We have so become accustomed to looking at ourselves in mirrors, that even when facing ourselves we overlook ourselves. And not having seen ourselves, once we turn around, we are blind to the beauty and the injustices of the world. Lifeless we see no life; deaf we hear no cries. We have lost the child’s playful love of mirrors. Even Zarathustra, who has to be handed a mirror by a child, is a stranger to himself:
‘O Zarathustra,’ the child said to me, ‘look at yourself in the mirror’. But when I looked into the mirror I cried out and my heart was shaken; for it was not myself I saw … (TSZ, II, “The Child with the Mirror”)
Zarathustra, unlike us, dares to look; he dares to challenge what he finds staring back at him, a “devil’s grimace and a scornful laughter”.
One way of shedding some light on the event known as ‘nihilism’, involves recovering ourselves, and the world, through mirror-like relations. Just as mirrors provide the possibility for a doubling split between spaced figures, so nihilism itself is a split phenomenon arising from what is truly spaceless, a point in which we learn of the death of God. In order to understand the duality characteristic of nihilism, I shall turn in Section I to Zarathustra’s creator, Nietzsche. Why him? Well because Camus sees in his works, in the multitude of colorful mirrors it provides, and the multitude of mirrors it shatters, a lucid reflection of the emergence of modern meaninglessness. The death of God marks, according to Nietzsche, our modern identity. It is an event in which all possible reflection is shadowed; an event which forecloses all foreshadowing. From it, flowers nihilism in its two principal mirroring modalities, the passive and the active. But besides this important theoretical gain, for Camus, Nietzsche is one of those whom it is worthwhile to mirror creatively: “if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply” (MoS, 3). But, can we, really? We, who are unable even to mirror ourselves.
In Section II, I will proceed to look at one who loves mirrors as few do, Camus’ Caius. He comes to mirrors by confronting the death of his beloved. In Caligula, his imperial name, passive nihilism shows one of its two faces, that of murder. His feverish mirror becomes stained in blood. It is precisely because of its reddish reflection, the one which likewise invades the moon he longs for, that he must in the end break it. But ironically, at the moment where all reflection ends, Caligula claims to be finally alive. Could this be possible?
Finally, in the last section of this essay, I will take up Camus’ remark that “even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism” (Preface, MoS). The guiding questions here will be: can we truly move beyond nihilism? Would it not be better, perhaps, to say we learn to move within a certain kind of nihilism, that is to say, its active variant as elucidated by Nietzsche? I will try to look here at the possibility of re-covering ——- in other words, covering anew ——- ourselves and the world through a new light that streams from a web of mirrors exhibiting an ephemeral value. We will be able to look at, and through, an artistic kaleidoscopic whose motion is born out of the present desire of life. But in this peculiar kind of kaleidoscope, the playful child who delights in it, is him/herself part of the figures and colors recreated. Perhaps by partaking of some of the dancing figures which Camus himself allows us to see ——-and as in a mirror, reflect upon—— we will come closer to understanding what Camus meant by saying that ‘creation is the great mime’. (MoS, 94). (*1)
SECTION I. THE DIVINE MIRROR IS BROKEN; NIHILISM’S MIRROR SPLIT
In The Gay Science Nietzsche wrote concerning ‘New Struggles’: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown —-and we —– we still have to vanquish his shadow, too” (TGS, 108). The divine mirror on which we saw ourselves mirrored has been shattered. Of it there remain only fragments and the shadow of a corpse. But a shadow is much like a mirror; for it, too, is our other. But this other, unlike the reflected self facing us in the mirror, is born out of the absence of all sunlight. Nevertheless, the shadow spoken of, is of infinite dimensions. To divine mirroring, there follows a dead God’s omnipresent shadow.
The death of God is a modern phenomenon which alludes to the downfall of all previously held hierarchical valuations. The divine axle, that standard around which we orbited, has been crushed. (*2) We are left suspended in mid-air; or no, mid-air implies there being a middle to which one can refer in order to place oneself appropriately. There is no middle anywhere now. Instead we are exiled into a weird atmosphere lacking any gravitational pull whatsoever. Flung around, disoriented where once we knew our way around, we see the land we once stood on, crumbling. (*3) Where lay constructions now appear ever-fading ruins. We are overtaken by the aquatic fluidity of it all:
In the horizon of the infinite.—-We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—- indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the wall of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick …… there is no longer any land. (TGC, 124) (*4)
There is nothing but ocean straight ahead; only in the sea can we come to see ourselves again. And on it, knowing of its dual nature, at the same time a silky gold and a deep devouring black, we landless moderns must set sail. But this quest is precisely the quest for ourselves because looking overboard we cannot overlook the reflection which stares at us from beneath. The sea is the mirror of mirrors:
Free man, you will forever love the sea!
The sea’s your mirror; you observe your soul
Perpetually as its waves unroll,
Your spirit’s chasm yawns as bitterly (Baudelaire, 51) (*5)
Like waves, we long for a land upon which to break. But instead, for us, there remains only a world rid of continents; a true laberynth made up of watered walls. Our universe, at its worst, is that of a whirlpool sucking us to the dark depths where shadows find comfort.
But even if we look up, tired of gazing downwards, we find much the same picture, that of utter confusion. Even our galaxies have ceased to follow the regularity we had become accustomed to. We voyage in a milky way, but one lacking orbits, lacking milkiness, lacking predictable ways:
Parable.—–Those thinkers in whom all stars move in cyclic orbits are not the most profound. Whoever looks into himself as into vast space and carries galaxies in himself, also knows how irregular all galaxies are; they lead into the chaos and labyrinth of existence. (TGC, 322)
Looking at oneself not only involves the sea, but star filled galaxies where all light is born. However, our galaxies, these have to be constructed anew out of chaotic ruins. Nostalgia reminds us of once known star systems where orbits, milk and predictability were taken for granted.
But continuously longing for this center upon which to gravitate, we start to become dizzy as never before. The chaos that emerges and the marine labyrinth into which we are flung leave us at a loss. Meaning and purpose mean nothing.
He who feels the blurring of our disintegrating cartographies; he who holds a compass liberated from any magnetic pull; he who knows himself at a crossroads whose point of origin is quicksand; he who feels all this is the mad human:
‘Whither is God?’, he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him —- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? …Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? …. who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? Is not the greatness of this deed to great for us? (TGS, 125)
Sunlight is effacing; night sets in, enlightened by a blood covered moon. Thirst becomes unquenchable for to quench it there is only the salty water of the ocean which, the mad human tells us, we have already drank up. Even the sea seems permanently deserted, lifeless. The madman announces an event, but nobody listens. Breaking his lantern, he tells us, from the ensuing shadowy atmosphere: “deeds though done, still require to be seen and heard …. themselves” (ibid.). But we, who are unable to look at ourselves in mirrors, how could we not overlook the deed that precisely shatters all mirroring?
Nevertheless Nietzsche did try to see; as a matter of fact, he foresaw as few have. His tenacity allows us to gain clarity while still among shadows, shadows whose pull is like that of black holes. Nietzsche stood his ground for, as Camus tells us, one who “has become conscious of the absurd ….. is forever bound to it” (MoS, 31). The absurdity of nihilism is what Nietzsche faced. The deed, God’s death, triggers an event, the leveling of all values; the ‘reign’ of emptiness, the will to nothingness. If God’s death arrives as shadow, then surely nihilism is that shadow which we carry upon ourselves; like Zarathustra his dwarf. Ours is not a cross, but a cross’ shadow. Nietzsche places himself at the crossroads, at that point where the two logs meet, that point where the divorce between humans and the world has taken place. And there, in that crack which follows the earthquake —-a crack quick to close itself—– lucidly he awaits; and listening intently, there he sees two paths flowering in different contradictory directions. (*7)
The question “What is nihilism”, is an odd question to ask. The real question, for Nietzsche, is quite different: what does nihilism, the situation emerging out of God’s death, mean to whom? For one does not, in a parallel way, ask what is the beautiful, nor what is the good, or the true:
In every case it is a question of the conditions of preservation of a certain type of man: thus the herd man will experience the value feeling of the beautiful in the presence of different things than will the exceptional or over-man” (WtP, 804) (8)
Beauty, goodness and truthfulness are taken to be different things depending on the character of those concerned. And this holds true, likewise, for the interpretation of nihilism.
Nihilism is an event we as moderns share. It is in this sense that Nietzsche speaks of it as being a “normal condition” (WtP, 23). But this normal condition, which we have seen is defined precisely because of it abnormality, its anomie, is one which can be faced in different ways. And the way we do face it, says a lot of the way we face ourselves in mirrors. How we see the world and how we perceive who we are, are as inseparable as a coin’s two sides.
Even though Nietzsche has been all to keen on portraying, as vividly as possible, the disorientation that stems from the death of God, he wants anything but simply despairing beings who embrace as desirable the loss of all valuations. Not only has he told us that we have a ship on which to cruise the ocean, but likewise reminded us of the silky gold graciousness of the sea upon which we travel. And furthermore, his keen eyesight brings to light that “only ONE interpretation succumbed; but because of the fact it passed as THE interpretation, it looks as if there were no sense in existence, as if everything were in vain” (Melendez, FP, 5 (71), 1887, p 31). God’s death is the culminating point in the history of a unique interpretation; an interpretation which claimed to be the only mirroring possibility. Its having been questioned leaves now open the possibility of a plurality of mirrors.
For the univocal pessimist, the loss of an interpretation necessarily involves the loss of all possible interpretations. Unsurpassable meaninglessness ensues:
Everything lacks meaning (the impossibility of practicing one unique interpretation of the world to which immense efforts have been dedicated —– awakens the suspicion of the falsity of all interpretations of the world —-) Buddhist tendency, longing for nothingness (Melendez, 2(127), 1885-86, p. 23) (9)
The pessimist rids all life of meaning for life does not fit his/her notion of what meaningfulness is. The pessimist prides himself on dis-covering the world; but his egoism lies precisely in his/her passion simply to un-cover, leaving everything nakedly, shamefully, barren:
it has been discovered, the world is not worth what we thought … a senselessness which finally begins to be understood after unfortunate roundabouts, a Comedy of Errors, a bit too prolonged, which shamefully looses itself in nothingness. (Melendez, FP, 3(14), 1886), p. 31) (10)
Love of disorientation. Desire for an endless fall free of any meaning whatsoever. A decision to remain in perpetual indecision. Triumph of the shadow and its aimless wandering, its coldness incapable of taking in the light required to carry on the quest for horizons of sense. All this is the pessimist, and much less. Through the pessimist, who is nothing but shadow, one gains clarity on the phenomenon of nihilism. His/her shadow asks Zarathustra:
Nothing is alive anymore that I love; how should I still love myself? …. how could anything please me any more? Do I have a goal any more? A haven toward which my sail is set? A good wind? Alas, only he who knows where he is sailing also knows which wind is good and the right wind for him. What is left to me now? A heart, weary and imprudent, a restless will, flutter-wings, a broken-backbone. Trying thus to find my home ——O Zarathustra, do you know it? ….’Where is —-my home?’ I ask and search and have searched for it, but I have not found i. O eternal everywhere, O eternal nowhere, O eternal—in vain!’ (TSZ, IV, “The Shadow”)
Windless wandering upon boats without masts; ships peopled by back-bone lacking creatures; eternal homelessness and never-ending directionless wandering; all this is the world of shadowy figures. Theirs is an adventure which is truly an undertaking, that is to say, an ‘under’-taking. A death sought in dreamt ships, among ghostly seamen vent on fictitious quests. Shadows who, lacking any port, disdain all possible ports. Each and every possible site of arrival is burnt out of resentment and resignation. A lifeless life of blackened mirrors, is for them a perfect life:
Its symptoms: The great scorn
The great compassion
The great destruction
and its culminating point: a doctrine which precisely makes of the life of nausea, of compassion, of the pleasure of destruction, more intense, and teaches them as absolute and eternal” (Melendez, FP, 11 (149), 1987-88, p.67)
Perfect teachers of the hatred of life. Desire vent on destroying itself; on punishing itself.
But for every shadow in us, there lies a living laughing being from which it stems. Not all destruction need simply rejoice in its destructive abilities. This is why nihilism is not a one way affair; but much more like a coin with two opposing faces. Nihilism flowers into two variants which stand to each other as one stands to a mirror. On the one hand, the passively imprisoned image, on the other, the actively living human:
“Nihilism. It is ambiguous:
A. Nihilism as sign of increased power of the spirit; as active nihilism.
B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit; as passive nihilism” (WtP, 22)
Active nihilism, for it Nietzsche, for the most part, stands as mirroring model due to his lively confrontation with the void. A dignified spirit standing its ground under the most extreme of disasters. Affirmation of a life desired ever and ever anew just as it is; a ‘yes’ to a loved narration which eternal recurs. (*11) A faint light in the dark world of madness and indifference. The fragile light born out of a candle in the quiet of the night onboard our interim home:
“With ropes I have learned to climb many a window; with swift legs I climbed into high masts; and to sit on high masts of knowledge seemed to me no small happiness; to flicker like small flames on high masts —- a small light only, and yet a great comfort for shipwrecked sailors and castaways” (TSZ, III, “On the Spirit of Gravity”)
Our homes, ships with backbones and true sea-humans. Zarathustra, climber of masts whose words shine in order to be mirrored creatively. Creatively, that is, not like blind shadow-like followers. Shadows to which Zarathustra asks: “this is my way; where is yours? —-thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way —that does not exist” (ibid.).
Caligula is no follower, and he too will tells us of his way.
SECTION II. CALIGULA: MIRRORS, LOVE AND MURDER
In the ‘Introduction’ to The Rebel Camus lets us know that absurdity and mirrors go hand in hand: “in a certain way, the absurd, which claims to express man in his solitude, really makes him live in front of a mirror” (R, 8). Caligula’s absurdity lies precisely in his being a lover of mirrors. But what he sees there, in front of him, is not the light that Zarathustra won through his unconditional affirmation of life. He sees there, at a distance, that which Zarathustra once saw, a “devil’s grimace and a scornful laughter”. That grimace and laughter somehow tied to the passive nihilist.
Passive nihilism itself is a complex phenomenon which Camus portrays as split; it too, like nihilism construed broadly, is like a coin. When tossed its downward fall resembles that of a guillotine. When it lands on the emptiness from which it springs, two possible outcomes can follow: heads is suicide, tails murder. Absolute nihilism
“which accepts suicide as legitimate, leads even more easily, to logical murder. If our age admits, with equanimity, that murder has its justification, it is because of this indifference to life which is the mark of nihilism” (R, 6)
Caligula’s coin has landed heads-side up. Murder is Caligula’s peculiar sort of passive nihilism. But ironically it seems completely opposed to all passivity; it is active nihilism set head over heels. All this is better seen by looking at the mirroring pages of Camus’ Caligula.
The recurrent appeal to nothingness with which the play starts, stems from their being no news of the emperor who, on parting, himself had nothing to say (C, 3). Caligula, the political name for Caius, the man, has left to see, for the last time, Drusilla. Loving her was an affair “something more than brotherly” (5). Face to face with the death of his beloved, Caligula disconcerts us. Rather then entering into a radical disorientation, he remains calm, cool, in control: “he stroke it with 2 fingers and seemed lost in thought for a while. Then swung around and walked out calmly” (5). Caligula’s body has come into contact with Drusilla’s shadow. The death of God manifests itself for him in the death of the beloved one. And yet, seemingly, nothing happens. The others, most of whom believe that loosing a loved one “doesn’t amount to much” (4), do not yet perceive that Caligula has already been lost to them: “and ever since we’ve been hunting for him in vain” (5). Caligula evades them for they disdain what Caius has felt.
It seems to me not at all self-deceptive to seriously take Caesonia’s words concerning Caius’ love for Drusilla: “one thing is sure, he loved her. And its cruel to have someone die whom only yesterday you were holding in your hands” (10). (*12) But, why believe her? Particularly given the fact that Caligula himself, again and again, denies this? Because she, of all the characters in the play, knows love. She alone will stand by Caligula, as unconditionally as the fool by King Lear: “Caligula: Swear to stand by me, Caesonia. Caesonia: I needn’t swear. You know I love you” (17).
Nevertheless, what Caesonia affirms, Caligula denies vehemently. The emperor denies, from the start, the determining encounter with mortality which was his touch of Drusilla: “love is a side issue, I swear to you, her death is not the point” (8), or elsewhere, “what nonsense is this? Why drag in Drusilla? Do you imagine love’s the only thing that can make a man shed tears?” (15). All this talk of love is, for Caligula, pure nonsense. In him loving is senseless, it turns out to be that loving is precisely what lacks all meaning; it is, for the emperor, nihilism at its clearest. And yet, he cannot stop desiring and loving.
We do not, and should not, believe Caligula. Why take his ‘swearing’ seriously if he sets out to replace all Gods? Something deep down in us rebels against Caligula’s denial of Drusilla. And we faintly know why. We sense somehow that Caius’ body feels what Caligula’s logical knowing fails to admit. Caius has touched Drusilla, and is moved, Caligula moves back untouched. Drusilla’s death shatters Caius’ every bodily sense, it makes life senseless:
Pain everywhere, in my chest, in my legs and arms. Even my skin is raw, my head is buzzing. I feel like vomiting. But worst of all is this queer taste in my mouth. Not blood or death or fever, but a mixture of all the three” (5)
Caius’ skin, that which stands between him and the world, between him and Drusilla, is raw material. The body is pure flesh left naked and vulnerable to the world’s hostility and indifference. But Caligula, well he knows better. He finds this new taste in his mouth not so much queer as desirable.
Nevertheless in the first entrance of Caius-Caligula unto the scene of the action, he appears not naked, but rather covered. That which covers his body, and garments, is the earthly mud of a torrential night:
“His legs caked with mud, his garments dirty, his hair wet, his look distraught. He brings his hand to his mouth several times. Then he approaches a mirror, stopping abruptly, when he catches sight of his reflected self” (6-7)
And with the world sticking to him Caius-Caligula catches sight of himself as he never had before. Without Drusilla’s absence, a love which cost even the overstepping of the incest taboo, Caligula would not have come to be present to himself as he is now. A child gave Zarathustra his mirror; mortality gave Caligula his. Stopping abruptly one can imagine Caligula’s silent mouth saying: “I am alive, you, my love, are dead; I cannot be happy; and if I cannot, no one will”.
With Drusilla’s death, Caligula enters the night. And in it he sees a being so overwhelmingly lit that he longs for it as he perhaps never did for his beloved sister. Raising his eyes above Drusilla’s fragility, Caligula finds a pregnant moon overflowing in light. The moon is majestic, seemingly eternal; Drusilla, perhaps lovely, but neither majestic nor long-lasting:
Caligula: Yes, I wanted the moon
Caligula: It’s one of those things I haven’t got …. I couldn’t get it ….That’s why I’m tired (7)
Caligula desires the moon, he longs to possess it. Drusilla he wanted and kind of had; but she was snatched from him. The moon, if he could have it, that would certainly, seem to be, a much more consummate affair. For the moon is a celestial being, not simply a worldly one: (*13)
“Really, this world of ours, the schema of things as they call it is quite intolerable. That is why I want the moon, or happiness or eternal life, something, in fact, that may sound strange, but which isn’t of this world” (8)
Only in the moon can Caligula now find eternal happiness; but scarcely does he know that for him the evanescent happiness of human evenings will never again be possible. Scarcely does he realize that the moon is only a mirror, its light source not of itself. The moon makes sense only by way of the rays of the sun and the permanent longing for the return of daylight.
Caligula, logician as he is, is one of those who really “dare(s) to follow his ideas” (13). Caligula persists as few do. He alone will have the courage of tracking down the moon. This hunter adventurer is set on “exploring the impossible, or more accurately, it is a question of making the impossible, possible.” (13). It is a quest begun out of a real death, carried through on a red sea populated by deadly encounters, and its circular conclusion being the proud prize of all hunters. It is a syllogistic proof of a single truth: “a childishly, simple, obvious, almost silly truth, but one that s hard to come by and heavy to endure … Men die and are not happy” (8). God’s die and they are not happy either; but what Zarathustra derived from this was certainly not what Caligula believed inevitable.
The mirror upon which Caius stares at himself shows him the magnanimity proper to an emperor; the mirror blurs Caius so, that now he sees only Caligula. Mirrors sometimes can be made to distort; Caligula’s eyesight so distorts this one that he appears magnified a thousand fold. And the reflection which reaches his eyes, much like in King Oedipus’ case, makes him turn around and see in the world, and us, nothing but lies and self-deception. (*14). But the Roman, unlike his Greek counterpart, feels a gnawing need to become a teacher. Caius has felt the truth, he has earned the diploma. In contrast Caligula believes it his mission to set out and impose: “for I know what they need and haven’t got. They’re without understanding, and they need a teacher; someone who knows what he’s talking about” (9).
Caligula’s denial of the experience of the death of the beloved becomes norm; his mirror is the only possible one. We must all stand in line to face ourselves through it. Whoever sees not death as Caligula himself does, must be sentenced to death. Then his raw skin will be made to feel what up to then it, stubbornly, refused to know. While Drusilla remains as the dead beloved unjustly taken away, those Caligula sets out to murder are his/her ignorant students, who, for their own good, must be ‘taken away’. Like the shadow Caligula task is truly an ‘under’-taking. And ironically, what Caligula sees flowering from this enlightening project is a noble end: “then perhaps I shall be transfigured and the world renewed; then men will die no more and be happy” (17). Caligula has come up with the answer to the predicament of death; but only faintly does he perceive that his transfiguration is such that it leaves no figure whatsoever to play with.
But, if to transfigure is to change in form, then Caius does so transfigure himself. He transfigures himself in that his now, unique and only, form seems to lie in the emperor’s figure. Facing the mirror once again, the transfigured Caius faces an image free of either landscapes as background, or comforting beings as companions;
Caligula: All gone, you see my dear … no more masks. Nothing, nobody left. Nobody? No, that’s not true. Look Caesonia. Come here all of you and look …. (He plants himself in front of the mirror in a grotesque attitude).
Caesonia: (staring, horrified, at the mirror) Caligula!
Caligula: Yes …… Caligula. (18)
The world is truly renewed, in it there remains one figure, one reflection, one interpretation. Only Caligula remains in the world. The transfigurative murdering of others and disruption of the world can commence. The untouchable is violated: murdered father’s and son’s, raped wives, usurped property. Anomie becomes the imposed norm (9).
Extreme solitude would seem to be price for all of this. This is what Scipio, whose father has been cowardly murdered, seems to believe. “How horrible loneliness yours must be”, he tells Caligula (36). But the latter again disconcerts us, as many years later will Meursault. The emperor is emperor, and not simply out of luck:
“You don’t realize that one is never alone…. Those we have killed are always with us. But they are no great trouble. It’s those we have loved; those who loved us and whom we did not love; regrets, desires, bitterness and sweetness” (37) (*15, *16)
Those who loved us and were taken away from us; that is the first, albeit unacknowledged, premise in Caligula’s criminal argumentative process. Drusilla’s absence haunts Caligula till the end, but everything he says seems to deny, again and again, our claim. Even nearing death he clings to his indifferent attitude towards the loss of the beloved’s face:
Love isn’t enough for me; I realized it then, and I realize it today again … To love someone means that one’s willing to grow old beside that person. That sort of love is outside my sort of range; Drusilla old would have been far worse than Drusilla dead” (71).
Caligula’s range is, as I briefly mentioned, sky oriented. And perhaps we might be tempted to say that he has real reasons to say that his sky-oriented range is not simply the desire of a madman; but rather can be considered as a real, human, possibility. Perhaps, like the Socrates of the Symposium, his desire for the moon can be seen as moving, somehow, beyond that worldly, too fragile love of a Drusilla condemned to aging and passing away.
Once, his reign of terror already on the roll, Caligula tells us that out of the mirror on which he only saw himself, there came a new light; the light of the moon. Once, while in bed, Caligula’s longing seems to have been temporarily consummated. The full moon itself decides to share its reflected and guiding light for those lost in the midst of darkness and utter despair:
“to come back to the moon —it was a cloudless August night …… She was coy, to begin with. I’d gone to bed. First she was blood-red, low on the horizon. Then she began rising, quicker and quicker, brighter and brighter all the while. And the higher she climbed, the paler she grew, till she was like a milky pool in a dark wood rustling with stars. Slowly, shyly she approached, through the warm night air, soft, light as gossamer, naked in beauty. She crossed the threshold of my room, glided to my bed, poured herself into it, and flooded me with her smiles and sheen …” (46)
The moon has shared itself with Caius, once lover of art. But the alleged encounter takes place too late. The moon’s reddish color perhaps stems from the evening contact with the evanescent sun, but Caligula’s reddish color projects from his murdering hands. The emperor cannot even comprehend what has just happened between Caius and the guiding light of night. Caligula now speaks, and with his words, the charm of the moon is forever lost: “so you see Helicon, I can say, without boasting, that I’ve had her” (ibid.) Revealing the intimacy of his encounter, viewing it as the hard won prize in a hunting competition; precisely this, is boasting.
And Caius knows this. This is why, just prior to the final mirroring encounter with Cherea, Caligula and Caius stand once again facing each other. Together they doubt. Caius seems to deny that they ever actually had the moon. Caligula ironically says:
Suppose the moon were brought here, everything would be different. That was the idea, wasn’t it? … After all, why shouldn’t Helicon bring it off? One night, perhaps he’ll catch her sleeping on a lake, and carry her, trapped in a glistening net, all slimy with weeds and water, like a pale bloated fish drawn from the depths, Why not Caligula? Why not, indeed? (49)
An ‘idea’, that is what it was all about; an idea, not a living loving act. Or was it? Caligula displaces his search for the moon on Helicon; Caius knows, deep inside, that his ‘trapping’ it is doomed to fail. But to our surprise the moon seems to have, itself, been transfigured. What Caligula intends to trap, in a move towards modesty, is not anymore, the heavenly body. The moon has descended, or perhaps, as Caligula says so himself, emerged from the depths of the earth. Moreover, the moon is now one which in its proximity comes to be covered by water and weeds, and unavoidably, by the mud that covers Caligula from the start. Disconcerting revelations follow. Caligula now he seems intent on a net-size moon. The moon, it seems, is no longer that unreachable object overlooking our world; but a reflection found in the mirror-like calm of a lake in a cloudless night of August. This is a human moon, and Caligula’s halfway realization, makes his tragic fate, even more so. It is not a chance event that Caligula, as we shall see, is loved and admired by many of his own.
The words just analyzed, we are told by Camus, are to be spoken in complete irony, and irony implies expressing that which one disbelieves in such a way that all who hear understand this masking. This is why to their pronunciation there follows a muffled voice which, like MacBeth’s, knows of the inevitability of the events to follow: “too many dead, too many dead — that makes an emptiness …. No, even if the moon were mine, I could not retrace my way … There’s no return” (49). To the emptiness born of the loss of Drusilla, Caligula adds a self-inflicted one. The world has become stained in red, looking at it unbearable. Caligula must look ahead, to the mirror in front. But before the ultimate confrontation, that of Caius and Caligula, the emperor is met by three successive attacks; attacks born out of love and/or admiration. But just as with the moonstruck encounter, these final encounters, take place after Caligula acknowledges that truly, “there’s no return”.
In the first place Caligula stands face to face with Cherea. The defender of a courageously held ‘common sense perspective’ likens Caligula to a rather odd ‘murdering Socrates’: “he forces on to think. There’s nothing like insecurity for stimulating the brain. That, of course, is why he’s so much hated” (58). Cherea, who sees himself as an “ordinary” man (52) desiring “to live and be happy” (51) refused, from the start, to join the hunters. He is no coward, rather he knows death’s inevitable appearance, but he likewise knows of the different ways of dying:
“to loose one’s life is no great matter; when the time comes I will have the courage to loose mine. But what’s intolerable is to see one’s life being drained of meaning, to be told there is no reason for existing. A man can’t live without some reason for living” (21)
He “refuse(s) to live in a topsy-turvy world”, he wants to stand secure (51). Cherea is a land creature, not a lover of the sea. His mirror is that which challenges, like no other, Caligula’s pretensions. He cannot bring himself either to hate Caligula, for he knows him not to be happy, nor to scorn him, for he knows him to be courageous (51). Nevertheless he will, and does, participate in the final stabbing of the maddened emperor.
A second mirror now appears in the mirror full world where Caligula’s death is steadily approaching. Scipio reflects a warmth for Caligula which Cherea did not. He both admired and loved Caius. (10) Fatherless because of Caligula’s ruthlessness, Scipio knows a love of Caligula which goes beyond the bondage of familial ties. Their bounding element is art. And this linkage is for Scipio unbreakable: “I cannot be against him, even if I killed him, my heart would still be with him” (56). Bonded by the heart, Scipio, though not a coward, denies himself revenge. His counterattack lies in the pen as a sword:
Pursuit of happiness that purifies the heart
Skies rippling with light
O wild, sweet festival of joys, frenzy without hope (66)
Scipio’s three line poem shines forth in a different light. The pursuit of happiness lies not only in knowing the bitter cold of a hopelessly unending night. Happiness as purification; that seems to be more a matter of the permanent interplay of night, and its frenzy, and day with its ‘skies rippling with light’. Happiness, as we shall see, in our third section, lies in between these; in the eveningsat Algiers. Scipio leaves; his poem unheard. Caius’ love of art mocked by Caligula’s disheartening wreckage. Another beloved has died to Caligula, and, as he told us, it is those loved who are the real problem: “I shall go away, far away, and try to discover the meaning of it all ……. Good-by dear Caius, when all is ended remember that I loved you” (67). Scipio loves Caius, the human being who has lost his beloved, not Caligula the human who has lost himself, his humanity. This is why he too finally participates in the culminating self-defensive act.
The third and final mirror which places itself against Caligula’s, is that of Caesonia’s love. But this one, the most fragile, is precisely the one which has been torn to pieces, even before the beginning of the play, with Drusilla’s death. Caesonia’s love for Caligula makes one shudder “we will defend you. There are many of us left who love you” (69). It is alone for her that Caligula has felt a sincere emotion a “shameful tenderness”(71). Caesonia makes Caligula blush, and she reminds tenderly of Caligula’s childish nature (10). But Caligula’s cheeks of filled with a red from a very different source; his tenderness buried under the redness of his crimes.
And Caligula knows this. Out of the two types of love and happiness he knows, he admits to have chosen the murderous kind:
I live, I kill, I exercise the rapturous power of the destroyer, compared with which the power of the creator is merest child’s play. And this, this is happiness; this and nothing else —-this intolerable release, devastating scorn, blood, hatred all round me; the glorious isolation of a man who all his life long nurses and gloats over the ineffable joy of the unpunished murderer; the ruthless logic that crushes out human lives (he laughs), that’s crushing yours too, Caesonia, so as to perfect the utter loneliness that is my heart’s desire.” (72)
Caligula’s destructive nature undoubtedly places him in the field of the passive nihilists; but his passivity can only be understood as a negative, counterclockwise activity turned against the world, others and himself.
But even this rage towards the world, this desire for complete loneliness, is marred by his incapacity to kill Caesonia (72). Drusilla was taken away, but if Caesonia were to die it would be by his hand, not by that of fate.
Nevertheless a kind of loneliness, not absolute, not so perfect as Caligula would like, sets in; it is that odd loneliness characteristic of a dialogue among identical, symmetrical beings, among Caius and Caligula who are one and the same. Caius, the man, the art lover, the living body who senses the loss of the beloved, he who knows of tears and of trembling, in the first instance condemns the distorted image of Caligula, that over-magnified image reflected on the red-tanned mirror: “Caligula! You, too; you too, are guilty”. But this momentary humane resurgence is followed by an imperial denial : “then what of it — a little more, a little less? Yet who can condemn me in this world where there is no judge, where nobody is innocent?” (72). A true duel is on the make, and in the space separating the duelers, sincerity is born. Caius, distressed, realizes now that the moon will “never, never, never” be his, and self-questioningly asks himself why, even though “innocence will triumph”, he is not among those sharing in it (72).
But Caligula’s calmer speech, that same calm attitude with which he left Drusilla’s inert body, is now reflected from the glassy surface. Calmness quickly diminishes and a heartbreaking screaming sets in:
If I‘d had the moon, if love were enough, all might have been different. But where could I quench this thirst? (*17) What human heart, what god, would have for me the depth of a great lake? (kneeling, weeping) There’s nothing in this world, or in the other, made to my stature, And yet I know (presumably Caligula) and you know (presumably Caius)(still weeping stretches out his arms to the mirror) that all I need is for the impossible to be. The impossible!”
The emperor kneels and weeps; his body has partly recovered his humanity. His knees on the floor remind us of the descent of the moon to the lake. Earthly bound, Caligula stretches out his hands, but in that space between him and Caius, he now only sees emptiness and death; death of the beloved, absence of the moon:
(screaming) See, I stretch out my hands, but it’s always you I find, you only, confronting me and I’ve come to hate you….. I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing, My freedom isn’t the right one … The air tonight is heavy as the sum of human sorrows” (73).
Though heavy, the air is not so heavy that Caligula cannot pick up the stool and hurl it with all his strength at the mirror image which from the beginning has overgrown itself. Watching his reflected self disappear into shattered fragments Caligula shouts: “To history Caligula. Go down to history” (74). Caligula goes down into history for each and every one of us who, when we look at ourselves in mirrors, overlook ourselves. In each look of ours at the everyday mirrors that permeate our modern world, Caligula-Caius appears. In this sense, Caligula can claim to still live at the moment of death. We are challeged by the simple truth from which he derived the wrong conclusions.
Nietzsche too knew of this rebirth to which he alluded at the beginning of Book IV of The Gay Science. After a destructive period, Nietzsche wins for himself the miracle of Sanctus Januarius, whose blood, once a year, becomes liquid again:
With a flaming spear you crushed
All its ice until my soul
Roaring toward the ocean rushed
Of its highest hope and goal.
Even healthier it swells,
Lovingly compelled but free:
Thus it lauds your miracles
Fairest month of January! (TGC, IV)
Camus knew himself of such new beginnings.
SECTION III. ABSURD DESIRE AND ART
When we moderns try to reflect on nature, we do not see ourselves reflected through it. For us, nature has ceased to be a source we can mirror for it manifests itself as the other which confronts us with its overwhelming force and its silencing indifference. Nature is no home for us:
“in a universe suddenly divested of illusion and light, a man feels alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home, or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting is properly the feeling of the absurd (MoS, 6)
The universe has been rid of all its masks, there are no illusions left. And without illusions, no magic. Moreover, without light, the playful interplay of mirrors is destroyed. The home we once inhabited no longer is, and the one we longed to make our permanent habitat no longer will be, it never really was. Looking back one sees not cities but only ruins; looking forward, simply a void, not the divine city in which we thought our long pilgrimage would finally come to an end.
The most familiar, the beloved face itself becomes faceless: “there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago” (14). The beloved stands unattached; living, but for all intent and purposes, dead-like. To corporeal intermingling there follows a separation and an endless longing. But not only personal beauty erodes, the beauty of the world too lies ravaged. Undressed, behind its illusory meaningful garments, there lies nothing but corroding hostility:
“at the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outlines of the trees at this moment loose their illusory meaning … the primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia (14) (*18)
The colorful and meaningful mirror upon which we once saw ourselves reflected, lies now shattered into fragments (18). And with its infinite fragmentation, we ourselves become like nucleus-free electrons. Our-’selves’ are “nothing but water slipping through (our) fingers” (19). Nature’s silent indifference and incomprehensible violence is met, or better, never met, by our inability to hear and articulate.
Setting a date to which neither party cares to attend; something like this is the absurd. It “lies in neither of the elements compared (but) … is born in their confrontation” (30). But a confrontation requires an intermediate space, that space in which duels take place. It is a space of silence and darkness where we see, now, not simply God’s death, but our own mortality in a godless, and many times gutless, marine environment: “the idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has meaning, all that is given the great lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death” (57).
Caligula, for example, could never have proclaimed this ‘I am’. The confrontation between Caligula and Caius is born within the space lying between them. This space is precisely the “no man’s land” which separates Marie and Meursault in her only visit to the condemned stranger (S, 76). It is also that horrifying space that opens up in the mirror-like confrontation between Maria and Martha at the end of The Misunderstanding. (Maria and Martha, Spanish names whose three first letter match each other in perfect symmetry; three letters which, furthermore, in Spanish mean nothing other than ‘sea’. The sea in which alone we can see ourselves.)
Now, exile would truly be ‘without remedy’ if this intermediate space between us and the world, us and others, and us and ourselves, were totally devoid of any life forms whatever. But to our astonishment life seems capable of flourishing even in such arid territories. This is why we should take Camus literally when he says; the absurd is “born out of (a) confrontation”. The absurd is a kind of birth, it is not simply an aborted fetus. It is this dimly felt light, above anything else, which makes it meaningful to seek intercommunicative channels between those confronted. Without the presence of any links whatsoever, confrontation itself would become incomprehensible; for how to confront that from which one is completely detached? If confrontation were solely a matter of monologues, then surely there would follow the most monstruous of characters, a Caligula without any mirror to break, a lonely emperor without the possibility of redemption.
What Caligula did not see, or feigned he did not see —– or distorted when he in fact did see it —— is something to which Don Juan, in the The Myth of Sisyphus, dedicates his entire life. Don Juan lives for desire’s living. The lover is truly the most absurd human for “the more one loves the stronger the absurd grows” (69) If the absurd human’s ideal is “the present and a succession of presents” (60), then Don Juan ——and all Doña Juanas (*19)——- are more than any other human, the caretakers of this ever-present way of living. Their banner, that is, that for which they would, if they had to, give their lives, is that of the instant where they, others and the world come to be in the presence of each other. For them life is bodily vitality felt, here and now, at its highest energetic level: “life gratifies his (her) every wish and nothing is worse than loosing it. This mad(human) is a great wise (human)” (72) (*20). Living life’s every second has made this topsy-turvy human ——- a different species of mad human than the one we found in Nietzsche ——– aware of the stakes involved in life’s loss.
Loving passionately paves the way to transforming the space between the confronted parties. Don Juan’s love is the love of a human, and such love is capable of transformation. Yet, ironically, the transfiguration that ensues from his activity is one in which both “nothing is changed and eveything …… tranfigured” (72). Through his/her figure-giving love, the lover’s commanding figure rises, not as a stone sculpture that condemns, but rather as a thread-thin bridge which resonates to a world with a new, more humane figure (*21). In all this, the passionate lover is very much like a cicada, those platonic figures which “enter the ‘now’ of their desire and stay there”; little fragile animals who “have no life apart from their desire, and, when it ends, so do they” (Carson EBS, 139). (*22) Nevertheless, unlike cicadas, Don Juan and Doña Juana are human beings. Desire for them is a bridge to dwell upon, not an immediacy out of which no confrontation can be born. The lover, unlike the cicada, loves humanely, that is to say as a another Don does, Don Quijote.
Don Juan and Doña Juana know Caligula’s simple truth: they will die and they, like all of us, are not happy. But although Don Juan awaits “the end face to face with a God that he does not adore” (76), his interest lies not in a divine mirror from which are born rays of grace. Death he is faintly conscious of, but he does not desire to be conscious simply of its inevitable presence. He loves living all the more so, for he knows, but cares not to pay too much attention to this, that in the end love really ends. There he stands “the ultimate end awaited, but never desired, the ultimate end is negligible” (72). Don Juan and Meursault are vey much alike. The former’s attitude towards death, is that of Meursault to, among many other things, God. To the priests’ words he responds, thinking through: “though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me. And the question he had raised didn’t interest me …… I hadn’t time to work up interest for something that didn’t interest me” (S, 114). In the same way Don Juan is not so much interested in death for what interests one is that which one spends time doing; Don Juan does not spend much time dying. (*23)
This is why he prefers to turn his loving aging face elsewhere. From the solitary monastery cell which has become his home, he turns to the light shining “through a silent narrow slit in the sun-baked wall, some silent Spanish plain, a noble, soulless land in which he recognizes himself” (76). Ennobled, nature rises temporarily, all too briefly re-’covered’, that is to say, covered anew, by the warmth of a being sold out to the pre-articulate desiring impulse which flows out of his body regained. Don Juan, unlike Caligula, is not covered by mud.
Don Juan and Doña Juana await death, perhaps even together, and death will come to each in their loneliness. But the air he/she breathes is one which does not weigh over and suffocate him/her like it did Caligula. His/ her air is of a much purer variety. It is that air which Camus himself allows us to breathe through our reading of his desire pregnant lyrical works. Breathing as Don Juan does, is recovering a new atmospheric confrontation which nevertheless cannot but remind one of one’s unavoidable exile:
“being pure is recovering that spiritual home where one can feel the world’s relationship, where one’s pulse beat coincides with the violent throbbing of the 2 o’clock sun. It is well known that one’s native land is always recognized at the moment of loosing it. For those who are too uneasy of themselves their native land is the one that negates them” (SA, 152)
Our spiritual home as moderns can only stem from the realization of our inevitable homelessness.
Caius surely recognized love’s abode by loosing Drusilla. Besides he mistakenly longed for a homeland, or better an over-land, which is impossible for any human to achieve. Martha too longed for a new realm of meaning, but unlike Caligula’s, it was earthbound. Nevertheless, like the emperor’s, it too travelled the reddish path of murder. Both Caligula and Martha longing as they do, become terribly uneasy. But somehow we sense that Don Juan is really the uneasy character par excellence; made uneasy out of the fragile bondage to life he so much cherishes.
In being uneasy we are not that different from Caligula, Martha and Don Juan. In what sense? Well in the sense that we too know of the longing for both a native land and a beloved face. This encounter if ever it is to happen for us becomes not a given, but rather a creative task. But even if all three characters share this with us, it is in Don Juan where uneasiness finds itself a home; his courage lies in living uneasily till the end do him apart. It is in him, as in no one else, that what Camus tells us occurs: the “pulse beats” of his desiring blood coincide with the “violent throbbing of the 2 o’clock sun”. A human being and nature stand confronted, but at the same time erotically intertwined as peculiar kinds of energetically charged mirror images. (*22) Don Juan’s selfishness lies in his love of this newly won mirror which reflects much more than he himself is, or can, see. Caligula, in contrast, must break the desert-like mirror in which he alone stands facing his red stained image.
But surely there is one thing Don Juan knew nothing of, this is creative writing. What would or could he have written about? (*24) He cannot even look at portraits —— yet another kind of mirror of which Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a beautiful portrait —– much less articulate what he would have seen in them. But Camus did write, his passion to articulate moves him much more towards towards a Don Juan, Conqueror of himself. (*25). In this sense, something like what Don Juan’s pulse beats felt looking enamouredly at the Spanish plain, is what Camus allows us briefly and secretly to read in his return to Tipasa. For Don Juan to return is a joke. “Return! To what?”, he would ask.
Camus’ permanent and healthy uneasiness is that which permeates his every written word. Camus is a lover of lively portraits which spring from the light of his pen. Returning to Tipasa he allows us a return. Although in some sense it is his return, he allows us all to share in its beauty. Together we return to the ruins of our youth. Camus re-walks paths once traveled. But traveling anew is not simply a childish nostalgia for what, somewhat disoriented, Camus knows has been inevitably lost:
“disoriented, walking through the solitary countryside I tried at least to recapture that strength …. that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted I cannot change it” (RT, 196).
To return is to recapture desiring strength. Part of strentgh comes from purer air, part from purer drink. Through liquid words Camus reaches outside Don Juan’s monastic cell. He traverses that land he once inhabited. A landscape which once again gives him some refreshing water to quench, his two main thirsts:
“I satisfied the two thirsts one cannot reject without drying up — I mean loving and admiring. For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; but there is misfortune in not loving” (RT, 201)
The lovers of suicide and murder find their thirst quenched in the thickness of blood. They onle vary as to the source. But blood coagulates outside its body bound atmosphere. It does not refresh, and this is why Sanctus Januarius’ miracle strikes us as miraculous. Looking back at the quoted passage one is lead to realize: unlike this bloody saint, Caligula has known misfortune, Martha only bad luck.
Camus’ thirst for loving and admiring he met in a world he retraced; a world which allows us to bathe our naked, mud-covered bodies, again. A world of words and live figures which recovers the warmth of a fragile candlelight:
(I) discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in himself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice and return to combat having won that light. Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky and measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me.. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing. I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new constructions … there the world began over again everyday in an ever new light. O light! This is the cry of all characters of ancient drama brought face to dace with their fate. This last resort was ours too, and I knew it know. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer” (RT, 201-2)
In Tipasa Camus, face to face with the ruins and beauty of his past, resembles the condemned heroes of Greek tragedy standing facing fate’s decisions. And in these two face to face encounters —-separated by thousands of years ——- again springs that intermediate space, a void, which has recurrently returned to us. It is the unbridgeable space which separates us from ourselves, from others and from nature. But in that space there springs life out of a light never lost; a light that traverses the youthful ruins in a country to us unknown: “I had always known hat the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our constructions … there the world began over again everyday in an ever new light”. Camus is born to life like Meursault, but unlike him he does not need to be sentenced to death to do so. Sentenced to death officially, that is.
This light which allegedly gave Camus invincibility, this light is not that of divinity. It is not a never ending, shadow-free light. It is not the light that numbed Meursault. Not at all. Camus’ return knows instead of candlelight ephemerality. The return is not simply a longing for a golden lit age which would utterly blind us, if we in fact could ever reach it. The return is to ever fading, mortal bound ruins, the only homeland we moderns can know if we take the death of God seriously. In the ephemeral nature of ruins, Camus finds the most beautiful mirror for our fragile nature as desiring and mortal creatures (*26). Ruins are dead memories of fought for constructions, constructions made possible by proud and dignity deserving human beings (*27). Besides, the actual ruins stand only as a physical human reminder of the natural ruins which are summer and winter to each other. In its among the ruins of winter and its, apparently, lifeless landscapes, that Camus actually finds, facing himself in his ruins, a light so powerful and yet so weak, that it can even melt ice.
In the middle of winter Camus finds in himself an invincible summer. Winter and summer stand as the seasonal correlates, of the more recurrent confrontation between night and day. This is why Camus returns to find not the revival of a divinely everlasting light, but rather that light which is born when the day comes to an end and prepares itself to enter the night. Or to put it another way, Camus finds himself facing those Algerian evenings of which he asks that figure reflected in the mirror which are his books: “what exceptional quality do the fugitive Algerian evenings possess to be able to release so many things in me?” (SA, 146). Fugitive, lawless, evenings re-’lease’ Camus from a certain kind of imprisonment. Evenings give him a new lease on life. Why evenings? Why not sunrises? Aren’t they equally as beautiful? Caligula loved the absence of light; sunlight truly hurt Meursault; Camus enlightened both shadowy figures for us. Only evenings make us long for a return.
Evenings bring, in an instant, the divorce of night and day to a momentary togetherness. In those instants Merusault’s sun, fading, reaches the cool waters of the sea; but almost instantaneously, Caligula’s sunlit moon rises to allow us to see the emerging beauty of the night. And between them, in their confrontation, there is born the presence of an intemediary; “the old mossy god that nothing will never shake, a refuge, and a harbor for its sons, of whom I am one” (RT 200). Scipio’s sky, rippling with light, traverses the land bound ruins of Tipasa; that which remains of them is reflected unto the salty waters which in an mysterious instant fill the entire horizon, (and even Caligula’s weeping eyes):
“the evening is inhabited. It is still light, to tell the truth, but in this light an almost invincible fading announces the day’s end. A wind rises, young like this night, and suddenly the waveless sea chooses a direction and a flow like a barren river from one end of the horizon to another. The sky darkens” (RT, 203)
The space between one end of the horizon, and the other, is flooded; and we marine moderns can inhabit it momentarily by swimming away as Meursault and Marie did; that is, like strangers in love. (*28)
This Tipasian evening, this nihilistic event, is one of which Camus goes on to say, “begins the mystery, the gods of night, the beyond pleasure”. But knowing that we are bound to be lost in the language Camus uses, he tries to translate this natural event into something more familiar to us who are so unused to looking at evenings. The translation into human terms is peculiar, it involves a two-sided coin:
But how to translate this? The little coin I’m carrying away from here has a visible surface, a woman’s beautiful face which repeats to me all I have learned in this day, and a worn surface which I feel under my fingers during the return. What can that lipless mouth be saying, except what I am told by another mysterious voice, within me (*29) which everyday informs me of my ignorance and my happiness? (RT, 203-4)
The mysterious pleasurable dance of gods is mirrored unto a worthless coin which Camus carries away from Tipasa. A coin is much like a two sided mirror. But unlike the possible contact of two figures approaching themselves in a mirror; in a coin those two who constitute it stand forever apart, yet at the same time, welded by channels they feel intensely, yet cannot comprehend.
If for passive nihilism tossing the coin involved two possibilities, heads meant suicide and tails murder, Camus’ active nihilism involves two radically different ones. On the one hand, beauty emerges in all its visibility. It is the beauty of a woman, it is Drusilla born again, Marie meeting Meursault, Maria meeting Jan. But Drusilla is dead, Meursault and Jan too; beauty’s mouth must remain lipless. Yet beauty finds a translator who has word-loving fingers as lips. And this is why, what beauty silently says, remains nothing other than what another mysterious voice within Camus informs; informs, that is to say, gives form. What is informed are the limits of all possible forms; the inner limit being ignorance, the outer happiness.
But a coin has two faces and only one seems to have been brought to light. This is so because, just as the moon has too its permanent dark side, so beauty must have a worn backside to which it cannot turn its back on. The tail end of the coin is one that Camus’ fingers feel worn out, tired, exhausted. It is a deserted land of lifeless cries:
“I should like, indeed, to shirk nothing ad to keep faithfully a double memory. Yes there is beauty and the care of the humiliated. Whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like never to be unfaithful either to one of the others” (RT, 203)
To each lucky coin there lies an unlucky face. But the tossing of the Camusian coin involves a more dignified outcome than that which accumulates endlessly in the coins amassed by some passive nihilists. This everyday coin, which enriches our life like no other, is the coin of art with its mirror-like duality: “negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way of the absurd creator, he must give the void its colors” (MoS, 114)
Perhaps know, I hope, we can come a little bit closer to understanding what Camus could have meant by remarking that “creation is the great mime”. But even if this is not so, at least, his creation will certainly allows us, not only never again to overlook ourselves when looking at mirrors, but also to see and hear the absurd confrontation between a beauty which certain evenings give and the painful endless cry which emerges humiliated out of voiceless mouths.
A) Primary Sources
Camus, Albert Caligula and three other plays, Vintage Books, New York, 1958. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. (Abbreviations: Caligula: C)
———The Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage International Books, New York, 1955 (1991), Translated by Justin O-Brien. (Abbreviations: MoS, Summer in Algiers: SA, Return to Tipasa: RT)
——– The Outsider, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1961 (1980). Translated by Stuart Gilbert. (Abb: S)
——–The Rebel, Vintage International Books, 1956 (1991) Translated by Anthony Bower. (Abb: R)
B) Secondary Sources
Baudelaire, Selected Poems, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1975 (1984). Translated by Joana Richardson.
Carson, Anne, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, Vintage Books, New York, 1974. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.
——–Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in “The Portable Nietzsche”, The Viking Press, New York, 1968. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.
———Will to Power, Vintage Books, New York, 1968. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.
———Fragmentos Postumos, Editorial Norma, Bogotá, 1992. Translated by Germán Meléndez Acuña.
Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984.