From the front lines of the absurd: Albert Camus' war reporting laid the groundwork for his later philosophy
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 February 2006)

Toward the end of the Second World War, Albert Camus, already a renowned author and a journalist-hero of the French Resistance, wrote: "What is great about the present age ... is that the choice has become pure."

It was a moment when he knew which side he was on, when his friends were triumphant and his enemies in disarray. For four dismal years France had suffered under Nazi occupation and its home-grown French dictator, Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

A new world could now be made, but first France had to deal with its traitors. Camus wrote that "France bears within herself, like a foreign body, a small minority of men who were the cause of her recent woes. They are guilty of treason ... the question is one of destroying them."

His belief that major collaborators should be executed was popular, but he also had opposition. Francois Mauriac, an eminent Roman Catholic novelist and another Resistance activist, recommended mercy. As he and Camus debated the issue, it became clear they were fighting for the soul of France. Camus wanted to purify the nation; as a Christian, Mauriac pitied the sinful.

In most cases, Mauriac's side won. There were few executions, and Petain's death sentence was commuted to life; he died in prison in 1951. Years later, Camus softened. He admitted Mauriac was right, and in 1957 wrote a powerful essay against capital punishment.

Camus was a great journalist as well as an influential novelist and philosopher. In wartime he wrote for Combat, the clandestine newsletter of the Resistance, and when the Germans left and Combat began operating in public, Camus served as editor until 1947. This month his journalism from that era, 165 articles and editorials, appears in English for the first time as Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947 (Princeton University Press), expertly edited by Jacqueline Levi-Valensi. In her hands his work becomes an affecting account of France in the years of crisis, and at the same time the portrait of a brilliant and principled man dealing with slippery, intractable reality.

Camus, in his early thirties when he wrote these articles, was full of youthful dreams. He imagined that wartime had produced a brotherhood of the pure, a new force that would create a new France and certainly would not descend to mere politics, the old compromises that ended in treason.

He thought that "political realism is a degrading thing," a remark that sounds crazy now; it makes Camus sound potentially totalitarian. It may be what Charles de Gaulle had in mind when he remarked that the Combat writers were good fellows but rather loony.

Still, in the context of the 1940s it made a kind of sense. "Realists" were those who in 1940 hoped to find a comfortable place in the Nazi-dominated Europe that Hitler planned.

As a socialist Camus particularly blamed French industrialists, such as Louis Renault, whose factories served the Germans. Camus also harboured a notion that the political corruption of the 1930s was responsible even for phenomena that no government could control, such as triviality and sensationalism in newspapers. He wanted post-war democracy to bring a new kind of journalism, neither frivolous nor dishonest; but he expected far more than democracy could deliver. He also made demands on religion. If Roman Catholic clergy had been collaborators, they should be purged: "It is up to Christianity itself to reject unrelentingly those who have demonstrated that they were Christians by profession only" -- a sentence that typified Camus the journalist at his best.

The community formed by the Resistance became his inspiration. Fighting the Germans, despising the collaborationists, three forces worked together: Christians, Communists and non-Communist leftists, including Camus. He seems to have assumed that hostilities among these elements would be forgotten in the new France. But of course their differences were stronger than their affinities. As for journalism, it quickly went back to normal: "The new press, which we wanted to be worthy and proud, is today the shame of this wretched country."

The life of Camus seems, in outline, a kind of miracle. He was born in Algeria in 1913, the son of a poor farm labourer and an illiterate cleaning woman. When he was a year old, his father died at the first battle of Marne. In elementary school he encountered a teacher, Louis Germain, who saw what he might become and coached him toward a scholarship to a lycee, which led to a scholarship at the University of Algiers. In 1957, when Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature, he dedicated his acceptance speech to Germain.

As a 17-year-old Camus contracted tuberculosis, but nevertheless took a degree in Greek literature and philosophy, began his career in journalism and started to write fiction. By 1942 he was in Paris, reading manuscripts for a publisher, working on his novels and helping the Resistance. From then till his death in a car accident in 1960 he was a charismatic and highly controversial star of French intellectual life, a Bogartian figure in a rumpled trench-coat, cigarette dangling from his mouth, carrying his fame and heroism with easy grace.

He was known in his forties as the most eloquent philosopher of "the absurd," meaning the unresolvable contradiction built into human life. Just before his time with Combat, he wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, a reworking of the Greek story about the evil Corinthian king condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again each time.

For Camus this story was a metaphor for our "absurd condition in a universe that does not care for us and cannot guide us." On the one hand, humans yearn for meaning; on the other, they are answered by "the unreasonable silence of the world." As it turned out, his own life contained a strong element of the absurd. He sought meaning in truth, purity, passion and a freshly democratic society. He dreamed of an Eden that was far beyond the abilities of his contemporaries.

A decade later, in his book The Fall, he had the narrator say: "I lived for a long time under the illusion of a general harmony ... Suddenly alerted, lucidity came to me all at once. I suffered many wounds simultaneously and lost all my strength in an instant. All around me the universe began to laugh."

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