The Frustration of a Blind Audience, A History Boy, 26/09/2016

In the early days of the blog, I wrote a long post about how Edward Said changed my mind radically about the masterwork of one of my favourite authors, Albert Camus. This week, I came across a couple of books that made me reconsider his work again.

Algerian writer Kamel Daoud wrote The Merseault Investigation, retelling the Arab’s side of the story of The Stranger. In short, it’s the narrative of the brother of the man Merseault killed on that beach – his own life as a Muslim African Algerian, marginalized in his own country.

My first exposure to Camus' work was when I bought a copy of The Plague
as a kid, knowing that its author was among my father's favourites.
And Ryu Speath’s piece also reviews Alice Kaplan’s book of literary history Looking for The Stranger, a research work that tries to reconcile the two competing views of Camus’ most legendary achievement.

When I first wrote a long-ish post about Camus, I discussed what Said brought to my understanding of The Stranger that I hadn’t thought of before – Its context as a work by a white Franco-Algerian. 

I’d always dealt with discussions of The Stranger in classrooms, instead of with how any artwork should be read. You should discover a work through a friend’s referral, or your own research because you like affiliated stuff, or it seems interesting when you stumble across it.

The Stranger’s reception when it first dropped was as the narrative statement of French existentialism – the most profound intensities of philosophical confrontation of humanity’s pretences with our finitude, pettiness, and mortality. And that was how its ideas were always discussed when I was in school.

There's "the absurd man" as the universal – reflected and described in the surreal imagery of Franz Kafka, the conceptual profundity of Jean-Paul Sartre, and the stark narrative of Albert Camus. 

One of the reasons my original post got so many pageviews was that I posted a link on a philosophy board at Reddit. This was long before I’d really discovered the depths of Reddit’s white supremacist and misogynist tendencies as a community – I was only ever a casual visitor. 

The Algerian War of Independence saw countless massacres, and was the
first major guerilla-terrorist uprising of a Muslim country against a
Western power. And under Charles DeGaulle's imperialist, nationalist
policies, the French government had it coming.
One commenter told me I simply didn’t understand the concept of the Absurd Man, because I was bringing all this information about real countries, histories, and populations to Camus’ abstract universal. 

So the two receptions of Camus over the 20th century were as a literary prophet of existentialism’s universality, or as a permanently compromised apologist for colonialism whose work continually erased the presence and lives of his Arab neighbours. How would we decide which was the right vision? Did it matter?

Is this basically just restating the basic idea behind “The Death of the Author”? Well, of course it is! But it’s an important enough idea that it still needs to be said. Our reception of Camus literally determines who he is – who he is in the whole world of humanity. How other people receive and understand us is central to all our roles in the wider human world.

It’s especially important for Camus, now that he can’t even get into fights with people over what his work could mean. This author is literally dead.*

* And part of why I find car crashes so interesting as narrative events. 

But just because who an author (or anyone) is depends on how we receive her, that doesn’t make the author entirely passive in this relationship. In this case, we can still uncover elements of Camus’ personality and positionality that can guide us to his intentions. 

And that’s what Kaplan’s book apparently does. When I read Said’s essay – both the general rejection of Camus in post-colonial literary studies and his own more nuanced take on The Stranger and other of the Algerian’s works – Camus was described as a white Algerian. His poverty was acknowledged, but he was still taken as someone who lived separately from the Arab population.

The war of independence brutalized Algerian culture and politics ever
since, with the newly liberated government consolidating a
military dictatorship and the only opposition being radical Islamist.
But that wasn’t actually true – among the very poor, which Camus was, there was a lot more social mixing with the local Arab population. The poor Franco-Algerian communities where Camus was raised suffered most during the war of independence and the ejection of French-speaking white people from free Algeria. They weren’t accepted as legitimate Algerians, despite having lived there for centuries, but they weren’t able to leave the country in mass because they were too poor. 

Said also depicted Camus’ opposition to Algerian independence and the anti-colonial rebellion in simple nationalist-colonial terms. But in Camus’ own correspondence and discussions, he wanted a more utopian achievement for Algeria and France. He wanted the two countries united in a post-national state where Arab Algerians, Franco-Algerians, white Europeans, and French Muslims could live together as neighbours. 

And it becomes clear what Merseault was originally supposed to be. When I finally got around to reading The Stranger, what struck me most – what I was never expecting from all the glowing depictions of the narrator as a literary voice of existentialism – was what an asshole Merseault was. 

Camus made him an asshole from the start. He didn’t want us to sympathize with Merseault – The Stranger’s narrator was a condemnation of French self-absorption and refusal to see people with any sympathy. 

Algeria's political environment today has no place for
secular-leaning, liberal intellectuals like Kamel Daoud,
who's risked his life to criticize the military regime and
Islamist opposition. In The Merseault Investigation he
writes of his country, "the beast fattened on seven years
of war had become voracious and refused to go back
The problem with its reception was that too many readers bought into Merseault’s self-lionization. They saw all Merseault’s dignity in absurdity, but were blind to the ethical (and political) implications of his actions – the only thing that could get the colonial French authorities to punish a white man for murdering an Arab was if he were already a pariah in the community.

So that’s the most recent serious reconsideration I’ve given to the point of view and ethics of this writer who’s been so important to me since I was a teenager. And this doesn’t diminish him in my eyes, no. 

All this complication, my picture of Camus, his work, all the meanings in his words, only makes the experience of reading him more rich and satisfying than it ever was before. I’m thankful to everyone who’s contributed to the complexity and the strangeness of this legendary writer.

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