Warning: this post contains spoilers for the Resistance, Rebellion, and Death essays by Albert Camus
Have we written a philosophy book review before? I know that we’ve talked about philosophy on the site in previous posts, but this might be the first time that I’m actually reviewing a philosophy book here at IGC. That’s a little ironic, because this series of essays is probably not the first work of philosophy that comes to mind – I think most people probably would come up with Plato’s dialogues as the most popularly known (though not necessarily read) piece of philosophy.
While some philosophical works can stand on their own, largely independent of their larger geopolitical or social contexts, the essays, speeches, and letters in this compilation are best understood within the context of the times and events during which they were created. This temporal relevance was both a strength and weakness of the pieces, since the most interesting thing about it was how the writings fit into the similar time period of World War II as some of my other recent reading, but that also meant they are not as universal as some other philosophical works try to be.
The first works in the collection, a series of letters written during the French Resistance, were by far the most interesting of the collection. Most of the World War II history that I’ve consumed in various forms has been from the American perspective, with little attention being paid to the perspective of other nations. France is particular interesting, given its rapid collapse and lengthy occupation at the hands of Nazi Germany (it should be noted that I’m not a World War II history buff, so if that’s a passion for you, you may already be more familiar with this). Of particular note were the justifications that Camus offered for how quickly France fell to German forces.
After that, the essays get rather odd, and in some places I remain convinced that Camus contradicted himself. The course of the twentieth century can largely be traced with the course of communism, which went in and out of favor, and in many ways defined the major conflicts of the period. Camus spends a lot of words trying to explain why communism is still a good idea, and offers the best hope for freedom, while justifying away the brutality of the Soviet Union and other totalitarian, communist regimes as aberrations. You know I try to keep an open mind, but this was a hard pill for me to swallow, since successful communism requires the subjugation of the individual to the many.
In case you couldn’t guess from the title, this is a rather depressing series of essays. Camus claims in multiple places that existence is basically a futile exercise, and that happiness is, for all intents and purposes, a myth. All in all, it reminded me of those lists of “award winning” books that I always had to read from in school, where all of the books were terribly depressing. It led me to come to the conclusion that books actually won these awards by being depressing and dark, and I have to think that one of the reasons that many people don’t read after school is because of being forced to read about the ultimate futility of human existence in elementary school. But that’s a story for another post.
As much as I try to keep an open mind (I even read the Communist Manifesto after reading The Wealth of Nations), this particular piece, beyond simply containing philosophy with which I disagreed, really wasn’t very good. There were too many contradictions and inconsistencies within the writing itself, and it never really engaged me. Although the letters during the French Resistance were interesting, the rest of the collection’s quality means that, unlike how I usually end these reviews, I really can’t hope that you read this book.
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