The Magazine

The French Connection

Paris and Algiers pulled Camus in different directions.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Albert Camus the Algerian
Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice
by David Carroll
Columbia, 256 pp., $29.50

BOB.CAMUS,Albert.ByEastland.jpgAlbert Camus
Drawing by Katherine Eastland

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.