Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Camusian Haunting

As promised, below is another recent work of mine. This time, it is an essay I wrote for a recent class I took on Camus. While some familiarity with Camus' works will help with understanding the essay, the gist (and point) of the essay should convey just fine to everyone. There are actually two essays below (two prompt questions), and the essays were written in class on a time limit. As such, the essays are a bit rough. I really enjoyed writing them however, and I think they have some worthwhile things to say. It'll be pretty obvious how this connects up with my thoughts in this blog. Enjoy!

A Camusian Haunting

Everything in the philosophy of Camus is a matter of relationship. The relationship between humankind and the world gives birth to the absurd. The relationship between a desire for happiness and a lack of hope gives birth to consciousness. In the relationship between a witness and oppression, duty is born. Relationships are fundamental. For Camus, however, perhaps the most relational term, love, is a term that resists pregnancy, resists giving birth to anything. Or, perhaps more properly put, Camus resists love - love (like God) is a ghost that haunts Camus. An entire list of specters could be conjured up within Camus' works - love, women, God, etc. However, these ghosts, and love specifically, are not challenged apart from any relation. Rather thematically speaking, these ghosts support Camus' philosophy from beneath - below Camus' ontology is a hauntology. It is Camus' relationship with his ghosts (namely love) that gives to Camus' philosophy. As such, it is a given that Camus' characters, as aspects of Camus, will be haunted by love as well. It is the claim of this essay that love is made difficult in Camus' works because within the willful interplay between subjects (love), Camus' entire philosophy is born.

A shallow reading of Camus might lead one to believe that Camus' goal throughout his work is to exorcise his ghosts - women, God and love (we are never haunted by just one ghost). However, an interesting passage in The Plague reveals that Camus recognized he was haunted and did not desire for the haunting to end. In Rieux's conversation with Tarrou about God, Rieux states that it is best to act out of duty, even while a silent God watches the tragedy of the world. Camus does not desire to kill God, for God is already dead. Rather, it is the silent, haunting ghost of God, the God that is love (1 John), that Camus recognizes and lives with. It is no surprise, however, that love and God play a similar role in Camus' hauntology. The difference, of course, is that women, typically, can speak, and as the embodiment of love for Camus, love too can speak. God remains silent.

Consider another instance from The Plague, a fascinating case because the speaking woman is a ghost from the past. Grand's desire and constant failure to write the perfect sentence, to hit the mark with the right "marks," is given born from his past tragedy, by his wife leaving, by Jeanne walking out and leaving Grand with a ghost to write upon (perhaps not unlike how Camus wrote). The few words the ghost Jeanne utters are telling - "saying how happy she was." Happiness and love are often not far from each other in Camus' works (although they should not be equated). Love is the ghost's "voice," the nostalgic "voice" that gives the ghost power, that gives the ghost the power to hold up Camus' philosophy. This is because, like God, love is dead (or dying) - and yet love still speaks from beyond the grave, as it does to Grand staring through the shop-window. That is where he hears Jeanne's voice. It is this tension, this tragedy (that we do not have freedom from our ghosts) that gives us the pain that we suffer from. And yet, it is this "loveless world" (that once had love), a "dead world," that "duty" is born from, that the absurd is born from, that consciousness is born from. It is the "crav[ing] for... a loved face... a loving heart," that is the ground for Camus' philosophy. Love is challenged, properly speaking, because we cannot resurrect out ghosts - the rebel's path is endless (Sisyphus). But on the other hand, it is the fact that that challenge has voice - a non-present, non-ontological voice - that the duty so present in The Plague is born.

We might also consider the case of A Happy Death, where Mersault cannot utter the word "love" to his wife (as Meursault in The Stranger cannot to Marie), cannot give voice to his ghosts. However, the ghosts still have voice, even if it cannot be given. For love is born from the interplay between subjects. To some degree, one might say that a ghost of love exists between Mersault and Catherine as well (a ghost Camus could not fully exorcise from his work, as it was part of an earlier draft). However, there is definitely love between Mersault and the sea (another subject), particularly within their act of lovemaking toward the end of the novel. This is the climax of the novel, Mersault's peak moment of consciousness, and yet it is conceived from an act of lovemaking between subjects. But even there, "harmony" is lost, a "ice current" disrupts the act of love. Love cannot persist fully in the present - it is a ghost born between subjects. And, to modify a Derridean phrase, "The sea is every bit other." That otherness of the ghost of the sea simultaneously conceives love (and Camus' philosophy built upon it) and provides the terms such that the moment it is conceived it dies and becomes a ghost. Love is difficult in Camus' works because it must be. - it must be a ghost for Camus' philosophy to live. Love is aborted.

Finally, one can consider another interplay between Camusian ghosts - this time between women and love. In State of Siege, the climax of the play finds Diego embodying duty and Victoria embodying love. Fascinatingly, a twist occurs - Diego dies and Victoria lives. However, duty lives on with the consciousness of the fisherman, where as love dies with the death of Diego (hence Victoria's pain) - for love is a matter of relationship. And as Diego states, Victoria has something to teach - she (women) are integral to consciousness. In order to teach, one must have a voice. But this voice is a ghost. For the relationship is dead, and so love becomes an un-exorcisable ghost. But we should be glad that Camus "failed" in exorcising love from his works (if that was ever his intent at all). For that failure gave voice to ghosts. And it is within that difficult haunting that Camus' philosophy is born.

* * *

Pain is a tragic thing to build a work upon. Still, we build from what we have - from the one truth we know (Camus on the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus). While one might be tempted to pinpoint Camus' work on comforting terms such as the sea or the mother, that comfort becomes what it is, becomes necessary, because of pain and suffering. In other words, for Camus, suffering is fundamental. But rather than suffering being fundamentally ontological, it is fundamentally hauntological. Ghosts hold up Camus' works, and it is pain (and loss) that are at the heart of ghosts - ghosts haunt because of past tragedy (consider the case of Hamlet). In a survey of Camus' works, pain is critical, and a study of this pain reveals "haunting" is also fundamental to Camus' work.

While the term itself "pain" is critical to all of Camus' works, it is particularly present in Caligula, The Plague, and The Rebel. In Caligula, while Caligula denies it, we constantly find the characters stating that Caligula's irregularities are from the loss of his sister - and Caligula flees upon her death (and cries later in the play). Whatever the relationship, it is this loss that is the trigger for Caligula's consciousness, this pain that gives birth to Caligula's revolt. In turn, Caligula inflicts heavy suffering on others; more pain, more ghosts, more consciousness. In the case of The Plague, it is the plague itself that embodies pain, particularly unjustifiable pain (in the case of the death of the innocent Magistrate's son). From pain, from the plague, duty is born. Rieux begins to rebel, even if in the end he only writes death certificates. In the case of The Rebel, we find the theoretical support for pain being fundamental. The rebel is born from a slave's desire to gain what is basic - what is just - in an act of rebellion. That is his/her protest - and that protest is born from pain. For in order to gain, one must have lost (even if not historically) what one is due. And in the end, loss and pain are the same. Pain is the loss of presence - of the ontological becoming hauntological - presence becoming absence - and it is from this absence that revolt is born. This is why pain must be evaluated in Camus' works, because pain leads to ghosts, and ghosts lead to revolt. And for Camus, revolt is everything.

While the fundamental nature of pain changes little in Camus' works (loss can be seen vividly in A Happy Death and The Plague), what ghosts the pain leads to does "evolve" from work to work, since the pain changes. Within A Happy Death, pain leads to happiness. Within The Plague, pain leads to revolt. In The Stranger, the simple pain of being under the hot oppressive sun eventually leads to consciousness. Of course, all of these terms are critical to Camus' philosophy, and all of them are related. Regardless, the emphasis is different because the pain is different for each character - every ghost is unique.

Which brings us to a new word for Camus - Camus hardly ever speaks of ghosts explicitly. However, when one considers the fundamental nature of pain in Camus' works, and the philosophy of the Absurd that arises from that pain, a relationship between pain and Camus' revolt can be seen - and that relationship is a haunting. Camus is haunted by God (through the existence of pain). Camus is haunted by women (through loss and the subject as other). Camus is haunted by love (through pain). These ghosts drive Camus' philosophy of the absurd - drive Camus' philosophy of futile revolt, of Sisyphus' futile stone-pushing. For our ghosts (of pain) drive us on. We hear their voices - even in their silence. Even God is present in absence, has voice in silence for Camus. We cannot escape our ghosts. Nor should we try. Rather, we should let our silent pain (ghosts) speak. We should live with the Absurd, live within revolt. We should live within our haunting.

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