Joining the chorus

Albert Camus' journalism, more than his famous fiction, reveals the evolution of his thinking on life and how to live it

(Kurt Hutton via Getty Images)

When Albert Camus said on the evening of December 12, 1957, “I have not yet given my opinion about Algeria, but I will if you ask me,” he was making an offer that students at the University of Stockholm could not refuse. Two days earlier, Camus had become the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Algeria, the setting for his world-famous novels The Stranger and The Plague, as well as his place of birth, was the site of an escalating colonial war. What’s more, in February 1956, Camus had resigned from his editorializing at L’Express and imposed upon himself a public silence about the conflict, having failed in a series of articles and meetings to convince either French officials or members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (fln) of the virtues of dialogue and the need for a civilian truce.

So even if an Algerian man hadn’t asked Camus that December night why he neglected to sign petitions on behalf of Algerians and then insulted him, the writer’s opinion was bound to be newsworthy. Amid interruptions, Camus asserted, “You are in favor of democracy in Algeria, so please be democratic now and let me speak . . . . Let me finish my sentences, because the meaning of a sentence often isn’t clear until it ends.” After citing his credentials as a journalist who had once been forced to leave Algeria for defending Muslims and stating that while publicly silent he had not ceased to act, Camus said, “I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn the blind terrorism that can be seen in the streets of Algiers, for example, which someday might strike my mother or family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” When Camus ended that sentence, he neither knew that its meaning was unclear nor that his words on the matter would be so quotable as to become in effect his last: In 1960, while riding from Lourmarin to Paris with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, he died in a car crash at the age of 46.

Ever since Le Monde published the sole account of the exchange, the oft-called “famous” or “controversial” remark has been open to interpretation. Its weighing of one life with the principled fate of many has been attacked as a cowardly stance on colonialism—rendering him reminiscent of the youngest Nobel recipient, Rudyard Kipling—and defended as a humanist’s nuanced critique of terrorism. It isn’t surprising, then, that the Stockholm incident is revisited in two new books, Camus’ Algerian Chronicles, edited and introduced by Alice Kaplan and translated by Arthur Goldhammer, and A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, by Robert Zaretsky. What is surprising is that Kaplan and Zaretsky both present an alternate version of events that was recently endorsed by the editors of Camus’ Complete Works, based on the testimony of Camus’ Swedish translator, who heard the controversial words differently: “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.” This straightening of the record, more clearly a refutation of a single definition of justice, isn’t the only likeness the books share, and, read in tandem, the one fills the other out. The concise biography gives backstory to the life Camus led over the 19-year period that his Algerian essays span, and the journalism in Chronicles is a very useful frame for that engaged life. To grasp what Camus meant in Stockholm, it’s necessary to understand his intellectual and moral development as spelled out in his readings of Greek tragedy and his writings for Combat, a French Resistance newspaper, during and after World War II.

There’s an earlier anecdote about Camus that neither of these books mentions—although Zaretsky discussed it in a previous work, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life—that foreshadowed his stand on Algeria. After recanting his support for the purge of Nazi collaborators during the postwar trials in France, in some cases having called for the death penalty, Camus ran into an old friend in late 1946. The friend had just joined the Communist Party at a time when doing so meant explaining away Josef Stalin’s gulags. As recorded in his notebook, Camus said:

“Then you’ll be a murderer.”

“I’ve already been one,” the friend replied.

“I too. But I don’t want to be any more.”

“You were my sponsor.”

That was true.

“Listen, Tar. This is the real problem: whatever happens, I shall always defend you against the firing squad. But you will be obliged to approve my being shot. Think about that.”

If the formulation sounds simple, something out of Ethics 101, that’s because it is: When Camus wasn’t waxing lyrical or glossing the work of more rigorous thinkers, he displayed a gift (and a curse) for simplicity. And so while there is a certain timeliness with these two books, in that 2013 was the centenary of Camus’ birth and Algerian Chronicles—his last book to be translated into English—is newly relevant in light of the Arab Spring, they are also important for their reminder of a simple point that Camus held dear: Life may be shaped by ideology, but it is lived exclusively by men and women.

It was the defense of those messy, imperfect lives that Camus insisted upon with his friend Tar, and his editorial journalism, where he turned his private thoughts into public stances, records the decisions and revisions that led to his insistence on moderation above political expediency. As a world war ended and a cold one began—two superpowers as ready to kill as to convert—Camus floated the radical notion that he had no right to sacrifice another’s life for the greater good or a brighter tomorrow, and he questioned all who said they did. God and history are easily claimed allies, and life is often cheap when either is on your side. Camus hadn’t pulled any triggers during the postwar purge in France, but he called for the loading of the rifles—that was enough, for he came to believe that words well-aimed are as deadly as bullets and also the only defense against them. He decided his hubris could not bear repeating: too many mistakes of that caliber, and there won’t be anyone left to decide who was right and who was wrong.

Before camus tried his hand at journalism, he took to the stage. He completed his thesis at the University of Algiers in 1936 and graduated to running a theater company. This was during Camus’ two-year stint as a member of the Communist Party, and the theater donated ticket sales to unemployed workers in Algiers. The know-your-audience theory of programming led to the staging of Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound in 1937. The god who disobeyed Zeus and shared the prized power of fire with mortals had been a fixture of the leftist-hero circuit since at least 1841, when in his doctoral thesis Karl Marx called Prometheus “the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” Camus echoed the sentiment: “A revolution is always carried out against the Gods—from that of Prometheus onward.”

Camus was soon ready for his next role, one for which he could write and deliver his own lines, and he joined the young staff of the Alger-Républican. The startup newspaper in Algiers was in line with the Popular Front movement led by socialist León Blum, who coauthored the unrealized Blum-Violette proposal, which would have granted civil and voting rights to more than 20,000 Algerian Muslims. In one of his first signed pieces, Camus wrote of his visit to a docked prison ship filled with Arabs: “there is no sight more dismal than that of men who have become less than human.” It was in the same spirit, which came to animate his best writing, that in the spring of 1939 he began his multi-article coverage of a famine in the north, the first reported piece collected in Algerian Chronicles, called “The Misery in Kabylia.”

Camus wasted little time determining that the problem of the famine was economic not ecological, the solution not charity in the form of a few tons of grain but an overhaul of France’s colonial policies. Men need to work in order to buy food, Camus conceded, but they cannot work when they don’t eat. In response to the rightwing backlash his reports inspired, he wrote, “These days, it seems that one is not a good Frenchman if one speaks of the misery of a French territory. I must say that it is hard to know nowadays what one must do to be a good Frenchman.” Camus exhorted his countrymen to live up to the ideals of a republic that had once discarded the divine right of kings in favor of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. To him, the choice was clear.

A few months after his last dispatch on the famine appeared, Germany and the ussr signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the news of one African colony’s travails was pushed off the front page. On September 7, with Nazi troops in Poland, Camus again saw the black and the white of a conflict. “You can’t say: ‘I don’t know about it,’ ” he wrote in his notebooks. “One either fights or collaborates . . . . It is both impossible and immoral to judge an event from outside. One keeps the right to hold this absurd misfortune in contempt only be remaining inside it.” Although already embarked on what would become a multi-genre trilogy of the absurd—the play Caligula, the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and the novel The Stranger—Camus couldn’t anticipate the heights of absurdity that the coming war would reach.

To recuperate from a bout of his recurrent tuberculosis, Camus left Algeria in 1942 for a mountain village in France and the following year joined the staff of the clandestine newspaper Combat. After the liberation of Paris in August 1944, his newly attained editorship of the paper assumed greater complexity. Without a common foe to unite disparate factions, the Resistance-bred affiliations between Catholics and Communists, socialists and conservatives, quickly weakened; the old question of power, who wielded it and how, reasserted itself. No small issue was how to deal with collaborators: Vichy officials, opportunistic industrialists, complacent journalists (some 32,000 French citizens were eventually imprisoned for collaboration). Days after the liberation Camus in Combat refused to distinguish between killers and accomplices, and he soon wrote that “it is pointless to contest the terrifying fact that we will be obliged to destroy a living part of this country in order to save its soul.” By then he was in a debate, played out in the editorial pages, with François Mauriac. The Catholic novelist and future Nobel Prize in Literature-winner had worried about the Resistance’s postwar potential for excess from the start: here he pointed out that “inquisitors also burned bodies in order to save souls.”

Camus offered analysis on news foreign and domestic—the role of journalism in a free France, FDR’s reelection, General Franco’s Spain—but his back and forth with Mauriac forced him to be specific about his own calls for morality to enter into politics. Camus was fond of implicating his readers; now he implicated himself. It is often only in dialogue that either position becomes truly defined, and he had to follow his logic through to the gallows. When the first death sentence for a collaborator came down, he wrote in his favored first-person plural, “And we have chosen to embrace human justice, with its terrible imperfections, while seeking anxiously to correct it by clinging desperately to honesty.” Divine justice may have sufficed for a believer like Mauriac, but eternity was not soon enough for most men; justice needed to be terrible and swift. That the death sentence in question went to a journalist and not, say, Marshal Petain, who led the Vichy government, or a member of the paramilitary Milice, which deported Jews, indicated how those imperfections would play out.

Through all this, Algeria was not far from Camus’ thoughts. Six days after Germany surrendered, he published the first of six articles in Combat that derived from a three-week visit to his homeland. It was a tough time to rouse readers to action around another famine abroad, but Camus persisted, running the pieces on the front page. “We are condemned to live together,” he wrote. Send justice, grain, and money. He informed his countrymen that hundreds of thousands of Algerian Arabs had just fought under the same tricolor, and that since France had failed to assimilate or enfranchise those Arabs earlier, with the modest Blum-Violette proposal, it wouldn’t be long before the colony would fail France. The realities of famine do not change, Camus found, but their repercussions do.

Desperation came to color much of Camus’ writing. “The world is what it is, which isn’t much.” So began his editorial of August 8, 1945, published two days after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One of the only other denunciations in the French press was by François Mauriac, and it was no longer the only issue on which the two men shared an opinion. Camus now judged the postwar purge a failure: “It seems that the straight path of justice is not easy to find amid the cries of hatred coming from one side and the special pleading of guilty consciences coming from the other.” The black and the white had turned gray. The wisdom of Mauriac’s approach had lain in its appeal to charity and moderation, qualities to be sought not for their status as Christian virtues but for their ability to check man’s unending passion for finding himself in the right. The perils of this passion increasingly preoccupied Camus—how a blanket defense of one’s rightness could undermine, even destroy, the authority of what may have made it right in the first place.

And so, in late 1946, shortly before his telling exchange with Tar, Camus took down the talking points of another meeting: a night of conversation about morality and politics at André Malraux’s house with Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Koestler, and Manés Sperber. Koestler spoke of the necessity for “a minimum political code of ethics”; Malraux wondered if the fate of the proletariat was always the paramount concern; Camus asked if the beginning of hope wasn’t a recognition that, whether coming from the schools of Nietzsche or Marx, they had been wrong in denying moral values; and Sartre refused to denounce the ussr exclusively, comparing the deportation of Russians to the lynching of African-Americans. (“Yes. Etc., etc.,” it seems, was all poor Sperber mustered.) “And during all this time,” Camus wrote, summarizing the evening, “the impossibility of determining how much fear or truth enters into what each one says.” The times had changed, and what had been a united front was now a fractured Left. Each of the former allies would go on to take his own stand in relation to Soviet communism. Malraux served for 10 years as minister of culture under Charles de Gaulle, Sartre fashioned his own brand of militant Marxism and anticolonialism, and Camus fell back on humanism, the only defense he saw against cold war totalitarianism.

In his last major Combat writings, a series called Neither Victims nor Executioners, Camus addressed this problem of fear, truth, and division: “We live in terror because persuasion is no longer possible, because man has been delivered entirely into the hands of history and can no longer turn toward that part of himself which is as true as the historic part, and which he discovers when he confronts the beauty of the world and the people’s faces.” Here is Camus in his element: He’s not wrong, he’s just rococo. Whether in the face of Sartre in Paris or an Algerian in Stockholm, Camus hoped to discover what was shared; he believed there was always something, and that whatever it was it would triumph over nothing. He had seen men disagree yet unite to fight the Nazis, and now the ussr’s communism and the US’s capitalism both ended up with cost-benefit analyses that rated such truth, beauty, and dialogue expendable. But what could replace these systems? That is always the question. Camus offered prescriptions—such as internationalism—but he was more effective at diagnosing, and he returned to the Greek god to describe the scope of the ailment: “Man today believes that we must first of all free the body, even if the mind must suffer temporary death. But can the mind die temporarily? Indeed, if Prometheus were to reappear, modern man would treat him as the gods did long ago: they would nail him to a rock, in the name of the very humanism he was the first to symbolize.” Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Zaretsky, in his prologue to A Life Worth Living, and Goldhammer, in his translator’s note to Algerian Chronicles, classify Camus as a moralist, and both offer explanation, knowing that Americans will quickly find the person so-labeled guilty of presumption and pretension. While a true moraliste seeks to remind man of what he is and what he can be, it is also true that most people don’t have the time to be reminded of either. It’s also hard to render the disparity between what we are and what we might be with a light touch—writing for the ages invites a heavy hand—which is why Camus’ novels can sometimes feel as if they operate in two dimensions. At his best, in his fiction and nonfiction, Camus placed man in a situation, absurd or otherwise, and tried to show how he might work out his salvation, without God or faith in the progressive nature of history. The crisis in Algeria placed Camus himself in such a situation. His newspaper career had begun on the question of what was to be done there and it concluded on it as well. His moderation was put to the test.

He had claimed in Neither Victims nor Executioners that there was “only one honorable choice: to wager everything on the belief that in the end words will prove stronger than bullets.” It was a bold bet. As the fln and the French government increasingly embraced the methods most readily available to them—the one carrying out targeted hit-and-run terror attacks, the other replying with disproportionate and sometimes indiscriminate force, including torture—Camus began writing editorials in L’Express in 1955, condemning the tactics of both. Again, he was stuck in the middle. He traveled to Algiers and met with moderates to urge a civilian truce and to remind them that they should “refuse both to employ and to submit to terror.” A crowd of Algerians outside the hall threw rocks at the window. It’s unclear whether life informed art or art informed life, or if there’s even a useful distinction, but what Camus wrote in “On the Future of Tragedy,” a lecture he delivered in Athens that same year, expressed his conflicted feelings about Algeria:

Prometheus is both just and unjust, and Zeus who pitilessly oppresses him also has right on his side. Melodrama could thus be summed up by saying: “Only one side is just and justifiable,” while the perfect tragic formula would be: “All can be justified, no one is just.” This is why the chorus in classical tragedies generally advises prudence. For the chorus knows that up to a certain limit everyone is right and that the person who, from blindness or passion, oversteps this limit is heading for catastrophe if he persist in his desire to assert a right he thinks he alone possesses.

For his final role, Camus joined the chorus. Which is why in Stockholm he rejected any justice that allowed for the killing of civilians and why he also wrote a letter to Le Monde, saying that the Algerian who had challenged him “knew what he was talking about, and his face reflected not hatred but unhappiness and despair. I share that unhappiness. It is the face of my country.” It was to that unified country that Camus felt he always remained faithful, and even during his public silence he acted behind the scenes, protesting in letters some 150 death sentences issued by the French government to Algerian freedom fighters. He published Algerian Chronicles in 1958, six months after receiving the Nobel. At that time none of the major players much cared to listen to his call for prudence. Camus must have known that that, too, is generally what happens in classical tragedies. Words proved no match for bullets.

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Elias Altman is an associate editor of Lapham's Quaterly.