Defying Evil: Albert Camus and His Century

Born a century ago on November 7, 1913 -- a titan who diagnosed the malady of our times.

albert_camusxTyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes
Albert Camus, The Rebel

I disagree with Bernard-Henri Lévy: the 20th century did not belong to Sartre. From the point of view of the Evil perpetrated, it was Lenin’s century. But if one takes honesty, truth, or Good as criteria, then it was Camus’s age. When we are assaulted by so much unsettling news, when we despair as we witness the rise of moral misery, when nihilism resurrects in front of our own eyes (but did it really lay dormant throughout all these years ravaged by ideological fantasies?), it is time to return to Albert Camus.

We often talk about “the treason of the intellectuals,” but we often forget that there were intellectuals who did not betray. Solzhenitsyn was no traitor. Neither was Havel. The Romanian political and religious thinker, Nicolae Steinhardt, did not abandon his principles even when tortured physically and psychologically.

Camus was born a century ago on November 7, 1913. He died on January 4, 1960 in a tragic and absurd car accident. His work remains proof that one can live, think, and write with dignity without acquiescing in infamy. He diagnosed the malady of our times; he called it the plague. He knew that despite any illusions to the contrary, the totalitarian plague is always latent -- ready to devastate both the soul and the society.

I remember one sentence in The Rebel, which in fact is the cardinal principle warning us against utopian radicalisms: “None of the evils that totalitarianism claims to cure is worse than totalitarianism itself.”

In times when seemingly there was no chance to challenge the advance of communist totalitarianism, when important Western intellectuals became mouthpieces for the so-called “campaign for peace,” Camus was among the very few who voiced the truth. He was one of those who unambiguously denounced the falsification of fundamental values such as Good and Evil.

In those dark times, there were some intellectuals who refused to capitulate. They supported the struggle for political cultural freedom. One should list here intellectuals such as Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, Eugene Ionesco, George Orwell, Manès Sperber, Karl Popper, Karl Jaspers, Czeslaw Milosz, Ignazio Silone, Sidney Hook, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Isaiah Berlin, Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Ghita Ionescu, or the group from "Partisan Review" (Philip Rahv and William Phillips).

Impressed with the sincerity of Camus’s political and philosophical positions, Hannah Arendt described him as one of the few honorable people in 1950s Paris. In contrast with Jean-Paul Sartre, Francis Jeanson, Simone de Beauvoir or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to give some examples, Camus did not have any reasons to be ashamed when, in February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s heir, condemned “the cult of personality,” which in fact was the beginning of the condemnation of a system that was criminal from its very inception.

For Camus, the totalitarian horrors, Dachau and Kolyma, were part of a global monstrosity provoked by the utopia of total social engineering, of the Crystal Palace meant to justify the Great Terror or the hysterical Kristallnacht. Nobody diagnosed as precisely as the author of The Plague the genealogy and the consequences of twentieth century demonic nihilism.

In her book Camus: A Romance (Grove Press, 2009), Elizabeth Hawes fascinatingly reconstitutes, with great empathy, a spiritual, truly moral exemplary itinerary. Starting from searching the truth about Camus, discussing with his friends, relatives, and closed ones, the author seeks and finds the truth about herself. When many do not hesitate to talk about “Sartre’s century,” there are some of us who (maybe because of it) argue in favor of Camus’s moral pre-eminence. Political thinker Jeffrey Isaac has shown how Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus gave voice, in times that humiliated subjectivity, to the ethics of revolt. Along similar lines, one should remember historian Tony Judt’s volume about Camus, Raymond Aron and Léon Blum, The Burden of Responsibility (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

I remember well what it meant for my generation, during communism, the publication of the novels The Stranger and The Plague, as well as of the essay The Myth of Sisyphus. We were fascinated with revolutionary infatuation, with violence and purification. Likewise, some of us were deeply moved by The Rebel, a book that circulated clandestinely, which we considered the perfect complement to Dostoyevsky’s The Demons.

While Sartre and even Marleau-Ponty justified the Moscow show trials or communist terror in general as expressions of “the cunning of Reason,” Camus rejected those spurious rationalizations, considering them immoral and irresponsible. Sartre’s reply to The Rebel was a 300-page text in 1952, The Communists and Peace, a manifesto of ethical abjection and political abdication before Stalin’s disciples and/or agents. To Camus’s sorrow, Sartre also coordinated a negative campaign of reappraisals in the pages of the magazine where Camus had published two chapters of The Revel: in Temps Modernes. Sartre entrusted the besmirching of his former friend to a zealous and opportunistic young man eager to please his master, Francis Jeanson.

There were very few who stood by Camus’s side. Among them there was Jean Grenier, his old philosophy professor, and poet René Char. Sartre himself intervened with a short, but extremely sarcastic text. He accused Camus of a supposedly supreme sin – that he wandered the Republic of Letters on a “portable pedestal” from which he lambasted Marxism for its responsibility in totalitarian crimes. Once asked what he would do if France was occupied by the Red Army, unfazed, the author of Being and Nothingness answered: “I will continue writing just as I did during the Nazi occupation.” Even later, Sartre continued to celebrate Marxism as “the definitive philosophy of our times.”

During those years of shame and helplessness, Camus saved us. Sartre was a great thinker but profoundly cynical. Camus was a great thinker but committed to truth. He was a writer who rescued human dignity in a century devastated by concentration camps, gas chambers, mass graves, by Auschwitz, Katyn and the Gulag.

For Camus, the philosophy of the absurd was one of resistance. Sisyphus never gives up; he continues his struggle, hoping against hope that someday he will prevail. Camus discovered in the very heart of revolt an element of thoughtlessness – the immoderation which he chose to explain rather than justify. The supreme virtue he commended, to the despair of Marxists and left-existentialists, was moderation. He denounced the Stalinist camps and he paid for his courage. He was exiled from the sectarian “fraternity” of Sartrian existentialism. He opposed torture irrespectively of who employed it. He contested capital punishment when many feared to do so. He was equally a great writer and a great moralist. Slandered and belittled by the metaphysical snobs of an honorless epoch, Camus remains one of the solid references of antitotalitarian consciousness.

Albert Camus was one of exiled Romanian intellectuals Monica Lovinescu’s and Virgil Ierunca’s favorite writers. This was so exactly because he combined, in a tragic synthesis, ethics with aesthetics. Camus’s death, a thinker whom they loved and identified with on grounds of his unwavering fidelity to the truth, was a terrible blow. André Marlaux was right: “Death turns life into destiny.” That year, 1960, news from Romania were even worse as any hope of reuniting with Monica’s mother (who was imprisoned for refusing to collaborate with the communist regime) vanished and totalitarianism reigned unchallenged in Bucharest. To use the title of a novel by Victor Serge, “it was midnight in the century.”

Albert Camus, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yelena Bonner, Vaclav Havel, Leszek Kolakowski, Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Glazov, Monica Lovinescu and Virgil Ierunca were honest intellectuals despite the hardships of a humiliating epoch of totalitarianisms. Their legacy is that of modest virtues that prevailed over countless sins.

In Monica Lovinescu’s words:

“Honesty, the duty to question certainties, the endorsement of relative but concrete values, the unrest of never-ending doubt. No salvos, no trumpets, no headlines. Only the necessity, by way of such seemingly tentative methods, to defend human beings from ideological fantasies that kill more inexorably than violence itself.”

When so many indulged in lies, hypocrisy, double-think, and double-talk, these intellectuals cultivated truth, dignity, and honor.

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