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.