CAMUS’S CALL TO SPARE THE LIVES OF NONCOMBATANTS ECHOES STILL
important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times’’.
His novels, including The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall, are alive with phenomenological minutiae in their examination of life as it is lived and, importantly, justified. He is often called an existentialist, something he denied repeatedly, rather than the absurdist he was. He articulated his philosophy in The Myth of Sisyphus, explaining, unfortunately without the stylishness of his fiction, that although life is contingent and meaningless, it is still invaluable. Suicide, he argued, was neither a logical nor a moral way out.
Despite the absurdism and the worldweariness of his fiction, his good looks and his tireless womanising, sincerity was perhaps his defining characteristic. His peers commented on his modesty.
Camus was born in Algiers in 1913. A year later, his father died defending France in the Marne. He and his brother were reared by their deaf mother, their uncle and grandmother in a working-class suburb. A teacher took him under his wing and he graduated in philosophy from the University of Algiers.
He became a journalist and his 1939 reports from famine-struck Kabylia, written during 10 reasoned in argument, with no hint of sarcasm or anger.
Apart from their historical interest, Camus’s essays show us two things. One is it is possible to be politically engaged without foaming at the mouth. The other is the more things change in what historian Ian Morris calls ‘‘ the arc of instability’’, from central Africa to Pakistan, the more they stay the same. Further, they remind us that a great deal days for the daily newspaper AlgerRepublicain, open Algerian Chronicles. The rest of the essays were published in Parisian newspapers after the war and deal with growing Algerian unrest. All are a model of engaged journalism: scrupulous and exhaustive in the facts, telling in colourful anecdote, of the horror going on there today is the legacy of 19th-century European colonialism and superpower manoeuvring in the Cold War.
‘‘ The Right has ... ceded the moral response entirely to the Left, while the Left has ceded the patriotic response entirely to the Right,’’ Camus wrote, and he could be talking about anywhere in the West right now. The French Left at the time was condoning every terrorist outrage perpetrated by the FLN; the Right was cheering harsh reprisals inflicted by the French army.
Algeria went up in flames. Camus didn’t live to see its independence in 1962, after more than a million deaths, let alone the dreadful civil war between Islamists and the military in the 1990s, or the recent activity of the self-styled ‘‘ al-Qa’ida in the Land of Islamic Maghreb’’.
Through all these bloody convulsions and those of the wider region, Camus’s central call — to spare the lives of noncombatants — echoes still.
In a speech in Algeria in 1956 he said: ‘‘ As horrible and repugnant as the two world wars were, organisations offering aid and assistance were able to illuminate the darkness with rays of pity that made it impossible to give up hope in mankind. The need for such help seems all the more urgent in what appears in many ways to be a fratricidal struggle, an obscure combat in which lethal force makes no distinction between men and women or soldiers and workers.’’
Elsewhere he pleaded with both sides to reject the ‘‘ blood-soaked logic of total war’’, proposing ‘‘ both camps commit themselves publicly and simultaneously to a policy of not harming civilian populations, no matter what the circumstances’’.
After Iraq, after Syria, after the still unexplained suspension of international law in deadly American drone strikes, after the constant bombing of marketplaces and mosques now that asymmetrical war has made obsolete the Geneva Conventions, Camus’s voice seems naively idealistic. The world needs that kind of naivete more than ever.
Albert Camus, far left, from the cover of
left, French commandos during the Algerian War