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Camus as conservative: A post 9/11 reassessment of his work
By Murray Soupcoff
Not long after the tragic events of 9/11, The Guardian -- that last fanatical bastion of English left-wing obstinacy and foolishness -- published a unique book review honouring the latest Penguin edition of The Plague, the enduring fictional allegory of human suffering and sacrifice, written by French existentialist novelist Albert Camus.
It was particularly surprising that The Guardian, of all publications, would publish what was really a revised introduction to the latest English-language edition of The Plague, since Camus' unique philosophical and political point of view was always so different from that of most of today's Guardian contributors.
Like many other European intellectual heirs of Heidegger at the end of World War II, Camus philosophically travelled to the very edge of the ontological abyss and resolutely confronted a black Nietzschean vision of the death of God and the end of all conventional morality (a bleak vision sparked by the horrors of the Nazi era and the complicity of so many "ordinary" citizens in the cruelties of the holocaust). But unlike such existentialist contemporaries as Jean Paul Sartre, Camus did not cope with the "anxiety", "nausea" and "dread" that accompanied this nihilistic vision by taking refuge in the most popular left-wing "isms" of his day.
As reviewer Tony Judd appropriately noted in his Guardian piece, Camus' point of view in The Plague is particularly worth careful study after the events of 9/11. If nothing else, it demonstrates that if he had somehow still been alive on the day of that terrorist nightmare, he -- unlike most leftist thinkers of yesterday and today -- would have had no problem making judgements about who was at fault and why. And it is very unlikely that he would have been tempted to justify (or rationalize) the horrific actions of al-Qaida by proffering the well-worn slander, so popular on the Continent, that the United States somehow deserved what it got.
Of course, there's no doubt that Camus was definitely a man of the political left. He had been raised in grinding poverty in Algeria. And he was briefly a member of the Communist Party in pre-war Algeria. But unlike Sartre and his pampered middle-class friends, Camus didn't existentially seek an awareness of "being" by means of a dogmatic ideological mission to redress human misery through the totalitarian Stalinist revolutionary solution (with all the doublethink and violence this ideological undertaking involved). Instead, Camus -- to use his mode of expression -- "revolted" against the "no" in life by embracing the "yes" in existence.
Camus would not take the easy way out intellectually, by abandoning all notions of morality and ethics in politics for the sake of the ultimate good (the revolution). Unlike Sartre and company, he rejected the era's most beckoning diversion from the phenomenological nihilist nightmare -- an intellectual fun ride on the deterministic Marxist roller coaster of historical inevitability, an intellectual adventure during which one immersed oneself in the extremes of a historical dialectic in which the end (the revolution) justified any means (murder, show trials and the extermination of all who get in the way).
As existentialists, intellectual contemporaries such as Sartre may well have attempted to confront the angst-inducing vision of the godless, nihilistic hellhole that represented "existence" for free thinkers in post-Nazi Europe. However, Sartre and his followers flinched. They turned away from this depressing nightmare, and found an escape from free will in the siren call of the dialectical "historical" struggle and all the comforting certainties (and rigidities) that the Stalinist strain of Communism offered them at the time. And by throwing themselves into the pursuit of the revolutionary end, they and their myriad compatriots in the class struggle were freed to pursue any means. In their minds, they and political idols like Stalin were unrestrained by the limits of everyday morality from pursuing the extremes of human cruelty that the revolutionary mission might demand.
In the class struggle, they could find "meaning" and "aliveness" in being. They could experience a Nietzschean "vitality" that only intellectual Ubermensches of revolutionary culture like themselves could truly appreciate. And through the struggle for revolution, they could transcend the empty nothingness of everyday bourgeois existence that so upset them.
Camus too came face to face with the same nihilistic vision that bedeviled most European freethinkers in the aftermath of World War II -- the dark, rootless path of constant suffering that was life, which ended only in the fear and trembling that attended godless death. But -- to use his language -- he "revolted" against this nihilistic dead end, the absurdity of existence that comprises the vale of tears of human life.
Instead of succumbing to the darkness of this nihilistic vision, by affirming the "no" in life, he turned to what he considered to be the "yes" in life -- the a priori light of human existence: others. He said "yes" to the intrinsic sense of solidarity he experienced toward his fellow humans (no matter how imperfect they were), and otherwise strived to accept the unalterable "limitations" of human existence.
Rebellion for Camus was not the inhumane "ends-justifies-the-means" action demanded by the historical struggle for the perfect revolutionary social order -- with all the murderous extremes that such a struggle inevitably encompassed. Camus' notion of rebellion resisted the nihilistic call, by affirming the relatedness of self to others and to nature. One strived to accept the limitations of human existence, all the while savoring every joy in life and fighting against every private or civic action that brought unjust suffering to others.
For Camus, the true "rebel" embraced human solidarity, as both means and ends, in a continuing "revolt" against the nihilistic shadow. The rebel could feel most alive by transcending the nothingness of being and finding meaning in relatedness to his or her fellows. And within Camus' humanistic world view, even the unceasing dialectical march of revolutionary history had to come to a halt when confronted by the exigencies of an even more basic a priori truth of existence -- each human's essential solidarity with and obligation to the other.
Of course, after wading through this somewhat arcane discussion, you're probably thinking by now: "So what? It's 2002. Why bother ourselves with outdated writings from more than 50 years ago? Why refight the philosophical and political battles of post-War Europe now?"
The answer is twofold. First of all, after a careful reading of Camus, it's not difficult to come to the conclusion that despite his life-long leftist political leanings, he was a philosophical conservative by nature. And secondly, he still remains one of the best intellectual antidotes for budding college-age intellects searching for "meaning" amidst the empty, sterile conformity that comprises life in contemporary capitalist society (in their minds anyway).
Camus is a cautionary literary and philosophical footnote to the post-Heidegger European intellectual quest that has bequeathed to us the intellectual poison of Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the soul-destroying theorems of deconstruction. He is an energizing antidote to the paralyzing non-judgmentalism of post-modernist political thought that produced the strange ambivalence (if not satisfaction) of North American intellectuals regarding the events of 9/11.
As a man of political action, Albert Camus may have adopted the language and world view of European leftist politics as he battled against the social and political injustices of the 1940's and 1950's. But perhaps because his entire identity was so rooted in the practical, real-world sensibility of the working-class surroundings of his Algerian childhood, and his strong identification with the eternal rhythms of nature that dominated life in the seaside surroundings of his birthplace, Camus could not shake an intrinsic conservatism in his perception of the dynamics of change in human life. Consequently, in quasi-philosophical treatises like The Rebel, over and over again he cautioned even the most well-meaning social and political revolutionaries of the need to keep in mind the "limitations" of human existence -- the innate and enduring injustices of life and nature which mere human interventions could never alter (after all, life's greatest injustice may well be that we inevitably die).
Like some wise old conservative, even the youthful Camus seemed to have an instinctive skepticism about the perfectibility of man or his social institutions. And just like post-war conservatives in the U.S. (of whom he did not approve), he instinctively recognized the travesties of the great Stalinist experiment in revolutionary society that was the Soviet Union of the 1930s, '40s and '50's. He was appalled by the Stalinist show trials of the 1930's. He condemned the ruthlessness of the petty commissars and tyrants who flourished in the Communist revolutionary milieu of the 1930's and '40's. And unlike leftist European intellectual contemporaries like Sartre, he strenuously objected to the Soviets' ruthless suppression of the anti-communist Hungarian uprisings of 1956.
Most important, Camus' literary and philosophical writings offer an alternative intellectual magnet for today's disaffected young intellectuals. He addresses the sense of alienation and rebellion still experienced by today's idealistic young thinkers in the post-modern age, those stubborn young minds still trying to forge an "authentic" path amidst the absurdity and banality of what they view as modern living. Having confronted death in his many bouts with tuberculosis, and during his participation in the French resistance movement, Camus convincingly tackles the question of living authentically within the modern existential void. And yet unlike Heidegger's post-modernist successors, Camus rejects any escape into the moral relativism of post-structural nihilism.
For in the end, Camus recognizes the existence of good and evil in human life. And in his writings, as in his life, he tried his best to ally himself with the forces of good (the light), in the fight against the forces of evil (darkness). His was an intellectual voyage guided by an innate notion of the enduring pull of the other -- by the timeless call for human solidarity against the vicissitudes of existence.
Certainly, Camus would have understood and approved of the heroic sacrifice made by so many New York City firefighters and police on September 11th, 2001. And As Tony Judd noted in his Guardian review, The Plague in particular makes enlightening reading in the aftermath of the dramatic events of 9/11.
Consequently, I suggest you amble over to your nearest bookstore and pick up a paperback copy of Camus' novel The Plague and then his political-philosophical treatise The Rebel. Think of them as intellectual comfort food for these confusing times.
Even better, make a gift of The Plague (and perhaps Camus' cold tale of alienation, The Stranger) to some conflicted young person in college you're acquainted with. It may well serve as a surprising antidote to the poisonous cant currently being dished out to this unknowing victim by his or her post-modernist professors.
Murray Soupcoff is the author of 'Canada 1984' and a former radio and television producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He also was Executive Editor of We Compute Magazine for many years, and is now the Managing Editor of the popular conservative Web site, Iconoclast.ca.
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