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The Stranger in Crawford

The literati scoffed at Albert Camus’ place on President Bush’s summer reading list. They misunderestimated them both.

Published on November 1, 2006

 

Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, ed.,
Camus at Combat: Writing, 1944–1947
Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (Princeton University Press, 2006), 378 pp., $29.95.

Albert Camus (1913–1960) has been much in the news over the past 12 months. In Camus’ birthplace of Algeria, where the nation’s post-colonial rulers have long viewed him with suspicion and antipathy, the University of Algiers (in what Le Monde described, in exquisite franglais, as “un come-back étonnant”) organized a state-sponsored conference dedicated to Camus’ impact on Algerian literature. On the other side of the Mediterranean in France, the Gallimard publishing house brought out the first two volumes of a new and expanded critical edition of Camus’ complete works in its prestigious Pléiade series. Meanwhile, across the Channel in Britain, Camus’ famous 1942 novel of alienation, L’Etranger (The Stranger) came out on top in a Manchester Guardian poll conducted among male readers asked to name the book that had most “changed their lives.” But all of this paled in significance to the event that truly launched Camus’ return to the spotlight in 2006: the announcement by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow that President Bush had read The Stranger while vacationing in August at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

In the wake of Snow’s disclosure, commentators who rarely miss an opportunity to criticize Bush for his conceited airs rushed into print with smirking columns. Bush had quoted Camus previously in a February 21, 2005, speech in Brussels in which he urged other nations to help the United States spread democracy in the world (“Albert Camus said that ‘freedom is a long-distance race.’ We’re in that race for the duration”, Bush said.) But to such pundits it seemed that Dubya could have no idea of who Albert Camus was, and that the idea of Bush reading—let alone making sense out of—The Stranger was enough to make a cat laugh. Strained attempts at satire duly ensued, including a wooden effort in the New Republic entitled “Strangerer: Camus does Bush” by the now-suspended Lee Siegel. The Stranger and The Cowboy: Could the irony be any richer?

Albert Camus in 1947Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Albert Camus in 1947Roger Viollet/Getty Images

 

On the one hand, an ultra-conservative, pro-death penalty, born-again Christian—from Texas no less! On the other, an anti-religious, absurdist tale that indicts capital punishment and was written by a man who took on, and by many accounts bested, some of the most famous 20th-century Parisian intellectuals. To be sure, irony does indeed abound, but not all, or even most of it, comes at the expense of George W. Bush, as a careful reading of Camus’ wartime journalism, recently released in translation as Camus at Combat: Writing 1944–1947, makes clear.

Camus is best known as a novelist. In addition to The Stranger, his 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague) routinely winds up on lists of the most influential novels of the 20th century. But Camus first became famous as editor-in-chief and editorial writer for Combat, which began life as a clandestine resistance newspaper in the summer of 1944 and went on to become one of the most important postwar Parisian dailies. George Orwell, who had gone to France as a war correspondent, signaled the paper’s importance to readers of the Manchester Evening News in a dispatch dated February 28, 1945, in which he noted Combat’s high daily circulation of 180,000 and described it as “one of the most interesting and courageous daily papers now running in Paris.”

The 165 articles and editorials that Princeton University Press is making available to English readers (some for the first time) in Camus at Combat are of obvious importance to historians of the period. Anyone interested in Camus’ development as a writer should also be eager to read them. Camus used his editorials to work out positions on issues such as human freedom, justice and terrorism that later became central to the more mature reflections he voiced a few years later in one of his major philosophical works, L’Homme Révolté (The Rebel, 1952). (Readers interested in learning of that book’s centrality to the post-9/11 fight against Islamic extremism would do well to pick up Paul Berman’s instructive 2003 meditation, Terror and Liberalism.) But it would be unconscionable to leave the impression that Camus at Combat shouldn’t have a wider readership, well beyond university halls or reading groups devoted to modern French literature. So let me pose and dispose of the question at the same time: Why should any reasonably literate person spend effort on this volume? Two reasons: substance and style.

Today, we see columnists and writers who are very good at expressing thoughts on the important issues of the day: terrorism, the role of international institutions such as the United Nations, injustices in the Third World, and the role of a free press in democracies. But in reading them we detect little if any evidence of their own thinking. Slogan-mongering, yes; the reflection of first-class minds actively engaged in shaping ideas to fit facts, rather than the other way around, not so much. In his time, Camus was an exception. He wrote on all of these perennial issues, and what he had to say still speaks to our current situation with amazing prescience—precisely because he thought deeply about those issues and, equally important, was prepared to change his mind if he came to see that he was wrong. That he did so is testimony to the high opinion he held of a writer’s responsibilities. He once wrote that a journalist who can reread his articles without asking whether he is right or wrong, who has no doubts or scruples, who does not occasionally despair of measuring up to the “travail absurde et necessaire” of conveying the truth, is not worthy of the name. Who can seriously imagine many of the authors of the current crop of nonfiction bestsellers passing that test? Which is why, of the myriad volumes on contemporary politics that appear in bookstores festooned with “must-read” blurbs, none is more important than this collection of sixty-year-old editorials.

As for style, it may be counterintuitive, given the state of American journalism, to believe it possible to derive aesthetic pleasure from reading three years’ worth of old lead editorials bound together in book form. And yet, such pleasure is there to be had in this volume. Camus was a great stylist who wrote out of the French classical tradition of 18th-century moralists such as La Rochefoucauld. There is a limpid purity and measure in his sentences. Jean Daniel, one of Camus’ comrades at Combat, who later went on to help found and direct Le Nouvel Observateur, described his style as being distinguished by “a sort of chaste eloquence.” Daniel further noted how Camus demanded of himself and his collaborators “conciseness of expression, a feeling for form, [and] the piercing shaft of wit.” Camus’ thoughts spring from the page with a refreshing clarity and directness uncorrupted by academic jargon or a concern to appear trendy and hip. And because Camus wasn’t afraid to return to the same issue several days in a row, or to keep up a running dialogue with editorial writers in competing papers—one of his favorite bêtes noires in this regard was the Catholic novelist François Mauriac, who wrote editorials for the conservative daily Le Figaro—there is a coherence as well as an expansiveness to his writing that transcends the normal limitations of the editorial form.

Happily for the English reader, the translation by Arthur Goldhammer well captures and conveys Camus’ talents. He has done an outstanding job, catching the proper nuances of Camus’ deliberately restricted vocabulary and refusing to depart from the proper French meaning. Perhaps one example, typical of what one encounters in this remarkable book, will provide an example:

Rien n’est donné aux hommes et le peu qu’ils peuvent conquérir se paye de morts injustes. Mais la grandeur de l’homme n’est pas là. Elle est dans sa décision d’être plus fort que sa condition.

[Nothing is given to mankind and what little men can conquer must be paid for with unjust death. But man’s grandeur lies elsewhere, in his decision to rise above his condition.]

 

It is a Camusian pensée worthy of Pascal, and Goldhammer’s skill in presenting it in English with the weight and measure it deserves (making a reasoned decision to present Camus’ final two sentences as one) is as good as it gets. That said, I trust that Goldhammer will not take offense if I recommend that readers whose French is up to it consider purchasing the volume from which his translation is derived, Camus à Combat (Gallimard, 2002). Such is the phonetic beauty of Camus’ prose that it can only be fully appreciated in the original.

Goldhammer’s success is further enhanced by David Carroll’s intelligent introduction. Carroll, director of European studies and professor of French at the University of California at Irvine, and the author of a very useful book on French literary fascism, has built on a correct understanding of the importance of these pieces with respect to the contemporary American political scene and the broader struggle against militant Islamism. The lessons he thinks readers should take away from Camus’ writing, however, leave something to be desired—and this leads us back to the mockery of Bush over his summer reading.

At no point in his introduction does Carroll mention President Bush (or any member of his Administration for that matter) by name. But any disinterested reader has to conclude that Carroll has George W. Bush squarely in his sights. Consider, for example, the following passages:

A democracy that would speak and act as if it embodied true democratic values in its struggle against tyranny and injustice (or ‘Evil’), according to the logic of Camus’ argument, would in fact not only be deluding itself but also constitute a threat to other democracies and to democracy itself. It would be profiting from the climate of terror it claimed to be attacking. It would itself constitute a form of messianism.

• • •

Camus was suspicious and urges his readers to be suspicious of those who speak the loudest in defense of democratic ideals and absolutes but whose goal is to instill fear in opponents and to silence dissent.

• • •

For Camus, democracy could never come out of the barrel of a gun (or a bomb or missile), just as justice could never be achieved as the result of mistreatment, torture, or execution of criminals or terrorists.

The Bush Administration as a “messianic” force imposing its version of democracy willy-nilly on the rest of the world; the Bush Administration as hostile to dissent both at home (the Patriot Act) and to the criticism and advice it receives abroad; the Bush Administration as seeking to promote its brand of justice while at the same time condoning torture (Abu Ghraib). Carroll’s generic warnings seem too close to the specific complaints repeatedly raised against this Administration to be coincidental. Accordingly, one is apt to leave his essay thinking that if Camus were alive and writing today, he would be alternating columns with Andrew Cockburn and Katha Pollitt in The Nation. Put another way, Carroll’s introduction will do much to reinforce the notion that Bush has so little in common with Camus that it is a travesty for him even to have picked up a copy of The Stranger.

Carroll deserves our gratitude for helping to place Camus at Combat before the American reading public, but his own anti-Bush reflexes seem to have prevented him from seeing what Camus understood about some of the same problems Bush has had to face or—heaven forefend!—how alike the two men might actually be. Yes, I know one is prone to scoff, but then there is this from Camus’ most recent biographer, Olivier Todd, who has written that Camus was “a man of gut feelings and intuitions more than a careful reasoner.” Sound like any other “gut reasoner” we know? Then there are the more substantive similarities that a careful reading reveals, all five of which are striking.

First, Camus and Bush are similar in speaking of pre- and post-mentalities. Camus spoke of pre- and post-1940 Occupation mentality, arguing that there was to be no return to the corrupt politics and distorted views of the past that had compromised French life. Bush speaks of pre- and post-9/11 mentalities and likewise warns against a return to reactive thinking.

Second, Camus and Bush similarly believe that the times call for clear moral guidelines: “Tout ce qui n’est pas avec nous est contre nous”, Camus announced in one Combat editorial. “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists”, Bush stated in the days after 9/11. Camus then proceeded to gloss this point better than Bush ever has (Presidential speechwriters please take note): “These are moments when everything becomes clear, when every action constitutes a commitment, when every choice has its price, when nothing is neutral anymore. It is the time of morality, that is, a time when language becomes clear and it is possible to throw it back in the realists’ face.”

Third, Camus was against “political realism”, calling it “a degrading thing.” “Those whom we called leaders”, he wrote, “invented names for this abdication of responsibility. They called it ‘nonintervention’ one day and ‘political realism’ the next. Compared with such imperious language, what could a poor little word like honor count for.” Bush, too, is in principle against the old-style political realism that allowed the United States to continue to ally itself with regimes harboring terrorists, and with observers who maintain that the stability of Middle Eastern dictatorships is a good thing.

Fourth, Camus could be equally as succinct on dissenters as Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney: “It is obvious that words have value and need to be weighed carefully”, Camus editorialized on one occasion, adding: “The Resistance is telling you that we are now at a stage where every word counts, where every word is a commitment.”

And fifth, Camus’ sense of solidarity with oppressed peoples living under tyrannies eerily evokes statements in Bush’s inaugural and State of the Union speeches. “Today we know that the nations of the world share a common destiny”, Camus declared. “We will never achieve victory as long as the cause of freedom continues to be crushed in long-suffering Spain.”

Carroll also overstates the extent to which Camus embraced nonviolence in the postwar period when he writes, “The ultimate limit that Camus will impose on political involvement, the ‘no’ that always [will] be uttered, is the refusal to accept the murder of innocent civilians as a legitimate means to any end.” There is no doubt that Camus had a basic repugnance toward killing and violence, but that repugnance did not prevent him from taking up arms when forced to do so. Moreover, fairly considered, Camus rejected the legitimation of violence (which is one reason why Dwight Macdonald, who embraced pacifism in the 1940s, thought that collaboration with Camus on his journal Politics might be problematic).

Carroll also paints a misleading picture of Camus when he says that he “in fact considered all the ideologies struggling for dominance in the postwar period to be potentially deadly, with each of them in its own way contributing to the creation of a state of terror and the depreciation of life.” Arthur Koestler, a close friend of Camus, once remarked that people like himself who opposed totalitarian ideologies were “fighting a total lie in the name of a half-truth.” Camus himself was even less equivocal: “We know that the cause of the American people is also our cause and will continue to be so as long as freedom is interfered with anywhere in the world.”

Camus was a major writer, a Nobel laureate, with something original and lasting to say. As such, it is impossible to deploy his thought in any simplistic pro- or anti-Bush rhetorical assault. The amazing thing is how relevant Camus’ thinking remains. In the 1946 preface to the English edition of The Stranger, Camus wrote that “the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game.” Let no one, therefore, condemn Bush to derision for departing from the game of his assigned stereotype. He’s right to be reading Camus, with whom he has more in common than he may realize. Next summer, down at Crawford, Camus at Combat should be at the top of his summer reading list. In the meantime, the rest of us would do well to get a start by reading it now.

Michael McDonald is a lawyer and book critic living in Washington, DC. He is currently writing a biography of Curzio Malaparte.