Given Albert Camus’ strong affiliation with the philosophy of existentialism, it would only be logical to discuss the sub-chapter “Creation and Revolution” from his book The Rebel within the context of existentialist discourse. In its turn, this discourse is being concerned with the exploitation of an ‘alienation’ theme – that is, according to existentialists, it is quite impossible for a particular individual to go about exploring the essence of its existential sovereignty as a socio-politically predetermined category. While agreeing with the Marxist thesis as to the fact that is namely the economic forces that shape the course of history, existentialists opposed an essentially materialistic outlook onto the true nature of one’s identity. Whereas Marxist methodology implies that the actual value of any form of political activity should be solely thought of as the reflection of people’s preoccupation with trying to improve their living standards, existentialists point out at individual’s ability to adopt a particular political/artistic stance, as such that has value in itself.
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As of today, the existentialist discourse has been largely deprived of its actuality, because technological realities of the post-industrial era render the influence of historical and economic forces onto the formation of one’s individuality quite irrelevant. In the post-industrial world, it is namely the exponential progress in the field of informational technologies and biology, which defines the essence of political and economic realities – not the continuous confrontation between the representatives of oppressing and oppressed social classes, as Marxists and Existentialists used to suggest. Nevertheless, there can be a few doubts as to the fact that “Creation and Revolution” do contain many interesting insights into how people may go about seeking self-actualization, in the historical and artistic sense of this world. In the next part of our paper, while providing readers with the summary of ideas contained in “Creation and Revolution”, we will aim to explore this thesis at length.
The main idea conveyed by “Creation and Revolution” is that, when revolution and art are brought to their extremes, the affiliates of both types of activities would end up being deprived of their individuality. In its turn, this would necessarily result in the links between them and civilization being severed “Civilization is only possible if, by renouncing the nihilism of formal principles (art) and nihilism without principles (revolution), the world rediscovers the road to a creative synthesis” (366). Therefore, those who indulge in artistic and revolutionary activities should resist the totalities of essence and form as contradictory to the principle of freedom. What it means is that, by projecting their rebellious spirit onto the outside world (nihilist revolutionaries) or by turning it into the instrument of artistic dehumanization (nihilist artists), people limit themselves within the boundaries of a particular political or artistic discourse.
Thus, there appears to be only one way for those who seek to fully explore their existential potential to address surrounding reality – engaging in rebellion against the dictatorship of discourse-related forms and semiotics. In its turn, this had brought the author to conclude that: “Rebellion in itself is not an element of civilization. But it is a preliminary to all civilization.
Rebellion alone, in the blind alley in which we live, allows us to hope for the future…” (366). According to Camus, it is no longer appropriate to assess the concepts of revolution and art from a purely terminological perspective. Instead, both concepts should be fused together into an inseparable compound, so that revolution would serve the cause of art, and vice versa. After all, people live one second at a time, so the notions of past and future, interwoven with the concepts of revolution and art, are essentially mental constructs, subjectivized in one’s mind, but not actualized within the framework of perceptional objectivity. Therefore, it represents a matter of crucial importance for politically minded individuals to be able to reflect upon the value of their activities from a sensory (artistic) point of view.
Alternatively, artists who strive to leave a mark in history must resist the temptation of formalism, while being capable of turning their acute sense of aesthetics into an instrument of promoting a particular political agenda. Yet, given the fact that in the world of politics, one’s opinion in regards to the issues of socio-political importance, matters very little, he or she would need to continuously seek unification with mind-likes, in order to make its voice heard: “The artist, whether he likes it or not, can no longer be a solitary, except in the melancholy triumph he owes to his fellow artists” (377). Moreover, given the fact that the genre of tragedy has been traditionally considered the highest form of artistic expression, artists-rebellions should not necessarily be preoccupied with promoting positivist causes. On the contrary, the more a particular artistic or political expression is being nihilistically-absurdist, the more it is ‘existentialist’.
Intellectually advanced individuals do recognize the primacy of non-existence, as compared to existence. The recognition of non-existence beyond existence causes them to experience horror. And, it is only artists who are capable of calmly facing this horror without hope and also without despair, simply because one’s stoic stance in the face of impending non-existence, implies artistic intensity – thus, the only real (sensory) existence. In other words, it is specifically absurdist, a causeless rebellion which is worthy of engaging in, simply because this type of rebellion is being consistent with the deepest essence of human nature – people are nothing but natural-born-rebellions, whose very lives represent a transgression against the universe’s forces of entropy. This explains why Camus concluded, “Creation and Revolution” by referring to the rebellion as only the acceptable (art-related) way of addressing objectively existing reality: “The place of art will coincide with that of vanquished rebellion, a blind and empty hope in the pit of despair” (370). Those who continue to struggle with impossible circumstances, while remaining fully aware of their cause’s sheer futility, are only the true artists/revolutionaries.
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The context of “Creation and Revolution” implies the author’s unacceptance of any type of revolutionary-totalitarian ideology, as the source of an artistic inspiration, which explains why, after the publishing of The Rebel, another existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had canceled his friendship with Camus – after all, Sartre never ceased being affiliated with Marxist agenda. Thus, despite their rather controversial sounding, the ideas expressed in the “Creation and Revolution” are best described as essentially humanist – as a true existentialist, Camus actively opposed the ideological petrification of the concept of ‘thing in itself, especially when this concept is being applied to the notion of political/artistic rebellion, as the ultimate mean of establishing a common ground between otherwise alienated ‘others’. This also explains why, despite his apparent progressiveness, Camus had fallen out of favor with practitioners of avant-garde art – as it appears from “Creation and Revolution” context, the ‘purification’ of art by abstractionist methods can be only achieved at the expense of turning this art into a formal idea when there is no much actual art is being left to it. Therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that in “Creation and Revolution” Camus was able to outline a methodological framework for criticizing abstractionist art pieces, which is now being utilized by many contemporary art critics (Tom Wolfe, for example). Thus, even though in the light of post-industrial realities, the author’s suggestions as to how rebellion can be perpetuated appear somewhat outdated, his philosophically substantiated criticism of a ‘pure art’ remains fully valid even today.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage, 1992.