Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Throughout lockdown, and this time of modern-day plague, many have found it somewhat amusing to read Camus’ The Plague. Accompanying this sense of irony, Penguin compiled and published a new collection of his essays, entitled Committed Writings. Given the current political climate and Camus’ lifelong resistance to oppressive political systems from Nazism to French colonialism in Algeria, such a publication appears somewhat auspicious. It raises the question: What is the use of reading Camus today?
In the Letters to a German Friend, Camus makes an appeal to the ‘intellect’. He may not offer a strict definition detailing what he means by ‘intellect’, yet we garner an understanding through what Camus tells us what the intellect is not. It is not a blind, sometimes enraged, devotion to an idea that is placed “before truth and beyond despair”. And it is now increasingly clear that the intellect is now regarded as a handicap to assuring the agenda of right-wing policies.
A recent openDemocracy article located Churchillism (the reverence for, and evocation of, a national identity through the personage of Churchill) as being central to Anglo-British nationalism. It is precisely this narrative of the plucky Brit against the evil Jerry that Conservative rhetoric taps into and allows to drive policy. It is also, incidentally, rhetoric that lurks in the background of the Brexit debate, the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic and the counter-movement to BLM. Crucially, this is a narrative that simultaneously attracts votes and has no need for the intellect. The truth of the narrative is irrelevant, but merely to adore a historical figure such as Churchill that is “beyond truth” means that one can buy into a narrative that does your political thinking for you.
This directly relates to Camus’ later remark of the fact that “We no longer speak the same language”. What he means is that the ideological differences between French and German patriotism at the time were such that dialogue between either side was impossible. Can the same be said for the differences between the left and the right today? Camus’ remark still reverberates with our time because if this is true, then we must question the point of dialogue. And this is also where the right has an advantage in its dismissal of the intellect.
President Donald Trump has evidently shown that, in flouting the law of non-contradiction, using misguiding information and bare-faced denial, the concept of truth holds no barrier anymore. All that matters now is whether a policy or opinion can be incorporated into the narrative – be it Churchillism or something else entirely – regardless of coherence. In order to ensure the sovereignty of the narrative, and thereby the politics, the right has cancelled out the normal rules of argument so that they can justify any of their policies and thinking.
We have reached this stage where the appeal to the ‘intellect’ has become impotent, and neither side can be reconciled. If Boris Johnson decides to alter the withdrawal agreement that breaks international law “in a very specific and limited way”, then we are through the looking glass of argumentation: our political establishments now follow a logic that falsifies whatever data that may handicap them from achieving their ends.
So what are those who still value the intellect charged with? A harder task than for those who don’t. Camus writes, “In order to keep faith with ourselves, we are obliged to respect in you what you do not respect in others”. One must not hate the opposition. One must recognise in them what makes us all human, all too human. That said, Camus also doesn’t endorse becoming merciful to one’s political antagonist: at the stage wherein an authoritarian power is casually murdering, Camus endorses violence to stop further murder.
In Reflections on the Guillotine, Camus paints the vivid image of the condemned on death row to display the false innocence of a society that kills in its own name. Now we have a new image: that of the black man facing the police. But how can one argue to a strong advocate of Churchillism about the horrors of police brutality? We are now at a stage where regardless of what is said, it will be disregarded by the opposition simply because the facts are incompatible with the logic of their politics. Someone like Lee Anderson MP with not concede anything to BLM protestors because their protest undermines the narrative of Churchillism. This ties into the ultimately absurd position that all writers and journalists are in: writing but hardly ever being read. One can write pages and pages and still not convince anyone.
Nonetheless this Sisyphean task goes on in the hope something might overcome this incommensurability. But when one is writing, who exactly are we trying to convince? For who among the Tory party reads Camus? Arguments seldom succeed in convincing people, but they do affirm one’s own position. Noticeably the Letters were written to a fictional Nazi, not a real one, and were printed in an underground newspaper which means they were effectively addressed to the French public. So who is Camus really talking to? To those who are least already sympathetic with his views. So Camus hasn’t closed the incommensurability of the narratives between the right and the left, even though he still illuminates much that is contemptible in our world.