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Sat Feb 7 07:33:45 MST 2004
NY Times, February 7, 2004
Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
It was a heady moment. Liberation was at hand. The world's most powerful
totalitarian state had been defeated. World-historical struggles had come
to an end.
Such was the situation after the Soviet Union collapsed. And the sense of
triumph was palpable. In an essay reprinted in "The Norman Podhoretz
Reader" (Free Press), Mr. Podhoretz wrote a "Eulogy" for neo-conservatism
the political and cultural movement with which he and the magazine he
edited, Commentary, had been so closely identified. It was a eulogy that
proclaimed satisfaction and closure. For two decades, Commentary had
advocated unrelenting challenges to Soviet power, and while the downfall
had never been seen as imminent, it had always been hoped for.
In his introduction to this new collection which samples Mr. Podhoretz's
argumentative power and rhetorical range over nearly 50 years Paul
Johnson notes that the Soviet collapse also brought to its end an era in
American intellectual life in which Mr. Podhoretz had been a major player.
But as central as Soviet Communism was to neo-conservativism, the eulogy,
of course, was premature. History did not come to end. Free-market
economies ran into trouble. Genocidal massacres took place. Terrorism
erupted. Old conflicts were metastasizing, emerging in new configurations.
So neo-conservativism continues, now even taking center stage, named as the
ideology behind President Bush's foreign policy.
In neo-conservatism's continued evolution, though, how are lessons learned
from the past to be applied to a transformed world? An example from the
past may show how vexed such questions can be.
Consider the period just after the Second World War, when another tyranny
had just collapsed. It seemed as if the Allies had, through their trials,
learned something about totalitarianism and democracy. Could those concepts
be used to understand the Soviet Union, the West's erstwhile partner? Was
it something very different (a humanitarian revolutionary state gone awry)
or something very similar (a fascistic state beyond saving)?
Such issues affected the impassioned arguments between the two most
important writers in postwar France, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In
his new book, "Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel
That Ended It" (University of Chicago), Ronald Aronson, who teaches at
Wayne State University, traces the nuances of their friendship, their
mutual influences and hostilities, and the themes that still haunt
Their schism over Communism was not academic. At the time of France's
liberation, buoyed by its Resistance role, the Communist Party had 400,000
members; that figure almost doubled by 1946, and the party joined a
coalition government. In addition, according to Mr. Aronson, the party
dominated the largest trade union, published dozens of newspapers including
the country's two largest, and had a payroll of more than 14,000. The
Communist Party was part of the mainstream in a way it never was in the
But its allegiances were just as open to question: it slavishly followed
Soviet leadership; fellow travelers idealized the Soviet Union, despite
readily available accounts of horrors. André Gide, who visited Russia in
the 1930's, said he doubted whether anywhere, even in Hitler's Germany, the
"mind and spirit are less free, more bowed down."
Camus had joined the party in Algeria in 1935 and left two years later in
dismay. Mr. Aronson even implies that Camus' views on absurdity and freedom
grew out of that experience.
Albert Camus: A Life.(Review) (book reviews)
Monthly Review, Dec, 1998, by John L. Hess
Olivier Todd, (New York: Knopf, 1997) 434 pp., $30, cloth.
The New York Times Book Review summarized Todd's Albert Camus: A Life as a
"biography of the near-proletarian from Algeria who reached the top of the
literary pole in Paris, then fell silent when he could not defend the
fashionable Stalinism of the 1950s." To which a knowledgeable French reader
might reply, quelle neo-connerie!
To begin with, Camus never fell silent, expect that he refused to speak out
against the French terror in Algeria - a refusal that drew reproaches not
only from the left but also from the Christian Democrat Francois Mauriac,
the Gaullist Andre Malraux, the conservative Raymond Aron, and Camus's
allies in the CIA-financed Congress for Cultural Freedom, Arthur Koestler,
Ignazio Silone, and Stephen Spender. And it was obtuse for the Times
reviewer, Richard Bernstein, to imply that Camus's famous break with his
benefactor Jean-Paul Sartre was over Stalinism. Sartre was never a
Communist, as Camus had been before the war. Indeed Todd relies on that
experience to defend Camus from the charge of prejudice. He relates that
the party assigned Camus to agitate for a bill to grant suffrage to a
select few Algerian Arabs, but dropped the effort in 1937 in deference to
Popular Front unity. Camus, Todd says, broke with the party rather than go
along. Against that brief outreach to the Other, however, must be weighed
the rest of Camus's life and works.
For Americans in the 1950s, Camus came on as a dashing figure, a literary
genius, an existentialist icon, a champion of our side in the Cold War and
a Resistance hero. He rather resembled Humphrey Bogart, and indeed flirted
with a movie career; his glamor was magnified by a Nobel Prize and
sanctified by his death like James Dean in an automobile crash in 1960. (Of
his celebrity tour here, Todd records chiefly that he added an American to
The two novels he wrote during the Occupation became must reading, as they
remain. I recall, however, feeling that I was missing something. Having
been to Oran during the war, I wondered as I read Camus, where are the
Arabs? They appear to have escaped The Plague entirely; only two figure,
barely, in The Stranger - a prostitute who is beaten by the narrator's
thuggish pal Raymond, and an Arab youth, perhaps a kin of hers, whom the
narrator, Meursault-Camus, seeks out and senselessly murders.
I confess I was less struck then by the low status Camus accorded women -
the other Other. Meursault treats with callous indifference the woman who
loves him, and rebuts a suggestion by the court that his crime might have
been impelled by grief and rage over his mother's death. On the contrary,
he embraces an imminent release from "this whole absurd life," and the
novel ends, "I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators
the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."
It is no wonder that the Nazi cultural gauleiter in Paris liked the
manuscript and volunteered to help find "all the paper needed" to publish
it. A hero's contempt for life and decency and the Other - what could have
been more timely, in occupied Europe, in 1942? Or, alas, today? Camus's
contempt for life did not, though, extend to his own, not literally. In The
Fall (1956), an autobiographical monologue of self-pity,
self-glorification, and disdain for mankind and especially womankind, he
said he had refused to join the Resistance because he had a horror of being
beaten to death in a cell. "Underground action suited neither my
temperament nor my preference for exposed heights," he wrote.
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