Albert Camus: A Stranger in The Panthéon
French writer Albert Camus might not have been pleased by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to honour him
"It serves him right!" scolded Jean-Paul Sartre when Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957.
The author of Being and Nothingness, who took care to decline the same prize in 1964, had not forgiven Camus for his 1951 essay The Rebel. In this study of resistance and revolution, the French Algerian dared to set limits to the revolt – those stemming from the conscience of a dignity common to all men, enemies included. Assigning politics the mission of eradicating evil was the shortest way to tyranny, warned Camus, who argued that politics was not everything.
Sacrilegious. Camus, who was already rejected by the right, fell into disgrace among the left, who accused him of implicitly driving the oppressed away from revolt and siding with the oppressors. This was no small accusation in a fashionably radical intellectual scene where moderation was an insult, and it had long since became de rigueur to snub Camus as a disreputable "philosopher for the 12th grade student," as one long-forgotten illustre inconnu famously put it.
Sartre must therefore have rejoiced in his grave when he heard that French president Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to transfer Camus’ remains to the Panthéon in Paris 50 years after his death. The Panthéon, originally designed as a church, was turned by revolutionary France into a secular temple to honour the nation’s greatest men in 1791. To this day, the edifice’s pediment bears the gilded inscription: "To Great Men, From the Grateful Homeland." Voltaire, Hugo and Marie Curie to name a few already rest alongside several of France’s most renowned artistic, political and scientific figures. What better evidence that Camus’ thought can be compromised than this official recognition?
Times have changed, however, and with the collapse of ideologies and the acknowledgement that he was one of the few steadfastly anti-totalitarian intellectuals, Camus’ star gradually regained its luster. While the flurry of editorials and commentaries that swiftly filled the French press predominantly opposed the transfer, they generally did so while celebrating the man, his action and his work – both on the right and on the left, if sometimes with a hint of condescension. Though it is probably too early to tell whether Sarkozy’s plans will materialize, they appear compromised by the opposition of Camus’ son, Jean.
But what are we to make of the French president’s intentions? Are they hypocritical as many suggest, arguing that the French president only wants to use Camus’s legacy to reap political gains in the middle of the government-led debate on national identity or to revive his flagship foreign policy, the Mediterranean Union?
More importantly perhaps, would Camus have accepted the homage? A purely rhetorical question that we should nonetheless answer in the negative as his little known post-mortem book, The First Man, invites us to do.
This unfinished autobiographical novel that Camus wanted "heavy with things and flesh," was published 34 years after his death. It is a tribute both to his sun-drenched native land and his humble background. The First Man purports to give a voice to the voiceless, those that history and the most elaborate philosophies disregard. Camus, whose father died in World War I, grew up in a poor neighborhood of Algiers with his illiterate and largely deaf mother, to whom the book is dedicated: "To you who will never be able to read this book."
In this quest for his origins, the author of The Stranger may give us one key to the feeling of estrangement that often characterizes his works. "The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me," he wrote. The break was not only geographical, but also cultural and social. This experience separated Camus from Europe and the Parisian intellectuals who theorized about the proletariat while his intellectual life split the self-made man from his modest origins.
Although Camus always associated with the downtrodden and took pride in belonging to a "noble race, the one that envies nothing," The First Man also conveys a tragic sense of betrayal, a man who feels the bridgeless gap between his origins and what culture has made of him.
Faced with the unfathomable silence of his mother, Camus begs pardon: "O Mother, O sweet one, beloved child, greater than my time, greater than the history you were subjected to, truer than anything I have loved in this world, O mother, forgive your son for having fled the night of your truth."
According to an anecdote cited by one of his biographers, when Camus once received an invitation to dine at the Elysée, the seat of the French presidency, his mother said:
"My son, we do not belong there."
One can safely assume that he would have shared his mother’s embarrassment at his possible panthéonisation. Let us not add to his guilt. Let us leave him rest in peace in the blinding sun of Lourmarin, in southern France – this very Mediterranean sun under which he was born and from which he learned "that history is not everything."
Books by Albert Camus:
The First Man, Vintage, 1995
The Rebel, Vintage, 1951
The Stranger, Vintage, 1942
Available at Shakespeare & Co.
1., Sterngasse 2.
Le Premier Homme, Gallimard, 1994
L’Homme Révolté, Gallimard, 1994
L’Etranger, Gallimard, 1994.
Available at Le Bateau Livre
9., Liechtensteinstrasse 37.