differences.

Sean Murray  0:02  

In 1957, French Algerian writer, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was 44 years old. The second youngest person to ever receive the award. 15 years earlier, during the height of World War II, Camus stunned the world with his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and the novel, “The Stranger.” It was followed a few years later by the award-winning novel, “The Plague.”

My guest today is Robert Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston and a Camus scholar. He is the author of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.” 

Camus’ work is an exploration of this idea of finding meaning in life even when it feels at times absurd. It talks about how we should rebel from ideologies, how we can ultimately find meaning in our relationships with others, and in our love of life. 

Zaretsky brings Camus’ work to life. He helps us understand the lessons we can take and apply to our own lives, in order to live a more flourishing life. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Robert Zaretsky as much as I did. My friends, I bring you, Robert Zaretsky.

Intro  1:10  

You’re listening to The Good Life by The Investor’s Podcast Network, where we explore the ideas, principles and values that help you live a meaningful, purposeful life. Join your host, Sean Murray on a journey for the life well-lived.

Sean Murray  1:34  

Robert, welcome to The Good Life.

Robert Zaretsky  1:37  

Thank you, Sean. It’s good to be here.

Sean Murray  1:40  

Our topic today is the Nobel Prize winning author, Albert Camus, and your book, “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.” It’s just a fabulous book. It covers a lot of topics that we talk about on this podcast, especially getting into this idea of what makes a life worth living. What defines the good life? 

And before we get into a lot of those themes, I was hoping that you could help us for the benefit of those in my audience who may not be as familiar with Camus. Could you talk a little bit about who he was and why he’s still relevant today?

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Robert Zaretsky  2:18  

Very briefly. Albert Camus was a French Algerian. I emphasize the point that he was French Algerian. He was a French citizen but Camus was born in Algeria, which in 1913, the year of his birth, it (Algeria) was part of France. It wasn’t a French colony. In fact, it was actually incorporated into France itself. 

The 1 million or so colonists who lived in Algeria from the mid-19th, to the mid-20th century were in effect, French citizens. The 8 to 9 million Arabs and Berbers who lived in Algeria were in fact, not citizens. They were second class inhabitants of the country.

This is important to keep in mind when we think about his career as a writer, thinker and activist. He was born in French Algeria in 1913. The following year, which is 1914, his father was killed in the Battle of the Marne. It was the opening of the First World War. 

His mother took both Albert Camus, who was then just one year old, and his brother, Jean. They moved from where they had been living, in a town called Mondovi. They moved into Algiers, into the apartment of Camus’ grandmother. That’s where he remained until the age of 18 when he went to the University of Algiers.

There are a few things to keep in mind about his childhood and his upbringing. Albert Camus’ grandmother and mother were both illiterate. In addition, his mother was deaf. She was largely mute. She had a limited vocabulary of perhaps 400 words and not more than that. Living in the same apartment was Camus’ uncle, who was also deaf and largely mute.

Sean Murray  4:22  

Let me interrupt there, if I may. You make it clear in your book that Camus’ childhood being raised by a deaf mother in a mostly illiterate household. There’s silence that sort of enveloped his childhood. It had a big impact on his writing and his thinking.

Robert Zaretsky  4:38  

Camus grew up in a world where books were by and large absent and where silence by and large was present. It was an austere world. It was an impoverished world. His mother was the principal person who brought a salary into the house. She was a cleaning woman. 

This was his childhood. This was his youth. This is something he speaks about in ravishing detail in his last and unfinished novel, “The First Man. It is a book that I urge your listeners to read.

Sean Murray  5:17  

Camus manages to get into the University of Algiers. It is a miracle in itself, given his childhood. He became politically active in the French Communist Party. He also joins the theater. He was an actor and a playwright.

It’s interesting that in a very short order, he gets thrown out of the Communist Party because he’s too much of a free thinker. He just doesn’t want to get tied down by an ideology. I want to get to his experience during World War II, which really shaped his life. What happens next for Camus after graduation?

Robert Zaretsky  5:51  

Here, we find Albert Camus in the mid-1930s. He’s a 20 something. He’s committed to theater. He’s committed to political engagement that leads him to his first real job, which is on a newspaper. He began his career as this mock writing journalist. He reported on the various ways in which Berbers and Arabs were being maltreated in Algiers and in the countryside. He also wrote about how the French Republic dedicated extensively to the ideals of justice and equality.

In its practice, they repeatedly ignored the application of these very same ideals to all of the people of Algeria. The newspaper became a thorn in the side of the French government in Algeria. In late 1939, it was finally shut down.

Once it was shut down, for the second or third time in his life, Camus left Algeria to go to France, which is the mainland. He had a job with another newspaper called Le Soir. While he was in Paris, what had been the phoney war between France and Germany turned to a very real war in May of 1940. The Germans invaded through Northeastern France, the Ardennes Forest. 

Quite suddenly, from one day to the next, the French Republic is on its back foot in retreat. They were unable to respond militarily to the German invasion. This leads to something that the French call, l’exode or the great exodus. It was where millions of French men and women poured onto French highways and roads to try to make their way south in order to escape.

Sean Murray  8:00  

Camus at this time had already begun writing what will eventually become some of his most famous works. And yet, here he was in Paris with the Germans bearing down on him. You get the sense that this is where he started looking around and observing that life can get fairly absurd. Who in his day thought the French Republic was going to just dissolve in a matter of weeks? What did Camus do?

Robert Zaretsky  8:28  

Albert Camus was part of the Exodus. The newspaper publisher sent him to Lyon with official correspondence, and with a couple of typewriters. This is extraordinarily important. He also had in the trunk of the car, the manuscripts to the two books he was working on at the time.

These were namely, “The Stranger,” and “The Myth of Sisyphus.” He saw these two books as well as the third work. It was a play he was working on called “Caligula,” after the Roman Emperor. He saw these three books tied to one another. What they had in common was the notion of the absurd or absurdity.

Sean Murray  9:14  

Talk a little bit about how he would write three different works about a theme, such as absurdity. He does this again later, when he takes up other themes. I really found it interesting how he would try to get at the truth by coming at a subject from three different angles– a book, a play, and an essay.

Robert Zaretsky  9:35  

He wrote his works in cycles. This was his plan and design. He was a very systematic writer. Each of the cycles that he produced had three different works. They had a kind of tripod. 

One leg of the tripod was a novel. In the “cycle of the absurd,” the novel is L’Étranger. The second leg of the tripod is what he called “the philosophical essay.” In the case of the “cycle of the absurd,” it’s “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The third leg is a play. In the case of this first cycle, it is Caligula. He had begun work on the book, the essay, as well as on the play before the declaration of war.

Sean Murray  10:24  

Talk a little bit about what Camus meant when he writes about “The Absurdity of Life” and how to deal with that.

Robert Zaretsky  10:32  

The very experience of Camus in the great exodus was a profoundly absurd experience. From one day to the next, some 40 million or so French men, women, and children believe that what had happened or existed the day before, namely the laws, the precepts, the principles, the traditions, and the values that defined the French Third Republic would be there the day after. 

Suddenly, with the Nazi invasion that collapsed. Those expectations no longer held true. There is this very telling line in the opening pages of the “Myth of Sisyphus,” in which Camus is circling around his definition of absurdity. He says, “At a certain moment, unexpectedly in your life, the stage set collapses.” 

Now, of course, he’s thinking like an actor. He’s thinking like a director but he’s also looking for a metaphor to explain what had happened. How can we apply this to our experiences in the nation? 

Sean Murray  11:56  

Exactly. This gets to why I believe Camus is more relevant than ever. He wrote a book about the plague. We are essentially experiencing a plague. And to your point, there’s a feeling of absurdity at times. As I tape this podcast, my children are attending high school a few rooms over in my house. I wasn’t expecting that.

The stage set collapsed in 1940. In effect, this is what’s happened to us in this country with the pandemic. The stage set collapsed. And the fact that I teach my classes now, either through zoom, or I teach them while wearing a mask. The students are spaced 6 to 8 feet apart, in a room that’s on the campus that’s now more or less deserted. 

Who would have thought? I never would have thought six months ago that this would ever happen in my life. It has. His experience in the opening phases about war underscored the viciousness, if you will, of the absurd.

What happens next for Camus?

Robert Zaretsky  13:12  

He continues to work on these manuscripts in the midst of the exodus and in a life of exile. After a short span in Lyon, the newspaper has to cut back on its staff. He’s forced to return to Algeria. 

I should mention that while he was in Paris, he married a woman he had met about two years before in Algeria. She is a remarkable woman by the name of Francine Faure. She was a mathematician, a math teacher, as well as an accomplished pianist.

They married in Paris. Francine and Camus returned to Algeria. And suddenly, this 20 something without a job is teaching in Oran. It is Algeria’s second largest city. He is teaching in Oran because he can’t afford to remain in Algiers. He doesn’t have the money for rent.

He and his wife move into an apartment owned by his wife’s parents. He is teaching Jewish students in a private school because one of the first acts of the Vichy government. It is the authoritarian government that replaced the republican government of France in the summer of 1940.

One of their first acts was to issue a series of anti-semitic laws. One of those laws established a very limited quota on the number of Jewish students who were allowed to attend public schools. 

And so, suddenly, France’s Jewish population, French *inaudible* was unable to provide education for their children. Thus, Camus steps in as a tutor. He sends his manuscripts to France’s most prestigious publishing house, called Gallimard.

The editorial board is just blown away by these works. They are unlike anything else they had read. Just the nature of the writing of “The Stranger” was so unlike what was traditional French literature, in the 20th century. It was hard-bitten. It was sharp. It was severe. It is read in a way like an American detective novel, which is not surprising because he was deeply influenced by American detective writers.

Sean Murray  15:50  

That’s interesting because detective novels are considered to be sort of trashy. It’s not the sort of literature that’s typically recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Who was he influenced by?

Robert Zaretsky  16:02  

He was very much taken by James M. Kane, the author of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” There are extraordinary parallels not just in terms of narrative technique, but also in terms of characterization between Kane’s potboiler. 

“The Stranger,” one of the classics of the French literary canon in some way is due to Kane’s work. Their thoughts are knocked off by this novel, as well as by “The Myth of Sisyphus”. 

They offer him a contract. They published the books in mid-1942 to great critical acclaim. You have to keep in mind though that they’re published in occupied France. The novel is published as it was written, but as for “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus had to remove a chapter devoted to Franz Kafka. Why? Because Kafka was a German-Czech and Jew living in Prague. Under Vichy’s laws, you simply couldn’t do this kind of thing.

Sean Murray  17:16  

Wasn’t it around this time that his health started to fail? I think this is important because his mortality started to weigh down on him. That impacted his writing and how he thought about his life and finding meaning in his life.

Robert Zaretsky  17:32  

He had learned when he was 17 while playing soccer that he was tubercular. He was playing soccer when he began to cough up blood. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was something that he lived with ever since the age of 17.

The problem in 1942 is that the tuberculosis had spread to his *inaudible* lung. His doctor said, “If you don’t get yourself to the appropriate climate, you’re going to die.” He and Francine took a boat back across the Mediterranean to France. 

They went to a small town where there was another family connection. They had a farmhouse there in the foothills of the Alps. The farm where he went was just outside of Chambon. He made his home there. 

Francine after a few weeks returned to Oran because she was teaching. It was while he was in Chambon in November of 1942 that the Germans invaded what was then the unoccupied or the free zone of France.

During that invasion by the Germans, which was unopposed by the French military, in Camus’ journal, he wrote that that day, “Trapped like a rat.” He could not go home to Algeria. At roughly the same time, he wrote, “Absurdity teaches nothing.” 

It was shortly after those entries that Camus went underground and joined the resistance. He eventually becomes editor of perhaps the most important and most influential resistance newspaper by the name of “Combat.” It is also the name of the resistance movement for which the journal was its voice piece.

This is the Camus that many of us know today. He is basically the poster child for the French Resistance because he’s so photogenic. He writes so well. He’s so unlike so many other products of the French literary world who went to the elite schools and were Parisian through and through. Camus was just completely different and so attractive for that reason.

For the next year and a half, we find Camus in the resistance writing editorials. He was making a name for himself. He was making a name for the resistance to the world beyond friends. And most importantly, he was making a name for existentialism.

In 1944, with the liberation of France, Albert Camus appeared as this dapper and dashing representative of the resistance, and of his new school of thought called, “Existentialism.”

Sean Murray  20:38  

That was a tour de force of Camus’ life up through the end of World War II. What I’d like to do is go into some of these themes. In the book, you explore certain intellectual and moral themes that Camus writes about that you believe to be kind of essential to defining a life worth living.

One of those we sort of hit on which is “The Absurd.” In the triad or the three works that he explores, one of those is “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Maybe we could go into that. One thing I really enjoyed about Camus and the way that you explored his work is how he related to the ancient Greeks. He related to myth. He explores absurdity through this famous myth that we have of Sisyphus. 

Maybe we could talk a little bit about that. Maybe we can also relate it to what we’re going through now — the absurdity that we are sort of facing in our own lives with this COVID-19, and other things that we’re dealing with.

Robert Zaretsky  21:41  

It makes the case in “The Myth of Sisyphus” that absurdity is really something that happens when two other things merge. One of those things is humankind’s desire for meaning. This is what’s deepest and most fundamental to us, as Camus believes. 

We demand purpose. We demand meaning. We must have a reason, or something with which we can invest our lives. We tend to look to the world, or we tend to look to the skies to know what that meaning is. 

We tend to look at something transcendental. Be it God, be it another deity, [or] a platonic ideal. Be it, as it was for the communists, history with a capital H. It is something that is far greater than us that invest our lives with purpose or meaning. 

But the world, for Camus, lacks this transcendence. There are no transcendental foundations. There are no transcendental solutions to our quest for meaning. So, the absurd for Camus is we keep demanding answers to our questions, not unlike Job. 

We want to know why things are the way they are, as is the case for Job, who told the voice from the world when he spoke. There’s no reply. It’s that silence, which more than once Camus calls, “A tender, but indifferent world.” That’s what generates absurdity. It is when our pursuit of meaning and the world’s refusal to tell us what that meaning is. What results and issues from that collision is absurdity.

Sean Murray  23:52  

As humans, we have this deep desire for meaning and purpose. When we go searching for it, we find the world isn’t just going to give us the answer. That’s something I can relate to. There’s no easy answer to that question. We all have to answer it in our own way. I think that’s one of the mysteries of life. 

But you might think that, “Oh, well, Camus must be a nihilist. He must be someone who says that there is no meaning.” But he wasn’t a nihilist. I want to get into that. Perhaps you can talk about the character of Sisyphus from the Greek mythology and how Camus brings that story in to sort of explain his view.

Robert Zaretsky  24:32  

He brings Sisyphus into the discussion of the absurd at the very end of this essay. It’s titled, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” But as you know, Sean, the story of “The Myth of Sisyphus” covers just the last four or five pages of the essay. 

Sisyphus was not mentioned until the very end of his work. It’s important to keep in mind that it is an essay. An essay is unlike a treatise, even though Camus, at the University of Algiers did his bachelor’s degree, which is the equivalent in philosophy. 

He wasn’t a professional philosopher. He wasn’t somebody who wrote his works on philosophy in an argumentative fashion. Instead, he wrote it in terms of imagery, as you pointed out. He also wrote it as an essay.

Think about the French word for essay: “essai.” It means “to try.” I will try to do this. Writing a treatise where if you’re a Kantian, you know exactly where you’re going to end up. You know the end, even before you start out to get there.

The essay is just the opposite, Sean. You will only know the end when you reach there. Once you reach there, the end is always provisional. It’s never final. It’s never definitive. There is no terminus when it comes to essay writing.

Sean Murray  26:09  

I want to get into “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In the actual Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to rolling the stone up the hill again and again. It’s a sentence that kind of imposes that the mindlessness of that activity is the real torture that Sisyphus has to undergo.

Is Camus making the connection there between our continual search for meaning in something external, and not finding it again and again? Is that what he is saying? Is that the connection he’s making with “The Myth of Sisyphus” and this idea of meaning and the absurd?

Robert Zaretsky  26:48  

That’s the beginning of it. I think it goes one or two steps beyond that. What attracts Camus to Sisyphus is first, the fact that Sisyphus is a troublemaker. He keeps on tricking the gods. The reason why he keeps tricking the gods is because it’s his time to die.

First, it was with Persephone, then with Aries who [was] sent to bring him back to Hades. He tricks them. Why does he trick them? That’s because he doesn’t want to surrender his life. He understands being in ancient Greek, that’s all there is. He loves life. He just loves the Mediterranean sun.

He loves his wife. He loves the feel of the Earth. He doesn’t want to give it up. He’s not ready just yet. And so, the gods when they finally get him down to Hades, they punish him. They believe that what better punishment for this guy who repeatedly humiliated ourselves who refused his summons when his time had come.

And so, he was sentenced, as you noted, to rolling this boulder up the slope of a mountain, and upon reaching the summit, to see it roll back down. He had to trudge behind it, and then roll it back up again. 

The meaning, I believe for Camus in all of this and why the very last line is as such is that we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Who could be happy doing this? And yet, Camus’ Sisyphus is somebody who, at the summit, watches the boulder begin to go back down the slope. In Camus’ account, he pauses as he watches it go down. 

That pause I think is all important. He’s reflecting on what his punishment is, and how he can trick the gods one more time. He follows the ball down. He shoulders it. In shouldering it, he makes it his own. He basically invests himself in this punishment. He deprived the gods of what they think they’ve done to him. 

In each and every trip he makes up that picks up that mountainside, and then the pause as he watches it go back down, he thinks of ways in which it can vary in ways. He thinks of which he can leave his signature on that next trip. This at least is Camus’ interpretation. He will not allow the gods to break his resistance.

Sean Murray  29:57  

So, he finds meaning in that punishment.

Robert Zaretsky  30:01  

Exactly. He embraces, if you will, the absurdity of the punishment and of this predicament. But once again, it’s important to keep in mind that Camus does not stop here. What we have with “The Myth of Sisyphus”, and of course with “The Stranger and Caligula” is a diagnosis of the absurd in our absurd condition. 

By 1942, after he had already completed “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he saw what was happening in France. He realized that it was no longer enough to simply rest with a diagnosis, or to embrace the punishment. You had to do something more. You had to invest your person into a greater cause than you yourself. That is the reason why he joins the resistance. That’s what leads him to his next cycle of works, which is what he called the cycle of rebellion or revolt. 

Sean Murray  31:12  

Let’s transition to that. Let’s talk about the cycle of rebellion and revolt. You make a distinction between revolt and revolution. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Robert Zaretsky  31:23  

Camus was appalled by revolutionaries. His comrades in the French Communist Party, for example, as he was by reactionaries or counter-revolutionaries. For him, revolutionaries do the very same thing that reactionaries do. They reduce human kind to stereotypes, or to abstractions. 

They are incapable of seeing people as they are. He was once involved in this violent exchange of letters in newspapers with a communist after the Second World War. The communist said, “You don’t know the first thing about Marxism.” Camus’ reply was, “I don’t need to know anything about Marxism. I learned about misery in my life. What do you know?” 

For him, what truly counted was the palpable, the real, or what’s still living, and not the abstractions that these ideological streams employed of one and the other. It should instead focus on the individuals towards whom their ideologies were extensively aimed. In fact, we’re utterly discounted by.

He sees this in the 1930s. He sees it even more clearly in the 1940s with the creation of the iron curtain, and with the way in which the French communists were basically toeing Moscow’s line. He was horrified by this. He was a man of the left, but he didn’t believe the communists represented the values of the left. It really wasn’t demanded of any party. 

And so, revolution for him was something that we had to avoid at all costs. It’s not the same as revolt or rebellion. Rebellion for him is really moderation by another word. He discussed at length the meaning of the true rebel in his essay, “The Rebel”. It was published in 1952. The rebel is somebody who always lives on the edge, whose life is always one of great tension.

Sean Murray  34:07  

For Kambou, why does he become a rebel?

Robert Zaretsky  34:12  

On the one hand, he becomes a rebel because his dignity as a human being has been discounted, disparaged, damaged, and threatened by another human being or another group of human beings. At a certain point, you draw the line and you say, “Beyond that point, I must rebel.” 

You cannot do that to a fellow human being. But at the very same time, the rebel in rebelling will not fall over into the camp of revolutionaries. The revolutionaries are doing the very same thing that his oppressor has done. This makes him less than human. This makes him sub-human, inhuman, turning him into the other.

Sean Murray  35:08  

One of the things I took away from this section was a bedrock value for Camus was that the ends don’t justify the means. The Communist Party or some of these other ideologies would use the same violence. They would justify murder. They would justify treating people horribly because they were on the way to some better end. 

Camus wouldn’t put up with that. He stuck to his principles. You talked about this in the book with the idea of fidelity. He was true to these principles and ideals. I hear what you’re saying. This other rebel is someone who would not go to that extreme. Even though they’re drawing the line, they’re still maintaining your humanistic principles and values. Is that right?

Robert Zaretsky  35:52  

Oh, that’s very much right. But there’s one other element, namely that there’s something deeply tragic about rebellion, Sean. The rebel simply cannot maintain that position between and *inaudible* these two opposing extremes forever. 

Sooner or later, the rebel will fall to one side or to the other. And that’s why, if you’ve read “The Plague,” you have the conclusion that you have. The narrator and hero of the story is Doctor Rieux. In the very last paragraph after the plague finally leaves the city of Oran in this fictional account, people are celebrating people. They are once again embracing one another. It sounds a little bit like our situation today. 

What does the doctor tell himself? The plague has not disappeared. It has subsided. But sooner or later, it will once again appear. It will once again as for your rights, the rats will appear. It was the appearance of rats at the very beginning of the novel. This was the herald. This was the first sign of the imminent arrival of the bubonic plague.

Sean Murray  37:16  

What does the plague represent?

Robert Zaretsky  37:19  

We have to keep in mind that “The Plague” was written in the midst of the occupation of France by Nazi Germany. It was published in 1947. It was just two years after the end of the Second World War and France’s complete liberation.

First and foremost, what he had in mind was the German occupation. He was, in a way, expressing his experience in the resistance through the characters that we find in the novel. It was a refraction of his underground experience in “The Plague.” 

But of course, it wasn’t just this. Camus said that it’s a parable, as well as a kind of historical account of France into the occupation. “The Plague” is not just something that’s microbiological. It’s also something ideological. This was not only all too apparent. 

During the war, France was subject to the totalitarian ideologies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. But once again, after the war, Camus sees the rise of yet another totalitarian ideology, which is Stalin’s Soviet Union and Stalinist communism. This resistance is not just to microbes. The resistance is to the thoughtlessness that such ideologies require.

Sean Murray  39:00  

That’s one of the things that I really appreciate about Camus. He cautions us not to get indoctrinated in an ideology. The meaning we seek in our lives stems from our individual quest, individual liberty, and free thinking. I believe he even cautions us that the threat of ideology doesn’t always come externally.

Robert Zaretsky  39:28  

One of the characters in the play, Jean Tarrou says in the conversation with Doctor Rieux: “My life has been spent aware that I carry the plague. We all do. I have to remain ever vigilant not to spread it by keeping my eyes on it.” And this, I think is perhaps the most important of lessons. 

I hate drawing lessons from novels. That wasn’t why they’re written. But if you were to draw one lesson from the play, especially for our time in this country, it would very much be that.

Sean Murray  40:14  

That’s a fascinating concept. Each of us has the potential for extremism or extreme ideology. If we all acknowledge that and are ever vigilant, that is a way for us as a culture and a free society to maintain our liberty and freedom.

Robert Zaretsky  40:36  

I think this goes to the heart of your show about The Good Life on how we can invest ourselves in the good life. One of the points that both “The Plague” as well as “The Rebel” make is that the good life cannot be achieved in solitude and isolation. 

The good life for Camus and the characters in his novel can only be found in collaboration or when they join arms with one another. In “The Rebel,” he makes this point by kind of tweaking the famous formula, “I think, therefore I am.” 

For Camus, it really wasn’t that important to affirm one’s existence as an isolated mind. It is really what’s happening with Descartes. It is a great rationalist point. Instead, what’s most important is to affirm our existence in the company of others. 

So rather than declaring, “I think, therefore I am,” Camus suggests, “I resist, therefore we are.” That’s something he always tried to practice in his life. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes he failed.

Sean Murray  42:05  

What are we resisting in that? I love that formulation, by the way. “I resist, therefore we are,” which is “I’m fighting for something I’m fighting for.” [The] meaning in my life [is] that I’m fighting for justice. I’m fighting for love to win out over fear.

Robert Zaretsky  42:23  

Exactly. I think that last line is most important, Sean. I’m fighting on behalf of love. Just as he realized, after the completion of his cycle of the absurd that it was just the diagnosis. It was a description. But now we needed a kind of prescription or cure to our tragic condition.

He wrote “The Cycle of Rebellion.” But after completing “The Cycle of Rebellion” in the early 1950s. He was still dissatisfied. Rebellion is extraordinarily important. Agreed. But it’s not just rebellion, as you just asked. It’s rebellion on behalf of what really is resistance on behalf of what. 

Towards the end of his life, he died in a car accident in January of 1960. But about a year and a half to two years before the accident, he begins his third cycle. He calls it, “The Cycle of Love.” That’s what we resist on behalf of love. 

In the 150 or so pages of “The First Man,” what we have are the various takes on love. It’s love of family, love of friends, love of nature, and really the care for oneself as well. It is an extraordinary work. 

As I said, I can only repeat this. It’s heartbreaking at first because it’s so beautiful, Sean. And secondly, it’s because it’s unfinished. The novel is unfinished. The cycle is unfinished. Camus’ life was unfinished. Perhaps that’s the greatest tragedy. He didn’t live long enough to tell us what he thought about love. What more did he have to say about it? And my goodness, that’s something that we need to hear today, don’t we?

Sean Murray  44:31  

Absolutely. I like how he came back around to the light, the love of nature, and some of the joy in life that you described at the beginning of his life. He grew up in a fairly stark environment. But there was something about the Mediterranean beauty of his youth that he seemed to rekindle as he was writing this third trilogy on love.

He was reconnecting. There was a line you kept coming back to in the book about the Mediterranean light, the sun, and how in the darkest times in his life, he would go to that. He would somehow realize that there is hope. There is beauty out there. It would sort of save him.

Robert Zaretsky  45:17  

Absolutely. He did believe that there was beauty out there. It was beauty that was distilled by nature. It was beauty that was distilled by family, friends, and lovers. I don’t know if it also meant that there was hope out there. We can’t escape the tragedy. 

Ultimately, he has this tragic understanding of the human condition. One of the lines that I like, that Camus was fond of repeating was, “There’s no reason for hope, but that’s no reason to despair.” In other words, hope is illusory. In fact, if we do believe that hope exists, we might not in fact do very much to act in order to bring about whatever it is we hope for. 

What’s truly important is that we are engaged with one another. It is the activity. It is the effort we make to remain connected with one another, and to have a common, humane and just goal. It should be a goal that recognizes not just the humanity of those who are voiceless, but also recognizes the humanity of those who not only have voices but spend their time shouting at others. We can never ever overlook our common humanity.

Sean Murray  46:56  

That’s a wonderful way to end our discussion. Where can people find out more about your works and what you do?

Robert Zaretsky  47:03  

They can go to Amazon. I would much rather have you go to an independent bookstore site. I go to Powell’s Books. I’ve written a great deal on Camus. All they have to do is Google my name and Camus’ name, and all sorts of links will come up. 

But rather than reading my words on Camus, they’re not terribly important. What you should be reading is Camus’ words. I think it would be terrific if your listeners were to go, not just to “The Stranger” or “The Myth of Sisyphus,” but go to “The Plague.” It really does speak to our situation today and to our national predicament. Go to “The First Man,” as well. 

It truly is beautiful. Also, there’s another that has just been published by Vintage. It’s called “Personal Writings,” I believe. I just received a review copy. It’s edited by Alice Kaplan. It’s a collection of the essays that he wrote, beginning in the mid-1930s when he was 20 something.

They are just extraordinarily lyrical, buoyant, beautiful, and sensual. It’s not like the Camus that most of us think of today. You might get a copy of the “Personal Writings” as well.

Sean Murray  48:21  

All of those would be a great way to get oriented to Camus. I also encourage our listeners to start that journey. He’s a wonderful writer. There’s much we can learn from Camus. 

Robert Zaretsky, thank you for being on The Good Life.

Robert Zaretsky  48:36  

Sean, thank you for inviting me. It was a pleasure.

Outro  48:39  

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