Last year was the centenary of the birth of Albert Camus. I am sad to say that very little was said about it. It is no consolation to notice that the centenaries of the births and deaths of most other writers, artists, scientists and other intellectual luminaries also pass unnoticed. Perhaps the upcoming bicentennial of the births of Charlotte Bronte (1816), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1817), Karl Marx (2018), Herman Melville (1819) and Queen Victoria (1819) will catch the attention of the mass media, the major educational institutions and a cultural facility or two. Perhaps the “Royals” will still be in fashion and the United Kingdom will make a few tourist dollars on the name of the last Empress of India. Perhaps not; after all, in the new information age, such trifling historical details seldom seem important. We are not much interested in the past. We are not even interested in chronology.
Still, to take note of historical details might offer an opportunity to recall a familiar face, to revisit events and achievements and to reflect upon the possibility that something worthwhile might have happened and that the contributions that people once made could and should be reconsidered. In a few instances, such reflections might help us to redeem ourselves in the present.
For those unfamiliar with him, Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria in 1913 and died in a car crash near the hamlet of Petit Villeblevin in France in 1960. He was an actor and theatrical director with the Theatre du Travail in Algiers and, more importantly a figure in the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation in World War II. He wrote plays, novels, essays and notebooks (cahiers) which were published in many languages. His most famous novel was The Stranger which has been injudiciously lumped in with the literature of “existentialism.” His most important non-fiction book was The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. While he was risking his life in the Resistance, many of the “left intellectuals” spent the Occupation swanning around the cafés and bistros of Paris and later denounced him for being insufficiently revolutionary. And, yes, for a brief time, there was even a “conspiracy theory” about his death; the KGB did it, said an Italian scholar on the basis of some speculation by a Czech poet “who had heard …” (Zaretsky, 2013). “Camus the victim of a conspiracy,” said one comedian, “absurd!”
The easiest entry point into his thought and art is probably The Myth of Sisyphus. If you are anything like me, once you start reading Camus, you won’t stop. I encountered him first in 1961. He haunts me still.
The wise judges of the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. He certainly deserved it. The wise editors at Penguin thought it was time for a new and better English translation of L’Étranger and have published an excellent new version by Sandra Smith. I hope it will encourage teachers to read it and, if they do, they will surely encourage students to do the same. That would be a blessing. Camus, after all, was properly called the “conscience” of his generation (and of mine). If there’s anything our species could use now (or anytime, I suppose, but especially now), it’s a conscience.
The wise editors at Harvard’s Belknap Press thought of something as well. They thought it would be a good idea to publish a collection of all the occasional writings about the Algeria and the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) that Camus had published, mainly in newspapers until he stopped speaking of the subject in 1958. It contains everything from his early journalism that revealed the unspeakable poverty of the Berbers in Kabylia to his writings about the terrorist attacks of the Algerian Front de Libération nationale and the torture of civilians by the French authorities seeking desperately to suppress the rebellion. There is some previously unpublished material and a good deal of other work that is likely familiar to people who are students of Camus, the Algerian struggle and events concerning politics and violence, especially in Arab lands.
Why, it will be asked, should people care about what a long-dead pied-noir, an Algerian of European ancestry (Camus’ ancestors came from France and Spain)? It could only be of antiquarian interest to anyone not directly connected to the conflict or its consequences were it not for the fact that it speaks calmly and clearly to the multiple, sequential and interconnected crises of our time.
Camus did not live to see the end of the Algerian war, but he saw what it would mean and he felt the agony of a participant-observer who was not torn between the two sides, but aghast at how and why the two sides were tearing each other apart. He said this:
The inexcusable massacres of French civilians will lead to other equally stupid attacks on Arabs and Arab property. It is as if madmen inflamed by rage found themselves locked in a forced marriage from which no exit was possible and therefore decided on mutual suicide. Forced to live together but incapable of uniting their lives, they chose joint death as the lesser evil.
Of course, however mad the conflict, the two combatants didn’t die. They divorced cruelly and remorselessly. An exit was possible after all, but it was a lesser result than Camus would have wished. He was a man of the political left, but he was not doctrinaire. He hated colonialism, but was himself a colonial despite his childhood poverty. He rejected violence on both sides and paid the price by having to risk his life to intervene in the cases of 150 “terrorists” sentenced to death, while being denounced by the revolutionaries for refusing to endorse their campaign of terror.
It’s not that he rejected labels, but that none easily applied to him. He simply argued lucidly, firmly and constantly for the elementary aspects of conscience: reason, compassion, humanity and democracy. He was an unabashed moralist in politics. This was seen as weakness. He wanted equal rights for the Arabs and an end to colonialism while also condemning the techniques of torture used by the French and the “blind terrorism” on the streets of Algiers. This was seen as betrayal by both sets of combatants. In the situation, he words failed. The Algerian Chronicles are mainly a translation of his book Actuelles III which was published in France in 1958, and almost totally ignored at the time. Empathy, understanding and a passionate humanitarianism were not welcomed from him in his time.
Liberty is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear – George Orwell
The reason that Camus’ writings on Algeria are so important today is that we are arguably in a far worse time. The events the Middle East following the attack on the United States in 2001 are not a mirror of those in Algeria fifty years ago. They are those events multiplied exponentially, armed with weapons able to destroy whole populations and wielded by politicians and soldiers who are driven by no less hatred than the ones Camus encountered; what’s more, there are no better prospects for resolution. At least the Algerian conflict was ended decisively within eight years. The post-9/11 conflict (to say nothing of its antecedents that go back at least as far as the Ottoman Empire) has lasted longer, is immensely more complicated and shows no sign of abatement.
Meanwhile, beginning in Tunisia in North Africa, a simultaneous pattern of events is unfolding which gave hope to people in and out of the region as putatively populist campaigns and demonstrations brought down ruthless dictatorships and offered what appeared to be a whisper of hope for democratic modernization; yet, although each case needs to be understood in its own terms, there have been no unambiguous results and in some cases armed struggle has simply taken new forms. Despite the freshness of the “Arab Spring” a harsh Arab Winter is following.
For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an ‘emergency’ without a foreseeable end. Such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own. – C. Wright Mills
I urge that this book be taken up and read carefully. The specific events and the long-dead victims are antique, but the issues are alive today and the inflamed passions that brought dislocation, mutilation, pain and death to all sides are multiplied. The saddest part of the old narrative is that people then rejected Camus’ sanity in the name of ideology; the still sadder part of today’s story is that anyone daring to propose ways to solve problems is pre-dismissed as naive and unrealistic.
C. Wright Mills, the American sociologist, had a phrase for such people: “crackpot realists” who were content to calculate mega-deaths and play war games using real people and real blood, all the while telling anyone who would listen that such acts were necessary lest worse should befall. Since Camus wrote, as he said, “to calm things down to the point where reason might again play its part,” it is required of us as citizens and as educators to insert reason into our projects, one of which is to help students to distinguish between good and evil and then to assist them in deciding how to promote good and inhibit evil. While there is some evidence of callous calculation in certain quarters, it does not amount to reason for the simple reason that the calculations are taking place outside the boundaries of simple morality and of sanity.
Incidentally, in 2010 former French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that Camus’ remains be moved from the small town of Lourmarin to the heroic Pantheon in Paris. One of Camus’ several biographers observed that it was obvious that Sarkozy needed Camus more than Camus needed Sarkozy. A better tribute came from Catharine Camus, Albert’s daughter: “My father is a very approachable writer. People feel close to him,” she said. “He asks the questions which are at the heart of our existence” (qtd. in Lichfield, 2010). It is time to approach him again, for our sake.
Litchfield, J. (2010, January 5). Why Sarkozy won’t let Camus rest in peace. The Independent. Retrieved December 22, 2013) from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/why-sarkozy-wont-let-camus-rest-in-peace-1857770.html
Zaretsky, R. (2011, August 13). A Russian plot? No, a French obsession. New York Times. Retrieved December 20, 2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/opinion/sunday/the-kgb-killed-camus-how-absurd.html
Howard A. Doughty teaches Political Economy and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com