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Camus on Ideology vs. Blood

camus872 words

It is December 10, 1957, and a cold, dark day in Stockholm, Sweden. Inside the hall, however, it is bright and warm, with many of the world’s leading men assembled for the chance to hear directly from the bright young man about to be honored. His voice has rung out as a sign of hope and a challenge to tyrants and dictators, his work acclaimed and already achieving a place of honor in the curricula of the world’s universities. 

The author has just turned 44 years of age, yet he has the ear of the world’s great and good, as well as the ears of many a common man. His life’s work as an author has led to today’s event, the awarding of the Nobel Prize, but he is more than that: a famous newspaper editor, a philosopher, a public intellectual, a dramatist, a playwright, a playboy whose Hollywood good-looks and fame ensure a dizzying succession of women. For a time, he was the voice of the French Resistance inside France itself—indeed, from the very heart of immortal Paris—both during and immediately after the war.

Yet, on this day, many find themselves wondering what this famous man will say. He has been uncommonly quiet for months now, a matter that has incited not a small amount of public comment. The author did rouse himself during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and helped rally world opinion in favor of that noble but doomed effort to remove the ancient and Christian nation of Hungary from under Soviet domination. Yet, he has remained silent in the face of a national crisis gripping his own homeland.

In Algeria, French troops are fighting a no-holds-barred war against Muslim forces seeking to evict France and all Frenchmen and Christians. In Paris, all men with an interest in public affairs have staked a position on what would eventually be known as the Algerian War, a matter so dire, so central to French life as to eventually cause not just the downfall of a government but the demise of the Fourth Republic itself.

And, so, the men in Stockholm that day were more than usually interested when the honored man, Albert Camus, took to the podium to give a short lecture. And so he began:

In receiving the distinction with which your free Academy has so generously honored me, my gratitude has been profound, particularly when I consider the extent to which this recompense has surpassed my personal merits. Every man, and for stronger reasons, every artist, wants to be recognized. So do I. But I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress, accustomed to living in the solitude of work or in the retreats of friendship: how would he not feel a kind of panic at hearing the decree that transports him all of a sudden, alone and reduced to himself, to the center of a glaring light? And with what feelings could he accept this honor at a time when other writers in Europe, among them the very greatest, are condemned to silence, and even at a time when the country of his birth is going through unending misery? (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1957/camus-speech.html)

The lecture matched the man: short yet grand, concise yet breath-taking in scope.

However, fate would have it that Camus’ speech would not be the most famous, or the most important, words he would utter that day. For a controversy dogged his every step in Sweden. A French Algerian writer, a celebrated man of the French Left, could not be allowed to say nothing about what his comrades considered a war of national liberation that demanded their full support. So after Camus’ remarks, an Algerian student rose and asked the newly-crowned laureate, how he could remain silent in the face of his people’s struggle for justice.

And, so, Camus responded. His response confounded his comrades and revealed the extent to which Camus prized the reality of our organic connections to family and community over mere political theory and rhetoric.

People are now planting bombs on the tramway of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.

That simple remark turned a simmering controversy into a firestorm of condemnation, a condemnation so furious as to—temporarily, at least—besmirch his reputation and cause the removal of his works from mandatory reading lists well into the 1980s.

Camus and Michel Gallimard from 1958

Camus and Michel
Gallimard from 1958

Those of us on the Right who are seeking both to describe the terminal problem of liberalism and to set forth a humane solution would do well to remember Camus’ point.

To be effective, to signal clearly that we are not haters and harmers, but people offering a just and humane solution to a very real, very human problem, we must remember that abstract political theories are outside of our political tradition. (They are not outside of France’s, hence, Camus’ heresy.) We must remain grounded. We must recognize why the Left writ large continues to attract souls like Camus, and we must offer an equally attractive alternative vision.

In short, let us appeal to family, not theory.

 

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11 Comments

  1. rhondda
    Posted April 15, 2015 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this article. Camus has been a hero of mine for years. He may have been a womanizer, but he did eventually marry the mother of his twins.

  2. K. Donoghue
    Posted April 15, 2015 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    You are right, referring to Camus as merely “Algerian” is misleading. I have to say, though, that the vast majority of references to Camus I’ve seen in my life read “French Algerian.”

  3. Joseph Bishop
    Posted April 15, 2015 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    Camus, if I have this right, was (a) Jewish, (b) a communist, and (c) homosexual. His books are well-written certainly, but I think that overall his impact racially has been a net negative. He, along with various other Marxist literati of his time, helped France lose the will to win in Algeria and thus helped slide the Marxists into power there. Of course he won prestigious prizes, as then, like today, his politics and activism were politically correct enough and left enough to please the politicized committees that dish them out.

    Looking at these types, they resemble the ‘cultural maggots’ that tear down Western civilization and our gene pool. One could always find some small blurb or speech bite from their work that might seem positive, but overall they remain CMs.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 15, 2015 at 1:50 am | Permalink

      In the internet age, you need not post comments appealing to a vague memory. In fact, you have it wrong. Camus was of French and Spanish descent; he was not a homosexual, but a pretty successful heterosexual; and although he was a Communist, he eventually broke with them. Even Wikipedia has a pretty accurate overview of his life.

      • K. Donoghue
        Posted April 15, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        Thank you for replying here, Greg. We have enough enemies without making up imaginary ones.

    • Faustian
      Posted April 19, 2015 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      You are correct – in a way AC was a CM since he was a post-nihilist (and most nihilists ended up in CM or either went the authentic way and commited suicide) but that thesis is a bit drawn. CM is the logical next step after nihilism but Camus hasnt went that way fully unlike his former friend Sartre. So I dont think he deserves that sharp of a judgment.

      He might have probably been on the other side of things if the time was 30-40 years later in history.

  4. Posted April 14, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Nice article. Camus also said this about the Algerian conflict: “Finding it impossible to join either of the extreme camps, recognizing the gradual disappearance of the third camp in which it was still possible to keep a cool head . . . I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent.” Reminds me of my own views on Ukraine. Extremists never want to hear about a “third way.”

    • K. Donoghue
      Posted April 15, 2015 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      John – An excellent point and one must also remember that Camus wasn’t what one commonly meets with advocates of a “third way”; he actively worked hard in Algeria to bring it about. His efforts eventually came to nothing, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

      In fact, the leading conventional scholar on Camus working in the U.S. today, Yale’s Alice Kaplan, has reported that a new generation of Algerian intellectuals are re-visiting and re-evaluating Camus’ work in light of their own experiences in the middle of that Algerian government’s extremely bloody fight against Islamist rebels. According to Kaplan, they’ve come to a new understanding of what is means to be trapped between two opposing parties when one approves of neither yet a choice is being demanded.

  5. James Vidkun
    Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Superbly written and excellent article.

    • K. Donoghue
      Posted April 15, 2015 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Thanks to you both for the comments, and to James for the Paul Johnson quote. Indeed, and it is precisely that sentiment which sets the Anglo tradition in the West apart from the French, or Continental, tradition. In fact, another way of putting my appeal at the end of the piece would be for us to hew to that Anglo tradition, something increasingly difficult as our academic, political and legal cultures have become much more Continental and civil law oriented.

  6. uranian
    Posted April 14, 2015 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Hear Hear!

    An intellectual is someone who puts ideas before people ~ Paul Johnson

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