The coronavirus lockdown sent Nigel Jarrett in search of Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague) for a timely re-reading. What better moment, he asked, to reflect also on the writer himself?
Albert Camus is not much read these days by a general public grown indifferent to politics and suspicious of any writer who does not engage with the subject’s prevailing superficiality. The loss is a reflection of insularity in matters of governance – change and unrest in former colonies and ferment in the Arab world, for examples – that makes the particular concerns of Camus in relation to France and Algeria the subject of renewed interest. Some regions have entered the second phase of post-colonial turmoil, which may or may not have a bearing on the things commentators such as Camus had to say about what set the fiery ball rolling in the first place. It is from North Africa, of course, among other places, that the deprived and fearful have been embarking to seek sanctuary in an existentially-challenged Europe, exposing themselves to the additional obstacle of coronavirus.
Camus, himself an Algerian and later active in the French Resistance, held views on colonialism and its evolution that were out of kilter with ones expounded by those who felt paralysed by non-violent protest. Camus did not believe that terrorism (i.e., violent revolt) was a solution to the Algerian crisis any more than it was to any other political impasse. It was a cul-de-sac, he thought. (Not the least interesting aspect of Camus and the seductive style in which he expresses his views is the doubt irresistibly raised as we succumb to its hypnotic flow. Violent uprisings do work – in South Africa, for example – and their outcomes should not be confused with problems and difficulties that follow. But in Algeria, he thought, it could lead only to disaster.)
There was a dilemma. In favour of the eradication of colonial injustice, Camus was at the same time opposed to an Algerian sovereignty independent of France and instead supported a canton-like arrangement, which would apply to the mother country and all its other colonies. But he was not a politician; he was primarily a writer – and as a writer he could admit and give voice to his contradictions, as writers do and should. They are all there in a series of observations, analyses, conclusions, exasperations and warnings, first published in 1958 as Chroniques algériennes, 1939-58 by Editions Gallimard. (As a passenger in a sports car driven by Michel Gallimard, Camus was killed in a crash on the road between Lyon and Paris in 1960.) Fifty-five years ago, the Algerian War led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic. The Chronicles were not well received at the time of publication but their views were prescient. This may be so, though Camus, interested in a continuing French presence in a ‘provincial’ Algeria, may not have foreseen the actual nature of later post-colonial developments, especially as they would be influenced by the rise of Islam and the fomenting contradictions of religious and secular state power. Of course, he was only too aware of the competing claims of the Algerian Arabs and the Algerian French and the difficulties of reconciling European and non-European cultures but perhaps not the extent to which they would be seen as emblematic of more widespread racial dichotomies geographically beyond their French colonial context. Camus was a moralist who posed questions about violence and counter-violence, national identity and justice, all of which illuminate the contemporary world. They are also universal. In one sense, therefore, the issues are both of their time in relation to their specific subject-matter and more broadly spread in the light of how history is witness to the repeat of error.
The span of the Chronicles allows Camus to begin at the beginning, as it were, in writing about the Algeria where he was born as a pied-noir and where he suffered in the handout culture of a low-wage society. Many died of exhaustion returning from food distribution centres. He reports on the tragedy of Kabylia, a mountainous region of orchards and cereal-growing, where there was often insufficient to feed the populace and where supplementary grain had to be bought on the open market, mostly at impossibly high prices. Addressing his countrymen, Algerian and French, he says, ‘The truth is that we are living every day alongside people whose condition is that of the European peasantry of three centuries ago, and yet we, and we alone, are unmoved by their desperate plight.’ The National Liberation Front weren’t and resolved to do something about it, whatever the consequences. The resulting war was devastating and preternaturally brutal, the French Army easily resorting to torture. Camus’s stance was ‘moderate’ compared with other French intellectuals ( he’d just won the Nobel Prize for Literature), including the Stalin-loving Sartre and de Beauvoir, representatives of a café society too frightened to say ‘boo!’ to a goose and to whom murder and torture were just words. Things went from bad to slightly better after the right-wing military attempt at a coup d’état in Algeria, precipitating a crisis that led eventually to the installation of de Gaulle as French president. Four years on, Algeria won its independence, but Camus was not there to see it. ‘Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress but more often it brings only greater barbarity and misery,’ he once said. Contrast this with FLN leader Ramdane Abane, justifying his movement’s decision to target civilians: ‘One corpse in a jacket is always worth more than twenty in uniform.’ Both in their different ways were correct, though those who have never starved or never killed in pursuit of justice will accord Camus the morally higher ground. Insurgents will always consider victory in terms of a people grown tired of barbarity; it’s political triumph through attrition.
The Chronicles are beautifully written; but one wonders if, as one American reviewer has said, it’s ‘a history of the past, a guide for the future’. Let’s ignore that most histories are of the past while we are wondering how much the helplessness of Camus before the events that confronted him are any more useful as a response to our own recurrent political episodes. In the face of terror and the downward spiral of failed diplomacy, desperate measures and ultimate, seemingly never-ending carnage, we may still have no answer bar that of allowing the horrors to continue until their perpetrators come to realise the futility and counter-productivity of their actions, their willingness to grind a population into submission through fatigue and desperation notwithstanding. We have nothing more to offer than what might look to the cynical as self-righteousness. Perhaps it’s the price we have to pay before realising that Camus and others were right. Can we argue against non-violence? The appalling fact remains that many do and would in the reconciliation of ends with means. In the case of Algeria, Camus here raises the status of the means with passion and conviction. For others, it’s the goal that matters, the nature of the striving being unfortunate necessity. These are the perennial issues raised again by the Camus chronicles. They are not so much a guide for the future as an injunction not to lose heart, to be engaged, to be observant and vigilant, and to be political. But only political up to a non-negotiable moral point.
As to the matter of modern France, it would not really count if the banlieu immigrants, in revolt among the depressed suburbs of northern Paris and elsewhere, had lost their religion. Their physical appearance would be enough to trigger hatred and suspicion among the natives. In a sense, Camus could not speak to them in the mass, only as individuals. He knew poverty in Algiers but he sought redemption in sensuality (“catching my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs”) and that’s a personal thing. In various places he denied being an existentialist, but it is difficult to see how his beliefs and ideas could appeal to the masses, especially those under immediate threat of intimidation, hopelessness and violence, except in terms of the group as a collection of individuals, always a slow, if not impossible, process of conversion. But he also recognised that rebellion was not just an individual act. The rebel, he wrote, believes there is “a common good more important than his own destiny” and that there are “rights more important than himself.” Rebellion is exercised in the name of “certain values which are still indeterminate but which he (the rebel) feels are common to himself and to all men.” On the other hand, it would have been interesting to know what he would have said to an oppressed people finding their consolation and political solution in organised and militant religion.
In La Peste, Camus wrote about humanity’s living cheek by jowl with pestilential death, as all of us are doing, notwithstanding lockdown lift. Death and its proximity, in connoting a sense of the absurd, was a subject that had existential meaning for him. Every school student of French is taught to interpret Camus’s plague as a political metaphor for nazism. But several commentators have re-clothed the metaphor to describe, say, the empty promises of the West, and their sometimes deadly pursuit by refugees in slum camps at the city’s edge and on leaking, overcrowded boats. Today, La Peste takes us back to the real; to the hidden narrator Rieux as a doctor, an expert, fighting literal, not metaphoric, contagion. That coronavirus has begun spreading among the serried masses of the dispossessed and destitute, a category of humankind with which Camus would have sympathised, makes for a powerfully reinforced image. It may be that Covid-19, in its indiscriminate rampage through societies both stable and in flux and through their hierarchies, will eventually bring us to an experiential sense of similarity and the realisation that what we share is greater than what divides us. But, for sure, fleeing the plague of armed conflict and seeking the benefits of Western capitalism – not so much pandemical as endemical – the helpless and newly-rootless will discover that, as ever, the well-off are immune from vicissitudes and the poor almost certain to succumb.
If you enjoyed Nigel Jarrett’s article on Camus, you might like be interested in reading James Fountain’s reflections on ‘The Plague’ in his article, Misfortune is impossible to predict.