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Camus and his critics
A review of Camus by Patrick McCarthy.
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Are we in for a Camus revival? The indications are that we may be. Only three years after the appearance of Herbert R. Lott-man’s massive Albert Camus: A Biography, we find ourselves presented with yet another biography, this one entitled simply Camus, by a British specialist in French literature named Patrick McCarthy who now teaches in the United States. Conor Cruise O’Brien, the influence of whose own critical monograph on Camus (published in 1970) is evident everywhere in McCarthy’s book, has repaid the compliment by praising it as “the best comprehensive study of Camus in English.” Yet while claiming to deal with “Camus’s life, work, and times,” McCarthy is so stingy with biographical detail and so niggardly in his account of the historical and cultural context in which Camus’s life and work took shape that no one depending on him alone would be able to make much sense of the story. For that Lottman is a far better source. Like many biographers nowadays, he tells us more than we perhaps need or want to know, but this is on the whole preferable to not being told enough. On the other hand, Lottman neither is nor pretends to be a literary critic, whereas McCarthy is nothing if not critical. His real purpose, in fact, is to determine “what remains of Camus” as a writer. Here then is his judgment:
Although he wrote a great deal, only a small part of his work remains alive. He was a bad philosopher and he has little to tell us about politics. His plays are wooden even if his novels are superb.
Quite apart from the question of whether this admirably blunt statement is true, it represents an interesting turn in Camus’s reputation. When he was killed in an automobile accident in 1960 at the age of forty-seven, Camus was still widely regarded less as a great novelist than as a kind of secular saint, the moral conscience of his generation. This is not to say that his novels lacked for admiration and acclaim. His first, The Stranger, published in 1942 when he was in his late twenties, had been a great critical success (earning the admiration of, among many others, Jean-Paul Sartre, who would famously become first his close friend and then his great antagonist). Five years later Camus’s second novel, The Plague, achieved not only critical acclaim but an enormous commercial success ail over the world; and so too did his third, and last, novel, The Fall (1956).
Yet when, a year after The Fall came out, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature, it was not taken either by him or by anyone else as a tribute to his greatness as a novelist. Nor would it have occurred either to him or to most of his admirers that his stature rested entirely or even largely on what was after all still a relatively slight body of fiction (to be supplemented later only by a collection of stories entitled Exile and the Kingdom). However highly those three novels might have been esteemed, it was not in the least self-evident that they could by themselves bear the weight of the tribute paid to Camus in the Nobel citation—that he “illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our time.” As though implicitly acknowledging this, Camus in his acceptance speech talked much more about the political duty of the writer—“to fight for freedom and to resist oppression”—than about cultural or aesthetic issues. “I cannot,” he said, “live as a person without my art. And yet I have never set that art above everything else.”
Neither did Camus’s admirers. For them he was, to begin with, a great hero of the Resistance: the man who had edited the legendary underground newspaper Combat during the Nazi occupation of France. Indeed, The Plague, published in 1947, owed at least some of its great popularity to the fact that it was intended, and understood, as an allegory of the Resistance.
In addition to being a celebrated wartime hero, Camus was one of the most influential voices in the intellectual life of the postwar years. In what O’Brien calls “the loose literary and journalistic terminology of the period ... in which existentialism meant finding life meaningless but finding reasons for carrying on all the same,” Camus was bracketed with Sartre as an existentialist. Though he objected to this description of his philosophy, and though he may have been right on technical grounds to distinguish between Sartre’s existentialism and his own “absurdist” perspective as developed in his long essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), the difference between the two was not easily apparent to the naked eye.
In any case, Camus the philosopher (or perhaps intellectual would be the better term) was valued by his contemporaries for the struggle he conducted against the nihilism of modern thought. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide": so runs the very first sentence of The Myth of Sisyphus. For if God is dead, as Nietzsche had proclaimed, and the universe has no meaning, why go on living? The “solution” to this problem, Camus says, is a “metaphysical revolt” against the religious illusions of divine purpose on the one side and despair at the absurd truth on the other. What is left after the death of God “is a destiny of which only the end is predetermined. Apart from this single predetermined fact of death, all, joy or happiness, is freedom. A world remains of which man is the sole master.”
The effect this affirmation (which was echoed in novelistic terms in The Stranger) had on Camus’s own contemporaries is summed up nicely by O’Brien:
To a generation which saw no reason for hope it offered hope without reason. It offered a category—the absurd—in which logical, psychological, philosophical and even social and political difficulties could be encapsulated and it allowed the joy of being alive, in the presence of death, to emerge.
Finally, there was Camus the political thinker. Unlike his other roles as Resistance hero and as philosopher, his participation in the political debates of the postwar period brought Camus a great deal of animosity. On the two major issues that most concerned him—Algeria (where he was born into a working-class French family) and Communism (he had been a member of the Communist party for a few years in the Thirties)—he took positions that were extremely unpopular in his own intellectual circle. On Algeria he was a reformist rather than a radical, specifically refusing to side with the terrorists of the FLN who were fighting for independence from France. “I have always denounced terrorism,” he once said. “I must also denounce a terrorism which is exercised blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and which some day could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice.”
This attitude certainly won Camus no friends in the cafés of St. Germain des Pres and other gathering places of the Parisian intelligentsia. But possibly because he had so clear a personal stake in the matter, his apostasy from the regnant orthodoxy on Algeria, if not exactly overlooked, did not lead to his excommunication from Parisian literary society.
His anti-Communism, by contrast, was unforgivable, as he discovered when The Rebel was published in 1951. In that book Camus developed a densely reasoned and historically grounded case against the actual political manifestations of the metaphysical nihilism he had dealt with in The Myth of Sisyphus. In arguing that the quest for a political solution to the absurdity or meaninglessness of the human condition invariably led to slavery and mass murder, Camus in The Rebel was of course attacking Communism as an ideology and its bloody practical consequences in the Soviet Union. For doing that, neither his previously unimpeachable credentials as a man of the Left nor his close personal friendship with Sartre could save him from assault in the pages of Sartre’s own magazine, Les Temps modernes, first by a young critic named Francis Jeanson and then, in answer to a protesting letter from Camus, by Sartre himself. The controversy became world famous, and though most of Paris sided with Sartre, Camus had his supporters in other countries, especially the United States. Both Partisan Review and Commentary, for example, published accounts of the controversy which were sympathetic to Camus and harshly critical of Sartre’s avowedly pro-Soviet position. Thus, while Camus’s political stance severely damaged his reputation at home, it undoubtedly added to his already growing stature in other countries as a man of conscience and a moral hero.
Like O’Brien before him, McCarthy is hostile to Camus’s political writings and especially The Rebel. Its form, he says, is weak, it “distorts or neglects the thinkers [it] discusses,” its language is “monotonously high-flown,” and even its one merit (“a long rhetorical lament on the religious conception of politics which flourished from the 30’s to the 50’s”) amounts to nothing more than “an important banality.” Clearly, however, it is the anti-Communism of The Rebel rather than its intellectual or literary failings that lies behind McCarthy’s harsh critical judgment. Without entirely siding with Sartre (as O’Brien wholeheartedly does), he views Camus from the perspective for which, alas, no more graceful term than anti-anti-Com-munism has ever been found. From that perspective, he easily dismisses The Rebel as “yet another chapter in the ‘God-that-failed’ saga.”
Given this bias against anti-Communism, McCarthy obviously cannot accept Camus as the “conscience” of his time. And indeed, he challenges the whole idea of Camus as a secular saint. “Retrospectively the tributes paid to him seem ridiculous.... He was not, for example, the Resistance warrior his admirers thought him,” and he did not take the morally correct position on the Algerian war. The case for a revival of interest in Camus therefore comes back for McCarthy and those who share his perspective (O’Brien among them) to Camus the novelist.
The problem is that such a case is hard to make in strictly aesthetic or formalistic terms. In fact, it is virtually impossible even to talk about Camus’s novels without reference to the philosophical and political issues with which he was above all else concerned. In saying this, I can point for confirmation to Camus’s journals, where he explicitly spoke of each of his novels as one panel in a series of triptychs, with a play and a philosophical work comprising the other two. Thus The Stranger he coupled with Caligula and The Myth of Sisyphus under the rubric “Absurd”; the “Revolt” trilogy was made up of The Plague, The Rebel, and The Just Assassins; and The Fall was evidently to form part of yet another series on the theme of “Judgment.”
In other words, Camus conceived of his imaginative works as dramatizations of the same ideas he was grappling with in his discursive writings. So much is this true of his plays that it robs them of any life of their own; and, in any event, despite his lifelong obsession with the theater, Camus simply had no gift for it.
He did, however, have a considerable gift for fiction. In contrast to his plays, which are merely schematic illustrations of abstract ideas, his novels do take on a certain life of their own. They are lyrically evocative, they have enough narrative drive to carry the reader along, and they set off intriguing vibrations and resonances in the mind. Nevertheless, they are the novels of an intellectual, not the novels of a novelist, which is to say that they remain umbilically tied to the ideas whose creatures they so clearly are, never breaking free to establish themselves as autonomous works of art. Under the stringent control of an imperious intellect, these are tight little works, clenched and ungiving: even the longest and most leisurely of them, The Plague, yields no great abundance of character or incident or social detail. There are a few colorful portraits in The Plague and there are several dutiful sketches of the social milieu, but nothing approaching the anatomy of a city struck by a sudden calamity that Camus evidently intends to produce and that his material itself requires.
The Stranger and The Fall also offer highly colored characters who are nevertheless unrealized and unconvincing. Meursault, the hero (or anti-hero) of The Stranger, is endowed with vivid external attributes, but is it really possible to believe in, let alone be engaged by, a character so affectless that he decides to marry a woman he scarcely knows or cares about because “it had no importance really,” and who then shoots and kills a man because “one might fire, or not fire— and it would come to absolutely the same thing”?
Admittedly, a great many readers have been engaged and even fascinated by Meursault. But this is not, I would suggest, because he becomes real to them as (to take two very different murderers in fiction) Raskolnikov becomes real in Crime and Punishment or Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy. Raskolnikov is a Russian of a particular time and place whose ideas are a crucial element in his behavior; Meursault is a fictional contrivance whose behavior is a function of ideas in the mind of Camus. Clyde Griffiths is an American whose passions are so recognizable and so convincingly associated with the world in which he lives that the murder he eventually commits is believable both psychologically and sociologically: we accept it not only as a tragedy but as an American tragedy. If Meursault is believable at all, it is as a clinical psychopath, and if he carries any wider significance, it arises not from within the novel but almost entirely from the outside—in the idea that the psychopath is the representative modern man (a notion later espoused enthusiastically by Norman Mailer).
If the murder Meursault commits can only be understood with the help of ideas outside the novel itself, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator-hero of The Fall, is full of explanations of his own history. Yet if anything these explanations only serve to make that history less plausible. Why has Clamence thrown away a successful legal practice as a defender of widows and orphans, and a life full of comforts and prestige, to become a semi-criminal hanging around a dockside bar in Amsterdam? Mainly, it seems, because in failing to try to rescue a woman who had jumped off a bridge in Paris one night, he had come face to face with his own hypocrisy as a great lover of justice. Now, even apart from the fact that this incident has nothing to do with justice (it is actually about courage), Clamence’s response to it would still remain a piece of hollow self-dramatization. Yet Camus takes it seriously and clearly expects us to take it seriously.
If there is a critical case for these novels, then, it has to rest on their standing as fables or allegories. Yet even as such, they are less than fully satisfying. If we take The Stranger at Camus’s word as a fable of metaphysical rebellion against the absurd, we immediately run into a host of problems. To begin with, it is hard to see in Meursault an adequate expression of the defiant attitude he is presumably supposed to represent. He is, of course, defiant in relation to the consolations of religion, which he adamantly refuses, but far from achieving freedom and mastery of the world, he becomes a kind of automaton; far from finding happiness in the simple pleasures of life, he enjoys nothing except swimming; and far from resisting suicide, he in effect commits it indirectly in the way he goes to his death.
The best that can be said for Meursault is that he exemplifies not a rebellion against nihilism but the condition itself. Moreover, despite Camus’s evident intention, he represents not the moral consequences of nihilism that Dostoyevsky feared most of all (“If God is dead, everything is permitted”) but rather the spiritual effects stressed by Nietzsche when he said that with the death of God everything has become weightless. Meursault kills not because the prohibition against murder has in effect been lifted; he kills because murder, like everything else in life, has become inconsequential to him. He is as indifferent to the shedding of blood as he is to the death of his mother or to the woman he agrees to marry or finally to his own death. Such power as The Stranger possesses derives from the horror of this image of a life totally without meaning or affect. But Camus had other ideas and they were given their head to the detriment of what was most promising in his own material.
The Plague presents an even more interesting problem. O’Brien calls it “a great allegorical sermon” about the occupation of France and the Resistance, and McCarthy confirms that this is both what Camus intended and how the book was read when it first came out. But if we stop to ask what a city in the grip of plague has in common with a country occupied by an invading army, the answer would seem to be very little. The one is a natural calamity and as such morally and politically neutral; the other is a human phenomenon and is entirely moral and political in character. The significance of this point becomes immediately clear when we recall that whereas no one could possibly welcome or live happily with an outbreak of plague, a certain number of Frenchmen did welcome the Nazis and a much larger number were quite content with the occupation. To put the point bluntly, while there can be no collaborators in a plague, there were plenty of collaborators with the Nazis.
This is also why it is conversely hard to accept Dr. Rieux and his band “as a group of resistants who are fighting against the overwhelming power of the Nazis” (McCarthy). To fight the Nazis took courage and even heroism, but since on the evidence of the novel itself “fighting” the plague evidently involved no greater danger of infection than remaining passive, Camus’s attribution of courage to the doctor and his helpers seems puzzling.
But no more and no less puzzling, one might say, than the entire myth of the Resistance in general and of Camus’s own role in particular, to which The Plague made so notable a contribution. For as a number of recent books have been demonstrating to anyone still under the spell of this myth, the Resistance in France amounted to very little until a short time before the end of the war. Camus himself joined Combat only eight months before the liberation of Paris. Previously he had agreed to the elimination of a chapter on Kafka from The Myth of Sisyphus because a book celebrating a Jewish writer would not get by the German censors. But in doing this Camus did no more than most of the other intellectuals who were celebrated and celebrated themselves as heroes of the Resistance. Being anti-Nazi did not prevent Sartre, for example, from publishing books and putting on plays under the occupation—works which were not only passed by the Nazi censor but enthusiastically received by him. This did not make Sartre a collaborator, but it did not exactly make him a Resistance hero, either.
To be sure, Sartre was associated with the clandestine National Committee of Writers, but the only action of this committee mentioned by either McCarthy or Lottman (both of whom agree, incidentally, that it was dominated by the Communists) was the permission it gave Simone de Beauvoir to “accept the Goncourt Academy’s prize if it were voted to her for her first novel. . . .” No doubt the committee did other things as well. Yet it is not easy to escape the impression that no great danger or heroism was involved in joining it.
As for Camus’s clandestine activities in Combat, we get a good idea of what they entailed in the way of risk when Lottman follows an uncritically admiring account of them with the remark: “After the foregoing, it will be more difficult than ever to persuade the reader that during the same period in which Camus was helping to publish the underground edition of Combat… he was also making his debut as a playwright in the Paris theater.”
With this background in mind, it becomes easier to understand why Camus could only write about the Nazi occupation and the Resistance in allegorical terms. Confronting it directly in a realistic mode would have required facing up to the element of (shall we say?) the absurd—the word applies here with cruel accuracy—in the idea that the French, and especially the French intellectuals, acted nobly and bravely during the occupation. A few of course did; a few writers even refused to publish under the German occupation, regarding it as a form of collaboration to submit to Nazi censorship. But only a relative handful of Frenchmen joined the Resistance until the point when an Allied victory seemed assured, and most anti-Nazi writers persuaded themselves that publishing under the occupation was a form of resistance rather than of collaboration. They may well have been right. But heroic they most certainly were not.
In treating the entire episode allegorically, Camus was able to take refuge from such issues in the posturing rhetoric that is for many of us the least attractive feature of the French intellectual style. But in translating the occupation into an outbreak of plague, and thereby inevitably making nonsense of the idea of heroic resistance, was Camus half-consciously struggling to tell himself, and the world, the truth?
I think he was, and I also suspect that The Fall should be read as part of the same struggle to achieve honesty (which is, after all, the only true heroism of a writer as a writer). Clamence has been interpreted by some critics as a satirical portrait of “Sartre and other progressive intellectuals,” which would make The Fall an attack on the hypocrisy of their professed concern for the poor and the oppressed. I agree with O’Brien and McCarthy in rejecting this view, but I do not agree with them in seeing The Fall as a reflection of Camus’s feelings about Algeria. Since The Fall is the only one of Camus’s novels not set in Algeria, this interpretation forces O’Brien into the tortured argument that the very absence of Algeria from the book makes it “painfully present.” Yet Clamence lives in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam, which he himself calls “the site of one of the greatest crimes in history.” Consequently, it seems more plausible to associate The Fall not, as O’Brien in his obsession with the problem of colonialism would wish, with Algeria, but with the issues raised by The Plague. Clamence’s confessions of cowardice and hypocrisy, that is, may perhaps be taken as the expression of a higher stage in his creator’s progress toward a more truthful account of the behavior of French intellectuals under the Nazis than as a reflection of Camus’s supposedly troubled conscience over Algeria.
I say supposedly because of all the issues that engaged Camus, the one on which he had least reason to accuse himself of cowardice and hypocrisy was Algeria. For he was morally courageous in holding out against the enormous pressures on him to support the FLN, and he was intellectually courageous in telling the truth about his reasons. When he declared that he chose his mother above justice, he was, as O’Brien puts it, choosing “his own tribe” against an abstract ideal of universal justice. A greater heresy against the dogmas of the Left is hard to imagine, and in committing it he may have earned the reproaches of his literary friends, but he did nothing to earn his own.
In denying that The Fall is about Algeria, I do not mean to argue that it is mainly about the myth of the Resistance. What is it about then? The title, the name of the hero, and many details scattered throughout suggest that Camus is talking here about religion rather than politics. O’Brien says The Fall is “profoundly Christian ... above all in its pervasive message that it is only through the full recognition of our sinful nature that we can hope for grace.” Camus himself endorsed this interpretation when O’Brien offered it in a review of the novel at the time of its publication. But one can only say that if this was Camus’s intention, the novel he actually wrote failed to realize it. For it is impossible to make coherent sense of The Fall as a Christian allegory. Clamence has nothing in common with John the Baptist except his name and his fall has nothing in common with the biblical fall. Unintegrated into the narrative, the Christian imagery becomes merely arbitrary; it is a means of pretending to a level of significance and profundity that the novel itself as a novel—or even as a fable—does nothing to earn.
My own view is that The Fall does indeed reflect Camus’s great debate with Sartre, but that in the figure of Clamence, Camus is primarily attacking himself rather than Sartre “and other progressive intellectuals.” Certainly there are many similarities between Clamence and his creator. As the herald of the great new age of freedom and justice he had envisaged in his Combat editorials, Camus could easily be seen as a kind of John the Baptist, and like Clamence he had prospered mightily (in reputation and with women) in this role. But like Clamence too he eventually discovered that he lacked the courage to risk everything in the fight for freedom and against the forces of slavery, and as a punishment for remaining “neutral in the quarrel between God and Satan” he was now condemning himself to a life in limbo as a “judge-penitent.”
But is it true that Camus saw the struggle between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union as equivalent to “the quarrel between God and Satan”? And did he really see himself as neutral? That he regarded Communism as satanic is clear from The Rebel, but it is equally clear that he did not regard the bourgeois democracies as godlike. Like so many intellectuals then, and now, he could give wholehearted support only to some alternative possibility which did not yet exist. He was, that is, a Utopian. Yet, unlike many intellectuals then, and now, Camus also understood that utopian-ism was the main spiritual source of the murderous totalitarianism embodied in the Soviet Union and therefore the modern secular equivalent of satanism. As Sartre and Jeanson rightly charged, the logic of this analysis led directly to a pro-American position, and in trying to escape that logic Camus was presuming to speak as (in Jeanson’s words) “the High Priest of Absolute Morality.” A choice had to be made within the historical realm: Sartre for his part, and despite regrets and misgivings, chose the Soviet Union and was not afraid to say so; Camus in effect chose the United States and was afraid to say so.
What I am suggesting is that Camus believed in his heart that this attack on him was valid, and that the cowardice and hypocrisy of which he accuses himself in The Fall are the cowardice and hypocrisy involved in his failure to side as clearly with the democracies as Sartre was siding with the Communists—and all for fear of being dismissed as a man of the “Right” and thereby losing his standing as a secular saint. “If, finally, truth seemed to me on the Right,” Camus defiantly declared, “I would be there.” Yet the truths of The Rebel were on the whole the truths of the “Right,” as that term was understood by all concerned in this debate, and Camus was not there. Indeed, when Jeanson taunted him with the fact that “right-wing” reviewers had praised The Rebel, Camus, instead of asserting that in this case that was where truth was, justified himself by pointing to the criticisms made of him by the Right, and he counterattacked by hurling the dread epithet “bourgeois” at Jeanson (an accusation Sartre promptly hurled back at him).
It was, I would guess, because of all this shying away from commitment that Camus castigated himself as neutral; and this it was too that made him a “penitent.” But he also remained a “judge,” and while castigating himself he continued to condemn Sartre (of whom he was surely thinking when he wrote the passage in which Clamence ridicules the “atheistic novelist” whose “satanism is virtuous”).
Although this interpretation makes, I believe, more sense than any other, no more than any other does it establish The Fall as a work of art autonomously dramatizing and enacting its own meanings. As the allegorical detail in The Plague serves to obscure the truth about the occupation, so the Christian symbolism here both obfuscates Clamence’s confession and provides Camus with a pretentious way to avoid the full and rigorous accounting with himself he so desperately needed and wanted to undertake.
Writing at the height of the radical fevers of the late Sixties, and in “horror at the sight of the moral capital of La Peste [The Plague] being drawn on in support of the values of the Cold War,” O’Brien nevertheless praised Camus the artist who, he claimed, “both flinched from the realities of his position . . . and also explored with increasing subtlety and honesty the nature and consequences of his flinching.” In other words, Camus’s novels indicate that if he had lived he would have given up on anti-Communism and moved to the Left. (In this same period, Mary McCarthy tried to discredit another great hero of anti-Communism, George Orwell, by claiming that if he had lived he would have moved to the Right.)
Today, as Patrick McCarthy tells us disapprovingly, Camus is being extolled in France by a new generation “as the man who resisted Communist pressure during the Cold War and who attacked the Russian concentration camps in language that Solzhenitsyn would repeat,” while Sartre is denounced “as too Marxist, too pro-Communist and too dogmatic.” Once again, then, it has become necessary to deprive the anti-Communist cause of Camus, and once again his novels—puffed up and misread—are brought in to do the job. But whereas in 1970 O’Brien interpreted the novels as the record of Camus’s growing disillusion with the political values of The Rebel, McCarthy (who also dismisses The Rebel as Camus’s “worst book”) reads the novels as an escape into the loftier realms of art from those “dreary, angry controversies” with Sartre and others that poor Camus had to “put up with.”
The truth is almost exactly the opposite of this. With all his faults, and with all its faults, the best of Camus is in The Rebel. His novels, moreover, are the record not of a growing disillusion with, or transcendence of, the convictions expressed in that book, or in the controversy with Sartre, but of an unsuccessful struggle to summon up the full courage of those convictions. If, then, there is to be a Camus revival in this country, the Camus who should be revived is the one to whom justice is finally being done in France: the Camus of The Rebel, not the travesty urged upon us first by O’Brien and now by McCarthy in the name of art but in the actual service of their anti-anti-Communist political passions.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 November 1982, on page 74
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