Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest For Meaning is a pleasant personal exploration of the significance of Camus’s work. It is built around five central Camusian themes: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity, and Revolt. Zaretsky’s presentation is pleasant, and for the most part adequate, if not particularly remarkable. He does offer a few helpful additions to the usual presentations, most particularly with the focus he puts on the importance for Camus of the work of Simone Weil. As he importantly observes, “Camus considered the analysis of human needs and duties in L’Enracinement to be a revelation.” To which he adds that “he found Weil’s treatment of ancient Greece no less revelatory,” namely, her “conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life” in the West, but do not.
But it is precisely here, however, that Zaretsky’s then goes importantly astray, and it is to correct that serious misrepresentation that I felt compelled to write this review. First, Zaretsky makes the important error of translating “la mesure” as “moderation”, which reduces Camus engaged politics of struggle to an anemic plea for moderation. And then he compounds that error by claiming that Camus insists we must “never allow our rebellion to turn into revolution,” (P. 180) thus treating rebellion and revolution as essential antagonists.
Both conservatives and “liberals” — the latter particularly in the United States — on the one hand, and Marxists and radicals in general, on the other hand, have sought to present Camus as counter-posing revolt and revolution precisely in the manner of Zaretsky. The former to praise him for his opposition to radical revolution, and the latter to rake him over the proverbial coals as a bourgeoise sellout to capitalist oppression.
But Camus emphatically rejected precisely that interpretation of his work, and went to great pains to insist that there was a critical and crucial connection between rebellion and revolution, which we fail to recognize at our peril. No where is that effort clearer than in his (initially unpublished) response to the controversy over The Rebel. (For the English translation of that essay, see my Sartre and Camus: An Historic Confrontation.) Rather, it is only “absolutist”, ideologically inspired Revolution that Camus targets with his criticism, while insisting that fruitful rebellion ought rightfully to lead to revolutionary transformations so long as such revolutions remain true to the spirit of outrage and the demand to respect human dignity that initiated the rebellion. Hence, there is a necessary unity in tension between the spirit of rebellion and the institutionalization of revolution that needs always to be maintained. And Zaretsky completely misses that connection, and thus eviscerates the force of Camus’ analysis. (For an extensive discussion on these issues, see my “Camus: A Critical Examination.)
Review of Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living — Belknap Press of Harvard University: Cambridge, MA 2013