Rending Moments of Material Ecstasy in the Meditative Essays of Two Nobel Laureates: Le Clezio and Camus
Moser, Keith, Romance Notes
Given the vast and diverse nature of Le Clezio's ever-developing literary repertoire, categorizing the 2008 Nobel Prize recipient poses a veritable challenge to the literary community. In the beginning of the author's prolific career, critics often classified Le Clezio as an "existentialist" or a member of the so-called Nouveau Roman movement. However, many literary experts and lay readers alike clearly recognized the problematic nature of these labels. When the author's work began to evolve drastically opening into new dimensions at the end of the 1970's, these aforementioned literary categories became completely inaccurate and insufficient. The latest honor bestowed upon Le Clezio, who follows in a celebrated tradition of other French writers such as Gide, Camus, Simon, and Sartre once again beckons the entire academic community to delineate the author's position in the French literary canon for generations to come.
The purpose of this study is to explore a common thread that exists between J.M.G. Le Clezio and another Nobel Prize recipient, Albert Camus. Although the work of both writers is profoundly original, the same, enigmatic material ecstasy is present in their respective meditative essays. This exploration will probe the complexities and nuances of these euphoric moments in Le Clezio's L'Extase Materielle and Camus's collection of essays entitled Noces. Furthermore, critics such as Bruno Thibault have expressed the necessity of examining the relationship between Camus and Le Clezio. As Thibault affirms, "there may exist an influence, seldom studied before now, of Camus upon Le Clezio" (vi). Therefore, this investigation also seeks to enrich the plethora of critical studies dedicated to Le Clezio and to contribute to an area in which research has been scant.
In both Le Clezio's and Camus's narratives, human beings as material organisms experience profound sensations of intoxication when exposed directly to the cosmic whole which represents the origin of all life forms. Affirming his desire to fuse with what he terms the serene abyss, the Le Clezian narrator emphatically declares, "je goute deja a l'ivresse de mon epanouissement en lui, sous forme de neige qui fond, d'evanescents parfums qui fuient et fouillent dans l'agglomerat des molecules [...] je viens a toi, je viens a toi" (66). The senses serve as a catalyst which renders these poignant moments of utter ecstasy possible. It is this direct form of communication with the cosmos that triggers and sustains these enigmatic moments of euphoria for the writer of L'Extase Materielle and Le Clezio's protagonists.
As he is strolling through the Tipasa countryside and its surrounding ruins, the Camusian narrator also attempts to commune with the sublime. In reference to the mysterious instants of rending jubilation induced by poignant sensorial contacts, the author asserts, "J'avais au cLur une joie etrange [...] l'incessante eclosion des vagues sur le sable me parvenait a travers tout un espace ou dansait un pollen dore. Mer, campagne, silence, parfums de cette terre, je m'emplissais d'une vie odorante et je mordais dans le fruit deja dore du monde, bouleverse de sentir son jus sacre et fort couler le long de mes levres" (20-21). The vivid description of the force of the powerful sensations associated with the grandeur of nature is clearly reminiscent to that of many lyrical passages in Le Clezio's later fiction. Moreover, although the Camusian narrator does not fully comprehend the enigmatic state of happiness that has permeated his entire being, it must be noted that he cannot deny its presence nor can he refute that the aforementioned primordial "perfume" is the origin of this euphoria.
In spite of the short duration of these ephemeral instants of sensory pleasure, these fleeting moments suggest a negation of the puritanical notion that the "flesh is weak." Both the Le Clezian and Camusian narrator unapologetically seek to take advantage of all that the universe has to offer by means of their senses without any sense of shame or remorse. Affirming this hedonistic zeal, the narrator of L'Extase Materielle ardently declares, "Je veux toucher tout ce qui peut etre touche. Gouter tout ce qui peut etre goute. Sentir tout ce qui sent. Voir, entendre, recevoir en moi par tous les orifices, toutes les ondes qui partent du monde et le font spectacle" (238). It is evident that the writer does not wish to temper his pleasure by self-imposing ideology designed to protect him from the perils of epicurean excess. Instead, the author valorizes sensory pursuits as a path to spirituality itself. Underscoring the essential nature of this quest, the narrator accentuates the importance of "Chercher au-dela des mots, chercher au-dela de l'intelligence. Chercher avec tous les sens grands ouverts, et avec les autres moyens inconnus, la voie de la communication avec la matiere" (185). The corporality of humanity is not something of which to be distrustful; it is indeed a saving grace which allows an ephemeral being to communicate with a divine entity. Moreover, by the process of integration into a cosmic whole, human beings are able to understand their small place in the universe as a specific form of matter that will one day reappear in another state of being.
Camus is even more direct than Le Clezio in his blatant critique of Christian ideology associated with the body. After expressing the necessity of "vivre ainsi pres des corps et par le corps," Camus shuns both his contemporary Andre Gide and the dogma of the Christian church in a footnote to "L'Ete a Alger" which states,
Puis-je me donner le ridicule de dire que je n'aime pas la facon dont Gide exalte le corps? Il lui demande de retenir son desir pour le rendre plus aigu [...] Le christianisme aussi veut suspendre le desir [...] Mon camarade Vincent [...] a une vue des choses encore plus claire. Il boit quand il a soif, s'il desire une femme cherche a coucher avec [...] Ensuite, il dit toujours 'Ca va mieux' -- ce qui resume avec vigueur l'apologie qu'on pourrait faire de la satiete (36-37).
Both Le Clezio and Camus deeply valorize life and the same insatiable joie de vivre, which encourages us to live all of our lives to their fullest, is omnipresent in their meditative essays. According to both authors, no ideology should ever be allowed to limit or diminish the human experience. Moreover, elaborate thought systems which seek to appropriate and compartmentalize human existence are equally unnecessary and counterproductive for both thinkers. As Camus eloquently affirms, "Il me suffit de vivre de tout mon corps et de temoigner de tout mon cLur" (18-19). For Le Clezio, an artist is also a witness who refuses to be blind to the marvels of the natural world that surround him. As the author muses, "Ecrire, si ca sert a quelque chose, ce doit etre a ca: a temoigner" (103).
Not only do Le Clezio and Camus remain staunchly unrepentant in their respective elegies to human corporality, but they also envision these instants of sheer, immeasurable intoxication as a remedy for the human condition itself. Although the existential anguish of Camusian protagonists such as Meursault is striking like that of early Le Clezian characters like Adam Pollo, Roch, and Beaumont, fleeting moments of euphoria counterpoint this extreme suffering and sometimes possess transcendental qualities that outlast the ecstasy of the moment. For both Le Clezio and Camus, existential trauma originates from the gratuitous nature of human existence and the inherent absurdity of the universe. Summarizing this existential crisis, Le Clezio muses, "La fatalite d'etre vivant, sur terre, sorti du neant, jete dans le chaos brutal et fanatique de l'existence" (36). This passage is quite reminiscent of Sartre's notion of the condemnation to exist. Mortal beings are born for no apparent reason by no choice of their own, and then they suffer greatly in a world void of any meaning en-soi only to die in turn. Both Le Clezio and Camus appear to have been influenced by Nietzsche's notion of the heavy burden of human existence. As Camus asserts in his essay entitled "Les Amandiers," "Ce monde est empoisonne de malheurs et semble s'y complaire. Il est tout entier livre a ce mal que Nietzsche appelait l'esprit de lourdeur" (114). For many Camusian and early Le Clezian protagonists, this weight is nearly impossible to bear and salvation appears beyond reach.
However, in spite of the suffering in the Le Clezian "serene abyss" and in Camus's absurd universe, transcendence is indeed possible perhaps impossible to avoid. Whereas salvation often takes the form of an afterlife in many religions, redemption from the poverty of the human condition is of earthly origin for both Le Clezio and Camus. Asserting this notion of terrestrial salvation, Camus states, "Le monde est beau, et hors de lui, point de salut" and "le salut est dans nos mains" (67; 123). Although the human quest and exigency for meaning outside of oneself and of this universe is futile, the world is so intensely sublime that various life forms have no need to justify their place in the cosmos. Life is only meaningful when people make the most of this beauty instead of speculating about the possible existence of something more grandiose. In a scathing critique of religious notions of an afterlife, Camus fervently declares, "Bien pauvres sont ceux qui ont besoin des mythes" (15). Camus directly challenges those who cling to comforting illusions offered by religious ideologies. The 1957 Nobel Prize laureate adds, "Sans doute, je ne me fais pas d'illusions [...] Car s'il y a un peche contre la vie, ce n'est peut-etre pas tant d'en desesperer que d'esperer une autre vie a l'implacable grandeur de celle-ci" (49). According to Camus's logic, only those who blind themselves to the omnipresent terrestrial sublime have the need to search for something more to rationalize their existence.
Le Clezio also contends that redemption can only be found on this earth. In L'Extase Materielle, he affirms, "Les remedes, on les trouve peut-etre en soi. Alors, il faut s'humilier. Il faut renoncer a comprendre, il faut se faire tout petit devant ce qui existe [.] Renoncer a la lucidite ? Non, plus que cela, renoncer a l'intelligence [...] Enfonce dans son propre gouffre [...] l'homme peut trouver cette paix humble, cet effacement vertueux" (69). Like Camus, Le Clezio is distrustful of thought systems that claim to be able to provide definitive answers for all of the enigmas that surround us. For Le Clezio, the only remedy for the human condition is losing oneself or melting into the cosmic abyss. The result of such a fusion is the mysterious material ecstasy that pervades the Le Clezian protagonist in these intense moments of sensory disruption.
Similar to Camus, Le Clezio also reproaches those who embrace illusory products of the imagination. In a contention reminiscent of Camus, Le Clezio poses the following question, "Puisque les paradis sont inutiles, puisqu'il n'y a rien a esperer hors du monde, pourquoi chercher dans l'abstrait? Moi, ce qu'il me faut, c'est l'immense environnement de la vie, tant que je suis vivant" (144). According to Le Clezio, all that an existent needs is simply to exist. Abstract ideology has nothing to offer to humanity; it is perhaps even a dangerous myopic distraction that prevents one from understanding oneself, discovering true happiness, and finding one's place in the universe. Moreover, Le Clezio places no confidence in any type of ideology, theistic or otherwise, that claims to be able to pierce the mysteries of the cosmos. All such systems are simplistic, naive, and arrogant if they profess that they possess definitive, infallible answers for life's greatest questions. Referring to such attempts to possess that which cannot be appropriated, Le Clezio explains, "Nous dressons les remparts de nos systemes, de nos belles phrases et de nos paradis imaginaires; nous habitons nos maisons d'illusion." (161). For both Le Clezio and Camus, the universe is not an intelligible entity which can be meticulously dissected to ascertain complete knowledge of the external world and to understand humanity's place in it. It is simply enough to be alive and to appreciate this gratuitous and precious gift to the greatest extent possible.
However, it must be noted that redemption in the form of an ecstatic union with an incomprehensible divine entity also embodies an existential paradox. An ephemeral being, which is void of any significance in and of itself, must resist the temptation to pine for an eternal life in its present form. Urging others to consider their own triviality in the grand scheme of life, Le Clezio asserts, "J'ai cet infini jouissable de l'instant present [.] J'ai la parcelle du tourbillon [.] en moi qui ne suis rien, qui ne suis qu'une poussiere" (139). Although all mortal beings must one day succumb to death, immortality is also paradoxically inescapable. Referring to this inevitable and ultimately indecipherable reality, Le Clezio affirms:
La vie, la mort sont des modalites sans importance, comme vegetal ou mineral. La vie et la mort sont des formes qu'adoptent la matiere, parmi tant d'autres [...] C'est ici que se trouve le plus grand espoir des hommes, vraisemblablement: c'est ici que peut commencer leur transfiguration, leur extase materielle: jamais rien ne disparaitra [...] il y aura, il y a toujours eu, il y a quelque chose. Mais c'est aussi le desespoir. La souffrance vaine de ce qu'on n'a pas connu, de ce qu'on ne connaitra jamais [...] Ce vertige de l'inexprimable, de l'insensible, ce vertige du monde terrible de la matiere [...] Ce monde ou le neant n'est pas possible (226-227).
Since energy is never really created nor destroyed according to the law of conservation of energy and the first law of thermodynamics, a complete death in which a living being would be completely effaced from the earth is not possible. This epiphany, triggered by sensorial contacts with other forms of matter, allows Le Clezian protagonists to transcend the apparent but misleading banality of their own existence and to communicate with the divine. Although the euphoria itself is transient, the inexplicable ecstasy can lead to realizations that drastically transform the subject and compel him or her to live otherwise.
In addition to the intoxicating feelings of happiness experienced during these fleeting instants of material elation, this jubilation can also sometimes be tempered with bittersweet sensations. The coexistence of this Le Clezian hope for salvation and the despair of an ephemeral being whose knowledge of the universe and of itself will always be fragmented also manifests itself in Camus's essays. Although Camus's lyrical descriptions of the grandeur of life and his carpe diem message clearly resonate in his meditative essays, the existential anguish never entirely seems to dissipate. Moreover, Camus appears to be more skeptical than Le Clezio when discussing notions of eternity. The Camusian narrator often ponders if any sort of escape from mortality is possible, in spite of the material ecstasy experienced by himself and his protagonists. In a display of frustration while surrounded by the immense beauty of the Tipasa landscape, Camus declares, "Ici meme, je sais que jamais je ne m'approcherai assez du monde" (15). The Camusian narrator recognizes the importance of a pantheistic fusion with the material universe that surrounds him, but he is unsure if a complete union is within reach.
Although human beings should attempt to reduce the distance that separates them from the enigmas of the universe to the greatest extent possible, a perfect communion does not appear to be possible in spite of the poignant instants of material euphoria in the Camusian repertoire. In his essay entitled "L'Enigme," Camus asserts, "il n'y a pas de materialisme absolu puisque pour former seulement ce mot il faut deja dire qu'il y a dans le monde quelque chose de plus que la matiere, de meme il n'y a pas de nihilisme total [...] Mais vivre, et par exemple se nourrir, est en soi un jugement de valeur" (148). Camus ultimately rejects extreme materialism for semantic reasons because he contends that the term itself implies the existence of something more grandiose than matter itself. However, more importantly, he insists that the very act of living itself projects meaning upon human existence. In essence, every human action creates some type of meaning and defines the lives of fleeting beings and those around them.
In addition to the aforementioned doubts concerning an ideal, materialistic union and the semantic concerns of the narrator of "L'Enigme," Camus also contemplates if anything will survive the impending mortality of an ephemeral organism. In an essay entitled "Le minotaure," Camus muses, "quelle tentation de s'identifier a ces pierres, de se confondre avec cet univers brulant et impassible qui defie l'histoire avec ses agitations! Cela est vain sans doute" (106). Although the Camusian narrator expresses the appeal of integrating oneself and disappearing into a sacred entity, he also recognizes the ultimate futility of such attempts. Not only are such endeavors perhaps hopeless, but they also will not save us from the dark shadow of mortality that looms over all of humanity. In "Le vent a Djemila," the narrator is confronted by "la certitude consciente d'une mort sans espoir" and "la certitude de mourir tout entier" (28-29). Whereas Le Clezio revels in the fact that nothing can ever truly disappear, Camus wonders if this appealing world view is simply another comforting illusion, albeit a compelling and fascinating one.
In conclusion, both Le Clezio and Camus highly valorize human existence and encourage all of humanity to seize the moment and to dwell in the ecstasy of the present. Both writers are also undeniably lyrical in their descriptions of the sublime aspects of life. Moreover, both thinkers reject fundamental Christian values which warn their followers to be suspicious of the flesh. Both Le Clezio and Camus laud human corporality and remind the reader that our senses allow us to communicate with the outside world and perhaps even with the sacred itself. Although the enigmatic moments of material ecstasy which are omnipresent in the works of both Nobel Prize recipients resist rational appropriation, they represent a possible transcendence of the human condition itself. According to Le Clezio and Camus, salvation is not merely possible, it is indeed unavoidable. However, whereas the narrator of L'Extase Materielle has already begun his "long voyage religieux qui ne se terminera sans doute jamais" at the end of the work, Camus is irresistibly drawn to the materialistic path of redemption yet remains uncertain if his flight is doomed to failure (313). Furthermore, it is imperative to realize that this study of the relationship between Le Clezio and Camus explores one specific phenomenon. Many additional critical analyses are needed to probe this rapport in a more systematic and exhaustive fashion. Such a comprehensive investigation would be a challenging but rewarding endeavor that would truly enrich French literary studies for generations to come.
MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY
Camus, Albert. Noces (suivi de l'Ete). Paris: Gallimard, 1959.
Le Clezio, J.M.G. L'Extase Materielle. Paris: Gallimard, 1967.
Thibault, Bruno. Foreword. In: Keith Moser. Privileged Moments in the Novels and Short Stories of J.M.G. Le Clezio: His Contemporary Development of a Traditional French Literary Device. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. i-vi.…
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Publication information: Article title: Rending Moments of Material Ecstasy in the Meditative Essays of Two Nobel Laureates: Le Clezio and Camus. Contributors: Moser, Keith - Author. Journal title: Romance Notes. Volume: 49. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2009. Page number: 13+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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