In the middle of winter I had at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer
-Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa
Pondering 2020 from Australia in May, where bushfires and acrid smoke have given way to a pandemic, it might well seem that the winter we are heading into is an extension of a winter of many months.
I am of course writing from a position of privilege in that I have a roof over my head. But the cumulative toll will continue to tell. So it seems a worthy mission to do all we can ourselves to find the invincible summer within, and to aid our nearest and dearest in finding theirs.
The idea of finding the invincible summer within, speaks to a kind of transcendence and a deeper grounding of self amid the darkness and tempests of winter. Seeking to understand this invisible summer, of course, drew me back to the work from which the quote came.
What I didn’t appreciate fully, though the quote has returned to me many times, is the nature of its coming into being – through a deep relationship with place that leads to a moment of transcendence.
A Writer of Place
Camus is not as well known as he should be for his writings on place, particularly the coastline of Algeria, the country of his birth. It is deep, poetic, evocative, brimming with life and salt-water sensuality.
Return to Tipasa is an essay on a journey back to his hometown, not necessarily a place of fond memories, at a time of life when a tempest was brewing within. As the essay builds, it becomes clear that there are emotions and anxieties that need somewhere to be grounded. It is a breathtaking piece, written at once as a search, and as constant dance between inner and outer worlds, between self and place.
The invincible summer dawns when Camus is bathed in a glorious moment of a place in time, where the angle of light on a view he knows well leads him to find “what (he) was looking for” in a moment of transcendence:
While watching it I finally got through the barbed wire and found myself among the ruins. And under the glorious December light, as happens but once or twice in lives which ever after can consider themselves favoured to the full, I found exactly what I had come seeking, what, despite the era and the world, was offered me, truly to me alone, in that forsaken nature.
One might say this is more than merely stars aligning. And yet, upon reading the piece, we don’t have to know or be in Tipasa to have a clue what Camus is writing of: this moment of ecstatic transcendence, of enlightenment, of finding what you’re looking for.
It might sound contradictory to describe transcendence as a deep grounding in place – though of course, finding anything always happens by definition in place. Return to Tipasa is not the only work of Camus where an encounter with place leads to moments of transcendence and insight (including in The Plague, a book that is provoking much interest at the moment).
Like Camus, Martin Heidegger is a philosopher vaguely linked into the broad movement of existentialism. Heidegger’s writing is more linked to place than Camus’, and his insights can be linked with Camus’ experience and what it might tell us. As Australian philosopher and Heidegger scholar Jeff Malpas tells us, transcendence might be seen as a moment where the world becomes grounded in our own being-in-the-world.
This is to say that transcendence and enlightenment come from a deeper engagement of love with place, amid our constant grappling with emotions of being displaced, out of place or anxieties we may not even know are associated with making our place in the world.
During Covid-lockdown, trips to the beach are not a thing. I imagine surfers catching waves will know this idea of transcendence in place, but what about the capacity for the everyday cracks of summer around us?
I was walking through a park near home last week, taking a detour across the playing fields to preserve physical distancing. Rambling my way between the eucalyptus and casuarina trees, I saw rainbow lorikeets hanging upside down, splashing their colour and cavorting in their joyful ways as they feasted on the eucalypts’ blooms.
I see people walking the paths, enjoying the sun, engaging more deeply with their surroundings. I wonder what they are feeling and finding from these exercises?
I know what the lorikeets tell me. Seeking the invincible summer within is a worthwhile task, and it always starts with the depth of our engagement with place. This is as much a product of our practice and the way we live, as the places we are. In one form or another, the invincible summer is waiting for us, if we know how to listen and look for it.
Camus, Albert , Return to Tipasa, accessed as translated online: https://genius.com/Albert-camus-return-to-tipasa-annotated [6 May 2020].
Malpas, Jeff, 2017, Heidegger and the Thinking of Place, MIT Press, Cambridge.
Featured image: A mural at Coiled Springs Studio, The Mill, Castlemaine (taken by the author)