Other Deserts Are Needed: “The Minotaur” by Albert Camus

Albert Camus’s 1939 essay “The Minotaur, or The Stop in Oran” (translated into English by Justin O’Brien and collected in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays) presents the reader with an unusual landscape of the Algerian city. Oran, in Camus’s estimation, is a city that has walled itself in, a place “devoid of poetry.” Yet when he says that, he is not disparaging the city—he is singing its virtues.

“The Minotaur” begins with one of Camus’s grand assertions about the state of the world: “There are no more deserts. There are no more islands.” He is, obviously, not referring to the physical geography of the earth but rather to the role that such places play in our psychology. “In order to understand the world,” he says, “one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time.” The deserts and islands of the world, literal or metaphorical, allow one the space and silence to reflect, to confront the absurdity of our existence and accept it.

Yet, as Camus argues, it can be difficult to find such a place, especially at this late point in human history. Too many cities “are too full of the din of the past,” swarming with too many potential distractions. I’ll quote his quick tour of Europe’s cultural capitals at length, both because it will illustrate his point, and because it features some of the most sparkling prose in the collection:

Paris is often a desert for the heart, but at certain moments from the heights of Père-Lachaise there blows a revolutionary wind that suddenly fills that desert with flags and fallen glories. So it is with certain Spanish towns, with Florence or with Prague. Salzburg would be peaceful without Mozart. But from time to time there rings out over the Salzach the great proud cry of Don Juan as he plunges toward hell. Vienna seems more silent; she is a youngster among cities. Her stones are no older than three centuries and their youth is ignorant of melancholy. But Vienna stands at a crossroads of history. Around her echoes the clash of empires. Certain evenings when the sky is suffused with blood, the stone horses on the Ring monuments seem to take wing.

By contrast, as Camus would have it, Oran is the rare city “without soul and without reprieve.” Rather than classical music and Gothic architecture, a visitor to Oran will find much more evidence of the contemporary: boxing matches, commercial kitsch, and youths who model their fashion off Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich. One might associate such modern diversions with the culture of advertising—that is, with the opposite of silence—but I can see how these features of Oran might bring one solitude. Such things can seem ephemeral, lacking the persistence of Mozart or Louis XIV. They come and go so quickly, one may fail to even take notice of them.

But for as much as I enjoyed “The Minotaur” on an aesthetic level, I can’t help but think Camus finds silence in Oran simply because he hasn’t listened closely enough. The whole world is stuffed to the brim with connections waiting to be uncovered.

I often think back to the stone wall that runs through the woods by my old middle school in northwest New Jersey. It’s the sort of feature that Camus would surely love in Oran. (Seriously, he’s rather obsessed with the role of stones in the city.) But it’s also a structure charged with history. True, I don’t know the name of the person who piled stone upon stone. But I know it was built with a purpose: to mark the boundaries between farms, back in the days before suburban encroachment. And I know the geological processes that made it possible: the receding of glaciers from the last ice age, and the raw materials they left behind. This is far from a glamorous, textbook-style history, yes. But those thoughts are still capable of distracting me from pure contemplation.

Indeed, perhaps because he is a writer, Camus cannot help but think on the history of Oran, cannot help but distract himself from his ostensible purpose. For example, when he spends a night around the boxing ring, he indulges himself by exploring the socio-historical context behind one of the bouts, a battle between a fighter from Oran and one from Algiers:

Back in history, these two North African cities would have already bled each other white as Pisa and Florence did in happier times. Their rivalry is all the stronger just because it probably has no basis. Having every reason to like each other, they loathe each other proportionately. The Oranese accuse the citizens of Algiers of “sham.” The people of Algiers imply that the Oranese are rustic. These are bloodier insults than they might seem because they are metaphysical. And unable to lay siege to each other, Oran and Algiers meet, compete, and insult each other on the field of sports, statistics, and public works.

Again, this is not necessarily the lofty sort of history that Camus has in mind when he talks about Paris or Vienna. But it’s still history, still a force that contextualizes life for the screaming fans who have flocked to the fights.

I suspect that Camus finds the silence he seeks in Oran not because it is present there, but because Camus needs it to be present. As Namara Smith has argued, the Algerian desert, a fixture of Camus’s writing, acts as a blank canvas for his thematic concerns. “Although Camus, in his journalism,” Smith argues, “was a perceptive and sympathetic observer of the mistreatment of Arab and Berber Algerians by French colonial authorities, the novels and essays on which his reputation depends all use the empty Algerian desert to stage their dramas of solitary heroism.” To say Camus denies the history present in Oran and other such places may be a stretch, but he seems willing to overlook it to suit his own artistic ends. It’s a beautiful essay, “The Minotaur,” one that I’m sure that I’ll reread many times in the future, but it’s a piece that can’t help but ring the slightest bit false.

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Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this slight detour into philosophy. I don’t often write about the subject, but if you liked this piece, then you may be interested in “Living Like the Reeds,” a post about stoicism, Aesop’s Fables, and the poetry of A. R. Ammons.