Albert Camus was a gifted writer, and though he approaches the edge of beauty, he fails to make the leap. In doing so, he condemns his stories, ironically, to the role of featureless individuals, accidents of energies.

Artistic vision, Flannery O’Connor insists, takes place in a space where, “The writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.”[1] Moral sense and dramatic sense imply reason. When a concept or idea is “senseless” it makes no sense because it lacks reason. For St. Thomas, art is “reason in the making,”[2] and the artist must employ reason in pursuit of beauty if they wish to avoid wandering around blindly in the hopes of stumbling onto it. Whatever the case, beauty should be the aim of all artists, “since the final transcendent end is beauty.”[3] If the writer’s moral sense is lacking or skewed, it necessarily follows that his art will be lacking or skewed as well. This is the case in Albert Camus’ story “The Guest,”[4] in which principle and honor are groundless and therefore absurd, which translates into an absence of reason and a lack of beauty.

The story takes place in French-occupied Algeria in the first half of the twentieth century. Daru, a schoolteacher in a remote mountain outpost, teaches children from the surrounding villages and distributes wheat to families due to reoccurring drought. However, as the story opens, a sudden snowstorm has prevented the children from attending school and Daru is quite alone, until Balducci, a gendarme, delivers to Daru an Arab prisoner. This sets in motion a series of events in which we will see Daru make a choice based solely upon his subjective sensibilities. In other words, he has self-isolated to such an extent that he lacks the wherewithal to appeal to anything higher than himself. Reason, for Daru, along with morality, is the providence of men, and each man is therefore an island. This falls in line with the radical individualism that existential writers often espouse.

The Arab, we learn, has been arrested for murdering a family member. Balducci’s task is to deliver the prisoner to Daru who will then escort him to Tinguit, twenty kilometers away, where he will be turned over to the police to be executed. There is revolt in the air and Balducci must return to his unit as soon as possible to help with the mobilization of the meagre troops. Daru insults the gendarme by insisting he will not take the Arab to be executed. Balducci informs Daru he is free to do as he pleases as long as he signs the paper that the prisoner has been delivered into his custody. Daru signs and Balducci bids farewell.

The next day Daru guides the Arab through the stark landscape where, “the plateaus burned to cinder month after month, the earth shriveled up little by little, literally scorched, every stone bursting into dust under one’s foot.” Soon enough, and with forethought, Daru stops, gives the Arab provisions, including money, and tells him he can either go to the police station or escape to the south. He grants the Arab the freedom to do as he wishes, just as Balducci had done for him.

With that Daru starts back for the school. In Daru’s mind, turning the Arab over to be executed is simply “contrary to honor.” As Daru eventually looks back a final time, he sees the Arab has opted to head toward the police station, presumably to turn himself in. Daru returns to the schoolhouse to find, “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this,” written on the chalkboard. He stares out the window over the deserted landscape. The final words of the story are, “…he was alone.”

All three men, Balducci, the Arab, and Daru are utterly alone. They make their decisions and must live with the consequences. There is no reason to it, for if one man’s reason trumps the next, ad nauseam, then there is no reason to be had. Reason grounded in subjectivism is madness; madness is an absence of reason, and it is the opposite of beauty. And yet Daru, it would seem, is our protagonist, though how there is a “hero” in a story where reason is subjective is puzzling. Are we to commend Daru for refusing to deliver the Arab over to the police, for setting him free? On what grounds? In that moment, does the story open to a glimpse or hint of beauty, something that transcends the moment? It does not. And this, from an ethical perspective, is where the story is flawed and, as such, fails in the artist’s task.

Jacques Maritain observed, “…in order for the artist to conform and conceive his work within himself in an infallible creative judgement, it is necessary that his subject dynamism, his will and appetite, straightly tend to beauty.”[5] Camus was a gifted writer. And, as will be shown, he approaches the edge of beauty, but fails to make the leap and, in doing so, condemns this story, ironically, to the role of a featureless individual, an accident of energies.

Throughout the story, Daru shows hints of his true character. He releases the Arab, although, “The man’s stupid crime revolted him,” because, “to hand him over was contrary to honor.” His aim is not justice but rather to feed his pride with a nebulous concept of honor by refusing to turn the Arab over to the authorities. But from where does this sense of honor come? Does it make sense, moral or dramatic? “Daru felt a sudden wrath against them all, against all men with their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust.” He lives in a place where, “Towns sprang up, flourished then disappeared; men came by, loved one another, fought bitterly, then died. No one in this desert, neither he nor his guest, mattered.” Daru lives in an ugly place, full of hate, that does not straightly tend to beauty. For how can there be honor in a place where nobody matters? It is an absurd notion, one that lacks sense of any kind. If Daru does not matter, his sense of honor is meaningless. Meaningless honor does not make sense.

Camus’ moral reasoning is skewed and, therefore, so is his story. And yet there is a kernel of hope. When the Arab stays overnight in the school before they set off to Tinguit in the morning, Daru has trouble falling asleep. He muses,

In this room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence [the Arab] bothered him. But it bothered him also by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances. Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue. But Daru shook himself; he didn’t like such musing, and it was essential to sleep.

To sleep, perchance to dream. But Daru, if not incapable of dreaming of higher principles, not powerless to opt for faith in something higher than himself, chooses isolation. The question is why? In the depth of the night he is offered the gift of brotherhood and with it a reason, perhaps, to set the Arab free, a reason that transcends himself and his personal honor, a beautiful reason in the making. The moment passes. Camus misses the opportunity to redeem Daru by having him take up the gift to carry out his task. If he had done so, the ominous ending of forthcoming revenge for nothing may not have been so absurd, so ugly. If he had been allowed to take up the gift along with the task, the final words may have well been, “but he was not alone.” Instead, Camus misses his task as a creative writer and sacrifices beauty for Daru’s pride. Because moral sense and dramatic sense fail to coincide in “The Guest,” Camus’ story lacks the artistic vision that straightly tends to beauty. Life is a drama that requires moral sense to be good.

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Endnotes:

[1] Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.

[2] O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”

[3] Jacques Maritain, “Art as Virtue of the Practical Intellect,” Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Bollingen Foundation, 1953).

[4] Albert Camus, “The Guest,” trans. by Justin O’Brien.

[5] Jacques Maritain, “Art as Virtue of the Practical Intellect.”

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photograph of Albert Camus, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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