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On the Other Side of Despair

Revisiting Camus’s warnings about “the abyss of nihilism”

What counts is no longer respecting or sparing a mother’s suffering; what counts is securing the victory of a doctrine. And human pain is no longer an outrage, but just a figure on a bill whose dreadful total is not yet calculable.
–Albert Camus, “The Crisis of Man” (1946)

There was a time, perhaps as recently as two or three years ago, when I could still persuade myself, if I really wanted to, that there were arguments for resisting despair of my country and world. I still believed, or wanted to believe, that there was a chance, however slim, to turn things around politically before the clock ran down on our converging crises of democracy, social and economic injustice, and climate catastrophe. This was back when something like a comprehensive climate, jobs, and social policy framework still appeared at the outer edge of the possible, so that, the thinking went, with enough pressure from a coalition of emboldened social movements we might actually, not solve our compounding emergencies at one stroke, but at least, maybe, turn the tide.

This was before the precipitous downward spiral of American democracy was an established fact; before the brazen lie of a stolen election and the cynical manipulation by elites of an armed white-nationalist movement itching to kill in Jesus’s name; before a maniacal Oval Office cabal conspired to violently obstruct the constitutional transfer of power and before the murderous assault on the Capitol that the Republican Party declared a legitimate form of protest. It was before a high court packed by that same authoritarian party stripped half the population of fundamental bodily autonomy and bent the Constitution to serve criminally reckless corporate interests in guns and oil. It was before the so-called reasonable adults controlling Congress and the White House allowed the carbon lobby to eviscerate the only legislation in three decades that might help slow the accelerating climate breakdown—at the cost of countless lives, the vast majority among the global poor and marginalized. And it was before the groundwork had been laid for electoral chaos in the next votes for Congress and President. Before all the talk of “civil war.”

There are professional optimists, ingenuous merchants of magical thinking, who treat other people’s despair as either irrational catastrophism or, among activists, a kind of moral defect—as if despair is a matter of just not trying hard enough, not caring enough, rather than a natural and entirely sane human response to empirical reality. I refuse to apologize or seek forgiveness for my despair in the face of plain facts, scientific and political, or to condemn others for theirs. My despair is not the sort that says, fatalistically, there’s nothing left to be done, and walks away. If only it were so simple. There’s much to be done—if only to salvage what we can, and to survive.

And yet, there’s something about despair that the hope-mongers may indeed grasp, something I’ve sensed viscerally for a long time. Despair is dangerous. Not in itself a character flaw or moral failing, it can nevertheless lead to some very dark places. And so, even as I accept my condition and the facts of our situation, there’s a question that—as an engaged citizen and as a human being who doesn’t want to give up on human beings—won’t let me rest: What follows despair?

If despair is an experience one passes through, a frontier one crosses, what’s on the other side? Is there nothing but an endless wasteland of fatalism, meaningless futility—a chilling, inevitable nihilism?

If despair is an experience one passes through, a frontier one crosses, what’s on the other side? Is there nothing but an endless wasteland of fatalism, meaningless futility—a chilling, inevitable nihilism? If all dreams of a “better world” for generations to come have died—if all that’s left is the brute, life-or-death struggle for power and survival, rationalized and sanctified by cynical ideologies of “us” and “them,” “freedom” and “justice,” or whatever you choose—then what’s to keep me, in the midst of such a world, from becoming that which I’ve long rejected and struggled against? What’s to keep me from joining those who abstract and dehumanize the enemy, the collective other, and meet fear with fear, hate with hate, violence with violence?

So, yes, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that my despair scares me. I can try to ignore it, distract myself, pretend it’s not there or that it will somehow go away, but the truth is I’m constantly aware of its dark gravitational pull, drawing me toward a desolation in which anything might happen—in which the perceived imperatives of the historical moment and the rationalizations of ends and means might justify anything, any price, any sacrifice, mine or another’s.

Against this fear, I can only ask myself, is there still something within me, here on the other side of despair, with the power to resist the cold undertow of nihilism? I still cling to the belief that there must be. But what is it? And whatever name I give it, how do I know it’s real?

It’s safe to say that Albert Camus was on intimate terms with despair. Maybe this is why I find myself returning to him again and again. Because, along with other members of his European generation—Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil come to mind, to name just two—he witnessed, and in some ways personally experienced, the worst of what humanity could do, and yet emerged in search of reasons not to give up on human beings. It wouldn’t be easy—indeed, for Camus and others, it felt as if they must start from zero.

“The years we have gone through have killed something in us,” Camus wrote in “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” in November 1946. Gone, he wrote, was “the old confidence man had in himself, which led him to believe that he could always elicit human reactions from another man if he spoke to him in the language of a common humanity.” This was no longer possible, he contended, “because one cannot appeal to an abstraction, i.e., the representative of an ideology.”

That series of eight brief essays—analyzing and diagnosing the moral-political illness of his century—ran on the front page of Combat, the important French Resistance newspaper Camus had written for, and where he’d served as editor-in-chief, both before the Liberation (when it was a risky underground operation) and after. He was responding, in large part, to the immediate postwar political crisis in France and the messy purge of Vichy collaborationists. Having initially endorsed the death penalty for leading collaborators and perpetrators of atrocities, he soon recoiled in disgust as the trials and executions turned into an opportunistic partisan bloodletting. In this atmosphere of fear and violence—both the fear of a new East-West war and, he wrote, “the specific fear of murderous ideologies”—Camus perceived something essential. “We live in terror because persuasion is no longer possible,” he wrote, “because we live in a world of abstractions, of bureaus and machines, of absolute ideas and of crude messianism.” In the ideologies of both right and left he found the dehumanizing, fatalistic logic of “a world where murder is legitimate.” And so Camus announced that he had reached a decision, and stated it for the record—an act which, Camus being among the most widely read and respected journalists in France, was sure to turn heads. “I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder,” he told his readers, adding, “I must take the consequences of such a decision.” (It was enough to catch the eye of a kindred spirit on the other side of the Atlantic, Dwight Macdonald, who published his own translation of the series, which I’m quoting here, in the July-August 1947 issue of Politics.)

“All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice,” Camus wrote in a final, bracing paragraph that still echoes (well served by Macdonald’s elegant phrasings). “After that,” he coolly observed, “we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked.”

The ideas in “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” had been percolating and surfacing in Camus’s work for many months, stretching back into the war years, and were coalescing into the major themes of his epochal debate with contemporaries on the left. This culminated in the book-length essay The Rebel in 1951, which marked his definitive break with Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals, most famously his erstwhile friend Sartre. And perhaps Camus’s first major sketch of these themes, still well worth reading, was the lecture he gave at Columbia University on March 28, 1946, called “The Crisis of Man” and included in a new Vintage collection, Speaking Out: Lectures and Speeches, 1937-1958, translated by Quintin Hoare.

Having initially endorsed the death penalty for leading collaborators and perpetrators of atrocities, he soon recoiled in disgust as the trials and executions turned into an opportunistic partisan bloodletting. 

The Columbia lecture also takes a prominent place in the humanities scholar Robert Meagher’s recent study, Albert Camus and the Human Crisis. Meagher, an emeritus professor at Hampshire College who taught a popular course on Camus—and is on a personal mission to shore up Camus’s humanist universalism against more recent intellectual currents—offers many useful insights, even if the book verges on hagiography. For instance, it seems important to point out, as Meagher does, that in “The Crisis of Man” Camus “distilled in twenty-two minutes his life and work”—and to note that his Columbia hosts, at a time when American readers only knew Camus’s early books The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, “had invited an existentialist and found themselves confronted by a moralist.” As Meagher goes on to explain, Camus adamantly rejected the “existentialist” label. In the words of philosopher William Barrett (quoted by Meagher), Camus was “the advocate of what he came to call ‘ordinary values’—those elementary feelings of common decency without which the human race would not survive.”

That spring of 1946, Camus was still at work on his next novel, The Plague (reissued last year in a new translation by Laura Marris), and in “The Crisis of Man” he delineated the symptoms of the scourge he saw afflicting European civilization in the twentieth century. These symptoms, he said, could be summed up as “the worship of both efficiency and abstraction.” Most of all, the crisis could be seen in the replacement of actual human beings with “political man,” as defined entirely by “collective passions—in other words, abstract passions.” Lost in the bargain was something basic: “What counts is no longer respecting or sparing a mother’s suffering; what counts is securing the victory of a doctrine.”

Camus went on in the lecture to interpret the experience of those in his generation who, like himself, realized that they lacked something vital, something essential to the task of resisting the totalitarian plague. “The more aware among us,” he said, “perceived that they did not yet have, in the realm of thought, any principle which might allow them to oppose terror and repudiate murder.” And he continued:

For if you basically believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and we can proclaim no value, then everything is allowed and nothing is important. Then there is neither good nor evil, and Hitler was neither wrong nor right. You can send millions of innocent people to the gas chamber just as you can dedicate yourself to caring for lepers.

Logic, in itself, whether in the pseudo-science of racial destiny or dialectical materialism, would never suffice. “Nihilism,” Camus observed, “has been replaced by absolute rationalism and in both cases the results are the same. . . . all acts are justified not insofar as they are good or bad, but insofar as they are effective or not.”

These lines contain glimmers, and more than glimmers, of both The Plague and The Rebel, the main pillars of what Camus considered the second stage of his work; in the first (The Stranger, Myth of Sisyphus, and his play Caligula), he established negation and the absurd, now followed by affirmation and revolt. “It was quite useless to tell us, ‘You must believe in God, or Plato, or Marx,’ because we precisely did not have that kind of faith,” he explained to his New York audience:

This is why we sought a reason in our revolt itself. . . . We said “no” to that world, to its essential absurdity, to the abstractions which threatened us, to the civilization of death being prepared for us. By saying “no” we affirmed that things had gone on long enough; that there was a limit which could not be crossed. . . . we affirmed that there was something in us which rejected what was outrageous, and which could no longer be humiliated. . . . And consequently, by the very fact of living, hoping and struggling, we were all affirming something.

In the midst of nihilistic terror—family, neighbors, comrades tortured, lined up and shot, deported to the camps—“we were in a collective tragedy,” Camus observed, “where what was at stake was a common dignity, a shared human communion, which had to be defended and maintained.” 

Shouts of “Death to Camus!” from violent “ultracolonialists” could be heard outside the Cercle du Progrès in Algiers, where the famous French Algerian writer had come to deliver his “Appeal for a Civilian Truce” on January 22, 1956. Camus had long been a consistent and formidable critic of the French colonial regime, advocating justice for the Arab and Berber peoples of Algeria since the late 1930s, when, as a young left-wing journalist, he wrote a damning exposé of extreme poverty and inequality in Kabylia for the anticolonialist Alger républicain (leading to the paper’s official censoring and his own de facto exile to France). But that day in 1956, he stood virtually alone on the French left, which had more recently taken up the Algerian cause, as he came home to a bloody, war-torn Algiers and organized, at no small risk, an idealistic (some would say quixotic) effort to secure an agreement between the French forces and the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) to cease the targeting of civilians by both sides.

Addressing a mostly friendly audience inside the hall that day, Camus explained that he’d called the meeting—attended by representatives of the dwindling moderate factions and various religious communities, Muslim and Christian—in order to offer “a purely human appeal” and to demonstrate “at least that all chance of dialogue is not lost.” The speech, which is also included in the new Vintage collection, is well known to students of Camus. (It also appears in the indispensable 2013 edition of Camus’s Algerian Chronicles edited by Alice Kaplan and translated by Arthur Goldhammer.) And it’s worth revisiting, perhaps especially right now, as a critical moment in the story of Camus’s moral and political engagement with his time and place.

“My sole qualification for intervening on this issue,” Camus told his audience, “is to have experienced the Algerian misfortune as a personal tragedy.” Camus was no bourgeois colonialist—he grew up in a working-class pied noir family (in Algeria for three generations), subsisting on what his war-widow mother earned cleaning houses and his bachelor uncle’s wages in a cooper’s shop. His primary reason for issuing the appeal was not political or tactical but “purely humanitarian,” he insisted. “Whatever the long-standing, deep-seated origins of the Algerian tragedy, one fact remains: no cause justifies the death of innocents.” For Camus, on an intellectual (and no less personal) level, the moment was inseparable from the philosophical and moral questions he had wrestled with throughout his life and writing, from wartime resistance to postwar reckoning and his lonely and very public break with fellow leftists over Stalinism.

Among the most urgent of those questions for Camus was the possibility of any genuine communication, understanding, and ultimately, solidarity, based on the recognition of common human values, a “common humanity.” If the Algerian violence descended into a “xenophobic frenzy,” Camus warned, “then all chance of understanding would be drowned definitively in blood.” Such “horrors” may have already been unleashed, he acknowledged. “But that must not and cannot happen,” he argued, “without those among us, Arab and French, who reject the madness and destruction of nihilism, issuing one last appeal to reason.”

“People resign themselves too easily to fatality,” Camus observed—while Frenchmen shouted for his death on the streets outside. “They accept too easily the idea that blood alone moves history forward. . . . This fatality does perhaps exist. But the task of men is not to accept it, nor to submit to its laws.”

What Camus really said was this: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” 

Camus’s initiative, which even friends quietly considered out of touch with the realities on the ground, went nowhere (and became something of a joke among his smirking Parisian critics). And so Camus, defeated and despairing, fell silent—both from a sense of futility and a fear of only inflaming passions with his words and thus contributing to the violence. But he never turned his back on Algeria, as many accused him. As he told the audience that day in 1956, “I have loved with passion this land in which I was born; I have drawn from her everything that I am.” His mother and relatives still lived in the neighborhood of Algiers where he grew up, and he still visited. And he continued to work behind the scenes, advocating for the lives of condemned political prisoners, including Algerian nationalists, with some success.

So it was that nearly two years later, on December 12, 1957, Camus stood before a group of university students at a press conference in Stockholm, where he had accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature two days prior, and found himself confronted by a young Algerian nationalist in the crowd who heatedly pressed him to justify his long silence. As reported by Le Monde’s Dominique Birmann (apparently the only French reporter to file a dispatch), in what Alice Kaplan aptly calls a “tragicomedy of misquotation,” Camus’s generous reply would be remembered only for Birmann’s inept paraphrase (to put it kindly) of Camus’s provocative remark: “I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn the blind terrorism that can be seen in the streets of Algiers, for example, which someday might strike my mother or family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” Kaplan notes that polemicists further distorted the final sentence, which was repeated in the press as: “Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother.” (“I was totally sure that Camus would say some fucking fool thing,” said Le Monde’s director, Hubert Beuve-Méry, according to Camus biographer Olivier Todd.)

What Camus really said, Kaplan clarifies, was this: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” In other words, if your concept of justice included the indiscriminate murder of ordinary civilians, Camus was not your ally.

The following June, Gallimard came out with Actuelles III: Chroniques algériennes, 1939-1958 (simply Algerian Chronicles in English), a collection of Camus’s reporting, essays, and speeches on Algeria, together with a new preface and concluding chapter that would be his final words on the conflict. Clearly exasperated by the polemicists, he made sure in his preface that there could be no doubt as to where he stood. He decried the “casuistry of blood” with which each side “justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries.” The terrorist tactics of the FLN, against both French and Arab civilians, should be condemned “in the bluntest of terms,” he wrote, obviously addressing his former friends on the left. But Camus reserved his strongest words for anyone who would try to enlist him as an apologist for the French regime. “The [French] reprisals against the civilian population of Algeria and the use of torture against the rebels are crimes for which we all bear a share of responsibility,” Camus wrote. “Meanwhile, we must refuse to justify these methods on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain. One cause is as good as another, and pointless warfare, unrestrained by the rule of law, consecrates the triumph of nihilism.”

We know the rest. The FLN won Algeria’s independence in 1962, close to a million Europeans fled—and Algeria’s suffering went on.

If you’ve read “The Crisis of Man” and “Neither Victims Nor Executioners,” then the opening pages of The Rebel have a familiar ring, as Camus memorably states his case, now refined and polished to a high aphoristic gloss. “We shall know nothing,” he writes, “until we know whether we have the right to kill our fellow men. . . . In the age of ideologies, we must examine our position in relation to murder. . . . Each day at dawn, assassins in judges’ robes slip into some cell. . . . Thus, whichever way we turn, in our abyss of negation and nihilism, murder has its privileged position.” Of the inherent human affirmation he found in the act of revolt, Camus now writes, “When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men. . . . Man’s solidarity is founded upon rebellion, and rebellion, in its turn, can only find its justification in this solidarity.” Any revolutionary movement, then, that denies this fundamental human solidarity can no longer be called rebellion, as Camus defines it, but instead “becomes in reality an acquiescence in murder.”

Camus knew his readers, and he knew that his critique of the logic of ends and means, by which their political commitments were justified, still left the question of ultimate value or any transcendent moral truth unresolved. Not that Camus ever reached a final answer himself, or ever claimed to—on the contrary, he maintained an admirable intellectual humility in an age of absolutes. (He was not an absolute pacifist, nor an absolute atheist.) And yet, deep in the final section of The Rebel, where he does battle with Marxist historical determinism, he dangles a tantalizing remark, drawing on older moral-philosophical resources, hinting at a way out of the impasse. “Does the end justify the means?” he asks. “That is possible. But what will justify the end? To that question, which historical thought leaves pending, rebellion replies: the means.”

This is no mere glib tautology. I’d suggest that it points to what social movement thinkers might call a “prefigurative” politics—the notion that movements for justice and democracy need to represent and embody the values and principles of the world they want to create. A movement that devalues human life and legitimizes murder will, if and when it takes power, only further legitimize a murderous world. If our struggles for democracy, justice, and human rights rely on anti-democratic, unjust, and inhuman methods and tactics, then whatever we achieve will be corrupted and ultimately false.

This would seem to be Camus’s most basic gut-check. He would simply have us ask ourselves: If I achieve these ends by these means, will I still be able to live with myself and others? Or will I have betrayed whatever it is that allows me to communicate, and to live in community, with other human beings?

“Now the street was experiencing the liveliness of a Sunday morning,” Camus writes in The First Man, the unfinished autobiographical novel he left behind at his death, in a car accident, in January 1960. His fictional self, Jacques Cormery, is sitting in his elderly mother’s apartment in Algiers looking down at the working-class neighborhood he knew so well as a child. It’s the late 1950s, and paratroopers patrol the streets. “Workingmen in freshly washed and ironed white shirts were chatting on their way to the three or four cafés, which smelled of cool shade and anise,” he writes. “Some Arabs were passing by, poor also but decently dressed. . . . Now and then entire Arab families went by in their Sunday best.”

And then, out of nowhere, an explosion—“very close, enormous”—at a busy trolley stop down the street:

His mother had recoiled to the back of the room, pale, her dark eyes full of a fear she could not control, and she was unsteady on her feet. “It’s here. It’s here,” she was saying.

Jacques goes down to the street. Men are shouting:

“That filthy race,” a short worker in an undershirt said, looking in the direction of an Arab. . . “I didn’t do anything,” the Arab said. “You’re all in it together, all you fucking sons of bitches,” and he started toward him.

Jacques takes the Arab into a nearby café run by a childhood friend, who shelters him. Back outside, Jacques tells the scowling worker: “He hasn’t done anything.” The worker replies: “We should kill them all.”

Back in the apartment, Jacques sits down with his mother and holds her hands:

“Twice this week,” she said. “I’m afraid to go out.” . . . “I’m old. I can’t run anymore.” . . . “Come with me to France,” he said to her, but she shook her head with resolute sorrow. “Oh no, it’s cold over there. I’m too old now. I want to stay home.”

The scenes are fictional, but entirely plausible. In his 1958 preface to Algerian Chronicles, Camus minces no words when it comes to the heavy price being paid by working-class Algerian civilians, both Arab and French. And as he reminds his readers, on this question the political was for him intensely personal. “I am recounting the story of my own family, which, being poor and devoid of hatred, never exploited or oppressed anyone,” he writes. “But three-quarters of the French in Algeria are like my relatives.” Independence on the FLN’s uncompromising terms, Camus notes, would mean the expulsion of a French Algerian population of more than a million people. Fully acknowledging “the end of colonialism,” Camus excludes “any thought of reconquest or continuation of the status quo.” And yet, he writes, “I also rule out any thought of uprooting the French of Algeria, who do not have the right to oppress anyone but do have the right not to be oppressed themselves, as well as the right to determine their own future in the land of their birth.” In a piece for L’Express, where he wrote a column in 1955 and 1956, Camus points out that the minimum wage for French Algerian workers, although unjustly higher than that of Arabs, was lower than in the poorest parts of France. “Those are your colonial profiteers,” he drily notes. Why, he asks, must these struggling workers and their families “be sacrificed to expiate the immense sins of French colonization?” To be clear, he states, “The Arabs are due a major reparation, in my opinion, a stunning reparation. But it must come from France as a whole, not from the blood of French men and women living in Algeria.”

A movement that devalues human life and legitimizes murder will, if and when it takes power, only further legitimize a murderous world. 

Sartre, in his introduction, written in September 1961, to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, swooned over Fanon’s cold-blooded analysis of anticolonial violence as a creative and therapeutic force—to the point of exaggerating and romanticizing Fanon’s bloodiness, no doubt in an effort to shock the sensibilities of polite French liberals. The “irrepressible violence” of the colonized is nothing less, in Sartre’s telling, than “man reconstructing himself.” In their uncontrollable “rage,” the colonized “recover their lost coherence, they experience self-knowledge.” (Reading it today in the recent anniversary edition, one catches, ironically enough, more than a whiff of Orientalist exoticism in Sartre’s enthusiasm for the seductive, primal bloodlust of the “native.”) Throughout this orgy of murderous abstraction, Sartre never distinguishes between combatants and civilians, much less between capitalists and workers—no European is innocent, all are equally complicit in the fraud of Western humanist ideals. “The pacifists are a fine sight: neither victims nor torturers! Come now! . . . your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors.” It seems the philosophe couldn’t resist one parting cut at Camus’s corpse.

For Sartre, writing about Fanon from the safety of Paris, “killing a European”—note, any European—“is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other free.” I’m sorry, but if that is your idea of justice, then I, too, prefer Camus’s mother.

Some still like to paint Camus as a liberal individualist and a Western imperialist-colonialist. The truth is, he was always a man of the left (briefly a Communist in his early years in Algeria), but he was an anti-totalitarian socialist—there’s a reason Dwight Macdonald and Hannah Arendt admired him—even what we might call a democratic socialist. And he simply could not bring himself to support Algerian independence at any and all cost. He was never going to use his voice to justify crimes against humanity—whether  revolutionary terror against civilians or mass ethnic cleansing—in order to prove his anti-imperialist bona fides to the French left. 

Yes, a white, male, European “settler” denying a colonized people the moral right to achieve liberation by any means necessary—“not a good look,” as the kids say. It’s one thing when he’s opposing Nazi and Stalinist terror. It feels different, and uncomfortably closer to home in our current moment, when he’s opposing a liberationist movement’s revolutionary violence against a Western colonial power. But is it really all that different? Camus forces us to think about fundamental principles: Is “everything permitted” in the cause of what we call justice, freedom, liberation—or only, perhaps, in our own ideologically approved cases?

If the descent of our tech-mediated and increasingly violent political discourse to new lows of religious, racial, and ideological tribalism is any indication, there are a great many people in this country—all across the political spectrum—who seem to have traded any respect of actual human beings for abstract, collective passions. One fears, in the dehumanization of our politics, that nihilism is winning. If, for now, its advances are confined mostly to the right, that’s little reason for comfort. As Camus saw, it spreads like a virus.

There’s a scene in The Plague on which the whole novel hinges, and it’s what you could call a show stopper. (I had to put the book down and take a break after reading it for the first time years ago.) The humanitarian physician Dr. Rieux and members of his citizen plague-fighting team, including the aging priest, Father Paneloux, are watching the death throes of a child who has been given a serum that might save his life, but in the end only prolongs the boy’s unspeakable suffering—described by Camus in meticulous, harrowing detail. “They had already seen children die, since terror, for months now, came at random,” Camus writes (in Laura Marris’s translation),

but they had never yet followed a child’s suffering minute after minute as they had been doing since the early hours. And to them, of course, the pain inflicted on these innocents had always seemed like what it truly was—a scandal. But at least up until then, in some ways it had scandalized them in the abstract, because they had never stared directly, for so long, at the agony of an innocent.

Later, outside the ward, Rieux speaks passionately with Father Paneloux, with whom he has carried on an almost Dostoevskian debate about God, meaningless suffering, and evil. But unlike Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger, the doctor’s absurdist predecessor, Rieux finds a kind of solidarity with the clergyman, whose faith is shaken but still holds, and responds to him with compassion. Rieux can never share Paneloux’s belief, he makes that clear, but he assures him nevertheless, “We’re working for something that brings us together beyond blasphemies and prayers. It’s all that matters.”

What’s on the other side of despair? Only the world, just as it is and has always been. Nothing more, nothing less. Pointless suffering, yes. Cruelty and injustice, yes. Nihilistic rationalizations of violence, of murder, yes. And yet, too: Revolt. Solidarity. Love (another name for revolt and solidarity). Not in the abstract, but living, breathing, bleeding, human. The same as they ever were but somehow clearer now: the only ends and means worth living for.