(The Task of My Generation) Consists in Preventing the World from Destroying Itself

Albert Camus? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Nuclear and biological warfare present ongoing existential risks for mankind. Environmental degradation presents another set of risks. The crucial task for this generation is to prevent the world from destroying itself. Apparently, the French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus highlighted this task of self-preservation back in the 1950s. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1957. During his speech he discussed the dangers facing mankind. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Chaque génération, sans doute, se croit vouée à refaire le monde. La mienne sait pourtant qu’elle ne le refera pas. Mais sa tâche est peut-être plus grande. Elle consiste à empêcher que le monde se défasse.

Here is one possible rendering into English of the passage above: 2

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Here is a longer excerpt from the English translation supplied by the Nobel Foundation:

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death.

In February 1958 “Des Moines Tribune” of Des Moines, Iowa printed a different translation of the speech by Camus: 3

Probably every generation sees itself as charged with remaking the world. Mine, however, knows that it will not remake the world. But its task is perhaps even greater, for it consists in keeping the world from destroying itself.

In September 1958 Bernard Malamud was interviewed by the journalist Joseph Wershba of “The New York Post”, and he delivered a version of the remark that was tailored to writers: 4

“The purpose of the writer,” says Malamud, “is to keep civilization from destroying itself. But without preachment. Artists, cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry.”

In 1972 “Quotations of Courage and Vision” selected by Carl Hermann Voss included an entry presenting the translation of Camus in the 1958 citation. 5

In conclusion, Albert Camus should receive credit for the statements in his speech at the Nobel Banquet in 1957.

Image Notes: Illustration of a sunrise on Earth from qimono at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. Website: The Nobel Prize, Article title: Albert Camus – Banquet speech, Speech author: Albert Camus, Date of speech: December 10, 1957, Speech location: City Hall in Stockholm, Language: Original French, Website description: Information from The Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. (Accessed nobelprize.org on November 6, 2019) link
  2. Website: The Nobel Prize, Article title: Albert Camus – Banquet speech, Speech author: Albert Camus, Date of speech: December 10, 1957, Speech location: City Hall in Stockholm, Language: English translation, Website description: Information from The Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. (Accessed nobelprize.org on November 6, 2019) link
  3. 1958 February 26, Des Moines Tribune, Nobel Prize Winner Explains: Our Task: To Keep World From Destroying Itself (From the speech of acceptance delivered by Albert Camus at Stockholm, Sweden, upon the award to him of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1957), Quote Page 16, Column 4 and 5, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1991, Conversations with Bernard Malamud, Edited by Lawrence M. Lasher, Literary Conversations Series, Not Horror but Sadness by Joseph Wershba, (Article dated September, 14 1958; reprinted from “The New York Post”) Start Page 3, Quote Page 7, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1972, Quotations of Courage and Vision: A Source Book for Speaking, Writing, and Meditation, Selected by Carl Hermann Voss, Topic: Dedication, Quote Page 66, Association Press, New York (Verified with scans)