Albert Camus is much in the literary news right now, as the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of his birth. Here is an essay on him that I published in Books and Culture

in 1996, with a few small edits and links.

When I think of Albert Camus, two photographic images come to mind. The first is of that face, both thoughtful and tough, a cigarette drooping from the lips, the collar of a trench coat showing. The second is of the crushed automobile in which he died early in January 1960. These images are not important just to me; they may be said to define the dominant impression many readers had (and perhaps still have) of Camus. If Hollywood had invented an existentialist writer, the homely, scholarly Jean-Paul Sartre, with his squat body and thick spectacles, would not have made the cut. No, it would be Camus: he looked like Humphrey Bogart and died like James Dean.

What is ironic about all this is the simple fact that Camus came closest to existentialism at the beginning of his career in his first published novel, The Stranger, and in his first book of philosophy, The Myth of Sisyphus, both of which were published in 1942 — and Camus even claimed that the latter book was written as a conscious repudiation of existentialism. By the end of his life he had become completely alienated not just from existentialism as a philosophy but also from the whole French intellectual culture within which existentialism was then the dominant force. Perhaps if Camus had remained in lockstep with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir he would be more popular today. Instead, he remains perhaps the most neglected major author of the second half of this century — one of the few, along with W. H. Auden, Czeslaw Milosz, and a handful of others, who represent the nearly forgotten virtues of wisdom and courage.

Whatever we Christians aver about God’s sovereignty over our allotted span, like everyone else we regret it when it seems to us that lives are cut short, and we imagine what their possessors might have done with a few more years in which to work. It is impossible not to speculate about what Keats might have achieved had he been given more than a decade in which to write; it is hard to believe that Mozart would not have profited by living at least into his forties, or the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska by surviving the Great War and making it at least to 30.

Camus died at 46, and the recent publication of The First Man, the novel he was working on when he died, suggests that he would have made very good use of another five years. The First Man, as we have it, is but a draft fragment, a direct and unedited transcription from Camus’s final notebook — a notebook found, inside a briefcase, in the car in which he died. In the new Knopf edition it comes to over three hundred pages (albeit rather small ones), but the appended notes and outlines make it clear that this constitutes perhaps only a third of the book as Camus planned it. Beyond question, it would have been the most ambitious project of Camus’s life. One could even say that it would have been the first product of his full maturity as a writer and thinker, for, though he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 (when he was only 43), his political, philosophical, and literary vision was just beginning to achieve something like coherence. It is impossible for anyone who appreciates Camus’s work to read The First Man without a sharp pang of regret at what never came to be.

Though Sartre and Camus are often linked in the public mind, they are dramatically different figures. There was a brief period when they seemed on the verge of forming a real friendship: each had reviewed the other’s work positively, and when they met (in 1943), they discovered a mutual interest in the theater. Indeed, Sartre asked Camus to direct and act in a play he had just written, one that would prove to be his most famous: No Exit. Throughout the war, the two writers found themselves involved in the common cause of the Resistance. But their temperamental differences made a lasting friendship impossible. Sartre distrusted, and perhaps envied, Camus’s toughness and flamboyance, what one might call his Bogartisme; Camus distrusted, and perhaps envied, Sartre’s analytical and philosophical mind.

The breaking point in their tenuous relationship occurred in 1952, after Les Temps Modernes, the intellectual journal largely run by Sartre, published a hostile review by Francis Jeanson of Camus’s recent meditation on political philosophy, The Rebel. Camus directed his reply to Sartre (who he thought should at least have done the criticism himself): “I’m getting tired of seeing myself, and particularly seeing old militants who have known all the fights of their times, endlessly chastised by censors who have always tackled history from their armchairs.” Sartre retorted by saying that Camus was arrogant — “Tell me, Camus, what is the mystery that prevents people from discussing your books without robbing mankind of its reasons to live?” — and philosophically incompetent: “But I don’t dare advise you to consult Being and Nothingness. Reading it would seem needlessly arduous to you: you detest the difficulties of thought.”

Annie Cohen-Salal, Sartre’s biographer, is right to see ideological differences at the roots of this dispute: Sartre’s attempt to soft-pedal or even evade recognizing the evils of the Stalinist Soviet Union in hopes of sustaining the socialist vision, against Camus’s belief that Soviet Communism and fascism were morally equivalent. On this view, Sartre’s philosophical condemnation of The Rebel masks his anger at Camus’s total repudiation of violence as a means to achieve any political cause, however noble. As Cohen-Salal admits, Sartre’s tendency was to be “pragmatic” on such issues.

Pragmatic about means, perhaps, but absolutist about causes. Sartre believed, for instance, that the French in Algeria should all get out; if they did not, Algerian terrorists were justified in killing them. It was this issue — not the disagreement over Stalinism, about which Sartre eventually admitted he had been wrong (in 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary) — that ensured lasting enmity between Sartre and Camus. And it is this issue that proves central to Camus’s plans for The First Man.

Politically speaking, one could say that Sartre never overcame the Manichaean dichotomies that were arguably appropriate during the war against the Nazis. That the Soviets had stood against fascism placed them firmly on the side of the angels. (Best not to reflect, at least publicly, on the uncomfortable fact that Stalin had signed the Pact of Steel with Hitler, and that Hitler was the one who broke it.) For this reason, Sartre could forgive, or at least avert his eyes from, the purges of the 1930s and the continuing hell of the Gulag.

In Sartre’s political world there were only oppressors and oppressed: fascism stood for the former, communism for the latter. Likewise, in Algeria, since the native Algerians were by definition the oppressed, they were incapable of sin; conversely, the pieds noirs, the French colonists, were reprobate and irredeemable. Thus Sartre endorsed the decision of the Algerian FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) to kill any and all French men, women, and children in Algeria whenever possible, a position he was still taking in 1961 when he wrote a famous and lengthy introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, the major work by one of this century’s greatest theorists of terrorism, Franz Fanon.

Camus, on the other hand, was himself a pied noir; his family’s roots in Algeria went back a century and a half. Members of his family, including his mother, still lived in Algeria and were endangered daily by the FLN’s random shootings and bombings. Yet Camus was not, nor had he ever been, indifferent to the abuses the French had inflicted on the Arabs of Algeria. Indeed, in the 1930s, at the beginning of his career as a writer, Camus had striven ceaselessly to call attention to these abuses, but he was generally ignored — by the French Left no less than the Right.

So he was not pleased to have a difficult and morally complex political situation reduced to an opportunity for French intellectuals to strike noble poses: to those who would “point to the French in Algeria as scapegoats (‘Go ahead and die; that’s what we deserve!’),” Camus retorted, “it seems to me revolting to beat one’s mea culpa, as our judge-penitents do, on someone else’s breast.” Those who are really so guilt-stricken at the French presence in Algeria should “offer up themselves in expiation.”

Camus boldly affirmed that his family, “being poor and free of hatred” — and Camus really was raised in abject poverty — “never exploited or oppressed anyone. But three quarters of the French in Algeria resemble them and, if only they are provided reasons rather than insults, will be ready to admit the necessity of a juster and freer order.” It should, then, be possible to give the proper rights and freedoms to Algerian Arabs without condemning and destroying the pieds noirs indiscriminately, or forcing them out of the only country they had ever known.

But such subtleties were lost on almost everyone involved in this conflict. When Camus received the Nobel Prize in 1957 and gave a press conference in Stockholm, he was bitterly condemned by an Arab student for failing to endorse the FLN. His reply was simple, direct, and forceful: “I have always condemned the use of terror. I must also condemn a terror which is practiced blindly on the Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.”

Michael Walzer is almost unique among Camus’s commentators in seeing the significance of this stand: he identifies Camus as an example of the “connected social critic,” that is, the critic who does not stand above the political fray and judge with Olympian disinterest, objectivity, and abstraction. That was the way of Sartre: absolutist, universalizing, committed to a single overriding binary opposition, that between the oppressors and the oppressed. But for Camus, the universal could not so easily displace the local; commitment to “Justice” in the abstract could not simply trump his love for and responsibility to his family. “I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.”

Walzer points out, with regret, that Camus ceased to write about Algeria after 1958: “the silence of the connected social critic is a grim sign — a sign of defeat, a sign of endings. Though he may not be wrong to be silent, we long to hear his voice.” But the draft of The First Man suggests that Camus was not prepared to remain silent; instead, he was seeking a new way to speak about a complex social reality with which the common political discourse of the French intelligentsia could not cope. A fragmentary note makes this clear:

The two Algerian nationalisms. Algeria 39 and 54 (rebellion). What becomes of French values in an Algerian sensibility, that of the first man. The account of the two generations explains the present tragedy.

Jacques Cormery, Camus’s alter ego, is “the first man,” a kind of Adam in that he represents a new breed of human being: a pied noir, yes, a person of “French values in an Algerian sensibility,” but one who has been forced to acknowledge the claims of the native Algerians to equality as persons and under the law. In this sense he must support the nationalism of the 1930s, which sought just that, equality; but what can he say to the later nationalism of Ahmed Ben Bella, a leader of the FLN, whose slogan was “Algeria for the Algerians” and who was ready to kill any pied noir, however supportive of Algerian independence, who would not leave the country? And what can he say to Francois Mitterand, then France’s Interior Minister, who in 1954 said that with the Algerian rebels “the only possible negotiation is war”? Ben Bella and Mitterand, for all their mutual hatred, share a conception of the political sphere that cannot comprehend the moral imperative to love and defend one’s mother.

When Camus died, Sartre responded with a handsome eulogy, which reveals that, despite all their enmity, he understood the fundamental character of Camus’s work: “Camus represented in this century, and against History, the present heir of that long line of moralists whose works perhaps constitute what is most original in French letters. His stubborn humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged a dubious battle against events of these times. . . . He reaffirmed the existence of moral fact . . . against the Machiavellians.”

I cannot allow that last comment to pass without noting that Sartre was one of the Machiavellians against whom Camus contended. But it is indeed the moralistic tradition, the tradition of Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld, to which Camus belonged, and it is worth noting that this tradition has always had an ambivalent relationship to Christianity.

In a lecture called “The Unbeliever and Christians,” which Camus gave in 1948 at a Dominican monastery in France, he spoke in terms that eerily prefigure the Algerian crisis of the next decade: “Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun. . . . The program for the future is either a permanent dialogue or the solemn and significant putting to death of any who have experienced dialogue.” (The primary targets of FLN terrorism, at least at first, were neither pieds noirs nor French soldiers but rather Arab and Muslim moderates, that is, would-be compromisers and dialoguers.)

And the question that Camus puts to his Christian audience is, Which side will you be on? He is not sure of the answer; he fears that the Roman Catholic Church in particular will choose terror, if only terror by means of the papal encyclical, and argues that if that happens, “Christians will live and Christianity will die.”

In Camus’s first two novels, moral questions occupy the foreground, while Christianity occasionally flickers at the margins of the reader’s attention. In The Stranger, Camus’s first and most popular novel, the protagonist, Meursault, seems to be everything an existentialist antihero should be. He is alienated and confused. He commits a murder that appears to illustrate the existentialist theme of the acte gratuit, the gratuitous or utterly unconditioned act that is supposed to indicate the terrible freedom with which we humans are burdened. He is amoral, in the sense of being unable even to understand what others, especially the priest who visits his prison cell, call morality. Camus’s later (“admittedly paradoxical”) comments on Meursault did not help those who would like to know how we should evaluate this young man. What did Camus mean when he said that Meursault was condemned because he would not lie, would not “play the game”? Still more puzzling was his claim that Meursault is “the only Christ we deserve.” And when he suggested that those unfamiliar with the Algerian culture in which the book is set were likely to misunderstand Meursault, he was simply ignored.

Rieux, the protagonist of The Plague, Camus’s allegory of fascism and the resistance to it, is a clearly and profoundly moral man — perhaps because (not in spite) of his inability to explain and unwillingness even to think about the sources of his morality. Here religious questions are rigorously suppressed by Rieux’s own character, since he is the narrator of the story, though this is not revealed until the end of the book.

The narrator and protagonist of Camus’s last completed novel, The Fall, is almost as enigmatic as Meursault. But far from being amoral or unreflective about morality, the ex-lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells a story that concerns little other than his forced confrontation with his own moral failings. Camus’s lifelong interest in and reflection upon Christianity seems here on the verge of becoming something more serious: Clamence’s “confession” follows traditionally Christian patterns of penitence. One sees this even in the setting of the book, since Clamence, a man who always loved and craved the heights, has exiled himself to the low-lying city of Amsterdam — a city whose concentric circles of canals he compares to the circles of Dante’s Hell. Indeed, he describes himself as no longer a legal advocate but a “judge-penitent,” who confesses his sins to those whom he thinks might profit by his tale of woe. (As noted above, Camus used the phrase “judge-penitent” in reference to the critics of The Rebel; but their penitence was on behalf of others rather than themselves).

Christian readers, therefore, might be forgiven for hoping that The First Man would mark yet further development of Camus’s interest in Christianity. But such hopes, it appears, are misplaced. The moral and spiritual introspection, the penitential self-awareness, of Clamence are absent here — or rather, transposed into the key of filial affection, the relationship between a son and his mother. And it is the juxtaposition of this familial theme with the historical crises of modern Algeria that make The First Man a distinctive and potentially powerful work.

This is the most historically and culturally rich of all Camus’s books. Unlike his earlier protagonists, Jacques Cormery is fully situated in a social, and more particularly a familial, world. The news of Meursault’s mother’s death comes in the first line of The Stranger; in The Plague, Rieux is separated from his wife by a quarantine, and eventually he hears of her death in a sanitorium; the judge-penitent Clamence never married and lives alone in his exile. In some respects, Cormery is like these men: the ordinary social world seems absurd to him, his friendships are few and awkward, and he constantly seeks a self-understanding that he vaguely feels has been denied him by his father’s death when he was only an infant. But it is quite clear that his story is ultimately one of connectedness, emplacement, rootedness.

In the main text, one sees this in the lush romanticism of Camus’s descriptions of Cormery’s childhood: his play with friends, especially on the football field, his life with his family, his experiences at school where instruction and religion are mixed, and so on. This romantic language, whose long sentences seem to derive from Camus’s late-blooming fascination with Faulkner, contrasts rather dramatically with Camus’s typical narrative austerity. The First Man is so autobiographical that Camus sometimes forgets the fictional names he has assigned the characters and uses the real names of his family members. Moreover, in the notes for uncompleted sections of the book we see emerging with striking clarity a plan to depict not only Cormery’s relationship to his mother but his increasing awareness of the centrality of that relationship in his life and of the dignity and strength of his mother’s existence. One sees this plan with particular force and eloquence in this passage from the notes:

I want to write the story of a pair joined by the same blood and every kind of difference. She is similar to the best the world has, and he quietly abominable. He thrown into all the follies of our time; she passing through the same history as if it were that of any time. She silent most of the time, with only a few words at her disposal to express herself; he constantly talking and unable to find in thousands of words what she could say with a single one of her silences . . . Mother and son.

But the apparently timeless intensity of this bond between mother and son is always placed within the context of Algerian history. It appears that Cormery’s recognition of the depth of his love for his mother was to emerge in large part from her constant endangerment by the bombs of terrorists, whose beliefs and purposes she never understands, occupied as she is by the difficulties of living with scarce resources in a harsh world. And this attempt to live in peace and with dignity in the midst of violence dominates her experience long before the rebellion of the fifties, since it was in the Great War that she had lost her husband: “A chapter on the war of 14. Incubator of our era. As seen by the mother? Who knows neither France, nor Europe, nor the world. Who thinks shells explode of their own volition, etc.”

Thus it seems clear that the lyrical nostalgia of the drafts — their Edenic character, evident in the book’s title, and so reminiscent of the work of Dylan Thomas — was to be contextualized, though not, I think, discredited or ironized, by an ever-deeper immersion in the violent world of modern history. Or so Jacques Cormery, with his education and his experience of Europe in the second of its great wars, might characterize the narrative movement. Camus’s greatest narrative challenge, it appears, would have been to allow his mother’s experience its full scope: “Alternate chapters would give the mother’s voice. Commenting on the same events but with her vocabulary of 400 words.” Some people, it seems, are in history, however unwittingly or unwillingly; but only Cormery and Camus and readers like us are, strictly speaking, of it. But how can this be portrayed in art?

The late literary critic Northrop Frye once reflected on the curious fact that the nineteenth century found it obvious that Hamlet was Shakespeare’s greatest play, while the twentieth century has, for the most part, bestowed that honor on King Lear. For our predecessors, the problems of Hamlet, which revolve around the nature and stature of the individual human person, were paramount; in our century, we have come to contemplate Lear’s dilemma, which is to find the line (if it exists) that separates the tragic from the absurd. What, Frye mused, will be the essential Shakespearean play of the next century? His admittedly speculative answer was Antony and Cleopatra, because that play represents a situation that more and more people in our world will face: the confrontation of deeply personal desires with world-historical events, or, in other words, the potentially tragic consequences of the creation of a global village.

To get Frye’s point, we need only recall the now-general agreement, which has arisen among warring parties in this century, to disregard old distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, to eliminate the concept of “civilian.” But these movements are economic as well as military. I think of a Guatemalan farmer whom my wife once met: he could not get his crops to market because, suddenly, he could no longer afford the necessary gasoline, gasoline that had risen in price because of the Gulf War. So a man who had never heard of George Bush or Saddam Hussein was in danger, because of their actions, of losing the ability to feed his family. That people may find themselves implicated against their will in historical events is nothing new; but the reach of historical (political, economic) movements has gotten so long so quickly that the connections have become strange, and hard for most of us to accept.

It is precisely this bizarre juxtaposition of the personal and the historical, or this erasure of the line between the two, that Camus was seeking to elaborate in The First Man. This was to have been his answer to his critics, to those who failed to comprehend, or who found inexcusable, his decision to defend his mother before some abstract notion of justice. In recent years, similar concerns have emerged in the fiction of V. S. Naipaul, especially A Bend in the River, and in a very different way in the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. But I think Camus was the first to see the full implications of this massive change in the nature of historical experience.

Camus never wrote a great book, though each of the three novels he published in his lifetime is nearly perfect. His plays, stories, and essays reveal a similarly high level of technical accomplishment and thematic depth. But clearly he had not found the subject that would enable him to fulfill his promise and exercise his abilities to their full — until, perhaps, The First Man. Though it would not have been the novel that Christian readers of The Fall might have wished for, it could well have been Camus’s most impressive work. Having had his (fictional) say about Algeria, having explored and portrayed the cultural complexities that the French intelligentsia refused to acknowledge, having paid a proper tribute to the dignity and value of his mother’s life, would he have returned to the spiritual quest that so dominated The Fall? That, alas, we cannot know. But now, at least, we have stronger testimony to Camus’s moral integrity, if not to a movement toward Christian faith.

Edward Said has called Camus “the archetypal trimmer,” one who altered his opinions to gain the approval of others. If this were true, then no one could ever have trimmed more ineptly, since Camus’s simultaneous insistence upon the validity of Algerian complaints and upon the innocence of his family (and others like them) earned him nothing but contempt from both sides. In fact, Said’s statement is a monstrous calumny. Camus was a sinner, like all of us, and can be faulted for many things. But in two ways he is, I think, an exemplary figure. He had the wisdom to see that political justice is never simple and cannot be reduced to simplistic binary oppositions between the oppressors and the oppressed; and he had the courage, in the most stressful of circumstances and in the face of the bitterest opposition, to repudiate the cheap virtue that such oppositions always represent.

Perhaps this is a naive idealization, but I think that Camus’s face, in those later photographs, reveals something of his character: stubborn, as Sartre said, but upright, and willing to acknowledge just how hard it is to know what Truth or Justice is in any given case. After all, when he died he was very near the age at which, as George Orwell said, every man has the face he deserves.

Text Patterns

November 7, 2013