Amorlist or a moralist? Celebrating 100 years of Albert Camus

Standing on the beach/With a gun in my hand/Staring at the sea/Staring at the sand/Staring down the barrel/At the Arab on the ground/I can see his open mouth/But I hear no sound/I’m alive/I am dead/I am the Stranger/Killing an Arab.

These were the lyrics of an almost discarded Cure 1979 b-side recording, whose production quality – with its strident tinny guitar, its labouring bass and discordant jaggedy drumming – was little better than a badly recorded bootleg. But it has become perhaps one of the only songs out of The Cure’s repertoire that really matters.

The song was of course ‘Killing an Arab’. It was written by Robert Smith, not in a moment of racism, but instead as rumination on a scene in a book by the then intellectually rejected French existentialist writer and dissident mind, Albert Camus. And it has become one of the most recognizable two and a bit minutes of that the minimalist post-punk anti-establishment generation of the 1980s. A generation that tried as hard as any to project an attitude that life was worth, in the words of the song, ‘absolutely nothing’.

Camus, by the time ‘Killing an Arab’ was being listened to, although long since dead had become almost the poster boy for all the disaffected generations who were to follow him. The iconic pictures of Camus with his collar turned up, a cigarette hanging perpetually from his lips, together with his working-class background, his mythical athleticism and his famous involvement in the French Resistance made him, in the popular imagination of an educated and yet economically unstable lower-middleclass, the ‘authentic’ rebel.

For them Camus, a man who could in a few deftly written pages deny the values of a capitalist bourgeois society, would always be a hero. The very icon that a generation, brought up on the failure of Callaghan’s Labour Party and living under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, was looking for.

But this was not the first generation to be attracted to what was deemed to be Camus’s anti-bourgeois rebellion. Both the French New Wave Cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and the German New Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder had hung on the coattails of Camus’s anti-hero from his novel L’Etranger (translates into English as both The Outsider and The Stranger), Meursault, the amoral figure who was condemned to death by a capitalist–Christian society for failing to conform.

But to read Camus as merely a rebel, a dissident nihilist, is a mistake that many generations have made. For Camus was in every way atypical, an outsider even in gathering of outsiders. And his belief in a meaningless universe and his dislike for bourgeois morality was conjoined to an almost counterintuitive set of morals which he had uncovered through his own unusual upbringing.

Camus was born into extreme poverty on 7 November 1913. The son of a pied-noir, or French colonial, family in Algeria, his father was killed in the First World War when Albert was only eleven months old. His mother, who worked as a washerwoman, became almost entirely deaf due to an illness, before the 1957 Nobel Prize winner was two.

As he would say, he was brought up almost parentless ‘halfway between poverty and the sun.’ A poverty that almost certainly led to his contraction of TB at the age of seventeen and the sun that would stand at the center of his all of his works.

But although a poor colonial, educated in Algiers, Camus did seem to share some of the nihilist attitudes of the Parisian educated classes of 1940s and 50s. Above all it was his descriptions of an ultimately meaningless world (or as he would put it an ‘absurd universe’) in the novel L’Etranger that would attract the attention of both Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. And it was Camus’s doomed friendship with these two men that would clearly define him as a man who sought to deny nihilism rather than embrace it.

Camus’s famous rift with these ‘left-bank’ intellectuals began, where all literary feuds should begin, at party after some heavy drinking. Camus had by all accounts arrived late at the gathering and had immediately sought out Merleau-Ponty in order to confront him about a recently published article, shortly after the war had finished. ‘If there are no values,’ Camus is reported to have shouted, ‘then how can you say that Hitler was a criminal?’ A heated exchange ensued, which resulted in these men not talking to each other for several years.

Camus was certainly not a man for whom life was worth ‘absolutely nothing’ – his struggle with TB and his years in the Resistance had taught him that much. As editor of the Resistance Newspaper Combat he wrote to the French public some of the most impassioned denunciations of the organized political violence of both the Nazis and the Soviet communists. As he would say to Sartre in the same exchange with Merleau-Ponty: ‘there are moral values and we should do what we can and to establish and illustrate them.’

In fact Camus’s belief that there were establishable morals had begun long before his fallout with the two most famous French Marxist thinkers of the day. Camus had after all as a young man joined the French Communist Party in Algiers primarily in sympathy with the Algerian Arabs, who he believed were being grossly mistreated by the French government. He would then leave the party in disgust in 1937, after Moscow changed the party line from one of anti-imperialism to that of an anti-fascism that supported the French government.

This would set Camus on an almost quasi-religious mission to establish value in a godless universe. He would spend the rest of the 1930s documenting, in articles written for the left-wing paper Alger Republicain, the plight of the improvised local communities within Algeria. Long before many of his generation had cared to notice the problems in the colonies Camus would write: ‘We are living every day alongside people whose condition is that of the European peasantry of three centuries ago, and yet we, and we alone, are unmoved by their desperate plight.’

What is more his texts The Myth of Sisyphus (1943) and novel The Plague (1947) would, in their own ways, argue that humans could both be happy as well as dignified in their attempts to stand up to a cruel and silent universe. That is to say that values, although never simple to explicate, did exist in the pleasures of the Mediterranean sun and the fight against iniquity. What is more Camus would also vociferously petition against the execution of French collaborationists after the war, largely due to his objections to capital punishment. And it is this distinctive moral voice, rather than his tres cool popular disposition, that should, for us, count the most.

However, for all the fame that he had engendered as the voice of the resistance generation and his charmingly accessible philosophy, Camus would still remain an outsider in the very much the sense of his first novel. This was largely because his arguments stood contrary to the relativism and Marxism of the ‘fellow travelers’ that were the intellectual de rigueur up until the 1980s. And this outsider status was confirmed when his most engaged attempt to denounce Soviet style political violence – in the philosophic work The Rebel (1952) – was famously attacked by Sartre, in the influential journal Les Temps Modernes, as the work of a semi-educated colonial. It would be an attack that would not only badly damage Camus’s public reputation but was something which tapped deeply into his own personal insecurities.

But it was Algeria, the land of his birth, that would become Camus’s most complicated concern. Right from when the troubles began, shortly after the Second World War, Camus was the first to recognize that without a compromise between the whites and the Arabs: ‘Algeria will be a land of ruins and of corpse that no force, no power in the world, will be able to restore in our century.’ Steadfastly Camus argued against the popular currents of the time, insisting that Algeria should remain part of France and that the Arabs should be afforded full political rights. But it was a position only scoffed at by almost everybody both in France and in Algeria.

Of course history proved Camus right but when he arrived in Algiers in 1956 to facilitate the negotiations between his Arab friends and his own community he was denounced by both sides. Having condemned both the violence of the French Government and that of the Algerian independence movement (The FLN) he returned to Paris deeply shaken. And as the hostilities heightened in Algeria he would fall into a painful silence from which he rarely ventured.

In his last interview in September 1959 Camus depressingly explained his feelings: ‘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.’ He died in a car accident on the 4 January 1960 at the age of 46, ridiculed by the left, reviled by right. But he would be remembered in France, as one critic put it, as ‘the most noble witness of the rather ignoble age.’ A strange epitaph for a man who is widely considered, in the popular imagination, to be the touchstone of an anti-establishment rebel.

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