The writer and philosopher Albert Camus grew up in a world of silences in a working class suburb in Algiers. His mother, who was partly deaf and spoke so little that people assumed she was mute, was a mysterious figure in his life. The poet and scholar Stephen Watson described her as a Christ-like figure in Camus’ religionless world. Camus’ regular bouts of tuberculosis—contracted when he was 17—placed him, as he struggled for breath, in a “monastery” of “silence.” And then there were, as Camus put it, the “silenced and subjugated” Arabs whom he grew up alongside in Algeria. Given the circumstances of his youth, it is perhaps unsurprising that his last form of political protest was a refusal to speak.

In Camus’ creative work, silence is everywhere. It often stands in stark opposition to the bureaucratic state, bourgeois rationalism, and ideologies which condone “rational murder.” The silences are set in opposition to dominant discourses that justify oppression, violence, and murder in the name of “freedom” or “law and order.” In Camus’ most famous novel L’Etranger (1942) the main character, Meursault, is condemned to death: not for the murder of an Arab, but because he is silent in the face of the norms of French society and its legal system.

However, the story of Camus’ famous public silence really begins with the publication of The Plague (1947), a novel that has found a new readership in our COVID-19 period. The chronicle of the plague-infested city of Oran, in northern Algeria reflects stark parallels to our “new normal.” The dogged heroism of the frontline workers, the daily publicized deaths, the incomplete science, the reckless sociopolitical rhetoric, the desperate hope for a vaccine, are all there.

The chronicle of Oran, besieged by rats, relates the travails of Dr. Rieux, a quiet hardworking medic during a time of a plague in “194–.” As Rieux’s job takes on broader public engagement, he befriends another taciturn man by the name of Tarrou. Together they take on the tasks of fighting the faceless bacterium, caring for the infected, counting the dead, sanitizing the city, and testing a new vaccine.

Underlying the actions of these two silent men is a greater philosophical point—one that is only made clear when Tarrou suggests to Rieux that “suppose we take an hour off—for friendship?” As they sit, the “silence returned” to the city, Tarrou extends the notion of the plague from a faceless, amoral microbe to the idea that people are its carriers; that in an epidemic, human actions have devastating, and mortal, consequences.

“And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves,” he says to Rieux, “lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him… All I maintain,” Tarrou continues, “is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

As Camus would explain after The Plague’s publication, not least in his philosophical work The Rebel (1951), the plague that every person carries with them is transmitted as much in the breath of our words as in a cough or sneeze. Ideological discourse that justifies violence and “rational murder,” as fascism, colonialism, and communism did, is as deadly as any pandemic. The Plague, in this sense, seems to have an even starker relevance not only in our current pandemic, but in a political world where the murderous violence of authority is condoned.

Camus would be systematically ridiculed, questioned and condemned for these ideas, right up to the present day. His erstwhile friend Jean-Paul Sartre was the first to humiliate Camus, mocking him relentlessly for his naïve, moralizing stance against all political violence. To make an omelette, Sartre and his fellow Marxists argued, you had to break a few eggs. As Ronald Aronson points out, Sartre went further, suggesting that violence had ethical value.

This philosophical battle between the men, which initially took place in Sartre’s publication Les Temps Modernes, would gather momentum in tandem with the troubles in Algeria. As editor of the French Resistance newspaper Combat, an important voice in postwar France, Camus had called for an end to French colonialism. But, as the scholar John Foley points out, Camus had argued for a “one state” solution for his beloved Algeria, the country federated within France with equal political rights for Arabs and Berbers.

Albert Camus, 1952  Getty

But Camus’ voice was a marginal one, and much to Camus’ disquiet, the two dominant discourses that emerged from the debate were uncompromisingly bellicose. By the early 1950s many of Camus’ friends on the left had begun to vocally support the militant Arab nationalism of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), while the opposing voice of a combative French establishment was supported by the French colonial pied noirs with whom Camus had grown up. Neither side would compromise, and a full-scale war of independence began in 1954. A year later, Camus would write that if neither side would listen to one another, Algeria would become a site of plague: “a land of ruins and of corpses that no force, no power in the world, will be able to restore in our century.”

With hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of people killed and a policy of torture adopted by the French government, the Algerian war would be one of the most vicious and devastating Africa would experience. As historian Robert Zaretsky states, Camus’ “plague” prophecy became reality when civilians became not simply collateral damage, but targets for both the French and the FLN.

In January 1956, Camus attempted to make an intervention into the toxic environment where FLN radicals and French “Ultras” lived and breathed violence. As Zaretsky says, in an attempt to “apply Tarrou’s ethic,” Camus went to Algiers to broker a civilian truce. Walking to the hall in which he would speak he could hear thousands of Ultras at Place du gouvernement shouting for his death [“Camus to the gallows!”]. As he took to the stage with the future first Arab president of Algeria, Ferhat Abbas, an irascible crowd surrounded the building still calling for Camus’ head.

Stones smashed the windows as he began his talk, saying: “This meeting was supposed to demonstrate that there is still a chance for dialogue”—but this was not the case. Even the moderate Abbas, Camus’ friend and co-organizer of the proposed civilian truce, would join the FLN a few months after their meeting. Camus would neither rhetorically join his “white tribe,” nor would he support the FLN. Instead, as the violence in Algeria increased, he resigned from the newspaper L’Express and refused to speak publicly about the matter. Rhetoric, he realized, was part of the problem. “When speech can lead to the remorseless disposal of other people’s lives,” he would go on to say, “silence is not a negative position.”

But his public silence did not mean a failure to act. Until his tragic death in a car accident in 1960, he continued to work via backchannels, writing over 150 appeals to government officials on behalf of Arabs facing imprisonment or the death sentence. Despite these efforts, Camus’ silence is still thought to have given consent to the French government’s murderous role in the war. Emily Apter, for example, observes that Camus’ name triggers a “deplorable record on the Algerian War that rightly cost him friendships on the left.”

His reputation suffered further damage from his position of silence. Edward Said, in his book Culture and Imperialism (1994), delivered a distinctive posthumous literary blow. As John Foley points out, Said finished off the job that Conor Cruise O’Brien began with his famous monograph, Camus (1970). Their position was summed up by Apter when she said that Camus offers in his fiction a “systematic nullification of Arab characters.”

Much of this criticism is directed at L’Etranger, a novel in which the protagonist kills a nullified, nameless, and silent Arab on a beach. Worse than this, Said and O’Brien continued, was that there was almost no Arab presence in The Plague, despite it being set in Algeria. As O’Brien wrote, raising the rhetorical temperature considerably, Camus’ removal of the Arabs from Oran amounted to an “artistic final solution.”

David Carroll responded to this argument, pointing out that Camus’ heroes of The Plague fight tirelessly to save human life. To suggest that Camus wished an Arab genocide, even if only as a literary conceit, seems bizarre when one considers Camus’ attitude toward “rational murder.” Camus made it perfectly clear that the allegorical underpinning of The Plague was an attack against the crimes of both Nazism and colonialism. As Carroll would point out elsewhere, much was “nullified” in The Plague’s Oran—fascism and communism, for a start. As the narrator states, when looking at a quarantine camp in Oran, there were other “camps” elsewhere but “for lack of firsthand information and in deference to veracity, [the narrator] has nothing to add about them.” There is clearly conscious elision in The Plague: silences that Camus prompts the reader to fill.

Camus’ biographer Olivier Todd quotes Camus as saying that, writing The Plague with the Second World War hanging over him, the novel would “show people who have taken the part of reflection, silence, and moral suffering during the war.” For O’Brien, Said, and Apter, this makes little sense. For them, silence and absence is an entirely negative position, the marker of exclusion and nullification. This may be so for them, but it certainly was not for Camus.

This notion of silence would again appear in Camus’ short story “The Silent Men” (1957)—a story unmentioned by O’Brien, Said, or Apter—which tells the tale of barrel coopers who come back to work after a failed strike. These men, both pied noir and Arab, are said to be filled with “an anger and helplessness that sometimes hurts so much that you can’t even cry out.” Yvar, the pied-noir, shares his sandwiches with a character named Said, as they wait for the confrontation with the boss, which takes the form of a refusal to speak. Silence here, as in all of Camus’ work and life, was both a voice and a locus of resistance.

In our current moment, this notion of the silence of resistance is perhaps worth contemplating: as a response to social media, to polarized political discourses, and to our confusing, inchoate COVID-19 world. It is perhaps a valid response to the claims and counterclaims about what certain scientific data are telling us. Speaking out, as Camus learned, might only harm and offer no solutions. But, again, silence did not mean a failure to act. Tarrou and Rieux of The Plague continue to fight the plague, not with words but with the methods available to them—those they knew would do no harm.

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