Le premier homme
Albert Camus died in a car accident in France, on January 4, 1960, at the age of forty-six. Despite the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded him just three years before, his reputation was in decline. At the time of the award critics fell over one another to bury its recipient; from the right Jacques Laurent announcing that in awarding the prize to Camus “le Nobel couronne une oeuvre terminée,” while in the left-leaning France-Observateur it was suggested that the Swedish Academy may have believed it was picking out a young writer, but it had in fact confirmed a “premature sclerosis.” Camus’s best work, it seemed, lay far behind him; it had been many years since he had published anything of real note.
For this decline in critical esteem, Camus himself was at least partly to blame. Responding to the fashions of the day, he had engaged in philosophical speculations of a kind to which he was ill suited and for which he was only moderately gifted—The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) has not worn well, for all its resonating aphorisms. In L’Homme Révolté (1951) Camus offered some important observations about the dangers of lyrical revolutionary illusions; but Raymond Aron said much the same thing to vastly more devastating effect in L’Opium des intellectuels, while Camus’s naive, almost autodidactic philosophical speculations exposed him to a cruel and painful riposte from Sartre that severely damaged his credibility with the bien-pensant intellectual left and permanently undermined his public self-confidence.
If his literary reputation, as the author of L’Etranger and La Peste, was thus unfairly diminished in contemporary opinion by Camus’s unsuccessful forays into philosophical debate, it was his role as France’s leading public intellectual, the moral voice of his era, that weighed most heavily upon him in his last decade. His editorials in the postwar paper Combat had given him, in Aron’s words, a singular prestige;1 it was Camus whose maxims set the moral tone of theResistance generation as it faced the dilemmas and disappointments of the Fourth Republic. By the late Fifties this burden became intolerable, a source of constant discomfort in Camus’s writing and speeches. In earlier years he had accepted the responsibility: “One must submit,” as he put it in 1950.2 But in the last interview he ever gave, in December 1959, his resentful frustration is audible: “I speak for no one: I have enough difficulty speaking for myself. I am no one’s guide. I don’t know, or I know only dimly, where I am headed (“Je ne sais pas, ou je sais mal, où je vais”).3
Worst of all, for Camus and his audience, was the dilemma posed by the tragedy of French Algeria. Like most intellectuals of his generation, Camus was bitterly critical of French policy; he condemned the use of torture and terror in the government’s “dirty war” against the Arab nationalists, and he had been a vocal and well-informed critic of colonial discrimination against the indigenous Arab population ever since the Thirties (at…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.