Albert Camus photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The French journalist and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) enjoyed being naked in the sun, especially along isolated North African shorelines of the Mediterranean. Swimming—and skinny-dipping in particular—meant enough for him to reference it in at least three novels, multiple essays, and his notebooks. That said, he did not think much of the French naturists of his time. His ambiguity toward naturism is thus worth examining. Camus appreciated the sensuousness of direct full bodily contact with sunshine and the ocean, but did not overly romanticize nature in the process. He is in line philosophically with many (but not all) naturists at beaches today
Albert Camus is well-known to many high school and college students as the author of The Stranger (L’Etranger, 1942), in which an office worker views life to be ultimately absurd and void of any fixed meaning, ends up killing a man on a beach for what seems to be no good reason, and goes through the motion of a Kafkaesque trial in which he is found guilty more for failing to live up to society’s artificial moral standards than for killing a man. Outside of school, Camus may be better known these coronavirus days as the author of The Plague (La Peste, 1947), in which he tells the story of pestilence coming from nowhere for no reason to bring misery to Oman, a dingy Algerian port city. As with The Stranger, The Plague presents life as offering no ultimate answers, no transcendent reality, and no absolute or objective meaning. Life can have its moments of joy and contentment, but it’s an honest path and in our interest to realize that this is all there is, and that seeking what happiness (bonheur) we can attain is the best we can hope for.
Camus is not advocating a crass form of sensualism or ethical hedonism. He claims to have no reason to believe that there is anything to provide us with a fixed plan to guide our lives or serve as a rubric for proper or ideal behavior. He is in accord with his French existentialist and atheist peers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, on this point.1 What distinguishes Camus in this existentialist discussion is his emphasis on life as a struggle for personal meaning, and our response as a scornful revolt against and in the face of this objective meaninglessness.2 In his famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942), he develops this theme most clearly. At the end of the book, Camus tells the ancient Greek tale of Sisyphus being punished by the gods for some less-than-fully-explicable reason. They determined that the ultimate punishment would be to force him to ceaselessly toil in pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll down to the bottom, at which point he’d have to roll it back to the top, and so on forever. The futility of the task was intended to torment him far more than the physical labor.3 Camus urges us to understand that though we are indeed in a hollow existence, we can respond with a knowing and accepting smile, finding what joy we can, and not letting the bastard cosmos keep us down. The revolt—the struggle—“toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”4 Given that so often in his life and written work Camus revolts against life’s absurd emptiness by skinny-dipping or sunbathing, one might also imagine Sisyphus—and Camus—naked.
Camus grew up in a poor household in the Algerian seaside town of Algiers. His parents were pieds-noirs (“black-feet”), French citizens living in French-colonial Algeria, but his father died when Camus was one year old. The multicultural region was ruled by the French, with Arabs and Berbers under French control. Camus long favored giving more rights to native North Africans, but never quite wished to see France lose control of the region. In his novels, plays, and short stories, the Arabs are nearly always anonymous caricatures, with the French figures receiving names and developed personalities. When he describes the good times of his youth, it is usually in sun-filled environments, and most often at the beach with his French-Algerian buddies.
In his last and unfinished novel, The First Man (Le Premiere Homme, 1994), published long after his tragic death in an auto accident, Camus writes of a boy, Jacques Cormery (based largely on his own youth), growing up poor and without a father, but with happy experiences punctuating what was often a bleak existence. Early in the story, Jacques and some of his young male friends “race under the harsh sun toward the western end of the beach,” a more isolated stretch of shoreline. “In a few seconds they were naked, a moment later in the water with clumsy vigor, shouting, drooling, and spitting, daring each other to dive or vying as to who could stay underwater the longest. The sea was gentle and warm, the sun fell lightly on their young bodies with a joy that made them cry incessantly. They reigned over life and over the sea, and, like nobles certain that their riches were limit less, they heedlessly consumed the most gorgeous of this world’s
offerings.”5 Even in poverty, even as the world shows indifference to us, we can find moments of joy, of carefree, clothes-free games by the sea.6 This is Camus’s optimism for humanity living in a world empty of direction and meaning.
Adults in Camus’s fiction also find comfort and joy swimming and playing under the sun. In The Stranger, Meursault—who is never given a first name in the story—enjoys three different swims, each time finding himself made happier.7 The ocean offered Camus that ephemeral state of bonheur, or happiness, which made life worth living. Oliver Gloag, in his helpful introduction to Camus’s life and philosophy, says of his written works that they juxtapose two seeming opposites: “the meaninglessness of life destined for death and moments of elevated happiness, perhaps even bliss, caused by nature.” The moments of bonheur “are the ultimate goal, short-lived but repeatable solace from a resolutely hostile human environment and a meaningless world.”8
In The Plague, the Camus-like character Dr. Bernard Rieux fights the plague devastating his quarantined seaside town, largely because he wishes to reduce the amount of pointless, inexplicable suffering. The deaths all around take their psychic toll on him, but at one point well into the plague’s unaccountable lifespan he finds relief and a moment of joy skinny-dipping one night off the town’s pier with his friend Jean Tarrou. Camus describes in lyrical detail the sensuousness of the water, and how the tactile sensations were a delight.9
A year later after publishing The Plague, Camus wrote a play on the same subject: State of Siege (L’État de Siège, 1948). Here amid the horrors of plague and civic confinement, the chorus looks to the sea for release and hope. It calls them to “happy places without walls or gates, to shores whose virgin sands are as cool as maidens’ lips,” with “shining winds of freedom….The sea, the sea! The sea will save us!”10 The salvation is not permanent, nor does it release us from the ultimate aimlessness of human existence, but it can give us true, authentic delight, as can sexual passion. Later in the play, the character Diego scoffs at those who urge despair by pointing to the meaninglessness of life as the final word, and smiles—like Sisyphus—noting that life still has “wild roses in the hedges, the signs in the sky, the smiles of summer, the great voice of the sea, the moments when man rises in his wrath and scatters all before him.”11
Nature with its sunshine and warm water is, however, fundamentally indifferent to human needs and desires. In The Plague, Rieux and Tarrou while skinny-dipping find themselves caught in an ice-cold current, and have to struggle to get back to warm water.12 Camus more than once offers reminders of nature’s indifference to us. In The Fall (La Chute, 1956), the lead character tells his acquaintance at a bar that unwary Brazilians enjoying a swim may be attacked by thousands of piranha.13 In A Happy Death (La Mort Heureuse, 1971), Camus’s first novel, but published posthumously, Patrice Mersault (another character based on Camus) enters the warm sea to “find himself again.” “He undressed, clambered down a few rocks, and entered the sea. It was warm as a body, another body that ran down his arms and clung to his legs with an ineffable yet omnipresent embrace.” Mersault, like Rieux, finds himself surprised by an “icy stream,” and struggles for a time to get out of it. Naked and chilled, he laboriously swims back to shore, and, like Sisyphus, responded shivering and laughing with bonheur.14
Camus’s bodily embrace of the sea and sunshine was not limited to his fiction. He spent many an hour with friends and lovers naked on the beaches of Algieria. He did not think highly of the French nudists of his day, however. In an early set of essays written in 1936 through 1938, and published as Nuptials (Noces, 1938), Camus includes the sun-kissed “Summer in Algiers.” Nowhere does he speak of nakedness under the sun and on the beach with more fondness and lyricism. It is a paean to a sensuous, joyful life in the face of absurdity, marked by a deep suntan, good friends, and a zest for life. “In Algiers, to the young and vital everything is a refuge and a pretext for rejoicing: the bay, the sun, games on the red and white terraces overlooking the sea, the flowers and stadiums, the cool-limbed girls.” Those of us who feel anxiously the horrifying contrast between our desire for cosmic meaning and the world’s complete silence in that regard can revolt against this absurd juxtaposition by embracing the joys nature extends us. Swimming and nakedness under the sun provide Camus a sense of peace and bonheur.
One passage from “Summer in Algiers” in particular is worth quoting in full.
“In Algiers, you don’t talk about ‘going swimming’ but about ‘knocking off a swim.’ I won’t insist. People swim in the harbor and then go rest on the buoys. When you pass a buoy where a pretty girl is sitting, you shout to your friends: ‘I tell you it’s a seagull.’ These are healthy pleasures. They certainly seem ideal to the young men, since most of them continue this life during the winter, stripping down for a frugal lunch in the sun at noontime ever day. Not that they have read the boring sermons of our nudists, those protestants of the body (there is a way of sermonizing the body that is as exasperating as systems for the soul). They just ‘like being in the sun.’ It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of this custom in our day. For the first time in two thousand years the body has been shown naked on the beaches. For twenty centuries, men have strived to impose decency on the insolence and simplicity of the Greeks, to diminish the flesh and elaborate our dress. Today, reaching back over this history, young men sprinting on the Mediterranean beaches are rediscovering the magnificent motion of the [naked] athletes of Delos. Living so close to other bodies, and through one’s own body, one finds it has its own nuances, its own life, and, to venture an absurdity, its own psychology.”15
There is a lot going on here. Camus speaks of a large number of French-Algerian men and women taking to the beaches for clothes-free swimming and sunbathing. In nearly every work of fiction, Camus takes time to relate how the leading characters either have or fail to have a suntan.16 He certainly took great pride in that sign of vivacity in the face of an absurd existence. Note also the joy he finds in naked play under the sun. Perhaps appealing to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche here, Camus finds some form of nobility and satisfaction in sensuous play, and with a willful decision to embrace the pleasure life offers, we can find what happiness is open to us.17
A travel postcard illustrating La Plage des Sablettes, one of Camus’s favorite beaches in Algiers. Isolated portions were then suitable for nude sunbathing and skinny-dipping.
Camus distances himself from the nudists of his day, however, as he hears them preaching an absolutist message of human value. He surely has in mind the Amis de Vivre of Algiers. These active nudists were associated with France’s main nudist group led by Marcel Kienné de Mongeot. Historian of French nudism, Stephan L. Harp, explains that the Amis de Vivre (“Friends for Living”) organized monthly nude excursions to isolated beaches and areas outside the city. Though the group’s French-Algerian leadership espoused openness to all ethnicities and religions, it seems that they consisted mainly of “well-connected” French ex-patriots living in the region.18
The Paris-based Kienné de Mongeot and his Amis de Vivre produced the magazine Vivre (under five different names in 1926-1939 and 1947-1963). During the 1930s when Camus wrote “Summer in Algiers,” the Algerian group was featured often with photos, showing large parties of men and women enjoying themselves naked at various beaches. Kienné de Mongeot, though, was a proselytizer of the value of full, mixed-sex nudity, and took pains to articulate arguments for the physical, psychological, and social benefits undress has to individuals and society. This approach assumes that there is an essential human nature that profits from specific activities. Camus—along with Sartre and most other existentialists—denies this. We find ourselves tossed into a universe without a compass, he might say, with no specific guidelines or parameters by which to judge an act or way of living as good, or objectively ideal for humans. Recognition of this lack of a life rudder can produce anxiety or angst, but the honest person will buck up and accept life as it is. Fortunately, according to Camus, there are very real elements of life that can be satisfying. They are not infinitely satisfying, but they can be delightful nonetheless. Camus thus viewed Kienné de Mongeot’s polemical approach in advocating nudity as erroneously essentialist, misguided, and ultimately leading to a false sense of hope. Even nudity under the midday sun cannot provide final and complete satisfaction.
One paragraph from “Summer in Algiers” does not justify our making too bold a claim about Camus’s views on nudity. His notebooks offer more insight into his standpoint, though. In a September 15, 1937 entry, he writes, “‘Being naked’ always has associations of physical liberty, of harmony between the hand and the flowers it touches, of a loving understanding between the earth and men who have been free from human things. Ah, I should be a convert to this if it were not already my religion….My deepest joy is to write. To accept the world and to accept pleasure—but only when I am stripped bare of everything. I should be a convert to this if it were not already my religion….My deepest joy is to write. To accept the world and to accept pleasure—but only when I am stripped bare of everything. I should not be worthy to love the bare and empty beaches if I could not remain naked in the presence of myself.”19 The International Naturist Federation’s definition of naturism does not describe social nudity in much better terms.
The journal of Les Amis de Vivre, Vivre, often featured stories and photos of Algerian nudists at play on the sand.
In April 1941, ever the empiricist, Camus lists what his senses had been experiencing clothes-free at the shore. “The sand-dunes facing the sea. The faint heat of early dawn, and our own bodies stripped bare before the little waves, still bitter and dark with night. The water feels heavy. But our body is renewed and runs on to the beach in the first rays of sunlight. Every summer morning on the beach feels like the first morning of the world, and every evening like its solemn ending. Evenings on the sea knew no restraint. The sunbaked days on the sand-dunes were overwhelming. At two in the afternoon, you feel drunk after walking a hundred yards along the burning sand. In a moment you feel you will fall and be slain by the sun. In the morning, the beauty of brown bodies against the yellow sand. The terrible innocence of games on the beach and bare bodies in the bounding light.”20
Comic postcard artists have illustrated the tension Camus found in the clash of French and native Algerian cultures regarding nudity.
Sea and sunshine were never far from Camus’s thoughts. In a March 1942 notebook entry, Camus speaks of a “perfect week” filled with “wholly physical” pleasures in which we can find “harmony with our [absurd] condition, gratitude and respect for man are to be found,” and a renewed vigor for life is achieved. “Long, pure and savage dunes! A festival of water, so black in the morning, so clear at noon, and, in the evening, so warm and golden. Long mornings among naked bodies on the dunes, the sun beating down at noon, and all the rest must be said again, all that has been said repeated. There was youth. Here is youth, and at 30, I ask for nothing else than to continue this youth.”21
Biographer Oliver Todd relates that Camus particularly liked the beaches west of Oran, which were hard to get to and thus isolated enough for nudity. Due to gas rationing, Camus and his friends would pedal to the beaches by bike. At the reed-covered dunes, Camus and his male and female pals would wander about the sand, until Camus tired and lay down naked, with arms stretched out to soak up still more sun.22
Camus at the beach with friends.
Returning to Camus’s fiction, there is one figure in particular who may illustrate—at least partially—Camus’s vision of nude living. In A Happy Death, Patrice Mersault kills a man, takes the man’s money, and begins a journey in search of happiness. In the process he returns to Algiers to stay with three young, attractive women friends in a house atop a hill overlooking the sea. Aside from the killing, this follows a part of Camus’s life while in his 30s. One of the three women in the novel is Catherine, who takes every opportunity to be nude and sunbathe. One morning when Patrice and Catherine are having breakfast on the outdoor terrace, Catherine pulls her bathing suit top down to her hips and asks coyly, “I’m not indecent am I?” Without even looking, Camus says “No.” Catherine then revels in the sensuous delight of the morning sun.
Later, Camus describes Catherine’s attitude toward nakedness. “Catherine, for whom being naked meant ridding herself of inhibitions, took advantage of the Boy’s [Partice’s] absences to undress on the terrace. And after staying out to watch the sky’s colors change, she announced dinner with a kind of sensual pride: ‘I was naked in front of the world.’”23 She is fully comfortable with her own body, enjoys taking every opportunity to be naked, is playfully serious about not offending others needlessly, believes nudity does no one any wrong, and takes a degree of pride in letting others know her views. That seems to be Camus’s approach to nudity: he values it, and relishes its pleasures, but has no wish to turn it into a dogma applicable to all people in all circumstances.
Naturist ideologues (like myself) will empathize with Camus in the pleasure he takes in skinny-dipping and nude recreation. Those of us who are more optimistic about discovering an order to the universe providing rational guidelines for human behavior will be less accepting of Camus’s view of life as ultimately absurd. Still, most naturists would probably enjoy a day nude at a beach with him. “After all,” he writes, “the sun still warms our bones for us.”24 N
- For a naturist perspective on Jean-Paul Sartre’s attitude toward nudity, see Mark Storey, “Sartre, Nudity, and Voyeurism,” Nude & Natural 35.2 (Winter 2015): 38-41.
- While Camus discusses the absurdity of life in The Myth of Sisyphus, he encourages revolt as a response to that absurdity in Albert Camus, The Rebel (L’Homme Révolté, 1951), trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage International, 1991).
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 2018), 119-123.
- Ibid., 123.
- Albert Camus, The First Man, trans. David Hapgood (New York: Vintage International, 1996), 50-51.
- Ibid., 277-278.
- Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Matthew Ward (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 19, 34, 50.
- Oliver Gloag, Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 17.
- Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 256-257.
- Albert Camus, State of Siege, in Caligula and 3 Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), 167.
- Ibid., 206.
- The Plague, 257.
- Albert Camus, The Fall, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 7.
- Albert Camus, A Happy Death, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage International, 1995), 140, 141.
- Albert Camus, Personal Writings, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy and Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 2020), 88-89; previously published in Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 82-83.
- For example, see A Happy Death, 85; The Stranger, 20, 34, 42, 47; The Plague, 29.
- For a naturist perspective on Friedrich Nietzsche’s attitude toward nudity, see Mark Storey, “Nietzsche and Nakedness,” Nude & Natural 36.2 (Winter 2016): 46-52.
- Stephen L. Harp, Au Naturel: Naturism, Nudism, and Tourism in Twentieth-Century France (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014), 62.
- Albert Camus, Carnets, 1935-1942, trans. Philip Thody (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963), 32.
- Ibid., 111.
- Albert Camus, Carnets, 1942-1951, trans. Philip Thody (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1966), 10.
- Oliver Todd, Albert Camus: A Life, trans. Benjamin Ivry (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2000), 125.
- A Happy Death, 85, 87; see also pp. 90, 92, 127.
- In “Irony,” Personal Writings, 28.