Albert Camus: A Centenary Commemoration

Albert Camus believed that a true writer is at the service of those who suffer history.

“Sooner or later one must get old, agree to be judged, or sentenced … the uninterrupted seeking of truth, the decision to tell it when one sees it, on every level, and to live it, gives a meaning, a direction to one’s march.” Life a trial, acquittal reserved for saints; and all that could be realistically hoped in a world Betwixt and Between, a hung jury.

As Albert Camus wrote in the 1958 preface to that reprinted collection of essays (L'envers et l'endroit, sometimes translated as The Wrong Side and the Right Side) that he called a personal “testimony”: “I have doubtless never said that I was a just man. I have merely happened to say that we should try to be just, and also that such an ambition involved great toil and misery.” Invincibly honest, it is as if Camus lived his entire life under oath.

An Invincible Summer

This holiest of non-believers would have been 100 on November 7, 2013. He never reached half of that age, having died young, somehow fittingly, in a car crash that killed him near-instantaneously. As he sometimes noted, his tubercular lungs should have buried him long before 4 January, 1960.

Then again, his courageous activities for the French resistance a generation earlier surely merited a death sentence by the Nazi occupiers. A decade or so later, while speaking on behalf of innocent civilians in war-torn Algeria, saw both sides wishing him dead. Throughout, his self-assigned task was to serve (admittedly changing notions of) justice. To believe, even in the wintry depths of the Second World War, that “there are in men more things to admire than to despise.”

We are fortunate that his uncompromising life went on to 46, surrounded by death and deprivation though it often was, allowing him to publish his post-war accolades to the human spirit: The Plague (La Peste, 1947), The Rebel (L'homme révolté, 1951) and The Fall (La Chute, 1956). His lapidary prose, alive and kicking even in translation, has become a kind of Internet meme for good faith, for modest bravery: “Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever the difficulties the enterprise may present, I would like never to be unfaithful either to one or the other …. In the middle of winter, I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

Although often bowdlerized and invariably stripped of context online, his phrasemaking points up an unassailable feature of Camus’s writing: cutting to the quick of the roiling passion that is humanity.

The First Man

Born into an impoverished family of pieds-noir settlers on the southern shores of his lifelong love, the Mediterranean, his father was killed in the Great War while Camus was in infancy. Both experiences, the colonial and the plague of war, were inscribed into nearly all of his works: literary, dramatic, philosophical and journalistic alike. His most autobiographical, The First Man (Le Premier Homme), was found in the boot of the crumpled car that ejected him like a womb.

Camus’s death was a near-allegory of his life, like that novel itself: unbowed in spite of all, incomplete – yet still better than most and, crucially, unwilling to compromise with the certainties and platitudes of compromised men and their crazily platitudinous times. Amongst a thicket of detractors, his work towers above those of lesser, and less humane, thinkers, too little remembered for its courage in the face of violence and ideological extremism. Camus demands a much wider readership for his perspicuity, his sensitivity to suffering, and his implacable striving for justice.

For Camus was a sane man living in crazy times. His inspiring body of work beautifully speaks to the latter still, especially his journalism and short prose. Nor were his political writings bereft of influence at the time – if too little so. Beyond the US, for example, the Western world has come to accept his trenchant critique of the death penalty in the unrivalled “Reflections on the Guillotine.” In ethically vexing times, few were as incisive or nuanced on the Sisyphean issues of the day – war and peace, communism and liberalism, poverty and greed – than he looks to be from the view of posterity. Still, he is not heard enough.

Between Hell and Reason

Long before news of a near catastrophic, four megaton accident over North Carolina in 1961, or more recent news of 1983 nuclear war game gone almost genodically awry, Camus was amongst the first to announce, in his 8 August, 1945 editorial, “On the Bombing of Hiroshima,” that “our technical civilization has just reached its greatest level of savagery … humanity is being offered its last chance.” That chance, “to choose definitively between hell and reason.”

If our suicidal species is to commemorate his bicentenary we would do well to heed his warning. For death can always be justified: from warfare in the name of peace to environmental degradation in the name of progress. Despite it all, and despite so much evidence to the contrary, Camus remained optimistic: “Men of good will refuse to despair and instead wish to maintain those values which will prevent our collective suicide.”

Consistent with his post-1945 stance, Camus he spoke on behalf of “men who refuse both to engage in terror and to endure it.” Denouncing a “fratricidal struggle” that erupted in Algeria in 1954 between 1.2 million long-settled colonizers and shamefully impoverished, second-class indigenes, Camus’s 1956 “Call for a Civilian Truce in Algeria” characteristically requested of both sides what was by then his life’s theme: “a simple appeal to your humanity … to accept a truce that would apply exclusively to innocent civilians.”

The failure of his crie de coeur, only a year before his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature, reduced him to a silence that has too often been mistaken for naivety or disengagement. It was neither, as Camus’s Algerian Chronicles and other recent works make plain. “Algeria is where I hurt at this moment, wrote this tubercular man in a letter at the time, “as others feel pain in their lungs.”

Rightly, this Algerian aspect of Camus’s life has received the lion’s share of attention this year. How he came to this position also merits retelling – not just for its worthy didacticism, but for the way in which it shaped his later life like the mark of Cain. “In every guilty man, there is an innocent part,” he wrote to his mentor, Jean Grenier, after this change: “This is what makes any absolute condemnation revolting.”

For the preceding thirty months had shifted, and indeed strengthened, his commitment to human justice, giving it an implacable and absolute character. Yet this defining turn remains too often downplayed in biographies. It was a moment when Camus admitted he was wrong, and later said as much publicly. It earned him opprobrium at the time, showing an intellectual bravery that is all but lacking in today’s ribald intellectual climate.

Best recounted in Alexandre de Gramont’s indispensible “Between Hell and Reason”: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper Combat, 1944-1947, this watershed concerns the genesis of Camus’s well-known dictum that “words are stronger than bullets.” This position was definitively staked out in his 30 November, 1946 Combat editorial: “I will never again be among those who, for whatever reasons, accommodate themselves to murder.”

The Purge Has Gone Awry

Strange as it may seem, it was not always thus for him. Following the liberation of Paris in August 1944, thousands of collaborators – from government officials to journalists to shaven-headed women alleged to have cavorted with German occupiers – had been treated to summary justice in courts, on French streets, sometimes by little better than lynch mobs. Under Camus’s yearlong directorship, Combat, then at the height of its resistance prestige, had advocated just such a purge.

Two months later he entered into a heated debate with the Catholic intellectual François Mauriac, who had appealed to Christian virtues of compassion and mercy. Piqued, Camus responded that the promise of a just post-war France “forces us to destroy a living part of this country in order that we may save its very soul.” In practice, this meant death sentences and executions by firing squads; in a word, legitimate murder.

Three days later, Camus noted that first official death sentence was handed down in Paris (against the collaborationist journalist Georges Suarez, who was executed on 9 November). Against Mauriac’s continued protestations, Camus doubled down; that Wednesday, 25 October 1944, he accused Mauriac of penning “unjust” accusations, for “not to destroy certain men would be to betray the good of the country.” He added: “These four years have forced us to harden something inside ourselves. Perhaps this is regrettable.”

Camus’s regrets multiplied with the bodies. By early 1945 he wrote an editorial titled “The purge has gone awry,” asserting “that now it is probably too late for justice to be done.” The just reckoning he had endorsed to a readership at the time in the hundreds of thousands had transformed, before his downcast eyes, into vengeance of the mob.

The purge had lasted too long, resulting in excess punishment for some, and undue clemency for others. “We see now that M. Muariac was right,” Camus concluded, “we are going to need charity.” This prompted a satirical riposte from Mauriac, “In Contempt of Charity” which, for the first time, Camus answered in his own name in Combat’s pages: “We refuse both the cries of hate that come at us from one side and the pleas of mercy that come at us from the other.”

Throughout his adult life, Camus could never accept Mauriac’s Christian beliefs, but he soon came to advocate, even spearhead, pleas of mercy. As from a cocoon, his view of justice was starting to transform.

Shattered With a Single Blow and Forever

Yet the decisive change in Camus happened, it seems, literally overnight. The high-profile trial of the writer and arch-collaborationist, Robert Brasillach, had commenced a week earlier, on 19 January, 1945. Another writer (and one-time collaborator), Marcel Aymé, sent Camus a petition for clemency on behalf of Brasillach. Did Camus hate such befouled men more than he hated the death penalty? The question kept him awake, apparently pacing through the night of 26-27 January. He signed the petition.

This decision, he wrote to Aymé the next day – in a personal capacity, rather than as Combat’s editor-in-chief – had nothing to do with Brasillach. His was a protest on behalf of humanity, metaphysically condemned to death. A notebook entry toward the still-unfinished La Peste from precisely these weeks is often quoted, if again usually decontextualized: “We should serve justice because our condition is unjust, increase happiness and joy because this world is unhappy. Similarly, we should sentence no one to death, since we have been sentenced to death ourselves.”

Later in that year, in an unsigned Combat editorial on 30 August, 1945, Camus asserted: “The purge in France is not only a failure but also a disgrace.” 

Over the course of a single, morally trying year, Camus had “flip-flopped.” But how many in the public sphere could admit, then or now, as he did to a convent of Dominican monks in a 1948 lecture entitled “The Unbeliever and Christians,” that “I have come to admit to myself and to admit publicly here that on the central issue of our argument, M. Mauriac was right and I was wrong”?

Nor did Camus simply move on. Henceforth, rejection of the death penalty would be unconditional and impassioned. It subsequently motivated a number of behind-the-scenes appeals, first in France, and then in his native Algeria. Equally, his moral volte-face underwrote a key change in his art. Whereas his earlier work had been concerned with suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942) and a kind of existential disengagement (The Stranger, L'Étranger, also translated as The Outsider, 1942), from 1945 his essays and fiction were taken with murder, with the individual’s place in society, and with speaking for the oppressed. Human life was always more important than justifiable murder. From then on, only the means of a venture could justify any ends worthy of the name, let alone command his fealty.

Although several of his friends had died, bloodily, under the plague of Nazi occupation, it took the execution of the traitor Robert Brasillach to make Camus become the profound enemy of death for which he is most remembered. It earned him few friends, and many enemies, at the time – especially amongst French communists whose “logic of history” accepted Stalinist purges and gulags in these years.

Implicitly taking aim at them when accepting his Nobel Prize, Camus argued that the writer’s true audience is not those “who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.” It is this secular saintliness that makes him, for me at least, The First Man, as inscribed in that unfinished masterpiece’s last sentence:

He [Jacques Cormery, Camus’s fictional alter-ego], like a solitary and ever-shining blade of a sword, was destined to be shattered with a single blow and forever, an unalloyed passion for life confronting utter death; today he felt life, youth, people slipping away from him, without being able to hold on to any of them, left with the blind hope that this obscure force that for so many years had raised him above the daily routine, nourished him unstintingly, and been equal to the most difficult circumstances…

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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