Date of this Version
South Central Review 31.3 (Fall 2014): 27–42.
In 1994, I returned from Paris to Hyde Park just in time to catch a lecture about Albert Camus that an esteemed colleague, the late Tony Judt, was giving at the University of Chicago. I was much younger then, eager to engage in debate, and I had just spent most of the past two years turning over the recently opened pages of Camus’ private papers in Paris and trolling through the private papers of other prominent French intellectuals, as well as newly declassified state archives for what was to become my first book, Uncivil War.2 I had also done dozens of interviews with Camus’ friends and fellow travelers (Jean Daniel, Germaine Tillion, Jean Pélégri, etc.), as well as old adversaries (including Françis Jeanson). To the person, out of the many dozens of interviews I conducted, when asked about Albert Camus everyone agreed that he had died well before his time, that he was a deeply admirable and humane writer, and that he had paid much too heavy of a price for efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the bloody drama in Algeria. Moreover, when I conducted these interviews throughout the 1990s, every single interviewee I spoke with, including Claude Levi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Vergės, also admitted that they had all modified their stances on Algerian nationalism and were far more critical of their unchecked anticolonialism having seen its failures in Algeria.3 Finally, they all agreed that Camus could not be understood without foregrounding Algeria and decolonization in any reading of him.
Yet, what they said about Camus contrasted remarkably with Judt’s statements. I cannot remember what set me off, but I knew that I did not understand or agree with what Judt was saying about Albert Camus. Part of my objection to Judt’s broader work on French intellectuals was the contrast between his emphasis on the Second World War and the Cold War and my own emphasis on decolonization. To be sure, decolonization was then a new and emerging field, but, there was enough known to suggest that decolonization had transformed France and therefore Camus in fundamental and indisputable ways. Hence, decolonization’s role was not as minor as Judt had maintained. Legitimate and scholarly objections aside, I quite simply made a royal ass out of myself by criticizing him so publically (something I later deeply regretted). This essay is a kind of posthumous apology to my colleague, Tony Judt.
My visceral over-reaction to Judt’s talk 20 years ago reflects a continuing Camus debate. Why do Albert Camus and decolonization, a distant historical figure on the one hand and an intricate historical process on the other, continue to ignite such spirited disagreement among friends and colleagues?