“Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”
Camus was amidst the crowd in “Le Charcutier Aoun” for around three hours looking for cheap cooking oil. It was the 1940s and French food rationing was more stringent than that of any other occupied country in Western Europe in the Second World War.
Conditions in Vichy France under German occupation were very harsh, because the Germans stripped France of millions of workers (as prisoners of war and “voluntary” workers), and as well stripped much of the food supply, while demanding heavy cash payments. It was a period of severe economic hardship under a totalitarian government. Civilians suffered shortages of all varieties of consumer goods. The rationing system was stringent but badly mismanaged, leading to produced malnourishment, black markets, and hostility to state management of the food supply. The Germans seized about 20% of the French food production, which caused severe disruption to the household economy of the French people. French farm production fell in half because of lack of fuel, fertilizer and workers; even so the Germans seized half the meat, 20 percent of the produce, and 2 percent of the champagne.
Supply problems quickly affected French stores which lacked most items. The government answered by rationing, but German officials set the policies and hunger prevailed, especially affecting youth in urban areas. The queues lengthened in front of shops. Some people — including German soldiers — benefited from the black market, where food was sold without tickets at very high prices. Farmers especially diverted meat to the black market, which meant that much less for the open market.
Counterfeit food tickets were also in circulation. Direct buying from farmers in the countryside and barter against cigarettes became common. These activities were strictly forbidden, however, and thus carried out at the risk of confiscation and fines. Food shortages were most acute in the large cities. In the more remote country villages, however, clandestine slaughtering, vegetable gardens and the availability of milk products permitted better survival. The official ration provided starvation level diets of 1300 or fewer calories a day, supplemented by home gardens and, especially, black market purchases.
While Camus stood amidst the crowd and witnessed the fist fights over a can of oil, he began thinking about the current human situation in France, he thought to himself the following: “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful. An analysis of the idea of revolt could help us to discover ideas capable of restoring a relative meaning to existence, although a meaning that would always be in danger. People have been able to write that tragedy swings between the two poles of extreme nihilism and unlimited hope. For me, nothing is more true. The hero denies the order that strikes him down, and the divine order strikes because it is denied. Both thus assert their existence at the very moment when this existence is called into question. The chorus draws the lesson, which is that there is an order, that this order can be painful, but that it is still worse not to recognize that it exists. The only purification comes from denying and excluding nothing, and thus accepting the mystery of existence, the limitations of man — in short, the order where men know without knowing. Oedipus says “All is well,” when his eyes have been torn out. Henceforth he knows, although he never sees again. His darkness is filled with light, and this face with its dead eyes shines with the highest lesson of the tragic universe. A man without hope, and conscious of this condition, no longer belongs to the future.”
At that moment, Camus stopped his quest for cooking oil and decided to have boiled instead of fried eggs.