Although in his lifetime Albert Camus’ position in the forefront of French writing seemed secure, it was by no means unchallenged. French literary history has a long record of fratricide.From a political or ideological bias, a difference in taste or aesthetic theory, or sometimes from undisguised envy, French writers have flung at each other anathemas that make the literary feuds of other cultures seem genteel and that, incidentally, constitute an important body of writing in themselves. This internecine warfare is bot surprising in a country where the word is so highly valued.
The most violent attacks upon Camus came from Communist or Communist minded intellectuals. Ideologies played a central part in the perennial French debate over the issues of literature, to the point of often crowding out aesthetic considerations. So committed are almost all French writers to some form of leftist belief, that the reasons for self-examination are compelling, if not imperative.
In Camus’ case, his guilt in Socialist eyes was clear. Camus built much of his intellectual program areound a condemnation of Marxist thought and Soviet practice, an indictment he began composing after he had abandoned his early hopes for a common cause between the Communists and other left wing parties in the post war reshaping of France. But, Camus was also a menace in the eyes of the extreme Right which abhorred his insistence upon the end of privilege and the transformation of the moral climate of capitalism.
The longest section of ”The Rebel” is a sustained, merciless critique of both the aberrations of Marxist philosophy and the inhuman nature of Soviet power. The book was denounced by the Communist press, and in those journals, such as Sartre’s ”Les Temps Modernes”, whose agonizing tightrope act over the Marxist abyss was one of the wonders of Post WWII France. Even before that, Sartre, calling Camus a ”lap dog of reaction”, had broken with him over the issue of support for the French Communist Party, which Sartre originally insisted and later contrived to justify, was the worker’s best hope; but with great acuity, Camus saw as their chief betrayer.
That Sartre should have launched as heavy an attack as he did indicated his recognition of the extent to which Camus was displacing him from his position of authority on politico-intellectual matters. The vendetta, a op-sided affair since Camus seldom responded to Sartre, held the attention of a great many French people, who saw in it a microcosm of their severest crisis of thought; a crisis that still exists among the fractious left.
On the other hand, some philosophers had also attacked Camus’ theoretical writings for their lack of system, their artist’s approach to matters of speculative thought. Camus replied that he is indeed not a philosopher, but precisely a man who wishes to oppose the abstractions of philosophy and to give thought a basis in experience.
What did trouble Camus was the media exposure; one of the more unfortunate aspects of the cult of letters in France. Novelist Julien Gracq, A Prix Goncourt winner, described this as the the effect ” la Gloire” being the equivalent of a drug that is alaways at hand along with the atmosphere of murmuring; an over stimulated and unstable crowd, with the feverish clamor of stock exchange trading floor. Very revealing, with regard to the rift between Sartre and Camus and perhaps throws some light on anti-semitism and racism on the French left, through the bias crystallizing tribalism in a new context:
”In 1941, just a few years after the publication of La Nausée, Sartre was tenured to the post of a Jewish professor dismissed during the application of anti-Semite legislation by Vichy. Sartre is accused of being on good terms with the Occupants and is described as an arriviste in the advancement of his theatrical career during the war. Ingrid Galster’s recent study, Sartre, Vichy et les intellectuels, sifts through the idées reçues of the reception under the Occupation of Sartre’s play, Les Mouches (1943). Sartre’s name, it appears, was included under the column “deutschfreundlich” in archived dossiers of German propaganda. During these black years, and throughout their respective careers, the divide between Sartre et Gracq could not have been wider. If Sartre’s writing was urban, Gracq’s was rural; If one was politically engaged, the other withdrew. If this dichotomy was applicable to other zeitgeists, the mismatch would be of Rousseau and Voltarian dimensions.” ( Tracy Adam )
Camus was also faced, with the persistent claim, or accusation that he was an existentialist. The truth, however, was that no school of thought confined Camus, nor does any analysis exhaust his meanings or possibilities. What Camus did, was find a narrow and saving passage between the demands of the moment and the claims of art; between the hunger for beauty and the limiting sword of ethics.In fact, what all great French writers have striven for. Camus on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, one of Camus’ many levers on his own flying machine:
”Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly. In this fundamental ambiguity lies Kafka’s secret. The perpetual oscillates between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both resonance and meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.” ( Albert Camus ) An excerpt from Camus’ Nobel Prize speech:
”At the same time, after having outlined the nobility of the writer’s craft, I should have put him in his proper place. He has no other claims but those which he shares with his comrades in arms: vulnerable but obstinate, unjust but impassioned for justice, doing his work without shame or pride in view of everybody, not ceasing to be divided between sorrow and beauty, and devoted finally to drawing from his double existence the creations that he obstinately tries to erect in the destructive movement of history. Who after all this can expect from him complete solutions and high morals? Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road. …” ( Albert Camus, Nobel Prize acceptance speech )