Albert Camus Dancing

Albert Camus dancing, Life Magazine


  1. BillR December 8, 2013 at 7:53 am | #

    Interesting guy, Camus:

    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.

    Also interesting was his weird admixture of politics (e.g. his prolonged silence over deaths of hundreds of thousands under French colonial rule) and metaphysical musings that could lead to praise by everyone from police prefects responsible for “dejudaising” French cities to self-proclaimed Israeli liberals who are in favor of “finishing the work of ’48“.

  2. Mitchell Freedman December 8, 2013 at 11:06 am | #

    He almost dances the way Hitch wants men to dance…

  3. BillR December 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm | #

    Something that might be of help to the legions of impressionable Camus fans: full review of Camus’s biography, quoted above, by the late John Hess who covered France during the Sixties for the New York Times.

    Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life (New York: Knopf, 1997) 434 pp., $30, cloth.
    It’s a mantra: Why can’t we be debonair, like the French, about the
    private pleasures of public figures? As we were fussing over what
    Orrin Hatch described with pinched mouth as our very first case of
    "Presidential kanoodling," the French amusedly told us about President
    Mitterrand. Lucky Francois. Mais, attention. Mitterrand cheated not
    only on his wife and mistresses (including a mother and daughter, so
    it is said) but also on Marianne—la République. He collaborated
    with Vichy, defended war criminals and committed every crime imputed
    to Richard Nixon. We, at least, got rid of Nixon, eventually. The
    French have never understood why.
    On both sides of the Atlantic, it is common for men and not a few
    women to admire heroic dalliance. Don Giovanni may end in hell, but
    what a score—in Spain, a thousand and three! The flip side of this
    sport, however, is contempt for women, as is demonstrated by new
    biographies of two famous modern satyrs. John F. Kennedy jested that
    he’d get a migraine unless he had a different partner every night, but
    he could rudely turn his back on an attractive prospect who wanted to
    talk politics. Albert Camus kept several passionate affairs going at a
    time and warmed his bed in between with pickups and prostitutes, but
    he wrote that "without desire, women bored me beyond expectation," and
    the time he "used up on them" at the expense of male business had
    "cost me dear."
    The American journalist Seymour Hersh concluded that Kennedy’s
    satyrism was an ugly and reckless diversion that pushed us to the
    brink of catastrophe, and his James-Bond machismo spelled bloody
    derring-do in Cuba, Vietnam, the Congo, and elsewhere. The French
    journalist Olivier Todd, on the contrary, dwells with respect on
    Camus’s spectacular ability to attract and hold women, and blames him
    not at all for the tragic lives of his two wives. As for Camus’s role
    in the serious affairs of mankind, Todd is as defensive as the record
    permits, and more.
    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 his harem.)
    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.
    Romantics like me have tried to find a metaphoric Resistance in the
    novels. Todd gives us no encouragement. He quotes Camus writing home
    from Paris, "I’ve just been informed bombs are falling on Paris. Life
    is beautiful." There is no explanation, but it fits; a Parisian once
    told me that those had been the best years of his life: the cabarets,
    the stage, the revues flourished with creativity. And Camus, ever
    complaining how he missed Algeria and despised Paris, reveled in
    it. When he arrived in 1940, exempt from military service as
    tubercular but vigorous, he was an unknown provincial striver; taken
    up by Sartre and introduced to Gallimard, the leading French
    publisher, he quickly became an editor and protege of the house, a
    star author, a dramatist, and very much a man about town, often to be
    seen in nightclubs, at ringside, and at football games, with a
    beautiful woman on his arm.
    Maurice Papon, on trial for rounding up Jews for the death camps as a
    police prefect in Bordeaux, vainly cited in defense his admiration for
    Camus and his service to the Resistance. Yes, survivors said, the
    "Salon resistance." They referred to circles formed when Germany’s
    defeat became visible, whose main contribution was to give members
    cover. Mitterrand was surely among them. After the Liberation,
    Gallimard barely escaped prosecution because some of its staff were
    resistants, and because it published not only collaborationists but
    also the likes of Sartre and Camus (their book jackets bore the
    initials of the houses’s Vichyite review). Leading cultural lights of
    the left were perhaps too conspicuous to risk active involvement, and
    the Germans wisely let them alone. Todd offers a glimpse of Sartre
    holding court at his famous table in Cafe Flore, with collabos across
    the room and the other tendencies sitting about.
    Some time in 1943, as the tide of war turned against the Nazis,
    colleagues of Camus persuaded him to help edit an occasional
    newsletter called Combat. The only clandestine article that Todd
    could definitely trace to him, however, appeared in another paper, in
    April, 1944. Two months later, on the night our troops landed in
    Normandy, Camus was bibulously celebrating the opening of one of his
    now forgotten plays. Upon the liberation of Paris that August, with
    gunfire still rattling, he hastened to take over a printing plant and
    help start a new daily, Combat.
    Todd is vague about the stands Combat took during the turbulent
    beginnings of the Fourth Republic and the Cold War. Camus (who
    eventually quarreled with his partners and left the paper before its
    demise) was for a time supportive of De Gaulle, then of the
    center-left independent Pierre Mendes-France. In his brief term as
    Premier in 1954, however, Mendes negotiated peace in Vietnam and
    groped toward some settlement with the Algerians, neither of which
    Camus could stomach. An entry in his notebook about the decisive
    defeat of the French in Indochina, in May, 1954, tells it all:

    The fall of Dien Bien Phu. As in 1940, mixed feelings of shame and
    rage. The evening of the massacre, it was clear that right-wing
    politicians had put the unfortunate men in an indefensible
    position while the leftists shot them in the back.

    Todd quotes the passage sympathetically, demonstrating that he, too,
    has moved a long way since the days of the liberal L’Observateur and
    L’Express, whose columns were open to Camus. Todd relates that when
    many Parisians voiced shock at a frightful massacre in Algeria, Camus
    derided them with macho contempt as the "female left-wing."
    Intellectuals who along with Camus protested the crimes of Stalin
    appealed to him in vain to protest the crimes of France in Algeria. He
    did write to military judges several times asking clemency for
    condemned Algerians, Todd says, but became enraged when one such
    letter was made public. He expressed outrage at the Soviet assault on
    Budapest in 1956, but approved the French-British-Israeli assault on
    Egypt that year. He declined to speak out when Arab bodies turned up
    floating in the Seine, and protesters were crushed to death by a
    police charge in Paris. In fact, he broke a proclaimed withdrawal from
    political affairs to attend a dinner in support of Algérie
    , sitting at the head table with none other than Maurice
    Papon, then police prefect of Paris.
    For this and other reasons many people were upset when Camus was
    awarded the Nobel prize for literature in December, 1957. It was
    thought that his anti-Soviet stand was a factor (Boris Pasternak
    was the choice the following year). Be that as it may, the
    occasion was marked by a single terrible phrase. Challenged in
    Stockholm to explain why he protested repression in Eastern Europe but
    not in Algeria, he replied, "I believe injustice, but I will defend my
    mother before justice."
    It was a reply that could have been made by an Afrikaner, a Bosnian,
    an Israeli, an Arab, a Hindu, a Moslem, a white supremacist, a hard
    liner on crime—anyone in the worldwide war against the Other. And it
    was, of course, pure folly. The danger to Camus’s mother arose from
    the refusal of the settlers to contemplate equal rights for
    Arabs. They wreaked havoc and brought down the Fourth republic, and
    destroyed any chance to live in peace in their beloved country.
    Finally, it just may be worth noting that Camus singled out his mother
    as more precious than justice. The opening words of The Stranger
    mention her too: "Maman died today." Then he disowned her. Maman is a
    sentimental figure in the Mediterranean macho culture, as is Madonna,
    but women remain the Other, nonetheless.

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