6. On the third and final version of The Plague, 1945-1947

Or, how Camus' questioning the legitimacy of political violence in the post-war world finally circumscribes the symbol of the plague

16th century tavolette. ‘In Italian museums are sometimes found little painted screens that the priest used to hold in front of the face of condemned men to hide the scaffold from them.’ ~ Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

1.

In 1948 – a year after The Plague was published – Camus gave a lecture at a Dominican monastery. This is remarkable enough in that Camus, an unbeliever, was talking to a group of practising Christians, in the name of dialogue. But it is more remarkable in that Camus openly declared how, in a previous dialogue with one particular Christian, he had been in the wrong. He was referring to the quarrel with François Mauriac from the early days of the purge, regarding charity versus justice:

The fever of those days, the painful memory of two or three friends assassinated had given me the courage to do so. Yet I can assure you that, despite some excessive expressions on the part of François Mauriac, I have not ceased meditating on what he said. At the end of this reflection — and in this way I give you my opinion as to the usefulness of the dialogue between believer and unbeliever — I have come to admit to myself, and now admit publicly here, that for the fundamentals and on the precise point of our controversy François Mauriac got the better of me.

Around the same time – some sources suggest it was even the same evening as this lecture at the Dominican monastery – Camus met an old acquaintance, whom he had once recruited into the Combat network, during the occupation. His friend seemed reticent, but Camus engaged him in conversation:

‘You’re a Marxist now?’ Camus said.

‘Yes.’

‘Then you’ll be a murderer.’

‘I’ve already been one.’

‘I too. But I don’t want to be any more.’

‘You were my sponsor.’

That was true. ‘Listen, Tar,’ [Camus said.] ‘This is the real problem: whatever happens, I shall always defend you against the firing squad. But you will be obliged to approve my being shot. Think about that.’

‘I’ll think about it.’

This exchange, reported verbatim in his notebooks at the time, reflects the shift in political atmosphere that had occurred in France since liberation. During the crisis of political legitimacy which the purge engendered there had been a struggle between right-wing nationalists and left-wing internationalists, each trying to take advantage of the precarious domestic situation for their own political ends. The literary and intellectual circles Camus was publicly associated with since during the war had recently discovered politics, which meant, for many, gravitating toward Marxism and Communism.

Camus had already briefly joined, and been expelled, from the Communist Party in Algeria in the 1930s, so he was already inoculated against this growing trend. Even back then, however, he was never a true believer. Soon before joining the party in late 1936, he wrote to his mentor and friend, Jean Grenier:

Though I have objections to Communism, it seems to me that it would be better to live with them. I will see the plans more clearly and what value to attach to certain arguments... Also, Communism sometimes differs from Communists... But clearly, in this (loyal) experience that I will undertake, I will always refuse to put a volume of Das Kapital between life and mankind. 

That same year Grenier had publicly argued against an individual submitting to a political ideology. In “Orthodoxy Against the Intellect”, published in Nouvelle Revue Française, he warned against any thinking that claimed it was on the right side of history. In particular, he argued against the Communist Party, against Marxist theory, and against the Soviet reality. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, he had also advised Camus to join the party, but only because he knew Camus was immune to ideology, and that it could be approached as an adventure, if done for the right reasons. The party at that stage was levelled against Fascism in Spain, Nazism in Germany, and colonialism in Algeria. Camus’ tasks included organising among the Muslim workers and elite, as well as hosting public lectures and directing a political theatre company.

In a notebook entry in 1936, Camus reflected on Grenier’s advice: ‘Grenier on Communism: “The whole question comes down to this: should one, for an ideal of justice, accept stupid ideas?” One can reply “yes”, this is a fine thing to do. Or “no”, it is honest to refuse.’ Here Camus draws an analogy with being a Christian and accepting the contradictions of the gospels, the excesses of the church, and believing in fantastical ideas, such as Noah’s ark. He then adds: ‘But, on the other hand, how can we reconcile Communism and disgust? If I try extreme forms of action, in so far as they reach absurdity and uselessness – then I reject Communism.’

This was also the same year that André Gide published his book, Return from the U.S.S.R., outlining his disillusionment with the reality of Soviet Communism. Camus wanted to organise a public lecture and discussion around the book in Algiers – but the party vetoed the decision. The following year, a communiqué from Stalin asserted that it was to the advantage of the Soviet Union to have a strong and unified France, particularly in its manoeuvres against Nazi Germany, which meant the Communist Party in Algeria was ordered to drop its anti-colonial platform. Camus argued that this was abandoning the Muslims he had been working closely with over the previous 18 months, but he was ignored. In the political vacuum created by the removal of the communists in this area, a new party was formed, the Algerian Popular Party, led by Arab leader Messali Hadj. Its platform was for a political solution to overturn colonialism involving extending French civil rights to the Arab and Berber populations. Camus was sympathetic to this position, which went against the communist line, and so he continued his anti-colonial work. Eventually, in November 1937, due to his principled intransigence on this point, among others, Camus was expelled from the party.

Later, during the early to mid-1940s, when word of Stalin’s crimes had become more widely known, Camus became more publicly critical of Communism. But even here, especially during the post-liberation purge, Camus was stuck between a political right that deployed God to authorise their oppressions, a nationalism that revered capitalism, and a political left that used History to justify their retaliations and national incursions. Both legitimised the political use of violence to achieve or maintain their ends, a position which Camus had by then unambiguously rejected.            

It was under such conditions that Camus wrote the third and final version of The Plague. When the previous experiences, before and during the occupation – the earlier drafts and ideas of the novel – were incorporated into the final draft, they were revised in accordance with these more recent, post-liberation experiences and critical self-reflections questioning the legitimacy of political violence.

Sign up to newsletter

2.  

Following the Robert Brasillach case in January 1945 until November that same year Camus used his editorials in Combat to clarify his new position against the legitimation of political violence and the death penalty, to test his thinking against current events. For example, on August 8 1945, following the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Camus editorialised: ‘We can sum it all up in a sentence: the civilization of the machine has just achieved its ultimate degree of savagery.’ In the same vein, he approached reporting on the end of the war, the peace negotiations, the nascent international political order – which would soon settle into the Cold War – as well as domestic and colonial politics.

This included a series of articles, beginning on May 13-14, 1945, in which Camus reconfirmed his anti-colonial position regarding Algeria. This followed the May 8 massacre at Sétif in Algeria, in which French forces killed tens of thousands of civilian Algerians. Camus had just returned from a field trip to Algeria during the weeks prior to the massacre; these articles were published in their wake:

Before going into detail about the North African crisis, however, it may be useful to dispose of a certain number of prejudices. To begin with, I want to remind the people in France of the fact that Algeria exists. By that I mean that it exists apart from France and that its problems have their own peculiar texture and scale. Hence one cannot resolve those problems by following the metropolitan example...

As for the political dimension, I want to point out that the Arab people also exist. By that I mean that they aren’t the wretched, faceless mob in which Westerners see nothing worth respecting or defending. On the contrary they are a people of impressive traditions, whose virtues are eminently clear to anyone willing to approach them without prejudice.

These people are not inferior except in regard to the conditions in which they must live...    

The masthead motto of Combat may have been “From Resistance to Revolution”, but increasingly Camus came to doubt the plausibility of revolution, and the costs of thinking otherwise, even as he came to redefine resistance as a necessary form of ongoing rebellion. Much of this thinking became further clarified over a subsequent twelve month hiatus from Combat in which Camus worked on both The Plague and his long essay on revolt, which would in 1951 be published as the still largely misunderstood book, The Rebel.

Share

3.

A rehearsal of the major themes of both this novel and essay were presented by Camus in various forms in 1946. First, in a lecture he gave in the United States, at Columbia University, on March 28, 1946, “The Human Crisis”, in which he argued that ‘we might suggest to [the United Nations] that the first written text of this world organization should solemnly proclaim, after the Nuremberg trials, the elimination of the death penalty throughout the universe.’ And then,in a series of eight articles, under the collective title, “Neither Victims Nor Executioners”, which marked a brief return to Combat in November 1946. ‘Before we do anything,’ Camus stated in the first article of this series, ‘we need to ask two questions:

“Yes or no, directly or indirectly, do you want to be killed or assaulted? Yes, or no, directly or indirectly, do you want to kill or assault?”

For Camus, the answer to both questions was no, and that answer committed him – and anybody else who answers ‘no’ to these questions – to a series of actions that henceforth places human beings ahead of political ideologies.

It was these questions, and the experiences of the immediate post-liberation period that forced these questions upon him, that animated the final draft of The Plague. The outcome of Camus’ exchange with François Mauriac, for example, appears in the novel in the guise of Father Paneloux’s second sermon, in which the priest criticises his own previous sermon: ‘he had thought and spoken uncharitably.’

‘Another curious thing,’ the narrator points out, between the two sermons, ‘was that he had started saying “we” instead of “you.”’

But a more crucial thread appears in the figure of Tarrou. When he first approached Rieux with a plan to organise the sanitation groups, he gives as his reason for getting involved in the struggle against the plague: “Death sentences horrify me.”

Later in the novel, Tarrou explains this further by telling Rieux a story about how when he was seventeen years old he attended court to watch his father, a prosecuting attorney, win a case against a man, condemning him to death. This poisoned his relationship with his father, and soon after he moved away from home, dedicating his life thereafter to fighting various just causes. The description in the novel could very well be that of Brasillach himself: ‘He seemed like an owl spooked by an overly bright light.’ Or else, it could be based on a description of the man on trial during the purge which Camus had sat in on around the same time, as related in a letter to Grenier.

The crucial moment in Tarrou’s story comes when, in the midst of an ‘actual’ plague, he finally explains his motivations to Rieux, by deploying the ‘plague’ as a metaphor:  

I understood then that for me, at least, I hadn’t yet stopped being plagued during all those long years when I believed, with all my soul, that I was fighting against precisely that same plague. I learned that I had indirectly endorsed the death of thousands of men, that I had even provoked that death by finding good in the actions and principles that inevitably led to it.

In Tarrou’s story, his father witnesses each of the executions for cases he prosecuted. It was this act, finally, which led the teenage Tarrou to leave home. This is not the first time such a story has been told in a Camus novel. A variation appears in The Stranger. Awaiting his own execution, Meursault recalls a story his mother had told him about his father, a man he never knew, and how one day he decided to attend an execution:

Just the thought of going had made him sick to his stomach. But he went anyway, and when he came back he spent half the morning throwing up. I remember feeling a little disgusted by him at the time. But now I understood, it was perfectly normal.

In 1957, Camus revealed the source of this as one of the only stories which his mother had told him about his own father, about how shortly before leaving Algeria to fight in the Great War, where he would be killed, Camus’ father had witnessed an execution in Algiers. The nature of the crime – which included the murder of children – made his father consider the death penalty too good for this particular criminal. He woke early that morning and made his way to the end of town where the condemned man was to publicly have his head cut off. But when he returned home, he went and lay on the bed, refusing to talk about what he had seen, and started vomiting.

Presumably that ritual act is horrible indeed if it manages to overcome the indignation of a simple, straightforward man and if a punishment he considered richly deserved had no other effect in the end than to nauseate him. When the extreme penalty simply causes vomiting on the part of the respectable citizen it is supposed to protect, how can anyone maintain that it is likely, as it ought to be, to bring more peace and order into the community? Rather, it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.

As with any family lore, the details of the story concerning Camus’ father are unverifiable, and had probably changed slightly over the years of retelling; just as Camus’ interpretation of the story had undoubtedly changed, depending on the trajectory of his own thinking, and the context of its remembering. This version, from 1957, is the opening salvo of a piece, published in a booklet alongside an essay by Arthur Koestler, which argued for the abolition of capital punishment in France. It would also appear in the manuscript for The First Man, the uncompleted novel he was working on at the time of his death in 1960.

There is, however, a direct line from this back through the fictional version in The Plague in 1947, to the Brasillach case in 1945. That was, for Camus, the turning point. As Camus wrote to Marcel Aymé that evening in January 1945, supporting Brasillach’s petition, he may have ‘always been horrified by death sentences’, but there is no evidence prior to this moment that he explicitly opposed the capital punishment on principle.

A few months before, in October 1944, when the first official death sentence of the purge was handed down, Camus referred to it as a ‘dreadful precedent’, in which the ‘instinctive response’ is one of ‘repugnance’ – and yet, it is one which he begrudgingly accepted, in the name of justice. In one of his lyrical essays in the late 1930s he references the death penalty as a matter of social fact, but makes no judgement on it. And in The Stranger, when Meusault first heard the story of his father, he felt ‘a little disgusted’ by his reaction against seeing an execution. Even when he was himself facing the death penalty, Meursault decided that if he happened to get out of gaol he would henceforth attend as many executions as he could: Meursault was not an abolitionist.

Camus may very well have meditated on the story of his father that night in January 1945. The prompt for this may perhaps have been that the petition was predicated upon Brasillach himself being a war orphan, his father being killed in the same war as Camus’ own father. In any case, it was only after the Brasillach case that Camus consciously reoriented his thinking in opposition to the death penalty, and against the legitimation of political violence, in all its forms.

The purge – literally, purgation, bloodletting, the bursting of boils and pustules – henceforth provided an additional metaphoric layer for the novel he was writing. ‘It was as if the very earth beneath our houses was purging its cargo of humors,’ the narrator states, ‘as if it was allowing its boils and pus to come to the surface after what had, until then, been an internal struggle.’

Sign up to newsletter

4.

When The Plague was finally published in France in June 1947 it became an immediate success, but that success was built largely upon the reading public quickly coalescing around an interpretation of the novel as being an allegory for resistance to the Nazi occupation, based in part on the media figure of “Albert Camus” being elevated to the status of resistance hero.

Nations often fall under comforting illusions, maintained by their political and journalist classes, and France had slipped into a somnambulistic state in which the excesses and injustices of the purge, and the continuities between occupation and liberation administrations, were ignored, in favour of a comforting image provided by the resistance, of a time when there were clear-cut heroes and the enemy came from outside its borders. More importantly, this was a period of history that was now considered to be over, a line could be drawn under it, a heroic past in which the present and future may be reflected. Remarkably, the judicial purge was still under way when Camus’ novel was published, albeit in a more understated manner, with the novel being read with equal parts denial of contemporary reality and a strange form of nostalgia for the (by then) more romantic period of the occupation. Reading the novel in late 1940s France had become like attending a performance of Orfeo ed Euridice while pestilence still curled around the theatre.

This consolatory approach to The Plague was reinforced the following year when it was translated into English and published internationally, where it quickly became read through the narrow lens of the Cold War, during which resistance to totalitarianism was translated into a more simplistic set of national illusions in which there were clear-cut heroes and the enemy came from outside its borders. The figure of Tarrou was often pointed out in English language reviews as being an ex-communist, even though this was not explicitly stated in the novel. That Camus was himself critical of Communism and Stalinism seemed to justify this interpretation, but that he was not only critical of Communism and Stalinism was often ignored, as were the arguments upon which these criticisms rested.

Such arguments, for example, had been presented in “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” in late 1946 – and also published in English translation in Dwight Macdonald’s journal, Politics, in the United States, in July 1947 – in which Camus called for an international democracy, and where he argued in advance against the predictable outcomes for the world if this is not achieved. He spoke of the coming Cold War, ‘where the notion of revolution has now been replaced by that of ideological warfare’. And he spoke of the future age of globalism, where ‘there are no more islands and that borders are meaningless’, where there ‘is no longer any such thing as isolated suffering, and no instance of torture anywhere in the world is without effects on our daily lives’. He warned that the victors of the Second World War were perpetuating the inequalities that would result in the next round of wars – either total nuclear war or else local military occupation or threat of occupation – referring to those ‘twenty-one deaf men’ of the Allied nations at the Paris Peace Conference, as ‘future war criminals’. And he warned, too, of a ‘clash of civilizations’, if the West did not admit the end of colonialism:

‘Indeed, colonized civilizations from the four corners of the earth are making their voices heard. Ten or fifty years from now, the challenge will be to the pre-eminence of western civilization. It would therefore be better to anticipate this by opening the World Parliament to these civilizations, so that its law will truly become universal law and the order that it consecrates will truly become the world order.’

Camus wrote this eight years before the start of the Algerian War for Independence began.  

These reflections also inform the final version of The Plague. It was such experiences which, in an interview in 1951 – cited in the first instalment of this newsletter– Camus referred to as the ‘new events that enrich or correct what has come to one through observation, the continual lessons life offers, which you have to reconcile with those of your earlier experiences.’ In literary terms, this is consistent with Camus’ own theory of the novel – as outlined in the second instalment of this newsletter – in which such experiences are, as he explained in a review-essay published only months before the release of The Plague, ‘suggested and transfigured’ in the final work of literary fiction, without needing to be explicitly represented. ‘It is right when the work of art is a section cut out of his experience,’ Camus wrote in his notebooks in the 1930s, regarding the relationship between an artist and their experience, ‘the facet of a diamond in which the gem’s inner luster is reflected but not exhausted.’ (emphasis added)  

In this, Camus’ new-found position against political violence only reinforces his prior argument, in literary terms, against allegory, as a form of violence perpetrated upon a text, one which disrupts the unity of a work of fiction and subordinates it to something otherwise non-literary. Resisting such violence amounts to restoring, and maintaining, the unity of a literary work, the better to concentrate our imaginations.

Share Public Things Newsletter

5.

At the core of the articles in the “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” series is the assumption – which events of the past seventy years have arguably proven correct – that the fault lies in people applying worn-out, anachronistic thinking to contemporary situations.

For now it will suffice to note that, to all intents and purposes, today’s political systems seek to settle the world’s future by employing principles shaped in the eighteenth century in the case of capitalist liberalism and in the nineteenth century in the case of so-called scientific socialism. In the former case a philosophy born in the early years of modern industrialism, and in the latter a doctrine contemporaneous with Darwinian evolutionism and Renanian optimism, seek to reduce to equations the era of the atomic bomb, sudden upheaval, and widespread nihilism. There can be no better illustration of the increasingly disastrous gap that exists between political thought and historical reality.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus referred to hope as a leap of faith. It was that faith he rejected, and which he deployed literary fiction against, to question and dispel the illusions that occupy our everyday lives. In Sisyphus he noted also how in Italian museums there can be found little painted screens which priests once used to cover the eyes of condemned men so they would not see the scaffold as they approached it. ‘The leap in all its forms,’ he writes, ‘rushing into the divine or the eternal, surrendering to the illusions of everyday or of the idea – all these screens hide the absurd.’  

The Plague, for Camus, was not to be used as such a screen.

Next week we will circle back and examine the decade prior to Camus’ beginning to write The Plague (1931-1941), and examine how his tuberculosis provided certain conditions which prefigure the experiences and themes of his novel.

Sign up to newsletter

If you value independent scholarship and ideas then please consider signing up to this newsletter (or updating to a paid subscription), but if you can’t afford it, by all means keep reading for free. Either way, please this share post, to assist in continuing this rather sad and desperate activity.

Share

While you’re on Substack, check out Angela Nagle’s Newsletter, for essays, reviews, reporting, and more, regarding our contemporary political culture. A good place to start may be this post about my countryman, the late critic, Robert Hughes:

Angela Nagle's Newsletter