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Critical Essay by V. C. Letemendia
SOURCE: "Poverty in the Writings of Albert Camus," in Polity, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 441-60.
In the following essay, Letemendia explores Camus's early experiences with poverty, as revealed in The First Man, and his outrage over society's indifference toward the plight of the poor. According to Letemendia, Camus viewed poverty as "both a moral and political crime against humanity."
Albert Camus approached the understanding of poverty from the viewpoint of both an internal and an external witness. He had experienced poverty in his youth, as he describes in his autobiographical novel, Le premier homme, but acknowledged that education, financial security and fame had distanced him from the poor, and did not consider that his own experience gave him the authority to speak for other poor people. Unlike some on the French left, he saw freedom as equally essential to a fully human life as material well-being: the poor and working-class could not be denied basic liberties in the name of social justice, just as they could not be treated as an abstraction to be fitted into revolutionary theory. While Camus regarded himself as an outside witness to the devastating effects of poverty, he maintained that those who suffered silently must be given a context in which they could speak out with their own authentic voices.
Albert Camus is famous not only for his works of fiction and theatre, but as an active member of the Resistance, as a commentator on the political problems of his age, and as the friend and later intellectual opponent of Jean-Paul Sartre and his circle. Camus's warnings about the destructive nature of fanaticism have lost no relevance in the last decades of the twentieth century, nor yet has his passion for individual freedom. His pained and angry denunciations of social injustice serve as a reminder that people still suffer from avoidable ills, despite the many political and social changes that have occurred since his untimely death in 1960. The publication in April 1994 of Le premier homme, Camus's incomplete semi-autobiographical novel, has awakened new interest in his life and work. The extant manuscript, a fraction of the planned novel, offers the first detailed account of his experience of a poor childhood in Algeria and the marks it left upon the man, no longer poor or unknown, who looked back to recall it. This intimate record of Camus's early years is fascinating to read for both literary and autobiographical reasons, but it has also attracted fresh attention to a crucial though frequently neglected theme in his writings: his commentary on poverty.
Camus named poverty as one of the initial and most fundamental influences upon his awareness of the world, and once said that he had learned about freedom not from Marx, but from poverty. His approach to the understanding of poverty was compelling and remarkably contemporary. He saw it not as a single, uniformly lived condition that could be comprehended easily by any external observer, but as a condition that spanned a scale from tolerable discomfort to utter deprivation of the necessities of life. Each degree of poverty gave birth to a separate and specific experience of destitution. Because of this, poverty could not be externally measured or described only as a state of systematic political and social disadvantage. It assaulted its victims on an individual level, psychologically and morally, at its very worst curtailing human expression and communication, and destroying individual and collective dignity. In short, severe poverty threatened all that Camus found to be most precious about human existence.
Existence itself, he argued, brought forth a metaphysical form of suffering, arising from an acknowledgement of mortality and other inevitable, natural ills. Though still experience as an injustice, metaphysical suffering was an inherent aspect of the human condition. Preoccupied with the problem of how, in the absence of religious belief, we might discover values by which to live as individuals and as common members of humanity, Camus identified metaphysical suffering as consequent to a recognition of the absurd, and grounded in this suffering his definition of what he saw as both precious and changeless about individual human life. Yet he identified another form of suffering, inflicted by people upon each other, as neither inevitable nor natural. Poverty was one of these afflictions and as such, in the eyes of Camus, was both a moral and political crime against humanity. Outraged by the ignorance or indifference of society toward the fate of the poor, he found it unacceptable that they should remain condemned to suffer in silent misery from a condition that could be significantly alleviated, if not fully eradicated.
Although he did not consider himself to have suffered its worst ravages, Camus had tasted many of the bitter injustices of poverty during his childhood and youth. And while he could and did describe from the inside how poverty had affected him, he laid no personal claim to the stories of other poor people. These he described from the viewpoint of a keen and sympathetic witness, rather than an omniscient outsider, acknowledging the distance that now lay between himself and material deprivation, and respecting the exclusive nature of every poor person's experience. For Camus was quick to recognize that his past provided him only with a certain sensitivity towards the misery of others, not a firm knowledge. He was eager to speak, from his position of privilege, for the poor who had been denied a voice, but restrained himself with characteristic pudeur, or modesty, from mistaking his voice for theirs.
I. Camus as an External Witness to Poverty
Even Camus's earliest published efforts reveal his interest in observing and commenting upon social injustice, and poverty in particular. He was active with more than his pen: at university he participated in the activities of the Popular Front in Algeria, and before completing his studies he joined the Communist Party, not because he had been converted to Marxism by his reading of theory, but because of what he had witnessed and lived. In his words, "it seems to me that, more than ideas, life itself often leads to Communism…. I have such a strong desire to reduce the sum of unhappiness and bitterness which poisons mankind." With his friends on the left, he formed a co-operative political theatre group and a "people's university" to provide adult education for workers, and helped organize a Theatre du Travail in Algiers. Subsequently, as a reporter on the new, left-leaning Alger Républicain, he addressed himself to exposing the misery of some of the poorest members of his community, the Arabs and the indigenous Berber population of Kabylia.
Camus knew well that the Arabs suffered disproportionately when compared even to very poor European families such as his own, for he had long been able to observe their situation at first hand. Well acquainted with the Arab quarter of Algiers, which he had frequented since boyhood, he had gone to school with Arab children, had close contact with left-wing Moslem intellectuals through the Communist Party, openly supported the cause of Arab nationalists, and as a journalist gave sympathetic coverage to a number of political trials involving Arab defendants.
His disgust and indignation at the plight of the poor emerges most forcefully in his reports on famine-struck Kabylia. These articles, written in the first person, relay the statistics of poverty, search for the underlying economic, political, and demographic reasons for the famine, and describe the devastation wreaked upon at least half of the Kabylia population, driven to feed their families on grasses and roots until administrative handouts of grain arrive. Can anyone, he asks, have an easy conscience after seeing such suffering, about which almost nothing has been done? Perhaps it is impossible to convey the extremity of the misery, he writes,
but I know that on the return from a visit to the "tribe" of Tizi-Ouzou, I went up with a Kabyle friend into the heights which tower over the town. There we watched night fall. And at that hour when the shadow descending from the mountain over this splendid earth brings respite to the most hardened human heart, I knew all the same that there was no peace for those who, on the other side of the valley, were gathering together around a cake of bad barley. I knew also how sweet it would be to abandon oneself to an evening so amazing and magnificent, but that the misery whose fires glowed before us made the beauty of the world a forbidden thing. "Let's go down, shall we?" my companion said to me.
Just as his companion urged him, Camus urges his reader to go down into the valley. If you think it is an inevitable state of affairs, he writes, then say so; if you think it is an outrage, then act; if you do not believe that it is happening, come and take a look. For Camus, the most despicable thing to say is that the situation has something to do with the "Kabyle mentality," and that these people do not have the same needs as us, and can adapt to anything. Even the French President, if he were given only two hundred francs a month to live on, would get used to living under bridges, to dirt, and to crusts of bread found in dustbins, for "there is something stronger in a man's attachment to life than there is in all the miseries of the world." Camus did not hesitate to stress that the Kabylian situation originated in a far larger pattern of systematic political disadvantage imposed upon this population by the French government. He argued that temporary or partial solutions could not change the circumstances of the Kabyle, whose education, employment opportunities, political representation and general standard of living required urgent, fundamental reform.
If he had restricted himself to describing his own horror at the conditions he witnessed, and to decrying the ignorance and inhumanity which could permit such misery to continue, the articles would still remain a powerful indictment of colonial rule. Yet he went further, emphasizing above all that even though, to French eyes, these people might be mere Berbers enured to a life of hardship, the Kabyle could not go on being treated worse than animals. Their suffering was just as terrible for them as it would be for any European, and was actually far worse than the misery endured by Algeria's European poor. To borrow Camus' compelling phrase, one had to come down from the mountain to learn what was happening, and it was not enough merely to observe. Once you agreed that the suffering was utterly unacceptable, there was a large measure of hypocrisy in still doing nothing to remove it.
The Communist Party, which Camus had joined earlier, now appeared to be shifting away from its support for the Arab cause, associating itself instead with the pro-colonial Radical Socialist Party. Camus was expelled from the CP in 1937 when he openly objected to this association; he had anyway become increasingly disturbed by the CP's authoritarian tendencies. But he was very far from embracing bourgeois moral values and political policies, which he always considered inadequate to the task of eliminating social and economic injustice. By the end of the war, in his editorial writing in the Resistance newspaper Combat, he demanded that people not become resigned to the return of the old pre-war bourgeois society. He had commented over-optimistically in 1944 that "'social justice needs no complicated philosophy,'" and in the first open edition of Combat called for the destruction of trusts and other financial monopolies, so that a genuine popular working-class democracy might be built, the middle-class should hand over power to the workers, and accept instead the role of "witness to a greatness it could not create itself."
Bread was essential to survival, in Camus's view, but so also was a certain dignity and quality of life. It was not enough only to satisfy the immediate physical wants of underprivileged people when they were still systematically deprived of full participation in society and treated, as a consequence, without understanding or respect, particularly by certain leftwing intellectuals who claimed to understand their best interests. In his foreword to a novel by the working-class writer Louis Guilloux, Camus makes the point that most French writers who talk about the working-class come from comfortable or well-off backgrounds. Though he regards this as no stain on them, but as the luck of the draw, he nevertheless confesses, "I have always preferred that one should bear witness … after having had one's throat under the knife. Poverty, for example, leaves behind in people who have experienced it an intolerance which doesn't take well to someone who speaks of a certain kind of destitution without knowing what they're talking about." The proletariat, he observes, is often discussed as though it were a tribe with strange customs, in a way that would nauseate proletarians themselves if only they had the time to read these specialists' studies in order to be informed about the happy march of progress. Camus finds it hard to decide which is the most insulting in such sermons, the disgusting flattery or the open disdain, which he paraphrases in the following exchange: "proletarians would not cherish the small amount of freedom which they have at their disposal. Bread alone interests them and, without bread, what would they do with formal liberties? How vulgar they are!" And, for the working-class reaction: "'What do you like best, man, the fellow who wants to take your bread away in the name of freedom, or the one who wants to take your freedom away to make sure you have your bread?' Answer: 'Who should get spat on first?'" In contrast, writers born of the working-class know that "if one can lend a kind of nobility to poverty, the slavery which almost always accompanies it will never be justified," for they understand how excessive poverty impoverishes even the most intimate of passions: "Fifteen thousand francs a month, life in the workshop, and Tristan has nothing to say to Iseult any more. Love also is a luxury, there lies the condemnation."
Camus argued that the chasm between the outlook of the working-class and the left intelligentsia would deepen if the latter continued to accept the sacrifice of vital social freedoms in the pursuit of ultimate social justice. In his view, the liberal position, offering freedom without justice, would perpetuate the oppression of the many by the few who owned wealth, but bread without freedom was an insult to individual human dignity. The task ahead lay in finding an equilibrium between the two claims rather than in painting them as antagonistic, possibly irreconcilable forces, as was all too often done by both liberals and radicals: freedom and justice were opposite sides of the same coin existing in a creative balance, not an antagonism. For Camus, this balance could only be maintained by socialism, a socialism which preserved and cherished democratic liberties, most important of all freedom of expression. As he confessed in a letter to his friend, Roger Quilliot, "it is quite true that I would no longer have any fondness for living in a world from which what I will call the Socialist hope would have disappeared."
No revolution, whatever justice it might promise, could be bought at the expense of basic humanity: injustice in the name of some future human condition would betray the very people whom the revolution sought to liberate. In his play, Les justes and in L'homme révolté, Camus explores this painful lesson of history, searching for an alternative form of political action that could fight for social justice without devastating human life. The "scrupulous murderers" of Les justes acknowledge from the outset that they must be prepared to give their own lives in payment for their targeted acts of political violence, yet circumstances force them inevitably to confront a further question: can their revolution justify the taking of innocent life? The answer, for Camus, is clearly no: even in destruction there must be limits, for as the simplest of peasants could tell any intellectual, to kill children is contrary to honor, and honor is not a luxury, but "the last of the poor's riches."
With L'homme révolté, Camus unfolds, as a tentative beginning, his view of an alternative politics. He proposes, in place of the revolutionary's messianic spirit, the attitude of the rebel, whose political action is limited always by a sense of the sacredness of human life, requiring a constant balance between relative freedom and relative justice. Camus offers the trade union movement as an example of rebellion translated into effective political action. Libertarian syndicalism, he argues, has long struggled against bourgeois oppression, and it is to this movement, rather than to Marx, that the proletariat owes its most basic victory, the reduction of a sixteen-hour working day to a forty-hour week. In such political action, as in the wise use of technology, he sees the opportunity to alleviate the misery of working-class life without increasing injustice and crushing freedom. The nature of a union collective, organized by and for the workers to address their own problems, can give the working-class an authentic political voice in its successful, as in its unsuccessful struggles.
Camus's short story, "Les muets," from L'exil et le royaume, describes one of these unsuccessful struggles. Set in an Algerian town, the tale concerns the aftermath of a failed strike at a cooper's workshop. After being forced back on the job out of the need to put food in their families' mouths, the workers express their bitterness by refusing to speak when addressed by their boss. The irony is obvious: rather than a sign of impotence, the curse of the oppressed, their silence has become a non-violent weapon, a last defense of outraged dignity. When they learn later that the boss's little daughter has been taken seriously ill, their silence becomes a painful one in the face of a common human tragedy. However barren their lives, the workers have not lost their compassion, then, but nor have they lost their sense of solidarity, demonstrated even toward the one Arab who works with them. Although they are simple men, they communicate through a language of mutual respect and show a delicacy of feeling toward one another that contrasts strongly with the insensitivity and awkwardness of the boss in his dealings with them. Their nobility in silent rebellion exemplifies, in Camus's terms, what it means to affirm one's companionship with all of humanity.
If Camus's hopes for a post-war working-class democracy went unfulfilled, his radical tone did not change, as may be observed in his somewhat neglected editorials for L'Express written in 1955–56. He frequently used the editorials to draw notice to specific instances of poverty and oppression that had been comfortably ignored or tolerated by the bourgeois establishment. One such small, overlooked tragedy noted by Camus is that of two roofers, still working at well over retirement age, who fell to their deaths while on the job. In another piece, Camus discusses a settlement made at the Renault company, without a strike, between workers and management. It was good that there was no strike, he says, if you know what a strike can do to a working-class family. And it is not true that an improvement in their standard of living would diffuse the fighting force of the workers, for it is often the poorest who are most resigned. But the main problem, as yet unresolved, he identifies as "that internal exile which separates millions of men from their own country" through miserable wages and suburban ghettoes. If this injustice continues, Camus argues, the working-class will remain, "against its will, a state within a state." Reforms should not be despised, but nor should the end of reform be forgotten: "the re-integration of the working-class with all of its rights and the abolition of wage labour."
His review for L'Express of an inquiry into the condition of the Parisian working-class bluntly calls working-class misery the disgrace of this civilization, for which bourgeois society has only come up with one remedy: silence. To be poor in the presence of wealth, Camus adds, is an especially bitter fate: for all those who own luxury cars, there are women holding themselves back from leaving the job to go to the toilet, so as not to lose their three franc bonus. What the inquiry illustrates, in his words, is "a solitary world deprived of any immediate hope." He quotes a miner as saying poignantly, and with particular significance to one such as Camus himself, born under Mediterranean skies, "when our boys first go down the mine, they start to cry: they can't see the sun any more."
Another of Camus's editorials concerns a true-life example of working-class oppression remarkably close in flavor to "Les muets." He describes how two trade union members were condemned to do time in a correctional institution for having refused to shake the hand of their perfect, or local government administrator: "their reserve," he explains, "constituted an outrageous attitude, according to the judges. He who doesn't say a word insults." Yet refusing to shake hands, Camus suggests, is really a peaceful way of showing that one disapproves of something: "unable to dignify the social morality that had been outraged in this affair, [the workers] wanted at least to substitute for it a sort of cleanliness. Not to compromise oneself, wasn't that the rule of true nobility? And besides, what would our hand be, for those we love, if we gave it to the first comer?"
In Camus's opinion, then, the misery and humiliation of poverty, and of discrimination against the working class, remained ill-disguised cankers polluting society, and little had been done to remove them. His editorials point uncompromisingly at the conclusion that freedom alone could not end social injustice, and that bourgeois liberals, blinded either by their nature or by choice, would not come to recognize the misery of the working class or of the indigenous population in their colonies as an urgent, unacceptable tragedy. At the same time, the editorials consistently demand a shift in the position of the left toward a new emphasis on the importance of freedom. For if certain people on the left considered servitude an excusable path to justice, while others on the right continued to hide the realities of poverty and economic oppression under cloak of constitutional liberties, the struggle to shape a better society could not be won.
Camus saw the Communist left as condescending to the working class, offering social justice at the terrible price of liberty, and advocating revolutionary violence without considering, or without revealing, that the poor, who had no political voice, would have to pay for it most dearly. How ironic it was, indeed, that working-class consciousness should be so exalted by those who knew nothing about it, yet thought of themselves as most qualified to judge how the working class should pursue its struggles. Bourgeois liberals and Communist left were, it seemed, curiously united in their emphasis on some form of future social well-being, though their respective panaceas differed. But for Camus, who believed in no heavenly reward for suffering on earth and considered the future an unpredictable affair, to accept the ruin of a life lived today was criminal, whether that life were devastated in an urban slum or in a forced labor camp. Whoever saw fit to excuse or even to tolerate the exclusion of the greater part of society from full enjoyment of its benefits became themselves impoverished in human terms. The supreme arrogance of such an attitude could only warp any kind of politics that it might produce. For the politics of fighting poverty required, in his view, a fundamental recognition of a common human condition and a shared destiny. If poverty could attack its victims psychologically, the psychology of the fortunate could act equally as a barrier to understanding the world of the poor. So whatever social and economic policies might be adopted to tackle the problem of poverty, there had also to be a change of consciousness, both morally and politically, on the part of those more privileged members of society, or else the poor would still be condemned to internal exile in their own land. As may be seen in the pained irony of his editorials for L'Express, Camus sought urgently to convince his readers that the occasional sense of pity or act of charity was an insufficient, even insulting, answer to such suffering. Political action had to be accompanied by individual moral integrity on the part of those involved, arising from a genuine realization that it was a crime to treat the poor as if they were a breed apart, and had no need of justice, freedom, and dignity. He demanded, in place of the insincerities and inhumanities of both Communist left and bourgeois politics, a socialism distinguished by its defense of human solidarity and communication, a socialism that would assure all members of society an equal freedom to cultivate their individuality.
Camus did not forget that as a successful writer he himself was no longer poor, and he worried that material comfort might exert a damaging influence upon his own moral integrity: he comments regretfully in a notebook entry, "it is in poverty that I have found and always will find the necessary conditions such that my guilt, if it exists, should at least not be shameful, and remains proud." He retained a strong sense of solidarity with the working class from which he had come: "French workers," he writes, "are the only people I feel good around, that I want to get to know and to 'live.' They are like me." Although, during the acrimonious debate in Les temps modernes following the publication of L'homme révolté, Sartre put forward the argument that Camus was now just as much a bourgeois as Francis Jeanson and himself, Camus could claim justifiably to have come from the working class and hence to possess a certain sensitivity toward it that could not easily be gained from reading books. His angry retort to his critics who had "never placed anything but their armchairs in the direction of history" surely stemmed in large part from his frustration at hearing the working class discussed by people who had no more than a theoretical grasp of its problems and declared their commitment to revolutionary change in writing only, from the safety of cafe terraces. The suffering of the poor he considered to be similarly misunderstood by existentialists: "according to [them], every man is responsible for who he is. This explains the complete disappearance of compassion from their universe of aggressive old men. And yet they pretend to fight against social injustice. So there do exist, then, people who aren't responsible for what they are; the poor man is innocent of his poverty." The innocence of the poor man Camus could certainly claim to know about from personal experience: if he was no longer innocent, living the life of a bourgeois intellectual, he had been touched by poverty, remembered its injustices, and identified passionately with those who still endured it.
Ii. Camus's Experience of Poverty
Throughout his career as a writer, Camus repeatedly turned back to his childhood and youth in Belcourt to retrieve and to explore artistically the internal experience of poverty. Le premier homme offers the most continuous and detailed of these explorations. In comparison to his commentary on working-class poverty in France or on the tragedy of Kabylia, it might seem at first glance that Camus had a nostalgic, even romantic, attitude toward his own poverty, mitigated as it was for him by the natural wealth of Algeria's climate and landscape. Poverty and the sun, he writes, were the twin sources of his artistic vision, poverty reminding him that not all is well under the sun and history, and the sun teaching him that history is not everything. In Noces, an early work, Camus celebrates the beauty of nature and youthful bodies, describing lyrically the sensual pleasures of sea and sun, and the direct, spontaneous attitude to life of the young working—class Algerians among whom he grew to manhood. But his lyricism is tempered by a sober warning: youth is short for those who are poor, and any idea of self-improvement, or of virtue, means little if one must enjoy existence so passionately, so swiftly. Without religious sense and without myths to disguise the brutality of their existence, these people have their own moral code, which he recalls in spare terms: "You don't let your mother down. You make sure your wife is treated respectfully in the street. You show consideration for a pregnant woman. You don't come two to one upon your enemy, because that's 'pulling a dirty move.' Anyone who fails to respect these basic rules is 'not a man,' and that's it."
In Le premier homme, Camus's lyricism is equally tempered by his description of the consequences of poverty: there is no change of heart regarding its crushing indignities, despite the recollected pleasures and moments of human tenderness in the novel. The internal experience of poverty is stripped naked, quite without romance or sentimentality, to reveal a universe closed in upon itself, clinging to its own particular values born not of religion or theory, but of simple hardship. Camus writes movingly about the terrible vulnerability of the poor European community from which he came, not just as it might be in the violent Algeria of the 1950s, but as it had been from its first tenuous and tortuous attempts to establish a livelihood in a strange land. Le premier homme thus illustrates with particular acuity why Camus might refuse to condone wholesale Arab nationalist violence against the French presence in Algeria: he sought to defend the poor Europeans, themselves in a sense silent victims of colonial rule, for they would be the ones to suffer helplessly if random terrorism became widespread, not the wealthy colons who could afford to protect themselves or to move elsewhere. His avowed intent in writing Le premier homme was precisely to "tear his poor family away from the destiny of poor people, which is to disappear from history without leaving a trace," and the title of the novel reflects a double meaning. Jacques Cormery, Camus's fictional counterpart, is the first man, having had to bring himself up alone, fatherless and poor, and navigate a new course far beyond the limited universe of his family. He came, however, from immigrant stock, people who had fled poverty and oppression in their own countries; so in his family history, too, were "first men," uprooted often unwillingly from their European origins and driven to plant new roots in African soil.
Poverty, Camus remarks, is "a fortress without drawbridges"; and as Le premier homme unfolds, it becomes more and more remarkable that he himself managed to find a way out of the fortress. For his family were not just badly off but constantly on the edge of indigence, and without the intervention of a primary school teacher who recognized his promise, he would have disappeared into the workforce at the age of thirteen. Instead, as a scholarship student at the Lycée, he began to discover a whole world outside his own small one that would be forever closed to his family. The home of Jacques Cormery (Camus's fictive name) was a small world indeed, curtailed by lack of education born of scant opportunity, and by the grinding effects of a constant struggle to secure the minimum for survival. Jacques had never known his father: Henri Cormery died in France during the Great War before Jacques was two years old. He is described as a "hard man, bitter, who had worked all his life, had killed on command, had accepted everything that he could not avoid, but who, in some part of himself, refused to be tamed. In short, a poor man. Because poverty does not choose itself, but it can look after itself." And if Henri Cormery had left his family in poverty to fight for a land he had never even seen, how much less did his wife understand the cause that would eventually claim his life. Hampered by partial deafness, illiterate, and without the least sense of geography, she could not vaguely imagine what France might be like. She knew that her own family had fled Minorca because they were starving, and knew that it was an island, but she had no conception of what an island was because she had never seen one. She had no idea of history beyond that of her family, and the orders that came for her husband to join up were as mysterious to her as the written notice she received of his death: since neither she nor her mother, who lived with the family, could read, the very notice of death had to be read aloud to them. So it was useless for Jacques to try and talk at home about what he was studying because his family members had no points of reference in their own lives through which to give coherence to his discoveries: For them,
Latin, for example, was a word that had absolutely no meaning. That there might have been (apart from savage times, which they could, on the contrary, imagine) a time in which nobody spoke French, that civilizations (and the very word meant nothing to them) might have succeeded each other whose customs and language were different: these truths had not reached as far as them. Not picture, nor written word, nor spoken information, nor the superficial culture that comes from everyday conversation had reached them: In this house where there were no newspapers, until Jacques brought them in, no radio either, where there were only objects of immediate usefulness, where only family was received, a family one rarely left—and always to meet members of the same ignorant family—what Jacques brought back from school was impossible to assimilate, and the silence grew between him and his family.
The poverty of Jacques's family had other consequences difficult to imagine for someone from a more fortunate home. His own home, for example, was so naked of objects that things had no special names; and only in a richer house containing a multiplicity of vases, cups, statuettes and pictures did the young Cormery come to know that things can have proper names. The ability of poor people such as the Cormery family to recall past events was similarly affected. For, as Camus explains, the memory of the poor is
less nourished than that of rich people, it has fewer points of demarcation in space because they rarely leave the place in which they live, fewer landmarks also in the time taken up by a uniform, grey life. Of course, there is the memory of the heart that is said to be the most reliable, but the heart gets worn out by burdens and hard work; it forgets more quickly under the weight of tiredness. Past time is only discovered by rich people. For the poor, it marks only the vague traces of the road toward death. And after all, to be able to bear things well, it's better not to remember too much; you have to stick close to the days, hour by hour.
Proust's madeleine, Camus appears to suggest, is a luxury not enjoyed by poor households.
While the Cormerys could not understand the new intellectual wealth Jacques had gained at high school, it was just as difficult for him to explain his family's world to his classmates and teachers. The shocking poverty of his household was sometimes a source of outright embarrassment for a boy gradually becoming sensitive to the differences in background between himself and his peers. For example, he could quite acceptably tell the class, when asked at the beginning of the new term, that his father had been killed in the war. Yet when he came to fill out a form which required him to state his parents' professions, he was at a loss. At first he wrote, for his mother, "housewife," but Pierre, a schoolfriend, explained that this implied his mother had no profession at all and stayed at home to keep house. Jacques revealed that his mother looked after other peoples' houses; "'Oh well, then,' said Pierre, hesitating, 'I think you'd better put maid.'" Jacques was surprised, never having thought of his mother as someone who worked for other people, but as someone who worked for her own family. As he was about to write the word "maid," "he stopped and suddenly felt … ashamed, and the shame of having been ashamed." And he copied the word out boldly. On another occasion, he was asked that his parents sign a form, the sophisticated language of which he had to unravel for his mother and grandmother. His mother had learned from a neighbor how to write her name so that she could obtain her war-widow's pension, but she left early for work having forgotten to sign the form, and his grandmother could not write even her own name. So he faced further embarrassment before his teacher when he was asked whether anyone at home could not have signed it apart from his mother. He realized, from his teacher's surprise at his answer, that "his situation was less common than he had imagined until then." On prize-giving day, the Cormery women arrived embarrassingly early for the ceremony, "as the poor always are," Camus remarks, "having few social obligations and pleasures, and worrying about not being on time." For "those whom fate has served badly can't help, in some part of themselves, believing that they are responsible, and they feel that this general guilt should not be added to by small lapses."
Poverty, Jacques also discovered, tried his desire to be honest, as much as it did his pride. At the age of thirteen, he had to start earning to contribute to the household's meager income, even though he would only be able to work over the summer holidays. Knowing that the boy would not be hired by anyone just for such a short period, his grandmother falsely told his prospective employer that he had left school for good because his family was too poor for him to continue studying. Jacques was left to explain the lie on his dreaded last day of work before the new term; and his irate boss could not be made to realize that it was the Cormery's poverty that had required the lie in the first place. His financial contribution to the Cormery household nonetheless marked an important transition in his life: in their eyes, he was now a man.
Jacques was lucky to escape the drudgery of work during school-time: the rest of his family enjoyed no such luxury. There could never be a break, for such a thing would mean less to eat for everybody. The poor would only stop working in the case of an accident on the job when their sick-leave was paid by company insurance. Unemployment not covered by insurance was their worst nightmare. Camus explains this to be the reason
why workingmen … who in their everyday lives were ever the most tolerant of men, were always xenophobes when it came to questions about work, accusing in succession the Spanish, the Jews, the Arabs, and finally the whole world of stealing their work away from them—a disconcerting attitude, certainly, for intellectuals theorizing about the proletariat, and at the same time extremely human and understandable. It wasn't for world domination or for the privileges of money and leisure that these unexpected nationalists got into disputes over other nationalities, but for the privilege of slavery. Work in this quarter was not a virtue but a necessity which, for the sake of survival, carried you on to death.
Death was a frequent visitor in Cormery's neighborhood, to be greeted without sentimentality or fuss: his grandmother, upon hearing that a person had died, would only say, "'Ah well, he won't fart any more,'" or in the case of someone closer to her, "'Poor fellow, he was still young,' even if the deceased had been of a dying age for a long while. It was not a lack of awareness on her part. Because she had seen a lot of people die around her…. But precisely, death was as familiar to her as work or poverty; she did not think about it but lived it in some way." Meanwhile, with "the terrible wear and tear of poverty, it became hard to find a place for religion…. One was Catholic as one was French, and that entailed a certain number of rites … baptism, first communion, the sacrament of marriage (if there were a marriage) and the last sacraments. Between these ceremonies, by their nature very far apart, one was busy with other things, and primarily with surviving."
The world Jacques Cormery so narrowly escaped was one of a daily struggle which could not for a moment be abandoned, whether to rest, to gain education or simply to contemplate the larger questions about human existence. There was no comfortable padding between these poor people and three grim facts: a brief youth, hard work, and an early death. Like victims of tuberculosis, they lived in the constant presence of their own mortality, unable to afford the relief of either romance or sentimentality. Nevertheless poverty, in all of its humiliating nakedness, nourished a kind of ethic, teaching the boy what it was "to be a man," and to carry on with as much pride and dignity as might be salvaged after the hours of drudgery. "It is … among these humble or proud people," Camus states unreservedly, "that I have most surely touched that which seems to me to be the true meaning of life."
In spite of what he might have learned from his Belcourt years, Camus nowhere suggested that poverty was worth suffering because it was a condition that encourage virtue. On the contrary, at its worst it was an experience salutary for neither soul nor body. Poverty limited human intercourse with the world just as his mother's deafness restricted her to a lonely and silent universe. To be poor was to be entrapped in an unceasing cycle of work from birth to death, with the fear of unemployment and hunger hanging overhead like a sword of Damocles. Poverty shortened the memory, dampened the imagination, wore down friendships and loves, ate away at youthful vigor and promised no reward after death but the curt sympathy of a neighbor or family member. It permitted of no time for sickness, idleness, or self-development, and demanded of its victims the kind of solidarity and endurance required of an army under attack: one slip, and everyone would be exposed to suffering.
Poverty had given Camus his initial, personal experience of human solidarity, but he was clearly aware that such solidarity was not exclusive to the experience of the poor: he encountered it also sharing in the struggles of the Resistance movement under the Nazi occupation. His metaphorical use of the plague and its effects upon the citizens of Oran, in La peste is evidence of this awareness: his protagonist, Dr. Rieux, bears witness to both human solidarity and human weakness in the face of a desperate common plight. Never did Camus propose that everyone should suffer the deprivations and humiliations of poverty, or the misery and terror of an occupying totalitarian power in order to be acquainted at first hand with the true meaning of life. Rather, he was proposing that because such experiences strip our existence of its sheltering illusions, testing our moral fortitude as much as our capacity for compassion, they can remind us powerfully and directly of our shared human fate.
Through his literary art, Camus attempted to offer both the suffering and the solidarity to the imagination of his readers who might not or could not experience the world of poverty for themselves. His great achievement in Le premier homme lies exactly in his ability to portray what to many of them might as well be the landscape of some alien universe. Although he had escaped the barren and shuttered life of poverty, he had not forgotten even its most intimate details, nor its greatest injustices. His escape was not a source of self-congratulation for the adult looking back, but a sobering reflection: so many others were left behind, and it was for these people that he felt driven to speak. His experience, while not the desperate misery of the Kabyles, gave him a bitter taste of the extreme: to use his own phrase, it shortened his descent into the other side of the valley.
Poverty was an urgent political issue for Camus because it concerned those who did not suffer it as much as those who did: to tolerate its presence passively was to perpetuate actively a gross inhumanity. Though he never elaborated a comprehensive and detailed social policy regarding poverty, he did indicate the direction that might be taken by government and society to relieve some of its most conspicuous hardships. He voiced the need for a socialism that would protect all members of society from political and economic injustice, while assuring them free expression as individuals. He demanded also an awakening of consciousness on the part of people who did not live under the burden of poverty, so that their political actions could be informed by genuine moral integrity, rather than theory or self-interest. Camus acknowledged that he himself had become distanced from the experience of poverty, not so much by an emotional gulf as by his material and intellectual circumstances. Still, he could at least bear witness with sympathy and honestly to its devastating effects, and employ his art with caution and respect to "say a little about eternal human suffering." The tragedy of the poor was that, unlike dumb animals, they knew very well that they were victims of injustice, but their lives were so draining, so monotonously absorbing, and so isolating that they might not be able to act to change them, let alone find the opportunity to speak out about their plight. Yet in the end, for Camus, all those who suffered mutely had to be encouraged to tell their story with their own authentic voices, no longer dismissed, organized, or condescended to by more fortunate outsiders, even such acutely sympathetic outsiders as he. And while these outsiders could not speak for the poor, Camus argued that it was their duty in human solidarity to provide a context in which the silence might finally be broken.
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