Book review : A Life worth living: Albert Camus and the quest for meaning

Professor Kenneth Rockwood reviews an inspirational book about the life and ideology of Albert Camus, the French Nobel award winning author, member of the Resistance and erstwhile philosopher. Professor Rockwood draws parallels from Camus’ life, thoughts and actions that relate to our daily lives, present challenges faced by the NHS and our care of older patients.ALifgeWorthLiving

  • Title: A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the quest for meaning.
  • Author: Robert Zarestsky.
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • ISBN: 978-0674724761
  • Price: $22.95
  • Year of publication: 2013.

The unsurprising flurry of books in the run up to the 100th anniversary, in 2013, of the birth of Albert Camus, has prompted many claims – notably by French politicians of both the Left and Right – to his legacy. So what about Camus as – if not geriatrician – then gerontologist? Robert Zaretsky’s stimulating new book, building on his 2010 biography of Camus, allows new insights into the 1957 Nobel laureate in literature and hero of the Resistance. Notwithstanding that remarkable encapsulation of a life well lived, in this extended essay, Zaretsky makes clear that the man himself is not so easily characterized. He considers five themes that were central to Camus’ life and work: absurdity; silence; measure (the middle ground); fidelity, and; revolt. These themes relate to questions that almost everyone must confront over a life time, even if not as early, or on terms as stark, as those Camus faced.

Although Camus did not write about ageing, his work described, with insight and compassion, topics familiar to gerontologists: multi-generational families, pain, infirmity and bureaucratic processes that lead organizations astray and allow harm to be done without those doing the harm taking personal responsibility. And, of course, death. Camus also describes many virtues that make a life worth living. Not a few of these he rests in the physician protagonist of his 1947 novel The Plague. Dr. Rieux acts with courage and a sense of mission when a plague befalls his native city of Oran. Widely understood as a metaphor for the German occupation of France, the book is compelling to this day in its description of how rapidly civil society unravels.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of Camus’ personal heroism as a member of The Resistance, and editor of the underground newspaper Combat, which would motivate physical courage in an individual on behalf of others? Unlike Simone Weill [a French philosopher and political activist], whose work he would later edit to good effect, and whose influence on him was enormous, Camus had no faith in an intended universe, in which good actions would find an ultimate reward. Instead, Camus’ answer emerges – it would evolve – in The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942. The essay surveyed a universe shorn of meaning, and asks why go on? Why not commit suicide? It was not an idle question. By then, aged 29, Camus, was facing the collapse of his country, dispossession from his native Algeria, and the spread of tuberculosis from his left to his right lung and with it the likelihood of imminent death. In his consideration of the absurd circumstance of living in a universe without meaning, Camus contends that friendship, and its special instantiation love, make life worth living. That they occur reflects intrinsic human capacities for self-reflection and relationship, in which is rooted human dignity.

That fact of human dignity imposes certain duties, considered in his 1951 essay The Rebel. These duties included reflection on the real suffering of present humans, either as a matter of state-sanctioned punishment, or on behalf of a utopian future in which the sufferings of others might be lessened. His opposition to this was a doubly controversial stance. His concern with the actual pain inflicted on others in the course of war – or justice – tempered his view of execution, even in post-Liberation France. Camus had the courage to change his mind in these charged times and reject the death penalty. It persisted in his condemnation of both French colonialism and Arab terrorism in the Algerian war for independence, earning him the enmity of both sides. Only as the particulars fade and the personalities die out has the idea of a principled man who led a principled (if sometimes times personally flawed) life won out.

As geriatricians we have no especial claim on Camus. But in Camus as a man who faced life’s challenging circumstances, who aimed for an empathetic understanding of others, cared for dignity in personal conduct including acting on behalf of others and confronting injustice, there is much we can consider in our daily work with a vulnerable patient population, to makes our lives worth living.

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