ESSAY: We are in a “Camus Moment” — but What Can the Great French-Algerian Author Teach Us About the World Today?

By Madeleine Dobie

Last month marked the 70th anniversary of Albert Camus’s one and only visit to New York City, an occasion marked by a month-long program of concerts, lectures, and readings organized by the Camus Estate. The lineup included the musician Patti Smith discussing her favorite Camus works at the CUNY Graduate Center, and a reading by the actor Viggo Mortensen of a speech Camus gave at Columbia University, 70 years to the day after it was first delivered.

That celebration was far from an isolated homage. Other recent Camus anniversaries, including the centenary of his birth (in 2013) and 50th anniversary of his death (2010), have also been observed energetically. I think it’s fair to say that we’re experiencing a veritable Camus moment, in which attention is not only being showered on the man himself, but on his fictional characters and his main ideas, which have been showing up with increasing frequency in books, films, and even newspaper columns.

The rapidly expanding Camus library includes, on this side of the Atlantic alone, two recent intellectual biographies (Albert Camus: Elements of a Life and A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus both by the historian Robert Zaretsky), a translation of Camus’s writing on Algeria (Algerian Chronicles, translated by Arthur Goldhammer), a memoir of a woman’s personal obsession with the glamorous French writer (Elizabeth Hawes’s Camus: a Romance) and a forthcoming study of the origins and impact of his best-known work, The Stranger (Looking for the Stranger by Alice Kaplan).

There have also been several Camus-themed films, including the French drama Far from Men, which revisits the tightly coiled anxious short story, “The Guest,” and Living with Camus, a documentary that explores the affection in which readers all across the world hold Camus. Even Richard Linklater’s latest hangout movie, the campus comedy Everybody Wants Some!, manages to work in Camus’s take on the myth of Sisyphus (“Imagine Sisyphus happy.”) With so much Camus in the air, one has to wonder what is driving this renascence, and whether there’s anything new about today’s Camus.

Camus has not become popular overnight. Though his intellectual star may have risen and fallen over the decades, novels such as The Stranger and The Plague, along with major essays such as "The Myth of Sisyphus" and "The Rebel," have always had a large readership. It’s not difficult to see why. Camus’s spare, unornamented style makes him one of the more accessible and translatable exponents of literary modernism, and has facilitated his translation into English.  The Stranger, in particular, has been a point of entry into French literature for generations of high-schoolers, and as such is an object of nostalgia as well as a badge of cultural literacy.

Camus’s broad appeal can also be attributed to his elevation of ethics over politics, and individual decision-making over collective ideologies. By searching for meaning in the face of life’s absurdity, his essays and novels provide a moral framework that can be applied to everyday situations.  This relevance to everyday life is at the heart of French director Joël Calmette’s Living with Camus, in which ordinary people from around the world share their experience of turning to Camus for solace and moral guidance. The most moving sequence features the “Camus émus” (literally those who are “moved by Camus”) a youth group in Douala, Cameroon, run by a resourceful literature student who introduces adolescents who might otherwise be roaming the city’s streets, to the works of Camus. “If I don’t have bread to fill the belly [la panse],” she says, at least “I have Albert Camus’s work to nourish the mind [la pensée].”

Camus’s appeal in this economically distressed context presumably has much to do with his own humble origins. Born into the colonial working class, Camus overcame poverty and severe illness—he was stricken with tuberculosis at age 17—to become, in 1957, the second youngest winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. It, of course, doesn’t hurt that he was also exceptionally photogenic, a dorm-room pinup in the making.

But none of these exceptional qualities should obscure the fact that Camus’s enduring appeal also has a strong political basis, being rooted in his renunciation of communism, his commitment to liberal individualism, and his distaste for all-subsuming ideologies. Though coverage of the recent Camus in New York festival has tended to focus on the heightened sense of Frenchness that Camus felt during his visit to the United States, his views were in many ways compatible with the liberal, anti-communist bent of postwar American politics.

If the current turn to Camus is to some extent a return, it differs from past interest in the writer both in its intensity and in its global framing. Until quite recently, Camus’s image was that of the emblematic French public intellectual. A leading light of the Left-Bank intelligentsia, his name conjured up the Resistance, existentialism, and coffee and cigarettes on the terrace of the Café de Flore. His birth in colonial Algeria was a footnote to this story, not a lens through which his works were read.  The works themselves contributed significantly to this perception of Camus as quintessentially French. The two major novels set in Algeria, The Stranger and The Plague, communicate almost nothing about the colonial situation and relegate Algeria’s Muslim population to the shadows.

The new Camus, by contrast, is a writer whose life and work are deeply marked by his Algerian origins. This change of image began in the mid 1990s with the posthumous publication of his unfinished last novel, The First Man, which describes, in moving detail, his family’s acute poverty and lowly position in the colonial hierarchy. The perception of Camus as a writer rooted in Algeria has been further reinforced by the publication of Arthur Goldhammer’s English translation of the Algerian Chronicles—the journalism that he published on Algeria between the mid 1930s and 1958. These collected articles disclose the extent and intensity of Camus’s engagement with the land of his birth. They show that he tried to expose the desperate poverty to which French colonial rule had reduced Algeria’s “natives” and that he consistently supported proposals for political reform. But they also show that when an anti-colonial rebellion broke out in 1954, Camus clung firmly to the view that Algeria should remain French.

The current incarnation of Camus as a figure torn between France and Algeria in an age of growing conflict has made him available for a new kind of moral and political reasoning. Camus has often been declared to be “relevant” to moral and political debates on issues such as suicide or the death penalty (of which he was a leading opponent), but today he’s emerging as a privileged commentator on global politics, and in particular on relations between Western societies and Muslims living within and beyond their borders.

Take, for example, a New York Times op-ed piece published on the 60th anniversary of a speech in which Camus pressed the two sides of the Algerian conflict to avoid civilian casualties. Though the speech failed dismally to achieve its goal—a crowd outside the meeting hall threw stones and, sensing the hopelessness of his cause, Camus subsequently retreated into a position of ‘silence’—historian and Camus biographer Robert Zaretsky argues for the relevance of Camus’s message of non-violence to our own era of seemingly endemic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

After drawing a distinction between the “tactical” use of terror by the Algerian FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) and the “nihilistic” terrorism of the ISIS recruits who have recently struck civilian targets in Europe, Zaretsky proposes that Camus’s message of non-violence was intended, not for the nihilists—who would presumably just turn a deaf ear—but for “us.” What “we” can take away from the speech, he suggests, is that it’s wrong and politically counter-productive to demonize other groups, even when some of their members are guilty of acts of terrorism.

If this defense of the moral high ground is unexceptionable, it’s nonetheless worth considering the implicit comparison being made here among several different kinds of violence: acts committed by the FLN during its anti-colonial struggle and those sponsored by ISIS; violence committed by global superpowers and the desperate deeds of the less powerful. Given these profound differences, does the detour through Camus obscure as much as it illuminates?

If there are valid reasons for applying Camus’s moral thinking to contemporary dilemmas, this exercise also harbors some dangers. It should be remembered that Camus rejected violence in the context of what many now view as a legitimate struggle for emancipation from an essentially segregated colonial order in which the majority of Muslims lacked political rights, a war that might have been avoided had France yielded, at an earlier moment, to calls for reform (demands which, to be fair, Camus fully supported). It should also be remembered that he addressed the French army and the FLN as though they were on an equal footing, even though the French massively outgunned the nationalist rebels and the latter’s recourse to terrorism was largely a tactical imperative.

Most important, we should remember that if Camus didn’t acknowledge this lopsidedness, it was not only because of his moral opposition to violence, but also—as the Algerian chronicles make clear—because he believed very deeply that Algeria should remain French, because he doubted that the FLN had the political culture to make a success of independence and—a symptom of the Cold War—because he feared that an independent Algeria would fall under the thumb of Moscow or Cairo.

Camus used the words “terror” and “terrorism” frequently, but in relation to markedly different objects. Whereas in the 1940s, he decried the terror being perpetrated by the Nazi regime, in the 1950s he applied the term to the violence being committed by the FLN. In the speech that he delivered at Columbia in 1946, an oration boldly titled “The Human Crisis,” he identified the global rise of ‘terror’ as the leading problem of the age, tying it to the dehumanizing impact of bureaucracy and the hegemony of politics.

Positions such as this have endeared Camus to the non-communist center-left: to liberal thinkers such as Tony Judt, whose book The Burden of Responsibility did much to establish him as the hero of the non-Marxist Left. But it’s also easy to see why Camus has sometimes appealed to figures further to the right of the political spectrum. His self-proclaimed admirers include former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a figure notorious for his hardline stance on immigration and aggressive policing of ethnically diverse neighborhoods, who in 2009 led a campaign to have the writer’s remains re-buried in the Panthéon alongside other French luminaries (Camus’s children in the end declined). And who could forget the moment in the summer of 2006, when George W. Bush reported The Stranger as vacation reading? Presumably, the story of a white man killing an unknown Arab on a beach in North Africa resonated strongly enough with Bush to muffle the novel’s unambiguous atheism and opposition to capital punishment.

My sense is that when Zaretsky recommends looking to Camus for guidance on contemporary politics, he’s thinking of the Camus whose books have helped people to resolve personal problems and moral dilemmas. Yet it’s worth noting that recent efforts to mobilize the writer’s legacy on a national stage have tended to generate contention rather than bringing people together. Plans for an exhibit to mark the centenary of the writer’s birth in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence turned sour after the city’s mayor, pandering to the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party and to constituents with roots in Algeria, rejected the multiculturalist overtones of an event to be titled “Camus: the Stranger who Resembles us.” After heated exchanges, the exhibit’s curator, the historian Benjamin Stora, stepped down, later going public about the affair in a slim volume titled Camus brûlant (which could be translated as something along the lines of Camus: a Burning Question).   Across the Mediterranean in Algeria, plans to commemorate the anniversary of the writer’s death with a "Camus caravan" that was to travel from city to city, presenting readings from his works, similarly ran aground after critics accused the organizers of neocolonialism. What these mini culture wars indicate is that if Camus remains relevant to global political issues, it’s because his positions on Algeria—for reform of the colonial system, but against independence—continue to reverberate in the still painful legacies of colonialism and decolonization.

What, given this, can we make of the no fewer than five recent novels by Algerian writers that adopt Camus as a tutelary figure? Do these works seek to settle scores with a man who failed to support Algeria’s independence and relegated Muslims to the margins of his major novels? Or rather to rehabilitate a writer who for decades was classified as a representative of French literature but not as a native son?

While the answer is complex and each novel has to be considered in its own right, it’s hard to escape the implications of a work such as Camus dans le narguilé (Camus through a haze of smoke) by Hamid Grine (who is also Algeria’s current Minister of Communications), in which the protagonist learns, after his father’s death, that he is adopted and that his real father is none other than . . . Camus. Then there’s Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, an international bestseller that has sold over 100,000 copies, bagged numerous French literary awards, and been translated into 28 languages. At first glance, the novel appears to be a postcolonial rewriting of a canonical European novel. By speaking in the voice of the brother of the nameless “Arab’” killed by Camus’s protagonist, Meursault, Daoud confers visibility on the hitherto nameless generic native. Yet the second half of the novel turns from the re-reading of Camus to a scathing commentary on politics and society in contemporary Algeria. Daoud is especially withering on the subject of contemporary Islamic piety, which he treats—like a good student of Camus—as a manifestation of the absurd.

The Meursault Investigation pushed Daoud, a columnist and editor for the Quotidien d’Oran (Oran Daily News), known in Algeria for his searing articles on controversial topics, into the international limelight. Seizing the opportunity offered by his newfound global platform, Daoud published back to back op-eds in Le Monde and The New York Times, both lamenting the benighted sexual culture, not only of Algeria, but of the Muslim world as a whole. These articles unleashed a debate that is still playing out, with some commentators condemning Daoud for his “orientalizing” attitudes, while others defend him as a courageous advocate of secular values. One of the most striking aspects of "The Daoud Affair" (as Adam Shatz has aptly called it) has been the degree to which Daoud’s moves have replicated ones previously made by Camus. After being subjected to fierce criticism for his controversial positions on Algeria and Islam, Daoud, like his predecessor, has announced a retreat into “silence,” or at least an intention to abandon the querulous world of journalism to devote himself to literature.

The questions raised by Daoud’s recent articles in Western media aren’t limited to whether or not what he has to say about Islam, sex and gender has any legitimacy. The bigger issue is that his broad international appeal resulted from the recasting of a novel by a Western writer of world-wide renown. If our current Camus moment involves global literary exchanges, these relations are by no means symmetrical. By the same token, if we’re going to adopt Camus as a vantage point from which to think about terror in the contemporary world, it’s important to recognize the asymmetries of wealth and power with which terrorism is intertwined — differences that Camus largely ignored in his pronouncements on violence in Algeria.

Madeleine Dobie is a professor of French at Columbia University.