Extract from a tourists’ guide:
Café des Idées—One of the undiscovered treasures of the city. Don’t be fooled by its unassuming front—this classic gem has everything a café should: the dim and smoky original interior, shiny dark wood tables, picturesque green awnings, delightful fare, and of course, history and local legends. The most famous of these is that anyone who has ever visited can always come back, no matter how long ago that first visit was. Believers should try their luck at spotting a favorite historical figure; skeptics should try the excellent café ristretto.
I wiped the old marble countertop. It was cloudy and cold out, and the café was quiet today. A few regular customers sat along the wall, deep in quiet conversation or alone and pensive; one or two new faces sat by the front window. This was not many, by our standards. Some days the café was so full we would run out of drinks or pastries, but people would keep coming in anyway, just for the conversation. Our customers, especially the regulars, talked about everything. The café was known for that, which was actually one of the reasons I started working there. The other reason was the café’s famous legend, which, it turns out, makes for some interesting interactions. I will never forget my first day on the job, the first time I witnessed one of these: A dark-haired man in a tweed suit had walked into the café and sat down. Anna, a co-worker who had been working there for two years, started making him a particular drink as soon as she noticed him.
“Surely that’s Albert Camus,” I whispered to her. I could not be mistaken; I love great literature and I know the faces of all my heroes.
She smiled. “He’s here often. Everybody comes here to talk and drink coffee. I keep a list in my journal of everyone I’ve seen here.” As though it was the most ordinary thing in the world, Camus sat down at the counter and struck up a conversation with Anna.
Camus was here again today, at a small table in the corner near the end of the counter. He sat alone, writing by hand and sipping his coffee.
One of the newcomers left and I collected her cup and saucer. As I returned to the counter, a person I had not seen in the café before walked through the door, a great notebook under his arm. I felt a thrill of recognition as I recognized one of the authors I most admired. He came to the counter and asked for a pot of tea, with a glass. I smiled and went to prepare the tea; he moved toward the wall tables. Camus raised his head, and motioned him over. “Good day, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” he said, moving his own papers to make room on the small table.
I was suddenly elated that today was so quiet: I would be able to stand behind the counter and overhear this conversation. Anna smiled as I sat took my own notebook out of my bag, just in case I had to take down any important points.
“Thank you,” replied Dostoevsky, seating himself at Camus’s table. “How glad I am to find you here! I’ve long wanted to meet you and discuss your ideas, and in particular your views on my work.”
“Wonderful! Nothing could bring me greater pleasure,” agreed Camus, nodding. “Though I have never agreed completely with your treatment of them, I have always admired the fearless way you address the most vital questions of existence.” Anna brought him a new cup of coffee, since I was already writing furiously.
“In what respects, especially?” asked Dostoevsky.
“Most of all, on the topic of life; whether it has a meaning. After all your consideration, you seem to have only two choices in your mind: either life has a meaning, and everything is rapturously beautiful, or life has no meaning and all is chaos and despair. You lay out every detail of why life is a horror, why there can be no reason for existence, and that despair is the only possible outcome—but then, inexplicably, you make a complete reversal, leave logic behind, and go off into ecstatic sermons about God and the brotherhood of His children and the sweetness of life. You conclude that, simply because people desire Him so strongly, God must exist; and this logical flaw is hard to take seriously. It makes no sense to assume that something must exist simply because the desire for it is great; this is not evidence by any means. In the end, I could not take it seriously; I concluded that you, yourself, were on the side of logic and not of rapture. After all, logical despair is what you best supported.”
“How can you think that I mean to support that side, simply because I take care to explain it completely? I want to be straightforward, to make my true point without hiding its opposition; I want to show that I fully understand the opposition to the point for which I finally argue. That does not weaken my argument. Besides, my response to it is not just a verdict or opinion, but also a solution, the truth of which is only completely evident to someone who has experienced it. That is, even though we do this agonized reasoning in the name of truth and logic, it is inherently flawed and misleading, the result of a state of mind that is itself diseased, unnatural, and in error. The truth only becomes clear when the mind is healed, by immersing the self in a life of labor, toil for the sake of others, and self-forgetfulness. This life is spiritually lofty, which makes it difficult for man to pursue and achieve, but it is possible through sincerity and perseverance, through unceasing effort. At last, the heart will fill with a great love for all humanity, for everything, and the truth and beauty of life on earth will become so evident that it is too moving for words and can only be expressed by tears. This will happen without fail. The experience of this way of life has the power to create and restore true faith, so completely that doubt can no longer torment. So I affirm God’s existence not merely because the whole world wants Him to exist, but also because of this incontrovertible sensation of Him, which it is truly possible to achieve.”
“So you are saying that to attain faith and happiness, a person has to stop searching for the truth and bury all desire for knowledge somewhere in the ground? Essentially, that all hope is predicated on deliberate stupidity? I can hardly believe it. You sought truth all your life. You are known for nothing if not for your zeal to follow everything to its logical finish. Why do you persist in active delusion?”
“I do not seek stupidity; I have never said that one must deliberately stop questioning. What I mean is that one must heal the isolation of the soul that causes despair and lack of faith. Faith is not an error or delusion, but the natural state of humankind, and lack of faith is an obvious problem and source of suffering. Lack of faith destroys a man; it cuts him off from God and his fellow man as though he was a criminal. Of course, one who is thus cut off from mankind begins to suspect everyone and everything of being his enemy, and in being cut off from God, he feels with intense dismay that all actions are permissible, that there is no purpose or direction, and that ideas such as justice are impossible fantasy. He becomes tortured and sick in spirit. This vicious isolation has become so widespread that everyone seems to think it is the normal way of things, when it is actually a deception obscuring the truth: that everything belongs to everything else, everything is part of everything, and no more separate than drops of water in the ocean. When faith is restored through work and through love, this sickness is healed, and the truth becomes clear and utterly convincing. ”
Camus furrowed his brow, obviously unsatisfied. “I understand what you are saying, but I would much rather rely on truths for which the evidence is factual rather than spiritual. I have neither the need nor the desire to deliberately manufacture support for a comforting fantasy. I believe that man does not need falsehoods or supernatural hope to live life. Yes, suicide is at first tempting once it becomes clear that there is no higher reason to exist, but the action that should follow is not to commit suicide, but to persist in life in spite of this realization—in actual spite! One must rebel against every feeling and indication that life should not be lived, holding onto life with unbridled tenacity. Like a condemned man who fights for his life though he would live it in prison, one must fight for each day against all logic and odds. Only humankind can do this. It is our majesty and identity to be the creature that recognizes the futility of life but who lives it regardless, because we can—we have that power—and in this we can even be happy: There is beauty and interest to be found in life if we simply accept it entire, for what it is.”
“So: you declare then that one must fill his heart with futile struggle against reason and death itself, forces destined to vanquish him. Well, in that I see no less self-delusion than in the choice to believe—and indeed a good deal more, since the question of belief and God has no final answer! It is impossible that this baldly pointless struggle, deliberately conjured to fill and distract the human heart, has any power to render suicide a less attractive path to one who does not believe life has a purpose. Why should a person persist in life out of some notion of spite and nobility, if he thinks there is no purpose to anything? Though it has its pleasures, one cannot blindly cling to them forever—life is too difficult to live for literally no reason.”
“Not so. Life that is consciously lived without reason can actually be enjoyed enough to be lived for its own sake—it is a choice. One must choose release from that fruitless search for hope, and realize that everything that happens in life is just another part of life. Nothing characterizes one event as any better than another; there are only events themselves, and the impartial dealings of the world. The key to life is to recognize this and be content to encounter whatever happens, and live equally through everything that happens in life, living as a true part of the world, part of the present.”
“And you truly think that this state of mind, arrived at and maintained by a deliberate choice, is actually a useful means of preserving life and joy? It does not address the actual problem; it is an attempt to discredit suicide rather than an actual defense of life for any meaning or merit. Even this it does with limited success, since the statement that all events are equal in value removes any advantage life has over death with as much or more validity as it encourages people to endure life’s hardships. How could a person come to this point of view on his own, in response to actual life? Your ideas perhaps make some sense as an experiment, but in the midst of difficulty, people do not make cool decisions to see all situations as equal and to be content. No, they cry out for meaning! They long for God! I understand that you believe that your views are the truth, but even still, how can you think that it actually has the ability to bring comfort or resolution to the human soul?”
“It has that ability because the struggle of life is precisely what motivates a person to discover it! Yes, it’s true that people often respond to their suffering by refusing to acknowledge it with honesty, turning to the notion of God for escape and comfort. But when a person faces a calamity with honesty, it is then, in that turmoil more than at any other time, that all becomes clear. In the midst of turmoil, it is not a ‘cool decision,’ but a revelation. The suffering person suddenly faces the situation with total honesty, and sees that life has worth even when it seems unbearable: there is nothing that makes any situation or experience less valuable than another. With this knowledge a person can face the worst with peace and calm, in the knowledge that it has no more or less value than any other part of life. This conclusion, which is both comforting and true, results only when one faces life honestly—but it does result, and it does provide peace.”
“A sort of constancy, perhaps, a dullness; I doubt it affords true peace or contentment. But this last statement of yours leads to a consequence of your assertions we have not yet discussed: if no experience is worse than another, then of course, no action is better or worse than another, and all actions are equally moral or immoral. Morality loses its meaning; this is an unavoidable consequence.”
“Well, strictly speaking, yes. Morality, the means by which people classify their actions and assign them value, does become invalid. However, this is not immorality, only amorality. It does not encourage crime; it merely refrains from defining it. All that morality has ever done is to provide a system of justifying certain actions rather than others; there have never been any innate differences among those actions. People have always known this, and as long as they have classified their actions according to morals, they have bent and twisted those morals to sanction any behavior. Morality has never stopped people from doing as they pleased; my ideas would not suddenly make humans become more evil simply because of the realization that all experiences are indifferent. Rather, I say that my ideas require a person to consider every action based on its consequences, and to decide whether those consequences are desirable. The loss of morality simply reveals the truth that there is no crime, there is no guilt; remorse is an error. Everyone is fundamentally innocent. This realization does not inspire chaos and debauchery, any more than a system of morality would purport to do this. Likewise, the same impulses that inspire humans to behave with goodness within a system of morality do not cease to do so when morality is revealed to be false. What we consider virtuous and good is as much a part of our experience as the rest, and therefore just as valid. I do not elevate crime and I do not eliminate virtue.”
“You may not elevate crime, but you do eliminate virtue; you strip from it its very meaning. Even if one allows your strange assumption that making good and bad deeds equally moral does not render them impossible, you destroy goodness by making it the result of pure impulse. Your virtues rely solely on the feelings and desires of the one acting. That is not virtue at all, but only a selfish whim that now and then happens to inspire something good. True virtue has only the benefit of others at its heart. This virtue, the most elevated and sacred of human actions, is completely impossible according to your ideas.”
“True, I make no allowance for the kind of total unselfishness you speak of. I doubt it is even possible. What could motivate such behavior? The only experience we have is our own, and these experiences are all that constitute life. How can there be a motive for any action, unless that motive involves the self in some way?” “The point, the ideal, is not to try to avoid acting with a selfish motive; but to make less of a distinction between the self and the rest of humanity. This means that any good one would do for one’s self, one would also do for another, with hardly any change in motive. This is what I mean when I describe humanity and the world as an ocean; what affects one part affects the rest—it is a whole, in which every part is responsible for every other part in the same way as it is responsible for itself.” For the first time since it had begun, there was a lull in the conversation as Camus pondered this last point; then he responded. “This, I think, is a very significant difference between our points of view. To me, a person is an entity unto himself, completely enclosed, and everything that the self encounters has to be evaluated from this point of view. My ideas make perfect sense from this perspective on humanity, but it is so different from the perspective you just described that disagreement and misunderstanding between us seems inevitable.”
“I agree. We seem to be permanently at an impasse. Our disagreement on this issue is deep and fundamental; our concepts of the human relationship to the world are diametrically opposed. Still, I have enjoyed your insights on these topics in which I take so much interest.”
“Thank you, I have as well.” They stood as they concluded the conversation. “I hope to see you here again sometime.” Camus went toward the door. “As do I,” replied Dostoevsky with a smile, collecting his notebook and walking to the door as well. The rain had stopped, and there were now more people on the streets. They stepped out into the street and parted ways. I tried to follow them with my eyes, but was unsuccessful after they had gone only a few paces. I took the rest of the day off and spent it reading and copying the notes I had taken of the conversation. I felt that I would want to keep them, and read them many times in the future.