Jewish magazine attempts to claim Albert Camus for themselves

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Niccolo and Donkey
Camus the Jew

Tablet Magazine

Robert Zaretsky

November 7, 2011


The question of whether Albert Camus was Jewish is, of course, absurd. Born in French Algeria 98 years ago today, he was the second child of Lucien Camus, a farm worker raised in a Protestant orphanage, and Catherine Sintes, the illiterate child of Catholic peasants from Minorca, Spain. He was given communion at the age of 11 and died an atheist at the age of 46.

Camus understood, however, that the absurd reveals deep truths about the world and our own selves. Cradled between the semi-centenary of his death in 1960 and the centenary of his birth in 1913, we might take a moment to consider the question of Camus’ ties to Judaism. They are surprisingly deep and broad, encompassing not just his own life but his political and philosophical thought as well.

Though a number of his childhood friends were Jewish, Camus was as indifferent to their particular faith as they themselves were. In republican France, Jewishness was largely a private matter; it was only when Nazi Germany buried the Republic in 1940 that Jewishness became a public matter and indifference to the fate of Jews was no longer possible—or should not have been possible.

Yet when the authoritarian regime of Vichy passed a salvo of anti-Semitic laws in 1940, most Frenchmen and -women did not blink. One of the few who did blink—in fact, doubled over in shock and revulsion—was Camus. Working for the newspaper Paris-Soir , Camus was stunned when his Jewish colleagues were fired. In a letter to his wife Francine Faure—a native of the city of Oran, Algeria, who was very close to the local Jewish community—Camus said that he could not continue to work at the paper; any job at all in Algeria, even one on a farm, would be preferable. As for the new regime, he was merciless: “Cowardice and senility is all they have to offer. Pro-German policies, a constitution in the style of totalitarian regimes, great fear of a revolution that will not come: all of this to truckle up to an enemy who has already pulverized us and to salvage privileges which are not threatened.”

At the same time, he began to reach out to Jewish friends. To one, Irène Djian, he denounced these “despicable” laws and reassured her: “This wind cannot last if each and every one of us calmly affirmed that the wind smells rotten.” He reminded her he would always stand by her—a remarkable position for a Frenchman to take in 1940, when the vast majority of his compatriots either embraced or accepted the new laws. When he and Francine moved into her parents’ apartment in Oran, they become friends with André Benichou, a professor of philosophy who was born into a Jewish family but made a point of declaring his atheism at a local café every year on Yom Kippur, Good Friday, and the first day of Ramadan. With Benichou, Camus and Faure worked as private tutors for Jewish schoolchildren forced out of the public schools by the anti-Semitic laws.

In 1942, afflicted with tuberculosis, Camus went to the Cévennes, a rugged region in central France, to ease his damaged lungs. Unable to afford a sanatorium, Camus moved into Le Panelier, a farmhouse his in-laws owned just outside the small Protestant village of Chambon-sur-Lignon. Among the few visitors he had was his friend the historian André Chouraqui, a French Algerian Jew whom Camus peppered with questions about the Old Testament, all the while taking notes for the book he was then writing, The Plague .

By then, Chouraqui was already risking his life in the French Resistance, particularly in the critical work of finding homes for Jewish refugee children. Much of this activity centered on Chambon, where the pastor, André Trocmé, had already mobilized the village in the work of welcoming, housing, and hiding these children. By the end of the war, the people of Chambon had saved the lives of at least 3,000 Jewish children and adults.

Was Camus aware of Chouraqui or Trocmé’s activities? There is no record of such knowledge in his notebooks or in accounts of friends and colleagues; on the other hand, this was precisely the sort of knowledge one would deliberately keep from friends or notebooks. Nevertheless, the simultaneity of Camus’ reflections and Chambon’s activity is striking. The French Algerian novelist and Cévenol farmers found common ground in their insistence on the dignity of each and every human being.

Indeed, it is the theme of absurdity that most powerfully underscores Camus’ understanding of Jews, Judaism, and Israel. At the political and existential level, Camus felt a visceral connection with the absurd predicament of the young Jewish state. It was a political bond insofar as many on the French left, from whom Camus was estranged, had grown deeply anti-Zionist in the wake of the Suez War. In 1957, he publicly affirmed his sympathy and support for Israel. His reasons still echo today: Not only must Europe accept Israel’s existence as the only possible response to the continent’s complicity in the Final Solution, but Israel must also exist as a counter-example to the oppressive rule of Arab leaders. The Arab people, he declared, wished for deserts covered with olive trees, not canons. Let Israel show the way.

A naïve hope, certainly, but one that suggests that Camus’ attachment to Israel was existential: His plea for cooperation and collaboration between Jews and Arabs in Israel echoed his pleas to his fellow pied-noirs and Arabs in Algeria. In fact, Camus had flown to Algiers in 1956 to urge a civilian truce between Arabs and French Algerians. His desperate claim that Arabs and European settlers were “condemned to live together” proved wrong, of course. They instead concluded they were condemned to kill one another—a conclusion, were he alive today, he would urge both Israelis and Arabs to avoid while there is still time.

Yet Camus’ deepest and most intriguing bond to Judaism is revealed in his philosophy of the absurd. In early 1941, when Vichy was preparing a second round of anti-Semitic legislation and the papers in France and Algeria were giving free rein to anti-Semitic rhetoric, Camus completed his philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The opening lines are among the best known written by Camus: “There is just one truly important philosophical question: suicide. To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” Of course that question needed to be answered in 1941. How could it be otherwise, given the dire predicament in which the French and French Jews, along with Camus, found themselves?

But if the question persists, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or autobiographical interest. It is perennial. It is the same question that Job confronts when, with his children dead, his possessions gone, his belief in God tested, and he himself crumpled in a mound of dust and ashes, his wife tells him, “Curse God and die.” And it is the same question we all confront when, as Camus wrote in the “Myth,” the stage sets collapse around us—any number of belief and value systems we have lived with our entire lives—and we suddenly confront a stripped and bare world whose strangeness and opacity beggar any effort at comprehension.

Job and Sisyphus, in short, are heaved into a world shorn of transcendence and meaning. In response to their demand for answers, they get only silence. Herein lies the absurdity, Camus writes: It is “the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.”

The silence of the world, in effect, only becomes silence when human beings enter the equation. All too absurdly, Job demands meaning. “Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard/ I cry aloud, but there is no judgment.” And no less absurdly, Job must ask himself what he must do if meaning is not to be found? What is our next step if meaning fails to show up at our appointed rendezvous? “But where shall wisdom be found?/ And where is the place of understanding?”

We think we know how the story of Job ends: Rewarded by God for his loyalty, Job is paid back with even more children and sheep and property. But is this the ending? A number of biblical scholars suggest the Job we hear in the final chapter, the one who accepts and resigns himself to God’s power play, is not the same Job we hear in the preceding 40 chapters. Instead, he is a throwback to an earlier story that was grafted onto the otherwise perplexing account. Instead, the real Job is Camus’ Job. He is a Job who answers God’s deafening and dismal effort at self-justification with scornful silence.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life .
Niccolo and Donkey
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he is not that good. I have one of his books the plague and it was quite disappointing. actually come to think of it, with the exception of dostoevsky, most existentialist philosophers/writers are just that, disappointing.

Probably irrelevant, but still worth noting:
Dostoevsky is the exception because he seeks to trascend the bleakness he portrays in his novels, while his western counterparts choose to revel in desperation and impotence like pigs.
nuclear launch detected
agreed. i read a lot of existentialist writers in my late teens/early 20s and i came to the conclusion that they are a bunch of whiny faggots with no real solutions. no wonder its very attractive to the white nationalist RAHOWA! types who are also a bunch of whiny faggots with no real solutions.

Most WNs have the same reaction to existentialism as you do. They prefer lighter, uplifting fare like The Turner Diaries and the cartoons of A. Wyatt Mann. Sure, some of them might have read Journey to the End of the Night or more likely, the first couple pages after learning that Celine was an anti-semite, or bits of Heidegger, but your average National Vanguard member thinks existentialism was cooked up by Woody Allen clones to turn Aryans into depressives. You aren't going to catch Alex Linder reading The Stranger any time soon. (Or anything else, probably, but I digress.)

Existentialism has been out of fashion for thirty-odd years now. Mention it in trendy circles and you'll be greeted with the words of Diane Keaton in Manhattan : "Bleak ... adolescent ... I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, all right, you outgrow it" . Bergman and Bresson, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard all belong to the Academy of the Overrated. The chattering classes have moved on; they have learned that to aspire is pretentious, and even worse, that to aspire is to be earnest, and earnest pretension is the worst sin a hip intellectual could be accused of. Irony is in, and existentialism is dreadfully lacking in irony.

Of course, this would seem to imply that existentialism is just a washed-up fad, an out-of-date trend. But really, Americans have never assimilated the inner concepts of existentialism. They only adopted the pose, the chic of despair, and a few buzzwords — the conscious self, authenticity, self-actualization, etc — were matched to this pose to give it an aura of sophistication. Using the new language of existentialism, Americans reframed the pursuit of happiness and gave it a respectable veneer. Bloom called it a "nihilism without the abyss", "nihilism with a happy face". To imagine that this cultural vocabulary was produced by a sincere understanding of existentialism is to do a grave disservice. I'm not uncritical either — Sartre was a Stalinist fraud, and often the texts are frustratingly vague and imprecise — but it's important to clear away the clutter of impressions and cultural signifiers formed by America's abortive contact with existentialism and try to understand these authors as they understood themselves, as a good Straussian might.

To address Cornelio, I'd have to agree that Dostoevsky of all the existentialists does the best job of 'transcending bleakness', but that's mainly because I'm a Christian. That doesn't mean that other authors never likewise offered a way to transcend the nihilism of reality (or portrayed reality). For Camus it was a sort of humanist stoicism, for Sartre it was the embrace of personal expression and autonomy, for Heidegger it was a transformation of metaphysics, and others, like Kierkegaard, Unamuno and Marcel, agree with Dostoevsky. Only Cioran seems to leave nihilism exactly as he found it, and that acceptance might be his own way of 'transcending'. Personally I think awareness of the problem is at least as important, if not moreso, than any hypothetical solution, so the perceived hopelessness of the existentialists has never bothered me.

On the subject of Camus himself: he's fun to read, and very attentive to visuals, especially light and color, which is unusual for existentialists. He has a preoccupation with sunsets and atmospheric effects, a theme also present in his personal notebooks. I had no problem envisioning the environs of Algeria or Amsterdam ( The Fall ); the images on the page were effortlessly realized, like watching a movie. I think part of this is also his simple writing style, which aids in flow. The plots are mostly rehashed Kafka and Dostoevsky but written with a philosophical directness not found in either (which makes him a great introduction to existentialism). His essays are a mixed bag. In The Rebel he comes within a hair's length of the Voegelinian critique of utopianism but returns to conventional liberalism with a banal discussion of trade unions. Sisyphus asks the right questions but the answers are vague and unsatisfying. In the end I'd rate Camus as a mid-tier author, better than Sartre but not attaining the level of Dostoevsky.

Bob Dylan Roof

Not a big Camus fan. The Stranger is an abridged version of Crime and Punishment stripped of Christian themes. The Plague creeps along like an advancing glacier, but I guess that's part of the point: the plague drags on and on , consuming everything in its path.

I believe this in incorrect. At risk of sounding like a condescending twat approaching middle age, I don't believe people under 35 or so understand what white nationalism was or how it originated. I say ''was'' because it no longer has an intelligible context - its just a hobby horse of internet malcontents, elderly veterans of the civil unrest of 1954-80 relating to race policy and free association thereof, and perpetually aggrieved jailbirds inundated with a sharply racialized view of life. You're approaching it as an intellectual curiosity and trying to identify a philisophical origin of White Nationalist sentiment in American history when in reality its a circumstantial political tendency, inextricably bound to Cold War challenges.

Waging war on Europe 70 years ago had grave implications, even notwithstanding Communist victory. World order from the Westphalian peace until the Great War quite literally began and ended with European states, plus Anglo-Saxon America from 1865 onward, and the extraterritorial White dominions of those states. There was no politics of the colored world, other than self-contained intrigues among subjugated peoples or continentally insular struggles between petit kingdoms of the Orient. The politics of the modern world were the politics of unchallenged world White supremacy. The destruction of European world order, the attendant colored revolt in the colonies, the rise of Bolshevism as an animating principle against White world order buttressed by the guns and armor of the largest army the world had ever seen (victorious in Berlin 1945) set in motion a series of punctuated crises for the next 45 years; thus forcing America, the last great Western power remaining, into dialog with an emboldened global slave population that was determined to permanently upend the imbalance between the master races and themselves.

The White Nationalist position was a consciousness of the political and strategic dangers posed by Communism and a belief that America's mission was to preserve White Christian political sovereignty in the New World amidst the Soviet/colored global push. If there is a philosophical underpinning to this reactionary sentiment to be discovered, its a Theological issue; relating to the idiosyncracies of dissenter Protestantism and an attendant belief in pious exceptionalism. It will not be found in European intellectual dialog, post-modern or otherwise.

To further develop the point, let's assign White Nationalism an ideological foundation by appealing to authorities who explicitly wrote about White politics amidst 20th century challenges. James Burnham and Oswald Spengler both reached similar conclusions; that being, briefly stated, that the interests of the White man were fundamentally inimical to those of his former slaves and charges in the great game of high politics, and that government must be tailored to meet these challenges by preserving White sovereignty through active defense of essential White territorial spaces and the enforcement of racial hygiene within those spaces. This was the ''conservative'' position really until the 1970s. There was nothing esoteric or abstractly philisophical about this position, it was a political reaction against radical upheaval; rooted in a grand strategy of political survival that needn't be elaborately justified or ethically defended. It was simply a means by which the friend/enemy paradigm was understood globally in the midst of a grand challenge to world order by burgeoning powers unshackled by the collapse of the jus publicum europeaum, first among them the USSR.