Bringing Them the Plague: Camus at 100

7 Jan 2014

Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business’. Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea-bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible … Viewed from this angle, [our town’s] life is not particularly exciting; that must be admitted. But, at least, social unrest is quite unknown among us. And our frank-spoken, amiable, and industrious citizens have always inspired a reasonable esteem in visitors …

The above is not a contemporary Melburnian, Brisbanite or Sydney-sider’s description of their hometown, fellow Australians or the secrets behind their country’s stellar economic successes. It comes from the pen of Albert Camus, or of his narrator Doctor Rieux, in the 1947 novel The Plague. Rieux is describing Oran, a town surrounded by the harsh splendour of the North African deserts, yet with its back turned towards the natural relief of the sea. Readers will know the story. Oran, this town of such forbidding ordinariness, is about to be struck by the plague. Rats will soon appear on its streets, beneath the arches of its doorways and on the bannisters of its staircases, emerging from their darknesses in order to die. Then human cases will begin to manifest, all with similar symptoms: ‘stupor and extreme prostration, reddened eyes, buboes, intense thirst, delirium, dark blotches on the body, internal dilatation …’ In conclusion, some words came back to the doctor’s mind, aptly enough, the concluding sentence of the description of the symptoms given in his medical handbook: ‘The pulse becomes fluttering, dicrotic, and intermittent, and death ensues as the result of the slightest movement’. For nearly a whole year Oran will suffer—losing up to a thousand people a week—before the epidemic passes, as unaccountably as it arrived.

Impossibly, 7 November 2013 marked Albert Camus’ 100th birthday. The novelist, playwright, philosopher, critic and journalist died at age fifty-six in a single-vehicle car accident in January 1960. By all reports, he had a train ticket in his pocket. In his Notebooks of 1952, following the heated public exchanges around his most extensive political essay, The Rebel (on which more below), Camus had registered the worry that even his death would now be controversial, not allowing his loved ones peace. Here as elsewhere, Camus’ insight was lucid. Even the 50th anniversary commemorations of his death in France in 2010 saw heated debates about what the man, his work and life had meant. Then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, tried to claim Camus in the name of the Right’s ‘eternal France’, now temporarily committed to the globalisation, de-unionisation and deregulation of everything that can be bought or sold. Illustrating exactly the kind of Manichean over-simplifications that Camus spent his life trying to challenge, Sarkozy reasoned that Camus’ public opposition to Stalinism in the immediate post-war period meant that he must have been ‘one of us’. The neoliberal president was probably too sure of his own ‘rightness’ to realise he was using the same reasoning Sartre and Jeanson, from the far Left, had hurled at Camus in their 1950s public stoush.

The president was also illustrating what the reader or inquirer finds once s/he sees beyond the manifold clichés surrounding Camus as either (or both!) ‘prophet of the absurd’ or ‘moral conscience of his time’. This is the almost palpable, unclassifiable enigma of this remarkable author, résistant, and Nobel Prize winner, who disappeared from French and European letters as suddenly as he had appeared in the Paris of 1941, bearing from the colonies the uncanny hit novel L’Etranger.

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For, as he would revisit in his incomplete novel The First Man, the young Albert Camus did not grow up in Paris, a city among whose stony facades and under whose grey skies he always felt, himself, an exile. A pied noir French-Algerian, son of a father who died for the Republic on the Western Front in 1914 and an illiterate, nearly mute mother, his childhood was spent ‘poor but happy’ on the streets and beaches of French colonial Algiers, basking in the swelter of the Mediterranean sun. A gifted boy, Albert was soon singled out by his teachers to continue his studies through to high school level (the first in his family to reach even this level of formal education). At Algiers’ lycée, Camus came under the tutelage of author and philosopher Jean Grenier, who would remain both friend and mentor until Camus’ death. Grenier began lending his young charge copies of the great literature and philosophy of the Western (and Eastern) worlds. In 1930, however, just as Camus was completing his high school studies (and playing goal keeper in the school football team, another formative experience), he was struck by the first of recur ring bouts of tuberculosis, which would trouble him throughout his brief life. Taken to a working-class hospital, which Camus dispassionately describes in one of his earliest essays (‘Hospital in a Poor Quarter’), he was told by his doctor that he might have only days to live. When he was released after a week Camus recalls telling his uncle: ‘I don’t want to die’.

Camus’ first extant writings date from a little after this formative time. Straight away they attest to an extraordinary sensibility, shaped by these singular experiences of sunlight, poverty and an eager, sensual appreciation of the world, coupled with the clear sense of the fragility of human life and the proximity of death. Then there is Camus’ almost mystical or pantheistic sense of the natural, non-human environment, with which he is so fascinated that at one point in 1935 he has to chide himself in his carnets to stop writing about so insistently. Without doubt, the best example of this sensibility, and the young Camus’ extraordinary lyrical abilities, comes in the 1936 essay ‘Nuptials at Tipasa’. This essay, which evokes the pagan mysteries, is the young author’s meditation on a visit, with a lover, to the Roman ruins at Tipasa, where there is now a plaque dedicated to his memory. With the possible exception of the American naturalists at the origins of today’s ecological thought, it is difficult to think of comparable testimony to the beauty of the natural world and the sheer wonder of our immersion in it:

In the spring, Tipasa is inhabited by gods and gods speak through the sun and the scent of the absinthes, the silver armour of the sea, the raw blue of the sky, the flower-covered ruins and the torrents of light that splash down on the heaps of stone. At certain times of the day, the countryside is black with Sun. The eye tries, in vain, to see beyond the drops of light and colour that tremble at the edge of its lashes. The voluminous odour of aromatic plants burns the throat and suffocates us in the enormous heat. In the distance, I can just make out the black mass of Mount Chenoua, rooted in the hills around the village and moving with a steady, ponderous rhythm down to the sea, to crouch in the water … Here, I understand what is meant by ‘glory’: the right to love without limits. There is only one love in the world. To hold a woman’s body is to hold in one’s arms the strange joy that falls from the sky to the sea … In a sense, it is truly my life that I’m playing here, a life that tastes of warm stone, full of the sighs of the sea and the cicadas who are starting to sing now. The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and want to speak of it with liberty: it makes me proud of my human condition. True, others have often told me there is nothing to be proud of. And yet, there is: this Sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, my body tasting of salt and the vast setting where tenderness and glory merge in the yellow and the blue …

Camus would draw upon these formative experiences of natural beauty in every work that followed. In an important 1938 review of Sartre’s Nausea, Camus (then still in Algeria and yet to publish a novel of his own) explained that it was this fundamental sense of our belonging in the natural world that distanced him from the existentialists, among whom he was nevertheless soon to be numbered: ‘it is the failing of a certain literature to believe that life is tragic because it is wretched. [But] life can be magnificent and overwhelming—that is its whole tragedy … it is my concern for beauty, and for liberty, which causes me most anguish’. Nevertheless, after The Stranger appeared in occupied Paris, with its fictional depiction of the anomic Meursault, murderer of an Arab who does not cry at his mother’s funeral, Camus could only repeatedly deny in vain his ‘absurdist’ credentials (‘No, I am not an existentialist …’). A 1950 essay entitled ‘The Enigma’ underscores Camus’ bemusement at this continuing misrepresentation of his thought.

The famous ‘absurd’ itself, which Camus would examine in his 1942 Le Mythe de Sisyphe, is not the bleak recognition of a chaotic, horrifyingly ‘meaningless’ world—the supposedly inevitable terminus of a world abandoned by the Judeo-Christian deity. This concept instead tries to capture the feeling a person can have when she realises (for instance if told at age seventeen that she is likely to die) that the world, including the larger natural world of which we form a passing part, does not always pliantly accommodate itself to our desires for sense and control. There is something ‘inhuman’ even in the experience of beauty, Camus repeats, just as there is something uncannily mechanical about the beating of one’s heart that marks out, with mathematical impersonality, the moments dividing now from our physical perishing. The nature that pours down its blessings in the unyielding clarity of Mediterranean skies, the laughter of young girls amid plumes of sea spray, the revelation of the Tuscan sun at dusk, revealed like the goddess from behind curtains of cloud … the nature Camus adores in these figures is also the nature of deserts, droughts, famines and floods, which from time to time visits plagues and pestilence, tsunamis, earthquakes and all manner of useless suffering upon its unwitting but defiant human progeny. A true and adequate philosophy, for Camus, must not exclude either side.

And then there is war, human evil, and in the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, fascism and Stalinism, concentration camps, crematoria and gulags: ‘a period which, in a space of fifty years, uproots, enslaves, or kills seventy million human beings’. Camus’ Algerian upbringing had placed him at some distance from the growing catastrophe in Europe in the 1930s. It is true that it would only be his firsthand witnessing of Nazi atrocities in occupied France (notably the murder of an independent journalist) that would project him, from 1943, into his next persona as a leading résistant intellectual with the underground newspaper Combat, then as one of Paris’ leading philosophes in the years after the war.

Yet, from the start, Camus’ sense of natural beauty and preoccupation with how to live in the face of mortality was coupled with a fierce concern for social justice, rooted in his own visceral recognition, when he first attended his up-market high school and realised that he and his family were poor, and not everybody had as little as they. Camus briefly joined the French Communist Party in 1935, distributing party leaflets to Algerian Muslims, but had left it by 1937. At that time also he began writing and producing for a working-class theatre group, inaugurating his lifelong passion for the theatre. From 1938 Camus got the first of several jobs as a journalist, writing on literature and social issues for the Alger-Républicain, a progressive newspaper to which, in June 1939, Camus submitted a series of searing articles on French colonial mistreatment of the Indigenous Berber and Arab populations in the Kabdylie.

‘I was born into the leftist family, and I’ll stay there until I die’, Camus once reflected, in an interview President Sarkozy evidently did not read. And even after Sartre, de Beauvoir and others on the Parisian intellectual Left had abandoned him, Camus continued speaking and rallying to trade union causes, denouncing the West’s compliance in French atrocities, America’s active role in preventing socialism in Greece, and appealing to the French colons to treat the populations of Algeria and Tunisia with the dignity promised in the Republic’s founding appeals to liberté, égalité, fraternité.

So what then was the reason for Camus’ break with Sartre and the Parisian Left after 1947, and why was he for so long sidelined from the Left Bank as just not radical enough?

Put simply, Camus refused what he called the ‘casuistry’ or ‘double blackmail’ prominent in those heated post-war years, which sought to sideline, excuse or condone Stalinist political crimes by citing Western misdemeanours—or visa versa: ‘An argument that leads to a choice between cemeteries and concentration camps may be rigorous, but rigour aside, I cannot help but feel that something has been left aside’, he would write to the Catholic apologist François Mauriac in Combat on Christmas day 1948.

The Rebel (or L’Homme Révolté), the book which consecrated Camus’ break with the communist Left in France, is thus a characteristically two-sided defence and critique of the Left’s revolutionary heritage, from Rousseau and the Jacobins through Marx and the Russian nihilists to the Stalinist betrayal of the Russian working classes and decimation of the kulaks. While deeply untimely in 1952, it is this book, with all its limitations, that above all others marks out Camus as a potentially relevant figure today, in the Western Left’s continuing search for a non-communist path in the age of emerging environmental politics and the lurching financialised decrepitude of the global economy.

On one side, Camus is an unqualified supporter of modern rebellion against the thrones and altars of old Europe as much as he is an opponent of the exploitative excesses of capitalism: ‘there is no possible freedom for a man tied to his lathe all day long who, when the evening comes, crowds into a single room with his family … this fact condemns a class, a society and the slavery it assumes …’ Unlike many on the academic Left, Camus is also a defender of modern science and political liberties, and thereby in no way tempted by nostalgic dreams of a return to Christian theology as the cure for the West’s manifold ills. His reasoning is ethical, and reflects the often forgotten protest of many early modern thinkers: if an all-good Creator God has created this world order, which includes plagues and the suffering of innocents, this God must be a tyrant, or a being against whose higher, incomprehensible justice human beings are right to protest.

Indeed—this is the other side—Camus argues that modern revolutionary thought, preeminently in the Marxist tradition, has too often been contaminated by secularised versions of Christian, prophetic and eschatological visions of ‘the end of history’, with a Christlike proletarian positioned as a messianic redeemer of political alienation, paradoxically empowered by their very disempowerment in capitalism. Having denied the Christian God and rightly denounced how bourgeois capitalism commodifies and cheapens the highest values, Leninism and Stalinism in effect deified human History, carrying over the Christian story of the fall, incarnation and then final redemption into a narrative of violent class struggle, terminating in a utopian New Jerusalem: a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ secured by a revolutionary vanguard which is then compelled to enforce its utopian vision using the military, propaganda and secret police on populations needing ‘to be compelled to be free’ (Rousseau).

What a New Left needs, Camus argued already in 1951, is a reanimation of the bottom-up, syndicalist tradition of democratic socialism associated with the militant trade unionism that, not awaiting global revolution, had secured in much of Europe the forty-hour week and the forms of social insurance for workers that\ have been slowly chipped away in places like Australia since the mid-1970s.

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L’Homme Révolté was greeted by Sartre and other leading Left public intellectuals as nothing short of a reactionary betrayal. Camus was a ‘beautiful soul’ in full retreat from the harsh realities of politics. He was, admittedly a wonderful writer (The Rebel is too stylistically beautiful to be politically efficacious …) but he was just too in love with the beaches and sunlight of his youth to face up for long to the smoke and fog of war, and the need to back Stalinism publically, while questioning Stalin’s admittedly regrettable excesses.

Today, with that fog cleared, at least in the global North, and the Berlin Wall fallen in Europe, it is easier for most of us to see that Camus’ was a devastating criticism of Marxism-Leninism. It anticipates by two decades similar ideas that were to become the bread and butter of post-structuralist criticisms, in France and elsewhere, of the communist ‘metanarrative’. Yet unlike post-structuralist work, whose normative bases are often difficult to pin down, Camus’ critique of the Marxist theory of revolution, based in an eschatological account of History, is rooted in a naturalistic ethics looking back to his earliest Mediterranean experiences we met above, and looking decisively forward today to the urgent need to readdress our relations with non-human nature. For Camus, both capitalism and Marxism, with their dreams of unstoppable progress and expansion, inherit the Christian tradition’s devaluation of the natural world, rooted in the idea that, as bearers of immortal souls, we are alien to, or pilgrims within, this natural world, which will be destroyed and renewed when the last trumpet sounds. So, remarkably, at the same time as he was wrestling with the immediate polemical realities of the debates in postwar France, Camus was looking forward to a new Renaissance, rooted in a reappraisal of our relations with nature, and the West’s pagan heritage.

Here, his 1948 essay on the Greeks, ‘Helen’s Exile’, puts it best:

We have exiled beauty; the Greeks took up arms for her … Greek thought always took refuge behind the conception of limits. It never carried anything to extremes, neither the sacred nor reason, because it negated nothing, neither the sacred nor reason. It took everything into consideration, balancing shadow with light. Our Europe, on the other hand, off in the pursuit of totality, is the child of disproportion. She negates beauty, as she negates whatever she does not glorify. And, through all her diverse ways, she glorifies but one thing, which is the future rule of reason. In her madness she extends the eternal limits, and at that very moment dark Furies fall upon her and tear her to pieces. Nemesis, the goddess of measure and not of revenge, keeps watch. All those who overstep the limit are pitilessly punished by her …

If there is to be a ‘second renaissance’ of Western culture, as Camus had begun to argue in the late 1940s, it will turn on what we now call an ecological position: one which finds the bases for a new ethics and politics in the natural limits we face as finite, vulnerable creatures in a natural world, the very beauty of which speaks to its larger independence from human domination:

History explains neither the natural universe that existed before it nor the beauty that exists above it … Nature is still there, however. She contrasts her calm skies and her reasons with the madness of men. Until the atom too catches fire and history ends in the triumph of reason and the agony of the species. But the Greeks never said that the limit could not be overstepped. They said it existed and that whoever dared to exceed it was mercilessly struck down. Nothing in present history can contradict them … We who have cast the universe and spirit out of our sphere laugh at that threat. In a drunken sky we light up the suns we want. But nonetheless the boundaries exist, and we know it.

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There is no question that Camus’ thought, with his life, was sadly incomplete when the car driven by his publisher struck that tree on 4 January 1960, with the manuscript of The First Man and a copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science in the boot. After five difficult years (which still produced The Fall, one of his masterpieces), Camus’ notebooks from 1958 attest to his own renewed sense of literary creativity, the urgent desire to put criticism and polemics behind him, and to begin developing his own affirmative philosophy. But it was not to be, and we can never know what Camus would have undertaken given an unbroken span of years.

For someone who has studied his work closely and, like many people, almost feels Camus, via his notebooks and essays especially, to be an intimate, it is impossible to know how to write an adequate tribute to the man or his work. Camus’ literature and philosophy continues to move people strongly, a fact this author can testify to via the case of one student at a recent community-based course on Camus, whose flagging faith in his chosen profession as a doctor was renewed by reading La Peste in the original French. There is an urgency and humility about his work and his voice, always carefully measured behind the crafted prose, which is as deeply admirable as it can be uncannily disarming.

I suspect the very endeavour to ‘pay Camus tribute’ would meet with his roguish humour and the biting irony that finds such dark expression in La Chute—which is also Camus’ derisive portrait of Sartre and, behind him, the leading fellow-travelling intellectuals of his day. I have tried here, haltingly, to give a sense of ‘what in Camus’ thought might be relevant for us today’. I have nested these thoughts in an account that has tried to highlight Camus’ sensual, experientially based neopaganism in a century of French thought whose leading proponents again and again downplayed our pagan, naturalistic heritage, instead equating political revolution with the kinds of impossible grace and miraculous Events celebrated in Judeo-Christian thought—positions that, among other things, arguably have little to say as we enter a period of environmentally informed progressive politics.

Yet this idea of measuring Camus against our needs is as ultimately unfair to him as it is unavoidable for us. Let me then close by instead putting us in the dock, and asking how we might fare in Camus’ eyes—those of the journalist who left Combat in 1948 already worried that the economics of the newspaper trade was leading to too much concentration (and a gravitation of commercial media to the Right); the résistant who risked his life to publish attacks on the occupation Vichy regime; the philosopher who questioned the West’s long fascination with grand salvific visions; the litterateur whose most famous hero in The Plague is a doctor whose highest merit consists in what Jean Grenier called ‘a kind of stubborn refusal of evil’, without claiming all the answers or ‘the meaning of History’.

What would Camus say today of an Australia whose public sphere has been corroded by thirty years of media concentration and debased by the an increasingly brazen right-wing commentariat who trade on worries ‘decent Australians like us’ have about undesirables like welfare recipients, artists, public servants, greenies, refugees and trade union ‘fat cats’? What would he say, above all, about a country whose leaders rush to assert their Christian credentials yet compete on how tough they can be on border protection, setting up internment camps in Australia’s deserts and off-shore—as far away as possible from where they might trouble our collective bon conscience?

Camus was attacked first by Sartre and Jeanson then by Barthes for the way his great novel The Plague—a clear allegory about the French resistance to Nazism—presents the evil to be fought as part of the natural world: as if political totalitarianism could be compared to a natural epidemic that nearly everyone would agree we should combat. But the novel is more complex than that, and its message a lot less comforting. In The Rebel, Camus had commented that, ‘we all have within ourselves our internment camps, our crimes and our ravages’. And so it is in The Plague that we come to see, as the story unfolds, that it is the very measures undertaken by Oran’s governors ostensibly to protect its population from disease that become the more real source of oppression. Like our liberal governors who rushed to suspend civil liberties in response to overseas terrorism, the good magistrates of Oran cite public safety as the reason to quarantine the town, declare martial law, prevent public gatherings, get the military involved in policing the borders and build isolation camps where all suspected of having the disease are duly sent, cut off from their friends, family, relatives and children.

The message of The Plague, foregrounded by its opening emphasis on the spectacular bourgeois normality of Oran, is that the causes and reasons (usually, some claim to ‘national security’ or ‘public safety’) that regimes adduce to close down political liberties are always with us, ready to be drawn upon by rulers short-sighted or craven enough to push those buttons:

the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good … it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests … it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and … perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

To the extent that a city or a country gives in to fear, as Camus here and elsewhere anticipates the Italian thinker Giorgio Agamben, it will then not only be those refugees from outside we need to worry about. Without civil rights, protection of law or a public culture that allows us to question government edicts, we will find ourselves at last able to empathise with those ‘others’ our political parties are presently competing over to depersonalise and expel. But it will be because we too have lost the dignities and privileges that previous generations had struggled to gain:

For the first time Rieux found that he could give a name to the family likeness that for several months he had detected in the faces in the streets. He had only to look around him now. At the end of the plague, with its misery and privations, these men and women had come to wear the aspect of the part they had been playing for so long, the part of refugees whose faces first, and now their clothes, told of long banishment from a distant homeland …

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