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The Unlikely Barrèsian Inheritance of Albert Camus

  • Christopher Churchill
Couverture de                Volume 23, numéro 2, 2012, p. 1-343, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Corps de l’article

The year 2013 is the centenary of Albert Camus’ birth. In English-language scholarship a recent consensus seems to be emerging about the overall significance of his long-contested legacy. Critics debated his work, even in his lifetime, within the doubled context of the Cold War and decolonization: was he a champion of the French political left and for Algerian rights, or an apologist for colonialism, racism, and Western supremacy? [1] Recent studies by David Carroll and Robert Zaretsky, like Tony Judt and others before them, vindicate the former Camus. Carroll and Zaretsky position Camus’ writing as more resonant with contemporary concerns than that of other twentieth-century voices from the French left. [2] They each offer insightful approaches to contextualizing his significance. Defensive of earlier critiques, they situate him in opposition to right-wing ideologies. [3] Zaretsky argues that contemporary appropriations of Camus by the right are misplaced: “I doubt that Camus, were he alive today, would feel at home in the company of either the neoliberal or the neoconservative thinkers who claim him as an inspiration.” [4] Carroll positions Camus in opposition to the ideas of French far-right intellectuals, which circulated among his contemporaries, notably the xenophobic ideas of Maurice Barrès about whom Carroll has also written a perceptive study. [5] Carroll’s and Zaretsky’s claims about Camus and his opposition to far-right ideologues are uncontroversial in Camus scholarship. However, inasmuch as they offer a less ambivalent portrait of the committed leftist, they inadvertently efface one of the most intriguing aspects of his writing: its multivalent meanings, then as today, for a heterogeneous audience on both the left and the right. This is not an incidental aspect to his writing. Emily Apter, Patricia Lorcin, and David Meakin are three of the very few Camusian scholars to have suggested affinities between far-right intellectuals and Camus. [6] However, among scholars focused on far-right intellectuals themselves, particularly after the end of World War II, such arguments were quite common. Michel Mohrt and Pierre de Boisdeffre positioned Camus as a notable student of Barrès himself. Where a Barrèsian influence on Camus has been previously acknowledged, it comes more often from defenders of Barrès seeking to disassociate him from his fascist legacy rather than from champions of Camus. This should not be surprising. In these postwar works, Camus functions to displace the obvious Barrèsian inheritance of fellow anti-Dreyfusard Charles Maurras onto a politically unimpeachable author, similar to John Stanley’s utilization of Camus’ affinities to Georges Sorel in order to purify the latter of his authoritarian trajectory. [7] Académicien Michel Mohrt, an historian and one-time Action Française sympathizer (a set of descriptors that covered many pre- and postwar Académiciens), wrote an essay translated and published in 1948 that draws out Camus’ intellectual debt to Henry de Montherlant and Maurice Barrès. Mohrt’s motivations in drawing out these connections may be suspect, but his careful reading is not. [8]

To demonstrate the ways in which Camus’ works have been filtered of their ideological complexity and ambivalence, this paper will examine how Camus drew upon the writings of one of the most notable French far-right intellectuals, Maurice Barrès (1862–1923). Camus, to be sure, is an unlikely intellectual inheritor of Barrès. Barrès was the avant-garde ‘Prince of Youth’, notorious anti-Dreyfusard, and coiner of the term national socialism. But Camus’ appropriations of Barrès are more than marginal points-of-reference in his writings.

As Camus developed as a writer he, like other French and French Algerian intellectuals, defined his own intellectual development in relation to his predecessors. Scholars have noted that Camus drew from an ideological range of sources, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, André Gide, and André Malraux. However, many of his works draw heavily from intellectuals who are commonly assigned by contemporary scholars to be anti-liberal, or even totalitarian proto-fascists or fascists. A few scholars have noted Camus’ affinities for intellectuals whose own aesthetic strategies would seem to be the subjects of his own critique of an aesthetics of force: Charles Maurras, Louis Bertrand, Charles Péguy, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, and Georges Sorel to name a few. [9] However, no far-right figure was more influential on Camus’ writing than Maurice Barrès. In fact, Camus’ central philosophical ideas of the Absurd and Revolt, according to Camus himself, drew as much from Barrès as any other intellectual precursor. Despite this, his was an influence that in the decades of voluminous Camusian studies only a very few scholars have briefly noted. [10]

This is not an argument about Camus as a subliminal reactionary. It is a study of how one of the most committed anti-fascist intellectuals of World War II, even in his most celebrated and explicitly anti-fascist writings, assimilated and modified ideas associated with the French far right which saturated the intellectual milieu of his Algerian settler society. The aim here is not to demonize Camus by way of association, nor rehabilitate French far-right sources. It is to understand how and why Camus might be, for all his leftist commitments, the most profound intellectual inheritor of Maurice Barrès of his generation; it is to understand the complexities and paradoxes, the strangeness and uncanny familiarity, of an occulted far-right cultural legacy in the twentieth century — a legacy too often quarantined as foreign to contemporary notions of Western Civilization celebrated by writers like Camus. [11]

In order to appreciate Camus’ unlikely Barrèsian inheritance, this paper will first outline what Barrès’ works meant for his intellectual inheritors, in order to better appreciate what Camus appropriated. Second, there will follow a discussion of the historical context in which Camus was initially drawn to Barrès: specifically the subculture of settler intellectuals in French Algeria in which Camus developed as an engaged intellectual and writer. Finally, having examined Barrès’ significance, and the settler intellectual milieu in which Camus was drawn to Barrès, this paper will explain the evolution of Camus’ citations, discussions, and appropriations of Barrès over the course of his career, both while in Algeria and later in France. Barrès was not only a youthful fascination as Camus once averred in the postwar period. As we shall see, Barrès’ influence continued to be deeply felt even as Camus developed into the mature writer frequently invoked today.

Barrès and his Inheritors

Camus was far from alone in appropriating Barrès’ ideas. Like his contemporaries, Camus defined himself as an intellectual by positioning himself in relation to earlier figures, particularly intellectuals of the fin-de-siècle. In 1890s France, the term “intellectual” came into popular usage. At the end of the nineteenth century, a social and professional network of avant-garde intellectuals had developed across France and its colonies. They would define themselves alternatively as Symbolists, Romanes, and Naturistes, as well as by the names of other aesthetic movements. They shared exclusive experiences as cultural élites, as well as general ones like the revanchiste legacy of the Franco-Prussian War. For those not already in Paris, they shared in the move from the provinces to Paris, whether for higher education or for employment in letters, they shared in the quotidian practices of writing for Left Bank publishers, in their attending cafés and salons, or in their frequent travels between Paris, the French provinces, and across the colonial Mediterranean. They also came to define themselves as politically engaged in shaping France’s polity, particularly in the context of the Dreyfus Affair. [12] This politically-engaged avant-garde, including antagonists such as Émile Zola and Maurice Barrès, sought to fashion public opinion. No intellectual besides Zola was as influential as Barrès in the debates about Alsatian-Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus’s fate.

Maurice Barrès was a leader in the growth of anti-Semitic political organizations and a leading Anti-Dreyfusard. He was an ultra- nationalist who celebrated the lyrical beauty of France’s regional terroirs inasmuch as they wedded deracinated individuals to tradition. Besides his crucial role in the development of ultra-nationalist and regionalist political organizations, he was most famous for his series of avant-garde novels, such as Le Culte du moi and Les Déracinés, in which he helped develop the roman politique. As he matured his works highlighted his intellectual evolution from a decadent aesthete to an advocate for the collective affirmation of rootedness with one’s nation against foreign barbarism. He called this rootedness with one’s nation and its ancestors the “Cult of the Dead.” For Barrès, the French were supposedly rendered dissolute by the nihilistic and foreign influences of modernity. He believed his novels and essays would lead them towards a collective refusal against this decadent modernity by providing them a literary re-racination in timeless and collective French traditions. As Robert Soucy and David Carroll have noted, Barrès’ novels conflate political and aesthetic transformation, as well as the regeneration of the individual and society — each are regenerated in tandem with one another, as expressed through the aesthetic-political project that is his oeuvre[13]

Barrès’ famous trilogy of novels, Le Culte du moi, published between 1888 to 1891, mirrored his own evolution among the Symbolist avant-garde: from individualist bohemian aesthete to ultra-nationalist Boulangiste deputy. Unlike Charles Maurras, another classicizing ultra-nationalist, whose aesthetic and political positions were relatively set and static by the mid-1890s, Barrès’ life and work constantly shifted in emphases and political parti pris. He sought ever new experiences and literary experiments that would influence generations of French intellectuals — from decadent Parisian aesthete of the mid-1880s, to ultra-nationalist and provincial regionalist through much of the 1890s, to exoticizing orientalist, colonialist, and Catholic mystic of the 1900s until his death — although one can find traces and echoes of the concerns from each of these periods in the others. Le Culte du moi was a quest for ever-increasing sensation that would, over the course of the volumes, eventually lead the figure of the itinerant individualist and decadent aesthete — the Symbolist author as focus of the Symbolist novel — to his own reconstitution within a nationalist framework that mirrored Barrès’s own political evolution as Boulangiste deputy. Whatever excited one’s development was to be incorporated within oneself and one’s sense of patrimony. In Soucy’s discussion of Le Culte du Moi, he perspicaciously observes the key to the books is the dialectical transformation of the artist and society. [14] The artist proceeds from his modernist experience of uprooted destitution to his re-immersion in a national collectivity via regional traditions, a collectivity which he then reshapes in his own image. Finding himself rooted again, but by choice, he will, in a reinvention of national tradition eradicated by modernity, create for his people a new rootedness based on his own individual experience: “[h]e will recall Lorraine to her true self; she will recall him to his true self. Together, they will regenerate each other.” [15] This regionalist regeneration will be in turn the model for a national one. National energy will be recuperated by reinventing the lost traditions of the petite patrie. The trilogy stands as Barrès’ attempt not only to describe his own political evolution, but also to prescribe this modernist narrative as the model by which individual and national regeneration will be followed by other intellectuals and his readership — an aesthetic-political model particularly influential on Camus and others.

Another crucial aspect of Barrès’ series of novels was that the return to an authentic tradition was set in opposition to the foreign, nihilistic forces which threatened it. According to Barrès, provincial life was losing or had lost its traditions, and as a result intellectuals had to augment them or create them anew for the French people. These augmented or mediated traditions would provide the moral foundation by which the nation would withstand the onslaught of the putative barbarism of German society and culture. For Barrès, it was through an opposition to foreign barbarians by which a people was defined. As he put it in the 1904 preface to L’Homme libre:

An I who does not submit, here is the hero of our little book. Never submit! This is the salvation, when we are faced by an anarchic society, where discipline is replaced by the multitude of doctrines, and when, over our frontiers, the powerful flood of the foreigner comes, over the paternal fields, to confuse and sweep us along. Un homme libre has not provided the young a clear-cut understanding of their true tradition, but he has urged them to clear themselves and once again find their proper filiation. [16]

As Barrès puts it: this “I” or selfhood that exerts itself through a recuperated tradition in opposition to foreign barbarism was what his series of novels hoped to collectively reawaken in his readers. Novelist and critic Paul Bourget was one of Barrès’ earliest admirers, and followed his career until Barrès’ death. He argued:

The “culte du moi”, as Barrès defines it in his ideological novels, is foremost a defense against the ‘Barbarians’. One should understand this word as the Greeks had expressed it. The barbarian is the foreigner, ‘the adversary’, as he says in Le Jardin de Bérénice, he whose sensibility is in its essence the antagonist of ours. Here we have the classic formulation of the I that is expressed in opposition. This affirmation of its tastes, desires, and singular élans leads Barrès to better understand himself. He himself called this his period of enrichment. Enrichment was achieved foremost by travels. Thus were written the works Du Sang, de la Volupté et de la Mort, Amori et Dolori Sacrum, Greco ou le Secret de Tolède[17]

In his last years, Barrès turned to travel outside his nation again in order to better understand it. He thought that the liminal bastions between a Catholic and Latin France and the barbarian enemy were the privileged spaces of French regeneration, whether in Alsace and Lorraine, or through the example of French Catholic missions in the Middle East. France was the inheritor of a Mediterranean Greco-Latin civilization, synonymous with Western Civilization, and thus had to renew its energies not only in the face of (for Barrès) France’s most intimate enemy Germany, but along this interior sea’s shores where it met the Orient and Africa.

Barrès, assigned by Carroll and other scholars as one of the principal intellectual forerunners of fascism, also exerted by way of his avant-garde art and politics an important influence on many subsequent writers. His influence was so profound that Barrès had quipped that the generation of intellectuals following him were divided between Barrèsiens and Barrèsistes. After World War II, with the political épuration of accused collaborationists, an analogous intellectual quarantine was set around writers associated with Vichy. Barrès’ influence would come to be disavowed by many. Yet with the possible exception of François Mauriac, Camus’ debt to Barrès was in fact as deep as any figure outside of far-right intellectual circles. Certainly, as a xenophobic ultra-nationalist, Barrès was a crucial figure for far-right intellectuals, such as Action Française leader Charles Maurras and French Algerian propagandist Louis Bertrand; but as an avant-garde writer he also exerted an influence on other intellectuals as ideologically diverse as Louis Aragon, André Malraux, André Gide, as well as Camus. [18]

Given the ideological diversity of at least some of his inheritors, a Barrèsian influence should not suggest that Camus was insincere as a democrat. However, an understanding of what Camus actually drew from Barrès reveals a peculiar logic at play in many of his works which has passed almost entirely unnoticed by Camusian scholars: he adapted Barrès’ vision of social regeneration and resolidarization, in which intellectuals would inspire a dissolute people to constitute themselves against the contagion of nihilism and foreign ideologies. He adapted these and other Barrèsian tropes to his own pursuits, just as he adapted the Mediterranean neo-classicism so popular among the far right in Algeria.

As odd as the affinities between Camus and Barrès seem, there was a concrete colonial North African context to Camus’ far-right intellectual debts. Camus grew up a settler in French Algeria (1830–1962). It was there that he wrote many of his most famous essays, plays, and novels as a member of the settler intellectual community. Yet, as Algerian intellectuals like Rabah Zenati remarked in the 1930s, the colonial intellectual subculture of French North Africa in which Albert Camus developed was deeply influenced by the aesthetic and political ideas of the French far right, among whom Barrès was particularly popular. Among the far-right organizations in colonial Algeria, Barrès’ fantasies of national solidarization, along with those of his followers Charles Maurras and Louis Bertrand, were hegemonic. Camus utilized the far-right fantasies of social constitution that circulated among the settler subculture in which he developed. It is remarkable that Camus managed, with some success, to transform these far-right aesthetic and political influences into his own left-wing anti-fascist commitments. It still remains to be seen how Camus drew upon and reordered the ultra-nationalist and xenophobic works of Barrès into his own left-wing political program. [19] But to appreciate Camus’ Barrèsian debt requires an overview of the settler intellectual milieu in which he matured, where Barrèsian ideas reigned.

The Roots of French Algerian Fantasies

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Mondovi, a wine-growing community just outside of Oran, and was raised in the Algiers working-class, and largely Spanish-speaking, suburb of Belcourt. As a student and young man, Albert Camus was drawn into the tutelage of Jean Grenier and worked with left-wing settler groups. He organized on behalf of the Front Populaire. His activism included lecturing and theatre performances. He also gravitated to settler writers publishing with Edmond Charlot. These included authors like the liberal Gabriel Audisio — who had been a winner of the Algérianiste-dominated Grand Prix littéraire de l’Algérie, but who came to distance himself from the xenophobia of Louis Bertrand. At a time when one might expect a young left-wing, and for a period in his youth Communist, intellectual like Camus to be reading left-wing books, he drew instead upon an ideological mixed bag of sources, including Gide and Malraux, but particularly fixated on far-right figures popular among the settler intellectual community like Oswald Spengler and Barrès.

The history of modern France is inextricably linked to the rise of the radical right. Modern French history is rightly remembered for the anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s, the growth of fascist leagues and parties in the 1920s and 1930s, and, in the 1940s, the Vichy Regime which collaborated with the Nazis. However, it is also important to remember that even in 1930s France, a France bordering Nazi Germany, that socialist Prime Minister Léon Blum was Jewish. The point to emphasize here is that France was complex. France’s people were diverse and divided in political affiliations and contradictions. French settler society in Algeria was also divided, but far-right parties and organizations enjoyed a popularity there, and engaged in more violent rhetoric and actions than that found on the French mainland. If France was a key location in the development of fascist ideas and movements, its North African colony of Algeria was the ideal incubator. Nowhere in France were fascist parties as popular, nowhere in France were fascist parties as extreme, and nowhere in France was anti-Semitism such a motivating passion of the European population that had settled there. Algeria was a site of repeated insurrections, genocidal massacres, and legal apartheid. It made an excellent home for European far-right ideologies.

Until 1830, Algeria was a province of the Ottoman Empire. After the French conquest of Algeria in the nineteenth century, several hundred thousand European settlers would arrive in a series of immigration waves, eventually totaling about one-tenth of the population. The European settlers were primarily from France, Spain, Italy, and Malta. After 1848 much of Algeria was incorporated into France. European settlers were granted French citizenship. Algerian Muslims, however, were only colonial subjects of France. By the twentieth century, they lived under the regime of a democratic republic in which very few had voting rights. By law they were forbidden to assemble or leave their immediate area without permission, forbidden to offend a French official, forbidden to act disrespectfully, subject to forced labor, and subject to collective punishment. Most Algerian Jews, unlike Muslims, had been granted French citizenship, eventually in 1870, though animosity and resentment towards Algerian Jews gaining citizenship remained fierce among the European settlers. And when France fell to the Nazis, French citizenship in the colony was revoked for all Jews.

Camus matured in an inter-war Algeria that was the setting of the most active, violent, and popular fascist movements in France. [20] Many settlers gravitated to the Action Française and the Croix de Feu among other far-right parties. Far-right mayors were popularly elected in major cities and local organizations that deemed metropolitan far-right parties too restrictive proliferated, such as the Unions latines of Oran mayor Jules Molle, and the succeeding Amitiés latines of Gabriel Lambert. [21] As Mahfoud Kaddache and Samuel Kalman have examined, inter-war Algeria saw the most active, violent, and popular French fascist movements. [22] These groups and their propagandists drew upon French far-right intellectuals’ ideas — particularly the fantasies that emphasized regenerating and strengthening a decadent society against an enemy barbarism. This was a fantasy that appealed to broadly-expressed settler racism and permeated the writings of the settler intellectual community.

It was in this colony that French fascist organizations and ideas, including anti-Semitism, found the most fertile soil. The Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France was an important moment in the growth of anti-Semitic political parties and in which Barrès played an important role. However, in Algeria, anti-Semitic violence turned deadly. Many of the settler journals founded in the 1890s had as their editorial line an explicitly anti-Semitic program, heightening to a fever pitch during the Dreyfus Affair. [23] Murderous riots by European settlers against Jews were widely praised among settler political and cultural élites — across the political spectrum from republicans to radicals to reactionaries, liberals, conservatives, leftists, and the far-right. Max Nordau observed, “In Algeria, the persecution of the Jews is far beyond that in France …. There, they have completely ravaged [Jewish neighborhoods] and even engaged in murder.” [24]

In Algeria, European and settler intellectuals formed regionalist cultural movements in the colony, such as the Algérianistes, along with a number of journals and literary prizes. [25] These settler intellectual organizations drew heavily from French far-right intellectuals’ ideas. The Algérianistes, as Peter Dunwoodie details, imagined a literature for Algeria that, instead of exoticizing the indigenous population, would focus on a new colonial people. [26] Many settler writers, drawing on the works of colonial novelist Louis Bertrand, imagined the disparate and dissolute ethnic groups of colonists, such as the French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese settlers, as a vigorous Mediterranean people who in “settling” Algeria had reawakened their latent Greco-Latin genius for conquest and vitality. The incipient race would find, on the shores of Africa, and away from a decadent French metropole, the virtues of a regenerated antiquity. This image of a rejuvenated and unified Mediterranean people would be fashioned by the artists themselves — if at the expense of a realistic purchase upon the existing diversity of settler communities in Algeria. This vision of a colonial Algeria had many echoes with the regionalist movements of Provence and Lorraine which also drew heavily upon Barrès’ ideas. Settler authors were not isolated from metropolitan communities of intellectuals. Literary Algérianistes fantasized an embryonic community, brought together in waves of immigration and settlement, as it was forming, while hoping to fashion and elide the class and ethnic hierarchies, and political factions, among the settlers themselves. [27] Based on the references made to them in Algerian journals, the works of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras were especially influential in developing far-right ideas of community among European settlers just as they had been for far-right and fascist movements in France. The widespread popularity of far-right ideas, transplanted into an Algerian context by settler intellectuals, is evident even in how liberal settlers and colonized Algerians disputed with settlers using a Barrèsian and Maurrasian vocabulary. [28]

Given his status as a champion of regionalist cultural movements in France, and his privileged place in the far-right canon, Barrès had a special resonance with colonial intellectuals looking to fashion a united settler race on African shores. His fantasy of a regenerated Lorraine serving as a bastion against barbarism was transplanted to Algeria by settler intellectuals seeking to define their disparate community against what they averred was an Arab barbarism. Barrès’ widespread influence upon settler intellectuals was not only apparent in their literature, but also in how he served as a titular representative of broader cultural trends. He served as a guide in the collective elaboration of a far-right world-view that depended as much on the conceit of the intellectual as Promethean shaper of polities as it did on the fantasy of a decadent and dissolute collectivity that would in turn be transformed and purified by the artist. Louis Bertrand, the most influential settler intellectual around whose work the Algérianistes gravitated, was influenced by Barrès. Patricia Lorcin observes that Bertrand’s writing was infused with Barrèsian themes that (like Camus) he simultaneously sought to distance himself from: “Bertrand was not only aware of Barrès but saw in him a rival whom he was never able to eclipse and from whom he consciously delineated himself intellectually.” [29] Bertrand, agonized epigone of Barrès that he was, did however acknowledge these influences, if only privately to Barrès. Shortly after his first novel, Le Sang des races, was published, he wrote to Barrès that it was in fact the latter’s LesDéracinés, which first explored the question of Latin regeneration, that Bertrand narrated in his own novel about this “ever-so-vibrant Algeria, so full of promise and so calumnied.” [30] The Latin myths of settler Algeria, so often identified with Bertrand, were in fact according to him also drawing upon Barrès. Writer Jules Roy, who after he had renounced the far right became one of Camus’ closest friends and confidants, was in the 1930s a member of the anti-Semitic Action Française in Algeria. In his memoirs, he explained his political allegiances according to his intellectual debt to Barrès: “I did not like the Jews and neither did anyone around me. Had Barrès been on the side of Captain Dreyfus? Zola yes, but Zola was considered to be a Neo-Frenchman and a decadent writer.” [31] Camus’ mentor Jean Grenier, professor at the Université d’Alger, was a critic of the Algérianistes as well as a dedicated critic of fascism and communism. But as Camus noted, Grenier was nonetheless also influenced by, and admirer of, Barrès. [32] Grenier, like Camus and other settler intellectuals, elaborated his own ideas by triangulating them in relation to fin-de-siècle intellectuals Barrès and Gide. [33] In short, Barrèsian influences were over-determined in the community of settler intellectuals in which Camus developed. Bertrand, an intellectual predecessor; Roy, a friend; and Grenier, his mentor, were all deeply influenced by Barrès, and each positioned himself as an intellectual inheritor. It should not be surprising that Camus did as well. The puzzle remains as to how he assimilated and transformed Barrès’ ideas into his own particular philosophic and political writings for which he is famous.

Barrès’ considerable impact on Camus’ writing is difficult to miss if one examines his early influences and textual citations, rather than work backwards from what Camus’ anti-totalitarian reputation came to be during the Cold War. Camus freely admitted his early collection Noces was inspired in part by Barrès; on the eve of World War II, he defended Barrès from charges that he was a proto-fascist and singled out the debt that writers of the philosophic concept of the Absurd owed to him; during the war he would recapitulate Barrès’ theses on identity as the basis for anti-German struggle in his Lettres à un ami allemand; and in his most famous political/philosophical essay, L’Homme révolté, he actually concludes his work with a quotation from Barrès’ infamous 1904 preface to Un Homme libre as being the source of inspiration for his generation’s struggle for order and collective revolt. These are not minor points of influence Camus identifies. However, to list these points of influence is just a starting point for understanding the complexity of his works. As Camus evolved as an intellectual, his identification with Barrèsian ideas did as well.

“An Esthete of Patriotism as He Was of Individualism”: Camus’ Pre-War Inheritance

In Camus’ earliest writings, the influence of the colonial intellectual subculture of which he was a part, and yet from which he was politically distancing himself, is plainly evident. His notebooks reveal Camus already early on attempting both to assimilate and transcend the writings of previous intellectuals — and thus announce his place among them. Noces (1938), Camus’ early collection of stories and essays, is a good place to begin to understand the young settler intellectual’s articulation of his complex debt to Barrès. Noces provides a creative if conventional settler intellectual’s vision of Algeria framed by a neo-classical Mediterranean. Barrès’ influence is not only apparent in this early work, but in postwar correspondence, was explicitly avowed by Camus.

Noces is an early work of Camus’ which a few scholars have noted has strong affinities with Barrès’ work. M. Grover observes that Camus’ early writing in L’Envers et l’endroit and Noces draws heavily upon Barrèsian conceits. [34] Mohrt focuses on “Le Vent à Djémila,” an essay from Noces in which the narrator reflects upon the Mediterranean landscape, Latin antiquity, and death among the impressive Roman ruins at Djemila. He observes in the very first sentence of this essay a tribute to Barrès’:

It would not have been necessary to read this sentence in Noces, ‘There are places in which the spirit languishes and dies,’ to recognize in this sumptuous prose the influence of Barrès. This romanticism, this irony, this obsession with death and la volupté were already evident in Barrès of the Culte du moi[35]

However, this first sentence of the essay, only partially quoted by Mohrt, suggests Camus is much more ambivalent in his Barrèsian appropriations than Mohrt gives him credit for. The full first sentence reads, “There are places in which the spirit languishes and dies so that a truth can emerge which is its very negation.” [36] This sentence, like the lyricism of this essay, suggests a more ambiguous engagement with Barrès than Mohrt reveals. Barrèsian tropes of rootedness with the terroir and tradition certainly proliferate in this journey of self-discovery among ancient ruins; but in the case of this essay, they serve to create a sense of identity which is measured in its solitary engagement with death: “In this great confusion of wind and sun that fuses light with ruins, something is forged which gives man the measure of his identity with the solitude and silence of the dead city.” [37] In this essay, Camus begins to elaborate what will become the central problem of his early existential work: as he puts it in the essay, to enunciate “the certain understanding of death without escape.” [38] This realization of “death without escape” becomes a pre-condition of his own authenticity. However, we need to be careful in conflating this moment in the development of writing on the Absurd with the Barrèsian tropes that proliferate throughout the essay. It is ambiguous how much Camus is here celebrating Barrès, and how much he is parodizing him. He introduces his realization of “death without escape” with a caveat that subtly critiques Barrès, the “Prince of Youth”: “I am too young myself to speak of death.” Furthermore, one’s presence in the Mediterranean littoral among Latin ruins does not produce a feeling of Barèssian re-rootedness with a collectivity as one would expect, but instead produces a feeling of anomie. Barrès’ “Cult of the Dead” posited that communing with ancient traditions and one’s regional terroir would regenerate the alienated individual with the values that define the nation. But Camus takes this Barrèsian trope in the opposite direction: communing with ancient ruins and the Mediterranean landscape lead one towards a solitary and silent reflection on death. In other words, Camus is using a Barrèsian vocabulary and style to take Barrès’ ideas on authenticity in precisely the opposite direction of Le Culte du moi and Les Déracinés. In Barrès’ narrative, one moves from individual anomie to becoming re-rooted in collective traditions. In Camus’ narrative these collective traditions send him towards a more authentic anomie — the starting point of what would develop into his existential discussions of the Absurd.

The influence of Barrès in Camus’ early work is substantial even as there are clear signs he is subverting Barrès by turning many of his conclusions on end. In Barrès, parmi nous, published in 1951, Pierre de Boisdeffre called on contemporary authors, including André Gide, Jean Cocteau, and also Camus, to contribute their own thoughts on Barrès’ influence, in an attempt to sanitize his association with fascism. Camus graciously responded. Camus’ correspondence with de Boisdeffre is worth quoting at length:

  1. Barrès exerted an influence on Noces and that is all.

  2. Is his “actual discredit” justifiable and durable? No. And anyway, there is no discredit.

  3. What works should be passed onto posterity? All; except the works of his youth and his political texts. [39]

Like many other defenders of Barrès, Camus only admits affinities in his youthful writing.

This could have been the end of the story of Camus’ Barrèsian debt: young settler intellectual is immersed in far-right works that were part of the subculture in which he matured. He drew from but subverted their ideas in his writings, moved to France and became a liberal anti-fascist. But it is worth pausing a moment: this reply to de Boisdeffre on his early debt to Barrès came at a time when he was just about to publish a work — L’Homme révolté — in which he would explicitly connect his main argument with Barrès’ Un Homme libre. There is more going on here than an early influence long since repudiated. In fact, Camus came to more strongly identify with certain aspects of Barrès’ aesthetic-political project of national solidarization even as he drew away from some of Barrès’ Symbolist-inflected style. While Camus argues there is no discredit to Barrès’ oeuvre (possibly separating his aesthetics here from his politics), it is worth noting he believes it is not Barrès’ Les Déracinés that should be purged, but his earliest writings instead, presumably including those prior to the 1890s when Barrès was, among other things, a dandy and decadent writer (ironically, Camus also dressed as a dandy in his early years in Algeria). [40] Camus, like many intellectuals, was often contradictory in his own public statements and writings. Despite his public avowal of a Barrèsian influence “on Noces and that is all,” his statement conflicts with the paper trail of his writings from the pre-war period.

In order to understand how Camus’ intellectual relationship with Barrès evolved from pre-war subversion to a postwar over-identification, requires tracing his trajectory from Algeria to France. In his early notebook entries to himself, like other settler intellectuals and notably like his mentor Jean Grenier, he triangulated his own developing consciousness between the influences of André Gide and Maurice Barrès. [41] After World War II, after Barrès’ works were discredited for their affinities with fascism, Camus would claim that it was Gide who had “reigned” over his youth. [42] However, his notebooks from before the war reveal Gide and Barrès as equally influential upon his intellectual development. Just as Gide had sought to overcome the influence of Barrès, Camus sought to overcome the weight of this doubled influence of both Barrès and Gide on his intellectual milieu. In his notebooks, he establishes his position between the often-repeated binary between the uprooted nomadism of Gide, and the ultra-nationalist rootedness of Barrès:

Barrès and Gide. Uprootedness is a problem we have gone beyond. And when problems don’t interest us passionately we indulge in less nonsense. After all, we need a native soil and we need travel. [43]

These two conceptual poles of identification, nomadism and rootedness, were often-repeated tropes and models of identity for settler intellectuals in Algeria. These iconic poles contained between them much of the field of settler identity as expressed not only in settler journals, but in how settler intellectuals were defined. [44] Emily Apter suggests that this parallel of Gidean nomadism and Barrèsian rootedness continued to play out in Camus’ later writings. Apter effectively connects Camus’ characterization of Algerian settlers in Le Premier homme to his writing on democracy and dictatorship in Ni Victimes ni boureaux:

Camus’s utopic projection of Algerian democracy shelters another figment of the imagination — pan-Mediterranean man. Caught between his Barrèsian sense of pied-noir entitlement to Algerian soil and his status as privileged global citizen of a cosmopolis of letters, Camus invented the figure of a nationless regionalist, at home in the world. [45]

Camus’ early pairing of Gide and Barrès was undoubtedly also a reference to the famous fin-de-siècle literary querelle that divided Gide on the one hand, and Barrès and Maurras on the other. Gide, an early acolyte of Barrès, rebelled against him with a rebuttal to the latter’s ultra-nationalist Les Déracinés. Gide began his demolition of LesDéracinés in the opening piece of what would be known as La querelle des peupliers: “Born in Paris, from an Uzétien father and a Norman mother, where, Mr. Barrès, would you like that should I root myself? I thus have taken to travel” [46] Gide’s opposition to Barrès was in some ways a re-appropriation of an earlier Barrès, championing the supposed decadent aesthete author of Sous l’oeil des barbares against the xenophobic nationalist Barrès had become. Gide indeed praised Barrès’ early more bohemian-styled works, which had been overwritten by Barrès in his later ultra-nationalist writings. [47]

By the end of the 1930s, Camus was recognized as a promising dramatist and writer from colonial Algeria. He also began writing for the left-wing Alger républicain with editor Pascal Pia. However, the newspaper, facing increasing colonial censorship and decreasing advertising revenues, was suspended by the beginning of 1940. In March, he was invited by Pia to Paris to work for the daily Paris-Soir. Camus slowly adjusted to his new life in the French metropole on the eve of the Defeat. Having only soon arrived in France, Camus almost immediately revisited the triangulated relationship between himself and his twinned paternal influences of Barrès and Gide. He turned his attention to the legacy of Barrès, on the eve of World War II, to evaluate claims by writers like François Mauriac and Henry Bordeaux as to who were the true inheritors of Barrès: figures on the left like André Malraux or figures on the right like Charles Maurras. [48] Albert Camus also entered the fray and wrote a passionate defense of Barrès.

On 5 April 1940, he published his defense of Barrès in the literary journal La Lumière. The article was titled “Barrès ou la querelle des ‘héritiers’.” In Roger Quilliot’s biography of Camus, he is positioned as the opposite of the ultra-nationalist Barrès. This is a strange assessment by Quilliot, who edited Camus’ work, was perhaps the most knowledgeable about it, and yet elides Camus’ celebration of Barrès both as “an esthete of patriotism as he was of individualism.” [49] In this essay, Camus revisits his intellectual inheritance of the nomadic Gide and the nationalist Barrès. However, the essay identifies their clashing individualism and patriotism as merely being stages of Barrèsian thought as a whole: Camus transforms his familiar distinction about intellectuals defining themselves against an individualist Gide versus a nationalist Barrès, into a debate about the legacies of Barrès: a Gidean Barrès versus a Maurrasian Barrès. Camus’ early notebooks emphasized a dichotomy between individual nomadism and national rootedness embodied in the works of Gide and Barrès, respectively. They were poles against which a settler intellectual like Camus defined himself. By 1940, he recognized them as two antagonistic legacies from Barrès as he had developed from a decadent nihilist on his journey to national resolidarization. This was precisely the narrative by which Barrès had sought to explain his own evolution as an intellectual moving from an “egotistical nihilism” to an ultra-nationalist patriot.

Camus’ “Barrès ou la querelle des ‘héritiers’” argues that Barrès had a twinned legacy: one which inspired the Action Française and Maurras, and one which inspired writers like Gide and André Malraux. Gide and Malraux, like Camus, had briefly flirted with Soviet Communism in the inter-war period. Malraux was a great influence on Camus: he can be seen as a forerunner to Camus in developing the notion of the Absurd, except that for Malraux, the condition of the Absurd is produced by the alienation of modernity and the disassociation between the West and the Orient. [50] In contrast, for Camus, the Absurd condition, the central philosophical preoccupation of “Le Mythe de Sisyphe,” centres on one’s encounter with death, annihilation, and dissolution. Malraux was a writer of the Absurd before Camus and is often presented as a crucial influence upon Camus in this regard. Yet Camus suggests Barrès was the actual originator of the Absurd, with Malraux, like Camus, an intellectual inheritor. Camus thus suggests Barrès as the absent father behind his and Malraux’s own ethics. As he puts it in the essay, “Barrès sees his values perpetuated in the absurd and magnificent universe of André Malraux.” [51]

According to Camus, “[t]hose who today would identify with [Barrès on the right] are not worthy of his oeuvre; and those who are worthy of his oeuvre [on the left] do not identify at all with him.” [52] Camus’ defense of Barrès is quite clever, but counter-intuitive. According to Camus, Barrès was such a powerful writer of the individual, that of the two legacies, with Maurras’ Action Française on the one hand and Gide and Malraux on the other, the only true inheritor would be he who repudiated Barrès’ influence altogether. This is a statement which would become increasingly ironic for Camus in the postwar period in which far-right intellectuals like Barrès were largely purged from French literary and philosophic debate: “Those who had been influenced the most would turn against him with the most violence — as if having first loved this solitary figure of royal race as he himself had proposed, they then reproached their creator for not resembling the spiritual son enough. I could cite at length André Gide.” [53] By repudiating Barrès, these writers had arrived not at the point of overcoming the nationalist Barrès, but at the egotist starting point of his own intellectual journey: “an esthete of patriotism as he was of individualism.” [54] “Barrès ou la querelle des ‘héritiers’” refashioned how Camus had claimed he was shaped by his intellectual influences. Gide and Barrès were not polar opposites but interrelated; Gidean ideas were expressions of an epigone drawing from, and rejecting, Barrès — a parricidal gesture that, for Camus at least, was itself Barrèsian. Barrès and Gide, youthful influences who Camus had claimed to have surpassed, were now re-synthesized into an integrated image of Barrès. This Barrès he claimed as a suppressed source for his, Gide’s and Malraux’s works. Camus’ Barrès was no longer the figure set in opposition to Gide, both of whom Camus strove to define himself against. He now situated Gide, and by implication himself, as epigones of Barrès. As Camus continued to elaborate his philosophic and political writings during and after postwar period, and he eventually centred on the question of collective Revolt, this analysis of the repudiating inheritors of Barrès would take on a new significance.

As he matured as a writer and activist in France, he no longer claimed the transcendence of these Barrèsian and Gidean poles of identification, but increasingly over-identified with Barrès. Gide’s nomadism was not opposed to Barrèsian national regeneration, but instead subsumed as a first stage of that process of collective re-racination, just as Camus’ writings on the Absurd would later become subsumed as a first step in his philosophic discussion of a collective Revolt against the nihilist philosophies of modernity. The integration of these intellectual affiliations served Camus well in World War II. He would again borrow Barrèsian concepts of barbarism and rootedness, as part of his program for national regeneration in the face of an essentialized German enemy. Camus, even as he subverted Barrèsian tropes representing settler Algerians, sought, in the face of Nazism, to appropriate Barrès in a patriotic work in the service, of all things, of anti-fascism.

To give an example of how his work had adapted Barrès’ aesthetic-political models in the interests of anti-fascism, it is worth turning to his essays written during the war and unpacking some of the ways in which he called for national resolidarization in the face of the enemy occupier. Barrès’ influence was not total upon Camus, but the lessons learned from Barrès were key components of his intellectual resources, learned as a settler intellectual, that he applied in different circumstances.

“My Largest Fatherland”: Camus’ War-Time Inheritance

After the defeat of France and its occupation by Germany, Pia and Camus eventually worked together on the clandestine journal Combat. Camus would continue to write about Algeria in its pages, but also became a famous literary voice of the Resistance. In 1943, still a relative newcomer to France, he began writing a series of essays titled Lettres à un ami allemand. These four essays, or “letters” to a German friend, were in actuality addressed to a French audience and protested the occupation of France and the rest of Europe. The essays were designed to provoke and define a defeated French readership against German aggression. It included only the French half of this fictive dialogue, whose reply Camus never details. [55] Camus was ambivalent about publishing them and after the war expressed concern for how they might be interpreted, particularly outside of France. [56] In opposition to the German occupation of France and Europe, he summons France to revolt by using Barrèsian tropes for social regeneration, which Gide had identified with an ultra-nationalist Barrès in earlier intellectual querelles.

This seems at first glance an unlikely possibility. Camus was defending liberty against tyranny. However, in the midst of foreign occupation, contradictions abound in these letters as he vacillates between a liberal critique of German aggression and Barrèsian tropes of solidarization against a barbarous enemy. In the first letter, from July 1943, he sets up a series of oppositions between French liberty and German tyranny: “we fight in the name of that nuance that divides sacrifice from mysticism, energy from violence, force from cruelty, and for that even fainter nuance that divides the false from the truth and the man we hope to be from the craven gods you revere.” [57] But the distinction between the two, Camus avers, can be blurred. The French must fight not just Germans, but the inevitable possibility of becoming like them in the midst of war. Fortunately, there is a cure from the contamination of German barbarism: their very proximity to France against which the French can define themselves:

We have had plenty to overcome, perhaps to begin with the perpetual temptation in which we come to resemble you …. Thoughtfulness can be shameful and we sometimes imagine such pleasant barbarisms where truth would require no effort. But on this point, the cure is simple: you are there to show us what we might imagine [we might become], and we thus correct ourselves. If I believed in some fatalism of history, I would imagine that you are there by our side, divorced of reason, to correct us. Thus we renew our spirit, and are more at ease. [58]

For Camus, as with Barrès, the proximity of German barbarian means the French, instead of becoming perverse like the Germans, will better define the essential differences between these peoples and resolidarize the nation. For Camus, the Germans exist as a mirror against which the French can define themselves and, thus, remain committed to their nationally specific yet European values. With Camus bearing the flag of a French patriotism in the midst of the occupation, it is not only German barbarism and French liberty which risk being blurred in these essays. In the third letter, written in April 1944, Camus argues that France embodies the genius of timeless European values, unlike Germany, because the French choose to link themselves to land and tradition rather than to abstracted ideals. True Europeans remain tied to values of measure and order which define Western Civilization. They do so by communing with the ruins and natural splendor of their “largest fatherland,” that is Europe. Camus explains true Europeans’ special relationship with the land and tradition with a wistful lyricism for monuments, ruins, and nature that is quintessentially Barrèsian:

I begin again those pilgrimages that I have made with all Western men: among the roses of Florentine cloisters, among the golden bulbs of Krakow, Hradčany and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge upon the Vltava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg. All these flowers and stones, these hills and landscapes where human lifetimes and eternity have melded these ancient trees and monuments! My memory has melded these images to make a single face which is that of my largest fatherland. [59]

Here Camus jettisons his earlier parodizing approach to Barrès’ celebration of ruins and the regional terroir, as evidenced in “Le Vent à Djémila,” and now unironically celebrates the solidarizing rootedness of Europeans among the ruins and lyrical landscapes of Europe. Unlike Barrès, however, Camus believes true Europeans like the French are rooted to this land in its entirety, and not just to their individual nation. The Germans, unlike true Europeans, renounced this rootedness to European values when they lost their imperialist claims to Africa, and instead turned inwards to conquer European land:

You speak of Europe but the difference is that for you Europe is property, whereas we feel reliant upon it. You have not spoken thus of Europe since the day when you lost Africa. This sort of love is not the right one. This land where so many centuries have left their models is for you only a forced retreat whereas for us it has always been our greatest hope. [60]

A Barrèsian rootedness with tradition and the land is, in the end, what determines French people’s affinity for liberty and justice. Germans have lost access to these values because they have turned their imperialism away from Africa and inwards towards Europe — a strange critique given Camus’ own North African colonial experience.

To summarize, in these letters to a German friend, Camus sets up an opposition between the fascistic, inward-looking barbarism of Germany and the liberal, universalist Europe exemplified by France. And yet, as these essays unfold liberal France strangely begins to embody the exclusivist values of Barrès. This true Europe, synonymous with France, comes to hold the classical Mediterranean values of measure and order celebrated by his fellow settler intellectuals. The French, marshalling their anger at the barbarism of occupation, will defeat the Germans. What makes the French distinct is that they are not given to excess, but are inheritors of European values — in particular neo-classicist values of balance and order championed by Barrèsian epigones like Maurras. They are rooted to these values by their relationship to the lyricism of the European land and its traditional monuments. In this series of letters critiquing German imperialism in Europe, he also begins to slip into the familiar colonial humanism of his early writings from Algeria. In an earlier essay in Noces titled “L’Été en Alger,” he suggested European decadence was symptomatic of the French metropole in contrast to the vitalist and regenerative colony. This opposition was displaced now onto one between a decadent Germany and the vitalist and regenerative metropole. In these essays, Camus begins to elaborate his mature philosophy of a collective revolt against a totalitarian politics which only promises solitude and death. German barbarism provokes in the French a will towards a collective rebellion against the Germans, while at the end of this series of essays he condemns Germans to “die in their thousands in solitude.” [61]

The tensions existing between Camus’ conceptual debts to Barrès and his commitments to liberalism were particularly difficult for him to resolve in the midst of the war. At the same time that Camus was writing a vigorous liberal critique of the overwhelming pro-Vichy politics of settlers in Algeria — which he conflated with Nazism — Camus was also writing against France’s occupation. This doubled context also helps explain the simultaneity of liberal and Barrèsian readings available to Lettres à un ami allemand, as well as novels like La Peste, an allegory of European Nazism set in the far-right bastion of settler Oran. In this complex and multivalent novel, settler Algerians come to collectively experience the social effects of a plague descending on Oran. Critics have read La Peste simultaneously as an allegory of the Nazi occupation, as well as a colonial fantasy of an amorphous Algerian threat against which the European population struggles to solidarize. [62] It is notable that in both La Peste and Lettres à un ami allemand, he argues that a collective revolt against an occupying force results from how “[d]eath strikes a little bit everywhere and everywhere by chance” and against which occupied people collectively revolt. [63] He wrote against the German occupation of France, which he experienced first-hand, and against the Nazis, by re-introducing to France Barrèsian fantasies of rootedness and xenophobic resolidarization he had tried to subvert in Algeria. [64] The French nation’s regeneration would be achieved through its proximity to, and opposition against, a phantasmatic barbarism at its bastions to the east. It is difficult to say with any real confidence how much of this Barrèsian gesture was a tactical calculation on his part faced with the exigencies of occupation, and how much it was Camus unconsciously turning to the often effective mythopoeia he had internalized while working in the settler intellectual subculture of his youth.

“I like my Ideas on the Left and my Men on the Right”: Camus’ Post-War Inheritance

His liberal and Barrèsian impulses jostled against one another in his 1940s writings — as they did for other intellectuals. But by the 1950s and in the early years of the Cold War, he would achieve a remarkable and brilliant synthesis of his debt to Barrès and his dedication to political liberalism. It was achieved in the form of L’Homme révolté. Here he would transfer the colonial fantasies of an eternal regionalist Mediterranean, and essentialist French-German oppositions, as the basis not for settler or French metropolitan solidarization as in the 1940s, but for Western Civilization as a whole. Here the settler fantasies of his youth about a timeless Mediterranean were sutured into his narrative about totalitarianism and acted as the terminal point at the end of his liberal anti-totalitarian narrative.

If his earlier essay “Le Mythe de Sysiphe” was about an individual’s Absurd revolt in a confrontation with death, L’Homme révolté was a work in which he confronts a Western Civilization with its own collective dissolution, and hopes for its regeneration in a collective revolt. To understand how Camus’ pre-war period of writing centred on the question of the Absurd evolved into his postwar exploration of collective Revolt, again requires a return to Barrès. Gérard Genette observes that Barrès, once his politics awakened to reaction and nationalism, would attempt to reconstruct the significance of his earlier, more bohemian works, one’s with greater resonance with Gide’s writings. Barrès argued his earlier works merely lacked their full sense in that they championed what he called an “egotistical nihilism.” Instead of rejecting his earlier works, Barrès later diverted their meanings into a paratextual narrative. As we have seen, he linked his early egotist novels to his later nationalist works. The former “decadent” individualist novels now assumed the role of a first stage in the development of the “I” and its reintegration into the regenerated nation and region which his later novels explored. This trajectory of course was Barrès’ own personal one. His aesthetic-political evolution from dandy to patriot now served as a model to be followed by his readers as part of France’s salvation. So Barrès presented the egotistical nihilism manifest in novels like Sous l’oeil des barbares as just a stage on the way to the individual’s resolidarization into the nationalism of later works. This paratextual development is paralleled in Camus’ own existential philosophic project. Camus’ early development of the Absurd in “Le Mythe de Sisyphe,” with its analysis of egotistical nihilism, is reframed in his mature work, L’Homme révolté, by the concept of Revolt as a social resolidarization of the individual through Mediterranean principles of classical order. Genette explains that for Barrès:

…their pretended egotistical nihilism was in fact a first stage, like the doubt (or the cogito?) of Descartes. One must begin from the only certain starting point, which is the self. “I hear that you will speak to me of solidarity. The first thing, is to exist ... instead take the Self as a place of waiting where you must hold yourself until an energetic person has reconstructed for you a religion.” [65]

L’Homme révolté opposes the forces of nihilism, revolution, and history against a collective “classicism.” In his narrative, he writes a brief history of revolutionary excess and totalitarianism, traced back to the French Revolution, with its “assassins” of Louis XVI, and German idealism, wedded to a critique of modern art since Romanticism. This is a strikingly far-right set of foci in the essay. He would critique the unmeasured absurdity of artistic movements like Romanticism and Surrealism, and their complicity in producing a revolutionary nihilism expedient for political totalitarianism, though he was not without some sympathy for some of these artists. After a bleak and terrible journey through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reserving special criticism for German “abstraction” (in which he subsumes Marx and Nietzsche into a broad and xenophobic portrait of German philosophy) and French Romantic and modernist aesthetics, he ends his essay with a hopeful chapter entitled “La Pensée du Midi.” The thought of the “Midi” signifies both the meridian and noon, a stable point in space and time, as well as the regionalism of the French Mediterranean. Camus’ solution is for a creative classicism to reconstitute the West, now facing aesthetic degeneracy, revolution, and barbarism. This work deftly lights upon the particular reactionary narratives of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that would have been quite familiar to the monarchist, anti-German, anti-Romantic neo-classicism of Pierre Lasserre (an Action Française writer that a youthful Camus had criticized for being too much a rationalist). [66] In L’Homme révolté, he recounts what is remarkably near a canonical reactionary narrative of nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics and aesthetics, and yet it is wedded to a liberal critique of state violence and terror.

In the conclusion to L’Homme révolté, he opposes the death- driven, rational, systematic, and history-focused ideologies of German idealism, Romanticism, fascism, Marxism, and anti-western fanaticism, once again to a timeless, life-affirming and masculinist Mediterranean. Camus writes:

The history of the First International, when German Socialism ceaselessly fought against the libertarian thought of the French, the Spanish, and the Italians, is the history of the struggles of German ideology against the Mediterranean mind. The commune against the State, concrete society against absolutist society, deliberate freedom against rational tyranny, finally altruistic individualism against the colonization of the masses, are, then, the contradictions that express once again the endless opposition of moderation and excess which has animated the history of the Occident since the time of the ancient world. The profound conflict of this age is perhaps not so much between the German ideologies of history and Christian politics, which in a certain manner are accomplices, but rather between German dreams and the Mediterranean tradition, 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 course of life — in other words between history and nature. [67]

L’Homme révolté offers a complex opposition set up between a stable and timeless Mediterranean identity, and a continually displacing series of opposing differences, connected like points on a terminal boundary surrounding this symbolic sea: German thought, Hegelianism and Marxism, Romanticism, the French Revolution. But for his notable repudiation of Christian politics as well, these were all the enemies of French classicist ultra-conservatism, and yet here transmuted into a liberal narrative opposed to communism and fascism.

If the Absurd was the central preoccupation of his early philosophical writings focused on the individual, and the mot clef of “Le Mythe de Sisyphe,” Revolt is the organizing principle of his mature work, and the key to his resolidarization of collectivities in the face of the terror and totalitarianism of modernity. Just as he had turned to Barrès as the source of philosophic writings on the Absurd, here astonishingly, he again honours Barrès as an originator from which his notion of Revolt developed. In his conclusion, he defines this collective Revolt as “revolt, the secular will not to submit that Barrès spoke of.” To what secular will of refusal was Camus referring here and why was his Revolt so connected to Barrès? In perhaps this central summarizing passage of his most famous work, a key passage defining Revolt, about which critics of Camus are incurious, he is once again citing Barrès. More specifically, he quotes from Barrès’ celebrated Un Homme libre from his Le Culte du moi trilogy:

An I who does not submit, here is the hero of our little book. Never submit! This is the salvation, when we are faced by an anarchic society, where discipline is replaced by the multitude of doctrines, and when, over our frontiers, the powerful flood of the foreigner [l’étranger] comes, over the paternal fields, to confuse and sweep us along. Un homme libre has not provided the young a clear-cut understanding of their true tradition, but he has urged them to clear themselves and once again find their proper filiation. [68]

Most astonishing, Camus is not citing the original text of Un Homme libre from 1889, but its 1904 preface, which by then a far-right nationalist and anti-Dreyfusard Maurice Barrès sought to retroactively construct the meaning of his earlier book through the lens of ultra-nationalism, or what Soucy and Carroll argue is a proto-fascism. According to Genette, “[t]he preface to the 1904 edition of Un Homme libre pushes even further the manoeuvre in aligning Le Culte du moi with the nationalist positions of Déracinés.” [69] Carroll, using Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of fascism in “The Nazi Myth,” concludes, “in this sense it can legitimately be considered fascist.” [70] In his discussions of Barrès’ fascism, Carroll actually cites this very same passage (with its famous “Don’t submit!”) of the 1904 edition, the same passage that is cited by Camus in L’Homme révolté. Carroll pinpoints this passage as an explication of how Barrès’ “cult of the Self demands that all individuals subordinate themselves to their own filiation, the filiation of the Self that is the Self. In doing so, they will eventually discover their ‘authentic tradition,’ the culture of their region and nation, and the collective being underlying and forming their individual being.” [71] For Carroll, this passage is key to understanding Barrès’ proto-fascism. But his explication of this passage could almost be a perfect recapitulation of Camus’ conclusion in L’Homme révolté. Carroll, one of the foremost experts on French fascist culture, identifies and cites this passage as key to understanding Barrès’ oeuvre as proto-fascist; yet in his recent book on Camus, in which also he discusses L’Homme révolté, Carroll never addresses any positive connections to Barrès. How can this be so? How can this passage by Barrès, so strongly identified with his proto-fascism, be approvingly cited by Camus as the source of his own notion of Revolt against totalitarianism? Instead of identifying Barrès’ “I who does not submit” with France against internal and external foreign threats of nihilism and barbarism, he re-inscribes it as the basis for Western Civilization’s revolt against internal and external threats of nihilism and totalitarianism. But like Barrès’ message, Camus’ is no less exclusionary, if far from nationalistic. German idealism, Romanticism, communism, and fascism operate as foreign and barbarous threats encircling his Mediterranean values of Western Civilization. And, thus, like Barrès, he argues the key is to move from an individualist nihilism to social regeneration against these contemporary threats, for a re-rooting in Western values against these forces of dissolution.

Camus had returned to Barrès as his guide to individual and collective existential crises. In this later philosophic work of his career, he also returned to the Mediterranean myths championed by the settler intellectual community in which he developed. These myths had initially been advanced as the source of social solidarization for settlers. Now in L’Homme révolté they provided a fantasy for “Western men” to reintegrate themselves against the decadence of modernity. The Mediterranean traditionalism of the conclusion of Camus’ mature philosophic work not only gestures backwards to his own identification with Barrès, but also to his earliest settler fantasies of an eternal Mediterranean as a source of a settler “Neo-Latin” community. While a student at the University of Algiers, in 1933, Camus wrote a poem entitled “Poème sur la Méditerranée.” With its Symbolist-inflected lyricism, a number of images, each filled with correspondences to his conclusion of L’Homme révolté, also centre upon the Mediterranean and echo the exclusivist Latin fantasies of his settler intellectual community:

Noon/Meridian, [72] the sea is unmoving and warm.
It accepts me without cries, a silence and a smile.
Latin spirit, Antiquity, a sail/veil [73] of delicacy upon the tortured cry.

Latin life that knows its limits,
Reassuring past, oh! Mediterranean!
Again upon your shores voices triumph that are
But that affirm because they have denied you!

Urgent/Pressing  [74]Antiquity
Mediterranean, oh! Mediterranean sea!
Alone, naked, without secrets, your sons wait for death.
Death will render them to you, purified, finally. [75]

L’Homme révolté is not a Barrèsian or far-right political program. It is opposed to state violence and violence generally. It is not a nationalist work. It is a work that in its articulation of Revolt champions a refusal to violent revolution. But it shows the strange ways in which his anti-totalitarian narrative would so easily dovetail into a celebration of Barrès’ model for solidarization against decadence. Camus’ work can still easily be read as a liberal work of refusal against totalitarian ideologies, as it has been. This is not due to an act of hallucination by its readers. And yet he cannot help but express it using the key aesthetic-political strategies of Barrès, who is less often understood across the Atlantic for his profound impact on intellectuals from a variety of political positions. Both liberal desires and far-right grammars, evident throughout Camus’ writings, were here perfectly reconciled; L’Homme révolté is a synchronous narrative that operates simultaneously as a liberal refusal against totalitarianism, an invocation for transforming a public’s passions according to the precepts of far-right icons like Barrès, and a celebration of settler fantasies of a Mediterranean culture of moderation and order opposed to German abstraction and fanaticism. It could appeal to readers attuned to each of these pitches. It so perfectly wed these seemingly distinct grammars, that the aesthetic-political architecture by which he constructed this narrative was, and remains, all but invisible to its Anglo-American Cold War readership.

Though contemporary assessments of L’Homme révolté conventionally situate it as a liberal or left, anti-totalitarian work, its immediate reception suggested a more multivalent set of responses. Herbert Lottman observes that Camus’ L’Homme révolté was not only praised by Le Monde but also by Aspects de la France, journal of the reformulated postwar Action Française, which proclaimed it a “healthy return to nationalism.” As Lottman put it, as with Charles Maurras, Camus was seen to be “seeking order and duration.” [76] Sartre had himself decades earlier suggested affinities between Camus and Maurras in his pre-war review of Camus’ L’Étranger, when this up-and-coming settler intellectual was then nearly unknown in the metropole. [77] Sartre’s view of Maurrassian affinities with Camus’ early writing could be a (possibly deliberate) misreading on his part. And just because certain ultra-nationalists also identified with L’Homme révolté should not be taken to mean that the text was particularly open to such interpretations. But it was not just Sartre, and it was not just Action Française activists.

In 1950, Albert Camus visited Jean Grenier. They sat outside the latter’s French villa, the manuscript of L’Homme révolté between them. Camus had come to visit his life-long friend and mentor shortly after completing the manuscript. Ever since his school years in pre-war Algiers, Camus had turned to Grenier, then a professor at the University of Algiers, for advice and guidance in crafting his dramas, fiction, and journalism. And like Camus, he was an intellectual inheritor of Barrès. L’Homme révolté was Camus’ attempt to synthesize his philosophical and political evolution into a mature work. It was, and remains, affectionately dedicated to Grenier. In its pages, Camus had even approvingly and appropriately cited Grenier’s more philosophically rigorous, though now forgotten, pre-war condemnation of communist and fascist ideas titled Essai sur l’esprit d’orthodoxie[78] Camus sought Grenier’s approval, but the response was disappointing. “Your book is in the reactionary tradition of Maurras,” simply offered Jean Grenier. Camus’ reaction to Grenier’s critical assessment, or rather the reaction which he allowed Grenier to observe, was indifference:

Too bad. You shouldn’t worry about who you resemble. You’ve got to say what you want to say. I’ve read Maurras, but he took everything from De Maistre, whose Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg is an extraordinary book. [79]

Camus justified his work to Grenier further, in a statement that succinctly suggests the reason for the multivalent responses to his work: “I like my ideas on the left and my men on the right.” [80] Grenier, who like Camus wrestled with the doubled legacy of Barrès, saw Camus’ mature expression of his political philosophy work not as a balance between the Gidean and Maurrasian legacy, but instead set firmly in the latter camp. Grenier, who knew him as well as anyone, was perhaps unfair. The work was not firmly in one camp or the other, but attempted to speak to all at once, using Barrèsian tropes. It is remarkable that Camus is still so fascinating to conservative, liberal, socialist, and anarchist scholars (although no one could convincingly argue for a feminist Camus). That is not due to a misunderstanding by scholars, as Zaretsky suggests in his introduction to Camus; but instead are a feature of his multivalent work and in no small part a function of his troubled Barrèsian inheritance. Today’s champions of Camus, who argue that he could be made to speak to us so clearly and univocally, to speak for Algeria or France as well as our contemporary concerns with unceasing justice, are his unlikeliest inheritors of all.


Camus’ evolution as a writer corresponded to a parallel evolution in how he drew upon Barrès. This was an inheritance that evolved from a more palpable subversion in his earliest writings, to a more ambiguous over-identification in his later work. In Camus’ earliest writings, such as in Noces, we can see Barrès’ influence in terms of his Symbolist, lyrical style, yet we also see a repudiation of his model for re-racination in tradition. By the late 1930s, Camus situated himself, like Grenier and other settlers, as an intellectual defined between the rooted ultra-nationalism of Maurice Barrès on the one hand and the nomadic individualism of André Gide on the other. Gide himself had earlier defined his own nomadism against the rootedness of Barrès. On the eve of the outbreak of World War II, however, and with Camus in France, we find him averring that these two poles of identification, those which he had initially identified in the works of Barrès and Gide, are both at their source ideas springing from Barrès alone. This over-identification with Barrès was manifest in his World War II writings distinguishing France from German barbarism. Finally, by the time of the publication of L’Homme révolté in 1951, Camus had displaced Barrès’ exclusivist vision of the French nation, constructed in opposition to German ideas, onto a Western Civilization similarly conjured in opposition to German nihilism. Perhaps most importantly, as we now follow this intellectual development of Camus from a young settler intellectual in Algeria to celebrated existential philosopher in France, we find that he suggested that his central existential concepts, those of the Absurd as articulated in “Le Mythe de Sysiphe” and of collective Revolt against nihilism in L’Homme révolté, as having their source, as so much else, in Barrès’s writings as well.

It is a commonplace that Camus’ existential writings, focused on the twinned notions of the Absurd and Revolt, developed in a distinct intellectual context from the existential writings of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. There are of course other influences upon his work, including Artaud, Malraux, and many others; and yet it is amazing that no scholar has noted that Camus situated Barrès as an important, indeed perhaps the crucial, source in the development of these concepts. Barrès’ writings provided much of the grammar by which he developed his own ideas distinct from, and often opposed to, Barrès himself. As a young settler, Camus adopted Barrès’ models of social constitution popular among settler intellectuals, and continued to use them in his postwar writings long after he left his colonial birthplace in North Africa. Why? I believe he used the intellectual materials before him: initially, to divert them to more left-wing pursuits and later because of their importance to his own mature world-view. He repeatedly returned to the timeless Mediterranean fantasies of a settler colonial culture that had never fully formed but in the fantasies of settler intellectuals, and displaced them onto subsequent events and crises. Camus adapted the aesthetic-political strategies of Barrès to fashion settlers against Algerians, French against Germans, and the West against communism — all in avowed attempts to protect a fragile liberalism always at risk from reactionary ideologies. In his aestheticized re-imaginings of these conflicts, he attempted to reconstitute his people politically against reaction. These Barrèsian fantasies, grafted upon colonial society by the settler intellectual subculture which preceded and shaped him, still live on, if only as sometimes faint traces now. They were displaced in Camus’ writings onto the French metropole and upon Western Civilization, and now long since assimilated, often unrecognizably, into an Anglo-American liberal context. Camus employed Barrès’ ideas in order to oppose the reactionary impasse of settler and then metropolitan society, but the sources he drew upon were often the same sources of the reactionaries he opposed. These myths were the mould of settler fantasies that he would, like French Algeria and his debt to Barrès, never refuse.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes