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Camus, at 100, a prophet of human rights

Camus is remembered as one of the great writers of the 20th century, and a figure of continuing controversy.
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Albert Camus (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress//Wikimedia commons)

NEW ORLEANS — A century ago today, Albert Camus was born into a poor, overcrowded home in Algiers, Algeria, the capital of France’s colonial department. He would become one of the youngest writers to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1957, at 44.

Camus’s centenary has unleashed a tide of books, conferences and critical assessments that affirm his stature as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, and a figure of continuing controversy whose work now resonates with the yearnings of the Arab Spring and the challenges of combatting 21st century extremism.

Camus’ mother, illiterate and partially deaf, became nearly mute in reaction to her husband’s death in World War I. The boy was not yet two. With scholarships and good mentors, Camus received a classical education; he moved to France at the outbreak of World War II and published a celebrated novel, The Stranger, at 29. In Paris, he wrote for a clandestine newspaper during the Nazi Resistance. He was prolific after the war, but three years after winning the Nobel Prize, he died in a car accident in France. 

In his final years Camus was scorned by former allies for refusing to endorse the National Liberation Front in Algeria as it sought independence from France. Camus denounced France for its military policy of torturing Algerian captives. But he staked out a middle ground, in a news conference in Stockholm, upon receiving the Nobel Prize: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

Camus had clarified his vision to “exalt justice in order to fight against internal injustice” nearly a decade earlier, amid traumatic aftershocks of the Nazi occupation. He broke with Jean-Paul Sartre, and the post-war Communist party when he wrote the essay "The Rebel," published in 1951.

Camus captured Western revulsion at the Holocaust, but he broadened his critique to include totalitarian Marxism as a false promise for an egalitarian society. Justice was his base line.

“What is a rebel? A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation,” he wrote. “Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified.”

Camus’s refusal to take sides on the Algerian war put him in a political no man’s land when Algerian Chronicles was published in 1958. The French military killed more than 1 million Algerians as the war eclipsed his call for a truce, advocating a democratic Algeria in a restored alliance with France. Having condemned the atrocities on both sides, Camus retreated into an uneasy silence.

“Camus’ silence over the war ravaging his native Algeria, the source of nearly all his images of worldly beauty, did not transcend ethics. Instead, it flowed from his recognition that the humiliated were on both sides,” writes Robert Zaretsky in his newly published book exploring Camus’ life and legacy, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.

In 1958, critics in Paris ignored Algerian Chronicles, neither attacking nor praising it — a sign of how steeply Camus had fallen, Nobel Prize and all.

As part of the Camus centenary, Algerian Chronicles was recently published in English, and its many favorable reviews are a sign that Camus stands well in the light of history.

Camus’s repudiation of terror in any guise foreshadowed the agony of Algeria, for which he would have grieved had he lived to see it.

After gaining independence in 1962, Algeria sank into a dictatorship, which aborted the ethos of justice that was Camus’s passion. By the 1990s, Islamic terrorists were assassinating police, professors, even doctors, most of them Muslim. Nearly 100,000 people died in that brutal civil war, which ended in the early 2000’s. But, as David Blair wrote in The Telegraph in August, “A shadowy cabal of generals, impossible to dislodge and known to Algerians as ‘le pouvoir,’ still pulled the strings of power.” 

Despite a continuing debate over Camus’s silence on the Algerian war, he has gained in global popularity as a moral figure, not least for his crusade against the death penalty.

His works, however, are not widely taught in Algerian schools. Sofiane Hadjadj, an editor at Editions Barzakh in Algiers, argued in 2010 that “Camus remains part of our cultural heritage with the same claim as St Augustine. Camus is for me quite clearly an Algerian writer. He understood the reality of Algerian society. Its misery." 

Algerian Chronicles opens with the young journalist’s report in 1939, exposing Algeria’s rural famine to a yawning bureaucracy in Paris. For that, France blacklisted Camus from newspaper work in Algeria. Throughout his writings, Camus continued to call on France to give Algeria democratic rights as a means to preserve stability for the minority of French settlers (his community) and uphold a multiethnic society.

“The Arab people,” he wrote in Algerian Chronicles, “wanted the right to vote because they knew that, with it, and through the free exercise of democracy, they could eliminate the injustices that are poisoning the political climate of Algeria today.”

Substitute “Egypt” or “Tunisia” at the end of that sentence and Camus could be writing about today’s Middle East.

“The Arab spring channeled Camus’s understanding of rebellion. An individual being treated as less than human stands his ground, saying ‘that’s enough, I will resist this outrage, this assault on my integrity has to stop,’” Zaretsky, the author of A Life Worth Living and a history professor at the University of Houston, told GlobalPost.

“For Camus, it’s so critical to find that moment when the individual discovers there are others who are saying the same thing and act upon that recognition. It’s something we all have in common, our integrity, our dignity. What those qualities demand in others is that you resist, never lose sight of humanity. The oppressor is as human as the colonized; pushing back is essential, while not turning into an oppressor or killer yourself.”

“Apart from Tunisia, the other iterations of Arab spring have failed,” said Zaretsky. “They’ve resulted in either autocracies returning to power, as in Egypt, or civil war — think of Syria. The protest against Assad in the opening stage was a rebellion of the kind Camus had in mind – peaceful, you don’t take another’s life unless there’s no other choice. Now the country has been reduced to the new Balkans.”

In his book, Zaretsky chronicles how Camus spoke out against the French military’s use of torture, yet “was disgusted by the silence of his erstwhile friends on the French left in regard to the [FLN] terrorism ... murdering the leaders of competing nationalist movements. … Camus urged both sides to recognize their complicity.”

Jacques Massu, the French colonel who devised the torture policy expressed his regret, at age 92, in a 2000 interview with Le Monde, calling it a mistake.

Zaretsky told GlobalPost: “As the French learned in the 1950s, we learned in post 9/11 America – the justification of torture coarsens, demoralizes and dehumanizes the people who apply it.”

“Enhanced interrogation techniques are no longer used,” he added. “We’re stuck with Guantanamo as a reminder of what we did. And we’re building a surveillance state. I wonder what Camus would think about that. He would be appalled by Drone warfare. Is there any form of war-fare more abstract? The person pulling the trigger is 5000 miles away and under the impression this is surgical....We’re being reduced as a democracy.”

Camus had little interest in politics; his idea of democracy turned on individual liberty, upheld by unfettered justice. In “The Almond Trees,” an essay written in 1940 before France fell to Hitler, he wrote with chilling foresight — and a transcendent hope so applicable today:

"We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish, that’s all." 

Jason Berry, a religion blogger for GlobalPost, is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.    

More from GlobalPost: A century of Camus, France's unlikely literary giant

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/rights/albert-camus-centenary-nobel-prize-human-rights