On Albert Camus's "Return to Tipasa"

I’ve been reading Camus for many years now. My appreciation for his writing continues to deepen. Recently, his lyrical essays have opened up to me. I had kept them at arm’s length because I fear that I already tend toward poetical romanticism, and they didn’t really fit what I wanted from Camus, the activist. Then something changed, or so it seems. I’ve been rereading “Return to Tipasa”* over the last year and enjoying its unfolding.

I believe the right way to teach Camus is by engaging his thought in the multiple genres he wrote. He wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, and journalism. In one of my courses, I wanted to bridge reading Camus’s The Plague and the brilliant decolonization film, The Battle of Algiers. I decided to assign some of Camus’s writing on Algeria, using it to emphasize the complicated nature of what was French Algeria. At the last minute, I decided to throw in “Return to Tipasa” to give the students a sense of Camus’s emotional attachment to the land of Algeria. It worked well enough in the class, but there was so much more going on with the essay than I had time to talk about in that specific context. This blogpost is the beginning of a deserved elaboration on the essay.

I’ll start with a brief summary. In “Return to Tipasa,” Camus returns to Algeria for the second time since World War II. In his first trip, he went out to the ruins of Tipasa, an old Roman city, where he spent endless summer days when he was young, and he was disappointed with the experience. His first trip to Tipasa failed because he wanted it to be the same as when he was young. Not an outrageous expectation of ruins, I suppose. But the ruins had changed; they were fenced off and a guardian was posted, which destroyed the sense of being alone and free that young Camus had enjoyed there. Of course, it’s more than that. Even if the ruins were the same, Camus was not. On this second pilgrimage, he’s more modest in his desire and seeks only a moment. Camus is fortunate; he claims, “I found exactly what I had come seeking.” He reflects on this moment when he’s at one with his surroundings. It “refreshes” him, allowing him to return to France and continue his work of being a voice against injustice.

“Return to Tipasa” is an embarrassment of riches. I’ve learned not to make blogging promises, but I’d like to return another time to Camus’s description of the fraught relationship between love and justice, or as he puts it near the end of the essay: “I should like to shirk nothing and to faithfully keep a double memory. Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like to never be unfaithful to either one or the others.” A good, meaningful human life demands that we use our freedom to admire beauty and to seek justice. For another time though!

Here, I want to think about the moment of total communion Camus experiences among the Tipasa ruins. Tipasa is an ordinary part of the world. It’s a ruin among ruins, on a cliff over the sea like so many other beautiful vistas. Its importance, its nearly sacred and almost mystical character derives from Camus’s own personal history with the place. This history is important. I would go to Tipasa as a stranger, and the geography would welcome me in one of the ways new places greet strangers—as a tourist, as an explorer, as if a friend or family. For Camus, he is returning home; he has a relationship with this place. This is where he was young, and his hope, twenty years later, is that some of the freedom and innocence he knew then continued to rest in this space because he had stopped feeling it long ago. I know this hope all too well.

There are several ways to evaluate what happens to Camus in Tipasa. You can be a mystic and believe the place with its deep history is sacred—a nearly forgotten link to a world that used to be enchanted. I’m no mystic, nor is Camus. You can be a rationalist and know the ruins of Tipasa are just stones and trees. So whatever happened was all about Camus. You’d probably also think he’s dwelling in fantasy, and so really this is a big waste of your time. I’m no rationalist, nor is Camus.

Or you can adopt the third reading along with me. Let’s call it the poetic view. We recognize that something transcendent happened to Camus in Tipasa on this day in December. We recognize the importance of the whole scene—of Tipasa and of Camus. The moment is a communion between humanity and nature. In this moment, Camus does not exactly change—he becomes more the person he always was. This is the key to understanding the transcendent moment in nature: You experience a change that is not really a change; you become what you already are. I still lack the right language to describe this, but this essay is part of me figuring that out.

I like that the Tipasa ruins are overtaken by nature long before Camus ever knew them. He appreciates the mingling of nature with the human artifice. He observes the “trees and perfect columns in the transparence of the crystalline air” as if they are twins. In this space that is human and natural, Camus finds “exactly what [he] had come seeking.”

Camus’s new vision emerges throughout the day, and the transcendent moment is the climax of that experience. After the rains, everything in Algiers has “an astonished newness.” Later in the essay, Camus compares it to a new creation occurring every day. On the road to Tipasa, Camus reflects and starts comparing memories of changing stages of life with the constancy of Algeria’s environment—“ever the same sky” and “[a]lways the same sea too.” From the road, Chenoua, the mountain that announces Tipasa, comes into view. It begins as a “light blue haze still confused with the sky.” As he approaches, it becomes part of the water “a huge motionless wave whose amazing leap upward has been brutally solidified over a suddenly calm sea.” The mountain connects the sky, land, and sea. This is why for Camus the mountain is “a refuge and harbor for its sons, of whom I am one.”

Among the ruins, Camus’s moment arrives—he like Algiers in the morning is made new again—“I listened to an almost forgotten sound within myself as if my heart, long stopped, were calmly beginning to beat again. And awake now, I recognized one by one the imperceptible sounds of which the silence was made up.” Camus had become deaf to both his own self and the world. Something inside of him awakes. It’s not his conscience, for Camus had never stopped resisting injustices. It’s love—the emotional wellspring, the source of all action—that seemed to have stopped. Of course it had not, Camus had only lost touch with it.

As Camus recovers the pulse of love inside him, the world’s “silence” opens up as well; he identifies the many tiny sounds of nature that compose its silence. In this moment, Camus himself becomes the sea—“I also listened to the happy torrents rising within me.” This is the transcendent communion. For Camus, the Algerian sea and sun were constants and Chenoua, a harbor, but they were external to him. Now, he takes in the sea, light, and nature becoming his own comfort and refuge.

The sun’s angle changes and the birds burst into song, a “joyful discordance,” and the transcendent moment ends, as it must. Returning to Algiers, Camus is revitalized. He famously summarizes the experience: “In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was within me an invincible summer.”

Think on that sentence for a moment in case my talking about the perfection that it is ruins it for you. Done? Good. In this sentence, Camus captures the entire project of this essay. The sentence, like much of Camus’s most evocative writing, is double. It moves between the natural world and his inner ethical life. He’s in Algeria in winter, but he’s also been struggling with a moral winter. He’d lost the passion that animated his speaking out on behalf of the suffering. This moral winter, like the rainy December in Algiers, gives way to a day of sunshine, a reminder of the summer to come. For Camus, the summer is a constantly renewing source of strength, and now he has found that “invincible summer” inside of himself. The transcendent moment related in “Return to Tipasa” is not a transference; Camus does not actually take anything from nature, nothing is added to Camus. Rather, he discovers what was always inside of himself. Nature can’t change us because we are already nature, and we already carry with us all that nature offers. What Tipasa and other natural spaces offer us is a chance to quiet the hum of everyday life, to break down the walls of convenience and survival we build within ourselves. In the transcendent moment, nature mediates the relationship between you and yourself.

There’s much more going on in the nature-self relationship. But that’s for another day, perhaps in a post on Whitman, Muir, or Rexroth. Instead, I’ll end this by repeating what Camus found in Tipasa on that December day: “In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was within me an invincible summer.”  


*I use Justin O’Brien’s translation of “Return to Tipasa,” found in Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. I made a few modifications based on the original French and Ellen Conroy Kennedy’s translation in Lyrical and Critical Essays.