Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus

To leftists, an appeal for limited rebellion always sounds like a defense of the status quo, and in fact Camus was disturbed to find that only French conservatives seemed to agree with him. But Camus was determined to present some third way that would not simply fall into the simplistic left-right dichotomies of the Cold War. Unfortunately, those very dichotomies shaped the early reactions to his argument.

Stung by Camus’s criticism of their apologies for communist atrocities, Jean-Paul Sartre and other left-wing intellectuals savaged the essay in Sartre’s magazine Les Temps modernes. They accused him, variously, of apologizing for capitalist exploitation, of misreading the historical record on several philosophers and literary figures, of having no political solutions, and of being in over his head. Though there was some truth to the latter charges, Camus was right on his main points—and his accuracy cost him his standing in Parisian literary circles for years to come.

The sharp intellectual criticism of The Rebel by Sartre and his circle seems to have shaken Camus’s confidence during the early 1950s. Besides pointing to technical philosophical deficiencies, his critics had put their finger on a real problem: Camus had no concrete political program. That shortcoming became even more apparent in his agonized response to the growing conflict in Algeria. Camus found it impossible to follow most left-wing intellectuals in Paris, who blithely took the Arab side against their own government. In a famous remark, Camus denounced the National Liberation Front’s policy of indiscriminate violence against all Europeans in Algeria, among other reasons because it would strike “my mother or my family.” Unable to choose between the only available alternatives, Arab terrorism or France’s repression, he lapsed into what he hoped was an eloquent silence: “When words lead men to dispose of other men’s lives without a trace of remorse, silence is not a negative attitude.”

The ferocity on both sides was something his instinctive moderation could not reach. When he went to Algiers in 1958, just two years before his death, to speak in favor of a just French-Arab society, he arrived as a hometown hero of the Resistance, a Nobel laureate, and a writer who commanded worldwide moral authority. Yet he was shouted down when he tried to speak at a political gathering and was threatened by both sides.

Personal as well as political tensions exacted a heavy emotional toll on Camus during the 1950s. He began having attacks of “claustrophobia” in restaurants and trains, he saw a psychiatrist, and extensive womanizing caused his second marriage to unravel, with Camus finally moving to a separate but nearby apartment in order to remain close to his two children.

The almost epic promiscuity that destroyed his marriage raises questions about Camus’s relationships with women in general. In his early life, he was reserved, and Algerian friends teased him about his shyness. That changed after his short-lived marriage to Simone Hie in the early 1930s. A fellow French Algerian, wealthy, flamboyant, and beautiful, Hie knew how to manipulate men. She got together with Camus while her then-boyfriend Max-Pol Fouchet, one of Camus’s best friends, was out of town. To make matters worse, Hie was also a morphine addict, who, if necessary, would seduce doctors for the drug. Discovering that the seductions were still going in 1935, a year after their marriage, Camus left her and almost never spoke of Hie again.

But the discovery deeply changed him. Camus became promiscuous, and something cold and strangely cynical in an otherwise remarkably uncynical man broke loose. It was five years before he married again, this time to a more proper French-Algerian beauty, Francine Faure. She was talented, attractive, and intelligent in her own right, but with a more stable nature that promised something Camus may have felt he needed: a regular family life.

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