Giving Absurdity Its Due

In the Panthéon, Albert Camus joins a kindred soul


France has long had an affair with affaires, which have ranged from the heroic to the tragicomic. Of these, the defense of Alfred Dreyfus is perhaps the most famous. Since last November, a new affair has gripped France: L’affaire Camus, sparked by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s effort to move Albert Camus’ body to the Panthéon in time to mark the 50th anni­versary of his death. The Left assailed Sar­kozy for trying to “recuperate” Camus’ humanist legacy for political reasons; the Right, for whom Camus is a proto-neoconservative, praised him. The bickering would have suited the Panthéon’s oldest resident and epic polemicist, Voltaire.

Voltaire’s defense of Jean Calas against religious intolerance created the Panthéon. When Voltaire died in 1778, politicians and journalists began to call for an equivalent to England’s Westminster Abbey to honor France’s “great men.” French kings had long been buried at Rheims, but this was hardly satisfactory for a nation on the verge of deposing Louis XVI and declaring itself a republic.

The French National As­sem­bly thus commandeered the nearly completed Church of Sainte Geneviève and rededicated it as the Panthéon. After the stirring declaration “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante” (To great men, a grateful fatherland) was in­scribed across the pediment, Voltaire’s coffin was delivered by a long cortège of musicians playing music from his operas, actors declaiming lines from his tragedies, and men and women, dressed in ancient Roman clothing, staggering under larger than life models of the 70 volumes of his work. For revolutionary France, all of his writings boiled down to his most memorable phrase: Ecrasez l’infâme (Crush the infamy)—the eternal battle cry of the forces of enlightenment against superstition and intolerance.

Voltaire, it so happened, had visited Westminster Abbey when, as a political exile in England, he attended the burial of Isaac Newton in 1727. How extraordinary, he later wrote in his Philosophical Letters, that France treats thinkers like criminals, while England treats them like kings—or at least treats them as equals. The cemetery at Westminster has always been latitudinarian: kings and commoners, orthodox and heterodox, conservatives and liberals are jumbled together under the towering naves of the abbey. Controversies over burials were rare because the membership was so inclusive. In France, however, pantheonization equaled polarization.

The Panthéon sought to create a new collective character, secular and republican, opposed to the older French identity associated with throne and altar. But this was impossible in a nation bitterly divided over its revolutionary legacy. Instead of imposing a simple story about the past, the Panthéon has always spurred opposing national accounts.

In their current spat, both the Left and Right in France ignore their common past: every act of pantheonization has inevitably been political and partisan. When Charles de Gaulle transferred the remains of the Resistance hero Jean Moulin to the Panthéon in 1964, for example, he buttressed the conservative myth of a nation united against the German occupiers. In a symbolic tit for tat, François Mitterrand marked his presidential victory in 1981 by entering the Panthéon alone in order to lay a rose on Moulin’s tomb, reclaiming the legacy of the Resistance for the Left.

Few writers were more conflicted over personal and na­tional identity than Camus. He was the son of impoverished pied-noirs—Euro­pean im­mi­grants to French Algeria, who became citizens of a na­tion, France, whose language they did not speak, whose history they did not know, and whose soil they would probably never set foot on.

Camus loved Algeria passionately, perhaps blindly. In an early essay, “Nuptials at Tipasa,” he describes this ancient town on the Algerian coast in frankly erotic terms: “Everything seems futile here except the sun, our kisses, and the wild scents of the earth. . . . The great free love of nature and the sea absorbs me completely.” Camus re­turned to Tipasa 20 years later when Algeria was convulsed by the bloody collision between Alger­ian nationalism and French imperialism. Barbed wire and soldiers surrounded Tipasa’s ancient ruins. In a bleaker sequel to his earlier essay, he wrote: “Empires were crumbling, men and nations were tearing at one another’s throats; our mouths were dirtied.”

For many years he sought a solution that would satisfy the imperatives of justice for both Arabs and pied-noirs, risking his life in the futile pursuit of an impossible peace. He then fell silent. After 1956, Camus never again spoke or wrote publicly about the war, apart from his celebrated remark that he believed in justice, but would defend his mother (who lived in war-torn Algiers) before justice. In January 1960, when he died in a car crash, his silence was made permanent.

No one can say how Camus would respond to the opposing claims that have since breached this silence. But how could he not warm to those native Algerian writers who now lay claim to his legacy? Most famously, the novelist Assia Djebar sees Camus as a modern Algerian martyr: he is ours, she insists. Yet it is less Camus’ particularity than his universality that Djebar emphasizes. Enlightenment values are one and the same for all men and women. As Camus declared: “No one is more closely attached to his Algerian province than I, and yet I have no trouble feeling a part of French tradition.”

Voltaire embodied this same “tradition”—speaking truth to power on behalf of the voiceless and powerless. But there is a second pa­­rallel between the two writers. The creator of Candide, just as the author of The Stranger, fully understood life’s absurd nature. Yet, while they conceded that the world is meaningless, both writers insisted upon the collective search for meaning and dignity. Voltaire and Camus saw how our lives are shot through with beauty and truth and understood that lucidity is all we have in an indifferent and silent universe. Whether seen from the heights of Tipasa or the Panthéon, Camus’ life, no less than Vol­taire’s, stands witness to this desperate universality.

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Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author most recently of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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