Last week we met in Leiden to talk about Camus’s The Rebel, and in particular, part I and IV. We read the first part as an introduction to the main theme in the book, and supposedly, his work in general. Camus argued that those who say ‘no’ to a particular situation, simultaneously says ‘yes’ to something else. He gives the example of a slave who rebels against his master. It is quite evident that the slave says ‘no’ to the unequal distribution of power he experiences. The interesting thing about this situation, Camus explains, is that the slave the moment he rebels against his master, also affirms something else, namely the belief that his life has value, and that the master did not respect it sufficiently. The rebellion against the master-slave situation, is at the same time an affirmation of the life of the oppressed human being. Let’s pause for a moment here and follow a little train of thought before coming back to Camus’ argument. A legal philosopher from Tilburg, Hans Lindahl, distinguishes between illegal activities, and a-legal activities. Illegal activities are activities like stealing: when one steals, one interrupts a system of expectations which govern the relations of individuals living in a society. A-legal actions, by contrast, are not merely illegal in the sense that they transgress a set of legal rules, but they call into question the distinction between legal and illegal. I think that Camus’ example of the slave who not merely argues that he’s not happy about the situation he’s in, but also thinks that there’s something unjust about the relationship in the first place, can be understood as a form of a-legal action. In other words: the slave who says no does not than merely arguing that his interests are not being respected; he criticized the master-slave relationship as such.
But to what does that rebel exactly say ‘yes’? Camus argues that the rebellious slave does not only affirms the value of his own, personal existence, but that “the affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason to act”. In other words, the values to which the slave refers when he dismisses the right of his master to govern his life transcend the particular and extend to that of every human being capable of saying no. Consider the case when a slave rebels knowing that his act might lead towards his death: for Camus this means that this particular slave who is willing to give his life in an attempt to dismantle the unjust situation, does that for individual-transcending reasons. The moment when one says no to his master, he affirms the fact that his life, and ever other person’s life in a similar situation, has some minimal value which makes it worthwhile to protect and if necessary rebel to. It is good to note here that for Camus, there’s something essential or intrinsic to human existence: namely the ability to rebel, to say no. This in contrast to existentialist like Satre who thought that our essences were formed after our existence.
But what about art? Like the rebel, art also simultaneously rejects and accepts parts of reality. His position resembles some of the things Marcuse talked about in our last session. Marcuse argued against the Marxist concept of art which understands it as product of socioeconomic relationships. For Marcuse, “art envisions a concrete universal, humanity” and thereby affirms individuals’ interest in life. Camus makes a similar case when he writes that art is defined as rebellion aimed at creating an alternative universe characterized by ‘metaphysical unity’. Van Gogh, as quoted by Camus, wrote in this context that “I can very well, in life and in painting too, do without God. But I cannot, suffering as I do, do without something that is greater than I am, that is my life- the power to create”. Thus even if works of art are being created in isolation, their value necessarily transcend that of the individual artist. For Camus, the value of great works of art resides in their beauty, but this is not beauty for beauties sake. A genuine work of art forces us to rethink our place in the world vis-à-vis that of every other human being imaginable.
As always, I gladly accept comments and points of criticism on this short summary of our discussion.
Lastly, I want to draw attention to our two upcoming events.
April 4 2017: film screening of ‘The Act of Killing‘ in The Hague. Starting time approximately 18.00 h. Details follow.
May 3 2017: Latourism session 5 on Nietzsche. Starting time approximately 19.30 h. Literature: paragraph 6, 11, 19, 20, 21, 29, 32, 34, 36, 37, 41, 44, 51, 65, 67, 153, 187, 188, 198, 199, 200, 202, 202, 207, 208, 229, 257, 260 of Beyond Good and Evil; ‘Homer’s competition / the Greek State’.