Revisiting the Rebel

By: Reyshimar Arguelles

I HAVE always been a fervent admirer of the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus. And this is not due to the romanticized way he was portrayed – a literary bad boy, with his sunken eyes and a cigarette locked between his teeth.

My interest in his life and work is, in fact, grounded on the insights into the human psyche he had presented throughout his prolific career as a journalist and literary figure. After his initial work, The Myth of Sisyphus which touched on mankind’s struggle for meaning within an uncaring universe, Camus would go on to publish The Stranger and The Plague, both being novels that explore the contradictions defining mankind’s futile attempts to tame the chaos of the natural order.

But it was on the numerous essays after The Myth of Sisyphus that I took special interest, most notably his 1942 work The Rebel. While I was in college, I saw a copy of this book at a sale at the university library. With its dilapidated cover and the stench of the Cold War still clinging to the browned and brittle pages, the book cost P10, but it was a great find nonetheless. Its contents cost more than diamonds to me.

In the essay, Camus charted the history of rebellion, right from its metaphysical core to its application in the course of human events. The rebel is someone who is aware of the conditions that affirm his or her subjugation under prevailing values and concepts. It is a desire to break free from these conditions that the rebel stands stiff against the whip and, ultimately, revolts. When the slave becomes aware of injustice, the first seeds of action are already planted; the object becomes the master of his own destiny, and a complete overhauling of the current system of control is set into motion.

However, the aims of rebellion are never utopian in their very essence. They are only limited to an accounting of the injustice that has been served.  We can point several affirming instances, from the French Revolution down to the supposed far-right wave that’s enveloping the world with hatred and bigotry. For Camus:

“Freedom, ‘that terrible word inscribed on the chariot of the storm,’ is the motivating principle of all revolutions. Without it, justice seems inconceivable to the rebel’s mind.”

No doubt, the same resounding cries for justice is heard throughout populist movements supporting strongmen who won’t mind enfeebling essential democratic processes, spreading falsehood and hatred, and marginalizing further the already marginalized. For what? For the glory of justice, of course!

And yet this process of going against the grain puts a heavy toll on the very principles that served as bases for rebellion. In a way, the same conditions that the rebel fought against are reincarnated into a different form, only this time, the agent of violence is the rebel himself. The Russian Revolution of 1917 replaced Tsarist terror with terror of a more socialist slant. And the same goes for populist leaders who are rebelling against ineffective neoliberal systems, only that the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, and Duterte aim to force their own twisted dreams into the realm of reality by using the very institutions they seek to undermine.

If it’s not for a desire to lead their nations into a Golden Age of crime-free and corruption-free life, it’s also for the supposed threats to “their way of life” that these leaders are able to validate their ideals and stop at nothing to finish the projects they are building..

In continuation, Camus only has this to say:

“There comes a time, however, when justice demands the suspension of freedom. Then terror, on a grand or small scale, makes its appearance to consummate the revolution. Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being. But one day nostalgia takes up arms and assumes the responsibility of total guilt; in other words, adopts murder and violence.”