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Unacceptable clarity

The masculine, serene Camus of the photographs became a man harassed, verbally and physically, by those who had once been his friend

To canonize Camus on the obvious occasion of his centenary is to attempt what his worst enemies could not do: domesticate him, or bury him in irrelevance. The causes he cared about - Algeria and Hungary, among others - are now forgotten. It is easy to pick a few catchy quotes and put them under black-and-white photos of him, and you have a comfortable icon of Camus to be used in legitimizing our positions and prejudices.

But you need only read him, and the holy effigy speaks out to the present. To speak clearly, for Camus as for Orwell, was a duty both esthetic and political. Words had an urgent task to do. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Camus reviewed the grim landmarks that had molded his generation. Born on the eve of the Great War, he grew up amid the rise of communism and fascism, and later the extermination camps and the unprecedented specter of nuclear war. In this landscape, nothing was easier than to opt for blind ideology, or nihilism or fatalism. Camus chose skeptical rationality, observation; the search for tangible, modest solutions; to improve things by possible degrees.

The masculine, serene Camus of the photographs became a man harassed, verbally and physically, by those who had once been his friends, or whom he had helped and defended. The last volume of his Carnets shows him under an attack which he is not sure he doesn't deserve, and which he was never able to foresee. His bitterness also shows in his Algerian chronicles, just published in a new English translation by Arthur Goldhammer. Camus assembled the material for it in 1958, breaking the vow of silence regarding the issue that he had made in 1956 after a visit to his native land in which he had unsuccessfully tried to achieve some compromise between the French army and the insurgents.

The Arabs were not a bunch of fanatical terrorists, and nor were the Europeans all colonial officials and tyrannical planters

Political shamelessness can be limitless. Camus, who as far back as 1939 had first written against the injustice of French rule in Algeria, was accused of defending colonialism by many who had been silent all that time; and, having risked his life in the Resistance, heard himself called a coward by intellectuals who had joined only after Paris was safely liberated.

Time and again, Camus stubbornly reiterated in his writings a political position that is also an attitude toward life, because he is writing about the land where he was born, a land he loves and feels to be his real, sunlit homeland. It is right to defend the oppressed, but not the crimes committed in their name. You cannot condemn terrorism and at the same time justify torture used to fight it.

Between the French soldiers who tortured and murdered Algerian prisoners and the FLN insurgents who killed and mutilated anyone, soldier, civilian, woman or child, for the mere fact of being French, Camus refused to take a side. Not out of a timid predisposition to neutrality, but because he felt for the victims, as much those of one side as the other. He was for the Arabs' right to live in liberty and receive justice, and for that of a million white Algerians to go on living in the land where they were born. In a time of stereotypes and cruel caricatures drawn by hatred, he always sought to see real people, not abstractions. The Arabs were not a bunch of fanatical terrorists, and nor were the Europeans all colonial officials and tyrannical planters. The best hope for Algerians of every race and religion would be a democracy where all were equal before the law.

In a time when extremism is raging, nothing is more unpardonable than common sense. To learn from Camus is as necessary now as it was sixty years ago. There are no legitimate tyrannies. It is not right to erase the individuality of persons to accommodate them to the sinister uniformity of collectives. No cause is noble enough not to be rotted from within by murder.

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