The Last CamusAlbert Camus, Le premier homme, Paris:
The terror in Camus' country of birth continues as Algeria slips further into
civil war. The recent assassinations of journalists, writers, singers, business
executives, the random attacks on civilians and the attacks on tourists have
become a familiar pattern. Algeria, triumphant but dependent after the war of
liberation in the early sixties now plays out its fate in the paradox of a
democracy that voted the wrong way. Algeria represents a fault line that runs
through the modern period. A country pulled by the paradoxes of Western
political categories, pulled also by the East, and in the end, it appears,
unable to escape the entrapment in this alterity, unable to remain as it is,
unable to become a religious state without increased violence, unable to become
a contemporary virtual state.
Camus' Le premier homme is set in this twilight of the modern
period. It is a work that at once recognizes the alterity of the Algerian
situation, the "exile and the kingdom" to use Camus' phrase. It is also a work
that goes behind the modern, plays the modern against itself, but not a work of
Camus was caught in the oscillation of the "exile and the kingdom". It is this
oscillation that is played out and internalized in a prepolitical existence in
Le premier homme.
Camus' work may also be situated as a reworking of the Western tradition that
privileges origins, or which searches for a 'home'.2
This crisis was signaled by Camus earlier in his treatment of Ulysses' 'home
coming' in The Rebel. Camus now gives a transformation of the
alterity of origins and ends into the experience of the "exile and the kingdom"
that is entrapped in the prepolitical. For the contemporary Western reader set
on a path that eclipses the past historical spatiality of the nation-state this
'homelessness' becomes 'home'. The movement to virtual sites through networks
that are 'housed' always 'elsewhere' has become the human condition. Camus
resists this conclusion. He resists the eclipse of the alterity of the "exile
and the kingdom" in his thought. Algeria remains for him the space of a strange
attractor that creates a pulsating field of the "exile and the kingdom" around
itself. But the core of this attractor is closed. Camus' Algeria is a version of
a pulsar that is imploding, consuming itself, its energy and people in
Le premier homme is Camus' last work. Largely an
autobiographical work, the manuscript was incomplete at the time of his death in
1960 (144 handwritten pages ending at the period of the adolescence of the main
character, Jacques). Camus structures the novel in two parts; the first around
the 'Recherche du pere' and the second around 'Le fils ou le premier homme'.
The novel, like many of Camus' earlier works, proceeds by stripping away
modern modes of interpretation.3
The search for the father reads neither as an historical, textual nor
psychoanalytical account of the past.4
These approaches are blocked by the disappearance of the 'evidence', the loss of
the past, of memories, of testimonies. Jacques' father's death in 1913 in the
First World War when he was an infant leaves no trace.5
The 'visit' made to the father's grave in Brittany forty years later yields no
more information than questions of the family when Jacques returns to Algeria
and retraces the arrival of the colonists and the path of his birth.6
There is no retrieval of the past, of the 'other'. The grand modes of the modern
are eclipsed. What is left for Camus is what always existed: that is nothing,
Silencieux et detournes de tout, comme etait mort son pere dans
une incomprehensible tragedie loin de sa patrie de chair, apres une vie tout
entiere involontaire, depuis l'orphelinat jusqu'a l'hopital, en passant par le
marriage inevitable, une vie qui s'etait construire autour de lui, malgre lui,
jusqu'a ce que la guerre le tue et l'enterre, a jamais desormais inconnu des
siens et de son fils, rendu lui aussi a l'immense oubli qui etait la patrie
definitive des hommes de sa race, le lieu d'aboutissement d'une vie commencee
sans racines. . . 7
The silence of Camus' characters is also that of
Baudrillard's social. The 'mass' of the population, like the mother or father,
have no capacity to change or influence the events that come from an outside
political arena. They are black bodies that absorb the waves of European
politics even to the point of the death of the father. War is an abstract,
totalizing metaphysical discourse similar to the religious fundamentalism that
now holds part of the country. Thus the political or textual centre has little
to do with the centre of existence, of actuality, found in the local quartier or
for Jacques' mother in the rooms of the apartment. Even the 'patrie' is an
abstraction. Jacques asks: "Mamma, qu'est-ce que c'est la patrie?...Elle avait
eu l'air effraye comme chaque fois qu'elle ne comprenait pas. 'Je ne sais pas,
avait-elle dit. Non.- C'est la France. - Ah! oui."8
What is at issue here is a return behind the modern to the natural state set
out in the first part of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of
Inequality. Camus in depicting a life beginning without roots shifts away
from historical origins, away from a Freudian unconsciousness, away from
language and its structure to the actuality of the experience of his characters.
The absence of both the written, most of the family either cannot read or read
poorly, and the spoken, the mother and the uncle being partially deaf and
taciturn, allows Camus to present an individualism cut off from the assumptions
of the individual as a speaking or reasoning animal.
Camus, in essence, turns back on the modern to its preformation. The question
of origins is thus displaced to the experience of the actual lived moment which
provides the reader with a sense of time as always actual, where the past is
continuously present. This movement in Camus' thought to the actual undercuts
the modern paradigm of time separated into moments of past, present and future
and establishes the field of the present upon which the virtual operates.
However, instead of using the clearing of the modern signifiers to allow an
escape from the attractor of the past, as it is present in the present, Camus
'carbon freezes' the core of these experiences, rendering them inaccessible. The
cone of experience for Camus is lived at the moment as real, forming a personal
archive, but an archive that is closed to others. His thought represents a
rejection of the virtuality inherent in experience.9
It closes the multiple pathways in experience, always favouring what took place.
In this sense Camus exercises a retrospective closing of the actual to what
occurred. Instead of using the alterity of Algeria, Camus turns back reversing
the future into the past.
The interiorization of the alterity of the "exile and kingdom" in a
prepolitical state structures Camus' view of political relations in Algeria.
Camus portrays Arabs, on the one hand, as part of 'nature' thus as fundamentally
without human characteristics, without names and usually with character
surrounded in silence and mystery just as the desert is portrayed.10
On the other hand when the Arab becomes real the characters in the novel
routinely view Arabs as menacing, as thieves or employ other stereotypes of
racism even if there is a desire to go beyond these views.11
The novel ends, in what is a hastily written section entitled "Obscur a
soi-meme", by Camus recognizing the failure to create relations between the
communities; "parfois l'amitie naissait, ou la camaraderie, et, le soir venu,
ils se retiraient pourtant dans leurs maisons inconnues, ou l'on ne penetrait
jamais, barricadees aussi leurs femmes qu'on ne voyait jamais ou, si on les
voyait dans la rue, on ne savait pas qui elles etaient, avec leur voile a
In fact the normal disagreements amongst individuals can, if it is a
disagreement between an Arab and a French speaking person, create a "foule
menacante". It is clear that in the novel there are 'two solitudes' even if the
French speaking population depended upon and exploited the indigenous
populations - solitudes that were, however, broken by violence.13
The notes in the "Annexes" indicate that Camus had been reading histories of
the colonization of Algeria; a history marked from the outset in the nineteenth
century by violence.14
The fatalism of this situation is expressed by Veillard, the individual who owns
the farm in Algeria where Jacques was born. "Il y a toujours eu la guerre, dit
Veillard. mais on s'habitue vite a la paix. Alors on croit que c'est normal.
Non, ce qui est normal c'est la guerre."15
Veillard views this 'cycle' of violence continuing as a part of the country in
the same way as the aperitif. "On va encore un peu se tuer, se couper les
couilles et se torturer un brin. Et puis on recommencera a vivre entre hommes.
C'est le pays qui veut ca. Une anisette?"16
The "Notes et plans" also indicate that Camus was considering the question of
terrorism. The dialogue sketched there shows that Camus continued to hold the
position that he had taken in The Just Assassins that maintained a
space for an 'innocence' against an ascription of 'objective' guilt.17
However, there was no such space at the time Camus was writing. It merely
reinforces the exile of Camus from Algeria.
Thus it is not surprising that there are no examples in Le premier
homme of rebellion.18
The picture, admittedly abbreviated owing to the incompleteness of the
manuscript, is reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty's waiting in the face of the
misadventures of the dialectic, or in Camus' case, of the impossibility to
ensure a resolution of the politics of violence in the actual of his Algerian
experience. The 'first man' interiorizes this inertia in an alterity of the
"exile and the kingdom".
Camus' sense of a tragic path for Algeria has been vindicated, as is now
clear. Just as there is a strong sense that Camus' argument in The
Rebel against religious or totalizing metaphysical positions in politics
has also been borne out against Sartre's critique or against present day
fundamentalism. However, in a work that was written in the middle of the
Algerian war, which had virtually no direct connection to these political
events, which has almost no plot or dialogue but rather remains on the level of
description, it is a curious end-point for Camus. The end is explainable in one
sense given his rejection during the fifties and his increasing difficulties in
writing creative fiction, thus a return to the past and the autobiographical
form. For Camus it is also a return in his writing to the period of the early
lyrical essays and The Stranger. Yet Le premier homme,
is failed thought when compared to Nietzsche's The Gay Science, a
copy of which was found in Camus' briefcase at the scene of the fatal car wreck.
1. Camus' earlier position on Algeria in Actuelles III
Chroniques algeriennes 1939-1958 left him isolated as his attempt to
recognize the 'pied noir' in a new Algeria failed to win support.
2. An interesting comparison of Camus and Arendt on the question of
the displacements of the twentieth century can be found in Jeffrey C. Isaac,
Arendt, Camus and Modern Rebellion, Yale University Press: New
3. This approach is similar to what Roland Barthes called 'writing
4. The differences in approach taken by Camus to that of Althusser,
Derrida or Lacan is marked in this work reinforcing Camus' rejection of both
modern and postmodern categories.
5. The exception to this is the recounting that Camus has done before
of his father witnessing the execution of a criminal in Algeria and his father's
subsequent sickness after the event. This event serves only to heighten the
absurdity of finding the father.
6. The role played by M. Bernard, the teacher, as a 'father
substitute' is noted in the novel and in the correspondence appended with Louis
Germain Camus' teacher who clearly was the model for M. Bernard. See Le
premier homme, p. 256 and pp. 324-331.
7. Le premier homme, p. 179.
8. Le premier homme, p. 191. Camus also notes that "la
patrie etait vide de sens pour Jacques" then going on to compare 'la patrie'
with God who is also absent.
9. See for example Giles Deleuze's description of virtuality in his
Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, 1994.
10. In the "Notes et plans" for the novel collected in the 'Annexes'
to the text there is evidence that Camus intended to develop a characterization
of an individual Arab whom he refers to as Saddok. The sketch indicates a
considerable separation of the two cultures. "Toi tu es mon frere et nous sommes
separes." Le premier homme, p. 279.
11. Le premier homme, p.187. Camus notes that at the
lycee it was unusual to meet other than the children of 'notable' Arabs,
however, there clearly were Arab boys on the football team that with whom a
12. Le premier homme, p.257. The 'question' of wearing
the veil in the French school system continues to underscore the separation of
the cultures made, of course, more pronounced by the concept of the 'rights of
man'. See, for example Julia Kristeva's rather tortured defense of French
'culture' in support of the limitation of the veil in Strangers to
Ourselves, Columbia University Press, 1993.
13. The view that Camus replicated the racism in Algeria was given
considerable prominence by Connor Cruise O'Brien in his study of Camus for the
Fontana Modern Masters and has been repeated recently by Edward Said in his
Culture and Imperialism. Le premier homme could be
read as indicating that Camus might have agreed with these analysis to the
extent that they reflected what he saw as the 'reality' of the situation.
14. Le premier homme, "Feuillet II" p. 267-269.
15. Le premier homme, p. 170. As Veillard's name
suggests he gives the 'wisdom' of age and is not necessarily giving Camus' view.
Camus notes in the text that he wished to develop this point though clearly he
was not able to do so.
16. Le premier homme, p. 168-69.
17. Le premier homme, p. 277.
18. In fact the manuscript ends with Jacques' reflections at the age
of forty where he concludes that he can live without revolt; ". . . ne sur une
terre sans aieux et sans memoire, ou l'aneantissement de ceux qui l'avaient
precede avait ete plus total encore. . . fournirait. . . ses raisons de vivre,
des raisons de veillir et de mourir sans revolte." Le premier
homme, p. 261.
David Cook teaches at Scarborough College, University of
Toronto. He is the author of Northrop Frye: a vision of the New
World and co-author of The Postmodern Scene and the Panic
Encyclopedia, all published by St. Martin's Press, New York.
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