The Colonial Contradictions of Albert Camus

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Before anything is to be said about Albert Camus, for the sake of a profound appreciation towards history as it truly was; it is almost a compulsion to start this essay with a quote uttered by François Mitterrand, the French prime minister of justice in the year 1957, “Sans Afrique, il n'y aura pas d'histoire de France au XXIe siècle”. There is a certain significance to literary illustrations as forces of influence within cultures that have been either neglected or carried on unnoticed. What is culture, and more so postcolonial identity without the works and words of its people? How does one justly interpret postcolonial identity in the words of a pieds-noir like Camus who although was considered low tier in his fatherland, held a complex superior inferiority in the land he came to bestow the term home upon? The geographical setting of The Outsider is very significant, for if the novel were to be set elsewhere, in any of the numerous French colonies it would have not said much about the peculiar ethos of French colonialism that was unique in the Algerian experience. It is precisely the location that made this specific piece of work, a work of colonial configuration. The setting and Camus’s identity seem to be inseparable. One cannot begin to interpret the book without looking at it as both personal to Camus and symbolic of a broader colonial attitude, reaching far and expanding away from Camus’s personal and almost diasporic dilemma.

As for the question of universality, explaining a settler reality without the even a half attempted inclusion of the native people’s tongue, culture or even shallow physical characteristics does not essentially resonate as completely universal. However in the case of our highly globalized and increasingly American/European influenced world the book could qualify as so, but not for the typical criteria. Camus could as in “The Outsider” or “The Fall” or again in “The Plague” (to mention a pattern in his writing), make it seem so obvious exactly what the issue is. For Meursault’s centrality and entitlement is not hidden, the blunt and deliberate shadowing of the Arabs as well is noticeable by mere glance. And for a casual moment, both the reader and perhaps even Camus thought that this purposefully ironic removal of “the Arab” serviced as some indirect benefit to the Algerians of Algeria. But upon looking at the whole of his fictional works, and only his fictional works, one could retrospectively conclude that although Camus sympathized immensely with the Algerian struggle of independence, he was also to one degree or another an accomplice to French cultural imperialism, treating it as a the only reality worth creative effort. 

This is not to say that he stood against Algerian liberation, for he has made his stance abundantly clear through his real-life journalism but works like the outsider perpetuate the almost systemic and much intended overriding of Arab culture through European mediums. This essay will attempt to explain its objective by explaining French colonial attitude through Camus’s works of fiction. For to grasp this idea, it is primal to understand at what and which point do people, history and culture formally coincide, and how they are all influencing factors in the making of identity. It is also crucial to note that fictions or illustratory works that have reached said status of universality and world acclaim are never merely just well-conducted works of fiction. They are verbalised accumulations of age-old tendencies that hold just enough of an opposing view of the mayhems of the past that is still agreeable to the contemporary realities of our current Eurocentric realties. This essay will also heavily depend on the many ideas and arguments developed by Edward Said from his book “Culture and Imperialism”.

If colonialism were a performance artist, a beautiful charade of civility, imperialism would then be its lead chorographer. By what seems to be nature of default European and Western powers long ago decided that it was up to them to decide what was best for the world. The objective of modernizing nations was theirs to take, they would be the assimilators of a world that is one of the same, one that is a replica of their own. According to Said in Culture and Imperialism, “A correlative way of interpreting Camus’s novels therefore would be as interventions in the history of French efforts in Algeria, making and keeping it French”. There is something in this line that is not only unique in the French experience but resembles also the ideas behind Lusotropicalism, for however varied cultures can be they all coincide and meet to the benefit of the master pitted above and against the slaves. It also stresses upon a uniqueness in their colonialism, that it was more of a hybrid celebration than it was a forceful colonial takeover. This romanization may not be of true to the British empire, a point also expressed by Said in his book, but the notion resonates amongst people of more romanticizing nature. 

The French went above and beyond to secure Algeria as not just an overseas territory but as one of their own, not baring in mind that prior to 1830 these people had something of their own as well that was not in any way French. The French were very concerned with prestige, with the idea of removing the barbarism of Muslims and implementing the world acclaimed and much desired French civility and etiquette. Baring in mind that France of the time held a somewhat prophet-esque attitude towards global affairs in general, this is exemplified with its contribution to the American revolution and progresses further into the conquest of Algeria. The 17th and 18th epoch of French history was one that was driven by a need to improve the politics of the world. They believed that it was their genuine and honest calling to spread liberalism, freedom, and equality to all, up until they grew fatigued of helping and concluded that perhaps civility was made by France for the French. The conquest of Algeria happened just after the establishment of the second republic and the abolishment of slavery in France. It was the republic that fuelled the notion of Algeria being constitutionally French. 

With mass immigration reaching an all-time high in the 19th century, France needed places to dispose of their les peides noirs, Camus’s father being one of them. Camus was born to a French father and Spanish mother, a very common union of races in Algeria of the time. Camus, although born and raised in Alegria, lived in the Algeria of his unique milieu. He identified as Algerian, but his idea of Algeria was that of the French, not one that was in any way part of the “other”. He wrote and spoke in French, his society surely mixed in race also by the nature of Algeria’s colonial setting spoke it as well. To Camus, in his life and similarly in his novels the Arab or Muslim aspect was begotten, or purposely hidden. All this is reinforced by French imperialism as making their history and story the only one that is worthy or retelling. Those who were not lucky enough to become assimilated were distinct, cut off, portrayed as the outsider. There is this sense that although Camus cared for Algerian independence, he cared for it from a point of the preservation of French Algerian affairs, of conversing the state not “destroying” it via emancipation. 

For example, he cared enough to write for Algeria, but not enough to fight in the Algerian resistance even though he identified as Algerian. His sense of care came from the diversity he had to accommodate himself to because it was his reality. He may have shadowed the Arab figurine in his works but as a person with functioning eyes or ears, he was aware of the struggle and of their existence. In the outsider, and almost any work Camus has conducted with Algeria as the a backdrop there is always this aspect of brutality and harshness, of an almost tyrannical undemocratic state, when it was a French constructed fact that due to French rule Algeria progressed into civilization. Two things could be drawn here, first that this tendency to associate an Arab setting to that of rot and moral decay borders on the argument proposed above, of the French narrative and history being the only one worth mentioning and secondly a feeling of remorse towards the death of French consciousness, an aspect that was made clear via the destruction of the city Oran in his novel the Plague. These assumptions have less to do with Camus’s actual fictions and more to do with attempting to relate Camus as an individual to French colonialism. 

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The Colonial Contradictions of Albert Camus. (2021, Dec 28). Retrieved July 21, 2024 , from

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