The Problems of the Human Conscious in Albert Camus' 'Algerian Chronicles'
Algerian Chronicles is a stirring and lasting work of moral conviction. Camus illustrates the impossible challenge of pursuing justice in a conflict marked by heinous crimes.
Algerian ChroniclesPublisher: Belknap
Length: 240 pages
Author: Albert Camus
Publication date: 2013-04
"The inexcusable massacres of French civilians will lead to other equally stupid attacks on Arabs and Arab property. It is as if madmen inflamed by rage found themselves locked in a forced marriage from which no exit was possible and therefore decided on mutual suicide. Forced to live together but incapable of uniting their lives, they chose joint death as the lesser evil."
-- Albert Camus
In 1957, the French-Algerian novelist, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus, best known for his books The Stranger and The Plague, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in recognition of the way that his writings against capital punishment addressed "the problems of human conscience". While in Sweden for the Nobel Prize event, Camus met with a group of students at the University of Stockholm, fielding questions on a wide range of subjects. When he invited his audience to broach the Algerian War, he was soon accosted by a supporter of the FLN, the revolutionary group that had been engaged in hostilities with the French colonial regime in Algeria since 1954.
Though he considered himself an ally of the oppressed Arab population, advocating equal rights and an overhaul of the colonial system, Camus had always insisted on a unified future for the two countries. Thus, he forcefully denounced the violence practiced by the FLN. These stances earned him the label of colonial apologist. In response to the agitator, Camus held firm: "I must also condemn the blind terrorism that can be seen in the streets of Algiers, for example, which someday might strike my mother or family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice." The apparent insularity of Camus’s perspective further alienated him from his fellow left-wing intellectuals in France, who had vigorously taken up the FLN’s cause.
The problem was that Camus had actually said something quite different. In recording his remarks, the French newspaper Le Monde used an intentionally misleading paraphrase. What Camus really said was, "People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother." The difference is obvious, but the confusion that resulted was tied to misgivings Camus had at the time about commenting on this very volatile and charged subject. Because of his prominence, he feared that anything he publicly averred could be misinterpreted and used to heighten already inflamed emotions. This he was determined to prevent.
Camus had in fact maintained silence on the Algerian question for some time, but in the late ‘50s he saw fit to comprehensively lay out his views in one last attempt to promote a peaceful solution.
To that end, Camus published a volume in June of 1958 entitled Actuelles III. It is now available in English for the first time, under the name Algerian Chronicles. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Algerian Chronicles is a stirring work of moral conviction. With lean and graceful prose, Camus illustrates the impossible challenge of pursuing justice in a conflict marked by heinous crimes on both sides. The book is a document of his lonely third way, which was rooted in the principles that defined his existence: human dignity, fraternity, non-violence, and rationalism. Algerian Chronicles also displays Camus’s depth of feeling for the land of his birth: he’s so passionate, so engaged, so desperate for peace and justice to prevail. As Camus once articulated, he "experienced Algeria’s misfortune as a personal tragedy".
Algerian Chronicles consists of reporting, essays, and letters that date from 1937 to 1958 (just two years before Camus died in a car accident). It tackles the Algerian crisis in different ways, but from start and finish it’s shot through with resolute humanity. After a magisterial preface in which Camus elucidates his refusal to take sides, the book opens with an extended investigative survey he wrote in 1939 about a destitute region in Algeria called Kabylia. In urgent tones, Camus details the widespread misery he encountered and calls for a series of economic, political, and educational reforms that he hoped would foster much needed improvements for the Kabyle population.
Camus himself grew up impoverished, and his reporting brims with an outraged sense of empathy. Yet the following year his efforts were rewarded with exile. Because of his dispatches from Kabylia and, later, his wartime pacificism, the colonial government declared Camus a security threat and closed down his newspaper. He was then forced to leave Algeria for several years.
With the exception of one letter, the next section dates to 1945. Camus’s purpose with these articles, which he wrote after deadly riots and reprisals had overtaken the Algerian town of Setif, was to reduce French ignorance about the situation in Algeria. After (once again) highlighting the country’s grave economic woes, he goes on to criticize French colonial policies for their incoherence and mendacity. He then outlines the modest goals of one influential Arab reformist group that had not yet embraced nationalism. His sympathy is obvious. He closes with a small, humane request: "Let us at least try not to add to the bitterness that exists in Algeria."
Camus’s hopes for a peaceful accord suffered a fatal setback on 1 November 1954, when the FLN launched a series of attacks throughout Algeria. This is the date that historians have marked as the official start of the Algerian War. Camus’s anguished and at times defeated reflections from the war years make up the second half of the book. He continues to condemn the French government for its many failures and shine a light on Arab political demands. But his identity as a pied-noir, or French-Algerian immigrant, starts to come through more and more.
A man of duality, Camus’ basic view was that the destinies of France and Algeria were inextricably linked because of more than a century of shared history. He believed -- problematically both then and now -- that the pied-noir community, which numbered over one million, had an equally legitimate claim to the country as the Arabs did. Camus writes, "In particular, the French population is large enough, and it has been settled in the country long enough, to create a problem that has no historical precedent. The French of Algeria are themselves an indigenous population in the full sense of the word." Pursuant to what he saw as an equitable and just order, he proposed a political federation, supported by France, that could accommodate Algeria’s mix of distinct identities, which entailed not just Arabs and pied-noirs but also Berbers and Jews. He further reasoned that France offered Algeria "the best chance of a future" because of the material support the French government could provide.
There’s another noteworthy change of emphasis that occurs in the second half of Algerian Chronicles. With the FLN engaging in acts of terrorism that took innocent lives – both among Arabs and pied-noirs – and French colonial forces practicing torture and massacring Arab civilians, Camus felt compelled to shift his focus to promoting non-violence however he could. It was of paramount importance to him that civilians be excluded from the hostilities. He believed that the hope of a stable political future in Algeria rested on this non-negotiable principle. He even risked his life for it.
Camus wrote that, as an intellectual who opposed all violence, his role was to "calm things down to the point where reason might again play its part”. Thus, in January of 1956, Camus traveled to Algiers – certainly putting himself in harm’s way -- to meet with local religious and civic leaders in an effort to create some breathing room. He wasn’t seeking a peace treaty or political reconciliation. His sole hope was that he could convince the French government and the FLN to disavow violence that affected the civilian population. For, as Camus said at the gathering, "no cause justifies the deaths of innocent people". He urged both French and Arab to "reject nihilism’s folly and destructiveness". The cycle of violence that had taken root was absurd and self-defeating in Camus’ eyes, with each side justifying its crimes based on those of the enemy. Though his words pulsed with desperation, he said he was encouraged by the fact that the meeting had taken place at all.
But unbeknownst to Camus, he was there under the protection of the FLN, which had played along as a mere "strategic maneuver". In reality, his call for a civilian truce was always going to be a failure. The FLN had no intentions of renouncing terrorism. On the other side, many in the pied-noir community viewed Camus as a traitor to their cause because he supported coexistence and reparations. His clout had diminished to the point of irrelevance, as the hour was far later than he thought. Camus couldn’t see, or perhaps he chose not to see, that the decolonization movement in Algeria was going to prevail one way or another. Though a "witness to his times", history had passed him by on this count.
Indeed, the sense of Camus as a lonely and beleaguered voice is inescapable throughout Algerian Chronicles. He rejected the comforting grip of ideology, whether it was anti-colonialism at all costs on the left or the honor of the French empire on the right. He didn’t subscribe to the notion that he should hold his tongue lest he appear to give aid and comfort to a political opponent. But his resistance to tribalist thinking earned him isolation.
As Yale professor Alice Kaplan notes in the book’s introduction, "Camus was censured by the very cause he had so ardently defended and reduced, because of his opposition to the FLN, to an enemy of Algeria." He was trapped between competing camps whose practices were antithetical to the values he cherished. But he wouldn’t submit to fatalism. Because he believed that both sides had everything to lose, no matter which one claimed victory, he had no choice but to intercede. This was his cause long before it became fashionable in Paris, and it was his calling – as a writer, a moralist, and a native of French Algeria – to push back against the abuse of power and nihilism.
What matters most for 21st century readers is not that Camus failed – the war continued until 1962, when Algeria won independence and the pied-noirs largely fled or faced reprisals – but how he approached this tangled and vexing conflict. Throughout, he held fast to principles that allowed no room for vacillation, most notably nonviolence. Throughout, he withstood the enticement of self-deceiving rationalizations. Camus felt deep sympathy for the oppressed Arabs. He considered them his countrymen. But to side with the FLN and its brand of revolutionary justice would have been to betray his core beliefs.
On the other hand, though he identified most strongly with the pied-noirs, the Arabs were no less deserving of a just society, and he couldn’t align himself with the French government and its repressive measures. To sit on the sidelines and endorse a faction that murdered innocents or carried out torture would’ve meant blood on his hands. Camus insisted that he couldn’t push for any violent measures unless willing to participate himself. Under withering pressure to recant his views, Camus never budged.
These strong moral convictions formed the foundation of Camus’ public life. They were the reason he endured ostracism and exile (to this day, he remains a hotly divisive figure in Algeria). They were the reason he intervened in an estimated 150 cases in which an Algerian rebel was slated for execution. And they were the reason he risked his life for a civilian truce. As he wrote, his efforts were not "for a party but human beings".
The whole spirit of Camus’s moral vision is wrapped up in his philosophy of rebellion, which called for a stand against irrationality and nihilism that was peaceful, moderate, and grounded in human solidarity. He was the first to acknowledge how dark and unsearchable life was. But in his thinking, just because there was no apparent meaning to existence didn’t justify violent and fanatical pursuits. There was still a moral order to the world, rooted in the inviolability of human life. And because the revolutionary impulse often resulted in a denial of this claim, Camus couldn’t support a group like the FLN.
He saw his push for a peaceful solution as a "stand against despair", a stand against a future defined by bloodshed and reckless power. He writes, "The deadly storm now lashing our country will only grow until the destruction is general." Algerian Chronicles is an account of Camus’s revolt against the madness that he saw laying waste to the land he so dearly loved.
Though a penetrating thinker, Camus was no prophet. Algerian Chronicles shows how Camus’s profound emotional connection to Algeria may have at times distorted his fears about what the future held. He was all too accurate in his view that, if the two sides didn’t change course, a bleak fate awaited his home country.
Indeed, post-independence Algeria is a harrowing picture of authoritarian rule, economic hardship, and civil war. But Camus’s dire predictions went further. Beyond his opposition to violence, he couldn’t endorse the FLN because he considered it a mere pawn of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the pan-Arab movement that was gaining steam in the '50s. Camus predicted that, if the FLN achieved its goals, Algeria would become subsumed by this alliance and that the Soviet Union would then join forces with the Arabs and use North Africa as a launch point to invade Western Europe. He warned the French government against consenting to "any form of justice for Arabs that would simply be a prelude to the death of France as a historical actor and an encirclement of the West".
With the benefit of hindsight, we can judge these fears as overwrought and perhaps an instance of Cold War paranoia. Maybe they were more reasonable at the time, but history certainly played out in a much different manner.
Errors and misjudgments, of course, are inherent to any human endeavor, and Camus likely thought this was especially true of writing. He was often quick to note his own doubts and his constant need for circumspection. An earnest man, Camus always remained alert to the pressing moral demands of his craft. In his Nobel Prize speech, he asserted that the duty of the writer was two-fold, consisting of "the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression".
This goes to the heart of Algerian Chronicles, and it’s why we should look to Camus today. He scrutinized the powerful and championed the powerless. He rejected the easy answers and confident half-truths of ideology. And he steadfastly trumpeted the cause of human dignity. His principled example has a timeless and universal resonance. The same violent, nihilistic urges that he decried -- terrorism, torture, tribalism -- continue to plague our world. Perhaps they always will. Just months away from the centennial of his birth, the thundering force of Camus’s moral witness still echoes for all to hear.