I had a strange beginning with Albert Camus, an accident that continually impeded me from him, even though the idea of him fascinated me. I knew Camus was a favourite author of my father, and to get to know something of what he might have been like, I picked up a cheap copy of The Plague in a local bookstore. It was the longest book of his on the shelf, so I felt I’d get more literary value for my money. I was about 14.
I was around one-third through the book when I left it for the night next to a potted plant. The plant’s pot leaked, and left my book soaked. It was still legible, but I had to leave off reading it for so long, I began reading another book and left it behind on my shelf. The book was well-preserved, so when I finally decided to crack it open nine years later, it still read perfectly fine. I don’t think it’s ever taken me that long to read one book before. And the story left me enraptured.
I discuss Camus because Edward Said helped me confirm something I suspected since I first read The Stranger last year. Yes, I know. It was only last year that I read The Stranger. And it was in French too, so I could experience the tactile aridity of the language. Everyone swears by The Stranger. The archetypical, almost stereotypical (no, actually stereotypical) Camus book is The Stranger. I stayed away from it precisely for the reason I prefer The Who to The Beatles and The Mets and Blue Jays to the New York Yankees. Everyone fucking loves The Stranger. It can’t be that good if nobody hates it.
Well, it must be good, because I’m that nobody. Yes, I’m that one guy who hates The Stranger. I think it’s brilliantly written; I think its narrative voice is perfectly constructed to convey the precise character of its protagonist in every word. That’s why I hate it. Meursault is an asshole. The perfect asshole.
But Said helped me identify something detestably admirable about this character. Meursault is undoubtedly an asshole, and not only that, he’s part of Camus’ colonialist erasure of the entire Arab people of Algeria. The thing about Algerian colonialism is that the French, since their first invasion in 1830, attempted essentially to do what the British did colonizing America: dispossess the natives and drive them into the desert where they may at best die or at least become a permanent underclass in our cities. Said’s interpretation is that French Algeria, as far as the mainstream culture of France was concerned, was an extension of France. As far as the French perspective was concerned, Arabs didn’t really exist anymore.
At least this was the standard reading of Camus’ work which post-colonial literary theory has produced. I mean, what they say is basically true: in all Camus’ stories set in Algeria, Arabs are marginal figures at best, appearing in the background, as anonymous plague victims, and incomprehensible murder victims. The psychology Camus plows into, despite his pretensions to its universality, is that of the white colonial Frenchman for whom Arab Algerians are barely even phenomena.
|Most people read Camus at a young age, which
is a wonderful time to make an impression,
but a terrible time to form a critical viewpoint.
I don’t believe in this reading of Camus, quite simply because it’s too neat, too plainly villainizing of him. I decided that an interesting angle to think about for the Utopias project, in the light of Arendt’s comments linking imperialism and fascism, was examining a few major accounts of the imperialist mind-set or worldview. What kind of concepts governed the imperialist mind? We typically deal with fascism so histrionically that maybe a solid insight into fascist philosophy can be gained in conversation with its older cousin.
But I knew there were bad philosophical accounts of imperialism too. One of them results in the stilted us v. them reading of Camus above, which seeks to overwrite his focus on universal existentialist questions with a blanket racism. That’s the simple post-colonial perspective that Said masterfully argues against. To say that all the Arab inhabitants of Algeria don’t exist dehumanizes them. But equally, to say that all the French inhabitants of Algeria, with Camus as their symbolic representative, are capable of nothing but racism dehumanizes them. The colonialist was not a two-dimensional bloodthirsty villain. Even so, they did villainous things.
Said makes an important point in a throwaway line early in this chapter. Albert Camus was the son of a washer-woman and a farm worker who got drafted and died in the First World War. Not exactly the nephew of the British Raj. He was part of a community of rich, middle-class, and poor. A settlement of French people who were so socially separate from the Arab majority (thanks to the exclusionary and very violent tactics of the original military settlers), that they rarely if ever met any. Many French people thought of Algeria as France. Yet the French-Algerians themselves didn’t belong in European France, but their home was African France (really, Algeria). As the war for Algerian independence began, the French-Algerians literally had nowhere to go.
Here’s where Said saved Camus for me, both from colonialism and Meursault’s dickishness. Camus was vocal in his support for keeping Algeria French, to the point where the conflict broke close friendships with many people he had known during the German Occupation, including Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus could not have been friends with these intelligent, profound, and perceptive critics and opponents of colonialism without understanding the inherent justness of the anti-colonial perspective.
Yet he was an ordinary person, a slum kid from Algeria who made connections in the Resistance and parlayed them into a literary career where he published works that were rightly acclaimed as genius. He couldn’t have avoided knowing that the entire French presence in Algeria was unjust, but he also couldn’t have avoided knowing that thousands of poor people would be ejected from Algeria with nowhere to go. If he hadn’t gotten work in Paris just before the invasion, he would likely have been one of those people.
As a French Algerian, he knew that not all the French inhabitants could be considered personally responsible for the injustice of colonialism. Nonetheless, they were physically trapped perpetuating that injustice by their mere presence, facing being forced out of the only place they called home for entirely just reasons. The military conflict was too brutal for the communities to settle their post-independence differences. Thanks to his history, Camus (says Said) had to advocate for French control of Algeria. He made himself an irredeemable ass, a moral bastard of the highest order, because he knew that his own people were created as an injustice: a civilian population to prop up a brutal military regime that lasted more than a century, left to superfluous existence after the military gave up. Vilified by the Algerians, abandoned by the French. Nowhere to go in between.
If this is the existential dilemma facing your culture and your self-identity, why wouldn't you hate everyone, perhaps including yourself? So I may return to L’Étranger soon enough, and approach its narrator with a little more sympathy, if no more respect. It would be impossible to respect that jerk. But I would be able to understand him.
Maybe after another nine years.