Knowledge as Lucidity: "Summer in Algiers"
Edward G. Lawry
This is a paper about Albert Camus' understanding of what it means to know as he eloquently expressed it in the essay "Summer in Algiers." To begin it requires two images. First I summon a song from the musical Hair. One of the hippie freaks sings that he is "crazy for the red, white and blue." He castigates his bourgeois detractors for thinking him subversive just because he has long hair. He continues to express devotion to the red, white and blue until, at the end of the song, he adds "crazy for the red, white and blue . . . and yellow and green." Only then do we realize that he has been singing about his experience of color, not of the American flag.
The second image is no joke. It is the image of Rod Steiger playing the lead part in The Pawnbroker, the excellent movie adaptation of Edward Wallant's novel. Near the end of the movie, when the old pawnbroker realizes that he has been wrong to isolate himself in bitterness from the human emotions of life by brooding on a past ruined by the Nazi Holocaust, he places his hand on the point of the receipt nail in his pawnshop and presses the nail through his flesh. Two principles are alluded to here. The song reminds us of the pervasive fallibility of our judgments. The movie scene reminds us of the power of the image to concentrate a whole lifetime of meaning within its frame.
Camus' philosophy of absurdity is passé now. This is not the period of the Second World War. France has changed, and so has the world. Indeed, by the mid-50s, Camus himself had abandoned the early exposition of the isolated experience of absurdity in favor of a more political, more communal focus. It is a commonplace to assert that Camus was moving to a philosophy of hope when his life ended tragically, absurdly, in a 1960 car accident. His last novel, The Fall, talked of universal guilt. His last important philosophical work, The Rebel, spoke of moral limits founded on the universal value of human life.
But more remains of the youthful foray into absurdity than mere preparation for a mature philosophy; more remains than the romantic imagery of a gifted writer destined for a Nobel Prize. Even if the early essay "Summer in Algiers" is only a moment, and at that not a very important moment, in a journey toward a wider view, it ought to be eulogized for its superb statement about the character of knowing (where knowing involves life totalities, that is, where knowing involves what is important in life, what should channel and shape our energies).
"Summer in Algiers" is a short, imagistic essay, part of a collection called Noces written in 1936, just prior to "The Myth of Sisyphus", the essay which established Camus' reputation as an important contemporary voice. It is an unpretentious vignette, an almost photographic-like description of the people, especially the youth, of Algiers as they carry out their daily routines. Camus, however, is not interested in the sociology of the life-world, but chooses images, feelings, and habits associated with the climate, with romance and with the attitude toward death to form a synecdoche of life in Algiers, the summer itself already being a synecdoche of his theme.
Camus speaks of how the Algerians know their lives, but he is less certain about what they know than a casual reading might assume. He says, "But Algiers (together with certain other privileged places such as cities on the sea) opens to the sky like a mouth or a wound" (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O'Brien, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967, p. 141; hereafter referred to by page numbers only), equivocating explicitly on the appropriate metaphor of opening. It is not the mere opposition of Algiers to Paris-the open and the closed-that Camus exploits, but the simplicity of the Algerian environment over against the smothering complexity of the totality of European civilization (he mentions Prague and Florence in the same breath with Paris in the first paragraph). It is not that the Algerian's desires are more noble than the European's, but:
Algiers, Camus says,
Here, "lucidity," Camus' best synonym for knowledge, does not require self-consciousness. It is equivalent to "sure of his desires." Lucidity is the knowledge of life, which is confident of itself, not necessarily the knowledge of life, which is correct in some technical sense. Lucidity is the existential equivalent of Cartesian certainty, enthroned by Descartes on the dais of cognitive judgment. The point of "Summer in Algiers" is to assert that there is no advantage to the certainty of judgment over the certainty of desires, or perhaps that there is no real difference between the two certainties, provided Cartesians are satisfied with their vision.
Lucidity, then, is understood as simple certainty. It is not the self-consciousness associated with philosophical reflection; the sort that knows what it is thinking. Rather, it is the self-awareness associated with alertness; the sort that knows what it is feeling. Nevertheless, it is not to be identified with pleasure or the self-awareness of pleasure. Camus writes:
Lucidity as alertness is just the practice of not evading anything, not cheating, not hiding anything from oneself. It is perhaps equivalent to paying attention. The opposite of lucidity is not naive consciousness, but sleep. The lucidity that Camus urges as a response to absurdity is a clarion call for us to stay awake during our lives.
This interpretation of lucidity is the only way I know how to make sense of the curious "awakening" of Meursault at the end of The Stranger without destroying the symbolic power of the character's earlier life. Meursault's life changes radically in his apotheosis, and yet not at all. He is happy and he has been happy, the text tells us. The explanation is that though he has become more reflective in prison, he has not become more lucid. He has always been awake-to sun, sand, sea, Marie.
It follows from this that lucidity does not mean complete or comprehensive understanding. If the only serious philosophical problem is suicide, as Camus says in the opening of "The Myth of Sisyphus", then its solution is discovered by the uneducated and the unprofound as well as, and better than, by the "thoughtful" professors of philosophy. In fact, in "The Myth of Sisyphus," when Camus accuses the philosophers of committing suicide, since the charge is not meant literally, we have to understand it to mean a refusal to be lucid. They have fallen into a philosophical sleep. Instead of the "full comprehension" of philosophical thinking, lucidity displays the characteristic of thoroughness or familiarity of knowing what is known. Such thoroughness seems almost to require a narrow or uncomplicated experience. If the youthful bathers on the Algerian sand embody this lucidity much better than the wise, it can only be because there are no complications to disturb it. No ambiguities of meaning infect their communications. They know what kind of a day they are going to spend, they know what they want out of it, and they know how to get it. The permutations of their lives are standard and few. They are wholly absorbed in their world. Indeed, as a reflective thinker writing about the Algerian summer, Camus admits his own distance from it. Like Kierkegaard's claim about his relation to Christianity, Camus' relation to the Algerians is almost that of an outsider, for he knows that his own understanding of this milieu is a reflective lucidity, not superior to the immediate lucidity of the people who embody it. He would envy them if he didn't love them so much.
Though a contemporary description, "Summer in Algiers" is suffused with nostalgia because the cohesiveness of the world which is so necessary for Camus' lucidity is, if not impossible, then extraordinarily difficult under the burden of a tradition which disorganizes;
Camus understands that with the advantages of education, with the advance in scientific and theoretical knowledge comes a masked evil-the evil of "distance" from the world. The world becomes opaque when we cease to touch its actuality and instead play among the abstractions of ideas. It is not inevitable that education and study immunize one to lucidity, but ideas feed upon one another, drawing us away from the actual. Meursault, in arguing with the priest in prison, images the point brilliantly, "And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman's hair." Camus sees pedantry throughout society, not just behind academic walls. And indeed pedantry is not just the parading of learning, pretending it is true learning, but it is an ignorance, a veil drawn over the world, an opacity. Tradition is a set of blinders, since any Worldview precedes the viewing of the world. It might be objected that no one, not even a simple Arab youth, sees the world naively, without preconstruction in a cultural sense as well as a Kantian sense, but one comes as close as possible in the Algerian summer, without a past, but with a poetry of sand, sea, sun and sex.
Thus, against the many-vectored web of our cultural history, Camus celebrates the gravity of the present, which roots us to one vital soil, the ineluctable lucidity of knowing that our lives are made of-air, fire, earth, and water, and that we need not improve upon so ancient a formula.
These are, as they say, "the bottom line"-the things we always have to come back to. If we cannot love the commonplaces, our lives will be sadder, for they are our pervasive environment. To love them is to see them as they are; to see them as they are is to see them fresh; to see them fresh is to be lucid.
Considering all this, if we were to accuse Camus of indulging in a youth cult, he would admit it and defend it. But it is not a cult of youthful abilities, but a cult of youthful interests. Late in life, Yeats defended himself from the same charge:
Human beings are born, suffer and enjoy, love and hate, work and rest, then die. No theory will overcome or mitigate those realities in Camus' view. Our "ideal" truths are so many ways of averting our eyes.
But in spite of the prominence of nature imagery in "Summer in Algiers," in spite of the undeniable emphasis upon the simplicity of natural living, Camus is advocating neither a latter-day romanticism, nor anti-intellectualism. The principle exemplified in the image of the song from Hair clarifies this for us. Camus praises not only the sand, sea and sun in his essay, but the social milieu as well, the jokes about death, the exchange of peppermint lozenges at the neighborhood movie, the strength of the code which obligates you to see that your wife is respected in the streets. Nature holds no religious, no quasi-philosophical place for Camus. He does not glorify it in idea nor does he drool over its enjoyments. He knows better than anyone that it has its pains as well as its pleasures, and that it is out to kill us. He only respects its reality.
And we can appeal to the principle exemplified in The Pawnbroker image to defend Camus against a charge of anti-intellectualism. Nothing in the overt content of "Summer in Algiers" praises the intellectual virtues, and there are many criticisms of an effete intellectualism. Moreover, everywhere in the essay the simple, unreflective life is eulogized. The image we need to look at, therefore, is not contained within the essay but is the small gem, which is the essay itself. Camus is cut off from the Algerians he writes about by his superior intelligence. The essay is incontrovertible evidence of that. But he is also connected to them in what is most important to him, that honest lucidity, that realism, that awakened consciousness, which does not invent in order to evade. That trait is better embodied and more easily seen in Camus' essay than in the people and place he writes about. It is knowledge that Camus desires, not experience:
Here we have the idea of innocence honored. The idea is extolled as a prized treasure, something that clearly makes life worth living, neither a passive possession, nor an immediate feeling, nor a counter to use in some theory. Furthermore, the idea emerges from direct observation of the world. Tied to the concrete, the idea is rich-too rich to be circumscribed by a tidy definition-but it is not vague, for the image which embodies it is as luminous as a Brancusi sculpture.
Likewise, the essay itself is iconic; it shows forth that about which it speaks. What it speaks about is the lucidity that is the mark of authentic knowledge, knowledge which is rooted in direct experience, knowledge which is thrilling (even when it is painful) because it is "sure of its desires." Even if the essay is not wholly adequate or cognitively sophisticated, it is knowledge that has been in contact with that which it knows. It is knowledge that is ethically blessed, because it is knowledge that has been deserved, or at least cherished.
A youthful Camus exalted sand and sea and sun unrelentingly. But it was never the world of nature that he cared for. Camus remains for us the frozen image that Cartier-Bresson photographed, cold and lonely, against a dark, unfocused background, tightly mouthing a cigarette, waiting stoically for the next disappointment. Still, there is no contradiction. We need only remember that the nature Camus celebrated was always cruel. "Strange country that gives the man it nourishes both his splendor and his misery!" (p. 141) We need only remember that purity was an intellectual virtue for this shining exemplar of the life of the mind.