‘Isn’t it an incredible time to be reading and discussing L’homme révolté?’ wrote the student who is taking his French literature course with me this year, in his most recent email. And indeed it is, although I do not suggest you should hurry to pick up Albert Camus’ complex and contentious work of philosophy. Camus struggled over it for six years before publication, and the strain shows. He was not a philosopher, neither by temperament nor training, and the book is one complicated, obscurely written hot damn mess, even if it is a work of extraordinary integrity and importance. It was also the book that provoked a huge public argument and a bitter estrangement from his one-time close friend, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s journal reviewed the book negatively; well, that’s too polite a description. It was slammed and shredded and generally torn to pieces. When Camus protested, in print, Sartre took up the charge and wrote an editorial in which he attacked him in the most savage terms.
‘And what if your book bore witness merely to your philosophical incompetence? If it were composed of hastily gathered knowledge, acquired secondhand? If, far from obscuring your brilliant arguments, reviewers have been obliged to light lamps in order to make out the contours of your weak, obscure and confused reasoning?’
This was very unkind of Sartre, who knew exactly what he was doing, undermining Camus, who had had a very average schooling, from the heights of his own tip-top education. But he had harsher words still, aimed at Camus’ fear that no one was listening to the message he felt compelled to deliver.
‘Who appointed you Public Accuser? The Republic of Superior Persons? You pronounce sentence and the world remains unmoved. Your condemnations disintegrate upon contact with reality and you are obliged to begin again. If you stopped you would see yourself as you are: you are thus condemned to condemn, Sisyphus.’
When I read about this argument, many years ago now, I could not believe how mean Sartre was being. Camus had once been a dear friend, a close friend, it was how he knew where to hit him hardest, and he took advantage of that. But the thing was, as with so many unpleasant brawls, the brutal charges Sartre placed at Camus’s feet drew attention away from the argument Camus was making.
And what was that argument? Well, it is, as my student says, a very timely one when the world is once again made turbulent by revolution. Camus wrote the book not long after the end of the Second World War, in a time when it was pretty much compulsory for a writer in France to support the Communist Party. But Camus simply could not reconcile the massacres in Russia with his own conscience. Terror and violence were never to his mind redeemable by the ideas behind it – there was no difference he could see between what the Nazis did to the Jews and what Stalin had done. If it was wrong to kill a man, then it was wrong no matter who did it, no matter what the reasons. He disliked and distrusted his contemporaries’ reliance on History to prove the necessity of their actions in some distant future times. He could not believe in the quasi-religious vision that posited some sort of heavenly cultural state emerging out of the wreckage of violent revolution. He felt that the intellectuals around him were getting their religion and their principles and the weighty matter of human life all tangled up, and that there were simple truths about morality that were not being heeded.
Time has proved Camus right. The revolutionary violence his friends favoured fell out of fashion and was shown up as a repugnant sympathy with tyrants by people who had no intention of putting their own lives on the line. Not that Camus lived to know that. He was always unsure about his book, and about his position. He hated the way that being a well-known writer in France meant he was obliged to take up a political stance and pronounce on matters that caused him much heartache and concern. But he had a nagging integrity that meant he simply could not fall in line with what everyone else was saying: ‘I tried for years to live according to everyone else’s morality,’ he wrote in his notebooks. ‘I tried to live like everyone else, to be like everyone else. I said the right things even when I felt and thought quite differently. And the result is a catastrophe. Now I wander in the ruins, cut off, alone and accepting my fate, resigned to my peculiarities and my weaknesses. I shall have to rebuild a truth – having lived my whole life in a sort of lie.’
There was a part of Camus’s book that struck me very deeply when I read it. Camus has a moralizing distaste for the excesses of revolution, but he is emotionally invested in the notion of the rebel, and rebellion. The rebel, in Camus’s understanding, is the person who stands out for something precious inside the self that is shared by all as part of the human condition, but which circumstances of inequality prevent some from accessing. So the slave rebels because he knows he is no different from his master, but is prevented nevertheless from owning his physical and mental freedom. The adolescent rebels, because she knows that she is no different from the adults around her, but she is not allowed the privilege of thinking differently or taking responsibility for herself on the rocks of real life. The difficulty, as Camus is well aware, is in translating that individual rebellion into a group movement, without having the dignity and the worth of all human life trampled into the mud in the process. How to have a rebellion, in which one person protests the right of all to enjoy the qualities and privileges of basic humanity, without someone having to die for it?
Camus believed there would always be violence, but he did not know what to do about it, and for this reason, he was vilified by his politically more sophisticated friends, who pointed out that sitting on the fence was a futile and untenable position. But at least Camus knew that it was an honest one, in the face of a real and insurmountable human problem. At least he knew that taking the fashionable route and agreeing with the groupmind would cast him into personal despair. At least he never betrayed himself for popularity, admiration, the approval of his peers. I don’t expect many people will read this post as it is not in the popular fashion of the internet; it is not easy or gossipy or about some current trend (and you can applaud yourself if you’ve got this far). It’s about learning from the past, which has never found much favour. But I write it as a tribute to Camus, whose integrity I have always admired profoundly, even if L’homme révolté is a pain in the butt to read. The difficult things are always worth doing, and the difficult thoughts are always worth having.