Given the title of this blog, my existential proclivities are probably not much of a surprise. As I’ve learned more and more about the philosophy itself (though, admittedly, I’m a novice and autodidact when it comes to these things and thus have a long way to go), I’ve realized how much of it I agree with or that I’ve been thinking these things for a while but didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate these things, I didn’t know there was a philosophy that was right for me. Though I come at things more from the theistic (especially, but not exclusively, Catholic) existential approach (as Walker Percy was my entry point into this field) I’m still interested in those authors and philosophers who fall outside of that track, which would include Albert Camus. It is in that spirit that I read Robert Zaretsky’s book on the philosopher entitled Albert Camus: Elements of a Life
What I thought the book did best and where I thought it was most useful was in the way it helped me to better understand Camus’ life and biography, filling in the gaps in my knowledge regarding his background (which, I confess, are fairly substantial). In 2016, I read Sarah Bakewell’s book At The Existentialist Cafe, which focused on the intertwining lives of Martin Heideigger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus (amongst others) and focused on their lives as they developed existential philosophy (or the existentialism that was dominant in and around western Europe in the first half of the twentieth century). What Bakewell did was to map out the lives of these major figures and show how they bother developed this philosophy as well as what was occurring in their lives that influenced them. I bring this up because it is doing some of what Zaretsky’s book is doing though in a much more focused (on the one author) and straight forward way (Bakewell’s book can be a bit on the less serious-side, which is not a bad thing by any means but it does reflect the ways in which they are very different kinds of books in their execution). Zaretsky does not provide a full and compete biography of the French Algerian writer and philosopher, but instead points to major moments and events in his life that shaped him and led to the development of his own iteration of existentialism. My knowledge of Camus’ life outside of his writing was fairly limited so it was certainly an eye-opening and revealing read for me and helped me to contextualize Camus and his philosophy both in terms of what was going on in the world around him as well as relative to the things happening in his own life. It is a book that packs a lot of information in and thus has a density to it while also moving along pretty quickly by not getting too bogged down in certain spots. Certain sections were of greater interest to me than others (I personally found the sections on Camus’ life in and around World War II as well as after and thus getting into his relationship with Sartre and de Beauvoir were amongst the most interesting) but Zaretsky kept me interested throughout and compelled to read on.
But beyond helping to enrich my impressions of Camus and who he was, Elements of a Life reflects what, in my opinion, makes existentialism the best philosophy (also, I feel like saying something is “the best philosophy” is profoundly reductive, but you know what I mean). It is that it, unlike maybe of the other philosophical systems that dominate discourse, meets the individual on their level and in their own life. It is not overly theorized to the point of being abstract while also not being so ruthlessly pragmatic and analytical that is does not allow for anything beyond that. It’s not an original thing to note how existentialism is a philosophical system that is able to move outside of the academy and the ivory towers but it is a true thing and thus worth noting in this context. Along those lines, understanding the lives of those who developed and articulated this philosophy helps to reveal that philosophy in a way that it might not for other schools and movements in philosophy. It’s why you see books like this and Zaretsky’s other book on Camus (A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning) or Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan or Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe or Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley or, going all the way back, Irrational Man by William Barrett, being so popular and prevalent. Just as these men and women developed a philosophy that was focused on the individual’s life and experience while eschewing reductive and overarching theories that would diminish that experience, so too did their lives affect and influence the ideas they espoused to such a degree that a better understanding of those lives helps us to better understand the philosophy. This is why Robert Zaretsky’s book is useful and worth reading for anyone who wants to understand existentialism, twentieth century philosophy, or French thought and culture in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Even to one who is not as steeped in Camus’ writings and philosophy as he could be (like myself), Elements of a Life is definitely illuminating and worth reading.