Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photosn
"Even my death will be contested. And yet what I desire most today is a quiet death, which would bring peace to those whom I love."
Albert Camus's prediction has been borne out—but not his hope. As France approaches next year's centennial of the French Algerian writer's birth, controversies have crackled over the meaning of his life and work. These battles, which have swept up intellectuals and politicians, have as much to do with France's troubled past—in particular its ties with its former colony Algeria—as they do with our own troubling present.
Camus was remarkable witness to his times. Like George Orwell, he was right about the plagues of the era—totalitarianism and Communism. Also like Orwell, Camus's lucid gaze, blunt honesty, and persistent humanity have made him as discomfiting and indispensable since his death in 1960 as he was during his short life.
Over the past couple of years, official efforts to commemorate Camus have faltered. In 2009, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal that the writer's remains be moved to the Panthéon, the neo-Classical pile dedicated to France's "great men," was assailed by critics, outraged that the conservative president was trying to yoke his name to a writer who had spent his life on the political left. While Sarkozy believed that he needed Camus, concluded Camus's biographer Olivier Todd, "Camus has no need for Sarkozy."
More recently, ideological and political collisions have capsized plans for a grand centennial exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, home of the Camus archives. Two exhibit directors, Benjamin Stora, a historian of French Algeria, and Michel Onfray, a popular philosopher (and author of a controversial biography of Camus), were toppled by political foes. The result has been paralysis. Officials in Aix insist that an exhibit, though more modest given Paris's refusal to subsidize the event, will nevertheless be held. The title of Stora's torpedoed exhibit, "Albert Camus: The Stranger Who Resembles Us," has never seemed truer.
Few writers were more conflicted over personal and national identity than Camus. He was a pied-noir, the moniker given to immigrants who came to French Algeria during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of them came from elsewhere in Europe, becoming citizens of a nation, France, whose language they did not speak, whose history they did not know, and whose soil they did not set foot on.
Algeria was nevertheless considered part of France, even with several million Arabs and Berbers who were denied the rights of citizenship. By the 1950s, Camus resembled one of his mythic heroes, Prometheus, chained not to a rock but to the impasse of Algeria's resistance to a foreign occupation—a French occupation. He labored for a solution that would satisfy the imperatives of justice for both Arabs and pieds-noirs, risking his life in pursuit of an impossible peace.
Camus's efforts failed, and he fell silent—a public silence that began in 1956 and remained almost unbroken until his death, four years later. One of the two notable interruptions was the publication, in 1958, of Chroniques algériennes, the collection of Camus's articles on Algeria. (In May, Harvard University Press will publish Arthur Goldhammer's masterly translation.)
The second exception was Camus's controversial reply, in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, to an Algerian student who was hectoring him for his public silence. Camus reminded the student that he had long denounced the political and economic repression of Arabs and Berbers, but that he also condemned the use of blind violence by Algerian nationalists: "People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother." If that doesn't sound quite right, it is because the familiar quotation—"I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice"—was the invention of the French newspaper Le Monde, which sympathized with the cause of Algerian nationalists and cordially despised Camus. Le Monde published a correction three days later.
After the so-called second Algerian War, or "black decade" of the 1990s, which pitted the government against Islamic fundamentalists, leaving more than 100,000 civilians dead, several Algerian writers discovered Camus as one of their own. Secular, moderate, and French-speaking, these Algerians saw a parallel between their own embattled identity vis-à-vis Muslim fundamentalists and Camus's insistence on the Algerian identity of the pieds-noirs.
These Algerian writers are drawn to Camus first because of his Algerian roots but also because his writing evokes universal values. That is perhaps why his spirit has hovered over the Arab Spring. Yesterday it was Camus, today it is Bouazizi, a Tunisian intellectual recently affirmed, referring to the young man whose suicide ignited the liberation movement in Tunisia and much of the rest of North Africa. "He is perhaps no longer part of our world, but he is not silent. ... His cry is primal: He demands the right to dignity, to work. He demands the right to enjoy the rights all humans should enjoy." The words are redolent of language from The Rebel.
Camus wrote against the deadly sophistries of communism and its penchant for rationalizing mass murder and political repression, but his lucid analysis also applies to the autocratic states of North Africa, which had long emphasized order over democracy, the status quo over the uncertainties of change. We were asked to overlook the corruption and brutality, to excuse it in the same paternalistic terms—the people are not ready for democracy—that Arab leaders used even as they were being pushed out the door.
In The Rebel, Camus described revolt as the response of human beings who, pushed too far, reject "the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition." For young Egyptians under an octogenarian rais, propped up by a murderous police force and billions in American military aid, for young Tunisians under a kleptomaniac ruler whose family turned the nation into a warehouse to pillage, and for young Libyans under a lunatic whose rule rivaled Caligula's over Rome, the moment finally arrived, as Camus put it, that "the outrage be brought to an end."
Before our age of social networks, Camus understood that rebellion swells from an individual to a collective response. "In our daily trials, rebellion plays the same role as does the 'cogito' in the realm of thought. ... I rebel—therefore we exist." Something has been violated in the individual that "does not belong to him alone, but which is common ground where all men—even the man who insults and oppresses him—have a natural community." For that reason, the rebel does not deny the humanity of his master; he denies him only as master. In order to exist, "man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits it discovers in itself—a limit where minds meet and, in meeting, begin to exist."
Therein lies the potential tragedy of the Arab Spring. The rebels in Tunisia and Egypt were acutely aware of the limits their humanity imposed, but the growing influence of Islamist parties, and their questionable adherence to the values that propelled them to power, threatens to transform spring into winter.
Far from meeting, minds instead verge on colliding. In The Rebel, Camus depicts rebellion, grounded in our shared humanity with others, including our foes, as modest and bounded by self-imposed constraints, while revolution, bound to abstract goals, is totalizing and without limit. Camus had in mind the Terror of the French Revolution and the gulag of the Soviet Union, but he would not have been surprised by, say, the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the path that the Arab Spring may take. Now, as then, "triumphant revolution" reveals itself "by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications."
Are all rebellions fated to take this path? Must they be unmade by the very same dynamic that led to their making? Camus places a desperate wager on the rebel's persistent humanity, but he does not explain how rebellion can be maintained without spilling into either revolution or reaction. At times he even seems to suggest that rebellion is, by its very nature, a noble but impossible ideal. For Rieux, the taciturn hero of The Plague, resistance against disease amounts to little more than "a never-ending defeat." For that reason, Camus insisted that there was no reason for hope but little reason for despair—a sentiment perhaps better suited for the ancient tragedians than modern political theorists, but one whose hard-won wisdom will always abide.
Camus's chronic inability to be lulled by the rationalizations we give for our own or others' actions, his infernal gift for forcing not just his own self, but also those around him, to reconsider deeply held beliefs, makes him our contemporary. Though we no longer face the threats of Nazism or Communism, we will always face a different kind of threat—the temptation to avert our eyes from our own age's man-made plagues, whether global warming or civil wars. Herein lies Camus's abiding significance. He had a habit, as Tony Judt wrote, of looking "in the mirror of his own moral discomfort." His work and life, in turn, hold that same mirror up to rest of us.
For Judt, Camus was, in a way, a Gallic George Orwell. The comparison is not unique to Judt but has been proposed by many writers and public figures, from Susan Sontag to Newt Gingrich.
The resemblances are, in fact, riveting. Both men were committed antifascists but also committed antitotalitarians; both risked their lives in the struggle against fascism (Orwell in Spain, Camus in occupied France); both were journalists and essayists as well as novelists (Camus the better novelist, Orwell the more skilled essayist); both, though despised by many on the European left, never surrendered their identification with the values of socialism; both, equally hostile to the imperial policies of their respective nations, lived parts of their lives in the colonies and refused to simplify their complex reality. Both men were also inveterate smokers, tubercular, and dead at the age of 46.
Most important, both men were moralists. While a moralizer has the answer before he is asked the question, a moralist has only questions after he hears the available answers. Defending Animal Farm against left-wing critics, Orwell declared: "Liberty is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." Around the same time, Camus vowed: "What belongs to the concentration camp, even socialism, must be called a concentration camp. In a sense, I shall never again be polite." Like Orwell, Camus condemned himself to a solitary public existence but always insisted on solidarity with the oppressed. For both men, this engagement amounted to a form of ethical exigency.
Obviously, the comparison goes only so far. While Camus read and admired Orwell's writings, the Englishman seems to have been unaware of Camus's work. One can, as a result, only imagine Orwell's response to the urgent tone and existential tension of, say, Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus." Yet the author of 1984 would perhaps have applauded his contemporary's claim: "Judging whether or not life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." The value of that life depends on the lucidity and honesty with which we live it, our suspicion of abstractions and ends, our embrace of details and means, and our certitude that answers must always be provisional.
There is one last, mostly overlooked quality shared by Camus and Orwell: They both loved nature. Orwell's attachment to the countryside undoubtedly contributed to his early death; his stay on the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, weakened his tubercular lungs. And the iconic black-and-white images of a pensive existentialist make us forget that Camus loved life and nature—and never accepted the label of existentialist.
In The First Man, his unfinished autobiographical novel, which was published posthumously, Camus recalls a childhood game he played at school. On windy days, the boys gather palm branches, rush to the terrace that overlooks the desert plains, and face the wind while gripping the branches. "The branch would immediately be plastered against them, they would breathe its smell of dust and straw. ... The winner was the one who first reached the end of the terrace without letting the wind tear the branch from his hands, then he would stand erect holding the palm branch at arm's length ... struggling victoriously for as long as possible against the raging force of the wind." Perhaps that is the image of Camus to which we should cling.