Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Camus’ Predicament

‘The Guest’ is a short story by Nobel laureate, Albert Camus.  It tells the story of Daru, a schoolteacher, who lives in his “schoolhouse” on a remote hillside “almost like a monk”.  One day a gendarme brings an Arab who killed his cousin in a family squabble to Daru’s schoolhouse.  Since it is wartime Daru is asked to take the murderer the next day to the police headquarters which is 20 km away. 

Daru thinks it is a dishonourable job handing over any person to the police.  He hates the Arab for committing the crime.  He tells the gendarme that he will disobey the order in spite of the latter’s warning about the consequences.  And disobey he does. 

The Arab is left untied in the night.  When he gets up and goes outside Daru hopes that he will run away.  But he returns to bed soon.  Daru takes him the next day having given him enough food to last for two days, instructs him about the way through the mountains to the police headquarters, tells him where he can find a resting place in the night, and then he returns to his schoolhouse.  On the blackboard is written a warning: “You have handed over our brother.  You’ll pay for this.”

Daru had come to see the Arab as a guest and not as a criminal.  He had served him dinner.  He had experienced an “imposing” feeling of “brotherhood” while he spent the night with the Arab in the same room.  But he hated the Arab as well as other human beings for “their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust.”

Daru hated humanity on the one hand for its essential viciousness, while on the other hand he felt an essential brotherhood with all human beings.  The gendarme calls Daru “crazy,” “cracked,” and “a fool.” 

What Daru hates is the evil side of humanity.  And that side is predominant too.  When Daru tells us that the region where he lived was “cruel to live in, even without men,” what he implies is that men are more cruel than the nature.  Daru would rather live far away from men, “like a monk.”  But that is not possible either.  There is much goodness or refinement in his heart that connects him with the human race.  How blessed life would have been if man were not so filled with spite, hate and lust!

But man is vile and there is no escape from that truth.  Daru can stay like a monk on his isolated mountainside, making his own laws, creating his own values, and finding his self-fulfilment with the choices he makes at every step – even with the sword of Damocles hovering just behind his neck. 

That is precisely the predicament of the perceptive intellectual like Camus.  Either you jump into the quagmire and make compromises with the spite, hate and lust, or stay out and face the consequences...

Well, Albert Camus was no more a pessimist than the other Existentialist writers like Sartre.  The human situation is not a happy one, but each one of us can (should) make our own choices and forge our own meaning in life.  This is what they all said.

If they were to be alive today would Camus and Sartre say the same thing?  Or would they laugh at the ridiculous shallowness that has overtaken the human civilisation?  I think they would have laughed much and most of us wouldn’t ever see the pain they were trying to hide beneath the laughter.  


  1. "How blessed life would have been if man were not so filled with spite, hate and lust!" - I wonder how that world would have been. Spite, hate and lust are but a subset of all the human emotions. I wonder if a few emotions could exist without the other. Good gives rise to the bad too :( The world is so complicated, relationships exist and become complicated but then if not for emotions, would we become emotionaless robots living a mere existence? I wonder. But yes, cannot help but hope for a world where there's no spite, hate and lust even though it's like asking for the unknown!

    1. That's precisely the predicament of the "intellectually honest" philosophers like Camus - that the purity of life which they can understand intellectually cannot be got in actual situations. Hence the simultaneous contempt for life and the love!

  2. Matheikal,

    Another one of your literary posts, but one which did not leave me groping, at least not in complete darkness.

    You say, "The human situation is not a happy one, but each one of us can (should) make our own choices and forge our own meaning in life. This is what they all said."

    I am aware of Sartre's and Kierkegaard's philosophical positions and it is likely that I have misunderstood them. I beleieve they say that there is no generic "human condition". That is, human condition, per se, cannot be sad or happy. Every human becomes a human only through his condition. That condition is his choice, his essence that comes subsequent to his existence that actually choses.

    I would sincerely like you to puncture holes in my understanding. I will listen carefully and silently. No arguments. Please do oblige.


    1. Raghuram, you are discussing the basic tenets of Existentialism as such. I'm discussing the way that philosophy found an expression in a particular work of literature. Your understanding of Kierkegaard and Sartre as well as other philosophers of the school is right - the human condition is not a given, it is constantly in the making through the decisions taken by each individual. But in this post I'm looking at a particular character (human being) who is faced with his own condition and he too has to make decisions. He decides to disobey his government's order. He sets the criminal free although he cannot accept the crime... It is that dilemma I chose to focus on.


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