"He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."--Albert Camus, The Plague (1947; trans. Stuart Gilbert)
One hundred years ago today, Albert Camus—the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, journalist, playwright, and philosopher—was born in French-held Algiers, a land he prized for holding “stones, flesh, stars, and those truths that the hand can touch.” That poverty-stricken but visually sensuous environment catalyzed the same kind of belief in physical reality and suspicion of “isms” that Ernest Hemingway wrote about, with such memorable disillusionment, in A Farewell to Arms: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain….There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.”
Camus’ childhood environment provided creative fodder to which he repeatedly returned, in the same way that film director Francois Truffaut obsessively returned to the sights and sounds of his youth. I don’t think it’s an accident that as a result, both men developed a humane outlook on life that eventually put them at odds with the intellectual comrades-in-arms of their youth: Jean- Paul Sartre and Jean-Luc Godard, respectively. The Marxism of the latter two men—and particularly, their justification of anything, including violence and head-spinning ideological reversals—created painful, decisive breaks in the relationships.
The novel The Plague might at first be thought of, reductively, as an allegory on the appearance (and, as the above quote hints, scary re-appearance) of totalitarianism in its various forms. It gains texture from an actual setting—the coastal town of Oran, in Algeria—and from faith (by no means simple—Camus’ Dr. Rieux, like his creator, carries on minus a belief in Christianity he has lost along the way) in life-affirming actualities, typified by the following remark: “Well, personally, I've seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy and I've learned that it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.”
The photo accompanying this post summons up the writer as impossibly glamorous, the "Don Draper of existentialism," in the words of The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik. At odds with that image are the novelist's words--hard-bitten, compelling, all the more committed to truth by being informed by bitter experience.
The new, 50th-anniversary issue of The New York Review of Books contains an essay by novelist Claire Messud on Camus’ anguish over—and eventual isolated silence about—the Algerian War of independence that racked France in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Messud correctly praises him for the “honesty and consistency” with which he simultaneously urged France to make good on its longstanding promise of assimilating Arabs and denounced all resort to terrorist violence.
At the time of his fatal auto accident, at age 47, in 1960, Camus was painfully isolated from the left over what they viewed as his hopeless naivete. His admonition against terror, however, looks more compelling with each day, as does his powerful denunciation of atrocities perpetrated in the name of defeating it: “we must refuse to justify these methods [reprisals and torture] on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain.”