Camus, untouchable? A new book accuses him of being a colonialist and rekindles the controversy with Sartre

Scholar Olivier Gloag, author of an essay that attempts to dismantle the Camusian legend, is criticized for wanting to cancel the philosopher

Albert Camus
Albert Camus at the Antoine Theater in a photograph from 1959.Keystone-France/ Gamma-Keystone/ Getty Images
Marc Bassets

Everything comes back, even if it is wrapped in different clothes. In the France of Emmanuel Macron and the — perhaps unstoppable — rise of Marine Le Pen, the dispute regarding the revolution and the left-wing totalitarianism that marked the French intellectual life of the mid-20th century and that confronted Jean-Paul Sartre with Albert Camus is back, too.

A book titled Oublier Camus (in English: Forgetting Camus), by Olivier Gloag, a professor at the University of North Carolina, has reopened the wound. The text portrays Camus as a colonialist writer — a sexist one, too, among other sins — far removed from the image of secular saint and irreproachable humanist icon. “It’s not about judging Camus, but about enriching the reading,” says Gloag. “He must still be read, but without seeing him as a character from a fairy tale.”

The Camusians did not like Oublier Camus. They accuse Gloag of “intellectual dishonesty,” of “tearing down statues” and of “cancelling,” in the style of the leftist American university, as has been read in Le Figaro. Also, of “reconstructing the Stalinist processes of the 1950s.”

What is fascinating is how a dispute that took place so long ago — the breakup between two friends who happened to be the most famous intellectuals of the time — still has not ended. Sartre, author of Nausea and Being and Nothingness, is read less, and he is considered to have been dramatically wrong in some of his political commitments. Camus, author of The Stranger, is a bestseller, they read him in school and politicians of all parties invoke his memory.

As Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in 1981, “that controversy is still current,” as “every morning it is updated by the newspapers, with their share of havoc and the political and moral dilemmas in which they plunge us.” Four decades have passed and, even though Camus won the battle for posterity, the controversy remains open.

“I try to go beyond an emotional position: it is not about knowing whether one likes Camus or not,” says Gloag. “If there is a criticism, it is of his reception. In the last 30 years, there has been a kind of idolatry. He is almost sacred in France — as the reactions to my book have shown.” What he seeks in the 141 pages of Oublier Camus (published in French by La fabrique éditions) is to desacralize him.

No, the author maintains, Camus, of French and Spanish descent and born in colonial Algeria to a poor family, was not anti-colonialist. In The Stranger, a work of fiction narrated by a Frenchman who kills a nameless Arab on an Algerian beach, “everything [...] seems to de facto deny the status of human being to Algerians.” Camus, he says, is “the ultimate colonial writer.”

The Plague, Camus’ other great novel, narrates the story of an epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran. It has been interpreted as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, but that is not the case, according to Gloag. “I propose a different reading. The plague is neither Germany nor the Germans; it is the resistance of the Algerian people to the French occupation, an intermittent but ineluctable phenomenon, which from the perspective of the colonists resembles a deadly disease.”

And so the author proceeds, with an inquisitive and relentless reading of Camus’ work and biography, from the resistance to Nazism to the commitment against the death penalty, covering the break with Sartre, his relationship with the actress María Casares (and women in general) and his reservations about the independence of the country where he was born and to which he felt deeply attached.

Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Renaud, the painter Balthus, Arthur Honegger, María Casares and Albert Camus in Paris, in 1948.
Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Renaud, the painter Balthus, Arthur Honegger, María Casares and Albert Camus in Paris, in 1948.Lipnitzki / Roger Viollet / Getty Images

“Reading his own words, his works and [...] his letters,” writes Gloag, “one discovers the character’s multiple sides, which refute the mythical image that has been built of the beautiful novelist, straight, solitary, supportive, tormented but fair.” The title of the book, the author explains to EL PAÍS, does not mean that he is forgotten, nor that he should be; quite the contrary.

“What must be forgotten is the Camus that has been presented to us,” he explains. “Today in France there is a permanent use of Camus by the political establishment. We have to rid ourselves of this Camus who serves to justify everything and nothing. I propose to free Camus from the abusive, complacent manipulations, and face him directly.”

Mohammed Aïssaoui, a writer and journalist in French (like Camus), born in Algeria (like Camus) in a poor family (like Camus) and author of the recently published Dictionnaire amoureux d’Albert Camus (in English: Love dictionary of Albert Camus) says by phone: “This controversy has not surprised me at all.”

The assault on the Camusian myth began during his lifetime, after the 1953 publication of the essay The Rebel, which caused the break with Sartre. Because he was already a myth, even more so after 1957, when at the age of 42 he became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature since Rudyard Kipling. Then, in 1960, his death in a car accident would further enlarge the legend.

The controversies never stopped. An essay published in 1970 was titled Camus: Philosopher for High School Students. The great Irish intellectual and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien in the 1970s, and the Palestinian-American Edward Said in the 1990s, already stressed the colonial aspect of his work.

“Controversy is common,” observes Aïssaoui. “The only thing that is strange here is that the attack always comes from a certain extreme left, when this political fringe should be proud that the son of a modest family, educated in the republican school, became a great French writer.”

He ponders: “How can we blame him for being a colonialist? People forget that he was a son of Algeria, that at the age of 20 he went to Kabylia to see the misery and do a report that I would describe as almost worthy of a Nobel Prize, and that he was not at all distant from the Arab population.” Regarding the war, which broke out in 1954 and led to independence in 1962, he points out: “Evidently, it was his homeland, and he felt torn by what was happening.”

Benjamin Stora is a leading historian of Algeria, where he was born, and a man with a long history on the Trotskyist, socialist left. He is outraged by those who criticize Camus alluding to colonialism: “In France there is an old Stalinist current that keeps bringing up the same nonsense every 10 years.”

Yes, says Stora. Camus was not in favor of independence, and advocated a federal solution. But he was one of the few to condemn the 1945 French massacre of Algerians in Sétif, and he was close to other nationalist leaders like Messali Hadj. What he opposed, he adds, was the hegemonic FLN, the only party.

“What politically grounds Camus is Spain, the Spanish revolution,” points out the historian. “But he was anti-Stalinist, his world belonged to the anarcho-syndicalists.”

There is, in essence, another underlying debate between the radical left, more Sartrean, and the social democratic left, more Camusian. Gloag accuses the latter, at the end of the book, of “insidiously masking its racism and imperialism with a false universality, which also masks the class struggle with a façade of egalitarianism.” “The two irreconcilable lefts,” as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.

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