Today is (or was, depending on where you live) the birthday of a personal favorite of mine, both in the literary and philosophic sphere. A hundred years ago, on November 7, 1913, French writer-philosopher Albert Camus was born to a poor family in what was then French Algeria.
Best known for his novels — The Stranger, which depicts a senseless murder on the Mediterranean and The Plague, with its haunted scenes of a quarantined city — Camus was a controversial, but also incredibly inspirational figure. When I say breaking down I mean demystifying and cataloguing a bit of the man: to take some of the eyebrow quirking out of many people’s interactions with him.
You see, there are essentially two Camus figures we tend to look at. The first is the intellectual—an existentialist and an absurdist, as well as a Nobel Prize winner that had that rare gift for being not only to engage the great thoughts with logic and with poise, but to translate those thoughts into a language and vision wherein we could not only see them displayed, but be enthralled by how they did so. Then there is the other figure, the controversial figure, who sees little play or knowledge outside of France and his native land—a figure viewed as at once rebellious, conforming, or downright traitorous depending on the viewer.
You see, though Camus was born in Algeria, he is not particularly loved there; yet he is a darling of France. This is because, at a time when Algeria was warring for its independence from a colonial overlord, this great mind made a conscious decision to take what he no doubt saw as a sort of middle ground—he supported real political rights for the oppressed Arabs of the region, and yet took a step back when it came to nationality. While he was pro-political rights, he was against an independent Algeria.
For my fellow Americans, allow me to provide this summary: It would be like one of our own great writers, in the time of the American Revolution, stepping up and saying, “Well I believe in more rights for the non-British afoot here…but start out on our own? Are you batty?”
That said, in true form, he was horrified by the violence that arose—in particular, from the French forces who, as the war dragged on, resorted to horrific and barbaric acts of torture. He spat at the French for doing “more harm than a hundred enemy guerrillas” with their tactics, while denouncing the National Liberation Front of Algeria for their own use of violence. Bringing blood onto one’s hands was never right, he saw, no matter the cause. It was a “casuistry of blood” which he could not bear—not even for the sake of his homeland’s independence. Some have named him coward for it. Or traitor.
Like I said: controversial.
Which seems odd, when one considers Camus. He did, after all, love his homeland. Both of his most famous works are set there. He was, is, and ever shall be one of the foremost voices against violence and extremism, while fighting for the individual’s freedom. But the key lies in his birth. You see, Camus was a French citizen born abroad, a part of a culture then known as the pieds-noirs, or black feet—the name given to Europeans living in that slice of North Africa.
If you need another reference, think of the more recent South African apartheid. Two worlds, one roof. The ruling European colonials and the native Arab majority.
His experience was not the same. He came into the world groomed along a different line. Is that an excuse? No. It’s simply a fact. His failure to support full independence seems off the mark today, but in the context of time, space, and the ever powerful nurture?
Well, for all the nature of his birth, he was not a wealthy man. His father died a year after his birth and his deaf mother raised him through work as a cleaning lady. He is an inspiration in other regards precisely because of his brilliance and his pen—these are what inevitably delivered him from poverty, and raised him up, thus making his opinions so potent, and mattering so dearly to both sides of the earlier equation. He could, perhaps—yes, indeed should have been—more connected to the Arab world around him there, but the simple fact is he was removed from it. He saw a side of Algeria that was a uniquely different experience from those fighting for its independence.
Yet even as I say this: he did believe in fights for independence, obviously, in different ways. After all, he fought for the French Resistance in WWII, publishing an underground newspaper for them that could have seen him butchered by the occupying Nazis.
He believed in the collective humanity of man, of rights for all; but he denounced communism at a time when many of his fellows on the left were embracing its call.
Camus himself died in a car accident at the age of 46, in 1960, leaving us with his legacy, an unfinished manuscript and notes, and a great deal more on which to think.
So, when you have it laid out before you, what do you think?
Was he simply practicing Benjamin Franklin’s old adage? “Moderation in all things, even moderation.” Was he a man that simply lacked courage of conviction? Or was it something else? In truth, it’s something only the individual can answer for oneself: either way, Camus was unapologetic in his views. Yet I caution a remembrance: it is eternally difficult, when such things are mixed up in issues that can never be without emotion.
Death will out. Death will always out.