The French Connection
Paris and Algiers pulled Camus in different directions.
Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ROGER KAPLAN
Albert Camus the Algerian
David Carroll's dual purpose here is to rescue the reputation of Albert Camus from academicians who have consigned him to the ash heap of dead white males, while enlisting him in the opposition to the Iraq war. While there may be some usefulness in laboriously examining the way a modern master uses the weapons of the spirit to write on such weighty matters as justice, this book demonstrates the risks inherent in assigning a writer political positions that, at best, are hypothetical.
Would Camus have opposed the war on terrorism and the methods that have been used to wage it? How can anyone know? He died in 1960, and at the time everyone who knew him viewed him, for a reason, as a partisan of the effort to defeat the Algerian nationalists, whose terrorism he deplored and denounced. He also deplored and denounced anti-terrorism methods used by the French army, and he was an anticolonialist. For this, armchair experts accuse him of ambivalence, at best, or at worst, "objective" support for the colonialist side. Carroll is quite right to say that this is to miss the point about Camus's moral stance, and for that matter his political stance. But to turn him into some kind of plague-on-both-houses neo-Tolstoyan by projecting him into contemporary affairs, as Carroll does, is to miss the point as well.
Albert Camus was the French novelist and essayist who, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and a few others, represented the postwar Existentialist movement. His novel The Stranger is the emblematic work of that movement, the way The Sun Also Rises represents the Lost Generation and The Great Gatsby represents the Jazz Age. Fully integrated into the canon of 20th-century letters, Camus became a problem for the academic thought police because of positions he took during the Algerian war of independence (1954-62). To my own considerable astonishment, I learn that such authorities as Conor Cruise O'Brien and Edward Said view Camus as an apologist for colonialism, perhaps even a racist. According to Carroll, who teaches French and Italian literature at UC Irvine, this view is not unanimous: Michael Walzer of Princeton, for example, maintains that Camus was "a good man in a bad time" and defends his writings.
It is not news that Camus was in the thick of controversies. I always imagined, however, that these took place in the circles of those French intellectuals that my mother and father frequented in what I think of as the Cold War years (ending with the outbreak of hot war in Korea). More exactly, those circles frequented--hung out, we might say today--around my parents because their apartment was heated and they had access to cigarettes and whiskey. Controversies spilled over into reviews, whose circulation was tiny, and thence into the Paris press and beyond.
It is not unusual for academics living in Princeton or UC Irvine to care about arguments that took place in Paris a half-century or more ago. That is what the history of ideas is about. What I find odd is that the contemporary argument should be so skewed. If I read Carroll correctly, erudite professors are assigning to Camus ideas and attitudes that are not his. Yet it's not as if we were dealing with obscure and difficult texts: Camus wrote plainly, and his work lives in neat, elegant editions put out faithfully by the house where he worked, Gallimard. There are still plenty of people around--like my old dad and his pal, Joseph Frank, whom Carroll and his friends could easily consult since he shuttles between Princeton and Stanford--who were there (not that this is always a recommendation for accuracy) and could tell them what-for.
But isn't this precisely the problem? Camus, my father used to say (and Joe concurring), was less friendly than some of these other literary derelicts, like Sartre, because he always felt he was being misunderstood. Le problème est ailleurs, he would say, brow furrowed and eyes turning somber, you don't get it. Personally, I always thought Camus was difficult to misunderstand: He sought clarity and pursued a kind of "measure," evenhandedness, which he took from the Greeks whom he studied for his never-completed doctorate. Sartre wrote very well, too; but Camus, who kept a hand in journalism all his life, was always far more persuasive. He made reasonable arguments; Sartre tended toward insult, invective.
Camus, always a man of the left and not especially friendly toward the American position in the Cold War, or the strategy of containment with its essential military component, saw Stalinism for what it was. Some of the others saw it for what they wanted it to be. But it was during the Algerian war that matters went from very bad to really awful, because Sartre and his friends, who knew very little about Algeria, decided that Camus and his friends, wife, mother, uncles, etc.--who, of course, really were Algerians--did not know anything and were playing into the hands of reactionary racist colonialist . . . dogs, as Sartre called them. It was awful.
Most of the French political class, led by the Socialists who happened to be in power at the time, supported the suppression of the armed revolt against French rule in Algeria. It was 1954 and, having been driven from Indochina, the French knew that decolonization was in the air. But l'Algérie, as Minister of Justice François Mitterrand insisted, c'est la France. Administratively and politically, he was right: Algeria comprised three departements of France. But as Camus had been saying since the late 1930s, when he wrote a famous reportage for the Communist Alger-Républicain newspaper on the oppression and misery of the Muslim population, this was wrong. It was not fair. You had a de facto colonial situation, and you had to fix it by giving full political equality to the Muslims.
Which the settlers could not conceive of doing. Most of the settlers, like Camus's family, were very poor. The conventional wisdom among Paris intellectuals was that they were parasitical plantation owners--gros colons; but that was a myth. There were some big landowners, of course, and there were farmers who had worked very hard to drain the swamps of the Mitidja valley and turn it into a citrus paradise. Algeria was sun-drenched, beautiful, sensual, and hard at the same time, and most of its inhabitants were poor.
Camus's position was that there were several populations in Algeria, and simple justice required they be taken into account when accounts were settled. At the outset of the armed revolt in 1954, for example, he asked why there should be an "Arab nation" in that land, as the National Liberation Front demanded. In its name, Front de Libération Nationale, the feminine of national is required because it is the liberation which is national, not the front. The FLN, like its predecessor organization led by Messali Hadj, posited a national entity to be liberated, and it claimed this was an Algerian homeland (patrie) within the Arab umma. But Camus asked: Why the Arabs? Why not the Kabyles, or the Berbers, more generally? Why not the Jews? Or, for that matter, the Maltese, the Spaniards--the French?
Hence the malentendu--not getting it--that Camus struggled to overcome during these years when he had to worry every day about whether his mother was boarding a bus that was about to explode. He thought that those who, from the safety of the cafés, used grand words like colonialism and freedom, and constructed their perfect worlds with other people's lives, didn't get it. And not getting it in a war can be a serious matter--justice in contradiction with itself. That is why he said, angrily at a press conference when he received the Nobel Prize, that between justice (equality for all in Algeria) and his mother, he would choose his mother.
The café crowd gave him hell for that one. Carroll twists it, out of his sincere love of Camus, to mean that killing his mother would have been an injustice, so therefore, and so on. And of course, that is so. But we have to be clear: Camus, a realistic man who had seen life up close in the slums of Belcourt and in the cruelties of the Nazi occupation, meant what he said. Justice can wait, if it's my mother's life that pays for it.
I happen to be gazing at the old coffee shop at the angle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Rue Bonaparte as I write this. Sartre's office was around the corner, which is why the joint became a hangout and, eventually, a landmark. It's not a bad place--nice booths, but steep prices--and I am up on the fourth floor in a little place across the street asking my old dad, who lives here, whether any of this matters. He shakes his head in despair at my habit of asking stupid questions. He is about to be given a very high honor by the French Republic for his labors in making people like Sartre and Camus known to Americans. I do not ask whether any of that mattered, digging my hole deeper; but today, does it matter?
I turn to Joe and Guigitte Frank, who thought they were going to spend a quiet afternoon at my father's and not get drawn into old polemics. But their years of teaching have made them more patient, and Joe offers an answer: It matters to anyone who still reads, he says. So I offer him a sample of David Carroll's prose:
Joe winces. My father's brows turn up in genuine surprise. He fell out of touch with the university world when he went overseas for long decades of service to our country. It gets worse:
Carroll is a good man. He is trying to do the right thing. But why not just say that Camus was confused? Which would be factually mistaken, but it would at least be clear. Camus was not confused and he had no identity problems, if that's what Carroll is trying to say. He had, to be sure, a complicated personal life, some of which took place in the streets around here; but that is a different matter entirely. He was Algerian--of course he was Algerian, français d'Algérie--and that was never an issue; but in the academy it seems to have become an issue.
Carroll takes us through several of Camus's key books, including The Stranger and The Plague, to mutilate those who would make Camus an apologist for the colonial regime. In doing this, Carroll misinterprets almost as grossly as they falsify. I learn in Albert Camus the Algerian that there is a "post-colonial" school of literary criticism which posits that The Stranger is racist because the Arab victim of the anti-hero Meursault has no name. Or that the plague in The Plague is a metaphor for the de facto apartheid in Algeria because there are no Arabs in the fictional Oran (Algeria's western capital) where the story is set.
Carroll argues, on the contrary, that Meursault is "the other" and is executed as "an Arab and a Jew." The Plague, he says, by omitting the Arabs, is really an attack on colonial segregation. The first thing you notice about The Stranger is its title. Meursault's problem is existential. As to The Plague, Camus--who knew there was a vicious strain of anti-Semitism among the often pro-Vichy pieds-noirs, notably in Oran--made it very clear that he was writing a parable of the Nazi occupation of Europe and the duty to resist evil.
Camus's journalism during the Algerian war, mainly in the form of editorial commentary collected in 1958 in the slim volume Chroniques algériennes, sought to separate the combatants. His position was that the cycles of terror and repression played into the hands of the extremists on both sides, which seems obvious enough in retrospect. He was sensible and reasonable. However, it took only a few people who were not sensible or reasonable, but who had access to bombs, to render his position irrelevant.
I assume this is where Carroll thinks his book can be read with profit by someone with no particular interest in French literature or Algerian history. But can the Algerian controversies serve as lessons for today's war in Iraq? More specifically, Carroll, in one overwrought sentence, asks why George W. Bush did not read Camus before starting all the trouble: It would have sharpened his sense of justice. But I have the impression that, as a matter of fact, the president did read Camus somewhere along the way.
The present situation in Iraq, Carroll writes, bears some resemblance to the situation Camus commented on with futile good sense and goodwill. Perhaps. We are presently engaged in operations in Iraq, allied with some Iraqis against others who are themselves supported by a Muslim internationale. Many Muslims are opposed to this internationale, which wants our ruin and their destruction. In the end, though, the only question in conflicts like this is who shall have power locally. The French army and government always had a problem in that the settler "tribe" was adamant about not wanting to share power while the FLN was adamant that its core leadership would monopolize power, Leninist-style.
In these circumstances, the hearts-and-minds strategies that the army tried, with occasional success, were like spitting in the wind. Camus was considered naive at best, a traitor at worst, by pied-noir public opinion, and would probably be called a wimp today by Muslim nationalists. In a (successful) strategy of cutting off and starving the insurgents while they hunted them down, the French took the battle to Egypt during the Suez expedition, and sealed off the borders with Tunisia and Morocco. I don't know if this is germane to the geography of Mesopotamia; it is true, though, that the French army took a few years to find winning tactics.
Simply projecting from what Camus said about terror and torture, he would surely have condemned people who set off bombs in marketplaces and mosques. He would have opposed the ill-treatment of prisoners, while seeking to know whether such ill-treatment was systemic or an aberration. On the strategy of choosing Iraq as a battlefield in a larger war, there is no point in speculating: He was not keen on military solutions. But he never said the French army was wrong to defend the civilian population in Algeria. Maybe he would have felt the same way about the American, British, and Iraqi forces battling marketplace killers--maybe not. But what motivated his attitude toward Algeria was that his people lived there.
Would he think the U.S. Army should stay out of the sectarian and tribal conflicts tearing Iraq apart? The doctor in The Plague views his duty as a call to act in a seemingly hopeless situation. Camus probably did not take the full measure of Algerian national sentiment, which united Arabs and Berbers, liberal nationalists like Ferhat Abbas (whom Camus respected), Leninists and proto-Islamists, against the French. What would he have thought of our attempt to encourage such sentiment in the geographical expression called Iraq? Would he have blamed us for unleashing the dogs of civil war in a once-united Iraq by leaving a power vacuum after removing the tyrant who held it together by terror?
Forty-seven years after his death, no one can say.
Roger Kaplan is the author of Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and the Triumph of the Left in France.