I’m a firm believer in the seasonality of literature. I believe that there are perfect winter books, perfect books for rainy days and perfect books for hot summer-like days. For me, the specific state—be it physical or mental—in which I read literature of any sort profoundly affects my attitude towards said literature. A good book multiplies in its goodness under the right reading conditions. Recently, a few essays by French author Albert Camus have ridden this past weeks’ heat wave with me, and I found them to be perfect for getting excited for the fast-approaching summer heat.
A couple weeks ago, while musing in the basement of the library during a rainy evening, I picked up a bright orange book containing a collection of Camus’ essays: lyrical ones at the front, critical ones at the back. These 19 lyrical essays total 150 pages of the most beautiful writing I have read in a long time. Hailing from what was once French Algeria, Camus’ lyrical essays carry the imagery of summers spent on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea–they smell of summer breeze and feel warm under bare feet. This North African setting is key for the seasonality of Camus’ writing, and through his exaltation of his home during warm months, I found myself reveling in our very own humid and sea-lacking Poughkeepsie heat.
In one essay titled, “Nuptials at Tipasa,” Camus outlines a sort of solar paganism as he marries the sun and the sea in one summer day to remember. It’s a very colorful essay, sharp as well, in its description of overgrown ruins, a sandy beach and fruit at a cafe. Lucid descriptions of summer scenery dance with philosophical daydreams as Camus urges us to love life and not feel shame in the endless pursuit of such simple, yet profound, pleasures as basking in the sun and throwing ourselves into the sea. The essay tosses readers in a sea of lyricism so refreshing that it feels just as good to sink under the cascade of words as it does to lift your head above the water to feel the radiance of sunlight’s simple pleasures.
I must be naked and dive into the sea, still scented with the perfumes of the earth, wash them off in the sea, and consummate with my flesh the embrace for which sun and sea, lips to lips, have so long been sighing. I feel the shock of the water, rise up through a thick, cold glue, then dive back with my ears ringing, my nose streaming, and the taste of salt in my mouth. As I swim, my arms shining with water flash into gold in the sunlight, until I fold them in again with a twist of all my muscles; the water streams along my body as my legs take tumultuous possession of the waves—and the horizon disappears. (59).
Another essay, “Summer in Algiers,” brings new meaning to the simplicity of that carefree summer life under the sun we all crave. Preluding his later philosophy for which he is most widely known, Camus shows his disdain for dogma, ideologies and abstractions, instead calling for a love of the real and sensuous world we now inhabit. “There is no superhuman happiness, no eternity outside the curve of the days…between this sky and the faces turned toward it there is nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion—only stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.” For Camus, life under the sun contains enough truth; why should it be decorated with excess?
I fear that I am beginning to paint Camus in a reductive manner––one where he is simply a soothing voice that praises nature and life lived simply. Camus calls for the opposite. Nature is not soothing, the nature Camus knew was cruel: it was scorching hot, made of deserts devoid of meaning and an indifferent sea, which did not change tides with the tumultuous 20th century. Camus would not have wanted us to lose ourselves in summer day trips to the beach nor lose our sense of self while exploring wind-chiseled cliffsides dotted with flowers. Rather, it is in moments like these that we find our truest sense of self and enjoy the overwhelming power of life lived in excess.
So for this summer, which is astonishingly close, I cannot recommend picking up Camus’ work enough. If not, live it up in your own way: you’d be performing his philosophy more poignantly than by simply reading it.
“The earth! In this great temple, deserted by the Gods, all my idols have feet of clay!”