“I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable.” Albert Camus, the Nobel prize-winning French Algerian author suffered from poverty and ill-health when young. He attended Université d’Algers by earning school fees over different jobs, but was forced to leave school due to severe attacks of tuberculosis.
Camus is known to often write in a distant tone in works that explore absurdism, a term and notion coined by the author himself, stating that life has no inherent meaning and any attempt to look for rational meaning in life ensures failure and is thus absurd. The lack of metaphysical meaning in life should not lead one into despair. However, Camus is still widely regarded as a humanist. He believes in human dignity in an indifferent world. The Sea Close By perhaps shows the humanist side of Camus.
The Sea Close By is a distinct prose among Camus’s works. Departing from the distant tone, The Sea Close By, published in 1954, six years before his death, presents Camus as a sensual observer of the sea and landscapes while voyaging around the New World. As an extended metaphor, it is Camus’s and the reader’s summery day-dream.
Few can duplicate the lyrical description in creating a dreamy recollection of sailing experience as Camus does. “The moment we leave harbour, a short, gusty wind vigorously brushes the sea which curls backwards in small, foamless waves.” We begin our journey with Camus. We can almost see the sea waves as how they are in Camus’s expansive yet concentrated language – “… a bitter, unctuous foam, the God’s saliva, flows along the wood and loses itself in the water where it scatters into shapes that die and are reborn, the hide of a while and blue cow, and exhausted beast which drifts a long way behind our wake.“
Intertwining with the account of the sailing adventures, Camus writes about his meditation on various issues in the splendid language of the sea.
There are times when the world gets ugly. There are times when the boundaries turn murky. “On that day I recognised the world for what it was, I consented that its good should also do evil and its drawback carry benefits. On that day I realised there were two truths, of which one must never be told.“ Embrace. “Rivers and streams pass by, the sea passes and remains. This is how we must love it, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.“
There are also times where you conform to the societal norms. “Men see me walk by in fine and learned streets, I admire landscapes, applaud like everyone else, shake hands, but it is not me speaking.” Through conforming you hope to establish linkage with the society, and yet sometimes such conformity further distances you from the crowd. “Since then, I have been waiting. I wait for the homebound ships, the house of the waters, the limpidity of the day. I wait patiently, am polite with all my strength. … Men praise me, I dream a little, they insult me, I scarcely show surprise. Then I forget, and smile at the man who insulted me, or am too courteous in greeting the person I love.” You still feel lonely because conformity does not bring genuine spiritual connection. “What can I do if all I can remember is one image?”
You start to doubt your solitude. “There is no country for those who despair, but I know that the sea comes before and after me, and hold my madness ready. Those who love and are separated can live in grief, but this is not despair: they know that love exists. This is why I suffer, dry-eyed, in exile.“
Nevertheless, stay hopeful, as one day, our voice within will be caught by another wanderer. “Each cry we utter is lost, flies off into limitless space. But this cry, carried day after day on the winds, will finally reach land at one of the flattened ends of the earth and echo timelessly against the frozen walls until a man, lost somewhere in his shell of snow, hears it and consents to smile with happiness.”
There are also times when death is near. “No commands, the machines are silent. Why indeed should we carry on and why should we return? Our cup runneth over, and a mute, invincible madness rocks us to sleep. A day comes like this which draws everything to a close; we must then let ourselves sink, like those who swim until exhausted. What do we accomplish? For ever, I have held it secret from myself. O bitter bed, princely couch, the crown lies at the bottom of the seas.“
And yet to Camus, the sea is the salvation. Death at the sea brings salvation to soul. Death at the sea, means happiness. “If I were to die, in the midst of cold mountains, unknown to the world, cast off by my own people, my strength at last exhausted, the sea would at the final moment flood into my cell, come to raise me above myself and help me die without hatred.“
Perhaps we are all yearning to be understood or be able to understand.
“A sudden love, a great work, a decisive act, a thought which transfigures, all these at certain moments bring the same unbearable anxiety, linked with an irresistible charm. Is living like this in the delicious anguish of being, in exquisite proximity to a danger whose name who do not know the same as rushing to our doom? Once again, without respite, let us go.”
(Very few know that I worship this prose by Albert Camus fervently – it is my spiritual pillar and source of comfort in times of hardships. By reading his words over and over, I seek refuge and regain inner peace of mind. I remember picking up the book because it is thin in size and costs very little. Sometimes it is funny how random decisions make a change in life. And it is a good change.)
Lastly, please enjoy the indulging clip by Tom Beard with Clara Page reading the first part Logbook of the prose. I often play it as I read the prose.