I am not a philosopher … and I only know how to speak of what I have lived. I have lived nihilism, contradiction, violence and the vertigo of destruction.
—Albert Camus, Lettres sur la révolte

Eustache Le Sueur,  Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors,  1647Oil on canvas,  Royal CollectionWindsor Castle

Camus, after Kafka, a fellow sufferer from tuberculosis, was haunted by judgment, by those who judge, and by the question of their right to do so. “Before the bar of history, Caligula, the bar of history!” cries Camus’s odious yet fascinating Roman emperor. Caligula’s very last words in the play, uttered with a gasping laugh as he is being struck down, are—astonishingly—“I am still alive!” Like so much of Camus’s writing, with its deceptive surface of classical clarity, these words resonate with mystery as well as savage irony.

Caligula is still conscious of life, still full of life, when he is stabbed to death by the conspirators he awaits in a form of “superior suicide”; he is defiant and triumphant at the very moment when he is overcome and breathes his last. Does it mean that the spirit of this aspiring monster, who tests and goes beyond every limit on human conduct, is alive in the world and even in ourselves? That is what Camus once implied. Is Caligula one aspect of the plague that Camus later suggested can never be totally eliminated? What values remain, what embargo is there on violence and cruelty, if all is nothingness? Unable to pass beyond good and evil as a proper disciple of Nietzsche should, and obsessed with violence all his life, Camus hovered about the problem of inner and outer darkness, which somehow he could not elude. In this regard, Camus’s work remains as central to the accumulating horrors of our age as ever.

Does it mean that the spirit of this aspiring monster, who tests and goes beyond every limit on human conduct, is alive in the world and even in ourselves?

In the first sketch of the conclusion of the play, which was to be entitled, tellingly, Caligula or the Awareness of Death, the emperor appears at the end saying, “No, Caligula is not dead. He is there, and there. He is in each one of you. If you were given power, if you had courage, if you loved life, you would see this monster or this angel that you bear within you break out.” So wrote the young Camus in his early notebooks in 1937, with all his yearning for personal happiness, for the absolute, for the unattainable— together with his confrontation of danger within and without. Caligula was the role that Camus the actor and actor-manager originally wrote for himself to perform with the theater company he ran in Algiers as a young man.

Like all his work, even the most seemingly detached, the play is intimately bound to his own personal concerns. Even Caligula’s weird anguished reach for the moon could derive from personal reminiscence for, according to Camus’s brother Lucien, their frustrated and dominating grandmother used to speak of “having the moon.” In “Le Vent à Djémila” (“The Wind at Djémila”), Camus declared: “You live with a few familiar ideas. Two or three. As a result of chance encounters with worlds and men, you polish and transform them. It takes ten years to have an idea that is really your own—one you could possibly speak about.” Then he added with characteristic irony, “Naturally, it is a little discouraging.” His imagination returns constantly to a few vital experiences and images.

The mirror is one recurring image. The reflection of himself in the mirror that endlessly fascinates Caligula is and is not the true self, that goal of authenticity for the artist and actor whose sense of alienation and solitariness Camus identified in his notebooks. “Et tout m’est étranger, tout …” (“And everything is foreign to me, everything …”), owned the author of L’Etranger (The Stranger). Added to this feeling of estrangement was the detachment of the creative artist, of the observer of human conduct, and of the actor (as defined by Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus]). Brought up under the French educational system to seek horizons beyond his working-class origins, Camus was an Algerian-born Frenchman who afterwards never felt quite at home either in Algeria or among the Parisian literary and intellectual élite.

Like his Caligula, Camus himself now stands before the bar of history: he, too, over thirty years after his death in a stupid car accident at the age of forty-seven, is very much alive. Among the signs of his enduring presence are two recent productions of Caligula, one of them given at the Comédie Française. The probing texts of a conference on Camus’s theater, the most controversial part of his literary output (as distinct from his politico-cultural essays and journalism), have been published.1The fiftieth anniversary of that widely read novel, L’Etranger, influenced by the American “tough guy” school of James M. Cain, and first published in 1942 during the Occupation, has been duly celebrated in France.

Camus’s fiction has long attracted filmmakers with intellectual pretensions like Luchino Visconti, who made a movie of L’Etranger, and Ingmar Bergman, who apparently regrets not having transferred La Chute (The Fall) to the screen. A new film has just been made of that strange allegory, La Peste (The Plague)—a work inspired by Kafka and Melville—by the Argentinian film director Luis Puenzo, who seems to have found similarities between Camus’s Oran in the grip of the plague and the situation under dictatorship in his own country. One prospective filmmaker who wanted to film La Peste professed to see a link between the nihilism of Camus’s era and that of the present day.

In addition to this activity, a selection of Camus’s journalistic writings from 1944-47 in the Resistance newspaper Combat is now presented in English translation, with the evident conviction of their relevance to present-day affairs.2 In his sharp account of the aberrations of French intellectuals, few of whom escape whipping, Bernard-Henri Lévy declares: “I am fond of Camus… . A writer who is scarcely ever found wanting in nobility and courage is exceptional. Besides, I am sure he was amusing.” (Like Kafka, Camus had a humorous side, and he himself once remarked that people did not take sufficient note of his sense of humor.) Given all this interest in his work in the spheres of stage, screen, and the written word, it looks as if the end of the Cold War has not dimmed Camus’s reputation. Instead, this epoch-making upheaval has perhaps moved the angle from which the writer can now be viewed.

To return to Caligula, first performed in 1945: it marks—along with Camus’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, staged in 1956—a rare highpoint of his popular success in the theater. Each play offers an attempt to wrestle with the problem of evil in a life shorn of values. These dramas also reflect Camus’s tireless (and possibly misguided) concern with the creation of a modern form of tragedy in an age that he found deeply tragic. (He thought that Faulkner’s powerful baroque novel, composed in semi-dramatic form, was “one of the rare modern tragedies.”) It is well known that the original production of Caligula owed much of its impact to the début of the young Gérard Philipe in the demanding title role. Delicate and vulnerable in appearance, with the innocent air of a perverse adolescent, and endowed with the inimitable musicality of his voice, Gérard Philipe (all who saw him agree) has proved without equal as Caligula in conveying charm, vanity, cruelty, and ambivalence. By common consent, his successors, in France and elsewhere, however talented in other respects, have mostly been competent but ordinary, lacking charisma, unable to efface the original image of a unique presence that can still be felt even in theatrical photographs.

What did Camus see in this catalogue of horrors to occupy him for so long?

So it was with the recent staging of Caligula at the Comédie Française. The production there, under the aegis of the noted Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, took the form of an elaborate conflation of ancient and modern in the current fashion, a mélange of togas and motorbikes, Rome and North Africa—visually striking and even cinematographic where perhaps simplicity might have fared better. The producer was not averse to changing the order of scenes to suit his own purpose. But which is the “correct” text? There are several versions of the play, which occupied Camus at different moments between 1937 and 1958, as he moved the emphasis of Caligula’s revolt from the sphere of the cosmic and metaphysical, where it was placed originally, to that of the political and social, from solitariness to the implication of solidarity with humankind.

Shattered by the sudden death of his sister-mistress Drusilla, the all-powerful young Caligula embarks on a series of arbitrary acts of folly and cruelty. He (like his creator), and not only when he is impersonating the goddess Venus, is an actor-manager of considerable talent. His destructive indifference to human life and human suffering springs, paradoxically, from a passion for life. His monstrous madness has a certain absurd literal logic to it, breaking the hypocrisy of conventionally accepted norms and forms. If, for instance, the Treasury is to be regarded as all-important, then clearly human life is not. He shares the bitter sardonic humor of the atheist Meursault, condemned to death in L’Etranger, who rejects the spiritual comfort offered by the priest by saying that he is not interested in the things that do not interest him. Caligula’s one merit is that he tries to force people to think about the truth of their condition, though finally he is driven to acknowledge that, in acting against other human beings, “I have not taken the proper path, I have achieved nothing. My liberty is not the right kind.” On the stage, the play remains dark, difficult, disconcerting, and challenging.

What did Camus see in this catalogue of horrors to occupy him for so long? The simple commonplace that human beings die and that they are not happy sets the young Caligula on his frenzied path to make life give up its secrets, to change life as it is commonly lived unthinkingly. Camus was only about seventeen, fond of swimming and playing football, when he was struck down by tuberculosis: he thought he was going to die; he dreaded nothingness with “that physical fear of the animal who loves the sun.” He was to suffer recurrent attacks of this illness for the rest of his life—a matter that is often overlooked. Latterly, much has been made of the fact that—like André Malraux—he came late to the Resistance. Where Malraux’s commitment took the form of armed resistance, Camus’s involvement was moral, in the shape of clandestine journalism for Combat. As “Albert Mathé” he was also engaged in underground activity that carried considerable risks of imprisonment, deportation to the camps, death. Given the state of his health, his conduct should seem creditable enough.

Camus’s early years in Algeria had been marked by extreme poverty. His father, of French ancestry, was killed in the battle of the Marne in 1914 before the boy was a year old. His illiterate mother, of Spanish descent, found work as a cleaning woman to try to hold the family together. Yet such poverty, one possible source of his ill health, did not by his own account bring unhappiness, or preclude his profoundly sensuous and lyrical enthusiasm for the Algerian landscape, for the violent sun and radiant sea, the Roman ruins of Tipasa, the palimpsest of Djémila, all those life-enhancing elements of his youth that he would encapsulate in what he later liked to call the Mediterranean spirit. This was less an idea—to be scorned by academic philosophers—than a personal experience or response transformed into a value that would help to guard him (and, possibly, others) against the fearful destructive consequences of the powerful nihilistic ideologies that tempted him and his contemporaries.

It was not long before Camus’s reputation was hedged about with misunderstandings. He was taken for the conscience of his age —a sort of French George Orwell—because he came to defend certain humane principles, and to advocate measure and the recognition of human limitations. Most notably he stood out against racialism, against the death penalty, against the criminality of “the end justifies the means,” against the bloodshed of the would-be utopia of “the new man,” against institutionalized murder on the grounds of “necessity” or for the supposed benefit of future generations. The Swedish Royal Academy, in awarding Camus the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, cited his treatment of the problems facing the conscience of humanity at the time. Camus would scarcely have been human if he had not felt some gratification at his celebrity, at the path he had traversed from the poor district of Algiers. Yet he also knew that his fame as a kind of “secular saint” was a millstone around his neck, irritating some (notably one-time friends like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) and generally preventing people from seeing him as he truly felt himself to be.

Protest as he might, though, few appeared to pay much attention to his disclaimers. In a manuscript note to L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), Camus the Don Juan complained about the painful misunderstanding under which he labored: “I bear the weight of a reputation for austerity at once undeserved and rather ridiculous. If I have fought so firmly and uncompromisingly against those who legislated or killed in the name of the absolute, it is because I was aware of my own shortcomings and because I found only in them the permission to say that nobody is sufficiently just or pure to arrogate the right to judge without appeal… . Neither in my work nor in myself has there been an attempt to convert people to virtue but a logic that derives from frailty and a difficult struggle to attain to greater light. That is all.” Years later, in an interview with the novelist and playwright Jean-Claude Brisville, published in 1959, Camus was still elaborating the same theme, declaring that his name as a guide and guru made him laugh.

Even in the very last interview he gave, in December 1959, he went on insisting that “I don’t speak for anyone else: I’ve enough trouble to find my own manner of speech. I don’t guide anybody: I don’t know, or scarcely know, where I’m going. I don’t live on a pedestal: I walk like everybody else in the streets of the day. I ask myself the same questions as men of my generation, that’s all.” In his acceptance speech in Stockholm he had quietly talked of being gifted with his doubts alone. “Why am I an artist and not a philosopher? It is because I think in accordance with words not ideas,” he had once observed in his notebooks.

This tendency to work slowly and with no little effort toward a position that he can regard as true and just—one that is then held firmly and is publicly defended—may be traced throughout his life. What separates him from the “German friend” to whom he addressed those powerful “letters” in 1943-44? From an intellectual point of view, very little, it would seem, since they both derive from the same masters of nihilism, from Nietzsche and the rest. And yet it turns out to be a great deal, when Camus finally opposes the Nazi and his like, offering resistance in the name of humanity and justice. “I have chosen justice … so as to stay faithful to the earth,” he wrote. “I continue to believe that this world has no supernatural meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning, and that is man, because he is the only being who demands meaning for himself.” The determination to resist, to take a stand, has no sacred sanction, it is not rooted in some philosophical system. It is a free choice made from an inner propulsion (“I know”). Here, Camus’s debt to André Malraux (in their photographs, even down to the manly cigarette ever hanging between the lips) is evident, in his attempt to rescue “man” from the forces that would destroy him. Camus’s vocabulary derives from that of Malraux, in its assumption (characteristic of the day) that there is no need to mention woman in the definition of humankind.

Where does Camus stand today now that the Cold War, in whose intellectual or cultural history he figured so largely, has come to an end?

Equally plain is Camus’s debt to Henry de Montherlant’s aristocratic view of “qualité” or nobility and a kind of Spanish point of honor. He shared Montherlant’s reliance on scorn, and his distaste for the “shopgirl’s morality” that in his opinion flourished under the Third Republic. Literature could still inculcate some of the attitudes of aristocracy even in those who were not born aristocrats. The seductiveness of Montherlant’s writings lay in his prose, in his hedonism and his death-oriented nihilism. Yet ultimately Camus drew away from Montherlant. He came to reject Montherlant’s stress on equivalence. For Camus, life cannot be regarded from the point of view of eternity.

A similar kind of slow development or revelation is to be found in the matter of the excesses of the purge at the Liberation. In the exaltation of the moment, in Combat on October 20, 1944, Camus could justify the purge in the name of a terrible law which obliged Frenchmen “to destroy a still living part of this country to save its very soul.” Gradually, though, Camus moved away from his rallying call to revolution, from being the new “Saint-Just issuing alive from Malraux’s L’Espoir,” as a contemporary expressed it, in the immediate post-Resistance period. He turned into the journalist who wanted neither victims nor executioners. It is clear, then, that when in 1951 Camus published L’Homme révolté, his influential critique of revolution (as indeed with Caligula in 1945), he was not composing a detached study or work but was writing out of his own temptations as well as those he witnessed among leading fellow writers and intellectuals.

It is from this angle that we should now view L’Homme révolté, that mine which many writers have since worked and reworked, a book once seen as integral to the polemics of the Cold War. (Indeed, this influential book would soon connect with the horrors of the Franco-Algerian War, which raged from 1954 until two years after Camus’s death, with the use of torture on the French side and terror on the other.) The notorious polemic instituted by Sartre and his spokesman, Francis Jeanson (who even today expresses no regrets), on the subject of L’Homme révolté remains central to the history of ideas and to the culture of our age. The tone of Sartre’s reply to Camus, criticizing the loftiness of Camus’s objections to Jeanson’s review, is not just deeply wounding, it intends to wound. It would be tough on someone unknown to the author: addressed to a sensitive friend whose every vulnerable spot is familiar, it is cruel. Whenever afterward Camus declares that he does not seek to put himself on a pedestal, one can be sure that he is still smarting from Sartre’s accusation that he carries a kind of “portable pedestal” around with him.

Camus’s working-class origin is coldly discounted by Sartre, who levels at him the deadly charge of turning “bourgeois” and of betraying the proletariat and the Left. Unlike Sartre, he was not prepared to defend Communism and the USSR at all costs, supposedly in order to save the workers from the loss of hope, from the harsh truth of what was going on there. The one-time ardent young Communist of 1935-37, who grew indignant when the party line changed and the Algerian Moslems were left to their fate, and who was expelled for his pains, would always see himself as a man of the Left. He was neither a liberal (in the European sense) nor had he gone over to the Right Wing whose luminaries sought to co-opt him. Moreover, during the Cold War, despite his loathing of Soviet tyranny, he could not give his whole-hearted faith to the United States because of the notion of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” and the policy of support for dictators, most notably for General Franco. Camus was extremely keen on his Spanish heritage through his mother, and he treasured his debt to it; he was emotionally attached to the distinguished actress Maria Casarès (daughter of Santiago Casares Quiroga, former prime minister of the Spanish Republic), who played leading roles in several of his plays; and his greatest friends in Paris were to be found among the Spanish Republican exiles.

Where Camus sought to take his stand was on truth and justice as he understood them: these were the great rocks that, like Sisyphus, he was endlessly pushing up the hillside to see them roll down again. His concern for them, and for moderation, came to save him from the self-righteous intransigence of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and their allies as they favored first the USSR, and then Mao’s China and each new and usually murderous revolutionary “utopia” in turn, in the name of a changed world and “the new man.” In this way Camus eluded the deception, the lies, the passion for the extreme and, above all, the advocacy of the use of violence and the condonation of terror which besmirch the reputation of Sartre, Genet (if the word reputation may be used of him), and the Maoist intellectuals who followed.

This is not to say that Camus was lacking in a certain “nostalgia” (as his editor Roger Quilliot calls it) for the nineteenth-century Russian terrorists, like Ivan Kaliayev, who was responsible for the assassination of Grand Duke Serge in 1905—but then much of our culture is rooted in nostalgia for violence. Here was another contemporary temptation (see the celebrated opening pages of Malraux’s La Condition humaine, with the terrorist’s murder of a sleeping man). Camus depicted Kaliayev and his associates as “fastidious assassins” in L’Homme révolté, on which he was working when his play on the same theme, Les Justes (The Just), was first staged in 1949. They are seen as “fastidious,” admired as pure, noble, and honorable because—unlike the terrorists of Camus’s day and our own—they are ready to yield up their own lives after killing in the name of an ideal. As has been pointed out with regard to this specious view, murder is murder, no matter how refined the scruples of the assassin.

Certainly, by the time of the Algerian revolt, and the indiscriminate terror practiced by the FLN (the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale)—keenly supported and justified by Sartre and his circle—Camus made no secret of his opposition to political murder. He particularly scorned intellectuals who advocated terror and who sympathized with terrorists from the comfort of their armchairs. In a much commented-upon observation, he said that he put the life of his mother, who was still living in Algiers, first. In the end, with him as a writer and a human being, it was not just words but people that came before ideas.

A good deal of ink has been spilt over Camus’s attitude to French colonialism in Algeria, especially by his judges on the Left or by the politically correct. Camus found himself in a cleft stick. By origin descended from settlers, he would have liked to keep a reformed, democratic Algeria linked to France. In his youth he had favored the reforms proposed by the Léon Blum-Maurice Vialatte bill, reforms that were stymied by powerfully entrenched French colonial interests. As a young journalist he had written a moving report on poverty among the inhabitants of the Kabylie region. He was outraged by the terrible repression of the uprising at Sétif in 1945, which left many dead. After all, he was brought up among Algerian Moslems, some of them future political leaders, who counted among his friends and acquaintances.

What he did not seem to take into account was the driving force of fanatical nationalism which, once unleashed, would inevitably propel Algeria to full independence, democratic or no. There was a certain naïve idealistic strain in Camus, one-time supporter of Gary Davis, the now long forgotten would-be citizen of the world. Camus tried to do what he could for peace and reconciliation: in January 1956 he went to Algiers to speak in favor of a truce. Events outstripped him. Thenceforward, fearing to aggravate the situation by public declarations, he intervened constantly behind the scenes on behalf of numerous Algerian Moslems who were on trial or in prison awaiting execution. The list of those he tried to save is long.

It was inevitable that the Franco-Algerian tragedy would leave Camus torn with ambivalent feelings. Central to his impassioned self-inquiry is the masterly monologue La Chute of 1956. There, Camus probed the theme of “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” with its religious connotations. Now, after the Fall, nobody can be innocent. The work is a cry of critical and self-critical irony, issuing from his own profound self-dissatisfaction as well as from his acute perception of the self-righteousness and self-deception of his pontificating fellow intellectuals on the Left who judged him to be a traitor to the cause. That super-subtle former lawyer, Jean- Baptiste Clamence, heir to Diderot’s eccentric personage, Rameau’s nephew, has left France for Amsterdam, abandoning his profession, spending his time there in buttonholing strangers, like the one whose responses can only be gleaned from the words of Clamence himself.

Clamence’s sustained sardonic confession provides at the same time a way of accusing everyone else. The details of his disquisition or indictment are left deliberately vague, and are constantly being called into question, so that his words have a wide reference. Are all of the utterances of this womanizing self-styled actor really true? There is reason to doubt it. The great sin of omission that (he claims) changed his life as a do-gooder of repute, his failure to respond to the cries of a drowning woman, can stand for all sins of omission and commission, all the acts that obsess the human conscience with the burden of guilt and destroy the virtuous self-image. The piece is a sustained dramatic parable where the judge-penitent flays human weakness in himself and in others: “… I am concocting a portrait which is that of everyone and no one. All things considered, a mask… . Yet, as the same time, the portrait I offer my contemporaries turns into a mirror,” says Clamence. Here is a later version of Caligula’s mirror—the reflection of the darkness within.

Where does Camus stand today now that the Cold War, in whose intellectual or cultural history he figured so largely, has come to an end? The collapse of the Communist system in the USSR and its former satellites has not actually eliminated die-hard Communism and the many shades and varieties of radical Left Wing sympathy. (The ability of members of extreme movements of Left and Right to shed skins in renewal, like the snake, has been witnessed countless times.) That collapse has merely shown up the bankruptcy and bad faith of the intellectuals who championed Stalin, Mao and the rest, and who whitewashed terror as a political instrument. Certainly, the cry of violent revolution as a substitute faith or a fashionable shibboleth is not being heard at the moment. In this sense, the mature Camus has been vindicated.

Yet to regard the end of the Cold War between the superpowers as a victory for liberal democracy and a new world order would surely be premature. Camus well knew that freedom—like truth and justice—has to be conquered. Violence and terrorism have not been erased from the imagination or from actuality. A Pandora’s box of moral, political, and economic ills has now been opened: extreme nationalism, racialism, religious zealotry, “ethnic cleansing,” together with Fascism and Nazism, have reappeared in late-twentieth-century Europe. An idea, however perverse, cannot be killed. It goes underground to re-emerge when times are ripe. In Le Monde of December 5, 1992, that well-known authority on Sartre, Michel Contat, could inquire whether Marxism has taken refuge in the catacombs.

Toward the end of Camus’s allegory La Peste, there is a shatteringly resonant passage: “But he knew nonetheless that this chronicle could not be that of the conclusive victory. It could only be the witness of what had had to be accomplished and what, doubtless, all men … would still have to accomplish against terror and its tireless weapon… . For he knew what this joyous crowd did not know: … that the bacillus of the plague never dies or disappears, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture and linen, that it waits patiently in rooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and bundles of papers, and that, perhaps, the day would come when, for the misfortune and the education of men, the plague would reawaken its rats and would send them to die in a fortunate city.” In La Peste the plague is not only Fascism and Nazism, perverse ideology, violence, injustice, inhumanity, dictatorship, and the Occupation of France: in one of its aspects, the plague is life itself and all the ills and evils that flesh is heir to. The warnings of Camus are there to remind us of a never-ending struggle where we are not granted to complete the work.

As Camus wrote in 1950 in an essay entitled “L’Enigme” (“The Enigma”): “In the darkest moment of our nihilism, I looked only for reasons to go beyond that nihilism.” Not, he added, out of virtue or loftiness of soul but out of a passion for light and life. In Aeschylus, he suggested, there is an enigma, a meaning deciphered with difficulty because it dazzles the view. Something of that kind of enigma is to be found in his own works. Indeed, it is neither as a “secular saint” nor as the partisan of a particular cause that Camus should be viewed today, but as a fallible human being who made mistakes and was aware of many of his own shortcomings, who struggled for justice and decency, and whose writings stand as moving testimony to that struggle. He could be wrong at times, of course, but the amazing thing is how often he was in the right, and how much he still has to say to us in a dark hour.

  1.  Albert Camus et le théâtre, edited by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, IMEC Editions, Paris, 241 pages, 160 FF.
  2.  Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper “Combat,” 1944-1947, by Albert Camus. Selected, and translated from the French, by Alexandre de Gramont. Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 145 pages, $35; $14.95 paper.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 7, on page 35
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