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Camus, Algeria, and “The Fall”

Camus’s political writings on the Algerian war are collected in Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) which he published in 1958. It is a depressing volume. The manner, in the post-1945 essays, is not so much that of Camus as that of the moderate bourgeois French journalism of the period: categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.

The Arab personality will be recognized by the French personality but in order for that to happen, France must exist. “You must choose your side,” cry the haters. Oh I have chosen it! I have chosen my country. I have chosen the Algeria of justice in which French and Arabs will associate freely!

He had one concrete idea during this early part of the war—that of a “truce for civilians.” He went to Algeria in January 1956 and presented this idea at a public meeting. The proposal was badly received. Camus was attacked by the Europeans, largely ignored by the Moslems. An informant of Albert Memmi spoke of his disappointment at Camus’s “sweet sister” speech.

The dual crisis of the autumn of 1956—Suez and Hungary—brought a closer assimilation of Camus’s position to that of the French right-of-center. He supported the Hungarian rebels—as did Sartre—but, unlike Sartre, drew “European” lessons from their action: “in spite of the dramatic bankruptcy of the traditional movements and ideals of the left, the real Europe exists united in justice and in liberty, confronting all tyrannies.”1 In relation to Suez, the only violence which he condemned was that of the language of Marshal Bulganin.2 In a message to French students on Hungary he acclaimed “that violent and pure force which drives men and peoples to claim the honor of living upright.”3 At the same time, he believed that as a result of the lesson of Hungary, “We will be less tempted to overwhelm our own nation, and it alone, under the weight of its historic sins. We will be more careful—without ceasing to demand from her all the justice of which she is capable—about her survival and her liberty.”4

The France whose survival was in question was a France which included Algeria: thus the rightness of the Hungarian rebellion provided a reason for putting down the Algerian one. In respect of methods, his position remained humane: torture was “as contemptible in Algiers as in Budapest.”5 Hope nonetheless resided exclusively in the Western camp:

The defects of the West are numberless, its crimes and its faults real. But in the last analysis, let us not forget that we are the only people who hold that power of improvement and emancipation which resided in the genius of freedom (le libre génie).6

Despite his revulsion from the methods of the repression, his position was necessarily one of support for repression, since he consistently opposed negotiation with the actual leaders of the rebellion, the FLN. In 1955 he had proposed an Algerian round table without the FLN, and in 1958 in the Foreword to his Chroniques Algériennes (Actuelles III), he points out that negotiation with the FLN would lead to “the independence of Algeria controlled by the most implacable military leaders of the insurrection; that is to say, the eviction of 1,200,000 Europeans of Algeria and the humiliation of millions of Frenchmen, with the risks involved in the humiliation.”

He makes it clear that he rejects this independence, and therefore the negotiation. The rejection of negotiation is basic and necessarily implies support for the substance, if not for the details of the methods, of the French Government’s policy of pacification. The actual political formulas proposed by Camus in 1958 have to be situated in the light of this: they are formulas of a type frequently canvassed and varied by French governments at this period, designed to help the process of pacification—through the isolation of the FLN—and capable of execution only after the suppression of the FLN, if at all.

Thus the regime of “free association” which he foresaw required French military victory over the insurgents. After that he aspired to the extension of democratic rights to the Arab population, but the results of this democratic process could be overruled from France. The French Government was urged to announce:

One: that it is disposed to give full justice to the Arab people of Algeria and to liberate it from the colonial system; two: that it will make no concession on the question of the rights of the French of Algeria; three: that it cannot accept that the justice which it will consent to render should signify for the French nation the prelude for a sort of historic death and for the West the risk of an encirclement which would lead to the kadarization of Europe and the isolation of America.7

Camus’s position in the Fifties was one of extreme intellectual and emotional difficulty and tension. He had written about freedom, justice, violence, and revolt in abstract terms and asserted principles which he presented as of both fundamental importance and universal application. He never altogether abandoned this language and he continued to write about politics in the tone of a severe moralist. Yet his actual positions were political and partisan. The violence of the Hungarian rebels and of the Anglo-French expedition in Egypt raised no problems. It was violence “on the right side”: precisely the logic he had rejected, on grounds of a rigorous morality, in relation to revolutionary violence. Freedom was an absolute for the Hungarians and their violence in asserting their will “to stand upright” was “pure.” The violence of the Algerian Arabs, who thought that they were making the same claim, was “inexcusable” and the nature and degree of the freedom to be accorded to them was a matter to be decided by France, in the light of its own strategic needs—a plea which was irrelevant when made by Russia.

He remained in fact a Frenchman of Algeria and what seemed to be the increasingly right-wing positions of his later years were latent in his earlier silences. The only public statement of Camus on the subject of the Algerian war that has the ring of complete candor is one that he made in Sweden in December 1957 just after he had received the Nobel Prize: “I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn a terrorism which operates blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and which one day may strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.”8

The defense of his mother required support for the French army’s pacification of Algeria. It is only in the light of this situation, with all its conflicts and ironies, that one can understand Camus’s last and perhaps his best novel, La Chute (The Fall).

La Chute began as a story for L’Exil et le Royaume, and is marked by some of the same preoccupations as the stories in that collection. The place of exile is Holland, the setting a dock-side bar. The story is cast in the form of a monologue; the narrator is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, once a lawyer, now describing himself as “a penitent judge” (juge pénitent).9 Clamence’s style is elaborate and ceremonious: “I see you gag at that imperfect subjunctive. I must confess my weakness for that form and for fine language in general.” One of the reproaches that had stung Camus most at the time of the publication of L’Homme Révolté was that of excessive elegance in style: in the person of Clamence he gives this tendency full rein, while partly parodying it, and taunts his adversaries. He diagnoses that his interlocutor is a bourgeois: but a “refined bourgeois! To gag over imperfect subjunctives indeed proves your culture twice over since you recognize them in the first place and then since they irritate you.”

The setting, like so much in L’Exil et le Royaume, is dreamlike: “Holland is a dream, sir. A dream of gold and smoke. More smoky by day and more gold by night. Did you notice that the concentric canals of Amsterdam are like the circles of hell? A bourgeois hell, naturally, peopled with bad dreams.”

Clamence tells of his life in Paris, as a lawyer: “I specialized in noble causes…. I had my heart on my sleeve. You would have really thought that justice slept with me every night.” He abounded in small courtesies, was generous, lived a full life:

I succeeded in loving at the same time women and justice, which is not easy. I went in for sports and fine arts…. I was made to have a body, hence that harmony in me, that easy mastery which people felt and which helped them to live, they sometimes told me. In truth, through being a man, with so much plenitude and simplicity, I became a little bit of a superman.

One day when coming back from court after making “a brilliant improvisation…on the hardness of heart of our ruling class,” Clamence was crossing the Pont des Arts when he heard a laugh behind him, looked around and saw no one there: “The laugh had nothing mysterious about it. It was a good laugh, friendly….” That evening when Clamence saw his face in the bathroom mirror “it seemed to me that my smile was double.”

He tells of another incident which altered his picture of himself. Getting out of his car to remonstrate with a stalled motorcyclist who refuses to move and uses abusive language, he is hit in the face by a pedestrian who takes the side of the motorcyclist. Behind his car, a line of traffic starts to honk horns. He returns to his car and drives off while the pedestrian taunts him with cowardice: “After having been struck in public without reacting, it was no longer possible for me to caress that beautiful image of myself.” He dreams of revenge: “The truth is that every intelligent man dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society through violence alone. As that is not as easy as you might think by reading certain kinds of novels, one generally relies on politics and runs to the cruellest party. What does it matter after all to humiliate one’s mind if in that way you can succeed in dominating everybody? I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression.”

He tells of a kind of love affair. He learns that a woman with whom had had once slept had told a third party that he was not much good. He takes care to recapture this woman, dominate her, and mortify her: “Until the day when in the violent disorder of a painful and constrained pleasure, she rendered homage aloud to what enslaved her. On that day I started to get farther away from her since I had forgotten her.”

Then he tells of his “essential discovery”: Crossing the Pont Royal in Paris one night in November, three years before the evening when he heard the laugh, he sees a young woman leaning over the parapet. After passing her, he hears the noise of a body falling into the water. He stops without turning round. He hears a cry repeated several times, going down the river and then ceasing. He listens for a while, then walks off with short steps in the rain: “I informed nobody.”

  1. 1

    Franc-Tireur, November 10, 1956: Quilliot, Camus, Essais, p. 1780. The general edition of Camus’s works used in the present essay is the Oeuvres Complètes, Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Gallimard): I. Théatre, récits, nouvelles; II. Essais, edited by Roger Quilliot, 1965.

  2. 2

    Tempo Presente/Demain, February, 1957: Essais, p. 1763.

  3. 3

    Message to a meeting of French students, November 23, 1956: Essais, p. 1781.

  4. 4

    Ibid.

  5. 5

    Discours de la Salle Wagram, March 5, 1957: Essais, p. 1783.

  6. 6

    Ibid.

  7. 7

    Algérie 1958 in Chroniques Algériennes (Actuelles III).

  8. 8

    Stockholm interview, December 14, 1957: Essais, pp. 1881-2.

  9. 9

    This is probably a reference to the penitent orders of friars, who both do penance themselves and suggest penance to others.

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