Albert Camus: Existentialism, the Afrikaans world, and the task of the connected intellectual

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Albert Camus (1913–1960) was a thinker whose thinking is still haunting and troubling us. In this contribution the focus is not only on his international career, but his thinking is also contextualised with reference to the Afrikaans and South African world.

The article consists of two parts. In the first part a succinct account of Camus’s life is provided and more specifically how it relates to Algeria as place, the school and university training he underwent and how it influenced his later life as a writer and intellectual in France (section 2). This is followed by a brief account of existentialism – the intellectual tradition in which Camus is normally situated and interpreted (section 3). In both of these sections it is indicated that Camus’s thinking cannot be restricted to a reflection on absurdity and the individual existence of suffering, but that a later phase of his career moves in the direction of revolt (rebellion) and the relationship with the Other. This shift in his thinking prepares the ground to consider themes, in the second part, such as place, climate, and the role of the connected and detached intellectual in divided societies, intimate critique, and practical wisdom.

In the second part of the article there is also a more systematic discussion of Camus’s influence on South Africa and more specifically the Afrikaans world. In this regard it is shown how Camus’s thinking, within the context of existentialism, became important for reflection in the following fields: philosophy, literature studies, theology, politics and black consciousness (section 4). In philosophy the examples of Johan Degenaar’s work (Stellenbosch) and C.K. Oberholzer’s work (Pretoria) since the 1940s are discussed. Secondly, existentialism made a deep impression on Afrikaans literature in the work of Uys Krige, but especially since the 1950s in the contributions of Jan Rabie (who lived for almost a decade in Paris), Bartho Smit, André P. Brink, and Breyten Breytenbach. The latter four are also known as the Sestigers. The influence of existentialism was also felt in Afrikaans theology and the politics of the 1960s in the debate between the so-called verligtes (liberals) and verkramptes (conservatives). Finally, the influence of existentialism was felt in debates about black consciousness in South Africa from the 1960s. Here the work of Adam Small, the teaching of phenomenology and existentialism at so-called homeland universities, and someone like Steve Biko’s reading of Fanon and Sartre are used as case studies.

Continuing the discussion of Camus’s influence in South Africa as a place, the next section of the article (section 5) focuses on the importance of place and climate (Algeria and France) on Camus’s work and thinking. The contrast between light-filled Algiers (Algeria) on the one hand and dark Paris (France) on the other is a focal point – and also Lourmarin, the country place in the south of France, which Camus regularly visited after he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. At the end of this section sunny Mediterranean thinking is contrasted with a kind of European ideology of unlimited growth and limitlessness.

This interpretation of place and climate in Camus’s experience of Algeria, Paris, and Lourmarin, and his defence of sunny Mediterranean thinking, enables one (in section 6) to indicate a thematic shift in his thinking and to show how it relates to the task of the intellectual in a specific time and place. In particular, this thematic shift relates to the following: it breaks with the standard interpretation of Camus as being a thinker exclusively engaged with the theme of the absurd. The argument, then, is that where his earlier work focuses on the absurd situation of the subject/individual, his later work is more related to the subject’s relationship with the Other or his/her environment. Where the emphasis in the earlier work is on the subject’s own death or to lose himself or herself in the death of the beloved, or suicide, the emphasis in the later work is on one’s contribution or answer to death and the suffering of the Other in his or her concrete circumstances (Malpas 2012:307). This thematic shift, and its relationship to the role of the critic or intellectual, is dealt with in this section (and the next one) in the following manner: the relationship between the critical intellectual and his/her community (6.1); the complex choices that intellectuals had to made during the Algerian civil war (6.2); and how these choices relate to other issues such as love and justice, intimate critique and phronesis (section 7).

In section 6.1 a distinction that Michael Walzer introduced between a connected and a detached critic is used to indicate what kind of difficult choices Camus was confronted with during the Algerian civil war – choices that could also be considered in other divided and (post)colonial societies. By following Walzer in describing Camus as a connected critic his position is contrasted with Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s different reading of the Algerian civil war – readings in which Sartre’s concept of engaged literature (littérature engagée) played a role. Against this background Camus’s position, versus Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s, differs from the view that the social critic must break free from specific loyalties to judge his or her community from the outside – an ideally situated position that can judge all communities in an equal manner.

Camus’s position can obviously also be criticised, for example that he runs the danger of over-emphasising the particular, but this critique must reckon with the following: Camus also criticised his own pied-noir community. His position was one of solidarity and being solitary. He hated racism among the French (and what it did to the French) in France and Algeria more than racism among Arabs. What he could not accept, however, was that pied-noirs were fully criminalised through their colonial history – castigated beyond all hope and redemption. In the final section (7) it is argued that the type of critique that Camus is using here maintains a delicate balance between the particular and the universal. Walzer describes this position with the concept of intimate critique, but Aristotle’s concept of practical wisdom (phronesis) can also be used aptly in this regard.

Keywords: Afrikaans world; Algeria; Camus, Albert; climate; connected critic; detached critic; existentialism; intimate critique; phronesis; place; social critique; South Africa

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Albert Camus: Eksistensialisme, die Afrikaanse wêreld en die taak van die verbonde intellektueel

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