Olivier Gloag: “Camus and his works have been used to rewrite History”, Jeune Afrique


Olivier Gloag: “Camus and his works have been used to rewrite History”

Should we unbolt the statues of certain great figures of History? This debate arises in the literal sense of the term. In Forget Camus, Olivier Gloag, professor of French and Francophone culture at the University of North Carolina (United States), is interested in the statue, figuratively speaking, of the French writer, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1957. based on the observation that Albert Camus – born 1913 in Mondovi, in French Algeria, died in 1960 – is omnipresent in the French cultural space, Olivier Gloag offers a rereading of his work.

A critical look – neither complacent nor acerbic – on his positions, in this well-documented essay, where Gloag sifts through Camus' books, articles and correspondence. It is also a question of its ambiguities on colonization, the death penalty, his complex relationship with Sartre… Fascinating work, Forget Camus speaks about yesterday and today, through what we make the writer say. He does not unbolt his statue, but places a plaque on its base to situate the political context of his literary production and the scope of his intellectual heritage.


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Jeune Afrique: When did you read Albert Camus for the first time?

Olivier Gloag: I read The Stranger et The Plague in high school. Then, around the age of 16 or 17 years old, my second meeting with Camus happened with the song Killing an Arab, from the pop group The Cure. Someone told me that the lyrics repeat the narrative of The Stranger. It was such a shock to me that I didn't believe it, then I forgot this anecdote. A few years later, while studying in New York, I came across Culture and imperialism, by Edward Said, in which a chapter is devoted to Camus. I wanted to listen to The Cure song again, it had been renamed Kissing an Arab…

I quote Fredric Jameson's introduction, in the preface toForget Camus : “By reading this book, you will notice that its criticisms are less aimed at Camus himself than at his mainstream canonization. » Are you targeting the work, or the way people view Camus?

If there is a target, it is the “reception” [the way in which we understand the work] of Camus. It is not to dishonor him to show him as he was, a colonial writer, like many other French writers that we read and appreciate. He only revealed his pro-colonial positions late, due to the Algerian people's war of independence. The purpose of this book is to show how blissful and falsifier of whom we read Camus, whom we idealize. Camus was playing a double game, but he was torn: he had left-wing aspirations, he came from a disadvantaged background and he knew very well that the Algerians were even more disadvantaged than he was. He not only had class consciousness but also the awareness that there was racial segregation in French Algeria.

His writings evoke with more emotion the fate of the settlers who were victims of anti-colonial counter-violence than that of the Algerians.


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You note his reactions differ depending on whether the fate hits the colonist or the colonized...

Yes, his writings evoke with more emotion the fate of the settlers who were victims of anti-colonial counter-violence than that of the Algerians. This is the case for the massacres of Sétif, Guelma and Kherrata in 1945, and for those of Madagascar in 1947. Is this part of his colonial unconscious? Does he think about it? The question remains open, I cannot decide. In any case, this is not a humanist position, unless you think that there are different types of humanity.

Olivier Gloag, auteur du livre "Oublier Camus". © Anthony Francin/Éditions La Fabrique, 2023

Olivier Gloag, author of the book “Forgetting Camus”. © Anthony Francin/Éditions La Fabrique, 2023


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Why does Camus erase the Arabs in his work?

There are many possible interpretations. Northern Irish critic Conor Cruise O'Brien considers this erasure a literary genocide. We can also see it as the hope of the ratification of a colonial order or that of not having to avoir to discuss the subject. In The Stranger, a colonist is sentenced to death for having killed a colonized person. It is the fantasy of an Algeria where there would be real justice. Maybe that's his wish. It is part of an imagination that wants to solve problems, one way or another.

“From November 19, 1946, you write, Camus wrote a series of articles grouped under the title “Neither victims nor executioners”, in which he refused to choose between the violence of the colonizers and the counter-violence of the colonized [...] ]. This pacifist and moralizing position favors the status quo: it aims to maintain a situation where the colonial order would not risk being threatened by a popular insurrection. Is Camus' literary work a justification for colonization?

This is not the aim of Camus's literary work, but it ratifies his existence and allows us to idealize it. Many commentators claim that The Stranger is a criticism of the colonial system. Few elements justify this statement. Camus and his works have been used to rewrite History and give an image of France that is both colonial and humanist.

You write that his record of service as a resistance fighter has been overestimated…

Camus joined the resistance at the end of 1943, or at the beginning of 1944, depending on the sources. In Letters to a German friend, he talks about the reasons for France's delay in joining the resistance and his own delay. He first conformed to his theory of the absurd, he was in a nihilistic phase. The absurd is a theory of non-commitment. Even before the start of World War II, Camus was for the Munich Accords. This position was common in France, even on the left of the political spectrum. In saying this, I am not judging him. But, in La Pléiade, texts written by university luminaries affirmed that he had joined the resistance during the summer of 1942 or in March 1943.

In an article written at the end of the Second World War, he said: “It is not a question of purifying, it is a question of purifying well. » Camus also refused to support the requests for pardon of those condemned to death during the Algerian War. Was he not the anti-death penalty that we are described as…

Some books on Camus describe him as an opponent of the death penalty, which is not consistent with the reality of his changing positions. Camus was for the purge, then he joined the request for pardon intended to save [the writers] Robert Brasillach and Lucien Rebatet. He publishes his essay Thoughts on the guillotine when Fernand Iveton is sentenced to death, then executed, but he does not join the requests for pardon. Gisele Halimi writes that Camus refused to help certain FLN activists. He did not have an abolitionist position.

When he speaks of terrorists, he speaks of certain actions of the FLN, but he does not speak, for example, of the attack on the rue de Thebes, which the colonial police perpetrated

You also write: “Camus’s opposition to the death penalty is conditional: he does not want to intervene for those he considers terrorists”…

When he speaks of terrorists, he speaks of certain actions of the FLN, but he does not speak, for example, of the attack on the rue de Thebes, that the colonial police carried out clandestinely and which left dozens of dead in the middle of the Casbah. He has assimilated a hierarchy of values: on the one hand, certain violence from the State or French colonists is force – therefore conceived by him as legitimate – and, on the other hand, the counter-violence of the colonized is condemnable .

How do the works of Camus and Sartre interact across the ages?

In his first review on Nausea, Camus states that it is not really a novel, but rather a philosophical discussion. He hopes the tone will be less professorial next time. Sartre responds in Explanation of The Stranger. Six months later, Camus wrote the genesis of what would be The rebellious man, Sartre makes fun of his positions in his play Dirty hands. He uses a provocative and paternalistic tone. In The fall, the main character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, can be considered, in my opinion, as a double of Sartre and Camus. Clamence is described as a “penitent judge”. The judge commits and it would be Sartre; the penitent regrets his errors, that would be Camus. At the end of the story, both the judge and the penitent are wrong.

“Forgetting Camus as he is presented to us also allows us to take a more lucid look at the pretenses of a certain left which insidiously masks its racism and imperialism […], this left of which Camus has become one of the emblems,” you write. Who represents today, in France, the Camusian left and the Sartrean left?

Take for example French interests in Niger. This country has almost no electricity, and yet at least 10% of French electricity is produced thanks to its uranium. We are indeed in an “extractive” colonialism, but we can free ourselves from it because no French flag is planted on the soil of this country. Who criticizes this Françafrique ? Almost nobody.

We do not discuss the neo-colonialism, which is at the origin of France's high standard of living, and we talk even less about its genesis, which goes through the Code Noir, through the reparations that the Haitian people had to pay, etc. We must bring this historical aspect back to the forefront. We cannot talk about immigration without talking about imperialism. As soon as we advocate the restoration of these historical facts, critics denounce the wokism or cancel cultures – two words invented by the American extreme right, and whose recycling in the French debate proves that History is perceived by French elites as a death threat. Is there a party trying to answer these questions? Yes, certain voices within La France insoumise [LFI, the party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon].

You mention the differences between the two editions, one Algerian and the other French, of Meursault, counter-investigation, de Kamel Daoud. What does this prove?

I read the French edition, published by Actes Sud, then the Algerian edition, published by Barzakh. I was very surprised because the changes do not only concern the back cover. The version published by Barzakh is much more critical of Camus. There is an amalgamation between Camus and Meursault; Daoud parle from the moment the character went to Oran and attempted to commit genocide. These passages disappear in the French version, which shows that Daoud has understood that Camus is untouchable for the French elites. However, even in this watered down version, Meursault, counter-investigation was a bit of a shock at first.

To say that Camus is a colonial writer does not prejudge the literary quality of his texts.

What do the positions of French intellectuals tell us about Sartre and Camus?

With Plea for intellectuals, Sartre explains that an intellectual must meddle in what does not concern him, have the courage to speak against his class interests and, if necessary, against the interests of his homeland. But, for example, Bernard-Henri Lévy supported France's military intervention in Libya. The drift towards the extreme right of Michel Onfray goes back to his book on Camus, where he claims that he was anti-colonialist all his life. Media intellectuals, like Bernard-Henri Lévy or André Glucksmann, were part of a virulent anti-communist movement, which espoused the interests of their own social class. A declassified CIA report from the 1980s rejoices in the influence of Bernard-Henri Lévy and the fact that Sartre had no successors!

Is Camus a great writer, despite his colonial positions?

There is no link between a political position and the quality of a literary work. To say that Camus is a colonial writer does not prejudge the literary quality of his texts. Likewise, having a critical point of view does not mean being a prosecutor. It is not a question of asserting that all authors who agree with me are good authors, and vice versa.

The Stranger is an extraordinary text because here is a new type of hero, a bureaucrat without any social ambition, and who is a reflection of French colonialism. We absolutely must continue reading and teaching this novel, which explains to us the deep ambiguity of the French left, which wants to be progressive but which cannot admit that, if the standard of living in France is so high today , it is thanks to colonial oppression.

Caligula is a great play, by far Camus's best, which explores the absurd. Wedding in Tipasa shows the social achievements of the Popular Front, a new relationship to the nature of a working-class France, who can discover it, ride a bike, etc. These three texts, written when he was in Algeria, are masterpieces. Despite everything, Camus is a great writer.

Forget Camus, by Olivier Gloag, La Fabrique Éditions, 160 p., 15 euros.

 © Éditions La Fabrique

© Editions La Fabrique

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