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Critical Essay by Alan W. Woolfolk
SOURCE: "The Dangers of Engagement: Camus' Political Esthetics," in Mosaic, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 59-70.
In the following essay, Woolfolk discusses Camus's political sympathies and overriding artistic ideals. According to Woolfolk, Camus resisted participation in revolutionary causes due to his belief that political ideology limits the artist's experience and creative vision.
"True artists," Camus stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "force themselves to understand instead of judging." In this respect, he is not unlike his character Tarrou, the former political revolutionary in The Plague, who admits:
For many years I've been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn. As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I've been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone…. I leave it to others to make history. I know, too, that I'm not qualified to pass judgment on those others.
Similarly, the title of the novel itself suggests Camus' critical attitude toward judgment, the "plague" being the ancient Biblical symbol of punishment for wrong-doing.
At the same time, however, Camus also sensed that understanding had its limits, and that it was necessary to preserve the ability to deny, to say No to experience, to judge or condemn those who committed violence in the name of history. And it is this recognition that is the key to his attitude toward the writer's role in society.
Despite Camus' unquestioned sympathy for the victims of social injustice and political exploitation, art did not encompass for him, as it did for many of his contemporaries, an overwhelming involvement in politics. Art might be required to limit politics, but never should politics limit art. Political commitment or engagement was for him an entanglement which led to contemporary nihilism. Accordingly, rather than the expression engagement, Camus chose with a note of irony the term embarqué to indicate his deep reluctance at finding himself, almost against his will, compelled to address political concerns. I say almost because Camus was anything but unmoved by "history's woes." For instance, his early and consistent theme of passionate indignation over the miseries of poverty was perhaps most openly expressed in his 1939 reporting for the leftist newspaper Alger Républicain, in a series entitled "Misère de la Kabylie." Later, this indignation was overshadowed by his unflagging resistance to political violence and terror enacted in the name of abolishing such impoverishment in Algeria and elsewhere. In both cases his passionate rejection of misery precluded political commitment: "The only really committed artist is he who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance." Camus found that he could no more side with left-wing militants than with right-wing militarists, since both groups were prepared to engage in violent acts that would destroy art and ultimately all civilization.
At nearly the same time that Camus began writing during the early 1930s, the image of the engagé intellectual became popular in French culture. According to the leftist Catholic, Emmanuel Mounier, who was one of the first to reintroduce the idea to the educated French public after the Dreyfus case, "to be viable one's action must have both a will to be efficacious and a spiritual ingredient. It is a double polarity, prophetic and political, and a constant tension between the two poles must exist." Despite a brief membership in the Communist Party and two years of anti-government newspaper reporting, which resulted in his being evicted from Algeria, as a young man Camus rejected, albeit ambivalently, the criterion of political efficacy. In a prewar review of communist Paul Nizan's La Conspiration, he stated that "Nizan requires an engagement in which a man relinquishes himself, and with himself his prejudices and choices…. We cannot follow him on that terrain." Camus' reluctant attitude toward judgment, however, immediately moved him to equivocate: "But, all things considered, it is as futile a problem as that of immortality, an affair that a man solves for himself and upon which one should not pass judgment." He concluded, on this occasion, that in the case of the writer his work must serve as evidence for judging the effect of engagement.
Building upon this criterion in his later writings, Camus grew to oppose political commitment precisely because it threatened to overwhelm the higher discipline that art represented in the distracting immediacies of the struggle for power. It was not simply a matter, as he wrote nearly twenty years after the Nizan review, of art being "threatened by the powers of the state." It was "more complex, more serious too," as soon as it became "apparent that the battle is waged within the artist himself." Art loses from such a "constant obligation." It loses that "ease, to begin with, and that divine liberty so apparent in the work of Mozart." Camus thought it obvious "why we have more journalists than creative writers, more boyscouts of painting than Cézannes, and why sentimental tales or detective novels have taken the place of War and Peace or The Charterhouse of Parma." Implicitly, he understood that all genuine art, as higher culture, lives only if it can successfully discipline the momentary imperative to become engaged.
Camus did not escape unscathed from the conflict between politics and art. His statement on the occasion of accepting the Nobel Prize that "to create today is to create dangerously" reflects his recognition that the literary imagination had come loose from its traditional forms and was opening itself to dangerous creative possibilities. Elsewhere, too, he stated that "if we bring ourselves as artists into the positions we take up as men the experience will, in an unseen but powerful way, weaken our power of speech." In his role as artist, he recognized the danger of incoherence first of all within himself. Yet, like Marx and Engels in nineteenth-century London and the revolutionaries of eighteenth-century Paris, Camus found it impossible to avert his eyes from the misery and unhappiness of the masses: "What characterizes our time, indeed," he stated, "is the way the masses and their wretched condition have burst upon contemporary sensibilities."
In the course of his lifelong response to the social question, Camus developed a bold and perhaps fatal artistic strategy: he returned to the fundamental demands for justice underlying modern politics in its revolutionary form and swallowed them whole into his art, on the gamble that successful incorporation would allow for a more meaningful and less violent externalization of emotions. Thus, the imperative of responding to raw physical suffering and biological need witnessed in "Misère de la Kabylie" reappears again and again in his writings. Prompted by what Hannah Arendt has called passion in its noblest form, "compassion," Camus stubbornly refused to let go of the theme of abject suffering. Implacable, he insisted on recruiting what he thought was the raison d'être of Marxist and socialist politics into the camp of literature rather than allowing them to subsume art: "We writers of the twentieth century … must know that we can never escape the common misery and that our only justification, if indeed there is a justification, is to speak up, insofar as we can, for those who cannot do so." Caught between the demands of his art and the demands of political commitment, Camus attempted to work out an apology for the relevance of art in the twentieth century. As in the case of the Christian apologists, the crucial question, from the perspective of all higher, ennobling culture, hinged on whether he could successfully close the abyss of possibilities that he dared to open.
There have been several notable attempts within European literature to broaden the imagination to the point where it might control or at least contain the involvement of thought and action in modern politics. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the best known example, but it is notable in particular because of Orwell's attitude of total acceptance toward the corruptions of political power. Winston Smith, after all, does not symbolically triumph over O'Brien. In the end Winston has moved beyond personal despair because he has been so completely emptied of any memory and the capacity for love that there is nothing left to do but consummate his totalitarian surrender and "love" Big Brother. Winston's acquiescence to the ultimate political regime imaginatively represents what Orwell elsewhere predicted in a mood of total despair: "The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence. But this means that literature, in the form in which we know it, must suffer at least a temporary death."
Another political novel of the same era, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, is almost as pessimistic in that it ends with the sacrifice of the old Bolshevik, Rubashov, to the totality of the Party. Yet it extends beyond what Orwell himself described as the unusual ability of a good political writer—"to imagine oneself as the victim"—to what Rubashov calls the evil of the Bolshevik mind: "We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic: we are sailing without ethical ballast." Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine goes still further in its attempt to dominate and transform the meaning of political commitment. Just as Rubashov expresses his speculation about the nature of the Party evil in the privacy of his diary, so the committed Marxist Pietro Spina asks in the privacy of his jottings whether his denial of "petit bourgeois prejudices" is not the source of his error. But, as Camus once pointed out in a review of Bread and Wine, Silone's lesson represents a "return from an abstract philosophy of the revolution to the bread and wine of simplicity." In consequence, Silone stands closer to Camus' goals of assigning limits to revolutionary thought and establishing the supremacy of artistic insight.
These goals are most clearly expressed in Camus' own interpretation of Martin du Gard's Les Thibault, which he considered one of the first novels to have mastered the dangers of political commitment. Camus makes his case for the superiority of artistic over political meaning by arguing for the symbolic strength of the rebellious Antoine over his revolutionary socialist brother, Jacques. While both men are deeply moved enough by the existence of human misery to leave the narrowness of their private lives for a broader world of public purpose, Jacques' character transformation is "less significant," less profound, less persuasive because he adheres to the reason of revolutionary doctrine. In Camus' analysis, the unreality of revolutionary ideas introduces a shallow thought-world that uproots and destroys lives. Their emptiness is betrayed in the impatience of Jacques "who can be satisfied only by action" and who dies, finally, as a terrorist. In contrast, Antoine proves to be the "true hero" precisely because he is the deeper or "richer character" when compared with his politically committed brother. Politics does not consume his social relationships. The revulsion he feels at "the recognition of a common misery" extends beyond politics into his profession of medicine, which, Camus implies, helps both to deepen and to order his life. In the end Antoine is the more uncertain but stable, even when confronting death, for having rejected the ideological passions of political commitment.
Camus' rejection of political commitment, intellectually and emotionally, rests upon the argument that revolutionary doctrine corrupts the original feeling of indignation and revulsion over the perceived injustices of the world by narrowing their expression to the political realm alone. As to the desirability of having these feelings in the first place, Camus simply took this for granted, implicitly invoking the insights of the modern novel in particular. As he saw it, Dostoevsky had established beyond a doubt the justification for intense and passionate revolt in the face of human misery through the character of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan's fault lay not in his revolt against creation but in the rationalization of his rebellion to the point of imagining that "everything is permitted." Intellectualization marked his fall into the political temptations expressed by the Grand Inquisitor.
Camus thought it quite clear that not "everything is permitted." But he was not about to appeal to a vision of sacred order to narrow the possibilities that the imperatives of suffering and misery raised. If any created order existed, it was created by men; hence, the importance of the artist. As an exemplary rebel, the artist represented a disciplining of creative energies, a tempering of experience, because of a loyalty to the very forms on which art depends. "Both the historical mind and the artist seek to remake the world," Camus wrote, "but the artist, through an obligation of his very nature, recognizes limits the historical mind ignores." As to where this "nature" came from, Camus, except on rare occasions, did not deign to ask.
Camus' case against Marxist thought repeats many familiar points concerning its questionable scientific basis, the inaccuracies of its economic-historical predictions, its bourgeois prejudice in favor of economic-technological development, and its similarity to certain aspects of Christian thought. But the crux of Camus objections pertains to the subordination of the personality to historical demands, especially the demands of faith. Since Marxism, like Christianity, places man within a historical rather than a natural universe, Camus sees Marxist doctrine as suppressing both the opportunity for spontaneous revolt and the achievement of self-limitation by the autonomous personality. It is only insofar as Marxism envisions a release from the demands of history that he is sympathetic: "the aims, the prophecies are generous and universal," Camus writes of Marxism, "but the doctrine is restrictive, and the reduction of every value to historical terms leads to the direst consequences." More specifically, these serious consequences result from the denial of "ethical demands that form the basis of the Marxist dream." According to Camus, Marx himself was a rebel: "he rebelled against the degradation of work to the level of a commodity and of the worker to the level of an object." He affirmed the natural dignity of man. But Marx corrupted his original ethical demands when rebellion against injustice gave way to prophetic demands, not so much the prophecy of release from history into the Communist community of true individuals, as the prophecy of a protracted historical development that places the meaning of history at its end. In Camus' terms, Marx was a "fatalist," for by accepting the necessity of class struggles and economic progress, Marx accepted the necessity of misery and violence, of punishment in the name of the future. It no longer matters that the Kingdom of Ends is established by dictatorship and violence, that suffering becomes merely provisional and will be forgotten. And even if the "New Jerusalem" is achieved, "echoing with the roar of miraculous machinery," Camus asks, "who will still remember the cry of the victim?"
Despite the fact that Marxism is built upon what Camus sees as the Hegelian destruction of transcendence, parallels between the Old Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem run throughout Camus' analysis. Behind the historical interpretation of social reality, Camus ultimately finds the demands of faith. The punishing consequences of the fatalistic acceptance of misery result from neither an economics nor a science of history but from a religion of history imposed by a doctrinal faith. While he finds much to criticize in Marx's economic predictions and his submission to "the economic imperative" in a world governed by "the cult of production," it is the subordination of economic and scientific reasoning to the prophecy of an end to history that turns reason toward the rationalization of terror and violence. Doctrinal faith, in the form of Marxism, repeats the mistake of Christianity, which subjected "living reason to dead faith and freedom of the intellect to the maintenance of temporal power." Intellectualization corrupts the original moral demands associated with the virtues of revolt and leads to the quest for power. Because Camus operates from the assumption that there are no final or religious answers to the misery of living, he links all doctrines proclaiming such saving answers to the tendency toward "intellectual Caesarism." All authority is seen as a consequence of this bad habit of intellectualizing, which, if it is not simply a mask for power, certainly is a metaphor for the same.
Camus' reading of Western cultural history responds with an acute sensitivity to the problem of legitimacy in the modern state that Max Weber most clearly identified. He simply could not accept an ordinary answer to the extraordinary problem of justifying the use of violence. But his sensitivity to the violence at the root of the modern state—which will not be resolved, as he grasped in his anguish, by the intellectual trick of equating authority with legitimate power—was complicated by his anarchistic revolt against any theory of public authority. Having pointed to the crippled capacity to distinguish right from wrong peculiar to our times, Camus proceeded to call into question all authoritative standards of judgment, traditional and otherwise, by suggesting that they are a "plague" without purpose. The terror of power asserts itself not merely through intellectual creeds but especially by means of the repressive judgments, the thou shalt nots, against the spontaneous expressions of the human spirit. Camus compounded a variety of irreconcilable theories of the decline of Christianity to arrive at the charge that it is the Judaic heritage in Western culture that has led to the punishing demands of history and to the destruction of the Greek concept that man lives in a natural universe. Frightened by the injustice of the modern state, Camus simply projected his sense of injustice backward into the Western traditions that he otherwise recognized as having been decisively rejected by modern revolutionaries, with the result that he accented the continuity of religious and revolutionary traditions at the same time that he questioned their unity.
Camus' confusion of religious and revolutionary motifs can be directly traced to his concept of the sacred. He assumes that "only two possible worlds can exist for the human mind: the sacred (or, to speak in Christian terms, the world of grace) and the world of rebellion." As a consequence, the revolutionary thought-world of Marxism is assimilated to the realm of the sacred. But under the category of the sacred he conflates two contradictory motifs. The world of the Old Testament, for example, is antinomian. It is simultaneously controlling and violative, interdictory and transgressive, resulting in a violence that always subverts but never subserves traditional judgments. Themes of gratuitous violence, hatred, frenzy and massive infliction of injustice dominate any possibility of impulse control. Punishment is meaningless, senseless, absurd: The Plague "shows that the absurd teaches nothing" because the Biblical symbol of repressive control punishes without purpose. God prefers Abel's sacrifice over Cain's and demands Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Likewise, the Christian God permits the sacrifice of Ivan's innocent children for no apparent reason, just as Marxism in practice demands sacrifices in the name of the future. Camus' understanding of judgment completely ignores the notion of punishment as a sanction that supports controls upon experience. But even more significantly, his understanding closes off the possibility of revelation. There is no revelation of criminal possibilities in the heart of man and, therefore, no opportunity to repent and live under a new collective and individual order.
Prophecy is a dead tradition as seen through the eyes of Camus. Its remoteness from urban-technological culture is explicit in the sermons of Father Paneloux in The Plague and in the inverted apologetics of the false prophet Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall, and implicit in Camus' conception of prophecy as a literal prediction about the future unrelated to an inner return to the past in The Rebel. In the latter work, especially, Camus overlooks the fact that the Western prophetic traditions were a recall to the repressive limits of the past, which were revolutionary only insofar as they were culturally conservative. To the Jewish prophets, for example, punishment was a revelation of violation of the Commandments. Camus' linking of Judaic and Christian traditions with Marxist prophecy obscures the complete break with traditional conceptions of man envisioned by Marx: for the Marxist prophecy of the future Communist identity liberated from traditional necessities carries powerful anti-repressive implications for the personality. When Camus states that "by demanding for the workers real riches, which are not the riches of money but of leisure and creation," Marx reclaimed the "dignity of man," he assumes the continuation of an ascetic personality type which Marx did not. For Camus, "creation" and "leisure" involved repressive necessities that mandated withdrawal from the world. A literary vocation was no leisure time activity worked in between some morning hunting and afternoon fishing, but rather an exclusive act of devotion which opened the way into a meaningful life. Fixation of activity was the very precondition of the achievement of identity.
Camus did not subscribe to the Marxist and humanist conception in which a person becomes fully human only through liberation from specific vocational, communal, national and religious identities. Yet his rejection of Western religious traditions inevitably pushed him toward the abstract humanist language of "humanity" and "mankind" (which Marx transformed into the "proletariat"), conceptually cutting him loose from the moorings of particular commitments. Camus' great admiration for Simone Weil, however, betrays the conservative assumptions implicit in his idea of human dignity. In The Need for Roots, for instance, Weil makes quite explicit the theological grounding of her defense of restraining commitments to vocation, community and nation. Camus simply ignored any such theologizing while exemplifying in much that he said and did the importance of particularity, of the need for roots, even though the demand for engagement pulled him toward an abstract, rootless conception of mankind and justice. Ungrounded in either an explicit or implicit theology, Camus found his roots in his literary vocation and French-Algerian homeland.
Unconsciously, at first, and then by conscious design, Camus became increasingly obedient to what he saw as the demands of the French literary tradition in modern society. Much the same pattern of return to constraining demands linked to the past repeats itself, but at a slower pace, with regard to Camus' commitment to French Algeria. Distraught over the increasing terror and violence of both "liberation" and colonial forces during the 1950s, Camus adamantly rejected the policies of both sides. Despite his protests against the irresponsible conduct of French colonial rule, Camus' sympathy with the misery-stricken population of Algeria precluded "a policy of surrender that would abandon the Arab people to an even greater misery, tear the French in Algeria from their century-old roots, and favor, to no one's advantage, the new imperialism now threatening the liberty of France and of the West."
Increasingly, the binding character of communal-national origins became a significant aspect of Camus' thought, progressing to the subject of Camus' own origins in his unfinished autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme. But Camus followed the conservative theorizing of theologists such as Weil only so far, for in his conception writing was a "man's trade" and not a "gift of grace." The background of Le Premier Homme was to have been "those lands without a past" of which he wrote in L'Été, "lands of imagination, composed of a mixing of races." He imagined "a 'first man' who starts at zero, who can neither read nor write, who has neither morality nor religion." It was to have been the story of the creation of human culture, but this time without the antinomian excesses of historical doctrines.
Conservative modern theorists from Burke and Tocqueville to Arendt have assumed that people can become and remain human only to the extent that they identify with, and thereby limit themselves by means of, binding communal commitments. These commitments have been public commitments to vocation, community, class, nation and religion. Because Camus refused to articulate a public doctrine to oppose the radical break with traditional commitments explicit in Marxist doctrine, he frequently emphasized the importance of personal commitments, especially friendship, as the basis of social order. For him, justice, morality and social order were the consequence of personal loyalties, close to what American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley called primary relationships. Denial of binding affective ties permitted the excesses of nihilism. For this reason, Camus underscored the nihilistic significance of Nechave's sacrifice of friendship and love for the revolution. (Paragraph 6 of the Revolutionary Catechism reads: "Hard with himself, he must be hard towards others. All the tender feelings of family life, of friendship, love, gratitude and even honour must be stifled in him by a single cold passion for the revolutionary cause.") Camus assumed that political commitment suppresses the personal experiences necessary to the creation of public life, that it prevents their diffusion into society by destroying the private life of love and friendship itself.
The same basic charge is at the heart of Camus' argument that Lenin "never ceased to fight mercilessly against the sentimental forms of revolutionary action." Although Camus has in mind anarchism and syndicalism, the sentiments to which he refers spring from the affections of private existence. But in the case of Lenin, Camus openly admits what is elsewhere unstated—that Lenin "wanted to abolish the morality of revolutionary action because he believed, correctly, that revolutionary power could not be established while still respecting the Ten Commandments." Here, Camus not only acknowledges the importance of traditional controls to his conception of the private sphere, but he also specifically refers to prohibitions that are at the center of what he rather vaguely calls "the Judaic heritage" and "the God of the Old Testament." Plainly, if Lenin was despotic because he opposed the Commandments, then despotism must not result from traditional judgments. Camus' very understanding of the spontaneous expressions of the private life was so deeply imbued with traditional assumptions about the hierarchical nature of man that he could not imagine human nature without them.
Camus' continual opposition of theory and spontaneity, doctrine and nature, then, is misleading. It assumes the unqualified rejection of neither traditional controls nor the intellect, but rather the denial of theories of the state and public authority. Only in the closing pages of The Rebel does he begin to make clear that the history of our time is the history of "the struggle of German ideology against the Mediterranean mind"—of the "Caesarian revolution" against tradeunionism, the State against the commune, absolutist society against concrete society: "The profound conflict of this century is perhaps not so much between the German ideologies of history and Christian political concepts, which in a certain way are accomplices, as between German dreams and Mediterranean traditions, between the violence of eternal adolescence and virile strength, between nostalgia, rendered more acute by knowledge and by books and courage reinforced and enlightened by the experience of life—in other words, between history and nature." What is natural is a world without the power politics of the State, without the sometimes terrible demands of public authorities. While profoundly anti-political, Camus' vision of society may also be seen as culturally conservative. The "irrepressible demand of human nature" is not for a life without impulse repression, but against a life of political suppression. Camus expresses the anarcho-syndicalist dream in which the State is itself the dream of historical theorists.
Camus rightly points to Lenin as a key figure in understanding the modern state. However, he fixes upon Lenin's subordination of the spontaneity of the masses to a theoretical vanguard in What is to be Done? as further confirmation that the heart of the Bolshevik evil is located in theory or doctrine. While recognizing that Lenin "jettisons economic fatalism and embarks on action," Camus makes nothing of the fact that Marxist, like Hegelian, doctrine is heavy with the hidden purposes of history, and that therefore Lenin's moral indifference, and especially his activism, may be more the product of doctrinal subservience to the Party than doctrinal discipline. This shift from the superiority of doctrine to organizational tactics, which Camus overlooks, is clear, for instance, in Lenin's use of the term ideology. According to a strict Marxist definition, ideology refers to false consciousness, to conscious expressions that mask unconscious responses to the imperatives of a particular economic-historical circumstance. Lenin eliminates the weight of this unconscious element. By writing of a choice between either bourgeois or Socialist ideology, he shifts focus to the importance of consciousness alone.
This does not mean that the culpability of Marxist doctrine can be dismissed, for the Marxist concept of ideology itself functionalizes away the very possibility of moral, intellectual and religious opposition. With his transformed concept of ideology, Lenin simply took this denial one step further by making it a matter of organizational rather than doctrinal discipline. He pushed the Marxist denial of traditional commitments toward its logical conclusion, making the leap from theory to practice with disastrous consequences. Commitments to Party and then State replaced all others, with the result that not merely private sentiments but public purposes, such as nationality, were denied. As Solzhenitsyn has recently made clear, the Soviet Communists have never been nationalists. From Stalin to the present, they have systematically suppressed and destroyed all evidence of national culture, loyalties and affections, driving a wedge between Nation and State. Similarly, the committed Communist Pietro Spina in Silone's Bread and Wine is not only alienated from the simplicity of the private life by his commitment to the Party, as Camus thought, he is also dangerously close to the Fascists whom he opposes in his rejection of communal purposes that transcend Party interest.
Not simply doctrinal commitment but doctrinal subordination defines the problem. "Man takes refuge in the permanence of the party in the same way that he formerly prostrated himself before the altar" only after doctrine has failed in its highest function from a sociological perspective, which is to preserve the capacity to resist inwardly the corruptions of the established social order. Writing during an era in which the professional revolutionary, like the clergy of an earlier day, could no longer claim moral superiority and spiritual leadership, Camus exemplifies the anti-creedal idealism of a culture suffering from a disenchantment with public commitments from which we have not recovered.
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