Albert Camus

Start Free Trial

Alan W. Woolfolk (essay date Summer 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Dangers of Engagement: Camus' Political Esthetics," in Mosaic, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 59-70.

[In the following essay, Woolfolk discusses Camus's political sympathies and overriding artistic ideals. According to Woolfolk, Camus resisted participation in revolutionary causes due to his belief that political ideology limits the artist's experience and creative vision.]

"True artists," Camus stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "force themselves to understand instead of judging." In this respect, he is not unlike his character Tarrou, the former political revolutionary in The Plague, who admits:

For many years I've been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn. As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I've been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone…. I leave it to others to make history. I know, too, that I'm not qualified to pass judgment on those others.

Similarly, the title of the novel itself suggests Camus' critical attitude toward judgment, the "plague" being the ancient Biblical symbol of punishment for wrong-doing.

At the same time, however, Camus also sensed that understanding had its limits, and that it was necessary to preserve the ability to deny, to say No to experience, to judge or condemn those who committed violence in the name of history. And it is this recognition that is the key to his attitude toward the writer's role in society.

Despite Camus' unquestioned sympathy for the victims of social injustice and political exploitation, art did not encompass for him, as it did for many of his contemporaries, an overwhelming involvement in politics. Art might be required to limit politics, but never should politics limit art. Political commitment or engagement was for him an entanglement which led to contemporary nihilism. Accordingly, rather than the expression engagement, Camus chose with a note of irony the term embarqué to indicate his deep reluctance at finding himself, almost against his will, compelled to address political concerns. I say almost because Camus was anything but unmoved by "history's woes." For instance, his early and consistent theme of passionate indignation over the miseries of poverty was perhaps most openly expressed in his 1939 reporting for the leftist newspaper Alger Républicain, in a series entitled "Misère de la Kabylie." Later, this indignation was overshadowed by his unflagging resistance to political violence and terror enacted in the name of abolishing such impoverishment in Algeria and elsewhere. In both cases his passionate rejection of misery precluded political commitment: "The only really committed artist is he who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance." Camus found that he could no more side with left-wing militants than with right-wing militarists, since both groups were prepared to engage in violent acts that would destroy art and ultimately all civilization.

At nearly the same time that Camus began writing during the early 1930s, the image of the engagé intellectual became popular in French culture. According to the leftist Catholic, Emmanuel Mounier, who was...

(This entire section contains 5100 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

one of the first to reintroduce the idea to the educated French public after the Dreyfus case, "to be viable one's action must have both a will to be efficacious and a spiritual ingredient. It is a double polarity, prophetic and political, and a constant tension between the two poles must exist." Despite a brief membership in the Communist Party and two years of anti-government newspaper reporting, which resulted in his being evicted from Algeria, as a young man Camus rejected, albeit ambivalently, the criterion of political efficacy. In a prewar review of communist Paul Nizan'sLa Conspiration, he stated that "Nizan requires an engagement in which a man relinquishes himself, and with himself his prejudices and choices…. We cannot follow him on that terrain." Camus' reluctant attitude toward judgment, however, immediately moved him to equivocate: "But, all things considered, it is as futile a problem as that of immortality, an affair that a man solves for himself and upon which one should not pass judgment." He concluded, on this occasion, that in the case of the writer his work must serve as evidence for judging the effect of engagement.

Building upon this criterion in his later writings, Camus grew to oppose political commitment precisely because it threatened to overwhelm the higher discipline that art represented in the distracting immediacies of the struggle for power. It was not simply a matter, as he wrote nearly twenty years after the Nizan review, of art being "threatened by the powers of the state." It was "more complex, more serious too," as soon as it became "apparent that the battle is waged within the artist himself." Art loses from such a "constant obligation." It loses that "ease, to begin with, and that divine liberty so apparent in the work of Mozart." Camus thought it obvious "why we have more journalists than creative writers, more boyscouts of painting than Cézannes, and why sentimental tales or detective novels have taken the place of War and Peace or The Charterhouse of Parma." Implicitly, he understood that all genuine art, as higher culture, lives only if it can successfully discipline the momentary imperative to become engaged.

Camus did not escape unscathed from the conflict between politics and art. His statement on the occasion of accepting the Nobel Prize that "to create today is to create dangerously" reflects his recognition that the literary imagination had come loose from its traditional forms and was opening itself to dangerous creative possibilities. Elsewhere, too, he stated that "if we bring ourselves as artists into the positions we take up as men the experience will, in an unseen but powerful way, weaken our power of speech." In his role as artist, he recognized the danger of incoherence first of all within himself. Yet, like Marx and Engels in nineteenth-century London and the revolutionaries of eighteenth-century Paris, Camus found it impossible to avert his eyes from the misery and unhappiness of the masses: "What characterizes our time, indeed," he stated, "is the way the masses and their wretched condition have burst upon contemporary sensibilities."

In the course of his lifelong response to the social question, Camus developed a bold and perhaps fatal artistic strategy: he returned to the fundamental demands for justice underlying modern politics in its revolutionary form and swallowed them whole into his art, on the gamble that successful incorporation would allow for a more meaningful and less violent externalization of emotions. Thus, the imperative of responding to raw physical suffering and biological need witnessed in "Misère de la Kabylie" reappears again and again in his writings. Prompted by what Hannah Arendt has called passion in its noblest form, "compassion," Camus stubbornly refused to let go of the theme of abject suffering. Implacable, he insisted on recruiting what he thought was the raison d'être of Marxist and socialist politics into the camp of literature rather than allowing them to subsume art: "We writers of the twentieth century … must know that we can never escape the common misery and that our only justification, if indeed there is a justification, is to speak up, insofar as we can, for those who cannot do so." Caught between the demands of his art and the demands of political commitment, Camus attempted to work out an apology for the relevance of art in the twentieth century. As in the case of the Christian apologists, the crucial question, from the perspective of all higher, ennobling culture, hinged on whether he could successfully close the abyss of possibilities that he dared to open.

There have been several notable attempts within European literature to broaden the imagination to the point where it might control or at least contain the involvement of thought and action in modern politics. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the best known example, but it is notable in particular because of Orwell's attitude of total acceptance toward the corruptions of political power. Winston Smith, after all, does not symbolically triumph over O'Brien. In the end Winston has moved beyond personal despair because he has been so completely emptied of any memory and the capacity for love that there is nothing left to do but consummate his totalitarian surrender and "love" Big Brother. Winston's acquiescence to the ultimate political regime imaginatively represents what Orwell elsewhere predicted in a mood of total despair: "The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence. But this means that literature, in the form in which we know it, must suffer at least a temporary death."

Another political novel of the same era, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, is almost as pessimistic in that it ends with the sacrifice of the old Bolshevik, Rubashov, to the totality of the Party. Yet it extends beyond what Orwell himself described as the unusual ability of a good political writer—"to imagine oneself as the victim"—to what Rubashov calls the evil of the Bolshevik mind: "We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic: we are sailing without ethical ballast." Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine goes still further in its attempt to dominate and transform the meaning of political commitment. Just as Rubashov expresses his speculation about the nature of the Party evil in the privacy of his diary, so the committed Marxist Pietro Spina asks in the privacy of his jottings whether his denial of "petit bourgeois prejudices" is not the source of his error. But, as Camus once pointed out in a review of Bread and Wine, Silone's lesson represents a "return from an abstract philosophy of the revolution to the bread and wine of simplicity." In consequence, Silone stands closer to Camus' goals of assigning limits to revolutionary thought and establishing the supremacy of artistic insight.

These goals are most clearly expressed in Camus' own interpretation of Martin du Gard's Les Thibault, which he considered one of the first novels to have mastered the dangers of political commitment. Camus makes his case for the superiority of artistic over political meaning by arguing for the symbolic strength of the rebellious Antoine over his revolutionary socialist brother, Jacques. While both men are deeply moved enough by the existence of human misery to leave the narrowness of their private lives for a broader world of public purpose, Jacques' character transformation is "less significant," less profound, less persuasive because he adheres to the reason of revolutionary doctrine. In Camus' analysis, the unreality of revolutionary ideas introduces a shallow thought-world that uproots and destroys lives. Their emptiness is betrayed in the impatience of Jacques "who can be satisfied only by action" and who dies, finally, as a terrorist. In contrast, Antoine proves to be the "true hero" precisely because he is the deeper or "richer character" when compared with his politically committed brother. Politics does not consume his social relationships. The revulsion he feels at "the recognition of a common misery" extends beyond politics into his profession of medicine, which, Camus implies, helps both to deepen and to order his life. In the end Antoine is the more uncertain but stable, even when confronting death, for having rejected the ideological passions of political commitment.

Camus' rejection of political commitment, intellectually and emotionally, rests upon the argument that revolutionary doctrine corrupts the original feeling of indignation and revulsion over the perceived injustices of the world by narrowing their expression to the political realm alone. As to the desirability of having these feelings in the first place, Camus simply took this for granted, implicitly invoking the insights of the modern novel in particular. As he saw it, Dostoevsky had established beyond a doubt the justification for intense and passionate revolt in the face of human misery through the character of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan's fault lay not in his revolt against creation but in the rationalization of his rebellion to the point of imagining that "everything is permitted." Intellectualization marked his fall into the political temptations expressed by the Grand Inquisitor.

Camus thought it quite clear that not "everything is permitted." But he was not about to appeal to a vision of sacred order to narrow the possibilities that the imperatives of suffering and misery raised. If any created order existed, it was created by men; hence, the importance of the artist. As an exemplary rebel, the artist represented a disciplining of creative energies, a tempering of experience, because of a loyalty to the very forms on which art depends. "Both the historical mind and the artist seek to remake the world," Camus wrote, "but the artist, through an obligation of his very nature, recognizes limits the historical mind ignores." As to where this "nature" came from, Camus, except on rare occasions, did not deign to ask.

Camus' case against Marxist thought repeats many familiar points concerning its questionable scientific basis, the inaccuracies of its economic-historical predictions, its bourgeois prejudice in favor of economic-technological development, and its similarity to certain aspects of Christian thought. But the crux of Camus objections pertains to the subordination of the personality to historical demands, especially the demands of faith. Since Marxism, like Christianity, places man within a historical rather than a natural universe, Camus sees Marxist doctrine as suppressing both the opportunity for spontaneous revolt and the achievement of self-limitation by the autonomous personality. It is only insofar as Marxism envisions a release from the demands of history that he is sympathetic: "the aims, the prophecies are generous and universal," Camus writes of Marxism, "but the doctrine is restrictive, and the reduction of every value to historical terms leads to the direst consequences." More specifically, these serious consequences result from the denial of "ethical demands that form the basis of the Marxist dream." According to Camus, Marx himself was a rebel: "he rebelled against the degradation of work to the level of a commodity and of the worker to the level of an object." He affirmed the natural dignity of man. But Marx corrupted his original ethical demands when rebellion against injustice gave way to prophetic demands, not so much the prophecy of release from history into the Communist community of true individuals, as the prophecy of a protracted historical development that places the meaning of history at its end. In Camus' terms, Marx was a "fatalist," for by accepting the necessity of class struggles and economic progress, Marx accepted the necessity of misery and violence, of punishment in the name of the future. It no longer matters that the Kingdom of Ends is established by dictatorship and violence, that suffering becomes merely provisional and will be forgotten. And even if the "New Jerusalem" is achieved, "echoing with the roar of miraculous machinery," Camus asks, "who will still remember the cry of the victim?"

Despite the fact that Marxism is built upon what Camus sees as the Hegelian destruction of transcendence, parallels between the Old Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem run throughout Camus' analysis. Behind the historical interpretation of social reality, Camus ultimately finds the demands of faith. The punishing consequences of the fatalistic acceptance of misery result from neither an economics nor a science of history but from a religion of history imposed by a doctrinal faith. While he finds much to criticize in Marx's economic predictions and his submission to "the economic imperative" in a world governed by "the cult of production," it is the subordination of economic and scientific reasoning to the prophecy of an end to history that turns reason toward the rationalization of terror and violence. Doctrinal faith, in the form of Marxism, repeats the mistake of Christianity, which subjected "living reason to dead faith and freedom of the intellect to the maintenance of temporal power." Intellectualization corrupts the original moral demands associated with the virtues of revolt and leads to the quest for power. Because Camus operates from the assumption that there are no final or religious answers to the misery of living, he links all doctrines proclaiming such saving answers to the tendency toward "intellectual Caesarism." All authority is seen as a consequence of this bad habit of intellectualizing, which, if it is not simply a mask for power, certainly is a metaphor for the same.

Camus' reading of Western cultural history responds with an acute sensitivity to the problem of legitimacy in the modern state that Max Weber most clearly identified. He simply could not accept an ordinary answer to the extraordinary problem of justifying the use of violence. But his sensitivity to the violence at the root of the modern state—which will not be resolved, as he grasped in his anguish, by the intellectual trick of equating authority with legitimate power—was complicated by his anarchistic revolt against any theory of public authority. Having pointed to the crippled capacity to distinguish right from wrong peculiar to our times, Camus proceeded to call into question all authoritative standards of judgment, traditional and otherwise, by suggesting that they are a "plague" without purpose. The terror of power asserts itself not merely through intellectual creeds but especially by means of the repressive judgments, the thou shalt nots, against the spontaneous expressions of the human spirit. Camus compounded a variety of irreconcilable theories of the decline of Christianity to arrive at the charge that it is the Judaic heritage in Western culture that has led to the punishing demands of history and to the destruction of the Greek concept that man lives in a natural universe. Frightened by the injustice of the modern state, Camus simply projected his sense of injustice backward into the Western traditions that he otherwise recognized as having been decisively rejected by modern revolutionaries, with the result that he accented the continuity of religious and revolutionary traditions at the same time that he questioned their unity.

Camus' confusion of religious and revolutionary motifs can be directly traced to his concept of the sacred. He assumes that "only two possible worlds can exist for the human mind: the sacred (or, to speak in Christian terms, the world of grace) and the world of rebellion." As a consequence, the revolutionary thought-world of Marxism is assimilated to the realm of the sacred. But under the category of the sacred he conflates two contradictory motifs. The world of the Old Testament, for example, is antinomian. It is simultaneously controlling and violative, interdictory and transgressive, resulting in a violence that always subverts but never subserves traditional judgments. Themes of gratuitous violence, hatred, frenzy and massive infliction of injustice dominate any possibility of impulse control. Punishment is meaningless, senseless, absurd: The Plague "shows that the absurd teaches nothing" because the Biblical symbol of repressive control punishes without purpose. God prefers Abel's sacrifice over Cain's and demands Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Likewise, the Christian God permits the sacrifice of Ivan's innocent children for no apparent reason, just as Marxism in practice demands sacrifices in the name of the future. Camus' understanding of judgment completely ignores the notion of punishment as a sanction that supports controls upon experience. But even more significantly, his understanding closes off the possibility of revelation. There is no revelation of criminal possibilities in the heart of man and, therefore, no opportunity to repent and live under a new collective and individual order.

Prophecy is a dead tradition as seen through the eyes of Camus. Its remoteness from urban-technological culture is explicit in the sermons of Father Paneloux in The Plague and in the inverted apologetics of the false prophet Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall, and implicit in Camus' conception of prophecy as a literal prediction about the future unrelated to an inner return to the past in The Rebel. In the latter work, especially, Camus overlooks the fact that the Western prophetic traditions were a recall to the repressive limits of the past, which were revolutionary only insofar as they were culturally conservative. To the Jewish prophets, for example, punishment was a revelation of violation of the Commandments. Camus' linking of Judaic and Christian traditions with Marxist prophecy obscures the complete break with traditional conceptions of man envisioned by Marx: for the Marxist prophecy of the future Communist identity liberated from traditional necessities carries powerful anti-repressive implications for the personality. When Camus states that "by demanding for the workers real riches, which are not the riches of money but of leisure and creation," Marx reclaimed the "dignity of man," he assumes the continuation of an ascetic personality type which Marx did not. For Camus, "creation" and "leisure" involved repressive necessities that mandated withdrawal from the world. A literary vocation was no leisure time activity worked in between some morning hunting and afternoon fishing, but rather an exclusive act of devotion which opened the way into a meaningful life. Fixation of activity was the very precondition of the achievement of identity.

Camus did not subscribe to the Marxist and humanist conception in which a person becomes fully human only through liberation from specific vocational, communal, national and religious identities. Yet his rejection of Western religious traditions inevitably pushed him toward the abstract humanist language of "humanity" and "mankind" (which Marx transformed into the "proletariat"), conceptually cutting him loose from the moorings of particular commitments. Camus' great admiration for Simone Weil, however, betrays the conservative assumptions implicit in his idea of human dignity. In The Need for Roots, for instance, Weil makes quite explicit the theological grounding of her defense of restraining commitments to vocation, community and nation. Camus simply ignored any such theologizing while exemplifying in much that he said and did the importance of particularity, of the need for roots, even though the demand for engagement pulled him toward an abstract, rootless conception of mankind and justice. Ungrounded in either an explicit or implicit theology, Camus found his roots in his literary vocation and French-Algerian homeland.

Unconsciously, at first, and then by conscious design, Camus became increasingly obedient to what he saw as the demands of the French literary tradition in modern society. Much the same pattern of return to constraining demands linked to the past repeats itself, but at a slower pace, with regard to Camus' commitment to French Algeria. Distraught over the increasing terror and violence of both "liberation" and colonial forces during the 1950s, Camus adamantly rejected the policies of both sides. Despite his protests against the irresponsible conduct of French colonial rule, Camus' sympathy with the misery-stricken population of Algeria precluded "a policy of surrender that would abandon the Arab people to an even greater misery, tear the French in Algeria from their century-old roots, and favor, to no one's advantage, the new imperialism now threatening the liberty of France and of the West."

Increasingly, the binding character of communal-national origins became a significant aspect of Camus' thought, progressing to the subject of Camus' own origins in his unfinished autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme. But Camus followed the conservative theorizing of theologists such as Weil only so far, for in his conception writing was a "man's trade" and not a "gift of grace." The background of Le Premier Homme was to have been "those lands without a past" of which he wrote in L'Été, "lands of imagination, composed of a mixing of races." He imagined "a 'first man' who starts at zero, who can neither read nor write, who has neither morality nor religion." It was to have been the story of the creation of human culture, but this time without the antinomian excesses of historical doctrines.

Conservative modern theorists from Burke and Tocqueville to Arendt have assumed that people can become and remain human only to the extent that they identify with, and thereby limit themselves by means of, binding communal commitments. These commitments have been public commitments to vocation, community, class, nation and religion. Because Camus refused to articulate a public doctrine to oppose the radical break with traditional commitments explicit in Marxist doctrine, he frequently emphasized the importance of personal commitments, especially friendship, as the basis of social order. For him, justice, morality and social order were the consequence of personal loyalties, close to what American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley called primary relationships. Denial of binding affective ties permitted the excesses of nihilism. For this reason, Camus underscored the nihilistic significance of Nechave's sacrifice of friendship and love for the revolution. (Paragraph 6 of the Revolutionary Catechism reads: "Hard with himself, he must be hard towards others. All the tender feelings of family life, of friendship, love, gratitude and even honour must be stifled in him by a single cold passion for the revolutionary cause.") Camus assumed that political commitment suppresses the personal experiences necessary to the creation of public life, that it prevents their diffusion into society by destroying the private life of love and friendship itself.

The same basic charge is at the heart of Camus' argument that Lenin "never ceased to fight mercilessly against the sentimental forms of revolutionary action." Although Camus has in mind anarchism and syndicalism, the sentiments to which he refers spring from the affections of private existence. But in the case of Lenin, Camus openly admits what is elsewhere unstated—that Lenin "wanted to abolish the morality of revolutionary action because he believed, correctly, that revolutionary power could not be established while still respecting the Ten Commandments." Here, Camus not only acknowledges the importance of traditional controls to his conception of the private sphere, but he also specifically refers to prohibitions that are at the center of what he rather vaguely calls "the Judaic heritage" and "the God of the Old Testament." Plainly, if Lenin was despotic because he opposed the Commandments, then despotism must not result from traditional judgments. Camus' very understanding of the spontaneous expressions of the private life was so deeply imbued with traditional assumptions about the hierarchical nature of man that he could not imagine human nature without them.

Camus' continual opposition of theory and spontaneity, doctrine and nature, then, is misleading. It assumes the unqualified rejection of neither traditional controls nor the intellect, but rather the denial of theories of the state and public authority. Only in the closing pages of The Rebel does he begin to make clear that the history of our time is the history of "the struggle of German ideology against the Mediterranean mind"—of the "Caesarian revolution" against tradeunionism, the State against the commune, absolutist society against concrete society: "The profound conflict of this century is perhaps not so much between the German ideologies of history and Christian political concepts, which in a certain way are accomplices, as between German dreams and Mediterranean traditions, between the violence of eternal adolescence and virile strength, between nostalgia, rendered more acute by knowledge and by books and courage reinforced and enlightened by the experience of life—in other words, between history and nature." What is natural is a world without the power politics of the State, without the sometimes terrible demands of public authorities. While profoundly anti-political, Camus' vision of society may also be seen as culturally conservative. The "irrepressible demand of human nature" is not for a life without impulse repression, but against a life of political suppression. Camus expresses the anarcho-syndicalist dream in which the State is itself the dream of historical theorists.

Camus rightly points to Lenin as a key figure in understanding the modern state. However, he fixes upon Lenin's subordination of the spontaneity of the masses to a theoretical vanguard in What is to be Done? as further confirmation that the heart of the Bolshevik evil is located in theory or doctrine. While recognizing that Lenin "jettisons economic fatalism and embarks on action," Camus makes nothing of the fact that Marxist, like Hegelian, doctrine is heavy with the hidden purposes of history, and that therefore Lenin's moral indifference, and especially his activism, may be more the product of doctrinal subservience to the Party than doctrinal discipline. This shift from the superiority of doctrine to organizational tactics, which Camus overlooks, is clear, for instance, in Lenin's use of the term ideology. According to a strict Marxist definition, ideology refers to false consciousness, to conscious expressions that mask unconscious responses to the imperatives of a particular economic-historical circumstance. Lenin eliminates the weight of this unconscious element. By writing of a choice between either bourgeois or Socialist ideology, he shifts focus to the importance of consciousness alone.

This does not mean that the culpability of Marxist doctrine can be dismissed, for the Marxist concept of ideology itself functionalizes away the very possibility of moral, intellectual and religious opposition. With his transformed concept of ideology, Lenin simply took this denial one step further by making it a matter of organizational rather than doctrinal discipline. He pushed the Marxist denial of traditional commitments toward its logical conclusion, making the leap from theory to practice with disastrous consequences. Commitments to Party and then State replaced all others, with the result that not merely private sentiments but public purposes, such as nationality, were denied. As Solzhenitsyn has recently made clear, the Soviet Communists have never been nationalists. From Stalin to the present, they have systematically suppressed and destroyed all evidence of national culture, loyalties and affections, driving a wedge between Nation and State. Similarly, the committed Communist Pietro Spina in Silone's Bread and Wine is not only alienated from the simplicity of the private life by his commitment to the Party, as Camus thought, he is also dangerously close to the Fascists whom he opposes in his rejection of communal purposes that transcend Party interest.

Not simply doctrinal commitment but doctrinal subordination defines the problem. "Man takes refuge in the permanence of the party in the same way that he formerly prostrated himself before the altar" only after doctrine has failed in its highest function from a sociological perspective, which is to preserve the capacity to resist inwardly the corruptions of the established social order. Writing during an era in which the professional revolutionary, like the clergy of an earlier day, could no longer claim moral superiority and spiritual leadership, Camus exemplifies the anti-creedal idealism of a culture suffering from a disenchantment with public commitments from which we have not recovered.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Albert Camus 1913–1960

French-Algerian novelist, dramatist, essayist, short story writer, journalist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Camus's career through 1997. See Albert Camus Short Story Criticism, Albert Camus Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 11, 32.

A celebrated novelist and postwar intellectual, Albert Camus is considered one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. His short novel L'etranger (1942; The Stranger) and existentialist treatise Le mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus) are regarded as seminal works of "absurdism," a literary philosophy founded on the belief that human existence is inherently meaningless and futile. The long essay L'homme révolté (1951; The Rebel) and subsequent novels La peste (1947; The Plague) and La chute (1956; The Fall) fortified Camus's reputation as a formidable independent thinker and uncompromising artist. Public and critical interest in his work was renewed by the posthumous publication of his unfinished novel Le premier homme (1994; The First Man). His Nobel prize-winning novels, essays, and plays evince his commitment to social justice and the possibility of moral integrity in the modern world. Once hailed as the conscience of France, Camus is an internationally renowned literary figure whose poignant metaphysical concerns and arresting prose style exert a profound influence on contemporary letters.

Biographical Information

Born in Mondovi, Algeria, a French colony in North Africa until 1962, Camus was raised in poverty by his illiterate Spanish mother. His father, an itinerant laborer of French descent, was fatally wounded in the First World War before Camus reached his first birthday. In 1914 Camus moved with his brother and emotionally detached mother into a small apartment in Algiers which they shared with his uncle and grandmother. The adverse circumstances of his upbringing forged a lasting respect for his hardworking mother and the plight of the underprivileged. With the encouragement of Louis Germain, an elementary school teacher who early recognized Camus's abilities, he won a competitive grant to enter the Grand Lycée in Paris in 1924. At the Grand Lycée, Camus's intellectual mentor was philosophy teacher Jean Grenier, whom he later studied under at the University of Algiers. Shortly before enrolling at the University of Algiers at age sixteen, Camus suffered a near fatal bout with tuberculosis, a chronic illness whose physical and emotional effects haunted him for the remainder of his life. After a period of convalescence, he began studies in philosophy and literature at the University of Algiers, from which he graduated in 1936. While still a student, Camus married briefly and divorced; he remarried Francine Faure in 1940. Camus became increasingly involved in political activities during the 1930s. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, though resigned his membership in 1937 over ideological differences. He published his first two books, L'envers et l'endroit (1937; The Right Side and the Wrong Side) and Noces (1937; Nuptials), the same year. He also wrote and abandoned his first novel La morte heureuse (1971; A Happy Death). Between 1935 and 1938, Camus was active as an actor, writer, and producer with Theatre du travail (Labor Theater), renamed Theatre de I'equipe (Team Theater) after he abandoned the Communist Party. During the Second World War, Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger while living in France and Algeria. He also wrote for Combat, the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance, through which he met existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Upon the Allied liberation of Paris in 1944, Camus was awarded the Medal of the Liberation. Acclaim for The Stranger and his contributions to Combat, which he presided over as editor until 1947, quickly established Camus as a foremost French writer and intellectual of the postwar period. Over the next decade he produced The Plague, The Rebel, and dramatic works including Caligula (1944), Le malentendu (1944; The Misunderstanding), L'etat de siege (1948; The State of Siege), and Les justes (1949; The Just Assassins). During the 1950s, Camus's disdain for Soviet communism precipitated his highly publicized estrangement from Sartre and other Left Bank intellectuals. Camus's passivity during the Algerian struggle for independence also drew heavy criticism that damaged his reputation and plunged him into depression and writer's block. Despite such setbacks, he produced The Fall, the collection of essays L'eté (1954; Resistance, Rebellion, and Death), and the volume of short stories L'exil et le royaume (1957; Exile and the Kingdom). Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Three years later he was killed in an automobile accident near Paris. The manuscript for The First Man was found in his briefcase at the site of the wreck.

Major Works

Camus's fiction, discursive writings, and dramatic works revolve around the central themes of existential alienation, moral dilemma, and revolt. His first novel, A Happy Death, and early autobiographic essays in The Right Side and the Wrong Side and Nuptials adumbrate the lucidity, irony, and lyrical quality of his subsequent works. The Right Side and the Wrong Side, considered a pivotal early text, sheds light on Camus's experience with poverty and his relationship with his silent mother. His most important works are contained in two triptychs, each comprised of a novel, essay, and play. The first grouping, often referred to as the "cycle of the absurd," includes The Myth of Sisyphus, The Stranger, and Caligula. In the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus examines the fundamental paradoxes of the human condition as evidence of the absurd. The title refers to Sisyphus of Greek legend who was condemned to repeatedly roll a massive stone up a hill only to roll it back down after reaching the crest. Dismissing suicide as a viable response to such futility, Camus suggests that consciousness of the absurd and vigilant resistance to its terms may facilitate the formation of personal identity and value. The Stranger, a novel set in Camus's native Algeria, features protagonist Meursault, a French-Algerian youth who impulsively guns down an Arab man on the beach while overcome by the blinding sun. Arrested, jailed, tried, and sentenced to death, Meursault begins to reflect on his actions and the absurdity of his situation. Emotionless over the recent death of his mother and unrepentant for the murder, Meursault welcomes his fate and resigns himself to his execution in open defiance of society and its imposed morality. In the play Caligula, Camus portrays the eponymous Roman emperor's tyrannical quest for unbridled individual freedom. Stunned at the death of his sister, who is also his lover, Caligula becomes cognizant of the absurdity of life, whereupon he initiates an orgy of random rapes, murders, and punishments to act out his disillusionment. In The Misunderstanding, another significant play from this period, Camus presents a variation of the Oedipus myth in which a man is mistakenly murdered by his mother and sister. Camus's second major triad, unified by the theme of revolt, includes The Plague, The Just Assassins, and The Rebel, The Plague recounts the impact of a fictitious epidemic on the populace of Oran, a city in Algeria. The protagonist and narrator is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a secular physician committed to the systematic treatment of the afflicted. His spiritual foil is Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who appeals to divine intervention and the promise of salvation. Though the pestilence is eventually brought under control by a medical, or human, solution, their cooperative effort suggests the importance of fraternity and courage in the face of oppression. Regarded as a allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France during the Second World War, the novel illustrates the imperative of revolt against agents of persecution. The Just Assassins dramatizes the human cost of political violence in the service of ideology or expediency. The play centers upon Kalayiev, an idealistic poet and revolutionary who volunteers to throw a bomb at the Grand Duke in a planned assassination. However, when he notices the Duke's niece and nephew beside him in the carriage, he changes his mind, realizing that for this act he would be a murderer rather than a "just assassin." Camus elucidates the history and varieties of revolution in The Rebel, an extended essay in which he attempts to formulate the ethical conditions for revolt free of murder or malefaction. Opposing the nihilistic, violent tendencies of mass revolutions, Camus concludes that the individual must revolt against injustice by simply refusing to be a part of it. Camus's last novels, though extensions of earlier investigations, reveal a new vitality and theological interest. The novel The Fall presents the enigmatic, hypocritical confessions of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a successful trial lawyer who, through rambling, self-mocking conversation with an interlocutor, excoriates himself for his perversity and numerous transgressions. The title refers to his guilt at having once failed to rescue a drowning woman. In his unfinished novel The First Man, Camus began to reconstruct the story of his life in the experiences of autobiographic protagonist Jacques Cormery. The existing narrative, a fragmentary account of Jacques's childhood, reveals Camus's deeply personal search for self-identity and connection with his prematurely deceased father.

Critical Reception

Camus is widely recognized as one of the most provocative and enduring literary figures of the postwar period. He is consistently praised for his perceptive evocation of metaphysical despair, the stark intensity and natural imagery of his lyrical prose, and his unequivocal condemnation of political tyranny. A preeminent absurdist writer who captured the moral climate of his generation, Camus defined the philosophical and artistic sensibility of many contemporary authors, especially those affiliated with the Theatre of the Absurd during the 1950s and 1960s. His popular association with existentialism, a classification that he dismissed, is traced to the philosophical legacy of Fydor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Soren Kierkegaard. While The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus are viewed as his greatest accomplishments, Camus is also highly regarded for The Plague, The Fall, and his examination of revolution in The Rebel. Critics note that The First Man, though incomplete, is further evidence of Camus's remarkable sensitivity and narrative gifts. Caligula and The Misunderstanding are generally considered Camus's most effective plays, however, his dramatic works as a whole are typically viewed as secondary to his novels and essays. The Stranger, his best known work and a brilliant study of modern alienation, continues to attract rigorous critical scrutiny directed at the moral and psychological motivations of its protagonist, particularly as informed by Camus's aversion to capital punishment and his relationship with his mother. Critics frequently comment on the significance of Camus's early poverty and the Algerian landscape in this and all his writings. Though Camus enjoyed a mercurial rise, he became the subject of ridicule following his notorious break with Sartre, intensified by his neutrality during the Franco-Algerian war. Camus's detractors, especially those allied with Sartre, cite egregious elements of political naivete, moral intransigence, and philosophical amateurism in his writing. Despite such criticism, Camus's literary reputation rests largely upon the power of his prose, his unshakable commitment to his art, and his compelling effort to fashion meaning out the absurd.

Robert Greer Cohn (essay date October 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The True Camus," in The French Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, October, 1986, pp. 30-8.

[In the following essay, Cohn provides an overview of Camus's literary career. Cohn praises Camus as "beyond all intellectual fashions and ideological factions, the finest, most authentic voice of his age."]

Let us start modestly, as Albert Camus did. By the time he was stopped, when he died brutally in his forty-seventh year, he was widely regarded as the most important literary figure in the Western world.

He could hardly have come from humbler circumstances. His French father, who died in World War I almost as soon as Albert was born, was an agricultural worker in Algeria. His Spanish mother could not read, seldom spoke, and was partially deaf. Her mother was a straight-laced old lady who raised Albert and his older brother with strictness and, at times, the whip. Camus grew up in Belcourt, a working-class neighborhood of Algiers. As he looked back on it later, his childhood seemed happy despite the hardships. He loved the life of the streets and the beaches in the sun. A dedicated teacher took an interest in him and encouraged him in his studies. Camus worked with fierce concentration and went on with scholarships to the University of Algiers, where he specialized in philosophy. But at age 17, he contracted the tuberculosis which never really left him, though it came and went. He dropped out of school and took a series of odd jobs. At age 20, he married but divorced a year later; his first wife, Simone Hié, was a beautiful drug addict who betrayed him and wounded his psyche deeply. Camus's affair with the Communist Party shortly after this was rather similar; youthful hopes and swift disenchantment. Simultaneously, he founded a politically-inspired theater group which attracted some local attention. He did some writing as well as acting and directing for it, loved it all passionately. He had meanwhile recovered enough to go back and get a diploma in philosophy. In 1937, he published his first little book, L'Envers et l'endroit.

This bring us to the literary Camus who most concerns us, for it is a marvelously honest and tender piece of writing about his early years, and when it was republished shortly before his death, he said that unless he returned to the unspoiled simplicity and piety of that book he would never do anything worthwhile. So let us have a look at it, remarking only that what happened to Camus after that is quite well known: how he fought for justice to the Arabs in the local press, went on to help edit and write for the Resistance paper Combat during the war; how he remarried and had twins, how he became famous with L'Etranger, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, La Peste, L'Homme révolté, and so on; the quarrel with Sartre; the Nobel prize; his dismay at his fame; and at the Algerian conflict in which he refused to take sides, out of loyalty to his mother; his stupefying death in a car accident in 1960. We will return to some of these items later.

The title L'Envers et l'endroit refers to the deep, honest ambivalence that runs throughout Camus; typically for him, particularly in his first manner, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, life and death go hand in hand. Eventually, this total cancellation will be identified with the absurd, referring especially to the tension between the mind's quest for unity or meaning and the world's chaotic refusal of it. One would speak too of heaven and hell, if it were not for the fact that Camus, like his parents, had little use for organized religion though he was baptized a Catholic. But he was a profoundly religious man in his own way and said "God is beauty" to an intimate friend. Later, he will reintroduce into a world threatened by valuelessness the moderate religious concept of "the sacred." Altogether, a pantheism not unlike that of the other great artists of modern France or Europe, or Emily Dickinson here, is close to his untrumpeted belief. But the God of beauty, or of the wistful sacred, is remote indeed from often-grim human affairs, and in these pieces we see an old woman whom no one is interested in staying with any more. The young folks go off heedlessly to the movies and leave her alone with her cold crucifix. Young Camus goes off too, but with a stab of concern in his heart, and we see him, in a sense, betraying those other young'uns, becoming himself with his deeper awareness. There is another sketch about an old man, similarly avoided in a café, going home alone in the dusk toward his eventual death.

There is a scene where Camus is sitting in an Arab café overlooking the twinkling port alone, listening to the foghorns in the night and wondering about his future itinerary through life. The key notes are sounded in the darkness of his love for his strange "indifferent" mother—she never caressed him but they were utterly in league and he knew it—and his need to be a man.

This is a telling point. He was fatherless like his Stranger, of whom it is said tersely "He had never known his father." In La Chute, equally tersely, Clamence laments "Il n'y a plus de pére, plus de régles!" It is suggestive to note that any number of France's greatest writers, from Du Bellay and Racine through Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Sartre were orphaned or otherwise deprived of their fathers. The impact is fairly obvious. The normal father provides a role model which mediates the boy's struggles to manhood. Failing that, the process of dissociating oneself from the mother becomes quite problematic, and an excessive pattern is apt to develop of "proving oneself as a man." This is confirmed by Ernesto Guarner (revealed to me by Charles McCabe), a Spanish psychiatrist whose clientele was exclusively matadors. Without exception, they were fatherless. Before I had learned that, I had spoken in print of Camus's bullfighter psychology, mindful of his Spanish inheritance as well as Michel Leiris' essay, "De la littérature considérée comme une tauromachie" (in L'Age d'homme [Paris: Gallimard, 1939]). I was naturally pleased when Herbert Lottman's biography disclosed the fact that one of his closest friends thought of Camus in just that way. The fact that Patrick McCarthy in his recent book dismisses this notion loftily causes me no particular pain. McCarthy's book (Camus [New York: Random House, 1982]) is often hasty and insensitive, though it has its uses and is cleverly packaged.

In another scene, Camus stares for hours at a mother cat that has just devoured some of her kittens. This is the other side of his special courage and one which I particularly admire. He describes in an unbearably powerful understatement of tenderness a night he spent lying next to his mother after she had been frightened by an unknown assailant, breathing in her perspiration and her silent anguish. In this daring to stay with the unmediated mother, he resembles Proust whom he, unlike Sartre, worshiped. We know about Proust's stubborn relation to his mother; few normal people are honest about their deepest affections and anxieties as this pair of artists were.

Further, as in the case of Proust whose mother could become an object of fierce hatred out of jealousy, in Jean Santeuil to the point of wishing her death, so too Camus sees in the mother cat the hideous "wrong side" of his total attachment, what Jung refers to as the "terrible mother." The Stranger tells the examining magistrate that his indifference before the death of his mother can be partly explained by the fact that everyone desires the death of loved ones at times. This is repeated elsewhere in Camus, and it is an important theme of La Chute. Camus' play Le Malentendu is about a mother who, with the help of her daughter, strangles the incognito traveller who turns out to be her son.

No doubt the betrayal by Simone Hié has something to do with all this and with the well-known don Juanism of Camus, but of course, beneath all that, there are universal facts of life, which some people are more candid about than others. Not that one should wallow in them; Camus thought of his Misunderstanding as a modern tragedy, and that, one feels, is the proper way to handle these matters, just as Sophocles did with his Oedipus. But let there be no misunderstanding here: woman is at the core of Camus' earthly world, where the mother securely is in La Peste.

In L'Etranger, which came out in 1942 and made his reputation, Camus' protagonist seems dazed at first. He has been inwardly stabbed by a new awareness, as we gradually learn with him; he is "on to something," the absurd. The consolations of religion had departed from lots of lives in his time, but it is another thing to feel in depth that the world is made of a profound cleavage between mind and reality. The fact of mortality alone when it hits you truly can make mockery of the quest of meaning; or the simple confrontation of self too close-up in a mirror when you see a sort of alien moon-landscape. Where is our identity, or anything fixed in this fleeting, ephemeral existence? But all that Angst is familiar by now, and I would like rather to emphasize that this is one of those dazzling, infinite half-truths of which reality is obviously made, such as freedom and determinism, continuity and discontinuity, heredity and environment. Since each is infinite, one can get hooked on it as on an infinity-opening drug and Camus did for a youthful while, as did a lot of young people in his time, partly through reading him. As a result of the impact of World War II which, as he said, "made me modest," he discovered or rediscovered the other half-truth, that life is not absurd. From then on, those two half-truths together interested him more in what he described as a "higher balance," in connection with his doctrine of limits and moderation. One infinite balances off and limits the other in his more mature perspective.

But for the moment, his hero is stuck in his half-truth of the absurd which Camus will further explore in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. The vertical posture of the young matador can usefully characterize this steep excessive and one-sided honesty which leads or allows him to commit murder. Everyone remembers the scene where he yields to a sort of universal indifference under a dazzling sun on the beach and numbly shoots the Arab who was harassing his friend, Raymond. The fact that he shoots one shot and then four more has been often explained: his honesty dictates that he, as it were, endorse his dazed act, take fully responsibility in a sort of Nietzschean mood of superman suspension of ordinary morality. The Stranger becomes, it is widely agreed, the full conscious absurdist at this fateful juncture. But the usual comments are less sure of the puzzling accompanying thought which runs through Meursault's head, that he was aware that he had "unbalanced the day". Though nothing can be proven here, I submit that this is the germ of the movement to maturity in the "higher balance" I alluded to earlier. The Stranger's steep, vertical, infinite honesty is tentatively crossed by a ghostly dimension of other-relatedness, equally infinite as he will discover later, in La Peste and L'Homme révolté and which moderates our individual juvenile-omnipotent drives.

This dimension had already existed in his play Caligula, written a few years earlier, in the mouth of his spokesman for decency and sanity, Cherea. But Camus had gone on to get smitten by the new kind of awareness which, as he said in the preface to Le Mythe de Sisyphe, he had found on the "street corners of his time."

In that essay, published in 1943, Camus accepts practically as axiomatic—though he hedges a little in the preface about its being merely a tentative proposition—the manifold contradictions he finds throughout western culture from Zeno and Aristotle on to the existential exponents, such as Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Chestov, of "humiliated thought." So taken is he by this view that he seriously considers whether suicide might not be the proper response to the universal absurdity of our lives, and that is the subject of his essay. To explore, as he puts it, a logic to its extreme consequences even if it dictates our death. A Spanish stubbornness, which Camus was known for, is at work here, very clearly, and I think a succinct comment might be: Olé. Fortunately, he finds for life. Suicide, it turns out, would be a sort of evasion, a copout or "leap." This is a term he applies to a number of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Chestov, Jaspers, Husserl, who accept the absurd to a point and then find a way out through religious salvation or some equivalent resolution. In this sense, they abort the unending tension which is the essence of absurd contradiction. Suicide would obviously do the same thing. But for this Camus the absurd is our only reality, our only good and must be lived with all the bittersweet way, with passion, lucidity, revolt—by this last term, he means never giving in, as in suicide or consoling religion. It is equivalent to consciousness or high consciousness. In other words, suicide would take away all we have, bitter as it is at times, and even in essence. A long, lucid, and intensely indifferent life is the defiant révolté answer to such a fate, and he imagines Sisyphus, rolling his eternal rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again, as being happy, as he says at one decisive point.

All this can bear another look. What is really going on underneath is this: at the point where Camus considers suicide as a solution to the absurd, he is confronted with another kind of absurdity, namely that it makes no sense to end a life to solve a life's dilemma because at the moment you die, the very problem disappears; at death, you have solved nothing since there is no more problem. Or if one imagines a tiny instant between life and death and the wavering that would occur between a problem to be solved and a no-problem (in death), then you have what can be seen as the absurd formula folded back or turning on itself. The absurd, which is a contradiction, can—as a total proposition of truth—be seen itself as contradictory. The absurd is both true and not true or, as I said earlier, it is a half-truth.

In the case of Meursault, a tilt from the vertical bullfighter dimension to the horizontal dimension of other-relatedness occurred at least in his mind: it would have provided a balance, the "balance of the day," which he sensed he had broken. Here too, an excessive drive to honesty, a kind of mortal logic which could dictate his death is providentially moderated by a tilt or pivoting: the logic of the absurd, and the suicide which might result from it, give way to an illogical, merely human impulse. Incidentally, even in his early lyrical essays, we find that promising, humane giving-in in terms of tenderness and, at times, a flow of tears. If suicide turns out to be the problematic, wavering solution we just saw it to be, then there is no point committing suicide. Rather, one does nothing drastic in that self-canceling direction but just keeps on living impulsively, which is what we all do all the time. Camus' "logic" has encountered a limit in the breakdown of the absurd, contradicted by its own self, fortunately. It is precisely such a tilt which characterizes the "happiness" of Sisyphus, which is not at all warranted within the absurd. In fact, it looks suspiciously like what he accused others of: a leap into another dimension of existence, away from the too-perfect logic of the "absurd." This is also true of the statement the good-hearted Camus makes at one point in his essay. Although theoretically his absurdist heroes accept no conventional morality, at that point Camus, obviously frightened of some of the implications, says that there is no reason to commit a crime any more than there is not to commit it, adding that to perform evil would be "childish." If that is not an arbitrary "leap" in his terms, what is it?

Still, the whole doctrine had an immense appeal, as we know, and set the tone of Camus's reputation at that time. Even recently, one heard William Styron speaking of Camus as his guide to whatever replaced religion for him.

But for those who followed Camus into his later phase, during and after and occasioned by the war, we find something quite altered. The tilt to the horizontal of other-relatedness is fully described and accepted in the preface to L'Homme révolté in 1951.

Partly because his reputation was so bound up with it, Camus at this point is at some pains to square his new view with his previous absurdist "logic." But now he clearly states what I have stated a few moments ago: the "profound ambiguity of the absurdist position," or what we have seen as the absurdity or arbitrariness of the absurd. Camus is left quivering at a crossroads: between the two horns of the original absurd contradiction in one direction, the vertical, and between its acceptance and rejection in another direction, the horizontal. At this crucifying juncture, he throws up his hands and sees himself bereft of all but a blind "impulse," life itself just going on at this crossing of dilemma and protesting against the mess. Moreover, the protest is against a world which has seen murder on such a staggering scale in World War II. Indeed, the book L'Homme révolté, which he is prefacing, is an attempt to answer the problem of mass murder in his time, just as Le Mythe was supposed to deal with individual suicide. So he is left only with the protest, this "impulse" which he now calls "revolt." Earlier, you will recall, revolt was the expression of a defiant response to life's absurdities and it just kept you living in the absurd, not copping out. That revolt led to no solution to anything. But now it is his answer to murder, as follows: a "révolté," or rebel, is a person who says no to an unacceptable situation, for example, an exploitative master. But he says "no" in terms of a right, a right to be free of exploitation or injustice. This right is a "yes" which goes with the "no." In other words, a true rebel revolts in the name of a principle which is universal, a right. Since a principle is by definition not just for one individual but a general law, the tilt to the horizontal occurs here, of which I spoke earlier. Since that right encompasses all men, one has no justification for murdering anyone in the name of rebellion, Camus claims. One may well sympathize, as I do, and still see that this pivoting or tilt is just another impulse with no real foundation in logic, absurd or otherwise. It is just the feeling one can have that I and you are all bound up and one slides into the other easily, as in life. There is, indeed, a great mystery of reality here—the problem of identity and intersubjectivity—but it is obvious that people who do not feel it just go ahead and murder anyway, and by the millions, in wars. Camus is sensitive and does feel the connection and compassion, just as he did for the old woman in the early essay we spoke of. He wants us all to feel it and stop killing each other. He is singularly good-hearted. Alas, his notion that we must in true revolt always balance the "no" and the "yes" as well as the I and the we—the striking and the caring or scrupulosity—is not easily observed in the heat of action which is not simultaneous, balanced, but serial or successive. Typically, one will strike and then regret it, or mourn a dead enemy if it comes to that; but not both together.

In a section of L'Homme révolté Camus alludes to Ivan Kaliaev, a Russian poet who insisted on giving his own life to pay for the life of the tyrant which he took. Camus called him "an innocent assassin" and wrote an admiring play about him, called Les Justes. Well, not too many will emulate him and it is clear that there is no sure-fire formula here. Yet, I think Camus is doing as well with all this as one can. By adding the horizontal dimension to his earlier perspective and maturing into his doctrine of limits and "higher balance," he has powerfully and convincingly shown at least what is desirable. He knows that this impulse toward The Other, including an enemy, is just that, an impulse. It is a tilt to the side and The Other and on-going life, even as you radically revolt in depth and cut through (vertically) a status quo. But, knowing that, he nudges us in the humane direction, and that is a good thing. In this way, he gives comfort to all those who would temper the ruthless revolts of Marxism by a limit, a cross-cutting dimension of humanity, as in the views of Silone and Gramsci in Italy and the modern Socialists in Western Europe generally, including France under Mitterrand.

If you look at this another way, viewing history along a timeline—seeing a ruthlessly goal-directed drive in the modern totalitarians, a deification of history as leading to a final justice for all, then Camus's good heart and sense of balance tell him, in L'Homme révolté, that we must limit the drive of that "horizontal religion" by a perspective of the sacred, which cuts across it in the name of individual (vertical) human rights, a value outside of history. In this sense, he contests the Sartrean doctrine of existence always preceding essence, and a constantly open relativistic "situation." Rather, he rediscovers that man has a nature after all, a sort of moderated essence which can serve as a value; this or that man is infinitely precious in himself, stemming from the sacred, and history has no right to treat him as a mere pawn toward some utopian end in a remote future.

In this way and others, I believe Camus got the better of Sartre in their famous quarrel. I totally disagree with Patrick McCarthy as to the value of L'Homme révolté and Camus' thought in general. L'Homme révolté is a heart warming attempt to figure out what went wrong in our Western culture to the extent of the massive atrocities of the twentieth century. He traces our sins of imbalance and hubris from the roots in Judeo-Christianity, which is too obsessively judgmental and goal-oriented as compared to the temperate and relatively now-oriented Greek view of life. His investigation and analysis take him through numerous figures of our tradition, up through the Hegels, Marxes and Nietzsches. He does not always do them full justice—though he is usually generous in admitting this too—but he tries to, and mightily, and for me this is the key book of modern historico-political theory. Camus is not a philosopher and says so, but he is a non-specialized thinker, a poetically visionary, intuitive one, rather like Heidegger's Denker. The wrestling with the absurd dimensions which I noted is right in line with the most sophisticated patterns of thought such as we find in Lacan, Foucault, and Jakobson. If he gets no final answers, it is because there are none, for these others as well. The new social concern and the mature higher balance were already evident in La Peste of 1947. There is now a definite tilt away from the perfect tension or ambivalence of the absurd in the new formula: "There is more to admire in man than to despise"; such a tilt is, also, sideways, into the flow of time and humane emotion. The hero, Dr. Bernard Rieux, is described as being square-jawed, aged 35, and stocky. It would be hard to be more four-square balanced than that … Because of the new emphasis, Rieux is a doctor, and the people who are too individualistically concerned about (vertical) salvation, such as the Jesuit Paneloux and even the philosophical Tarrou, are somehow doomed and succumb to the plague, whereas an ordinary guy, the journalist Rambert who just wants to be happy with his girl, makes it. For similar reasons, the artist-figure Joseph Grand is cut radically down to humanity in that his art is risible though his decency is great; he too survives, partly because in the midst of the crisis he burns his manuscripts, which is a surefire way to lower your hubris. The later Camus was much concerned about his reputation, pride, and ego getting in the way of breathable life and creativity. Everything in La Peste moves in this direction in emphasis, though the vertical is preserved too in proper proportion through Rieux's meditative depth and even Grand's renewed art, in the end. The very tone of the novel is moderated, cool, a chronicle, with a new objectivity and workaday calm befitting the doctor narrator. The emphasis is collective, and the events of the chronicle are seen from several viewpoints. Fraternity, unpretentious struggle against a still-absurd fate which brings plagues that come and go when they want, courage with refusal of heroics, just life wanting to go on and be normally happy, all this had a considerable appeal to young people who were looking for guidance in a world without much belief after the second World War.

One of his last books, and some think his best, was La Chute, of 1957. It is a bitterly funny portrait of a former Parisian lawyer living in Amsterdam. He had a golden youth and thought very highly of himself as a lover of his fellow man until one day he failed to respond to a dangerous call for help from a drowning woman in the Seine, and then his whole ego-structure collapsed. "The lights went out" on the party, as it did for Salinger's girls in Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut or, really, all of us privileged people. No longer being able to keep up an image of his goodness and innocence, he resorts to a stratagem of spreading universal sense of guilt; "misery loves company." This was his fall from a sort of grace, and his name and much of the symbolism allude to Saint John the Baptist and the theme of baptism which the plunge into the nocturnal river would have been, a sacrificial descent leading to salvation, rebirth. So he calls himself a "false prophet," living in duplicity like all the rest of existence, and this is the constant, searingly amusing theme: all our little self-deceptions and hypocrisies are paraded before us. And there is the higher duplicity of the Hegelian notion that evil is just a part of the on-going synthesis of good and evil, which Kierkegaard trenchantly revolted against with his either-or. Camus is solidly, underneath, on the side of Kierkegaard here, though he is never mentioned. The muddy, verbose dialectics of his own time, Sartre's included, are being subtly invoked. But the pure light of the Greek islands stands for that clear innocence we can never find again in our northern mists amid the hustling, hassling, self-seeking, lobbying, conniving, half-lying millions in our semi-polluted cities like Amsterdam, the site of one of the greatest crimes in history, as Camus puts it, the genocide of the Dutch Jews. But the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, goes rattling on about this and that, always worrying about his own self-justification. He even tries to pull Jesus down to his all-too-human size, seeing him as guilty because of his awareness of the children of Rachel, the slaughter of the Innocents killed for his sake, and he hears the cries of Rachel refusing to be consoled. Here, Camus and Clamence want us to break through at least for an imagined instant, a flash. There is not the slightest question of Clamence speaking for Camus, as some (like Simone de Beauvoir) thought; Camus denied this roundly in an interview, and poured scorn on Clamence. No, but in those break-through moments, we see the original Camus whom Patrick McCarthy and others rightly deem a deeply religious man without a church—a man who could reject organized religion and the afterlife again and again and, yet, say to an interviewer "The anti-religious view is vulgar," or "God is beauty", and speak of the sacred as the only resource—a Value—against the ruthless nihilistic plunge into merely secular history. A beggar who comes up to Clamence in the street whispers humbly "We have lost the light." Those few words are quite sufficient for those who have eyes to glimpse with.

Camus in an interview put truth above all other values, but as we noted, he was a good-hearted decent man and, on the whole, he was a sort of higher centrist. He stayed in the middle of controversies such as the Algerian war for independence, and at the end of L'Homme révolté he comes out for a whole series of mid-positions: moderation in revolt, the mild, reasonable Mediterranean, and an idea of Europe as being humanly in-between excesses in Russia and technology-driven America (as he saw it then); the village as opposed to big cities—he rather loathed New York and did not often care for Paris—or rural emptiness on the other side; the season, as of the harvest, between overambitious teleological or eschatological reaches of time or the too short sighted daily perspectives; the trade-union movements in politics; and so on. He spoke for the centered literary work, e.g., the novel, as against formalistic art on one hand and journalism on the other; and it was supposed to be balanced between private concerns and public. As a novelist, he was a daring innovator, and yet he spoke again and again of his love for the French classic era and style: Pascal, Molière, Madame de LaFayette. He wanted to write a modern tragedy, and, in a fine essay, he saw tragedy as arising on its two august occasions, in Greece and Renaissance Europe, between an age of faith declining and a rising age of reason. Altogether he was a sublime muddler-through, in the enlightened middle as it were. That is not a comfortable position to be in, especially when everyone else is taking sides as they usually do. You get hit by both parties at times, like a referee. Politics is not carried on this way and he can be said, in brief, to be largely apolitical despite his struggles to pitch into his time. McCarthy calls him "indifferent" in contradiction to the popular image of Camus as a moral leader, but that is excessive. No, he was a fiercely caring man, but in his own far-seeing and superior way. At times, of course, these higher syntheses drop into a dreadful opposite of nothingness, indifference in that sense, and Camus with his recurring tuberculosis, certainly had his black or zero moments; his friend, Martin du Gard, even spoke of his misanthropy. But taking that with the sacrificial and deep concerns, still, all in all, including the sensitivity, the courage, the lucidity, the culture, the style, the sense of humor, he was probably what we Americans all along tended to think he was: beyond all intellectual fashions and ideological factions, the finest, most authentic voice of his age.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

L'envers et l'endroit [The Wrong Side and the Right Side] (essays) 1937Noces [Nuptials] (essays) 1937Le mythe de Sisyphe: Essai sur l'absurde [The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays] (essays) 1942L'etranger [The Stranger; also published as The Outsider] (novel) 1942Caligula (drama) 1944Le malentendu [The Misunderstanding; also translated as Cross Purpose] (drama) 1944La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947L'etat de siege [The State of Siege] (drama) 1948Les justes [The Just Assassins] (drama) 1949L'homme révolté [The Rebel] (essays) 1951L'eté [Resistance, Rebellion, and Death] (essays) 1954La chute [The Fall] (novel) 1956Requiem pour une nonne [adaptor; from the novel Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner] (drama) 1956L'exil et le royaume [Exile and the Kingdom] (short stories) 1957Caligula and Three Other Plays [contains Caligula, Le Malentendu, L'Etat de Siege, and Les Justes] (drama) 1958Les possédés [adaptor; from the novel The Possessed by Fydor Dostoyevsky] (drama) 1959Lyrical and Critical Essays [includes L'envers et l'endroit and Noces] (essays) 1967La mort heureuse [A Happy Death] (novel) 1971Le premier homme [The First Man] (unfinished novel) 1994

Vicki Mistacco (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Mama's Boy: Reading Woman in L'Etranger," in Camus's L'Etranger: Fifty Years On, edited by Adele King, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 152-69.

[In the following essay, Mistacco offers a psychoanalytical feminist reading of The Stranger, drawing attention to elements of femininity in the pre-oedipal relationship between Meursault and his mother.]

In his last interview, when asked what he felt critics had most neglected in his work, Camus replied: 'La part obscure, ce qu'il y a d'aveugle et d'instinctif en moi.' Many have since sought to approach this dark, enigmatic side from the perspective of psychoanalysis, emphasising, as Freudian and Lacanian orthodoxy requires, the oedipal moment, and in so doing repressing or devaluing the maternal bond, giving primacy to the phallus and the threat of castration. To my knowledge, however, no sustained effort has been made to view Camus's writing from the perspective of psychoanalytic feminism, stressing rather the importance of the pre-oedipal stage in which the primary figure is not the father but the mother and the primary relationship is a dual not triangular one, between mother and child. Feminist critics have most often adopted this approach to study the mother/daughter dyad in women writers. Shifting the context, I propose here to effect a kind of 'naive' reading, to 'overread' Camus, as if he were a woman writer, for traces of the relationship between the feminine and text production, bracketing psychoanalytic orthodoxy to allow the 'underread,' the feminine maternal, to emerge from the shadows of critical repression and be seen in Meursault's revolt in L'Etranger, the text's ambiguities, and the author's concept of the Absurd. By referring positively to Meursault as a 'mama's boy,' I am drawing upon the hero's infantile vocabulary to suggest the transgressive potential in this relationship and to question the term's pejorative cultural connotations of a somehow 'effeminate' boy whose excessive attachment to the mother extends scandalously beyond the 'normal' time.

It is difficult to appreciate the consequences of this critical move without a sense of the constraints of previous masculinist psychoanalytic interpretations. These have instituted and reinforced a kind of doxa, a rigid hermeneutic grid that only permits repetition of the same, phallocentrism, and generates the greatest degree of critical excitement around the ideas of incest and castration.

The standard procedure among the Freudian critics is to interpret all of Camus, and especially L'Etranger, in the light of L'Envers et l'endroit, a collection of autobiographical essays first published in 1937 just prior to the composition of L'Etranger, then republished in 1958 with an all-important preface in which Camus points to the childhood world of poverty they evoke—and above all the silent mother—as the source of his work. These critics then focus on two features of the mother/son relationship as portrayed in one of the essays, 'Entre oui et non,' the boy's ambivalence toward maternal silence and an incident in which the mother is attacked by a male intruder and the son, called in to tend to her in her state of shock, ends up spending the night on her bed watching over her. Camus uses the third person to refer to the son in the recollected past, distancing himself from what may in fact be fiction or fictional transposition of lived experience for aesthetic ends, something most Freudian critics tend to overlook, keen as they are to (re)discover the 'events' determining Camus's psyche and writing that will allow them to replay the usual gynophobic Freudian scenarios.

Let us first consider maternal silence. Camus's mother as depicted in L'Envers et l'endroit was nearly deaf, practically mute, inarticulate, feeble-minded, illiterate. Conversation between mother and son was sparse as the mother withdrew into a solitary, immobile, and unreflective world of silence. On the one hand, her silence is described in positive terms as a form of presence and plenitude ('"A quoi tu penses?" "A rien," répondait-elle. Tout est là, done rien'), timelessness ('un temps d'arrêt, un instant démesuré') and knowledge ('A se taire, la situation s'éclaircit. Il est son fils, elle est sa mère. Elle peut lui dire: "Tu sais"'). On the other hand, it inspires fear and pain in the young boy and is presented negatively as 'mutisme', 'irrémédiable désolation,' 'silence animal' and as a form of indifference reinforced by deprivation of maternal caresses and linked with feelings of estrangement and strangeness ('L'indifférence de cette mère étrange!').

According to Costes, Gassin, Lazere, and other Freudian critics, this ambivalence and the frustrations that the mother's seeming indifference 'must have' (a key phrase in these analyses) caused the child, led to a splitting of her imago as a defence mechanism. She thus becomes both Good Mother and Bad Mother and is endowed with both maternal (good) and paternal (bad) characteristics, including in the latter instance, a phallus. What is interesting is that although Camus stresses in these essays ambivalence and tension maintained between opposing notions which ultimately revert back to the mother ('Entre cet endroit et cet envers du monde, je ne veux pas choisir, je n'aime pas qu'on choisisse'), for all these critics the scales definitely tip toward the Bad or Phallic Mother whose phallus is her silence. Costes goes so far as to say that the Phallic Mother presides, 'en maîtresse absolue' over the early cycle of the Absurd. Clearly, this type of simplification is commanded by the critic's own desire for unity, an unproblematised unity which, unlike the one I see at work in Camus, enables interpretive mastery of the author's psyche and writings and a repetition of the same, the masculine, the valorised term. The Good Mother and the positive attributes of her silence are essentially dismissed as an idealisation, a defence wrought by castration anxiety. The persecuting phallus turns out to be nothing but a mask for the mother's lack and her silent mouth none other than a castrating vagina dentata. Critical gynophobia is transformed into the hermeneutic key that will unlock the secrets of Camus's work protecting us all (all of us men) from the enigmatic Sphinx who devours young men: 'l'oeuvre entière de Camus n'avait d'autre fonction-de son seul point de vue inconscient, évidemment-que de combler ce silence maternel, véritable gouffre à fantasmes.' The threatening hole must be filled, repressed, covered up with a phallus, lest the 'nothing' be acknowledged to harbour a something and the 'admirable silence' that Camus sets forth in the preface as the centre of his work and an ethical model be viewed positively. Contradictions must be swept aside by the 'symbolisme latent et négatif' of the Mother psychoanalysis relentlessly rediscovers.

The second critical move, involving slippage from the preoedipal to the oedipal, from positive symbiosis to incest, and from maternal discourse to 'incestuous language,' may be discerned in the standard Freudian interpretations of the scene of the attack on the mother and the ensuing night with her son. Gassin and Costes are essentially in agreement that this is Camus's version of the primal scene fantasy—that of the child's witnessing of parental intercourse—with its accompanying panoply of sadism, masochism, and guilt. It is an anxiety-inducing scene in which the mother appears to castrate the father and incorporate his penis. The son's identification with the aggressor, here seen as his taking the place of the aggressor/father in his mother's bed, yields guilty incestuous feelings as well as anxiety about his own potential castration by father and mother combined. Only Lazere suggests that the night shared by mother and son on the same bed may be interpreted as a fantasy of the womb, a pre-genital fantasy of symbiotic union with the mother, although, retrospectively, he too shifts to a negative oedipal interpretation in analysing the remainder of the essay. Incest is clearly but one possible interpretation of the scene which may also be read in a way that highlights pre-oedipal union where vivid memories of the womb subsist and where the simultaneous breathing, the solitary bonding of mother and child against the rest of the world ('Seuls contre tous. Les "autres" dormaient, à l'heure où tous deux respiraient la fièvré'), even abolishing the outside world ('Le monde s'était dissous'), and 'les liens qui l'attachaient à sa méré,' are most important. To view L'Etranger 'dans son ensemble,' not to mention all of Camus's oeuvre, in the exclusive light of an oedipal and primal scene interpretation of this one episode is to blind oneself to the workings of the maternal in Camus and to foreclose all possibility of a hermeneutics of the feminine. It is hardly surprising, then, that Costes should fail to recognise a crucial distinction in his own terminology when he conflates 'la langue maternelle' with 'le language incestueux' as the aim of Camus's literary discourse.

Barthes pondered in The Pleasure of the Text, 'Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus?' I suggest we reformulate the question, asking 'does every narrative have to lead back to Oedipus, even if the subject is male?' Perhaps the oedipal perspective is not, as Freud would have it, 'the only angle on the pre-oedipal.' Freed from the oedipal grid, would we not also be freed from the requisite remarks about Camus's fear and hostility toward the mother and therefore toward women in general? Would we not then be able to see beyond obvious thematics—Meursault's treatment of Marie, his participation in Raymond's sordid scheme of revenge, his apparent indifference to his mother—and come to a more nuanced appreciation of the novel's ambiguities? And as feminists, to escape repetition of the same, must we not propose a feminist reading that is first and foremost a reading of the feminine?

What does this mean? To read the feminine is not primarily to psychoanalyse the hero or the author, but rather to draw attention to traces of maternal discourse, to the workings of the pre-oedipal in the signifying system of the novel. This frame of reference makes it possible to recontextualise previous critical findings and illuminate the text otherwise. Take, for example, the famous opening paragraph:

Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: 'Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.' Cela ne veut rien dire.

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

This text represents the first cut, a disruption of undifferentiated pre-narrative existence that sets the story in motion. As such, it figures not so much a death as a birth, the cutting of the umbilical cord which precipitates the child into a first, pre-oedipal, signifying process not structured by the phallus, into a process of differentiation between self and other (Julia Kristeva on maternity, discussed in Jacobus). The first emblem of this process is lexical: 'maman.' In the absence of a father he never knew, Meursault seems to prolong into adulthood the pre-oedipal phase and the early linguistic relationship to the mother. Whether or not this is by choice, as his remark about abandoned studies suggests, is not immediately relevant. Many have noted Meursault's childish, simple vocabulary, his elementary syntax, his childlike attitudes, and infantile occupations (the games he plays to pass the time, his long hours of sleep). What interests me here is that, by ironic juxtaposition with the formal, stilted language of the telegram, a first incursion of the symbolic, the language of patriarchy, Meursault's infantile vocabulary and syntax reinscribe the pre-oedipal in much the same way as feminist theoreticians such as Kristeva, as both a marginal space and a space of dissidence, projecting into meaning lessness language as we know it: 'cela ne veut rien dire.' The feminine maternal thus becomes the vantage point for the crisis in language that is evidenced throughout the novel and for the crisis in meaning it engenders. The pre-oedipal archaic mother presides over a narrative of non-mastery, of meaning decontextualised and deferred, of unresolved enigmas: 'peut être…, je ne sais pas.'

At the threshold and in the margins of the narrative, the mother's body unsettles the border between absence and presence, inside and outside, beginnings and endings, perturbing, by this liminality, identity, representation, and truth. We never actually 'see' the mother's body: 'J'ai voulu voir maman tout de suite. Mais le concierge m'a dit qu'il fallait que je rencontre le directeur.' Paternal figures intervene to screen it. The concierge explains: 'On l'a couverte, mais je dois dévisser la bière pour que vous puissiez la voir.' Later the director reiterates the invitation to view the body in the casket. What this amounts to is maternal repression. From the point of view of the Symbolic Order, to look at the mother can only mean to see death—or lack, as the director's expression 'veiller la disparue' suggests. Above all, for patriarchy to function smoothly, the maternal body must simply be buried, for it is only after the burial, Meursault concludes, that 'tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.'

Situating the mother's absence differently, Meursault's refusal to view the body draws attention to society's repression of the maternal and rewrites feminine lack as dissidence. This is the real crime for which he is punished by the judicial system, the most ostentatious manifestation of the Law of the Father in the novel. In the words of the prosecutor: 'j'accuse cet homme d'avoir enterré une mère avec un coeur criminel.' This symbolic 'matricide' turn out to be in society's eyes the equivalent of patricide: Meursault has threatened patriarchy by killing its body-effacing image of the mother.

The pre-oedipal attachment to the mother is not without contradiction and attempts at distancing, however, just as her procreating body itself marks a space of differentiation. By putting her in an old-people's home, Meursault has re-enacted an infant's primal distancing from the mother as not-yet-object. To explain his impassiveness at the funeral, he tells his lawyer: 'Tous les êtres sains avaient plus ou moins souhaité la mort de ceux qu'ils aimaient.' We need not invoke the oedipal drama, incest, maternal indifference or rejection to account for these apparently negative moments in the son's relationship to the mother. They are part of the self-differentiating process that brings about subject-formation and therefore a pre-symbolic type of signification, a process Julia Kristeva has called 'abjection': 'A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten [pre-natal?] life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome.' The 'abject' or maternal pseudo-object represents a first attempt to distinguish ourselves from the maternal entity even before we exist outside her through the autonomy granted by language. The mother in this perspective is same-but-different and the mother/child relationship is one of estrangement as well as union. It seems difficult not to recognise in these the ambivalent terms of the mother/son relationship in L'Envers et l'endroit also, and not to read a reference to abjection in that ur-text of the maternal in Camus, the first entry in the Carnets: 'le sentiment bizarre qu'un fils porte à sa mère constitue toute sa sensibilité. Les manifestations de cette sensibilité dans les domaines les plus divers s'expliquent suffisamment par le souvenir latent, matériel de son enfance (une glu qui s'accroche à l'âme).' 'The bizarre feeling that a son has for his mother constitutes all his sensitivity. The expressions of this sensitivity in the most varied spheres can be sufficiently explained by the latent, material memory of his childhood (a glue that sticks to the soul)'. Union and estrangement/abjection at once, not only are these the basis of Camus's art, they also anticipate the fundamental contradiction of the Absurd.

Neither fully absent nor present, dispersed and disseminated, the mother's body returns with insistence throughout the novel. During the vigil, Meursault unconsciously discerns its every presence everywhere, from the Arab nurse with her back to him whom he imagines knitting and whose face is covered except for her eyes, to the silent old women with their huge, bulging stomachs protruding under their aprons. These are all anonymous, marginal figures of subordinate otherness with respect to the dominant white, French male colonialists represented here by the paternalistic director and to a certain degree by the concierge—both refer to the old people as 'the others.' But seen through the eyes of Meursault these enigmatic characters recast difference as differentiation rather than polar opposition reducible to the dominant term, just as they multiply and disperse, same and different, the body of the mother—silent, gazing, or pregnant—from whom the child has been severed. Similarly, the old woman's crying and the toothless old people's bizarre sucking sounds displace the infant's instinctual behaviour after being torn from the womb. In this entire episode of the vigil, Camus is calling attention to the originary trauma of birth which creates a space at once separating and linking mother and child where otherness and dissidence may eventually find a voice. The mother's body and her body language—her silence, her gaze ('Quand elle était à la maison, maman passait son temps à me suivre des yeux en silence'), replicated in the judgmental looks and silent intimacy of the old people—become the potential site of an alternative non-symbolic discourse of vigilance, repressed anger, and truth that would unsettle the institutions of patriarchy.

A less obvious attack originating in the maternal takes place on the level of naming. 'Maman' may be buried, but her name surfaces everywhere confounding identity and blurring gender distinctions. The already reduplicated 'ma' reappears in the names or designations of other female characters; Marie, 'la Mauresque,' 'I'infirmière arabe,' 'la petite femme automate,' 'la femme de Masson.' But, more importantly, the infant's rhythmic, pre-discursive signifier is disseminated in the names of practically all of the male characters as well: Emmanuel, Masson, Salamano. In the case of Raymond, as if to compensate for the reversal of phonemes, the maternal is inscribed in Sintès, Camus's own mother's maiden name. The feminine maternal surfaces as non-expressive rhythm, word-play, traversing the symbolic and displacing the founding opposition of female to male upon which the entire oppressive dialectics of patriarchy rests. Summing up this subversive gesture by which sexual difference and the categories it supports are confused and exceeded is the name of the mother's fiancé: Thomas Pérez, 'maman/père,' mama/father.

An apparently marginal figure, Thomas Pérez is nonetheless present at two strategic moments: the beginning where Meursault's lingering fascination yields perhaps the most elaborate, if repugnant, physical portrait in the novel and the climactic final revelation in which he comes to understand why, on the eve of death, his mother had taken a fiancé. This and the fact that a substantial portion of the opening chapter is devoted to Thomas Pérez suggest that this figure merits even more scrutiny than his name alone would warrant. The director's embarrassed dismissal of his relationship with Mme Meursault as 'childish' intimates that here too we might look for subversive traces of the feminine maternal or, more generally, Woman. What is 'embarrassing' to the director and fascinating to Meursault is the intimation by way of Pérez of the mother's sexuality, her existence as woman, both sexual and maternal.

Beyond the surface, in between or outside the categories of the symbolic, the most deeply repressed figure of the orgasmic mother points enigmatically to a truth other than man's, the half-herd truth of woman's jouissance. Thus, the text forges an elusive link between the mother, Pérez, the landscape, and truth. Meursault observes Pérez while the director explains that often Pérez and Meursault's mother would take evening walks to the village.

Je regardais la campagne autour de moi. A travers les lignes de cyprès qui menaient aux collines près du ciel, cette terre rousse et verte, ces maisons rares et bien dessinées, je comprenais maman. Le soir, dans ce pays, devait être comme une trêve mélancolique.

I was looking at the countryside around me. Seeing the rows of cypress trees leading up to the hills next to the sky, and the houses standing out here and there against that red and green earth, I was able to understand Maman better. Evenings in that part of the country must have been a kind of sad relief.

Access to maternal truth-jouissance will be indirect, via the landscape and/or Pérez. The mother earth figure, which others have discussed in Camus, is actually not a figure, a substitute for the mother's body that erases it. The conjoining of mother and earth is, in my view, a manifestation of the confusion of boundaries, of the mingling of same and other in non-contradictory synthesis, that Lacanian and feminist psychoanalysis attributes to feminine jouissance. The feminist psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray analogises this feature of woman's jouissance from her body:

As for woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation, and before there is any way to distinguish activity from passivity. Woman "touches herself" all the time … for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, within herself, she is already two—but not divisible into one(s)—that caress each other.

In this light, the mother earth connection represents the insistence in the text of the mother's body as the locus of a non-figural truth beyond meaning and mastery. Thus, Meursault's final revelation, precipitated by sense impressions from the landscape, reconvenes the same elements, including some of the same phrases, that are linked in this passage:

j'ai pensé à maman. Il m'a semblé que je comprenais pourquoi à la fin d'une vie elle avait pris un 'fiancé', pourquoi elle avait joué à recommencer. Là-bas, là-bas aussi … le soir était comme une trêve mélancolique. Si près de la mort, maman devait s'y sentir libérée et prête à tout revivre.'

I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a 'fiancé,' why she had played at beginning again. Even there … evening was a kind of wistful respite. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again.

Mersault's reading of Woman justifies his refusal of patriarchy and culminates in rejection of the binary oppositions that support it. Endings, of novels and of lives, are also beginnings, and in this non-hierarchical imbrication of opposites lie truth, freedom, and the real unity sought in Camus's writings. As we shall see, these are not the only traces of the feminine in the last pages of the novel.

Truth is in neither term of the opposition, but in between, 'entre', 'inter-dit.' Unlike the lighting at the vigil described by the concierge as 'tout ou rien,' 'she-truths' burst forth where contradiction is maintained. In 'Le vréel' ('she-truth' or 'true-real') Julia Kristeva theorises that in this space where the symbolic falters the pre-oedipal archaic mother surfaces and reclaims her right to language, pointing to ineffable jouissance and causing the real to appear as a jubilant enigma. This perspective is strikingly close to Camus's when he meditates on truth in 'L'Enigme' (1950):

Tout se tait … De nouveau, une énigme heureuse m'aide à tout comprendre … Le soleil … coagule l'univers et ses formes dans un éblouissement obscur … cette clarté blanche et noire qui, pour moi, a toujours été celle de la vérité.

Everything grows quiet … Once again, a happy enigma helps me to understand everything … the sun … coagulates the universe and its forms into a dazzling darkness … the white and black clarity that, for me, has always been the sign of truth.

In the inscrutable, unimaginable space between alternatives in Camus's writing may be glimpsed an elusive 'mother's truth' whose roots are buried in childhood:

Si ce soir, c'est l'image d'une certaine enfance qui revient vers moi, comment ne pas accueillir la leçon d'amour et de pauvreté que je puis en tirer? Puisque cette heure est comme un intervalle entre oui et non,… recueillir seulement la transparence et la simplicité des paradis perdus: dans une image.

If, this evening, the image of a certain childhood comes back to me, how can I keep from welcoming the lesson of love and poverty it offers? Since this hour is like a pause between yes and no … only to capture the transparency and simplicity of paradises lost: in an image.

'She-truths' or the lost paradise of maternal jouissance, these represent both the source ('image') and the aim ('image') of Camus's thought and art. When it refuses to repress otherness, when it affirms non-hierarchically both elements of an opposition ('oui et non'; 'Il n'y a pas d'amour de vivre sans désespoir de vivre'), the discourse of the Absurd approximates a discourse of the feminine. By the same token, Meursault's celebrated indifference—apparent in such formulas as 'cela m'était égal,' 'dans un sens … dans un autre,' 'd'un côté … d'un autre côté'—may be understood not as difference annulled but rather as an illustration of this 'feminine' kind of difference.

Most important for their implications of alterity and for Meursault's evolution with respect to otherness are the Arabs. In much the same way as the mother the Arabs contribute to Camus's myth of utopian otherness. 'Ils nous regardaient en silence, mais à leur manière, ni plus ni moins que si nous étions des pierres ou des arbres morts.' These are the same silent looks as the mother's, looks of the oppressed/repressed whose silence may signify anger. They recall the alternative discourse of dissidence suggested in the attitude of the old people during the vigil and the blend of familiarity and estrangement we have traced to the preoedipal relationship to the mother. Marginalised, colonised, depersonalised, presented anonymously as 'Arabes' or 'groupes d'Arabes' or more exotically as 'Mauresques,' from an abstract semiotic point of view—though not, as many of Camus's critics have observed, a pragmatic, political one—they serve in L'Etranger to critique Western notions of identity and the self. In Part 2, the murmured communication between the crouching Arab prisoners and their visitors beneath the din of their French counterparts forms a 'basso continuo' that suggests the repressed semiotic subtext of the symbolic, a non-figural (hence the musical comparison to convey the impression their Arabic makes on Meursault) and more authentic form of communication ('malgré' le tumulte, ils parvenaient à s'entendre en parlant très bas').

Camus reinforces the association with the semiotic or dissident maternal discourse by juxtaposing the Arabs' conversation with the silent communication between two other characters, an old woman and her son, who stare intensely at each other. At parting their silent looks are seconded by gesture and the pre-discursive 'maman,' the only time it does not refer to Meursault's own mother: 'Il a dit: "Au revoir, maman"' et elle a passé sa main entre les deux barreaux pour lui faire un petit signe lent et prolongé.' Meursault describes the son as 'un petit jeune homme aux mains fines,' (italics mine) as if to emphasise his childlike relationship to the mother and a feminine trait that evokes the sameness-in-difference preceding the oedipal cut and the constitution of sexual difference.

If the Arabs carry all these positive, maternal connotations, then what does it mean to murder an Arab? As others have noted, this is the oedipal moment. Raymond has progressively dragged the passive Meursault into man's world: 'il m'a déclaré … que moi, j'étais un homme,' 'Raymond … m'a dit qu'entre hommes on se comprenait toujours.' Reflecting the Symbolic Order, this world of the white Western colonist grants Arabs and women existence only as subordinate others. Thus, Meursault is becoming more 'normal.' He agrees to marry Marie and recognises in the conventional Masson couple an image of his own conjugal future. In the murder chapter there is strong emphasis on traditional gender roles: the men go for a walk while the women do the dishes, the men get into fights and the women cry. Furthermore, Meursault is uncharacteristically patronising: 'Là, nous avons trouvé nos deux Arabes' (italics mine).

This process culminates in the murder. Raymond's revolver, itself emblematic of his phallocentric world, is symbolically related to the sun, the primary paternal symbol in the episode. The sun glints on the gun when he hands it to Meursault. But in this second encounter with the Arabs Meursault remains poised in a quasi-maternal world of equilibrium and suspended choices, of silence and water: 'tout s' arrêtait ici entre la mer, le sable et le soleil, le double silence de la flûte et de I'eau. J'ai pensé qu' on pouvait tirer ou ne pas tirer' (italics mine). 'Everything came to a stop there between the sea, the sand, and the sun, and the double silence of the flute and the water. It was then that I realised that you could either shoot or not shoot.' When he returns to the beach alone, he is both rejecting Raymond's world with its stereotyped femininity and trying to shake off the 'blinding' sun which opposes his advance to the shade, repose, and the cool maternal spring ('je me tendais tout entier pour triompher du soleil'). The play of the sun of the Arab's knife becomes more obviously a metaphor for the threat of castration. The paternal sun in fact prevents him from turning back and pushes him toward the constitution of the Arab—and Woman—as polar Other. The associations between the Arab and Woman are numerous. Not only does the Arab occupy a space connoted maternal, he is lying in a 'feminine', almost seductive pose. And he is there to exact revenge on behalf of his sister. Finally, the sun here recalls the primal separation from the mother's body at the funeral: 'C'était le même soleil que le jour où j'avais enterré maman.' With the passive firing of the first shot under the influence of the sun, Meursault has destroyed 'l'équilibre du jour' and happy silence. He now fully enters the Symbolic Order, firing four more shots with Raymond's gun to complete the repression of Arab and Woman as Other.

Cut from the pre-oedipal by this act, Meursault will (re)discover in it a positive rhetoric of dissidence. The prison visit represents an important turning point in this development. Camus builds on the implications of maternal semiosis in the scene by devoting the rest of the chapter of Meursault's infantile regression. The prison cell becomes a womblike environment returning him to maternal wisdom ('C'était d'ailleurs une idée de maman … qu' on finissait par s'habituer à tout') and unsettling adult temporality, antinomy, fixed boundaries, as well as language: 'Je n'avais pas compris à quel point les jours pouvaient être à la fois longs et courts … ils finissaient par déborder les uns sur les autres. Ils y perdaient leur nom. Les mots hier et demain étaient les seuls qui gardaient un sens pour moi' (italics mine). 'I hadn't understood how days could be both long and short at the same time … they ended up flowing into one another. They lost their names. Only the words "yesterday" and "tomorrow" still had any meaning for me.' But these pages also suggest the dangers of pure silence through the cautionary tale of the Czech who fails to speak his identity when he returns to his village after twenty-five years and ends up being killed by his mother and sister who have not recognised him.

Not until the final chapter, however, does Meursault emerge from his characteristic 'rien à dire' to speech. Before his outburst against the priest, his efforts at symbolisation are striking. He tries, for example, to represent the unrepresentable, the moment his heart will stop beating. More importantly, there is a long meditation on the guillotine, the core of which is the memory of a story his mother used to tell about the father he never knew. Access to the father occurs only via the mother who does not embody here the 'feminine' stereotype of a mute presence whose silence may be rich with meaning. She assumes rather the 'masculine' role of speaking subject, of storyteller, and in her story the father, unlike all the other paternal figures in the novel, appears in a positive light. For in his openness to the man whose execution he witnessed, in his refusal to perceive the assassin as absolute Other, in his bodily protest against death and the horror of the guillotine—he vomits, a reaction not unlike the body language of female hysterics—the father transcends traditional gender roles. Like Thomas Pérez, he mingles the maternal and paternal, the feminine and masculine, just as by speaking the mother embodies both masculine and feminine. In playing out sexual differentiation rather than difference, in suggesting a process, a back-and-forth movement between same and other rather than rigid divisions, the mother's discourse opens a space for the unrepresentable and offers in its form as in its content a model for an authentic language—and literature—of dissidence.

Assuming a feminine maternal posture, Meursault puts this discourse of dissidence into effect against the priest and in his climactic nocturnal vision. His revolt against the priest turns a passionate outcry into a reasoned rejection of the hierarchised world of Fathers and Others. The pre-oedipal origins of this revolt are suggested in the introduction to his tirade: 'Alors, je ne sais pas pourquoi, il y a quelque chose qui a crevé en moi. Je me suis mis à crier à plein gosier et je l'ai insulté' (italics mine). 'Then, I don't know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him.' Meursault identifies with the self-differentiating mother's body. He is both mother and child. The waters break and he gives birth to the cry, the semiotic of the infant converted into the language of protest of the adult. 'J'étouffais en criant tout ceci….' 'All the shouting had me gasping for air.'

By far the most spectacular feminisation of Meursault and the most far-reaching identification with the mother occur after the priest's departure in the closing paragraph of the novel. Calling upon those elements of nature already connoted maternal, Camus presents Meursault's revelation as an opening up to the mother: 'Des odeurs de nuit, de terre et de sel rafraîchissaient mes tempes. La merveilleuse paix de cet été endormi entrait en moi comme une marée … Je m'ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde' (italics mine). 'Smells of night, earth, and salt air were cooling my temples. The wondrous peace of that sleeping summer flowed through me like a tide … I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.' If in the scene with the priest he identifies with the procreating mother, here his identification is with the orgasmic mother. Opening up to the maternal brings understanding of the mother's taking a fiancé and experience of the limitlessness and confusion of boundaries in maternal jouissance: 'maman devait s'y sentir libérée et prête à tout revivre … Et moi aussi, je me suis senti prêt à tout revivre.' 'Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again … And I felt ready to live it all again too.' The world allows Meursault to re-enact this positive movement between same and different, self and other: 'De l'éprouver si pareil à moi, si fraternel enfin, j'ai senti que j'avais été heureux, et que je l'étais encore.' 'Finding it so much like myself-so like a brother, really-I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.' Maternal and fraternal, the world confounds feminine and masculine, just as Meursault figures in non-contradictory synthesis his mother, his mother's son, and his mother's daughter. Rather than a reversal of the sexual hierarchy with Woman in the dominant position, feminisation entails the displacement of opposition and 'results in an excess, a spilling over of categories and an ambiguous surplus of meanings.'

Meursault has learned to 'read' ambiguous maternal signs 'cette nuit chargée de signes et d'étoiles'—and in dying commits to turning his own body into an equally enigmatic Woman-sign capable of inciting revolt: 'il me restait à souhaiter qu'il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon exécution et qu'ils m'accueillent avec des cris de haine.' With death imminent, Meursault can never really translate feminisation and reading Woman into effective action in his own life. This can lead one to interpret the ending as a death-wish signifying pre-oedipal escapism rather than heroic dissidence. But if Meursault is viewed as a sign to be read and not just a character to be psychoanalysed, then like Janine in 'La Femme adultère'—a more explicit figuration of Woman who also identifies with the orgasmic mother in a nocturnal ecstasy—he can be interpreted as an expression of Camus's own repressed feminine and as the positive outcome of his concerted effort to symbolise the maternal in art and praxis. However surprising it may seem to those who view him chiefly as the proponent of virile fraternity, Camus appears in fact to be one of those rare male writers of whom Héléne Cixous writes, who are 'able to venture onto the brink where writing, freed from law, unencumbered by moderation, exceeds phallic authority, and where subjectivity inscribing its effects becomes feminine.'

This gesture is not without its own ambiguity and I wouldn't be much of a feminist reader if I didn't end by problematising it. For in the long run we have to ask ourselves some questions. Does Meursault/Camus speak for or with the mother? Is the mother effaced as usual as subject and her discourse finally appropriated by man? Is this yet another instance of symbolic 'matricide' and a male fantasy of self-engenderment after all? But ambivalence toward the mother as enabling/engulfing, as eliminated subject yet object of a sustained quest, is as much a feature of women's writing (see, among others, [Marianne] Hirsch). Camus's artistic dilemma, so poignantly voiced in the preface to L'Envers et l'endroit, namely, to find a discourse of love that would 'balance' yet incorporate admirable maternal silence, reflects many women writers' entanglement with the maternal. Not until we approach the writing of men with the insights into the maternal and the critical tools gained from studying women writers will we begin to appreciate the primordial role played by Woman in the generation of literary texts.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Aciman, André A. "Of Things Past." Commentary 101, No. 3 (March 1996): 60-3.

Provides positive analysis of The First Man.

Chaitin, Gilbert D. "The Birth of the Subject in Camus' L'Etranger." The Romanic Review 84, No. 2 (March 1993): 163-80.

Explores the development of Meursault's subjectivity and alienation in The Stranger.

Chaitin, Gilbert D. "Narrative Desire in L'Etranger." In Camus's L'Etranger: Fifty Years On, edited by Adele King, pp. 125-38. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Examines the narrative voice and temporal structure in The Stranger.

Davis, Colin. "Interpreting La Peste." The Romanic Review 85, No. 1 (January 1994): 125-42.

Examines critical reception of The Plague and overlooked elements of narrative and linguistic ambiguity in the novel.

Erickson, John. "Albert Camus and North Africa: A Discourse in Exteriority." In Critical Essays on Albert Camus, edited by Bettina L. Knapp, pp. 73-88. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

Discusses Camus's portrayal of North Africa in his novels and short stories.

Golsan, Richard J. "Spain and the Lessons of History: Albert Camus and the Spanish Civil War." Romance Quarterly 38, No. 4 (November 1991): 407-16.

Examines Camus's view of the Spanish Civil War as reflected in the plays Révolte dans les Asturies and State of Siege.

Lazere, Donald. "Camus and His Critics on Capital Punishment." Modern Age 38, No. 4 (Fall 1996): 371-80.

Explores critical debate surrounding Camus's opposition to capital punishment.

O'Brien, Conor Cruise. "The Fall." The New Republic (16 October 1995): 42-7.

Provides critical discussion of Camus's late career and the publication of The First Man.

Peyre, Henri. "Presence of Camus." In Critical Essays on Albert Camus, edited by Bettina L. Knapp, pp. 15-26. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

Offers an overview of Camus's literary career and critical reputation.

Scheir, Donald. "The Warm and Innocent World of the Poor." The Sewanee Review 104, No. 3 (Summer 1996): lxvi-lxviii.

Provides positive evaluation of The First Man.

Sterling, Elwyn F. "Albert Camus's Adulterous Woman: A Consent to Dissolution." Romance Quarterly 34, No. 2 (May 1987): 155-63.

Explores the source of infidelity and guilt in "The Adulterous Woman."

Stoltzfus, Ben. "Camus's L'étranger: A Lacanian Reading." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 514-35.

Provides critical analysis of The Stranger based on the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.

Zepp, Evelyn H. "The Popular-Ritual Structural Pattern of Albert Camus' La Chute." Modern Language Studies 13, No. 1 (Winter 1983): 15-21.

Examines the ritual pattern of carnival "crowning" and "discrowning" in The Fall.

Renee Winegarten (essay date March 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Camus Today," in The New Criterion, Vol. 11, No. 7, March, 1993, pp. 35-42.

[In the following essay, Winegarten provides analysis of Caligula and Camus's literary preoccupations and career.]

Camus, after Kafka, a fellow sufferer from tuberculosis, was haunted by judgment, by those who judge, and by the question of their right to do so. "Before the bar of history, Caligula, the bar of history!" cries Camus's odious yet fascinating Roman emperor. Caligula's very last words in the play, uttered with a gasping laugh as he is being struck down, are—astonishingly—"I am still alive!" Like so much of Camus's writing, with its deceptive surface of classical clarity, these words resonate with mystery as well as savage irony.

Caligula is still conscious of life, still full of life, when he is stabbed to death by the conspirators he awaits in a form of "superior suicide"; he is defiant and triumphant at the very moment when he is overcome and breathes his last. Does it mean that the spirit of this aspiring monster, who tests and goes beyond every limit on human conduct, is alive in the world and even in ourselves? That is what Camus once implied. Is Caligula one aspect of the plague that Camus later suggested can never be totally eliminated? What values remain, what embargo is there on violence and cruelty, if all is nothingness? Unable to pass beyond good and evil as a proper disciple of Nietzsche should, and obsessed with violence all his life, Camus hovered about the problem of inner and outer darkness, which somehow he could not elude. In this regard, Camus's work remains as central to the accumulating horrors of our age as ever.

In the first sketch of the conclusion of the play, which was to be entitled, tellingly, Caligula or the Awareness of Death, the emperor appears at the end saying, "No, Caligula is not dead. He is there, and there. He is in each one of you. If you were given power, if you had courage, if you loved life, you would see this monster or this angel that you bear within you break out." So wrote the young Camus in his early notebooks in 1937, with all his yearning for personal happiness, for the absolute, for the unattainable—together with his confrontation of danger within and without. Caligula was the role that Camus the actor and actor-manager originally wrote for himself to perform with the theater company he ran in Algiers as a young man.

Like all his work, even the most seemingly detached, the play is intimately bound to his own personal concerns. Even Caligula's weird anguished reach for the moon could derive from personal reminiscence for, according to Camus's brother Lucien, their frustrated and dominating grandmother used to speak of "having the moon." In "Le Vent à Djémila" ("The Wind at Djémila"), Camus declared: "You live with a few familiar ideas. Two or three. As a result of chance encounters with worlds and men, you polish and transform them. It takes ten years to have an idea that is really your own—one you could possibly speak about." Then he added with characteristic irony, "Naturally, it is a little discouraging." His imagination returns constantly to a few vital experiences and images.

The mirror is one recurring image. The reflection of himself in the mirror that endlessly fascinates Caligula is and is not the true self, that goal of authenticity for the artist and actor whose sense of alienation and solitariness Camus identified in his notebooks. "Et tout m'est étranger, tout …" ("And everything is foreign to me, everything …"), owned the author of L'Etranger (The Stranger). Added to this feeling of estrangement was the detachment of the creative artist, of the observer of human conduct, and of the actor (as defined by Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus]). Brought up under the French educational system to seek horizons beyond his working-class origins, Camus was an Algerian-born Frenchman who afterwards never felt quite at home either in Algeria or among the Parisian literary and intellectual élite.

Like his Caligula, Camus himself now stands before the bar of history: he, too, over thirty years after his death in a stupid car accident at the age of forty-seven, is very much alive. Among the signs of his enduring presence are two recent productions of Caligula, one of them given at the Comédie Française. The probing texts of a conference on Camus's theater, the most controversial part of his literary output (as distinct from his politico-cultural essays and journalism), have been published. The fiftieth anniversary of that widely read novel, L'Etranger, influenced by the American "though guy" school of James M. Cain, and first published in 1942 during the Occupation, has been duly celebrated in France.

Camus's fiction has long attracted filmmakers with intellectual pretensions like Luchino Visconti, who made a movie of L'Etranger, and Ingmar Bergman, who apparently regrets not having transferred La Chute (The Fall) to the screen. A new film has just been made of that strange allegory, La Peste (The Plague)—a work inspired by Kafka and Melville—by the Argentinian film director Luis Puenzo, who seems to have found similarities between Camus's Oran in the grip of the plague and the situation under dictatorship in his own country. One prospective filmmaker who wanted to film La Peste professed to see a link between the nihilism of Camus's era and that of the present day.

In addition to this activity, a selection of Camus's journalistic writings from 1944–47 in the Resistance newspaper Combat is now presented in English translation, with the evident conviction of their relevance to present-day affairs. In his sharp account of the aberrations of French intellectuals, few of whom escape whipping, Bernard-Henri Lévy declares: "I am fond of Camus…. A writer who is scarcely ever found wanting in nobility and courage is exceptional. Besides, I am sure he was amusing." (Like Kafka, Camus had a humorous side, and he himself once remarked that people did not take sufficient note of his sense of humor.) Given all this interest in his work in the spheres of stage, screen, and the written word, it looks as if the end of the Cold War has not dimmed Camus's reputation. Instead, this epoch-making upheaval has perhaps moved the angle from which the writer can now be viewed.

To return to Caligula, first performed in 1945: it marks—along with Camus's adaptation of William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, staged in 1956—a rare highpoint of his popular success in the theater. Each play offers an attempt to wrestle with the problem of evil in a life shorn of values. These dramas also reflect Camus's tireless (and possibly misguided) concern with the creation of a modern form of tragedy in an age that he found deeply tragic. (He though that Faulkner's powerful baroque novel, composed in semi-dramatic form, was "one of the rare modern tragedies.") It is well known that the original production of Caligula owed much of its impact to the début of the young Gérard Philipe in the demanding title role. Delicate and vulnerable in appearance, with the innocent air of a perverse adolescent, and endowed with the inimitable musicality of his voice, Gérard Philipe (all who saw him agree) has proved without equal as Caligula in conveying charm, vanity, cruelty, and ambivalence. By common consent, his successors, in France and elsewhere, however talented in other respects, have mostly been competent but ordinary, lacking charisma, unable to efface the original image of a unique presence that can still be felt even in theatrical photographs.

So it was with the recent staging of Caligula at the Comédie Française. The production there, under the aegis of the noted Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, took the form of an elaborate conflation of ancient and modern in the current fashion, a mélange of togas and motorbikes, Rome and North Africa—visually striking and even cinematographic where perhaps simplicity might have fared better. The producer was not averse to changing the order of scenes to suit his own purpose. But which is the "correct" text? There are several versions of the play, which occupied Camus at different moments between 1937 and 1958, as he moved the emphasis of Caligula's revolt from the sphere of the cosmic and metaphysical, where it was placed originally, to that of the political and social, from solitariness to the implication of solidarity with humankind.

Shattered by the sudden death of his sister-mistress Drusilla, the all-powerful young Caligula embarks on a series of arbitrary acts of folly and cruelty. He (like his creator), and not only when he is impersonating the goddess Venus, is an actor-manager of considerable talent. His destructive indifference to human life and human suffering springs, paradoxically, from a passion for life. His monstrous madness has a certain absurd literal logic to it, breaking the hypocrisy of conventionally accepted norms and forms. If, for instance, the Treasury is to be regarded as all-important, then clearly human life is not. He shares the bitter sardonic humor of the atheist Meursault, condemned to death in L'Etranger, who rejects the spiritual comfort offered by the priest by saying that he is not interested in the things that do not interest him. Caligula's one merit is that he tries to force people to think about the truth of their condition, though finally he is driven to acknowledge that, in acting against other human beings, "I have not taken the proper path, I have achieved nothing. My liberty is not the right kind." On the stage, the play remains dark, difficult, disconcerting, and challenging.

What did Camus see in this catalogue of horrors to occupy him for so long? The simple commonplace that human beings die and that they are not happy sets the young Caligula on his frenzied path to make life give up its secrets, to change life as it is commonly lived unthinkingly. Camus was only about seventeen, fond of swimming and playing football, when he was struck down by tuberculosis: he thought he was going to die; he dreaded nothingness with "that physical fear of the animal who loves the sun." He was to suffer recurrent attacks of this illness for the rest of his life—a matter that is often overlooked. Latterly, much has been made of the fact that—like André Malraux—he came late to the Resistance. Where Malraux's commitment took the form of armed resistance. Camus's involvement was moral, in the shape of clandestine journalism for Combat. As "Albert Mathé" he was also engaged in underground activity that carried considerable risks of imprisonment, deportation to the camps, death. Given the state of his health, his conduct should seem creditable enough.

Camus's early years in Algeria had been marked by extreme poverty. His father, of French ancestry, was killed in the battle of the Marne in 1914 before the boy was a year old. His illiterate mother, of Spanish descent, found work as a cleaning woman to try to hold the family together. Yet such poverty, one possible source of his ill health, did not by his own account bring unhappiness, or preclude his profoundly sensuous and lyrical enthusiasm for the Algerian landscape, for the violent sun and radiant sea, the Roman ruins of Tipasa, the palimpsest of Djémila, all those life-enhancing elements of his youth that he would encapsulate in what he later liked to call the Mediterranean spirit. This was less an idea—to be scorned by academic philosophers—than a personal experience or response transformed into a value that would help to guard him (and, possibly, others) against the fearful destructive consequences of the powerful nihilistic ideologies that tempted him and his contemporaries.

It was not long before Camus's reputation was hedged about with misunderstandings. He was taken for the conscience of his age—a sort of French George Orwell—because he came to defend certain humane principles, and to advocate measure and the recognition of human limitations. Most notably he stood out against racialism, against the death penalty, against the criminality of "the end justifies the means," against the bloodshed of the would-be utopia of "the new man," against institutionalized murder on the grounds of "necessity" or for the supposed benefit of future generations. The Swedish Royal Academy, in awarding Camus the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, cited his treatment of the problems facing the conscience of humanity at the time. Camus would scarcely have been human if he had not felt some gratification at his celebrity, at the path he had traversed from the poor district of Algiers. Yet he also knew that his fame as a kind of "secular saint" was a millstone around his neck, irritating some (notably one-time friends like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) and generally preventing people from seeing him as he truly felt himself to be.

Protest as he might, though, few appeared to pay much attention to his disclaimers. In a manuscript note to L'Homme révolté (The Rebel), Camus the Don Juan complained about the painful misunderstanding under which he labored: "I bear the weight of a reputation for austerity at once undeserved and rather ridiculous. If I have fought so firmly and uncompromisingly against those who legislated or killed in the name of the absolute, it is because I was aware of my own shortcomings and because I found only in them the permission to say that nobody is sufficiently just or pure to arrogate the right to judge without appeal…. Neither in my work nor in myself has there been an attempt to convert people to virtue but a logic that derives from frailty and a difficult struggle to attain to greater light. That is all." Years later, in an interview with the novelist and playwright Jean-Claude Brisville, published in 1959, Camus was still elaborating the same theme, declaring that his name as a guide and guru made him laugh.

Even in the very last interview he gave, in December 1959, he went on insisting that "I don't speak for anyone else: I've enough trouble to find my own manner of speech. I don't guide anybody: I don't know, or scarcely know, where I'm going. I don't live on a pedestal: I walk like everybody else in the streets of the day. I ask myself the same questions as men of my generation, that's all." In his acceptance speech in Stockholm he had quietly talked of being gifted with his doubts alone. "Why am I an artist and not a philosopher? It is because I think in accordance with words not ideas," he had once observed in his notebooks.

This tendency to work slowly and with no little effort toward a position that he can regard as true and just—one that is then held firmly and is publicly defended—may be traced throughout his life. What separates him from the "German friend" to whom he addressed those powerful "letters" in 1943–44? From an intellectual point of view, very little, it would seem, since they both derive from the same masters of nihilism, from Nietzsche and the rest. And yet it turns out to be a great deal, when Camus finally opposes the Nazi and his like, offering resistance in the name of humanity and justice. "I have chosen justice … so as to stay faithful to the earth," he wrote. "I continue to believe that this world has no supernatural meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning, and that is man, because he is the only being who demands meaning for himself." The determination to resist, to take a stand, has no sacred sanction, it is not rooted in some philosophical system. It is a free choice made from an inner propulsion ("I know"). Here, Camus's debt to André Malraux (in their photographs, even down to the manly cigarette ever hanging between the lips) is evident, in his attempt to rescue "man" from the forces that would destroy him. Camus's vocabulary derives from that of Malraux, in its assumption (characteristic of the day) that there is no need to mention woman in the definition of humankind.

Equally plain is Camus's debt to Henry de Montherlant's aristocratic view of "qualité" or nobility and a kind of Spanish point of honor. He shared Montherlant's reliance on scorn, and his distaste for the "shopgirl's morality" that in his opinion flourished under the Third Republic. Literature could still inculcate some of the attitudes of aristocracy even in those who were not born aristocrats. The seductiveness of Montherlant's writings lay in his prose, in his hedonism and his death-oriented nihilism. Yet ultimately Camus drew away from Montherlant. He came to reject Montherlant's stress on equivalence. For Camus, life cannot be regarded from the point of view of eternity.

A similar kind of slow development or revelation is to be found in the matter of the excesses of the purge at the Liberation. In the exaltation of the moment, in Combat on October 20, 1944, Camus could justify the purge in the name of a terrible law which obliged Frenchmen "to destroy a still living part of this country to save its very soul." Gradually, though, Camus moved away from his rallying call to revolution, from being the new "Saint-Just issuing alive from Malraux's L'Espoir," as a contemporary expressed it, in the immediate post-Resistance period. He turned into the journalist who wanted neither victims nor executioners. It is clear, then, that when in 1951 Camus published L'Homme révolté, his influential critique of revolution (as indeed with Caligula in 1945), he was not composing a detached study or work but was writing out of his own temptations as well as those he witnessed among leading fellow writers and intellectuals.

It is from this angle that we should now view L'Homme révolté, that mine which many writers have since worked and reworked, a book once seen as integral to the polemics of the Cold War. (Indeed, this influential book would soon connect with the horrors of the Franco-Algerian War, which raged from 1954 until two years after Camus's death, with the use of torture on the French side and terror on the other.) The notorious polemic instituted by Sartre and his spokesman, Francis Jeanson (who even today expresses no regrets), on the subject of L'Homme révolté remains central to the history of ideas and to the culture of our age. The tone of Sartre's reply to Camus, criticizing the loftiness of Camus's objections to Jeanson's review, is not just deeply wounding, it intends to wound. It would be tough on someone unknown to the author: addressed to a sensitive friend whose every vulnerable spot is familiar, it is cruel. Whenever afterward Camus declares that he does not seek to put himself on a pedestal, one can be sure that he is still smarting from Sartre's accusation that he carries a kind of "portable pedestal" around with him.

Camus's working-class origin is coldly discounted by Sartre, who levels at him the deadly charge of turning "bourgeois" and of betraying the proletariat and the Left. Unlike Sartre, he was not prepared to defend Communism and the USSR at all costs, supposedly in order to save the workers from the loss of hope, from the harsh truth of what was going on there. The one-time ardent young Communist of 1935–37, who grew indignant when the party line changed and the Algerian Moslems were left to their fate, and who was expelled for his pains, would always see himself as a man of the Left. He was neither a liberal (in the European sense) nor had he gone over to the Right Wing whose luminaries sought to co-opt him. Moreover, during the Cold War, despite his loathing of Soviet tyranny, he could not give his whole-hearted faith to the United States because of the notion of "my enemy's enemy is my friend," and the policy of support for dictators, most notably for General Franco. Camus was extremely keen on his Spanish heritage through his mother, and he treasured his debt to it; he was emotionally attached to the distinguished actress Maria Casarès (daughter of Santiago Casares Quiroga, former prime minister of the Spanish Republic), who played leading roles in several of his plays; and his greatest friends in Paris were to be found among the Spanish Republican exiles.

Where Camus sought to take his stand was on truth and justice as he understood them: these were the great rocks that, like Sisyphus, he was endlessly pushing up the hillside to see them roll down again. His concern for them, and for moderation, came to save him from the self-righteous intransigence of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and their allies as they favored first the USSR, and then Mao's China and each new and usually murderous revolutionary "utopia" in turn, in the name of a changed world and "the new man." In this way Camus eluded the deception, the lies, the passion for the extreme and, above all, the advocacy of the use of violence and the condonation of terror which besmirch the reputation of Sartre, Genet (if the word reputation may be used of him), and the Maoist intellectuals who followed.

This is not to say that Camus was lacking in a certain "nostalgia" (as his editor Roger Quilliot calls it) for the nineteenth-century Russian terrorists, like Ivan Kaliayev, who was responsible for the assassination of Grand Duke Serge in 1905—but then much of our culture is rooted in nostalgia for violence. Here was another contemporary temptation (see the celebrated opening pages of Malraux's La Condition humaine, with the terrorist's murder of a sleeping man). Camus depicted Kaliayev and his associates as "fastidious assassins" in L'Homme révolté, on which he was working when his play on the same theme, Les Justes (The Just), was first staged in 1949. They are seen as "fastidious," admired as pure, noble, and honorable because—unlike the terrorists of Camus's day and our own—they are ready to yield up their own lives after killing in the name of an ideal. As has been pointed out with regard to this specious view, murder is murder, no matter how refined the scruples of the assassin.

Certainly, by the time of the Algerian revolt, and the indiscriminate terror practiced by the FLN (the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale)—keenly supported and justified by Sartre and his circle—Camus made no secret of his opposition to political murder. He particularly scorned intellectuals who advocated terror and who sympathized with terrorists from the comfort of their armchairs. In a much commented-upon observation, he said that he put the life of his mother, who was still living in Algiers, first. In the end, with him as a writer and a human being, it was not just words but people that came before ideas.

A good deal of ink has been spilt over Camus's attitude to French colonialism in Algeria, especially by his judges on the Left or by the politically correct. Camus found himself in a cleft stick. By origin descended from settlers, he would have liked to keep a reformed, democratic Algeria linked to France. In his youth he had favored the reforms proposed by the Léon Blum-Maurice Vialatte bill, reforms that were stymied by powerfully entrenched French colonial interests. As a young journalist he had written a moving report on poverty among the inhabitants of the Kabylie region. He was outraged by the terrible repression of the uprising at Sétif in 1945, which left many dead. After all, he was brought up among Algerian Moslems, some of them future political leaders, who counted among his friends and acquaintances.

What he did not seem to take into account was the driving force of fanatical nationalism which, once unleashed, would inevitably propel Algeria to full independence, democratic or no. There was a certain naïve idealistic strain in Camus, one-time supporter of Gary Davis, the now long forgotten would-be citizen of the world. Camus tried to do what he could for peace and reconciliation: in January 1956 he went to Algiers to speak in favor of a truce. Events outstripped him. Thenceforward, fearing to aggravate the situation by public declarations, he intervened constantly behind the scenes on behalf of numerous Algerian Moslems who were on trial or in prison awaiting execution. The list of those he tried to save is long.

It was inevitable that the Franco-Algerian tragedy would leave Camus torn with ambivalent feelings. Central to his impassioned self-inquiry is the masterly monologue La Chute of 1956. There, Camus probed the theme of "Judge not, that ye be not judged," with its religious connotations. Now, after the Fall, nobody can be innocent. The work is a cry of critical and self-critical irony, issuing from his own profound self-dissatisfaction as well as from his acute perception of the self-righteousness and self-deception of his pontificating fellow intellectuals on the Left who judged him to be a traitor to the cause. That super-subtle former lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, heir to Diderot's eccentric personage, Rameau's nephew, has left France for Amsterdam, abandoning his profession, spending his time there in button-holing strangers, like the one whose responses can only be gleaned from the words of Clamence himself.

Clamence's sustained sardonic confession provides at the same time a way of accusing everyone else. The details of his disquisition or indictment are left deliberately vague, and are constantly being called into question, so that his words have a wide reference. Are all of the utterances of this womanizing self-styled actor really true? There is reason to doubt it. The great sin of omission that (he claims) changed his life as a do-gooder of repute, his failure to respond to the cries of a drowning woman, can stand for all sins of omission and commission, all the acts that obsess the human conscience with the burden of guilt and destroy the virtuous self-image. The piece is a sustained dramatic parable where the judge-penitent flays human weakness in himself and in others: "… I am concocting a portrait which is that of everyone and no one. All things considered, a mask…. Yet, as the same time, the portrait I offer my contemporaries turns into a mirror," says Clamence. Here is a later version of Caligula's mirror—the reflection of the darkness within.

Where does Camus stand today now that the Cold War, in whose intellectual or cultural history he figured so largely, has come to an end? The collapse of the Communist system in the USSR and its former satellites has not actually eliminated die-hard Communism and the many shades and varieties of radical Left Wing sympathy. (The ability of members of extreme movements of Left and Right to shed skins in renewal, like the snake, has been witnessed countless times.) That collapse has merely shown up the bankruptcy and bad faith of the intellectuals who championed Stalin, Mao and the rest, and who whitewashed terror as a political instrument. Certainly, the cry of violent revolution as a substitute faith or a fashionable shibboleth is not being heard at the moment. In this sense, the mature Camus has been vindicated.

Yet to regard the end of the Cold War between the superpowers as a victory for liberal democracy and a new world order would surely be premature. Camus well knew that freedom—like truth and justice—has to be conquered. Violence and terrorism have not been erased from the imagination or from actuality. A Pandora's box of moral, political, and economic ills has now been opened: extreme nationalism, racialism, religious zealotry, "ethnic cleansing," together with Fascism and Nazism, have reappeared in late-twentieth-century Europe. An idea, however perverse, cannot be killed. It goes underground to re-emerge when times are ripe. In Le Monde of December 5, 1992, that well-known authority on Sartre, Michel Contat, could inquire whether Marxism has taken refuge in the catacombs.

Toward the end of Camus's allegory La Peste, there is a shatteringly resonant passage: "But he knew nonetheless that this chronicle could not be that of the conclusive victory. It could only be the witness of what had had to be accomplished and what, doubtless, all men … would still have to accomplish against terror and its tireless weapon…. For he knew what this joyous crowd did not know: … that the bacillus of the plague never dies or disappears, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture and linen, that it waits patiently in rooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and bundles of papers, and that, perhaps, the day would come when, for the misfortune and the education of men, the plague would reawaken its rats and would send them to die in a fortunate city." In La Peste the plague is not only Fascism and Nazism, perverse ideology, violence, injustice, inhumanity, dictatorship, and the Occupation of France: in one of its aspects, the plague is life itself and all the ills and evils that flesh is heir to. The warnings of Camus are there to remind us of a never-ending struggle where we are not granted to complete the work.

As Camus wrote in 1950 in an essay entitled "L'Enigme" ("The Enigma"): "In the darkest moment of our nihilism, I looked only for reasons to go beyond that nihilism." Not, he added, out of virtue or loftiness of soul but out of a passion for light and life. In Aeschylus, he suggested, there is an enigma, a meaning deciphered with difficulty because it dazzles the view. Something of that kind of enigma is to be found in his own works. Indeed, it is neither as a "secular saint" nor as the partisan of a particular cause that Camus should be viewed today, but as a fallible human being who made mistakes and was aware of many of his own shortcomings, who struggled for justice and decency, and whose writings stand as moving testimony to that struggle. He could be wrong at times, of course, but the amazing thing is how often he was in the right, and how much he still has to say to us in a dark hour.

Robert R. Brock (essay date Spring 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Meursault the Straw Man," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 92-100.

[In the following essay, Brock provides an overview of critical interpretation of The Stranger. According to Brock, scholarly debate centered upon psychoanalytical speculation obscures the novel's primary significance as a treatise against capital punishment.]

Although d'Ormesson was referring to the critic's approach to literature in general, it should be obvious to anyone reading learned articles on L'Etranger that he could have had their treatment of Camus' short masterpiece specifically in mind. This desire to explain, rather than to understand, means that the book will not be discussed as a whole, as an entity, but as a series of all but unrelated segments. There may well be some discussion of the story as a manifestation of the absurde, as well as arguments over just what that word entails, but the book will be examined primarily as an expression of some political, social or psychological cant based on a subjective reading of one or two scenes.

For most critics, the book is either an indictment of the French judicial system that deprives the proletariat of an effective voice by stealing its language, or it is the case-study of a man with more Oedipal problems than even Freud ever dreamed of. One doesn't have to spend much time in a musty library to verify my charge: Ben Stoltzfus has already done the essential legwork for his article "Camus' L'Etranger: a Lacanian Reading." Perusing it will prove d'Ormesson's point, and mine; some scenes will be "explained," but the basic message of L'Etranger will not be noticed, let alone understood.

Stoltzfus's research shows that Meursault is either a nihilistic juvenile delinquent (René Girard) or a man of rigorous honesty (Germaine Brée). He could have been condemned to the guillotine because he won't play the game (Sartre and Robert Champigny) or because he is inept and wants to die (Monique Wagner). The death of the Arab was either an accident (Louis Hudon) or a crimen ex machina (Girard). On the other hand, perhaps the judges condemn Meursault in order to "destroy the truth he embodies" (Albert Maquet). Of course, the whole thing might be a fatum as in ancient Greek literature (Carl Viggiani).

As to the four extra shots that baffle the judge, J. H. Mathews says they might be the first manifestation of Meursault's will, while Hudon sees them as an expression of exasperation. However, Julian L. Stamm is certain that Meursault was really a homosexual and that the shots on the beach were ejaculations. In his article, Stoltzfus goes on to note that Brian T. Fitch has covered these and various other interpretations of L'Etranger in his study and concludes by citing Alain Robbe-Grillet's comment, "I am the stranger." (L'étranger, c'est moi). Stolzfus then comes to the very dangerous conclusion that the book is "a work that reads the reader." In other words, "We each read the book with our own unconscious desire."

The unfortunate thing here is that he is right. It is unfortunate in that a too personal identification with the work, or its hero, leads to readings that are then presented to us not as one person's very subjective interpretation of, in this case, L'Etranger, but rather as objective, self-evident truth. The book becomes then not what the author wrote in fact, but what the critic would have written/meant given his/her personal bent had he/she written it. The critic does not say, for instance, this scene makes me think that Camus may have wanted to supplant his father in his mother's bed, but that it is perfectly obvious that he wished to do so. As Hudon wrote in his essay on L'Etranger, "Many put their nickel in the philosophical slot, and existentialism comes out of everywhere, others in the new critical slot, and it rains symbols."

Critics are willing to quote authors on any given subject save one: what the authors think of critics. Stoltzfus, whose article presents a highly personal view of L'Etranger, takes Freudians to task and insists that his approach is the only valid one. (For those who do not subscribe to either dogma, the difference between them is not all that obvious.) In any event, perhaps all critics should read, or reread, what Sartre had to say about literary criticism.

When I picked up a book, it made no difference if I opened it and closed it twenty times, I could see that it didn't change. Sliding over this uncorruptable surface: the text, my sight was only a minuscule surface accident, it disturbed nothing … I left my bureau, turned off the light: invisible in the darkness, the book continued to glow; for itself alone. (Quand je prenais un livre, j'avais beau l'ouvrir et le fermer vingt fois, je voyais bien qu'il ne s'altéait pas. Glissant sur cette substance incorruptible le texte, mon regard n'était qu'un miniscule accident de surface, il ne dérangeait rien … je quittais le bureau, j'éteignais: invisible dans les ténèbres, le livre étincelait toujours; pour lui seul.)

In other words, the reader has no part to play in the work. It exists independently of him and must be approached on its own terms and not as a mirror or manifestation, of "our own unconscious desire." L'Etranger, then, must be seen as a mirror of Camus' soul, not the critic's, a point to which I shall return.

Stoltzfus also quotes Robbe-Grillet's statement, "each of us has a tendency to conceive a history of literature that is his own story." (chacun d'entre nous a tendance à concevoir une histoire de la littérature qui est sa propre histoire.) That is, we tend to see literature as a reflection of ourselves. Stoltzfus gives this quote in order to shore up his argument for a Lacanian reading. He is correct in citing Robbe-Grillet, since this innovative author has based some of his method of writing, not his philosophy, on Camus, as evidenced in his critical essays. However, Robbe-Grillet does not approve of this sort of interpretation. He also wrote that there is no connection between man and things, where Stoltzfus, and others, see the word lame, used to describe both the waves and the knife blade, as being highly significant. (Has any such critic seriously wondered what choice of vocabulary items Camus had to describe knife blade and wave, [lame], or sea and mother, mère and mer? As the French say, there aren't thirty-six.) One must also wonder why such psychological interpretations are always predicated on the most morbid and/or prurient readings possible.

Robbe-Grillet, in any case, does not see things the same way that Stoltzfus and the partisans of psychological interpretations do. For Robbe-Grillet, man is man and things are things and things do not have human qualities. This attitude will be seen as antihumanist and therefore criminal and—be ignored.

The crime is to affirm that something exists in the world that is not man, that addresses no sign to him, that has nothing in common with him … he sees these things, but he refuses to appropriate them, he refuses to enter into any shady understanding with them, any complicity; he asks nothing of them. (Le crime c'est d'affirmer qu'il existe quelque chose, dans le monde qui n'est pas l'homme, qui ne lui adresse aucun siqne, qui n'a rien de commun avec lui … il les [les choses] voit, mais il refuse de se les approprier, il refuse d'entretenir avec elles aucune entente louche, aucune connivence; il ne leur demande rien.)

This statement is clearly counter to the Freudian and Lacanian approaches to literature.

Moreover, the difficulty of a conventional psychological interpretation of L'Etranger was noted by John K. Simon in his article in Yale French Studies. He considers the book to be the first successful novel in a contemporary movement that will lead to Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, a movement marked by its refusal of conventional social and psychological readings.

Critics who are partial to such interpretations have claimed that the beach scene that leads to the shooting is the first outburst of poetic writing in a book previously most noteworthy for its resolutely pedestrian narration and that it must therefore have special significance. Forgetting the wake, the funeral procession and their figura, such critics should at least look at the afternoon and evening Meursault spent on the balcony watching life in the streets. Even students reading their very first novel in French and struggling mightily with the simplest language, are struck by the sheer beauty of Camus' description. As Sunday came to an end, the streets were filled with strutting elegant young men and coquettish women meeting, flirting and joking. There were also the streetlamps and streetcars and their lights reflecting off damp pavement, bracelets and smiles. Camus describes the trees, the paling stars and all "until the first cat slowly crossed the again deserted street" (jusqu'à ce que le premier chat traverse lentement la rue de nouveau déserte.) What great psychological horror story are we to make of that?

It the description of the beach scene, the burning sun and the death of the Arab are more emotionally charged, is it really because Meursault is being pursued by some evil Mother? (Just why do critics who insist that he is being so pursued, and identify the Mother as being Meursault's, i.e. Camus', never speak of the loving relationship between Dr. Rieux and his mother in La Peste? Or did someone else write that book?) The style that an artist chooses normally corresponds to the events that he is describing. Thus the beach scene is in a more electrifying style simply because the act that will lead to Meursault's execution is more emotionally, and dramatically, charged than his spending a quiet day on his balcony and then going down to a now empty street to buy bread and pasta.

Robbe-Grillet speaks of L'Etranger in Pour un nouveau roman because Camus' hero resembles his own "heroes" in Les Gommes and Le Voyeur, heroes that were inspired, at least in part, by Meursault. Even though the literary goals of the two authors have nothing in common, Meursault embodies much of what Robbe-Grillet feels the new hero should be: a single name, no real, detailed past history, no face or physical description, no clearly defined profession or character. In short, none of the standard literary tactics that allow us to identify with the hero and vicariously share in his trials and tribulations. Comparing Meursault to any hero of Balzac or Stendhal should suffice to convince all but those most incurably wedded to the new criticism that no serious links exist between the two schools of writing and that Camus must have had something else in mind when he wrote this book. In the same way, Robbe-Grillet's affinity for Camus' technique, not for his philosophy, came from his belief that Camus had created a "new" literary hero. He had not, of course; he had simply re-invented the hero of the conte philosophique. In any event, Camus' influence can best be seen by comparing Wallas (from Les Gommes) and Mathias (from Le voyeur) to Rastignac or Julien Sorel, a comparison that should convince most that Robbe-Grillet also had something other than the conventional psychological novel in mind. If the doubters need further proof of Robbe-Grillet's thinking, they should read what he wrote in La Jalousie.

Two of the protagonists, A … and Franck, are reading a novel that takes place in Africa. The narrator, who listens and comments to himself but does not speak in the novel, notes that they never talk about the qualities of the text. "On the other hand, they often reproach the heros themselves for certain acts, or certain character traits, as they would for mutual friends." (En revanche il leur arrive souvent de reprocher aux héros eux-mêmes certains actes, ou certains traits de caractère comme ils le feraient pour des amis communs.) The same is true for the critics' treatment of L'Etranger even though they and Meursault are not mutual friends. Some, Girard, for instance, will condemn Meursault for his "crime" even though it is more than obvious that Camus does not. Camus' sympathy, if not affinity, for the accused and against the judges is a constant theme in L'Homme révolté. This attitude may well make some of Camus' admirers very uncomfortable. Nonetheless, he did write that if one cannot prove one's own virtue, an impossible task, the prisons must be opened. That statement is a reflection of his soul, his thinking, and his position on the question of punishment. As such, it is the only opinion that critics should take into account when discussing his works. The critics are free to disagree with his beliefs, but they have no right to falsify or to ignore them.

The major problem with standard political, psychological and sociological interpretations of L'Etranger is that they are by literary people who are in the business of seeking, and finding, learned interpretations of literary works. In his novel of student unrest at the University of Nanterre, Robert Merle, who, like Camus, was born in Algeria, presents us with a non-literary person. And an Arab at that. The Arab, Abdelaziz, is a laborer, not a university student. As such, he is interested in mathematics, not literature, since a simple night-school certificate will allow him to get a better job, while studies in literature will not. His would-be helper, a French student, and therefore an intellectual, insists that he read L'Etranger and L'Immoraliste.

As Abdelaziz knows, and points out, despite all the talk about the "absurd," the only thing that is really absurd is the story itself. As both Camus and Abdelaziz knew, there is simply no possibility that a respectable, gainfully-employed European would ever have been arrested, much less tried, convicted and executed, for having killed an Arab armed with a knife. At least not in the Algeria of 1940. (Let us not forget the Arab prisoners' reaction at finding Meursault, a European, among them.) But since the critics do not live in that place and that period, they have chosen to ignore that simple fact. They should have started by wondering why Camus would base his novel on an impossible situation.

In the same way, the critics have agonized over why he had Meursault kill an Arab. Camus has even been accused of being anti-Arab, an accusation that he probably found too grotesque to bother to refute even though some then mistook his silence for an admission of guilt. He could have cited the articles he wrote attacking the government for its mistreatment of Arabs in pre-war Algeria. But he didn't. Nor did he bother to cite the difficulties he had had with press censors, and the Communist Party, which, for political reasons, backed the government's anti-Arab actions. (How many of the new critics remember that Dr. Rieux refused to cooperate with the journalist, Rambert, when the latter informed him that he could not, or would not, print the whole truth on the Arabs' condition in Algeria?)

Moreover, in a footnote to a discussion of Hitler's Germany and the savage destruction of Lidice, Camus wrote. "We should note that atrocities which could remind us of these excesses were committed in the colonies (India, 1857, Algeria, 1946 etc.) by European nations who obeyed the same irrational belief in racial superiority." (Il est frappant de noter que des atrocités qui peuvent rappeler ces excés ont été comises aux colonies [Indes, 1857, Algérie, 1945, etc.] par des nations européenes qui obéissaient au même préjugé irrational de supériorité raciale.) That statement alone should put to rest all charges of his alleged racism.

But, as some critics continue to look for "proof" of his hatred of Arabs, we are asked to note that there is no Arab culture, such as mosques and souks, in the book. This argument assumes that Camus should have wished to be a latter-day Pierre Loti but I can see no reason for such an assumption. We are also asked to consider the alleged attack on his mother as a motive for the killing of the Arab. If one dares ask the question, "Why, if he hated Arabs to that point, did he not then indulge in language that would cast them in an unfavorable light?", one will simply be ignored, as the student ignored Abdelaziz's objections. The question that should have been asked is not "why did he kill an Arab?", but "Why did he not kill a European?"

Sartre was the first one to note that the book is not really a novel since there is no development in the character of Meursault. (He does come to a certain self-knowledge in prison, but that he has changed is very debatable.) He comes to us pretty much a fullblown figure such as we would find in a story by Voltaire. From this, Sartre deduced, logically, that the story is rather a conte philosophique in the same way that Zadig and Micromégas are. This type of literary work does not have as its primary goal the simple telling of a story. Rather, it has a point to prove or at least to demonstrate. Why should Camus have defended himself against those who read the book as an expression of their own unconscious desires or racism? Did Voltaire ever explain what he meant in his contes? Of course not. He assumed enough intelligence on the part of the reader to be able to determine that without his further help.

In any examination of L'Etranger, one must start with the question, why did Camus write the book? Certainly not for money, since he had no reputation that would lead to serious sales. Just as certainly not to tell a story, since there is no development in Meursault's character or conduct that could lead to a real story. Certainly not, and for the above reasons, to arrive at a philosophical position as Sartre did in La Nausée. As with Voltaire, there must have been such a position already determined. Since the one common bond of any importance between this work and, say, La Peste, Réflexions sur la guillotine, L'Homme révolté, etc., is the question of the death penalty, let us consider that to be the real subject of the book and see if such a conclusion can be justified. (If we wish to drag his father into the story, let us also remember that his father, who was in favor of capital punishment, witnessed an execution and was sickened by it. As was, finally, Tarrou of La Peste.) In chapter five of L'Etranger, Meursault thinks about his father who had been, in contrast to Camus' own father, obliged to witness an execution and had also been revolted by it. At the time, Meursault was disgusted by his father's reaction, but now he understands him. "How had I not seen that nothing was more important than an execution and that, all in all, it was the only truly interesting thing for a man." (Comment n'avais-je pas vu que rien n'était plus important qu'une exécution capitale et que, en somme, c'était la seule chose vraiment intéressante pour un homme.) Moreover, in L'Homme révolté. Camus wrote, "We will know nothing as long as we do not know if we have the right to kill this individual who stands before us or to accept that he be killed." (Nous ne saurons rien tant que nous ne saurons pas si nous avons le droit de tuer cet individu devant nous ou d'accepter qu'il soit tué.) It is obvious, at least to me, that these quotes justify my reading of the novel as a pamphlet against the death penalty.

But, since the majority of people, at any given time, are in favor of capital punishment, how can one write a book against it and make it seem a despicable and unacceptable punishment? The answer, I feel, is by setting up a straw man.

As I said, the question that should have been asked is why Meursault did not kill a European. The answer is, because the European would have to be a "real" person and the Arab would not. That is, since Arabs had no real rights, and often no real identity, in the Algeria of Camus' youth, certain weaknesses in his story would go unnoticed if only because other Europeans, not Arabs, would read the book. If this reasoning bothers you, or seems specious, answer the following questions. Why does the Arab have no name? Why does he not have a face or age or profession? Why has he no family, no friends? Who speaks for him at the trial? No one! He simply does not exist other than as a means to get Meursault condemned to the guillotine. Even in Le Grand dadais, by Poirot-Delpech, a brilliant novel sometimes compared to L'Etranger, the victim had a name, if only Freddy, and two relatives, if somewhat remote. Here, there is nothing. O. Zero.

Why? Because it forces the reader to concentrate on Meursault, the alleged murderer. It shows him at work, at play. It talks of his friends, his dead mother, his loves, his future both before and after the shooting. He has neighbors, good and bad. (Raymond, too, exists only to get Meursault into a position where he will kill a non-person.) In short, it gives us a "murderer" but no victim, and the reader, Camus hopes, will be properly horrified at his unjust conviction and death sentence. And no one will notice that the Arab doesn't exist because Camus wants it that way. A European "victim" would demand, if not equal time of the author, at least a semblance of existence. Even the most minimal, the lowliest European would have what the Arab does not: family, friends, face, character, social position. A European victim might well have gotten the reader's sympathy and that would have drawn attention away from Meursault and his plight. Camus could not take that chance. A conte philosophique must always be played out with a stacked deck.

In a sense, it was the same in La Peste, a parable of the Second World War, that has only victims and no guilty. In that book, the rats came on their own, without a leader. There was no evil dictator or his minions to send people to the death camps and the incinerators. In both books, then, there is no one to really hate, no one to blame, no one to castigate, except, of course, the system itself that causes both death by war and death by guillotine. How very tidy.

In Le Grand dadais, our hero, Alain, accidentally kills a contortionist who works in a strip-joint. Freddy, as I said, had a name, a job and at least two relatives who testified, falsely it would seem, that his death was an irreparable loss. Poirot-Delpech really doesn't spend any time detailing Freddy's life because it simply is not relevant to the story, even if his death is. It is the same for Camus' treatment, or rather, his non-treatment, of the Arab whose sole contribution to the book is his death. But at least, unlike the Arab, Freddy is there, he speaks and participates, albeit minimally, in the story. Like Meursault, Alain also is tried and convicted, but with a difference. Reflecting on the events that got him into prison, Alain says to himself, "Like all criminals, I deserved a spanking or the guillotine. But these two extreme punishments, the only ones that I could have understood, ran the risk of shocking public opinion." (Comme tous les criminels, je méritais la fessée ou la guillotine. Mais ces deux punitions extrêmes, les seules que j'eusse comprises, risquaient de heurter l'opinion.) Instead, Alain got five years and Meursault the guillotine.

Where Poirot-Delpech is not really trying to prove a philosophical point and presents his characters honestly. Camus is, and, in a sense, cheats. After all, had Meursault gotten even an impossible five years in prison instead of the guillotine, can anyone seriously believe that this slim book would have had a second printing? As Judge Orthon put it in La Peste, "It's not the law that counts, it's the sentence," (Ce n'est pas la loi qui compte, c'est la condamnation.) And Cottard, a criminal, tells Rieux that the judge is public enemy number one.

There is much that is admirable in L'Etranger, but this subterfuge is not, because it fails to consider that there are at least two sides to the debate over the death penalty. But then, it didn't really matter since the central question was overlooked in the rush to analyze the hero's non-existent childhood and psyche.

Adele King (review date Winter 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Le premier homme: Camus's Unfinished Novel," in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 83-5.

[In the following review, King discusses Camus's literary legacy and the publication of The First Man.]

When Albert Camus died in a car crash in January 1960, the manuscript of part of a novel on which he had been working was found in his briefcase. Thirty-four years later his daughter Catherine Camus, the literary executor of her father's estate after the death of her mother Francine in 1979, has edited this uncompleted novel, Le premier homme, and allowed it to be published. It became a major publishing event of 1994 in France, with over 100,000 copies sold within the first few months following its release. There were articles, sometimes many pages in length, devoted to discussion of the text in all the major newspapers and weekly magazines.

Publication of Le premier homme is also an event for the scholarly community. The international Société des Etudes Camusiennes organized its annual meeting in May, only six weeks after the novel was published, as a discussion, "First Impressions of The First Man." Already in France there are Master's theses being written on the novel, which had previously been the subject of an unpublished thesis based on the manuscript. The interest in the general community and among scholars can be partly explained by the continuing reputation of Camus as one of the most widely read novelists of this century (L'Etranger is the best selling novel on Gallimard's list and has been for many years). Studies of Camus are numerous. There are also more specific reasons, both in terms of Camus's biography and in terms of politics, for the wide discussion of Le premier homme at this time.

Before he died, many felt that Camus's inspiration had dried up. He had not published an original creative work since L'exil et le royaume in 1957. After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he had seemed obsessed with the problems raised by the Algerian war of independence. He told Robert Gallimard, for example, that he could no longer write, but would work in the theater. His enemies on the left, and they were numerous following his famous quarrel with Sartre after the publication of L'homme révolté in 1952, used his lack of new work as another stick with which to attack him. Even many critics favorable to Camus wondered if he had the creative stamina to continue. Catherine Camus waited to allow publication of Le premier homme partly because she felt the style of this first draft might be used to confirm doubts about her father's artistic ability.

For years Camus's refusal to embrace the cause of Algerian independence was considered an act of treason by the French left. The Algerian rebellion was by far the major political event in France during the 1950s, until de Gaulle finally granted the colony independence in 1962. The attitude toward Algeria of Camus, who describes the pied-noir culture of his youth with considerable admiration and love in his earlier work, always aroused controversy in France. After Camus's death, for example, some even read L'Etranger as a "racist," anti-Arab novel. Catherine Camus waited until the political climate was less hostile toward her father. Undoubtedly as well, she was reluctant to go against the wishes of her mother, who knew that Camus himself would have been unwilling to let an unfinished work be printed. Le premier homme, in fact, is not even an unfinished novel, but merely a draft of some chapters, with notes for additional material to be added. Some of the autobiographical material, particularly references to Camus's love affairs, may also have influenced Francine Camus's initial decision.

There were also by the 1990s other reasons to allow publication. In the present political situation, France is trying to maintain contact with the government of Algeria, the successors of the FLN against which France fought, but now the group which France has supported in its decision to annual the elections that gave a majority to the violently anti-French Islamic fundamentalists. With this political situation in the headlines almost every day, Camus's thoughts on Algeria seem of contemporary relevance and not necessarily politically suspect.

Since Camus's death, many critics and scholars have looked for more texts. Scholarly interest in Camus has been intense. Six of the seven volumes in the Cahiers Albert Camus series are previously unpublished or uncollected writings by Camus. The unpublished early novel La mort heureuse was printed in the series in 1971. A collection of early, mostly unpublished stories appeared in 1973. Articles from Combat were collected. An early version of Caligula was published. Catherine herself became involved in editing the uncollected articles from Alger-Républician.

Considerable work was needed to make this early draft available. Francine Camus had typed the handwritten manuscript, which contains many additions and marginal corrections and which is written in what seems to the reader looking at the sample pages included in this edition a handwriting almost impossible to decipher. In addition to the draft manuscript of thirteen chapters, Le premier homme includes loose notes for insertion found in the briefcase, and Camus's plans and general notes for the novel. Catherine also added correspondence between Camus and Louis Germain, his primary-school teacher and first important mentor in Algiers and the model for a central character in the draft chapters that exist.

Le premier homme is closely autobiographical, relating the childhood of a character modeled on Camus himself, though named Jacques Cormery. It was, however, intended as a novel, in fact the first work to which Camus presumably meant to give the label "roman." (L'Etranger and La Chute are called "récits"; La Peste is a "chronique.") In the existing draft, characters are occasionally called by their real names—an indication of how the writer had only begun to fictionalize his material. While Camus himself would have been very reluctant to let this work be published, many today will read it as much for its biographical interest as for its confirmation of Camus's ability as a writer.

Readers of Camus will initially be surprised by the wealth of detail, the capturing of a precise place, the realism of this work, in comparison with everything Camus wrote earlier. (Some of the notes, composed in the epigrammatic style of Camus's notebooks, are closer to what readers of Camus might expect than are the draft chapters themselves.) The Algeria of L'Etranger and La Peste is a Mediterranean country, but with little description to make it specifically North African. When Camus wrote descriptively, particularly in the early Noces, it was with a poetic intensity not suited to his fiction, in which the narrative voice is a principal organizing element. Another stylistic difference from the earlier work is the presence of a number of extended, page-long sentences, often beautifully written, a bit Proustian.

Le premier homme is divided into two sections: "Recherche du père" and "Le fils." Neither, however, is complete. The father for whom the hero searches died, as did Camus's own father, fighting in World War I for a country he had never seen before he was drafted. Jacques's search for some understanding of his father is rendered particularly difficult by the limited ability of his mother to tell him anything. She is illiterate, speaks little, suffers silently in a life of extreme poverty, supporting her children by doing housework, while dominated at home by her equally uncultured but tyrannical mother. As one commentator has noted, however, the very fact that the father chose to marry this woman should be of interest to the son, although he never mentions this.

Apart from a realistic description of the birth of the hero, in which his father is introduced as the new supervisor of a vineyard in Mondovi (Camus's actual birthplace), who arrives with his pregnant wife just prior to the birth of their second son, both sections of the novel are recounted in the third person but from the perspective of the hero. When he is forty, he visits his father's grave in France, only to realize that there is little he can learn about a man who died at the age of only twenty-nine and who, as a poor Algerian, left little trace. Some of those to whom Jacques turns are substitutes for his father: the schoolteacher based on Louis Germain, or the intellectual to whom the adult Cormery speaks and who is clearly based on the philosopher Jean Grenier, Camus's mentor from his lycée days.

In the childhood sections, which are the most complete, the sensual detail, and particularly the descriptions of the odors of poverty, are exceptionally vivid. The characters are to some extent familiar from earlier texts: the silent mother, the domineering grandmother, the deaf uncle. Interestingly, the older brother is almost never mentioned. The poverty of Cormery's childhood (and of Camus's) is more extreme than has usually been realized. While the essays in L'Envers et L'Endroit, Camus's first published work, give some indication of his cultural isolation at home, this becomes clear in Le premier homme's descriptions of Jacques's mother and grandmother attending school prize days with no understanding of the ceremony. Several French critics have commented on the vast difference between the childhood Sartre described in Les Mots and that of Camus. French literary discussion seems never to get beyond contrasting Sartre and Camus.

In the draft chapters relating the adult Cormery's search for his father, Camus sometimes appends marginal notes such as "make Jacques more of a monster," without indicating in what way the character is monstrous. He does comment, however, that he feels himself to be a monster. The bitter self-examination of La Chute has not been forgotten.

The title has already been a subject of much discussion. Is either father or son "the first man"? One explanation of the title is Catherine's: the first man is the Algerian, either European or Arab, the poor man without a past, whose life is completely forgotten on his death: "C'est tous ceux qui passent sur la terre sans apparemment laisser de trace mais qui quand même construisent ce monde dans lequel nous vivons." Like several other commentators, Catherine took pains to stress that, for Camus, both Arabs and pieds-noirs are of equal importance in an Algerian culture often at odds with that of the metropolis. There are indications that Camus considered both the Arabs and the pieds-noirs as new men, without roots in cultures of the past and sharing a life of poverty, but it is clear from this manuscript that he also considered the Arabs as fundamentally different from himself.

More often the "first man" seems to be Jacques Cormery (or Camus) himself, the son without a father to help him find his way in the world, to transmit a tradition. He describes himself as the "first inhabitant or the first conqueror." A similar theme that recurs is the dual world of Jacques, defined sometimes as the split between this hard, empty, traditionless Algeria and a Europe of measured spaces filled with centuries of culture; at other times the two worlds of Jacques are those of the family without books, where he must read the titles of silent films for his illiterate grandmother, and of the school and lyceé, where books are the sustenance of his imaginative life.

The chapter relating a conversation with the (unnamed) Grenier character, stylistically one of the least successful, is labeled by Camus in a marginal note: "To write and then to omit." The notation, illustrating how Camus planned to work through his autobiographical material, should make us wary of thinking that the more realistic and detailed style in Le premier homme was necessarily one that Camus intended to keep. In fact, some of the notes suggest what might have been a radical revision of the text: "Alternate chapters would give the voice of the mother. Comments about the same facts but with her vocabulary of 400 words." This possible organization sounds to me much closer to the earlier Camus, finding the tone for his fiction through the voice of an individual character.

Some draft material on the early history of the French colonization in Algeria, based on documentation of, for example, the number of deaths from disease among the first settlers, would presumably have been related to the search for a father who could hardly be known except as an example of this settler community. Other draft material, about terrorism in the 1950s, is not integrated into the story successfully in the existing manuscript. At one point Camus's marginal note suggests he was unsure whether or not to include one long passage about a terrorist attack.

Beyond the impressive description of his poor childhood, Camus was going to evoke a whole life close to his own, including (it appears from the general notes and plans) a passionate love affair, the discontent of a life in Paris, the impossibility of accepting terrorism in support of independence when it might hurt his family, and admiration for many Arabs who are contrasted to those fighting in the revolution. But it is perhaps impossible to speak about the themes of a work which is so incomplete. As it stands, Le premier homme is a tribute to Camus's mother (surely one of the few illiterate parents of any Western artist in this century), an impressive evocation of a childhood in Algiers, and a tantalizing glimpse of what Camus might have revealed of his adult life through a fictional form that he did not have time to finish.

Elizabeth Hawes (review date 2 October 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Sunlight and Silence," in The Nation, October 2, 1995, pp. 358-60.

[In the following review, Hawes discusses Camus's artistic and thematic concerns in The First Man.]

Back in 1960, the sudden death of Albert Camus at the age of 46 was a tragic event for young intellectuals, like the breach of a promise, the end of then and the beginning of now. Memories of the day still remain—the photograph of the Facel Vega wrapped around a tree, the muddy briefcase in a field, the sense of personal loss, the unbearable Absurdity of it all. "Rarely have the nature of a man's work and the conditions of the historical moment so clearly demanded that a writer go on living," Jean-Paul Sartre mourned. "No modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love," Susan Sontag wrote from America.

More than Sartre or Gide or even Malraux, Albert Camus had become the cultural hero of the postwar generation. From the early 1940s, when the young journalist from French Algeria raised a singular voice in the Resistance newspaper Combat, then published, in rapid succession, the novel The Stranger, the play Caligula and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus—his triptych of the Absurd—critics had spoken of le phénomène Camus. Almost overnight, Camus had risen to a celebrated role as "the moral conscience of his times." Like Meursault and Sisyphus, he was l'homme engagé, l'homme sans autre avenir que lui-même, committed to finding meaning in the modern world. In the next decade, he produced The Plague and The Fall, the long essay The Rebel, plays, translations, short stories and political essays, an oeuvre that was crowned with the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1957. By that time, however, Camus was en panne, estranged from Sartre and his old literary crowd by their criticism of The Rebel, anguished over the explosion of war in Algeria, suffering from writer's block and his own success, as silent as if he were in exile. When he died, he left behind only the rough beginnings of a new work he had described as the novel of his maturity and entitled Le premier homme.

Last year, after prolonged deliberation, Camus's family decided to publish the manuscript he was working on at the time of his death; it created a literary sensation in France. This unfinished novel, now translated into English as The First Man, has resurrected the author as dramatically as a revisitation.

As early as 1951, Camus spoke in his journals of his plans for an epic novel on the model of War and Peace. It would be his éducation sentimentale, he said later, the story of his Algeria, recounted for mainland France. The First Man is the beginning of this historical saga, told through the lives of a poor family named Cormery, which unfolds between the birth of a son, Jacques, on the eve of World War I and his nostalgic return home in the violent days of the Front de Libération Nationale in the late 1950s. It is also an astonishing piece of autobiography, for in name, chronology and virtually every important aspect of his life, Jacques Cormery is Albert Camus transposed to the third person. Like Cormery (the family name of his paternal grandmother), Camus had a father who was mortally wounded in the battle of the Marne and buried in Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, a strong silent illiterate mother whom he adored, a near-mute uncle and a tyrannical grandmother who ruled the household; grew up in poverty in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers; and was saved by a primary school teacher who introduced him to books, proposed a scholarship to the lycée and "opened for me the door to everything I love in the world." Like the adult Cormery, who speaks of "the secret exultation" of leaving Paris for Africa ("with the satisfaction of one who has made good his escape and is laughing at the thought of the look on the guards' faces"), he always rejoiced in the physical pleasures of his land. And like Cormery, he too, after visiting his father's grave in his middle age, set out in quest of the man he never knew and found himself back in his childhood.

Although The First Man was meant to be a full portrait of his life and times—the author's notes preserved in the appendix include references to sports, politics, morality, terrorists, farmers, old friends, lovers, children, Tipasa, Paris, Provence—Camus was able to complete only the first third of that work, which describes his search for his father and, more expansively, his childhood. Dedicated to his mother, the Widow Camus "who will never be able to read this book," The First Man is dominated by this humble figure isolated by semi-deafness and illiteracy, who did not hear the words of the officer who came to announce her young husband's death in France, "who had no idea what history and geography might be." Camus, who had earlier spoken of putting at the center of a work "the admirable silence of a mother and the effort of a man to find some form of justice or love which could counterbalance this silence," writes with poignant detail and a perceptible ache about the fearful and submissive woman he so loved, of the hollow in her neck that "to him had the scent of a tenderness all too rare in his young life," of her life that "by dint of being deprived of hope, had become also a life without any sort of resentment," of the shame of feeling shame when he had to describe her as a domestique in his lycée application.

As a portrait of poverty, The First Man is lyric in its illuminations. The most humdrum details of Jacques's youth are revealing—the single pair of pants pressed nightly, the nails in his shoes to preserve the soles and to prevent him from playing soccer, the street games with apricot pits; they describe a life of bare necessities, "among things named with common nouns," a life in the present tense. "Remembrance of things past is just for the rich," Jacques observes; "in order to bear up well one must not remember too much, but rather stick close to the passing day, hour by hour, as his mother did." In the search for his own heritage, Jacques confronts "the mystery of poverty that creates beings without names and without a past." Algeria is "the land of oblivion," he concludes, where men try to learn to live without roots, "where each one is the first man."

As a portrait of Algeria, The First Man is passionate and troubled. No one has written more evocatively of the North African landscape than Camus in his youthful essays, which brim with the joys, and freedom of the sun and the light, and, here, twenty years later, he luxuriates in recollections of swimming in the sea, hunting in the mountains, roaming the streets of the poor quarter where the houses smell of spices, the terraces of honeysuckle and jasmine. Algeria emerges as even more than physical sensations and childhood ways, as Camus describes the settling of the harsh and hostile land by waves of poor European immigrants; the primitive fraternity that exists between Frenchmen and Arabs—"We were made to understand each other. Fools and brutes like us, but with the same blood of men"; the menace in the air and "this soft unbearable burden on the heart" as the era of decolonization dawns. Camus, who had spoken out for colonial reforms and indigenous rights all his life, and consistently refused to justify terrorism in the name of revolution, still believed in the future of a multicultural Algeria, even as Arab bombs exploded under his mother's window. That was his dilemma in the last days of his life, the "night inside him," the "tangled hidden roots," and it called into question both his politics and his identity.

The First Man is Camus's own quest for identity. Like his father and Jacques Cormery and the European in Algeria, he is that eponymous first man, rootless, traditionless, creating his own history, threatened with anonymity and oblivion. "I am going to tell the story of an alien," the author reminded himself in his notes. This is the theme he first sounded in The Stranger, but here it becomes a personal saga that resonates with details—the shell fragment from his father's head that is kept in an old biscuit tin behind the towels, the elderly smell of his grandmother's flesh during one of their dreaded afternoon naps, the taste of the leather strap of the school satchel he chews during lessons. It is difficult to read this book as other than autobiography, because in its very nature as an unedited and unpolished first draft it has both a spontaneity and a transparency that are made even more obvious by the occasional slips into the first person, and the corrections and explanations included in the text. (In the French edition, the addition of facsimile manuscript pages, covered with Camus's small, tight, almost indecipherable script, adds a further sense of veracity to the work.) Camus's prose intensifies the sense of immediacy and purpose, for it moves in primal rhythms, magnificent surges of long sentences that seem like searches in themselves and consume whole pages before ending. If the short, blunt sentences of The Stranger reflected a world without connections or hope, the sweeping lyricism of The First Man speaks of something new.

Camus originally titled his novel Adam. Coming as it did several years after the confessional The Fall and at a time of personal decline and depression, it represented a new beginning for him. Even incomplete, it is the most ambitious and compassionate of his books. It is also an integral and important part of his whole oeuvre, both a continuation and an illumination of his thought. There is a story about his father's violent reaction to a public hanging that speaks to Camus's own strong opposition to the death penalty. There is a passage about "the secret of the light, of the warm poverty that had enabled him to survive and to overcome everything," that explains his humanism. "For all his life it would be kindness and love that made him cry, never pain or persecution, which on the contrary only reinforced his spirit and his resolution," Camus writes of Cormery, and thus of himself, in retrospection. In the last sentence of this last work, he also contemplates his own death—"he, like a solitary and ever-shining blade of a sword, was destined to be shattered with a single blow and forever"—and expresses "the blind hope" that he will grow old and die without rebellion.

Stanley Hoffmann (review date Winter 1995–96)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Passion and Compassion: The Glory of Albert Camus," in World Policy Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1995–96, pp. 83-90.

[In the following review, Hoffmann provides critical analysis of The First Man. According to Hoffmann, "Rough and raw as it is, it is a splendid work of art, and it helps us to understand Camus—the man and his work—better and more profoundly."]

The First Man is the final, unfinished work of Albert Camus. The manuscript—144 handwritten pages—was found in the car in which he died at the age of 46 on January 4, 1960. It was published in France only in 1994. One can see why Camus' widow hesitated to release it. It was almost impossible to decipher (as the reproductions of several pages show), devoid of commas, full of corrections and additions. Many words are missing and many remain illegible, many sentences are incomplete, several characters are given different names. And it is only a fragment of what was intended as a much bigger book, covering most of the life of the main character. Jacques Cormery, who is none other than Camus. The manuscript ends when he is 14, an adolescent who has just kissed his first girl.

According to Catherine Camus, the author's daughter, there was another reason why her mother, who died in 1979, had been reluctant to publish it. Camus' reputation had fallen dramatically—at least in the French intelligentsia, which he had never liked. (The public continued to buy his books, and high school students continued to study them.) French authors, after their death, often drop into a kind of purgatory from which they later emerge and move, finally, either to the paradise of the classics or to the hell of the forgotten. Gide is still in purgatory, and Malraux seems to keep him company there. Camus' purgatory felt very much like an antechamber of hell. He was denounced for his moralism, for his lack of understanding of politics, for his rejection of Algerian independence, for the amateurishness of his philosophical essays, for the grandiloquence of his plays, for the gray abstraction of The Plague.

The intelligentsia that decides on reputations had declared him the loser in the famous 1952 debate with Sartre over The Rebel, when Sartre denounced Camus as a belle âme who refused to dirty his hands and whose moral attitudes barely concealed the bourgeois sin of anticommunism. Camus, defending his work, had replied that Sartre had never done more than place his directorial chair at Les Temps Modernes in the direction of history. When the Algerian war broke out, Sartre, championing not only independence but the cleansing virtues of violence against the colonizers (in his famous, frantic preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth), filled the long years of the war with his vociferous support of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). Camus condemned terrorism and torture on both sides and—I paraphrase a famous sentence of his, pronounced when he received the Nobel Prize in 1957—found it difficult to prefer the justice of the Arab rebels, who fought to free their people, to his mother, who could have fallen victim to guerrilla terror. He lapsed into silence.

Sartre's embrace of complete independence for Algeria even if it meant killing or expelling all Europeans appeared far more realistic than Camus' occasional endorsements of schemes aimed at keeping Algeria French, while granting equal rights to the Europeans and to the Arabs.

"In these circumstances," according to Catherine Camus, "to have published an unfinished manuscript might well have given ammunition to those who were saying that Camus was through as a writer. His friends and my mother decided not to run that risk." But "between 1980 and 1985, voices began to be heard saying that perhaps Camus had not been so wrong." The twin children of Camus decided to publish the manuscript even though he "would never have published [it] as it is"—because of its importance as an autobiographical document. They were right. Rough and raw as it is, it is a splendid work of art, and it helps us to understand Camus—the man and his work—better and more profoundly.

The Poor Boy

It is not the first time that Camus tells us about his childhood in Algiers—about the death of his French father at the battle of the Marne in 1914, when Albert was still a baby; about the terrible poverty in which he (and his slightly older brother) lived, brought up by a partly deaf, illiterate, silent, and overworked mother who exhausted herself as a cleaning woman and by her stern, often brutal mother; about his adoration for this affectionate but somehow unreachable mother; about his love for the sun and the beaches of Algiers. We knew that, in an archetypical French way, his gifts had been noticed and nurtured by his teacher in primary school, and that thanks to him, he was able to continue to study in a lycée (where, later, the philosopher and writer Jean Grenier was going to encourage him again). But two things are distinctive about The First Man. One is the intensity of Camus' recollections and reflections, to which I will return. The other is the timing of this work and its purpose.

Camus, who had, in the 1930s, become, for a very brief period, a member of the Communist Party, and a lucid and sharply critical reporter on Algerian affairs (particularly on the plight of the Arabs), had moved—reluctantly—to metropolitan France, in order to get treatment for tuberculosis, just as the Second World War was engulfing Europe. He burst upon the literary scene in 1942, with the Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. After the liberation, as editor and star of the Resistance paper Combat, for which he wrote trenchant editorials—demanding purges against collaborationists and denouncing nationalism and any return to France's prewar political diseases—he became one of the most fashionable and celebrated intellectuals in Paris. Much of this giddy, golden period is described (and somewhat distorted) in Simone de Beauvoir's Mandarins.

But the poor boy from Algiers never felt at home in gray and rainy Paris or at ease among the sophisticates of the intelligentsia, with their clans, mutual excommunications, sarcasms, and settlements of accounts. And then his popularity declined in the 1950s. The Fall, published in 1956, marked the end of his era as a Parisian guru. This sardonic, dark, and brilliant tale, written in a style that was far different both from the lyrical vein of some of his early stories and of his essays, and from the more austere style of his philosophical writings and of The Plague, has been interpreted very differently by critics. Some, like Conor Cruise O'Brien recently, see it as an exercise in self-criticism in which Camus rejected "his own role of Camus le juste, and also his role as a contemporary Saint-Just," and denounced the hypocrisy of his own moralism.

I do not doubt that Camus, insofar as he had participated in the glitter and clatter of Parisian intellectual café life, had wanted to make fun of his part in it. But I do believe that his target was Sartre, and that J.B. Clamence, the lawyer who says "I" in The Fall, and who becomes a judge-penitent pursued by the memory of the woman whom he has failed to rescue after she had jumped into the Seine, was a fictional representation of Sartre, the writer who felt guilty about his bourgeois origins and his apolitical youth, and who beat his breast, so to speak, on the breasts of others—all those whom he denounced as guilty cowards or stinkers. (It would be fascinating to compare Clamence with Sartre's own fictional character Frantz in Sartre's play The Condemned of Altona.)

Having turned his back on the Paris scene, demoralized by the atrocities of the Algerian war, torn between the desire to speak out on the ethical and political issues that were plaguing his contemporaries and the fear of compromising his integrity as an artist if he crossed the line that separates concern from commitment, and elucidation from engagement, Camus expressed his dilemma in the sad and lovely story of the painter Jonah who, when he dies, leaves an unfinished painting, an empty canvas on which one can find one word scribbled, but it is not clear whether it is solitaire or solidaire. Camus now suffered from a writer's block, which lasted several years.

The First Man was Camus' attempt to overcome this block by going back to his origins and by trying to make sense of his whole life. For Camus, unlike for Sartre, l'absurde was not the human condition, but the gap, the discrepancy, between an often beautiful but indifferent nature and human desires and aspirations that can never be fulfilled because, as Caligula puts, it, "men die and are not happy."

Camus wanted to understand himself, to see where his desires and passions had come from and where they had led him—an exercise far removed from the highly complacent and narcissistic self-criticism (mixed, as usual, with a denunciation of some of his bourgeois family members) in Sartre's Words but comparable to Proust's own gigantic quest for time past.

It is clear from the "notes and sketches" that accompany the text of The First Man that Camus would have been unsparing in his introspection of the adolescent and adult Camus, of his machismo, of his fickleness. Just as Sartre's attempt at a total "reconstruction" of Flaubert remains unfinished, Camus' effort to understand the person to whom he several times refers to as a "monster" was aborted. But the fragment he left is miraculously complete, and it has been very well translated by David Hapgood—not an easy task, since Camus' prose is often so (spontaneously, abundantly, intoxicatingly) poetic.

The Son or the First Man

It is divided into two parts. In the first, "Search for the Father," Camus tells the story of his father's arrival in the fall of 1913 in the hinterland of Bône, where he was going to manage a farm, and of his own birth during the night of this arrival. Then, abruptly, he takes us to Saint Brieuc in Brittany, where the father is buried. His son visits the grave in 1954 and, realizing that he is much older than his father was when he was killed, feels like an adult in front of a murdered child.

Attempts at finding out more about his father from his mother, or from settlers who had known him, bring out very little. Jacques only remembers his father's return in horror from having witnessed the execution of a murderer, an anecdote that Camus had elsewhere cited as the root of his own horror of capital punishment and that he links here to his father's violent death.

What Jacques discovers is the story of the French who settled in Algeria after the 1848 Revolution, attracted by the promise of land and work, which they did not have in metropolitan France. His father's family had come from Alsace after 1871, his mother's from Spain: poor devils uprooted by misery or persecution and driven to a land where they would disappear without leaving any trace, a "land of oblivion where everybody is the first man." Jacques, returning to Algeria from Saint Brieuc, feels that "he too was a member of the tribe," despite his attempt to escape from it.

The chapters about the missing father are interspersed with chapters about the games played by Jacques as a child and about the family in which he was brought up. The formidable grandmother who had had nine children, the mother who was hard of hearing, and her brother Etienne (also often called Ernest in the text), who was deaf and explosive, and whom his old mother treated with surprising gentleness because he was handsome: "it is our weakness for beauty" that "helps make the world bearable."

These chapters about Jacques as a child continue in the second part of the manuscript, "The Son or the First Man." They are the most moving and vivid. In one of his notes, he wrote: "Free oneself from any concern with art and form. Regain contact, without intermediary, thus innocence. To give up art here is to give up one's self. Renouncing the self, not through virtuousness. On the contrary, accept one's hell."

This is exactly what he accomplishes here. There is a constant, and constantly successful, effort to recapture the sensations, sounds, smells, and feelings of his childhood, which give his prose, full of long sentences that try to encompass a whole bygone world, a richness and lyrical precision he had never reached before. And it is made even more resonant by the fact that the man who thus brings the past back to a startlingly vibrant life at the same time reflects on it and on his feelings for it from the perspective of middle age, with the bitter wisdom of someone who had escaped from the past because he could not stand living in it any longer, yet felt forever after "exiled" from the miserable "kingdom" of his Algerian childhood.

Hence the peculiar lyricism of this rough draft, a lyricism both celebratory and desolate. Passion and compassion are fused in his evocation of those who brought him up, of his relation to them, of the relationship between his mother and her brother, of his love for his mother and for M. Bernard his schoolteacher—in real life, M. Germain, to whom Camus wrote a lovely note after receiving the Nobel Prize, and who replied in a letter that seems to come straight from the annals of the Third Republic, full of affection and admiration for his pupil and of worry for the future of l'école laique (they are published in an appendix). What could easily have been gloomy or misérabiliste is transfigured by the light of the Mediterranean, by the sun that made it all bearable, and that turned his condition into a "warm poverty that had enabled him to survive and to overcome everything."

A Fortress without Drawbridges

Indeed, The First Man is a kind of pious tribute to all those who live in poverty—not in what has sometimes been called, pompously, the culture of poverty, because the poor, as he shows, are deprived of culture. In a life entirely eaten up by the need to work so as to earn just enough money to keep going, there is no room for objects except the most indispensable, no room for art, no time for religion, no connection "to traditional values and stereotypes." "Poverty is a fortress without drawbridges."

When little Jacques escapes to the beach or uses up his shoes playing soccer, he gets whipped by his grandmother, he should have been working. "Poor people's memory is less nourished than that of the rich; it has fewer landmarks in space because they seldom leave the place where they live, and fewer reference points in time throughout lives that are gray and featureless…. Remembrance of things past is just for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces on the path to death. And besides, in order to bear up well one must not remember too much."

When Jacques resents his uncle because Etienne kept his sister away from a man for whom she seemed to have some affection, he—or rather the writer—comments that "the poverty, the infirmities, the elemental need in which all his family lived … made it impossible to pass judgment on those who were its victims."

The heart of this book is the portrait of young Jacques, of Camus, as a child, and what it tells us about the experiences that shaped his values. Unlike most other works of Camus, it is not about ideas; here, we are soaked in sensations and feelings. What we find, above all, is this extraordinary bond to the silent mother, whom he describes with a heartbreaking tenderness, whom he never blames for allowing her mother to beat her boy, and whom he reveres for her life of endurance, her lack of resentment, her gentleness. When Camus writes about the child's "despairing love for something in his mother that did not belong or no longer belonged to the world and to the triviality of the days," or describes himself endlessly watching "her in the shadows with a lump in his throat, staring at her thin bent back, filled with an obscure anxiety in the presence of adversity he could not understand," the depth and immediately of his feeling leads to the purest form of art.

His Ambivalence

What Camus also tells us is the story of a child whom poverty condemns to repeated humiliations. He keeps a few pennies from the money that his grandmother had given him to buy groceries and pretends to have dropped them in the hole that serves as a toilet. When the old woman goes looking for them in it, he feels ashamed to have deprived his family of the coins, which he had wanted to use to go watch a soccer game. When he goes to the lycée and has to indicate his mother's profession on a form, he is ashamed of having to write "domestic." When he has to seek a summer job—so that he will be able to compensate his family for failing to earn any money while studying at the lycée—he discovers that he cannot get one if he does not lie about his intention to return to the lycée in the fall, and he suffers bitterly for having "to lie for the right to have no vacation, to work far from the summer sky and the sea he so loved."

What gives the book its tension and keeps it from ever slipping into sentimentality is the drama of Jacques' ambivalence. He is tied forever to his mother and to his milieu by "two or three favorite pictures that joined him to them, made him one with them." But at the same time, the boy had a thirst for learning and a "hunger for discovery." School provided him both with an escape from his "destitute home" and with a "powerful poetry," which Camus describes minutely—the smell of the ink, the "varnished rulers and pen cases," the joy of finding out about the world in textbooks. If M. Bernard had not come pleading to Jacques' home, the grandmother would not have allowed him to go on to the lycée.

But as a result, Jacques was torn between two completely different universes. When he gained admittance to the lycée, "a child's immense anguish wrung his heart, as if he knew in advance that this success had just uprooted him from the warm and innocent world of the poor—a world closed upon itself like an island in the society—to be hurtled into a strange world, one no longer his." The world he belonged to was stifling, the one he escaped to would turn out to be cruel and deceitful. He felt as if he had betrayed the world of the poor for a false glory, but also that he could not have stayed in it.

The intensity of Camus' feelings, the delicacy and beautiful aptness with which he renders them, make one realize that the reason why they had been either expressed obliquely or fleetingly or else transposed and "distanced" in his fiction and plays was because he struggled between a flood of passionate emotions and the drive to control and master them, a drive inculcated by the school, but also by the need not to let himself be engulfed by his love for his mother and by his empathy, his pity, for his family's condition.

Camus describes himself as a mixture of life-long attachments to those he loves and indifference, as a man who felt at ease only with "what was inevitable … everything in his life he had not been able to avoid, his illness, his vocation, fame or poverty … The heart, the heart above all is not free. It is inevitability and the recognition of the inevitable."

This fervent desire to escape from poverty and from his mother's "life of blind patience, without words, without plans," and to live as an artist indifferent to the world, he expressed in his first novel, A Happy Death, which was published only after his own death. But the world diverted Camus from his dream of indifference, and he felt that he needed forgiveness from his mother—"but you do not understand me and cannot read me": all she could do was "smile on me."

The Roots of His Thought

The First Man is both a familiar story—the story of emancipation through learning and of the mix of innocent pleasure and obscure guilt that is childhood—and a revelation of the roots of Camus' thought. It is not a book about politics, and those who, one more time, attack Camus for his views on Algeria are the victims of their own obsessions. The Algerian tragedy was going to be dealt with in a part of the book Camus never got to.

This does not mean that we do not find here some essential clues about his feelings for Algeria. When he deals with the past—the arrival of the colons, and the life of the pieds noirs at the time of his childhood, he expresses, again, mainly compassion for the settlers who came from many lands and disappeared after having lived and toiled without roots. He mentions the xenophobia of the workers, afraid of losing their jobs to the Spaniards, the Jews, or the Arabs, and fighting for "the privilege of servitude." There are few Arabs in this story: to young Jacques, they are companions. The real divide is the one that separates all those born in Algeria from those born in France, like Jacques' lycée friend Didier, whose fervent patriotism astonishes Jacques, for whom France is an abstraction (in one of his notes, Camus wrote that "what they did not like in him was the Algerian").

In the brief passage where the older Jacques, having returned to an Algeria torn by the war, reports both on his reactions and on the reactions of some of the settlers, Camus makes clear his revulsion against the FLN's violence, and he tells the story of a settler who decides to destroy his vineyards and move to France after having heard the préfet denounce the way the colons had treated the Arabs; but the farmer who reports this story to Jacques says that the colons and the Arabs are "made to understand each other. Fools and brutes, like us, but with the same blood of men. We'll kill each other a little longer … And then we'll go back to living as men together."

Jacques himself, visiting his mother, hears a huge explosion in Algiers and protects an innocent Arab from the wrath of vengeful workers. We know now that the legacy of colonialism and the war itself destroyed that solidarity of Algerians, European and Arab, living on the same land and under the same sun that Camus dreamed about.

But it was always a mistake to read Camus as a political thinker or as a philosopher. He was haunted by the issues that l'absurde raised: suicide, murder, the impossibility of communicating fully even (or especially) with those one loves. But metaphysical questions and philosophical systems were not his domain. Insofar as public life was concerned, it was the ethical preconditions for political action that bothered him. He had no solutions to offer, only barriers he wanted to erect. He had one obsession, like Proudhon, with whom he shared enthusiasm for the artisan's work and hatred for work that is boring, work "so interminably monotonous that it made the days too long and, at the same time, life too short." He wanted fairness for human beings and, especially, for the poor.

This meant that politics had to be modest: grand salvationist schemes always led to more misery and oppression and deprived people of their right to their private lives; ideologies that subordinate means to ends and the present to a distant dubious future are evil; and the state is no more than a tool, not the culmination of history. What Camus taught was limits: do not do anything that adds to human misery, such as terror, torture, wanton violence.

On all these points, he clashed with Sartre, and this child of the poor resented especially Sartre's embrace of a proletariat he knew nothing about. Camus' rejection of Marxist and communist philosophies of history, his refusal to sanctify history, his advocacy of a kind of rebellion against servitude and injustice that says "we" and proclaims its solidarity with the downtrodden, his nausea at all forms of murder that add to the unhappiness and hasten the death that are our fare—all this comes directly from the childhood of a boy who had lost his father to the mindless massacre of Europe's Great War, who had experienced poverty and injustice but was singularly free of resentments and utterly devoid of hatred, for whom games, love, and learning, all the addictions of private life, took precedence over public affairs, who was entirely outside the ideological and class trenches of metropolitan France, and who sought solace in the light. When The Rebel was published, many scoffed at the fuzziness of that plea for both revolt and moderation, and especially of that hymn to la pensée de midi that comes at the end. The First Man shows where it all originated. "The nobility of the writer's occupation lies in resisting oppression, thus in accepting isolation."


Camus has, in recent years, regained much of his earlier prestige: the demise of Soviet totalitarianism, the fading of old ideologies, the advent of a kind of pragmatic centrism in France, the rediscovery of the virtues of liberalism (with its recognition of human rights, the limits it puts on state power, and the virtues it finds in rational discussion and compromise), the collapse of the FLN state and the tragedy of the independent Algeria, all of this has led to a rehabilitation of Camus. He finds himself now in the same pantheon as Raymond Aron (who liked him but saw him as an amateurish thinker).

However, this new fame may well rest on one more misreading, which would not have surprised the author of that elliptical and gruesome play, Le malentendu (a play that should be compared to Sartre's No Exit: for Camus, hell is not "the others," it is our inability to reach them).

France's new liberals tend to be close to America's neoconservatives. They worry more about sound finance than about social reforms and have very little to say about the poor. In their enthusiasm for the death of messianism, they have tended to bury the hope of a better life for the underprivileged with it. Camus would not be comfortable in their midst.

Indeed, Camus was above all an artist with a "very great vision" of art: "not because I see art to be above everything, but because it does not separate itself from anyone" (a sentence from one of the notes that has been dropped in the English translation). It is as an artist that he will survive—an artist whose view of life was far more complex, and often more somber, even despairing, than was suggested by the cartoon-like image of Camus as a kind of "Red Cross moralist" so fashionable in the 1960s. What saved him from despair and restored his bruised serenity was the memory of the Algerian sun and that bond beyond words to his mother.

When Jacques flew back from Saint Brieuc to Algiers, "he knew from the bottom of his heart that Saint Brieuc and all it represented had never been anything to him" and acknowledged "with a strange sort of pleasure that death would return him to his true homeland. With its immense oblivion, death would obliterate the memory of that alien [the French text says monstrueux] and ordinary man who had grown up, had built in poverty, without help or deliverance, on a fortunate shore in the light of the first mornings of the world, and then alone, without memories and without faith, had entered the world of the men of his time and its dreadful and exhausted history."

To those of us for whom Camus' voice, in the 1940s and 1950s, was always the voice of refined beauty, deep and humane wisdom, controlled passion, and noble art, the publication of The First Man is an invaluable gift.

V. C. Letemendia (essay date Spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Poverty in the Writings of Albert Camus," in Polity, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 441-60.

[In the following essay, Letemendia explores Camus's early experiences with poverty, as revealed in The First Man, and his outrage over society's indifference toward the plight of the poor. According to Letemendia, Camus viewed poverty as "both a moral and political crime against humanity."]

Albert Camus approached the understanding of poverty from the viewpoint of both an internal and an external witness. He had experienced poverty in his youth, as he describes in his autobiographical novel, Le premier homme, but acknowledged that education, financial security and fame had distanced him from the poor, and did not consider that his own experience gave him the authority to speak for other poor people. Unlike some on the French left, he saw freedom as equally essential to a fully human life as material well-being: the poor and working-class could not be denied basic liberties in the name of social justice, just as they could not be treated as an abstraction to be fitted into revolutionary theory. While Camus regarded himself as an outside witness to the devastating effects of poverty, he maintained that those who suffered silently must be given a context in which they could speak out with their own authentic voices.

Albert Camus is famous not only for his works of fiction and theatre, but as an active member of the Resistance, as a commentator on the political problems of his age, and as the friend and later intellectual opponent of Jean-Paul Sartre and his circle. Camus's warnings about the destructive nature of fanaticism have lost no relevance in the last decades of the twentieth century, nor yet has his passion for individual freedom. His pained and angry denunciations of social injustice serve as a reminder that people still suffer from avoidable ills, despite the many political and social changes that have occurred since his untimely death in 1960. The publication in April 1994 of Le premier homme, Camus's incomplete semi-autobiographical novel, has awakened new interest in his life and work. The extant manuscript, a fraction of the planned novel, offers the first detailed account of his experience of a poor childhood in Algeria and the marks it left upon the man, no longer poor or unknown, who looked back to recall it. This intimate record of Camus's early years is fascinating to read for both literary and autobiographical reasons, but it has also attracted fresh attention to a crucial though frequently neglected theme in his writings: his commentary on poverty.

Camus named poverty as one of the initial and most fundamental influences upon his awareness of the world, and once said that he had learned about freedom not from Marx, but from poverty. His approach to the understanding of poverty was compelling and remarkably contemporary. He saw it not as a single, uniformly lived condition that could be comprehended easily by any external observer, but as a condition that spanned a scale from tolerable discomfort to utter deprivation of the necessities of life. Each degree of poverty gave birth to a separate and specific experience of destitution. Because of this, poverty could not be externally measured or described only as a state of systematic political and social disadvantage. It assaulted its victims on an individual level, psychologically and morally, at its very worst curtailing human expression and communication, and destroying individual and collective dignity. In short, severe poverty threatened all that Camus found to be most precious about human existence.

Existence itself, he argued, brought forth a metaphysical form of suffering, arising from an acknowledgement of mortality and other inevitable, natural ills. Though still experience as an injustice, metaphysical suffering was an inherent aspect of the human condition. Preoccupied with the problem of how, in the absence of religious belief, we might discover values by which to live as individuals and as common members of humanity, Camus identified metaphysical suffering as consequent to a recognition of the absurd, and grounded in this suffering his definition of what he saw as both precious and changeless about individual human life. Yet he identified another form of suffering, inflicted by people upon each other, as neither inevitable nor natural. Poverty was one of these afflictions and as such, in the eyes of Camus, was both a moral and political crime against humanity. Outraged by the ignorance or indifference of society toward the fate of the poor, he found it unacceptable that they should remain condemned to suffer in silent misery from a condition that could be significantly alleviated, if not fully eradicated.

Although he did not consider himself to have suffered its worst ravages, Camus had tasted many of the bitter injustices of poverty during his childhood and youth. And while he could and did describe from the inside how poverty had affected him, he laid no personal claim to the stories of other poor people. These he described from the viewpoint of a keen and sympathetic witness, rather than an omniscient outsider, acknowledging the distance that now lay between himself and material deprivation, and respecting the exclusive nature of every poor person's experience. For Camus was quick to recognize that his past provided him only with a certain sensitivity towards the misery of others, not a firm knowledge. He was eager to speak, from his position of privilege, for the poor who had been denied a voice, but restrained himself with characteristic pudeur, or modesty, from mistaking his voice for theirs.

I. Camus as an External Witness to Poverty

Even Camus's earliest published efforts reveal his interest in observing and commenting upon social injustice, and poverty in particular. He was active with more than his pen: at university he participated in the activities of the Popular Front in Algeria, and before completing his studies he joined the Communist Party, not because he had been converted to Marxism by his reading of theory, but because of what he had witnessed and lived. In his words, "it seems to me that, more than ideas, life itself often leads to Communism…. I have such a strong desire to reduce the sum of unhappiness and bitterness which poisons mankind." With his friends on the left, he formed a co-operative political theatre group and a "people's university" to provide adult education for workers, and helped organize a Theatre du Travail in Algiers. Subsequently, as a reporter on the new, left-leaning Alger Républicain, he addressed himself to exposing the misery of some of the poorest members of his community, the Arabs and the indigenous Berber population of Kabylia.

Camus knew well that the Arabs suffered disproportionately when compared even to very poor European families such as his own, for he had long been able to observe their situation at first hand. Well acquainted with the Arab quarter of Algiers, which he had frequented since boyhood, he had gone to school with Arab children, had close contact with left-wing Moslem intellectuals through the Communist Party, openly supported the cause of Arab nationalists, and as a journalist gave sympathetic coverage to a number of political trials involving Arab defendants.

His disgust and indignation at the plight of the poor emerges most forcefully in his reports on famine-struck Kabylia. These articles, written in the first person, relay the statistics of poverty, search for the underlying economic, political, and demographic reasons for the famine, and describe the devastation wreaked upon at least half of the Kabylia population, driven to feed their families on grasses and roots until administrative handouts of grain arrive. Can anyone, he asks, have an easy conscience after seeing such suffering, about which almost nothing has been done? Perhaps it is impossible to convey the extremity of the misery, he writes,

but I know that on the return from a visit to the "tribe" of Tizi-Ouzou, I went up with a Kabyle friend into the heights which tower over the town. There we watched night fall. And at that hour when the shadow descending from the mountain over this splendid earth brings respite to the most hardened human heart, I knew all the same that there was no peace for those who, on the other side of the valley, were gathering together around a cake of bad barley. I knew also how sweet it would be to abandon oneself to an evening so amazing and magnificent, but that the misery whose fires glowed before us made the beauty of the world a forbidden thing. "Let's go down, shall we?" my companion said to me.

Just as his companion urged him, Camus urges his reader to go down into the valley. If you think it is an inevitable state of affairs, he writes, then say so; if you think it is an outrage, then act; if you do not believe that it is happening, come and take a look. For Camus, the most despicable thing to say is that the situation has something to do with the "Kabyle mentality," and that these people do not have the same needs as us, and can adapt to anything. Even the French President, if he were given only two hundred francs a month to live on, would get used to living under bridges, to dirt, and to crusts of bread found in dustbins, for "there is something stronger in a man's attachment to life than there is in all the miseries of the world." Camus did not hesitate to stress that the Kabylian situation originated in a far larger pattern of systematic political disadvantage imposed upon this population by the French government. He argued that temporary or partial solutions could not change the circumstances of the Kabyle, whose education, employment opportunities, political representation and general standard of living required urgent, fundamental reform.

If he had restricted himself to describing his own horror at the conditions he witnessed, and to decrying the ignorance and inhumanity which could permit such misery to continue, the articles would still remain a powerful indictment of colonial rule. Yet he went further, emphasizing above all that even though, to French eyes, these people might be mere Berbers enured to a life of hardship, the Kabyle could not go on being treated worse than animals. Their suffering was just as terrible for them as it would be for any European, and was actually far worse than the misery endured by Algeria's European poor. To borrow Camus' compelling phrase, one had to come down from the mountain to learn what was happening, and it was not enough merely to observe. Once you agreed that the suffering was utterly unacceptable, there was a large measure of hypocrisy in still doing nothing to remove it.

The Communist Party, which Camus had joined earlier, now appeared to be shifting away from its support for the Arab cause, associating itself instead with the pro-colonial Radical Socialist Party. Camus was expelled from the CP in 1937 when he openly objected to this association; he had anyway become increasingly disturbed by the CP's authoritarian tendencies. But he was very far from embracing bourgeois moral values and political policies, which he always considered inadequate to the task of eliminating social and economic injustice. By the end of the war, in his editorial writing in the Resistance newspaper Combat, he demanded that people not become resigned to the return of the old pre-war bourgeois society. He had commented over-optimistically in 1944 that "'social justice needs no complicated philosophy,'" and in the first open edition of Combat called for the destruction of trusts and other financial monopolies, so that a genuine popular working-class democracy might be built, the middle-class should hand over power to the workers, and accept instead the role of "witness to a greatness it could not create itself."

Bread was essential to survival, in Camus's view, but so also was a certain dignity and quality of life. It was not enough only to satisfy the immediate physical wants of underprivileged people when they were still systematically deprived of full participation in society and treated, as a consequence, without understanding or respect, particularly by certain leftwing intellectuals who claimed to understand their best interests. In his foreword to a novel by the working-class writer Louis Guilloux, Camus makes the point that most French writers who talk about the working-class come from comfortable or well-off backgrounds. Though he regards this as no stain on them, but as the luck of the draw, he nevertheless confesses, "I have always preferred that one should bear witness … after having had one's throat under the knife. Poverty, for example, leaves behind in people who have experienced it an intolerance which doesn't take well to someone who speaks of a certain kind of destitution without knowing what they're talking about." The proletariat, he observes, is often discussed as though it were a tribe with strange customs, in a way that would nauseate proletarians themselves if only they had the time to read these specialists' studies in order to be informed about the happy march of progress. Camus finds it hard to decide which is the most insulting in such sermons, the disgusting flattery or the open disdain, which he paraphrases in the following exchange: "proletarians would not cherish the small amount of freedom which they have at their disposal. Bread alone interests them and, without bread, what would they do with formal liberties? How vulgar they are!" And, for the working-class reaction: "'What do you like best, man, the fellow who wants to take your bread away in the name of freedom, or the one who wants to take your freedom away to make sure you have your bread?' Answer: 'Who should get spat on first?'" In contrast, writers born of the working-class know that "if one can lend a kind of nobility to poverty, the slavery which almost always accompanies it will never be justified," for they understand how excessive poverty impoverishes even the most intimate of passions: "Fifteen thousand francs a month, life in the workshop, and Tristan has nothing to say to Iseult any more. Love also is a luxury, there lies the condemnation."

Camus argued that the chasm between the outlook of the working-class and the left intelligentsia would deepen if the latter continued to accept the sacrifice of vital social freedoms in the pursuit of ultimate social justice. In his view, the liberal position, offering freedom without justice, would perpetuate the oppression of the many by the few who owned wealth, but bread without freedom was an insult to individual human dignity. The task ahead lay in finding an equilibrium between the two claims rather than in painting them as antagonistic, possibly irreconcilable forces, as was all too often done by both liberals and radicals: freedom and justice were opposite sides of the same coin existing in a creative balance, not an antagonism. For Camus, this balance could only be maintained by socialism, a socialism which preserved and cherished democratic liberties, most important of all freedom of expression. As he confessed in a letter to his friend, Roger Quilliot, "it is quite true that I would no longer have any fondness for living in a world from which what I will call the Socialist hope would have disappeared."

No revolution, whatever justice it might promise, could be bought at the expense of basic humanity: injustice in the name of some future human condition would betray the very people whom the revolution sought to liberate. In his play, Les justes and in L'homme révolté, Camus explores this painful lesson of history, searching for an alternative form of political action that could fight for social justice without devastating human life. The "scrupulous murderers" of Les justes acknowledge from the outset that they must be prepared to give their own lives in payment for their targeted acts of political violence, yet circumstances force them inevitably to confront a further question: can their revolution justify the taking of innocent life? The answer, for Camus, is clearly no: even in destruction there must be limits, for as the simplest of peasants could tell any intellectual, to kill children is contrary to honor, and honor is not a luxury, but "the last of the poor's riches."

With L'homme révolté, Camus unfolds, as a tentative beginning, his view of an alternative politics. He proposes, in place of the revolutionary's messianic spirit, the attitude of the rebel, whose political action is limited always by a sense of the sacredness of human life, requiring a constant balance between relative freedom and relative justice. Camus offers the trade union movement as an example of rebellion translated into effective political action. Libertarian syndicalism, he argues, has long struggled against bourgeois oppression, and it is to this movement, rather than to Marx, that the proletariat owes its most basic victory, the reduction of a sixteen-hour working day to a forty-hour week. In such political action, as in the wise use of technology, he sees the opportunity to alleviate the misery of working-class life without increasing injustice and crushing freedom. The nature of a union collective, organized by and for the workers to address their own problems, can give the working-class an authentic political voice in its successful, as in its unsuccessful struggles.

Camus's short story, "Les muets," from L'exil et le royaume, describes one of these unsuccessful struggles. Set in an Algerian town, the tale concerns the aftermath of a failed strike at a cooper's workshop. After being forced back on the job out of the need to put food in their families' mouths, the workers express their bitterness by refusing to speak when addressed by their boss. The irony is obvious: rather than a sign of impotence, the curse of the oppressed, their silence has become a non-violent weapon, a last defense of outraged dignity. When they learn later that the boss's little daughter has been taken seriously ill, their silence becomes a painful one in the face of a common human tragedy. However barren their lives, the workers have not lost their compassion, then, but nor have they lost their sense of solidarity, demonstrated even toward the one Arab who works with them. Although they are simple men, they communicate through a language of mutual respect and show a delicacy of feeling toward one another that contrasts strongly with the insensitivity and awkwardness of the boss in his dealings with them. Their nobility in silent rebellion exemplifies, in Camus's terms, what it means to affirm one's companionship with all of humanity.

If Camus's hopes for a post-war working-class democracy went unfulfilled, his radical tone did not change, as may be observed in his somewhat neglected editorials for L'Express written in 1955–56. He frequently used the editorials to draw notice to specific instances of poverty and oppression that had been comfortably ignored or tolerated by the bourgeois establishment. One such small, overlooked tragedy noted by Camus is that of two roofers, still working at well over retirement age, who fell to their deaths while on the job. In another piece, Camus discusses a settlement made at the Renault company, without a strike, between workers and management. It was good that there was no strike, he says, if you know what a strike can do to a working-class family. And it is not true that an improvement in their standard of living would diffuse the fighting force of the workers, for it is often the poorest who are most resigned. But the main problem, as yet unresolved, he identifies as "that internal exile which separates millions of men from their own country" through miserable wages and suburban ghettoes. If this injustice continues, Camus argues, the working-class will remain, "against its will, a state within a state." Reforms should not be despised, but nor should the end of reform be forgotten: "the re-integration of the working-class with all of its rights and the abolition of wage labour."

His review for L'Express of an inquiry into the condition of the Parisian working-class bluntly calls working-class misery the disgrace of this civilization, for which bourgeois society has only come up with one remedy: silence. To be poor in the presence of wealth, Camus adds, is an especially bitter fate: for all those who own luxury cars, there are women holding themselves back from leaving the job to go to the toilet, so as not to lose their three franc bonus. What the inquiry illustrates, in his words, is "a solitary world deprived of any immediate hope." He quotes a miner as saying poignantly, and with particular significance to one such as Camus himself, born under Mediterranean skies, "when our boys first go down the mine, they start to cry: they can't see the sun any more."

Another of Camus's editorials concerns a true-life example of working-class oppression remarkably close in flavor to "Les muets." He describes how two trade union members were condemned to do time in a correctional institution for having refused to shake the hand of their perfect, or local government administrator: "their reserve," he explains, "constituted an outrageous attitude, according to the judges. He who doesn't say a word insults." Yet refusing to shake hands, Camus suggests, is really a peaceful way of showing that one disapproves of something: "unable to dignify the social morality that had been outraged in this affair, [the workers] wanted at least to substitute for it a sort of cleanliness. Not to compromise oneself, wasn't that the rule of true nobility? And besides, what would our hand be, for those we love, if we gave it to the first comer?"

In Camus's opinion, then, the misery and humiliation of poverty, and of discrimination against the working class, remained ill-disguised cankers polluting society, and little had been done to remove them. His editorials point uncompromisingly at the conclusion that freedom alone could not end social injustice, and that bourgeois liberals, blinded either by their nature or by choice, would not come to recognize the misery of the working class or of the indigenous population in their colonies as an urgent, unacceptable tragedy. At the same time, the editorials consistently demand a shift in the position of the left toward a new emphasis on the importance of freedom. For if certain people on the left considered servitude an excusable path to justice, while others on the right continued to hide the realities of poverty and economic oppression under cloak of constitutional liberties, the struggle to shape a better society could not be won.

Camus saw the Communist left as condescending to the working class, offering social justice at the terrible price of liberty, and advocating revolutionary violence without considering, or without revealing, that the poor, who had no political voice, would have to pay for it most dearly. How ironic it was, indeed, that working-class consciousness should be so exalted by those who knew nothing about it, yet thought of themselves as most qualified to judge how the working class should pursue its struggles. Bourgeois liberals and Communist left were, it seemed, curiously united in their emphasis on some form of future social well-being, though their respective panaceas differed. But for Camus, who believed in no heavenly reward for suffering on earth and considered the future an unpredictable affair, to accept the ruin of a life lived today was criminal, whether that life were devastated in an urban slum or in a forced labor camp. Whoever saw fit to excuse or even to tolerate the exclusion of the greater part of society from full enjoyment of its benefits became themselves impoverished in human terms. The supreme arrogance of such an attitude could only warp any kind of politics that it might produce. For the politics of fighting poverty required, in his view, a fundamental recognition of a common human condition and a shared destiny. If poverty could attack its victims psychologically, the psychology of the fortunate could act equally as a barrier to understanding the world of the poor. So whatever social and economic policies might be adopted to tackle the problem of poverty, there had also to be a change of consciousness, both morally and politically, on the part of those more privileged members of society, or else the poor would still be condemned to internal exile in their own land. As may be seen in the pained irony of his editorials for L'Express, Camus sought urgently to convince his readers that the occasional sense of pity or act of charity was an insufficient, even insulting, answer to such suffering. Political action had to be accompanied by individual moral integrity on the part of those involved, arising from a genuine realization that it was a crime to treat the poor as if they were a breed apart, and had no need of justice, freedom, and dignity. He demanded, in place of the insincerities and inhumanities of both Communist left and bourgeois politics, a socialism distinguished by its defense of human solidarity and communication, a socialism that would assure all members of society an equal freedom to cultivate their individuality.

Camus did not forget that as a successful writer he himself was no longer poor, and he worried that material comfort might exert a damaging influence upon his own moral integrity: he comments regretfully in a notebook entry, "it is in poverty that I have found and always will find the necessary conditions such that my guilt, if it exists, should at least not be shameful, and remains proud." He retained a strong sense of solidarity with the working class from which he had come: "French workers," he writes, "are the only people I feel good around, that I want to get to know and to 'live.' They are like me." Although, during the acrimonious debate in Les temps modernes following the publication of L'homme révolté, Sartre put forward the argument that Camus was now just as much a bourgeois as Francis Jeanson and himself, Camus could claim justifiably to have come from the working class and hence to possess a certain sensitivity toward it that could not easily be gained from reading books. His angry retort to his critics who had "never placed anything but their armchairs in the direction of history" surely stemmed in large part from his frustration at hearing the working class discussed by people who had no more than a theoretical grasp of its problems and declared their commitment to revolutionary change in writing only, from the safety of cafe terraces. The suffering of the poor he considered to be similarly misunderstood by existentialists: "according to [them], every man is responsible for who he is. This explains the complete disappearance of compassion from their universe of aggressive old men. And yet they pretend to fight against social injustice. So there do exist, then, people who aren't responsible for what they are; the poor man is innocent of his poverty." The innocence of the poor man Camus could certainly claim to know about from personal experience: if he was no longer innocent, living the life of a bourgeois intellectual, he had been touched by poverty, remembered its injustices, and identified passionately with those who still endured it.

II. Camus's Experience of Poverty

Throughout his career as a writer, Camus repeatedly turned back to his childhood and youth in Belcourt to retrieve and to explore artistically the internal experience of poverty. Le premier homme offers the most continuous and detailed of these explorations. In comparison to his commentary on working-class poverty in France or on the tragedy of Kabylia, it might seem at first glance that Camus had a nostalgic, even romantic, attitude toward his own poverty, mitigated as it was for him by the natural wealth of Algeria's climate and landscape. Poverty and the sun, he writes, were the twin sources of his artistic vision, poverty reminding him that not all is well under the sun and history, and the sun teaching him that history is not everything. In Noces, an early work, Camus celebrates the beauty of nature and youthful bodies, describing lyrically the sensual pleasures of sea and sun, and the direct, spontaneous attitude to life of the young working—class Algerians among whom he grew to manhood. But his lyricism is tempered by a sober warning: youth is short for those who are poor, and any idea of self-improvement, or of virtue, means little if one must enjoy existence so passionately, so swiftly. Without religious sense and without myths to disguise the brutality of their existence, these people have their own moral code, which he recalls in spare terms: "You don't let your mother down. You make sure your wife is treated respectfully in the street. You show consideration for a pregnant woman. You don't come two to one upon your enemy, because that's 'pulling a dirty move.' Anyone who fails to respect these basic rules is 'not a man,' and that's it."

In Le premier homme, Camus's lyricism is equally tempered by his description of the consequences of poverty: there is no change of heart regarding its crushing indignities, despite the recollected pleasures and moments of human tenderness in the novel. The internal experience of poverty is stripped naked, quite without romance or sentimentality, to reveal a universe closed in upon itself, clinging to its own particular values born not of religion or theory, but of simple hardship. Camus writes movingly about the terrible vulnerability of the poor European community from which he came, not just as it might be in the violent Algeria of the 1950s, but as it had been from its first tenuous and tortuous attempts to establish a livelihood in a strange land. Le premier homme thus illustrates with particular acuity why Camus might refuse to condone wholesale Arab nationalist violence against the French presence in Algeria: he sought to defend the poor Europeans, themselves in a sense silent victims of colonial rule, for they would be the ones to suffer helplessly if random terrorism became widespread, not the wealthy colons who could afford to protect themselves or to move elsewhere. His avowed intent in writing Le premier homme was precisely to "tear his poor family away from the destiny of poor people, which is to disappear from history without leaving a trace," and the title of the novel reflects a double meaning. Jacques Cormery, Camus's fictional counterpart, is the first man, having had to bring himself up alone, fatherless and poor, and navigate a new course far beyond the limited universe of his family. He came, however, from immigrant stock, people who had fled poverty and oppression in their own countries; so in his family history, too, were "first men," uprooted often unwillingly from their European origins and driven to plant new roots in African soil.

Poverty, Camus remarks, is "a fortress without drawbridges"; and as Le premier homme unfolds, it becomes more and more remarkable that he himself managed to find a way out of the fortress. For his family were not just badly off but constantly on the edge of indigence, and without the intervention of a primary school teacher who recognized his promise, he would have disappeared into the workforce at the age of thirteen. Instead, as a scholarship student at the Lycée, he began to discover a whole world outside his own small one that would be forever closed to his family. The home of Jacques Cormery (Camus's fictive name) was a small world indeed, curtailed by lack of education born of scant opportunity, and by the grinding effects of a constant struggle to secure the minimum for survival. Jacques had never known his father: Henri Cormery died in France during the Great War before Jacques was two years old. He is described as a "hard man, bitter, who had worked all his life, had killed on command, had accepted everything that he could not avoid, but who, in some part of himself, refused to be tamed. In short, a poor man. Because poverty does not choose itself, but it can look after itself." And if Henri Cormery had left his family in poverty to fight for a land he had never even seen, how much less did his wife understand the cause that would eventually claim his life. Hampered by partial deafness, illiterate, and without the least sense of geography, she could not vaguely imagine what France might be like. She knew that her own family had fled Minorca because they were starving, and knew that it was an island, but she had no conception of what an island was because she had never seen one. She had no idea of history beyond that of her family, and the orders that came for her husband to join up were as mysterious to her as the written notice she received of his death: since neither she nor her mother, who lived with the family, could read, the very notice of death had to be read aloud to them. So it was useless for Jacques to try and talk at home about what he was studying because his family members had no points of reference in their own lives through which to give coherence to his discoveries: For them,

Latin, for example, was a word that had absolutely no meaning. That there might have been (apart from savage times, which they could, on the contrary, imagine) a time in which nobody spoke French, that civilizations (and the very word meant nothing to them) might have succeeded each other whose customs and language were different: these truths had not reached as far as them. Not picture, nor written word, nor spoken information, nor the superficial culture that comes from everyday conversation had reached them: In this house where there were no newspapers, until Jacques brought them in, no radio either, where there were only objects of immediate usefulness, where only family was received, a family one rarely left—and always to meet members of the same ignorant family—what Jacques brought back from school was impossible to assimilate, and the silence grew between him and his family.

The poverty of Jacques's family had other consequences difficult to imagine for someone from a more fortunate home. His own home, for example, was so naked of objects that things had no special names; and only in a richer house containing a multiplicity of vases, cups, statuettes and pictures did the young Cormery come to know that things can have proper names. The ability of poor people such as the Cormery family to recall past events was similarly affected. For, as Camus explains, the memory of the poor is

less nourished than that of rich people, it has fewer points of demarcation in space because they rarely leave the place in which they live, fewer landmarks also in the time taken up by a uniform, grey life. Of course, there is the memory of the heart that is said to be the most reliable, but the heart gets worn out by burdens and hard work; it forgets more quickly under the weight of tiredness. Past time is only discovered by rich people. For the poor, it marks only the vague traces of the road toward death. And after all, to be able to bear things well, it's better not to remember too much; you have to stick close to the days, hour by hour.

Proust's madeleine, Camus appears to suggest, is a luxury not enjoyed by poor households.

While the Cormerys could not understand the new intellectual wealth Jacques had gained at high school, it was just as difficult for him to explain his family's world to his classmates and teachers. The shocking poverty of his household was sometimes a source of outright embarrassment for a boy gradually becoming sensitive to the differences in background between himself and his peers. For example, he could quite acceptably tell the class, when asked at the beginning of the new term, that his father had been killed in the war. Yet when he came to fill out a form which required him to state his parents' professions, he was at a loss. At first he wrote, for his mother, "housewife," but Pierre, a schoolfriend, explained that this implied his mother had no profession at all and stayed at home to keep house. Jacques revealed that his mother looked after other peoples' houses; "'Oh well, then,' said Pierre, hesitating, 'I think you'd better put maid.'" Jacques was surprised, never having thought of his mother as someone who worked for other people, but as someone who worked for her own family. As he was about to write the word "maid," "he stopped and suddenly felt … ashamed, and the shame of having been ashamed." And he copied the word out boldly. On another occasion, he was asked that his parents sign a form, the sophisticated language of which he had to unravel for his mother and grandmother. His mother had learned from a neighbor how to write her name so that she could obtain her war-widow's pension, but she left early for work having forgotten to sign the form, and his grandmother could not write even her own name. So he faced further embarrassment before his teacher when he was asked whether anyone at home could not have signed it apart from his mother. He realized, from his teacher's surprise at his answer, that "his situation was less common than he had imagined until then." On prize-giving day, the Cormery women arrived embarrassingly early for the ceremony, "as the poor always are," Camus remarks, "having few social obligations and pleasures, and worrying about not being on time." For "those whom fate has served badly can't help, in some part of themselves, believing that they are responsible, and they feel that this general guilt should not be added to by small lapses."

Poverty, Jacques also discovered, tried his desire to be honest, as much as it did his pride. At the age of thirteen, he had to start earning to contribute to the household's meager income, even though he would only be able to work over the summer holidays. Knowing that the boy would not be hired by anyone just for such a short period, his grandmother falsely told his prospective employer that he had left school for good because his family was too poor for him to continue studying. Jacques was left to explain the lie on his dreaded last day of work before the new term; and his irate boss could not be made to realize that it was the Cormery's poverty that had required the lie in the first place. His financial contribution to the Cormery household nonetheless marked an important transition in his life: in their eyes, he was now a man.

Jacques was lucky to escape the drudgery of work during school-time: the rest of his family enjoyed no such luxury. There could never be a break, for such a thing would mean less to eat for everybody. The poor would only stop working in the case of an accident on the job when their sick-leave was paid by company insurance. Unemployment not covered by insurance was their worst nightmare. Camus explains this to be the reason

why workingmen … who in their everyday lives were ever the most tolerant of men, were always xenophobes when it came to questions about work, accusing in succession the Spanish, the Jews, the Arabs, and finally the whole world of stealing their work away from them—a disconcerting attitude, certainly, for intellectuals theorizing about the proletariat, and at the same time extremely human and understandable. It wasn't for world domination or for the privileges of money and leisure that these unexpected nationalists got into disputes over other nationalities, but for the privilege of slavery. Work in this quarter was not a virtue but a necessity which, for the sake of survival, carried you on to death.

Death was a frequent visitor in Cormery's neighborhood, to be greeted without sentimentality or fuss: his grandmother, upon hearing that a person had died, would only say, "'Ah well, he won't fart any more,'" or in the case of someone closer to her, "'Poor fellow, he was still young,' even if the deceased had been of a dying age for a long while. It was not a lack of awareness on her part. Because she had seen a lot of people die around her…. But precisely, death was as familiar to her as work or poverty; she did not think about it but lived it in some way." Meanwhile, with "the terrible wear and tear of poverty, it became hard to find a place for religion…. One was Catholic as one was French, and that entailed a certain number of rites … baptism, first communion, the sacrament of marriage (if there were a marriage) and the last sacraments. Between these ceremonies, by their nature very far apart, one was busy with other things, and primarily with surviving."

The world Jacques Cormery so narrowly escaped was one of a daily struggle which could not for a moment be abandoned, whether to rest, to gain education or simply to contemplate the larger questions about human existence. There was no comfortable padding between these poor people and three grim facts: a brief youth, hard work, and an early death. Like victims of tuberculosis, they lived in the constant presence of their own mortality, unable to afford the relief of either romance or sentimentality. Nevertheless poverty, in all of its humiliating nakedness, nourished a kind of ethic, teaching the boy what it was "to be a man," and to carry on with as much pride and dignity as might be salvaged after the hours of drudgery. "It is … among these humble or proud people," Camus states unreservedly, "that I have most surely touched that which seems to me to be the true meaning of life."

In spite of what he might have learned from his Belcourt years, Camus nowhere suggested that poverty was worth suffering because it was a condition that encourage virtue. On the contrary, at its worst it was an experience salutary for neither soul nor body. Poverty limited human intercourse with the world just as his mother's deafness restricted her to a lonely and silent universe. To be poor was to be entrapped in an unceasing cycle of work from birth to death, with the fear of unemployment and hunger hanging overhead like a sword of Damocles. Poverty shortened the memory, dampened the imagination, wore down friendships and loves, ate away at youthful vigor and promised no reward after death but the curt sympathy of a neighbor or family member. It permitted of no time for sickness, idleness, or self-development, and demanded of its victims the kind of solidarity and endurance required of an army under attack: one slip, and everyone would be exposed to suffering.

Poverty had given Camus his initial, personal experience of human solidarity, but he was clearly aware that such solidarity was not exclusive to the experience of the poor: he encountered it also sharing in the struggles of the Resistance movement under the Nazi occupation. His metaphorical use of the plague and its effects upon the citizens of Oran, in La peste is evidence of this awareness: his protagonist, Dr. Rieux, bears witness to both human solidarity and human weakness in the face of a desperate common plight. Never did Camus propose that everyone should suffer the deprivations and humiliations of poverty, or the misery and terror of an occupying totalitarian power in order to be acquainted at first hand with the true meaning of life. Rather, he was proposing that because such experiences strip our existence of its sheltering illusions, testing our moral fortitude as much as our capacity for compassion, they can remind us powerfully and directly of our shared human fate.

Through his literary art, Camus attempted to offer both the suffering and the solidarity to the imagination of his readers who might not or could not experience the world of poverty for themselves. His great achievement in Le premier homme lies exactly in his ability to portray what to many of them might as well be the landscape of some alien universe. Although he had escaped the barren and shuttered life of poverty, he had not forgotten even its most intimate details, nor its greatest injustices. His escape was not a source of self-congratulation for the adult looking back, but a sobering reflection: so many others were left behind, and it was for these people that he felt driven to speak. His experience, while not the desperate misery of the Kabyles, gave him a bitter taste of the extreme: to use his own phrase, it shortened his descent into the other side of the valley.

Poverty was an urgent political issue for Camus because it concerned those who did not suffer it as much as those who did: to tolerate its presence passively was to perpetuate actively a gross inhumanity. Though he never elaborated a comprehensive and detailed social policy regarding poverty, he did indicate the direction that might be taken by government and society to relieve some of its most conspicuous hardships. He voiced the need for a socialism that would protect all members of society from political and economic injustice, while assuring them free expression as individuals. He demanded also an awakening of consciousness on the part of people who did not live under the burden of poverty, so that their political actions could be informed by genuine moral integrity, rather than theory or self-interest. Camus acknowledged that he himself had become distanced from the experience of poverty, not so much by an emotional gulf as by his material and intellectual circumstances. Still, he could at least bear witness with sympathy and honestly to its devastating effects, and employ his art with caution and respect to "say a little about eternal human suffering." The tragedy of the poor was that, unlike dumb animals, they knew very well that they were victims of injustice, but their lives were so draining, so monotonously absorbing, and so isolating that they might not be able to act to change them, let alone find the opportunity to speak out about their plight. Yet in the end, for Camus, all those who suffered mutely had to be encouraged to tell their story with their own authentic voices, no longer dismissed, organized, or condescended to by more fortunate outsiders, even such acutely sympathetic outsiders as he. And while these outsiders could not speak for the poor, Camus argued that it was their duty in human solidarity to provide a context in which the silence might finally be broken.


Camus, Albert (Vol. 11)


Camus, Albert (Vol. 14)