The Last Camus

Albert Camus, Le premier homme, Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

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 contemporary significance.1 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 increasing violence.

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, silence.

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 mi-visage... "12 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 Haven, 1992.

3. This approach is similar to what Roland Barthes called 'writing degree zero'.

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 camaderie developed.

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.