The Absurd Death of Albert Camus

What is the role of the literary intellectual in the defence of humanity against forces of oppression? This was the question that influential French-Algerian philosopher and author, Albert Camus, sought to answer through his life and art, up until his untimely and tragic death in 1960.

After becoming the second youngest Nobel Prize laureate for his “illuminat[ion of] the problems of the human conscience,”[i] the 46-year-old purchased a home in Lourmarin, Provence, because it reminded him of his birthplace, Algeria.

Fig 2: The January 4th 1960 car crash.

Three years later, Camus found himself in the passenger seat of a Facel Vega belonging to his friend and publisher’s nephew, Michel Gallimard. The writer had initially intended to return to Paris by train with his family, after vacationing at his home in Lourmarin. He was being driven by Gallimard, and the pair were accompanied by Gallimard’s wife and daughter. Suddenly, when the party was only 105 km away from their destination, Gallimard lost control of the sports car. The Facel Vega veered into a tree and ricocheted against another, “folding up like an accordion.”[i] A sunny and seemingly innocuous afternoon in the small town of Villeblevin had quickly become the scene of a deadly crash. Camus was killed instantly, and the return half of a train ticket was found unused in his pocket.[ii]

THEORIES ABOUT THE CRASH:

Although experts were not able to figure out how the accident occurred, the fatal crash had been generally regarded as an ordinary accident. However, in a 2011 article for Corriere Della Sera, an Italian poet and academic, Giovanni Catelli, aired his theory that an external, sinister force has been at work: the KGB. Catelli’s claim relied mainly on something peculiar he had noticed in the diary of Jan Zábrana. Quoting an anonymous source, Zábrana purportedly wrote:

“I heard something very strange from a knowledgeable and well-connected man. He says the car crash that cost Camus his life in 1960 was set up by Soviet intelligence. They rigged the tyre with a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at high speed. The order was issued by the minister of internal affairs Šepilov himself as payback for the article published in Franc-Tireur in March 1957 in which Camus commented on the events in Hungary, explicitly attacking the minister.”

This form of media is far from an official document, and many remain skeptical, rejecting this assassination theory. Given the spontaneity of Camus’s decision to ride in the Facel Vega, it is highly “unlikely”[i] that Cavelli’s alleged conspirators could have been able to concoct a calculated murder plan.

Fig 3: Visualization of the Facel Vega loosing traction by Thierry Dubois

THE ‘ABSURD’:

In any case, Camus’s end was tragically ironic – the philosopher who dedicated his life to understanding the ‘Absurd’ and the meaninglessness of the universe, had died for seemingly no reason travelling back from a family vacation in a place that was meaningful to him. The misadventure magnified perfectly the “absurdity of our most fundamental needs.”[i] Indeed, Camus is even reported to have said that “to die in a car crash” was the pinnacle of absurd.[ii]

Fig 5 : Front page of Combat (January 5, 1960): the death of Albert Camus hits the news

After his harrowing experiences of the horror in France during and after WWII, Camus exemplified the ‘Absurd’ in his works as the lack of intrinsic meaning in our universe[i] that can only be coped with if we are able to awaken our consciousness to the “tender indifference of the world.”[ii] Underlying this conception, he argues, is the recognition that, although the Absurd can never be overcome,[iii] a meaningful existence can arise from the perpetual rebellion:

“We are dealing with a perpetual demand for unity…. The rebel does not ask for life, but for reasons for living.”[iv]

For Camus, man would never solve the problem of their Absurd condition, but the ability to create value from the quest for the “consciously realized unattainable”[v] might allow him to transcend it.

What is particularly intriguing about Cavelli’s conception of Camus’s death, is the theory’s dissonance with the realization of Absurdity – the very concept the philosopher dedicated his life to. In trying to find meaning behind his death, believers of this theory display a certain rejection of the Absurd and fail to accept in full the irrationality of the universe. It seems some people are still deeply afraid – if Camus were right about Absurdity, then perhaps all the perceived meaning in their lives would fade into oblivion, and this is certainly a difficult reality to accept.

In a heartfelt tribute to Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in The Reporter:

“For all those that loved him, there is an unbearable absurdity in that death. But we shall have to learn to see that mutilated work as total work. Insofar as Camus’s humanism contains a human attitude toward death that was to take him by surprise, insofar as his proud and pure quest for happiness implied and called for the inhuman necessity of dying, we shall recognize in that work and in life that is inseparable from it the pure and victorious attempt of one man to snatch every instant of his existence from his future death.”

Sartre here endorses Camus’s radically earthbound[vi] perspective and “fierce individualism and principle”[vii] as an impressive existential victory. Camus’s life was truly noteworthy, not for the false reason that his strong command of rhetoric lasts through his work, but for his tireless efforts to enhance la conscience of men in the face of the Absurd. For Camus, artistic creation was invaluable, not because it is lasting, but for its intensification and preservation of consciousness:

“In this universe, the work [of art] is then the unique occasion of maintaining [man’s] consciousness and of fixing its adventures. To create is to live twice.”[viii]

A Happy Death, Albert Camus

Albert Camus should be regarded as someone whose art and lived experience of the problems in his lifetime can serve us as a timeless example of peculiarly lucid thoughtfulness of the intensity of the times. The philosopher devoted his life to his work, and his intimate preoccupation with the absurdity of life is a unique instance of a distinctively authentic approach to being an intellectual.

“One must believe Sisyphus is happy.”[I]


[i] The Nobel Prize in Literature 1957. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. [Accessed 5 Nov 2022] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1957/summary

[ii] Catelli, G. (2011) ‘Camus must die’, Corriere della Sera, p 32.https://www.nutrimenti.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Camus-deve-morire-traduzione-inglese-1-Aggiornata.pdf.

[i] Bracken, H. (6 Sept. 2019) ‘How did Albert Camus die?’ Encyclopedia Brittannica. https://www.britannica.com/story/how-did-albert-camus-die.

[i] ibid.

[i] Sartre, J. (1962) ‘Tribute to Albert Camus’. Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays. http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/philosophy/existentialism/camus/sartre-tribute.html#:~:text=Rarely%20have%20the%20nature%20of,of%20our%20most%20fundamental%20needs.

[ii] Marlowe, L. (4 Nov. 2013) ‘How absurd: the world as Albert Camus saw it’ The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/how-absurd-the-world-as-albert-camus-saw-it-1.1581045.

[i] Dotterweich, J. (11 Mar. 2019) ‘An Argument for the Absurd’. Live Ideas Primary Texts Journal. https://liveideasjournal.com/2019/03/11/an-argument-for-the-absurd/.

[ii] Camus, A. and Ward, M. (1989) The Stranger. 1st ed. New York: Vintage International

[iii] Goodwin, G. A. (Mar. 1971) ‘On Transcending the Absurd: An Inquiry in the Sociology of Meaning’. American Journal of Sociology, 76(5), p. 837. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2776537.pdf?refreqid=fastly-default%3A48d998fbf5a5dc6c3436b7454523362d&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_phrase_search%2Fcontrol&origin=search-results.

[iv] Camus, A. and Ward, M. (1989) The Stranger.

[v] Goodwin, p. 845. 

[vi] Willhoite, F. H. (Jun. 1961) ‘Albert Camus’ Politics of Rebellion’. The Western Political Quarterly, 14(2), p. 401. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/443596.pdf?refreqid=fastly-default%3A48d998fbf5a5dc6c3436b7454523362d&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_phrase_search%2Fcontrol&origin=search-results.

[vii] Jones, J. (30 Dec. 2015) ‘Sartre Writes a Tribute to Camus After His Friend-Turned-Rival Dies in a Tragic Car Crash: “There Is an Unbearable Absurdity in His Death”’. Open Culture: Philosophy. https://www.openculture.com/2015/12/jean-paul-sartre-writes-a-poignant-tribute-to-albert-camus.html.

[viii] Camus, A. and O’Brien J. (2000) The Myth of Sisyphus. Penguin Classics.

[i] Ibid.

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