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“Ces forces obscures de l’âme”



Etudes de langue et littérature françaises

publiées sous la direction de

Keith Busby, M.J. Freeman,

Sjef Houppermans et Paul Pelckmans
“Ces forces obscures de l’âme”
Women, race and origins
in the writings of Albert Camus

Christine Margerrison


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For Peter, Nick and Lucy
Abbreviations 11
Introduction 13
Chapter 1: Early Confrontations with Others:
the Écrits de Jeunesse 21
Peopling the Universe 24
The Exotic 28
Woman as a Sexual Partner 35
Women in the Real World 41
Women, Death and an Absurd Sensibility 48

Chapter 2: The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 51

The Death of Woman 52
The Birth of Culture 58
Racial Purity 63
Le mélange des sangs 65
Cultural Priority 67
Myths of Origin 69
The Mythical Woman 70

Chapter 3: The Man-god and Death as an Act of the Will 75

Bodies without a Soul 78
Lucidity 83
Death as an act of the Will 86
A Homosocial Death 88
The Twice-born Man 93
Absurd Man 95

Chapter 4: The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 101

Virility 103
Inserting L’Étranger into the Century 108
The Dirty Joke 118
The Dark Continent 122

Chapter 5: Mythical Women in La Peste 129

Myths of Origin 129
The Fatherland: A Misunderstanding 130
Beyond the Absurd 133
Le roman-mythe 136
Woman; that which escapes History 139
Dératisation 141
Passion and the Egoism of Love 145
8 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

La Vraie Voie 148

The Dialogues of Men; the Silence of Women 149
Orpheus 151
An Inclination towards the Male 157
The Maternal Stereotype 161
The Battle of the Sexes 163
The Psychology of Women, Intent on Desire and Possession 165
Love rather than Justice 166

Chapter 6: Woman, Race and the Fall of Man 169

The Politics of Envy 171
Aristocracy 174
The Gendering of Race 179
Landscapes of La Chute in the Journaux de Voyage 181
Ulysses and the Dream of Ithaca 184
Christianity and Greek Myth 187
The Fall 189
Navigation and the Opium of Sexuality 191
The Pure Space 194
The Nightmares of Colonialism 195
Hell 196
Women, on the Surface of Life 201
Mythical Women in La Chute 206
Redemption 207
Metamorphoses 210

Chapter 7: Sexual Topographies 215

Domestic Sexuality and Exotic Fantasy 215
The Fat White Woman 218
Sexual Tourism 220
An Orientalist Discourse 227
“La Maison mauresque” 233
Assimilation 235
A Reflection on Laghouat 238
Fetishism and the Footnoted Female 239
The Terror of the Absolute 242
“Le Renégat”: a Drama of the Flesh 245
The Loss of Boundaries 251
The New Aristocracy 261

Chapter 8: The First Man 263

The Public and Private Spheres 263
Le Fils de roi 272
The First Man 274
The First Murder 278
The Personal and the Political 280
The Matriarchy 284
The Patriarchal Trace 293
Contents 9

The Unnatural Son 294

The Blood of History 300
Mother Earth 305
The Dark Forces of the Soul 311

Selected Bibliography 317

Index 347
Full publication details are to be found in the Bibliography. Except
where indicated, all translations are my own.

E Essais (1965 edition)

TRN Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles
C1 Carnets I: mai 1935–février 1942
C2 Carnets II: janvier 1942–mars 1951
C3 Carnets III: mars 1951–décembre 1959
CAC 3 Fragments d’un combat: 1938–1940
CAC 4 “Caligula”: version de 1941, suivi de “La Poétique
du premier ‘Caligula’ ”
CAC 6 Albert Camus: éditorialiste à “L’Express” (mai
1955-février 1956)
PC Le Premier Camus: suivi de “Écrits de jeunesse”
PH Le Premier Homme
YW Youthful Writings
SEN Selected Essays and Notebooks
HD A Happy Death
TO The Outsider
MS The Myth of Sisyphus
P The Plague
F The Fall
R The Rebel
EK Exile and the Kingdom
FM The First Man
CCP Caligula: Cross Purpose

In view of the many books and articles on Camus, it has become cus-
tomary for writers of new studies to begin by defending yet another
publication on this surely over-represented subject. I hope I will be
forgiven if I decline this invitation. The main subject of this book –
the treatment of women in the writings of Albert Camus – is, of
course, not new at all. Rather, since the late 1960s it has been a peren-
nial focus of articles by a number of distinguished commentators, and
the occasional doctoral thesis in the US and France. With the possibly
sole exception of Geraldine Montgomery’s work,1 such theses rarely
become books, which are in any case few in number. During the
1990s, the only single-authored work of which I know is Anthony
Rizzuto’s excellent Camus: Love and Sexuality.2 Perhaps this relative
paucity is because a focus on the female characters in Camus’s work
is an apparently self-limiting subject. This would not arise if the sub-
ject under investigation were the treatment of men in Camus’s work:
indeed, that would be deemed no subject at all in its own right, as it
would encompass every area of Camus’s work. By the same token,
my approach has been that no area is beyond the scope of this investi-
Neither have I accepted the assumption that this logically entails an
exhaustive analysis of Camus’s plays, simply because this is one of
the rare spaces where women actually speak. Any study of female
characters must first confront the obstacle that the majority are one-
dimensional, lacking reality and human complexity, and this is par-
ticularly the case in Camus’s theatrical works, which were not in-
tended as investigations of individual human complexity. Camus’s
conception of theatre was ideologically driven and concerned with the
large scale rather than individual uniqueness; for him the great ages of
tragedy coincide with seismic changes in social formations:
(L)’âge tragique semble coïncider chaque fois avec une évolution où l’homme,
consciemment ou non, se détache d’une forme ancienne de civilisation et se trou-
ve devant elle en état de rupture sans, pour autant, avoir trouvé une nouvelle for-
me qui le satisfasse. En 1955, nous en sommes là, il me semble. (TRN, 1703)

Noces pour Femme seule: le féminin et le sacré dans l’œuvre d’Albert Camus (Am-
sterdam: Rodopi, 2004).
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.
14 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

(T)he tragic age seems to coincide every time with an evolution where man, con-
sciously or no, detaches himself from an old form of civilization and finds himself
in a state of rupture without, for all that, having found a new form that might sat-
isfy him. In 1955, we’re at that point, it seems to me.

He was concerned to depict not the individual life but destiny itself
(“le destin tout entier” (TRN, 1733) ). The task of the actor, for Ca-
mus, was to be like an empty vessel into which is poured the artist’s
vision, and this appears to have been Camus’s stance throughout his
theatrical career. His equation of the theatre with sculpture carries
overtones, moreover, of Nietzsche’s Apollonian artist god, the divine
sculptor shaping this world and creating form from the Dionysian
flesh of humanity. For Camus the greatest sculpture seeks to capture
“le geste, la mine ou le regard vide qui résumeront tous les gestes et
tous les regards du monde” (E, 660) (“the gesture, the expression, or
the empty stare which will sum up all the gestures and all the stares in
the world”).3
Unsurprisingly then, what he called “psychology” left him indif-
ferent as a playwright (TRN, 1734) – a standpoint he had adopted as
early as 1937, when he noted in his reading of Oswald Spengler the
“anti-psychological” meaning of myth (C1, 100). While, on the one
hand, this perspective stems from the author’s ideological adherences
(which will be discussed in the course of this book), it also conven-
iently justifies the move away from attempted depictions of the inte-
rior life of others; a justification and rationalization, perhaps, of his
own inability to create a character from the inside (an issue that will
also be treated in the course of this book). Camus’s approach to the
theatre is in fact indicative of a more general attitude; in an echo of his
1958 preface to the plays, he says in his preface to L’Envers et
l’Endroit that in his life he has learnt less about others than about him-
self because “ma curiosité va plus à leur destin qu’à leurs réactions et
que les destins se répètent beaucoup. J’ai appris du moins qu’ils exis-
taient” (E, 10) (“I am interested more in their destiny than in their re-
actions, and destinies barely differ one from another. I have at least
learnt that other people exist”).
It is, therefore, unsurprising that women are peripheral to the writ-
ings, and marked by a high degree of interchangeability. Although one
reason for this is undoubtedly Camus’s rejection of a psychological

See my “Camus and the Theatre”, in Edward J. Hughes (ed.), The Cambridge Com-
panion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 67-78.
Introduction 15

dimension in his work, there is also the obvious fact that, with the ap-
parent exception of his short story, “La Femme adultère”, the focus of
his concerns lies elsewhere. In my view, the character study, or the
categorization of “types” which are then analysed in isolation from
their fictional context, risks an emphasis on static conceptions placed
into an isolated personal sphere that does not impinge on other aspects
of Camus’s work and takes no account of developments in Camus’s
thinking. This study was initially oriented not by the fruitless ques-
tion: “what are these female characters like?” but by the question:
“What are the functions of the female stereotype?” I adopted this term
from Homi Bhabha’s analysis of the colonial stereotype, because the
ambivalence of which he speaks, and the implications of his analysis,
are readily applicable to the situation of women, both in colonialism
and beyond that arena.
The stereotype, moreover, is all too often part and parcel of the
critic’s own intellectual baggage, and is to be found in the unexamined
assumptions about women in general that are often brought to bear in
any investigation of this subject. Psychoanalytical studies in particular
return female fictional creations to their supposed originals in the Ca-
mus household in order to reconstruct a family drama where virtually
all these characters are found to be incarnations of the mother: the
grandmother, on the other hand, is deemed to be not a woman at all,
but a substitute for the absent father. This wisdom is so widespread
that it is certainly not limited to psychoanalytical studies and has be-
come the standard approach for all who prefer to dispense with the
trouble of independent thought. A more insidious effect of such accep-
tance of the ready-made idea is the creation of an intellectual strait-
jacket that discourages a spirit of inquiry.
For me, a further starting point lies in the conviction that the treat-
ment of women is no parochial concern, but sheds light on the writ-
ings as a whole, and cannot be relegated to a personal sphere on the
sidelines of Camus’s thought. Although women are peripheral, the
implications of such marginalisation are not. In his early journalism,
for example, Camus examines a number of social problems arising
from the colonial system, yet he never discusses one of the most hotly
debated issues throughout the entire colonial period in Algeria, which
was the condition of the indigenous woman. Such omissions shed a
not insignificant light on the limitations of Camus’s concern for jus-
tice. Failures to take such inconsistencies into account are indicative
of a certain blindness as far as the general significance of women in
16 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Camus’s work is concerned. At several points over the course of this

book I refer to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s repeated point that if
women are taken seriously as women in any argument, then the shape
of the argument itself would undergo a radical change, even a para-
digm shift. All too often, the female character is overlooked, or in-
cluded either as an “honorary brother”, or as a “homogeneous
woman” whose characteristics reflect general assumptions about
women. Over the course of this book I have pointed to several exam-
ples of this exclusion or appropriation, which Spivak identifies as the
sign of ideology at work. I began with an investigation of women as
women (even these fictional creatures), and everything else in this
book flows from that: women in the context of colonialism, questions
surrounding assimilation, race, myth. The issues raised here are the
direct consequence of my attention to the treatment of women in Ca-
mus’s work. My aim is not to isolate women from the framework in
which they are placed, but to consider them as women in that frame-
work. This entails seeing what is there, differently; and taking account
of that difference.
Considerations of ideology bring me to the subject of theory, on
which I have relied at various stages in this book. Where it has seemed
appropriate, I have used various theoretical insights but, just as my
occasional use of Freud does not make my approach a Freudian one,
neither has this investigation been determined by any theoretical
stance. This book was first completed in the form of a doctoral thesis
in 1997. At that time, Camus was approached, in the main, as a French
writer who belonged firmly within the French tradition, and it seemed
necessary then to stress his colonial roots and their impact on his
thinking and writing. During its composition, I found few echoes of
my own arguments in the secondary literature – a factor that perhaps
explains its occasionally combative tone. I did not know it then, but
1997 also marked the beginning of a wave of reassessments in the
Anglophone world of Camus as a colonial figure. Often taking their
lead from Conor Cruise O’Brien and Edward Said, many of these
writings did not hesitate to condemn Camus because of his colonial
connections. Although I cannot defend the reasons why I did not pub-
lish this book some years ago, I am grateful that this passage of time
has enabled me to revise and clarify my own distance from this con-
stituency. While accepting Louis Althusser’s general proposition that
one cannot stand outside of ideology, nevertheless I have tried to
avoid the self-righteous and condemnatory stances of some applica-
Introduction 17

tions of postcolonial theory. Certainly, it would be possible, if fruit-

less, to “convict” Camus for some of his attitudes; ultimately, how-
ever, we can only condemn him for being a man of his own age and
not ours – the purpose of such moral indignation being merely to con-
gratulate ourselves for belonging to our own times rather than his.
Perhaps because of my original sociological training, my regard for
literary theory is not as high as my regard for empirical evidence, es-
pecially when that evidence disrupts a complacent intellectual consen-
Ironically, events in Algeria itself have overtaken a number of such
ideologically driven arguments. The relaxation of state censorship at
the beginning of the 1990s, combined with Algerian demands to know
the truth about a war whose narrative had hitherto been controlled by
the Algerian state,4 have prompted a new wave of scholarship on the
Algerian war of Independence. As Martin Evans and John Phillips
have recently pointed out, the reduction of complex history to a tale
“of heroes and villains” can no longer be justified.5 It is, moreover, an
inconvenient truth that exiled Algerians themselves have increasingly
embraced Camus as one of their own – as does Assia Djebar when, in
Le Blanc de l’Algérie, she places him at the forefront of a Franco-
phone Algerian literature threatened with extinction.6 What Emily Ap-
ter describes as a dispute between Algerian secularists and
postcolonial critics over an Algerian Camus cannot so easily be dis-
missed as a frightened and confused response to Islamism.7 But if
some cannot take seriously the claims of Algerians themselves, recent
historical scholarship as well as the Algerian civil war is sufficient to
provoke a more serious re-reading of some of Camus’s political

See El Watan, “Trente ans d’amnésie” (5th July, 1992). See also Benjamin Stora,
“Algérie: les retours de la mémoire de la guerre d’indépendance”, Modern and Con-
temporary France, 10 (4) (2002), 461-473.
Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (London: Yale University Press, 2007), 5. See
also James D. Le Sueur, Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the
Decolonization of Algeria (London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).
Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
“Out of character: Camus’s French Algerian subjects”, Modern Language Notes,
112 (4) (1997) (499-516), 501-502. Apter seems to be arguing that the “reinvention”
of Camus by those “fearing for their lives” is “rooted in personal stakes”; that they
“seem” to be arguing for an “indiscriminate jumble” of exiled or French-identified
Algerian writers as a confused response to intégrisme.
18 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Throughout his writing career Camus was aware not of “saying

less” (as he wrote in Le Mythe de Sisyphe), but of saying more than he
had consciously intended. His reflections on his writing show a con-
stant awareness of this, as when he wrote in 1937 that “j’ai besoin par-
fois d’écrire des choses qui m’échappent en partie, mais qui
précisément font la preuve de ce qui en moi est plus fort que moi”
(C1, 60) (“Sometimes I need to write things that partly escape me, but
which demonstrate precisely what in me is stronger than I am”).
Twenty years later, in his preface to L’Envers et l’Endroit, he named
such intrusions “ces forces obscures de l’âme” (“those obscure forces
of the soul”), which add richness to an artist’s work, but not without
being channelled and surrounded by bulwarks (“digues”) (E, 12).
Here, the writer is reviewing the entire body of his work, recognising
the battle to control and contain such forces. Reflecting that these bar-
riers are still perhaps too high, he implies a certain lowering of these
in his future work. This “obscure part”, that which says at times
“more”, escaping the writer’s conscious control (but which is never-
theless written), was increasingly to dominate Camus’s thought. In
1959, when asked in his last interview which aspect of his work had
been neglected, he replied: “La part obscure, ce qu’il y a d’aveugle et
d’instinctif en moi” (E, 1925) (“The obscure part, that which is blind
and instinctive in me”). Although Le Premier Homme remains unfin-
ished, its last chapter clearly suggests that he was to investigate this
very same “part obscure de l’être” (“obscure part of the being”),
which throughout the years had stirred in him, like the waters flowing
beneath the earth (PH, 256). While trying to avoid speculation, and to
focus on what is written, the attention of this book is on these other
forces in the writings of Camus. If he was consciously able to catego-
rise and control his female characters through their marginalisation
and the use of stereotypes, how might the presence of women escape
him to say more than he had necessarily intended? How, moreover,
can women be integrated into the body of Camus’s work? As this is
my focus, it is also the reason why I have concentrated on Camus’s
prose fiction. I accept the author’s own judgement that:
J’écris sur des plans différents pour éviter justement le mélange des genres. J’ai
composé ainsi des pièces dans le langage de l’action, des essais à forme rationnel-
le, des romans sur l’obscurité du cœur. (E, 1926)
I write on different levels precisely to avoid the mixing of genres. Thus I have
composed plays in the language of action, essays in rational form, novels on the
obscurity of the heart.
Introduction 19

This book is not about the grand ideas associated with Camus’s work.
It is consciously about the marginal, and that to which the least impor-
tance is usually attributed. At least if commentators on this subject are
to be believed, then here is to be found the most a-political and a-
social area of his work, the one that relates most closely to the per-
sonal life and emotions of the author himself. “Women” have been my
starting point, and in the belief that this subject has as wide a scope as
any “affaire entre hommes”. From the outset, my intention has been
not to judge, but to investigate these connections, and this book has
been undertaken not in any spirit of condemnation, but in what I hope
to be an objective spirit of inquiry. It is intended as a contribution to
an ongoing debate and for this reason, to those readers who will chal-
lenge its flaws, correct, extend or overturn its arguments, this book is
dedicated to you.
July 2007
Chapter 1
Early Confrontations with Others:
the Écrits de jeunesse

Enfance pauvre. Vie sans amour (non sans jouissances). La mère n’est pas une
source d’amour. Dès lors, ce qu’il y a de plus long au monde c’est d’apprendre à
aimer. (C3, 98)
Poor childhood. A life without love (not without pleasure). The mother is not a
source of love. Henceforth, the longest thing in the world is to learn how to love.

In 1954 the Algerian war of independence began and Camus, who saw
independence as the death knell for his own community, began to en-
visage the impending loss of his homeland.1 In 1956, as he was finish-
ing La Chute, he wrote to André Rosfelder “nous dévalons vers
l’abîme, nous y sommes déjà” (“we’re sliding into the abyss, we’re
already there”); and in 1958 he wrote to Jean Grenier that “c’est sans
doute trop tard pour l’Algérie” (“it’s no doubt too late for Algeria”).2
It was in this climate of irretrievable loss that he turned back in his
writings to his own origins and those of his community in his unfin-
ished work, Le Premier Homme. In this return to his roots Camus in-
vestigates for the first time not only the individual “poor childhood”,
but the origins of French settlement itself in Algeria. Moreover, the
strong implication is that the book will include a new acknowledge-
ment of the existence of a surrounding, indigenous population – for
the question embedded in this search, “Qui suis-je?” (C3, 97) (“Who
am I?”), necessarily entails such a recognition. Le Premier Homme
demonstrates an unhesitating, if not entirely uncritical, commitment
not only to the people amongst whom the writer was born, but it em-
braces the ties of biology and “tout ce qui ne dépendait pas de lui de
choisir” (PH, 309) (“all that he had not been free to choose”).

A version of parts of this chapter was first published as “Struggling with the Other”,
in James Giles (ed.), French Existentialism: Consciousness, Ethics and Relations with
Others (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999), 191-211.
Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: une vie (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 634; Albert Camus–
Jean Grenier: Correspondance 1932-1960 (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), 222.
22 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

In this respect, however, Camus’s last unfinished work is not a re-

turn full circle, and neither does it rewrite L’Envers et l’Endroit, as he
had expressed the wish to do in his 1957 preface to that work. The
emphasis on that which has been imposed rather than chosen suggests
that Le Premier Homme was to have marked a new departure and an
unprecedented focus on those “forces obscures de l’âme” (E, 12)
(“obscure forces of the soul”) about which Camus was increasingly to
speak during the later years of his life. So clearly augured in the last
chapter of Le Premier Homme, the abandonment of the barriers that
Camus had attempted to construct throughout his artistic career goes
far beyond any search for the father to reclaim all that is represented
by the maternal blood-line; the irrational world of the emotions, igno-
rance and poverty, and above all the community they symbolize. Biol-
ogy here overtakes lucidity and the domain of the intellect in
expressing the visceral ties linking the individual with the land of his
Thus, Le Premier Homme begins the closing of a breach that can
be discerned from Camus’s earliest writings, and which is partly ex-
pressed in the well-known conflict between being “solitaire” (“soli-
tary”) and “solidaire” (“solidary”). These two impulses are apparent in
his earliest work, where they reflect the writer’s ambivalence towards
the men of his own community; his feelings of difference and alien-
ation, and his wish for acceptance amongst these men. In Le Premier
Homme this conflict between the individual and the collective is ex-
pressed in this way:
Et lui qui avait voulu échapper au pays sans nom, à la foule et à une famille sans
nom, mais en qui quelqu’un obstinément n’avait cessé de réclamer l’obscurité et
l’anonymat, il faisait parti de la tribu. (PH, 180)
And he who had wanted to escape from the country without a name, from the
crowd and from a family without name, but in whom something had gone on
craving darkness and anonymity – he too was a member of the tribe. (FM, 152)

In Le Premier Homme what unites the men of Algeria is the bond of

blood – the organic and mystical relationship between them and the
soil on which they are born. In the Écrits de jeunesse, on the other
hand, the conflict between biology and the intellect (and the need to
transcend the physical) is a significant source of ambivalence. In each
work “woman” comes to represent this biological tie: in Le Premier
Homme the valorised, a-sexual mother symbolizes Algeria itself, and
the son’s source of belonging, whereas in the Écrits de jeunesse
woman as a sexual being and the mother as the biological origin com-
Early Confrontations with Others 23

promise the god-like status of the fledgling superman – the son who
would assert his own superiority and difference, giving birth to him-
Camus’s earliest writings furnish an important source of informa-
tion concerning these early conflicts and their attempted resolution,
and it is my intention in this chapter to investigate how such tensions
between the Self and Others are revealed in some of Camus’s youthful
writings, which date from 1932 when the young writer was only nine-
teen years old. Most of these writings remained unpublished during
Camus’s lifetime and their main interest lies in the insight they give
into the young man’s emotions and vulnerabilities. They are especially
valuable because some of the conflicts glimpsed fleetingly here are
subsequently abandoned as Camus becomes established as a writer,
remaining unresolved until the final stages of his work. This is par-
ticularly the case with respect to the colonized population of Algeria,
and with respect to women – for the opposition “solitaire-solidaire”,
habitually used to express the tension between Self and Others is not, I
suggest, generally applicable beyond the confines of what might be
categorized as the man “qui lui ressemblait” (PH, 310) (“who resem-
bled him”), and the uneasy resolution between Self and Others in the
course of Camus’s writings does not extend beyond these boundaries.
Indeed, as these early works show, although the young man may feel
alienated from the men of his immediate community, these feelings of
alienation stem from the awareness of his own intellectual superiority,
while there is no mystery surrounding their existence, whose con-
sciousness is apparently transparent. It is in relation to this group that
the writer seeks a form of legitimation, and from here that the notions
of fraternal solidarity and collective action are subsequently to de-
velop; factors which are to define what it is “to be a man”.
Women, on the other hand, are depicted as having an opaque con-
sciousness which the writer consistently fails to penetrate; woman
embodies a secret unknown to the writer, and her interior life is be-
yond his power to depict or explain. For different but related reasons,
which will be investigated during the course of this book, the largely
unknown colonized population is likewise perceived as having an im-
penetrable consciousness, and is therefore less amenable to the type of
artistic control the young writer is attempting to exert. In both cases,
this awareness of an unknown consciousness seems perceived as an
alien and hostile presence entailing, as it does, the capacity for
autonomous judgement.
24 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Peopling the Universe

Far from showing an initial commitment to the immediate social
group, Camus’s youthful works are permeated by a constant “volonté
d’évasion” (“wish for evasion”), and the search for “oubli” (“obliv-
ion”). For the young Camus the real world is sordid, and art is val-
orised as a means of escape from this reality through the creation of a
“monde de Rêve, assez séduisante pour nous cacher le monde où nous
vivons et toutes ses horreurs” (PC, 149) (“Dream World seductive
enough to hide from us the world in which we live with all its hor-
rors”). The creation of a superior and parallel universe confers on the
artist a privileged and god-like status, a role the young writer seems
willingly to embrace.3 In contrast to this exalted position, other men in
the external world are seen as a hostile and undifferentiated herd
blindly following convention and living routine and ignorant lives.
This distance between the Self and Others is most clear in the series of
writings from 1932 entitled “Intuitions”, which, although marked by
intense self-absorption, begin to acknowledge the external world of
others. Here, the first-person speaker is faced with the choice between
divinity or joining the external world of men with whom he feels alle-
giance if not identification. This conflict is enacted through the crea-
tion of a set of internalised others, emanations of the speaker’s own
consciousness who rehearse his uncertainties and ambivalence; others
external to this consciousness are depicted as a nebulous and abstract
entity opposing his desires with the pressure of their expectations that
he should conform.
In “Intuitions” the speaker, alone in his room, is visited by a suc-
cession of others who are projections of the Self, the most significant
of whom is that Nietzschean figure, “the Fool”, who voices the
speaker’s ambivalence towards others – a mixture of contempt and
envy. As the speaker looks out of his window at the men passing by in
the street, the Fool exhorts him to abandon “cette animalité stupide”
(“those stupid animals”) and to join him instead, when they will both
become gods. Despite believing that the Fool is right, the speaker re-
fuses on the grounds that he is likewise a man (PC, 184). However,
Although he mentions these youthful writings only briefly, Anthony Rizzuto has
illuminated this theme of self-deification in Camus’s early essays in his book Camus’
Imperial Vision (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981). His comments
on this theme in Camus: Love and Sexuality (Gainesville: University Press of Florida,
1998) are likewise of great interest. It will be seen that I am in sympathy with many of
his interpretations.
Early Confrontations with Others 25

this decision is presented as a failure of courage and a continuing

source of uncertainty; rather than a definitive commitment to other
men the persistent question here is “Quand aurai-je le courage de ne
plus être un homme?” (PC, 185) (“When will I have the courage to
stop being a man?”).
Other men in the external world are viewed here as a hostile and
ignorant mass, yet contempt for their perceived lack of intelligence is
mixed with envy for “ceux qui ne pensent pas et boivent là-bas le
soleil, à longs traits” (PC, 182) (“those who do not think and drink up
the sun over there, in long draughts”). This ability to live a life purely
of the senses is later celebrated in some of Camus’s lyrical essays,
particularly in “L’Été à Alger” with its unequivocal endorsement of a
virile sensuality. Yet, as Jean Gassin has remarked, Camus’s aware-
ness that he is different remains a factor for separation and exile.4
Likewise, in “Intuitions” the possession of intelligence isolates the
speaker from the world and other men, for those without intelligence
are seen as being entirely at one with their surroundings.
The external world is represented in an abstract way, for the
movement of “Intuitions” is not directed outwards towards entry into
that world; it is rather an inverse process of re-creation where that
“real” world is made imaginary, fictive, and incorporated into the con-
sciousness of the speaker. This process of internalization simultane-
ously annihilates its threatening Otherness while reinforcing the divine
status of its creator, for as a product of the imagination it can be dis-
missed at will, as is illustrated in the case of one of these characters
when he abruptly disappears: “Car il n’était que ce ‘moi’ que j’avais
coutûme de regarder agir sous mes yeux. Il disparut, car j’avais enfin
uni le spectateur et l’acteur dans un même désir d’idéal et d’infini”
(PC, 194) (“For he was only the ‘me’ I was used to watching act be-
neath my eyes. He disappeared, for I had at last united the spectator
and the actor in the same desire for the ideal and the infinite”).
Dialogue is limited to communication between Self and Selves in a
movement towards a foregone conclusion, so that these “Others” re-
flect the same doubts and conflicts as the speaker himself, while
speaker and Others alternately occupy superior and inferior positions
in a shifting balance of power. Equilibrium is reached only through
the swallowing up of these alternative selves in a process that reflects

L’Univers symbolique d’Albert Camus: essai d’interprétation psychanalytique
(Paris: Minard, 1981), 46-47.
26 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

the relationship between the speaker and the external world: initially
perceived as “un tout qui s’opposait à moi” (“a whole entity opposing
me”), outside reality suddenly dissolves into countless fragments
seeking to reconstitute themselves (PC, 193) – like the speaker him-
self. Only when this perceived world disintegrates can the speaker
begin to unify his own fragmented Self, but in a form of Self-
universalization that incorporates this outside world as an extension of
the Self.
Art becomes here the medium through which the real can be ap-
proached yet simultaneously kept at a distance. In the role of artist the
writer becomes God in a universe of his own creation, able to confront
in a controlled environment the conflicts engendered by the unwilling
awareness of the existence of Others. It is surely not solely a sign of
egocentrism, but of vulnerability that the youthful writer only feels
able to confront their existence from this exalted position. Moreover,
if the young Camus betrays a conflict between the belief in his own
natural superiority and the wish to be a part of the community he ap-
parently despises, then this should be the cause for no surprise, for the
contrast is extreme between this future Nobel prize-winner and the
men of Camus’s immediate community, who are, generally speaking,
ill-educated (often illiterate) and ignorant.
Although in “Intuitions” the description of Others remains vague,
the indications are that these references are to the men of the French
Algerian community, in relation to whom the writer achieves for the
first time the beginnings of what might be called fraternal solidarity in
the short piece of work entitled “L’Hôpital du quartier pauvre” in
1933. Here Camus moves away from concentration on a single con-
sciousness to the attempted depiction of others in a real world. Both
direct and indirect speech are incorporated, giving these voices an ap-
parent independence from their creator, and the effect is one of har-
mony and unity in the face of a shared threat, the bacillus of
tuberculosis. This society is, however, another closed world isolated
from the outside, and where the menace of tuberculosis is revealed as
a less immediate threat to life than the responsibilities of a wife, chil-
dren or earning a living. Indeed, for one of these men his failure to
fulfill precisely these responsibilities had driven him to attempt sui-
Au début de sa maladie cet homme s’était trouvé empêché de travailler, affaibli,
sans ressources et désespéré devant la misère qui s’était installée entre sa femme
Early Confrontations with Others 27

et ses enfants. Il n’avait pas songé à la mort, mais un jour il s’était jeté devant les
roues d’une auto qui passait. (PC, 242)
Early in his illness, the man had found himself prevented from working, weak-
ened, with no resources, and in despair over the poverty that had settled on his
wife and children. He had not been thinking of death, but one day he threw him-
self beneath the wheels of a passing automobile. (YW, 169)

Likewise, the death of another former inmate is linked not with his
illness, but with his wife:
“(Jean Perès) avait qu’un poumon malade. Mais il a voulu rentrer chez lui. Et là il
avait sa femme. Et sa femme, c’est un cheval. Lui, la maladie l’avait rendu com-
me ça. Il était toujours sur sa femme. (…) Ça finit par tuer un homme malade.”
(PC, 242)
(Jean Perès) had only one bad lung. But he wanted to go home. And there he had
a wife. And his wife, a horse of a woman! As for him, the sickness had made him
like that. He was always after her. (…) It ends up killing a sick man. (YW, 169)

This extract was later reproduced in Camus’s abandoned novel, La

Mort heureuse, of which Jean Gassin remarks that the wife, symboli-
cally linked with blood and death, is rendered responsible for her hus-
band’s death.5 The degree to which these men are removed from the
domestic world of women and work seems a significant factor for
harmony between them; despite the overwhelming reality of death,
they are also separated from wider society. “L’Hôpital du quartier
pauvre” creates a world set apart, characterized by a unified viewpoint
where men are interchangeable and women set aside – a utopian di-
mension that prefigures Camus’s later novel, La Peste, where in the
“hospital” of Oran a society of men isolated from the outside world
likewise faces the threat of death and, despite their differences, man-
age to work harmoniously together. As in Le Premier Homme, solidar-
ity is based on the perception of sameness, the attachment to “celui
qui lui ressemblait le plus” (PH, 193) (“he who resembled him the
most”) and “ceux qui lui ressemblaient” (PH, 310) (“those who re-
sembled him”) – the men of his own culture.
This early piece of writing begins to establish the collective iden-
tity that can be traced through Camus’s subsequent works, culminat-
ing in the “je me révolte, donc nous sommes” (“I revolt, therefore we
are”) of L’Homme révolté, and finally ressuscitated in Le Premier
Homme. Yet, this fragile accomodation with others rests on the per-

L’Univers symbolique, 178. It was commonly believed at the time that tuberculosis
led to a heightened libido.
28 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ception of sameness, a process in which “we” are absorbed by “I”.

Although formally distinct, these voices are in practice indistinguish-
able, seeming like repetitions of the same voice, and this characteristic
facilitates their harmonious unification into one viewpoint representa-
tive of the human condition. In “La Mort dans l’âme” Camus was to
write of his experience of alienation in Prague, and his joyful return to
the South: “Ici, j’étais devant le monde, et projeté autour de moi, je
peuplais l’univers de formes semblables à moi” (E, 38) (“Here, I was
face to face with the world, and, freed from myself, peopled the uni-
verse with forms in my own likeness”). This is the activity in which
the young Camus is engaged in “Intuitions” and “L’Hôpital du quar-
tier pauvre”. But this “universalizing” project founders when the
young writer attempts a similar transformation with respect to those
unlike himself. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, these others
present an opaque consciousness that resists penetration and absorp-
tion, thus undermining authorial control.
The Exotic
The proliferation of the Self across the world is not such a smooth
process when Camus tries to write about a house of Moorish design in
Algiers, for here he goes further into the external world, indirectly to
confront the existence of the colonized population of Algeria. Once
more, this reality is not the subject of the work, whose central concern
is rather the role of the artist himself in transfiguring and stylizing this
world. In “L’Art dans la communion” Camus turns to Moorish archi-
tecture for an example of the way the architect models a building on
its “interior idea”, asserting that the construction of such a house faith-
fully reflects “une volonté d’évasion (qui) répond justement à l’âme
orientale” (PC, 247-48) (“a wish for evasion that responds precisely to
the Oriental soul”).
This idea is developed in “La Maison mauresque” where, for the
first time, the young writer confronts an actual object existing in the
external world, and the civilization he perceives as lying behind it.
This anthropomorphized house reflects less the “interior idea” of the
building than an exterior idea of Arab aspirations and consciousness
which replicate the speaker’s own, and in which the theme of evasion
from reality is projected onto the “Oriental soul”. Through this selec-
tion of Moorish architecture as an illustration of the artist’s perceived
role, Camus has chosen the most clear example of Otherness in his
daily life. It is not difference he seeks to illustrate, however, but the
Early Confrontations with Others 29

extent to which this external object is an extension of his own creative

Unsurprisingly, then, there are no others here besides the first-
person speaker himself, for the house becomes a metaphor for the
Self, and the speaker’s tour around this building is a journey of self-
discovery. In many ways the colonial context facilitates such a solip-
sistic enterprise. Commenting on the Colonial Exhibition held in Paris
in 1931, Christopher Miller notes attempts to create an illusion of au-
thenticity through the emphasis on the “faithful reproduction” of real-
As Michel Leiris pointed out, it is therefore ironic that the “reproduction” of the
Djenné temple was modelled on a building that the French in Africa had already
rebuilt according to their own idea of “Sudanese” architectural style: reproduc-
tions of otherness always seem to reflect back on the self.6

Built to mark the Centenary of the French conquest of Algeria, the

actual house, situated in the Jardin d’essai in Algiers, was itself a re-
production and conforms to this description; its architect, Léon Claro,7
was of European descent and belonged to the Regionalist school of
architecture. One might speculate as to what this building symbolized
for the European population of Algeria, celebrating in 1931 a century
of conquest and possession. Certainly, however “faithful” a reproduc-
tion, it may be deemed the concrete projection of a collective idea
concerning the meaning of that conquest, and what such possession
entails. Ironically, as a building it also represents that aspect of Alge-
rian life that lay beyond the scope of the imperial imagination – the
life of the home, an interior reality rather than an external idea.
Although “La Maison mauresque” is the first of these previously
unpublished writings where an addressee can be discerned, the possi-
bility of an audience amongst the colonized population is excluded by
the very manner in which the writer refers to the emotions engendered
by a first tour around what he calls “these” Arab houses (PC, 211).
This implies that he is speaking to those familiar with the exterior
rather than the interiors of such buildings. The familiarity often
claimed by this group was in fact nothing more than an illusion, of no
greater “authenticity” than the house itself. Indeed, José Lenzini

“Hallucinations of France and Africa in the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 and Ous-
mane Socé’s Mirages de Paris”, Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory, 18
(1) (March, 1995), 39-63 (50).
Albert Camus: une vie, 57.
30 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

points out that there was very little actual contact between the Euro-
pean population and the colonized one in Algiers. Few Arabs lived in
Belcourt, and even fewer Arab children went to school. Lenzini re-
ports that in 1930 Camus discovered the Casbah in the company of
Jean de Maisonseul, a young student of architecture. Although he
probably learned something of Arabic architecture, these forays seem
to have been of a largely “touristic” nature, as the recollections of
Camus’s friend Blanche Balain appear to confirm. Camus may have
made the perennial remark of the enthusiastic tourist: “ils sont plus
civilisés que nous” (“they are more civilized than us”), but he had no
intimate knowledge of such a civilization.8
The ambiguous position of the European settler in French Algeria
suggests a further symbolism associated with the Moorish house, for
the building provides only the illusion of familiarity and authentic
knowledge. Excluded in fact from this interior life, excluded most par-
ticularly from the women at its heart, how can the conquerors of the
Centenary assert legitimate ownership when they are themselves re-
fused full possession of that which they claim above all else to know
and understand? In Le Premier Homme Camus for the first time refers
to the covert fascination with this colonized population who withdrew
into “leurs maisons inconnues où l’on ne pénétrait jamais, barricadées
aussi avec leurs femmes qu’on ne voyait jamais (…) avec leur voile à
mi-visage et leurs beaux yeux sensuels et doux” (PH, 257) (“their un-
known houses where one never entered, barricaded also with their
women one never saw (…) with faces half-veiled and their beautiful
eyes, sensual and soft”). Thus, the vulnerability of the French in Alge-
ria is revealed, the masters of all they survey and of nothing they can-
not see.
Camus’s text is marked by a similar profound ambivalence where
triumphant claims of intimate knowledge are constantly undermined
by the suspicion of impotence in the face of an impenetrable Other-
ness. The move in “La Maison mauresque”, as in “Intuitions”, is to
incorporate the house into the speaker’s own emotional architecture,
rendering it no longer a feature of an outside world and the symbol of
a different civilization. Exoticism, one means of “domesticating” the
unfamiliar and turning it into a product for consumption, permeates
Camus’s text and is perhaps indissociable from the touristic enterprise
in which the speaker is engaged. That constant theme of Orientalism,

José Lenzini, L’Algérie de Camus (Aix-en-Provence: Édisud, 1987), 31, 60, 68.
Early Confrontations with Others 31

the despot in his harem, is profiled in the speaker’s words about the
house, which owes its very existence to him; like Scheherazade her-
self, it had promised new diversions and is threatened with destruction
if such promises of pleasure are disappointed:
À cette heure où je n’espère plus, j’ai cédé à l’orgueil vain de construire (la mai-
son), quand même espérant dans la séduction de ce nouveau rêve. Je lui avais dit:
“Orgueilleuse, vaniteuse, jalouse du monde que tu renfermes, donne-moi de
m’oublier”. Mais pour ne vouloir plus oublier, je la hais maintenant. Elle
s’écroulera: je la soutenais de ma foi et de mes espérances, disparues. (PC, 207)
At this hour when I no longer have any hope, I have yielded to the vain pride of
building (the house), trusting all the same in the seductiveness of this new dream.
I had said to it: “Arrogant, conceited, jealous of the world you enclose, let me for-
get myself”. But from no longer wishing to forget, I hate it now. It will crumble: I
was sustaining it on my faith and expectations, now vanished. (YW, 144)

Like the all-powerful despot seeking distraction he is also at liberty to

destroy what no longer has the power to seduce.
This avowed loss of interest, combined with the punitive venge-
ance about to be exacted, raises the suspicion that it is the choice of
architecture itself and the intransigent unknowability of the civiliza-
tion it represents which remain intractably beyond the scope of the
narcissistic imagination. While claiming knowledge, this conscious-
ness constantly evades confrontation with the reality of this world,
retreating into a dream of ownership of that which it cannot know ex-
cept externally.
“Je me suis avancé sur une terrasse d’où on surprenait toute la ville
arabe et la mer” (PC, 208) (“I advanced onto the terrace from which
the whole Arab town took one by surprise”); but the narrative imme-
diately withdraws from the possibility of a peopled Arab town through
the invocation not of its inhabitants but of its buildings, and their dis-
cordant presence before the sea and sky. Violence, hostility and rebel-
lion are the adjectives associated with this anthropomorphized crowd
of houses, but this hostility is translated into a form of metaphysical
discord, a quality of the town itself in the face of the natural world
rather than a reaction against the speaker and his imperious curiosity.
Such is the insistence of the suspicion, however, that the speaker him-
self is the alien presence in this environment that the reader is ex-
horted to forget the town for a contemplation of the sea beyond: “Mais
il faut oublier la ville et, très loin, regarder la mer, plate, sereine” (PC,
208) (“But one must forget the city and watch the sea, very far away,
flat, serene”). The repetition of “il faut la regarder” underlines the ur-
32 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

gency of this need to evade the conflict associated with the houses for
a contemplation of nature; but the claim remains unconvincing that the
city’s attempts to disturb the fleeting harmony are in vain (PC, 208).
This theme of conflict builds in the following passages, to be embod-
ied in a storm from which the speaker shelters in the park beyond the
house, and a further evasion from this hostile environment is effected
as he thinks about the Arab shops of the Casbah:
À cette heure je revois dans les boutiques dorées les bleus et les roses, puis, enfan-
tins, les magiques tissus d’argent et de soie, qui rient sans raison, affinés de lumiè-
re. Et l’invariable polychromie des jaunes insolents, des roses insoucieux
d’harmonie, des bleus oublieux du bon goût, revit intense en moi comme un appel
confus, harem des étoffes, femmes aux idées sans suite et sans confort. Des robes
de fête pendent sur des mannequins plats au sourire niais et entendu. (PC, 210)
At this hour I see blues and pinks again in the golden shops, then, like children,
the magic fabrics of silver and silk made more delicate by the light, laughing
without reason. And the invariable polychromy of the insolent yellows, the pinks
heedless of harmony, the blues forgetful of good taste, comes to life for me again
intensely like a confused call, a harem made of fabrics, women with incoherent,
comfortless ideas. Festive dresses hanging on flat mannequins with knowing, silly
smiles. (YW, 146)

Here the sexuality obliquely conjured up through earlier references to

seduction and power is made more explicit by the mention of the
harem itself. This fantasy of the harem (meaning “forbidden”) under-
lies Camus’s text and is reinforced by the important role of sight in
this work. The tour of the house, itself a form of sight-seeing, is an
enforced revelation of the secretive and evasive “Oriental soul” about
which Camus writes. As Olivier Richon has noted, the look in such a
context constitutes a symbolic re-enactment of conquest that invests
power in the one who looks:
The harem is a place which excludes any foreign look. Western representations of
the harem are then the wish to uncover what is hidden. (…) The harem is the ex-
clusive domain of one being, the Despot. The order of the harem is organized
around the limitless pleasure of the Master, above all his sexual pleasure which
starts with his scopic privilege. Only the Prince has the privilege of seeing

“Representation, the Despot and the Harem: Some Questions around an Academic
Orientalist Painting by Lecomte-du-Nouÿ (1885)”, in Europe and Its Others, vol.1,
Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, July, 1984, Fran-
cis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iverson (eds) (Colchester: University of Essex,
1985), 1-13 (9).
Early Confrontations with Others 33

Neither may the tourist, despite his claims to mastery and knowledge,
be anything other than an inauthentic copy of the master, at least as far
as the always unseen harem is concerned. Perhaps this recognition
translates what is desired yet forbidden into a denigrated object, avail-
able for a price and therefore not worth having. Just as the town is
emptied of its inhabitants, so the women of the harem, forbidden to
the foreign gaze, exist through fetishistic metonymical associations
between them and the goods on sale in the shops. The tasteless, in-
harmonious and discordant colours represent women with “incoher-
ent” and “comfortless” minds, but whose “knowing” smiles suggest an
experienced quality; one which will bring no comfort, a promise
which promises no satisfactory outcome for the one who spies on
them. It is worth mentioning here that the tropes of metaphor and me-
tonymy conform to the analysis of colonial discourse made by Homi
K. Bhabha, for here the Arab house is a metaphor for the Self, while
the use of metonymy has the aggressive dimension he identifies.10
Whereas in other writings it is precisely the sordidness of the eve-
ryday that so offends the young writer, in this setting the sordid ac-
quires an exotic and seductive dimension in a context where the theme
of sight is explicitly raised for the first time, with overtones of voyeur-
ism. On leaving the “noxious” melancholy of the garden:
(Je) songe que j’avais surpris ce sabbat des couleurs d’une rue noire et rude, d’une
rue que j’aimais parce qu’elle refusait de me porter et ne se laissait piétiner qu’en
rechignant. Alors, je m’arrêtais dans le soir, je ne savais où poser mes yeux,
éblouis par cette joie de la couleur, cette trépidation des tons, le regard heurté,
bousculé, choqué et ravi. (PC, 210-11)
I imagined such a tumult of colour taking me by surprise on a rough street, a street
I liked because it refused to carry me and only grudgingly permitted itself to be
walked upon. Then I stopped in the evening, not knowing where to rest my eyes,
dazzled by the gaiety of the colour, the vibration of the tones, jarring, jostling, of-
fending and enchanting my eyes. (YW, 146-47)

Although the speaker is assailed just as the sea had been by the houses
(“jarred”, “jostled” by the violence of discordant colours), the sexual
overtones in this passage are clear, and the speaker’s emotions seem
of a different nature; simultaneously shocked and delighted, he is like
a sexual voyeur who has seen more than he had expected (or hoped) to
see. Jean Gassin long ago pointed to sexual voyeurism as a character-
istic of the Camusian hero,11 and “La Maison mauresque” presents
“The Other Question”, Screen 24 (6) 1983, 18-36 (29).
L’Univers symbolique, 179.
34 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

very early evidence of this trait, which functions as a form of control

from a distance through the possession of secret knowledge of the
I have suggested that this imaginary landscape devoid of humanity
is haunted by an Arab population that the speaker and those addressed
in “La Maison mauresque” seek to penetrate and know. Further, at the
heart of this world the fantasy of the harem is embedded, and the am-
biguous image of the Arab woman who is simultaneously available
yet forbidden. This sexual dimension pervades the speaker’s itinerary
through the house, with the sexual connotations of the subtitles
“L’Entrée” (“The entrance”), “Le Couloir” (“The corridor”), and the
house itself. In 1957 Camus cites the remark that Arab architecture is
“l’art d’un peuple efféminé” (“the art of an effeminate people”) (C3,
202), a commonplace idea in 1930s Algeria, and an important compo-
nent of the Orientalist discourse around which this work is con-
structed; the “feminine” becomes a quality of the entire Arab world, in
conjunction with the theme of sexual conquest.
But this fetishistic allusion to the “hidden” woman of the harem,
and the associated disruption of the voyeuristic gaze, is not the only
reference in this work to a woman. Whereas the first is created
through the device of metonymy, the second mention of a woman is,
by contrast, abruptly direct, in the form of an epigraph – the reference
to another work by another writer, seeming suddenly to intrude into
the text from a mysterious elsewhere. This epigraph is a line from Ib-
sen’s The Ghosts, where the dying son, Osvald, asks his mother,
“Mère, donne-moi le soleil” (PC, 215) (“Mother, give me the sun”).
Thus, two contrasting types of woman are opposed in this text: the
sexualized woman of race who is “woven” into and hidden in the text;
and the Nordic white mother, on its surface and out of context.
In an atmosphere of clear ambivalence where claims to power are
subverted by feelings of vulnerability and the awareness of hostility, it
is as if this sudden allusion to another mother and another son is an
evasion back to a certain and fixed point. Homi Bhabha refers to the
“myth of historical origination – racial purity, cultural priority” pro-
duced as a consequence of the ambivalence surrounding the colonial
stereotype. Such desire for a stable and identifiable origin (signified
here by the return to the mother) is threatened, he suggests, by differ-
ences of race and culture.12 In this case it seems that the epigraph per-

“The Other Question”, 26.
Early Confrontations with Others 35

forms a similar function in the face of the Otherness of a resistant

population, for the turn to the mother at this stage seems to authenti-
cate subsequent claims to possession of the Algerian soil. In this early
work, where mention of the mother is made for the first time, we
glimpse, I suggest, the beginning of a development that is to signify
“racial purity, cultural priority”.
I shall develop this point further in the course of this book, because
this particular triangulation where the white, male speaker serves as
the axis point between an occluded “woman of race” (denigrated yet
dangerously fascinating) and the pure, “white” woman (who offers the
sun, life, health and strength) is to recur in L’Étranger. Here, I want
only to say that connotations of purity are far from unambiguous in
this instance, for Ibsen’s play concerns the question of inherited de-
generation as the result of a sexually dissolute life and the transmis-
sion of syphilis from one generation to the next. There, through
biology the sins of the father are visited on the son, via the mother’s
body. The conflicting symbolism of the epigraph indicates, I suggest,
the dual function of the mother figure as, on the one hand, a source of
ambivalence with regard to her physical, human and racial status; and,
on the other hand, as a pure maternal symbol of the “new race” of
European men. Here, as in Le Premier Homme, only as a result of her
intercession can the speaker stand before an Algerian sky that he
claims as his own (PC, 217). I wish only at this point to underline the
intimate conflict between identity and biology, for whatever his aspi-
rations to the status of a god, man is always born of woman, an inheri-
tance not of his own choosing, and via that most “animal” of all forms
of congress.
Woman as a Sexual Partner
The most cursory reading of Camus’s personal notebooks reveals the
extent to which heterosexuality is regarded as a contaminant, a factor
widely noted by scholars.13 But, as the reference to the wife of Jean

See, for example, Raymond Gay-Crosier, “Camus et le donjuanisme”, French Re-
view, XLI (6) (May, 1968), 818-30; Jean Gassin, “Le sadisme dans l’œuvre de Ca-
mus”, Albert Camus 6 (Paris: Minard, 1973), 121-44. Hereafter, this series will be
abbreviated as AC, followed by the relevant volume number. See also Alan J. Clayton,
“Camus ou l’impossibilité d’aimer”, AC7 (1975), 9-34; Édouard Morot-Sir,
“L’esthétique d’Albert Camus: logique de la limite, mesure de la mystique”, in Albert
Camus: Œuvre fermée, œuvre ouverte?, Cahiers Albert Camus 5, Raymond Gay-
Crosier and Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi (eds) (Paris: Gallimard, 1985) 93-113; Anthony
Rizzuto, Camus: Love and Sexuality.
36 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Perès in “L’Hôpital du quartier pauvre”, or the later celebration of

masculinity in Noces make clear, the male body is not the site of such
ambivalence. Latent sexual insecurities discernible in “La Maison
mauresque” are likewise present in the fairy story “Le Livre de Mé-
lusine”, which Camus gave to his first wife, Simone, in December,
1934. The couple had been married for six months, and the work is
marked by a personal, playful and highly intimate tone that reflects its
autobiographical nature. Indeed, when Camus first met Simone she
had been nicknamed “Nadja” after André Breton’s heroine, who, in
her madness, had believed herself a modern reincarnation of the leg-
endary Mélusine.14
The story of Mélusine can be traced back at least to the twelfth
century, and there are a number of variations on this myth. Mélusine
was born of a fairy mother and a human father, but she had been
cursed by her mother, so that every Saturday she became half-woman,
half serpent. Only through marriage to a human might she escape this
eternal punishment, become mortal, and die naturally. But the lifting
of this curse depends on her husband’s never discovering her secret. If
he does so, then Mélusine will reassume the body of a serpent for all
time and he will never see her again. In a forest glade by a fountain
Raimondin meets three beautiful women, one of whom is Mélusine,
and she promises to bring him wealth and power if he marries her, but
on condition that he will take an oath never to try and see her on a
Saturday. The couple marry, have many sons, and are happy until,
through jealousy, Raimondin breaks his oath and spies on his wife as
she is bathing in her hybrid form. Mélusine is instantly transformed
into a serpent and leaves Raimondin’s house, never to return.
The forest glade and fountain provide the setting for Camus’s story
and, as in the original, the male character (there, Raimondin, here a
child) is finally left alone after the fairy’s transformation or “death”.
The reference to this particular myth as the title for Camus’s fairy
story seems an unfortunate one, and it is tempting to speculate about
what latent problems in this ill-fated early marriage are revealed in
this text. Whereas in “La Maison mauresque” the material for artistic
elaboration had been an inanimate object, in this case the choice of
subject matter is based on a living woman and sexual partner. Yet,
although it might be said that the young writer is moving gradually
into a real world of Others, this is here achieved through her abstrac-

Herbert Lottman, Albert Camus: a biography (London: Axis, 1997), 63.
Early Confrontations with Others 37

tion from that reality to place her in a fairy-tale world entirely of the
narrator’s imagination.
Like the Arab house, Mélusine is the means of arriving at a “com-
munion” in which she does not participate because, despite the appar-
ent indication of the title, the subject of the fairy story is not Mélusine
but the narrator himself, his inventive powers and his aspirations. Like
a child with a doll’s house the narrator is God in his own small uni-
verse. Here for the first time, and as distinct from the implied reader
of “La Maison mauresque”, the reader is drawn into the text in a com-
plicit “we” which creates a division between “us” and others who be-
long to the mundane “insolence” of the everyday world (PC, 257). But
(in a clear parallel with the Interlocutor of La Chute) this complicity is
a necessary component of the power of the speaker, which demands
the presence of a compliant and unspeaking “you” to whom he may
address himself. It is a demonstration of his power that he is able to
predict and forestall the reactions and possible objections of the lis-
tener, whose child-like gullibility is assumed as she is warned against
giving credence to what others may say about fairy stories (PC, 257).
Here, the theme of evasion from the “real” world continues and, al-
though the speaker insists that the fairy must have a human dimension,
for “que nous ferait une fée qui n’aurait rien d’humain?” (“what good
would a fairy be if there were nothing human about her?”) he makes
no attempt to provide her with any more “human” functions (PC,
259). Her most important activity will be to await the intervention of
those destined never to arrive; Mélusine is no more than the object of
a quest, a function confirmed by the initial refusal to grant her the in-
dividuality of a name: “la recherche des noms ou des titres suppose de
grandes qualités inventives. Que je n’ai pas. Donc, et pour plus de
simplicité, j’appellerai cette fée: Elle” (PC, 257-58) (“the search for
names or titles supposes great inventive qualities. Which I don’t have.
Therefore, and for greater simplicity, I’ll call this fairy: She”). The
signifier “Elle” appears only the empty incarnation of the desires and
fantasies of others who seek precisely this absence. The quest is un-
dertaken by two other characters introduced into the story – a cat and
a knight, who seem to symbolize a conflict between sexual desire and
a higher goal which can perhaps be identified as more truly masculine.
I use this term because such are the implications of the description of
the knight, redolent of a phallic power directed towards a higher des-
tiny. The phallic imagery is easily discernible in the text:
38 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Mais déjà, sous ma plume, le chevalier s’avance, armé avec sa gloire. (…) Il est
droit sur sa selle et l’obliquité de sa lance accuse sa propre rigidité. (PC, 259)
But already, beneath my pen, the knight is advancing, armed with his glory. (…)
He is upright in his saddle, and the slant of his lance emphasizes his own rigidity.
(YW, 183)

The first words lend an inexorable inevitability to his march and its
purposeful masculinity. The previous line had suggested there was an
element of choice about which character should intervene in order to
rescue the fairy from her inherent narcissism; the choice makes itself,
however – but only with the help of “ma plume”, whose phallic lines
merge with those of knight and lance, thus producing an identification
between writer and knight as one symbol of male authority is reflected
and intensified by the other. But the knight is ultimately to choose a
“grand highway” leading off to the sky, instead of the “little pathway”
leading towards Mélusine. There, “il peut continuer sa route sans bais-
ser sa lance, comme il l’aurait fait dans la petite allée pour éviter les
basses branches” (PC, 263) (“he can continue his route without lower-
ing his lance, as he would have done in the little pathway to avoid the
low branches”). This choice between an essentially masculine duty
and the emasculating temptations of the sexually seductive female
which threaten to weaken or immobilize masculine power permeates
Camus’s writings, so that it is no surprise to find it in the first piece of
writing whose subject is an attractive woman.
Thus sexual desire is retained and transformed to the greater glory
of the knight and his destiny – from whom the speaker is careful to
protest his difference. Yet, in the case of the cat with whom the narra-
tor later compares himself, this same desire is likewise contained, but
towards the goal of its own pleasure, magnified and kept alive through
Il est heureux car il attend le bonheur. Je l’aime d’être heureux sans le savoir.
Toujours je le voudrai ainsi. Et puisque je le veux, à chacun de ses pas, les loin-
tains feuillages reculent d’autant. Et sans qu’il le sache jamais, éternellement no-
tre chat vivra dans l’attente et dans la crainte. Il n’atteindra jamais la fée; car
comment l’atteindrait-il mieux qu’en espérant? (PC, 263-64)
He is happy, for he is expecting happiness. I like him to be happy without know-
ing it. I should like him always thus. And since I wish it, with each step he takes,
the distant foliage falls back in the same proportion. And without ever knowing it,
our cat will live eternally in expectation and in fear. He will never reach the fairy;
for how could he achieve her better than in anticipation? (YW, 186)
Early Confrontations with Others 39

Necessarily, then, the narrator and the fairy do not have the same de-
sires, because his pleasure lies in the power he holds over his crea-
tions; his satisfaction rests in the frustration and control of hers, a
feature evident elsewhere in the text. By herself, Mélusine creates
“des contes d’homme” (PC, 258) (“man stories”), and he comments
that she would no doubt wish one of them to come along. However,
this is precisely what he refuses her. His control over her is an integral
part of his pleasure, at the expense of any mutuality. But the very
presence in this text of another voice, albeit a silent one, may be de-
stabilizing – a problem that likewise surrounds the monologue of La
Chute. The fact that a listener is incorporated into the fairy story offers
the possibility of dialogue. Even though the narrative constantly closes
off such possibilities, this attempt to monopolize control entails the
simultaneous recognition of the Other’s possible autonomy, and that
she might not share his interest.
The very fact that the fairy and the narrator are posited as children
in a fairy-tale land suggests the impossibility of sexual consummation.
Although this may be seen as the result of the narrator’s will, it is pos-
sible that the reverse might be the case; a feared impossibility of sex-
ual consummation may have resulted in this compensatory world of
childhood, and the accompanying transference of pleasure into puni-
tive abstention. This underlying fear of impotence is reflected in the
portrayal of the knight, for whom attempted entry into the “petite
allée” may not only represent fear of the loss of phallic power, but
also fear of its revelation as power-less. Likewise, the cat is frozen
into seeking, without ever having to act upon his desires.
It is not surprising that no external intervention takes place, for al-
though the fairy’s narcissism is an intrinsic part of her attraction it is a
major obstacle to the possibility of her desiring anyone except herself.
In spite of the narrator’s earlier insistence that some form of external
intervention is necessary to prevent her self-preoccupation (PC, 259),
it is not at all clear that she needs to be rescued. Her narcissism con-
tains the threat that she simply would not be interested, a suspicion
underlined by the eventual choice of her name and its phallic over-
tones. Half woman, half serpent, Mélusine is perhaps sufficient unto
herself. Moreover, in a further echo of Ibsen’s Ghosts, the hybrid body
of the legendary Mélusine bred only deformed children. Thus, the ap-
parent self-confidence of the text reveals underlying insecurities that
threaten to undermine authorial control. The only intervention certain
to have any effect on Mélusine is death itself, which subsequently al-
40 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

lows a concentration on the narrator, who supersedes the fairy in the

final section of the work. Through her death the narrator, as a child,
achieves the form of communion spoken of in “L’Art dans la com-
munion”, confirming Mélusine’s status as being (like art itself) a vehi-
cle for arriving at the divine.
“Le Livre de Mélusine” is the only example in Camus’s work
where a woman seems to be specifically addressed as listener, and the
resulting “we” is founded on an insecurity. I commented earlier on the
monologic quality of the Écrits de jeunesse; dialogue entails the par-
ticipation of at least one other voice whose autonomy and therefore
unpredictability are a necessary ingredient of that Otherness. But these
very qualities seem to threaten the author’s fictional universe to an
unusual extent. I have already noted tropes of fragmentation in “Intui-
tions”, where the unity of the Self appears to depend on the disintegra-
tion of the outside world, and vice versa. A related phenomenon
occurs in La Mort heureuse when the protagonist, Patrice Mersault, is
tempted to confide in his friend Bernard, until their conversation alerts
him to the fact that they are not of like mind. At this discovery, “Il lui
semblait insupportable qu’une partie de lui jugeât l’autre” (MH, 184)
(“It seemed unbearable to him that one part of himself might judge the
other”). In 1964 Brian Fitch suggested that Meursault’s unease with
regard to Others in L’Étranger stems from his inability to conceive of
another consciousness which is not his own: Meursault can only ac-
commodate this awareness of others by assimilating them into his own
consciousness – as in the case of the young journalist who is staring at
him in the courtroom, an incident he can only interpret as equivalent
to being looked at by himself. Although Camus’s earlier writings were
not then available to Fitch, they certainly confirm his general observa-
tions about Camus’s “egocentric and solitary universe”.15 However,
although this general problem with respect to other men is to remain
in Camus’s writings, and has often since been remarked upon, it finds
a partial resolution in the procedure adopted by Meursault with respect
to the young journalist; other men seem to become projections of the
Self, and for this reason Camus is able to incorporate others in a uni-
versalizing vision in his later works. But the problem of the Other is
resolved here only with respect to the male settler community; the

Le Sentiment d’étrangeté chez Malraux, Sartre, Camus et Simone de Beauvoir (Pa-
ris: Minard, 1964), 212, 217.
Early Confrontations with Others 41

treatment of women is quite distinct from this, for they cannot be as-
similated in the same way.
Women in the Real World
I have examined Camus’s early attitudes towards others in general and
suggested that issues of sexuality and race reveal a vulnerability that
undermines the artist’s control over his fictional universe. Difference
is revealed as a significant obstacle to the project of peopling the
world in the writer’s own image. I now propose to consider the earli-
est attempts to depict women as individuals in a “real” world, and here
I shall focus (as does the writer himself) on the mother figure, whose
treatment serves as an important template for the depiction of Others.
Some of these early portraits of the mother are disturbing, and raise
more questions about their author than about the original model her-
self. For example, the words “elle n’existe plus, puisqu’elle n’est plus
là” (PC, 282) (“she no longer exists, since she is no longer there”) tell
us nothing about her, but a great deal about the consciousness which
cannot conceive that others continue to exist independently when be-
yond the scope of his own surveillance. Again, the writer expresses
his surprise at her ability to act independently in the world, and “il
éprouvait combien les autres la sentaient vivre et il s’étonnait que lui
la sentît si peu vivante, presque comédienne” (E, 1216) (“he sensed
how much others could feel her to be alive, and he himself was sur-
prised that to him she seemed almost like an actress, devoid of inner
life”). Thus is this figure deprived of a humanity capable of authentic
feeling or suffering. Just as the grandmother is depicted as an actress
in “Le Courage” (PC, 219-21) before and after her death, so here this
woman only appears to be alive. One simulates death and the other
simulates life, each embodying these alien qualities. Such comments,
which suggest that the original model of the actor in Camus’s writings
is female, are nevertheless disquieting, as is the allegation that she is
“incapable de la moindre pensée” (E, 1215) (“incapable of the slight-
est thought”), an observation that can only apply to the dead.
Women most frequently embody a dead consciousness, whether
literally, as in the fragment from 1933, “Devant la Morte”, or figura-
tively, as in the series of portraits Camus attempts in “Les Voix du
quartier pauvre”, dated 1934. Basing himself on plans for these writ-
ings, Roger Quilliot remarks that Camus probably intended in 1935 to
organise his essay around the theme of the mother (E, 1176), an ob-
servation confirmed by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, who notes the theme
42 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

of confession to the mother in a series of unpublished elaborations on

“Les Voix du quartier pauvre”.16 She argues that Camus had planned
to write a novel using these early writings, centred around the theme
of mother and son. Camus himself refers to a projected novel, “le
quartier pauvre”, which he hopes to finish by June, 1935, in a letter to
his friend Claude de Fréminville.17 It seems that after the failure of
this project the majority of the writings in “Les Voix du quartier pau-
vre” were rearranged, modified, and incorporated into L’Envers et
l’Endroit, Camus’s first collection of published essays in 1937. Such
modifications, during which authorial control is reasserted by the
elimination of undermining elements and the reinforcement of this
character’s “strangeness”, offer an insight into the metamorphosis of
this female character. For this reason I propose to consider the Écrits
de jeunesse in conjunction with the appropriate sections from
L’Envers et l’Endroit.18
“Les Voix du quartier pauvre” begins simultaneously with a por-
trait of the mother and a judgement on her; this is “la voix de la
femme qui ne pensait pas” (PC, 271) (“the woman who did not
think”). Hence, the first line asserts the impossibility of such a voice
while insisting on its existence, a paradox that remains unresolved
because her voice is immediately effaced by that of the narrator speak-
ing not her thoughts but his own. The line has a subversive effect,
nevertheless, for we read in anticipation of a voice which is never to
materialise, while drawing attention to the narcissism of the narrator
and his inability to achieve what he had promised. In his first sus-
tained attempt at realism and the depiction of others in the world, then,
Camus begins with a female voice that subverts the intention an-
nounced by the title. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that in
“Entre Oui et Non” this line is suppressed in favour of an unambigu-
ous focus on the narrator himself (E, 23). Nevertheless, the central
characteristic of this woman is that she does not think:
En certaines circonstances, on posait une question à celle-ci: “À quoi tu penses?”
“À rien”, répondait-elle. Et c’est bien vrai. (PC, 273: E, 25)

Albert Camus, ou la naissance d’un romancier (1930-42), Agnès Spiquel (ed.)
(Paris: Gallimard, 2006). See also her “La relation au réel dans le roman camusien”,
in Œuvre fermée, œuvre ouverte?, 153-86. This theme returns, of course, in Le Pre-
mier Homme.
Albert Camus: une vie, 71.
Where two page references are given these refer to “Les Voix du quartier pauvre”
and “L’Envers et l’Endroit” respectively.
Early Confrontations with Others 43

Sometimes, she would be asked a question: “What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” she would answer. And it was very true. (YW, 193)

Here, an otherwise mundane and innocent response is laden with an

unaccustomed, literal significance. The potential multiplicity of mean-
ings inherent in this reply (one of which implies the rejection of the
questioner as confidant) is here reduced to its least likely explanation
and raises the suspicion that for the narrator she should not think. Oth-
erwise, how can her perceived inaccessibility be explained? In Le
Mythe de Sisyphe Camus acknowledges the multiple meanings con-
tained in such an answer, but maintains that only when it is sincere
may it be taken as the first sign of the “absurd” (E, 106).
A further addition in L’Envers et l’Endroit sheds a different light
on the silent mother as the son’s visit to her is recounted. In a passage
of direct speech she makes five out of seven attempts at conversation,
mundane as they are. His two contributions are firstly an invitation
that she should talk about him and his likeness to his father; and sec-
ondly, that she continue to talk about him by commenting on his si-
“Tu t’ennuies? Je ne parle pas beaucoup?”
“Oh, tu n’as jamais beaucoup parlé.”
Et un beau sourire sans lèvres se fond sur son visage. C’est vrai, il ne lui a jamais
parlé. Mais quel besoin, en vérité? À se taire, la situation s’éclaircit. Il est son fils,
elle est sa mère. (E, 29)
“Are you bored? Don’t I talk much?”
“Oh, you’ve never talked much.”
And, though her lips do not move, her face lights up in a beautiful smile. It’s true,
he has never talked very much to her. But did he ever really need to? When you
keep quiet, the situation becomes clear. He is her son, she is his mother. (SEN, 44)

This conversation challenges the impression of her as the silent one,

yet such is the force of this impression that Herbert Lottman misat-
tributes her words to the son himself.19 Rather than a silent mother, in
this interaction we are presented with a silent son, seen fleetingly
through her eyes.
The irredeemable desolation described in both texts as she sits
alone in the half-light (PC, 274: E, 25) would seem to apply more to
the son’s feelings about her inaccessibility rather than her condition
itself – as a line suppressed from the final version appears to confirm:

“When she asks him whether it bores him that she speaks so little, he replies: ‘Oh,
you never talked much’” (Albert Camus: A Biography), 29.
44 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

“Pourtant, un des enfants souffre de ces attitudes où, sans doute, sa

mère retrouve son seul bonheur” (PC, 274) (“Yet one of the children
suffers over these attitudes in which his mother doubtless finds her
only happiness”). In a crowded household where communication
seems to consist of shouting and swearing (PC, 274: E, 26) one might
speculate that such moments of solitude are with good reason her only
happiness, but the later text allows of no such possibility. Again, al-
though the earlier version states that no-one is present, it is clear that
these moments are known to both the son and the narrator. Although
this inconsistency is subsequently eliminated, it reveals the author’s
difficulty in placing himself beyond the centre of the text; even her
moments of solitude must be known, defined and controlled. But the
very impossibility of such a knowledge, of imagining this character
from the inside and giving expression to her unknown thoughts, is ex-
pressed in the first text by the poignant appeal: “Mais aussi à quoi
pense-t-elle, à quoi pense-t-elle donc? À rien” (PC, 274) (“But also
what is she thinking of, what is she thinking of just now? Nothing.”).
This vulnerable admission of ignorance is replaced in the later text by
the claim to absolute knowledge in the statement which is to fix her
forever: “Elle ne pense à rien” (E, 26) (“She thinks of nothing”).
In each text the inability to depict or decipher her interior life is ef-
faced by a diversion onto the child himself; her consciousness is ab-
sorbed by his and the focus is on his emotions rather than hers. The
child is an invader who intrudes upon and appropriates her moment of
“arrêt” (“pause”). While the focus is on his mixed emotions, her
words indicate her own, revealing a relationship of mutual fear; just as
he had been afraid at the sight of her, so the situation is reversed when
she is startled by him, this strange child who had been standing for
“long minutes” in the darkness covertly spying on her. The theme of
invasion linked with voyeurism which was apparent in “La Maison
mauresque” has here a direct parallel with the mother and her secret
soul. Likewise, the feared rejection implicit in that earlier work is here
confirmed by her brusque dismissal of him: “Il a l’air idiot à la re-
garder ainsi. Qu’il aille faire ses devoirs” (PC, 274: E, 26) (“He looks
stupid standing there looking at her. He should go and do his home-
work”). As in “Mélusine”, her inacessibility raises the possibility that
the son is himself superfluous in this secret universe – a suspicion to
which the writer refers explicitly in Le Premier Homme when, having
embraced her son on his arrival, she turns away:
Early Confrontations with Others 45

(E)lle semblait ne plus penser à lui ni d’ailleurs à rien, et le regardait même par-
fois avec une étrange expression, comme si maintenant, ou du moins il en avait
l’impression, il était de trop et dérangeait l’univers étroit, vide et fermé où elle se
mouvait solitairement. (PH, 58-59)
(S)he no longer seemed to be thinking of him, nor for that matter of anything, and
she even looked at him from time to time with an odd expression, as if – or so at
least it seemed to him – he were now in the way, were disturbing the narrow,
empty, closed universe which she circled in her solitude. (FM, 44)

Le Premier Homme sheds more light on the links between aggression,

voyeurism and love already apparent in these early writings – for there
the only evidence of love is in those private moments and glances that
the child must appropriate and upon which he must impose his own
desired meaning. “The mother is not a source of love”: it must be sto-
len from her.
In the scene where she sits alone the child is an intruder who seems
perceived by her as a hostile presence, and I have suggested that, al-
though by no means the only emotions, this fear and hostility may be
mutual. Not only is he uncertain of his love for her: “Il a pitié de sa
mère, est-ce l’aimer?” (PC, 274) (“He feels pity for his mother, is that
love?”), but in another fragment describing the same scene she is de-
picted as staring “abnormally” at the floor (E, 1215), which, if not di-
rectly hostile, is certainly a negative portrayal, as is the reference to
her “caractère étrange et presque surnaturel” (“strange and almost su-
pernatural character”) recorded by Jean Sarocchi in his notes on La
Mort Heureuse (MH, 219). An added parallel in “Entre Oui et Non”
makes explicit what was suppressed in this first encounter as the nar-
rator relates the incident where he is called to her bedside after her
assault. This scene follows the former one and is linked by a reference
to the outside world and the Arab café owner, “dans son coin, toujours
accroupi” (E, 26) (“still crouching in his corner”). In the first episode
it was the son who had surprised the mother, an incident that had led
to a “temps d’arrêt, un instant démesuré” (“moment of pause, a meas-
ureless instant”) appropriated by him alone, and behind her back; here,
it is a stranger who had crept up from behind and assaulted her as she
sat at the window.20 The second scene repeats the first as she sits
alone, lost in her vacant thoughts, while behind her the sky darkens.

Lottman reports that the actual assault on which this account is based was widely
believed to have been carried out by an Arab (Albert Camus: a biography, 29). Al-
though there is no hint of that in this fictionalized version, an Arab is here linked
symbolically with the mother.
46 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The intrusion emanates from a different source but results in what was
previously denied to the son; here, aggression leads to a demonstration
of her need for him. We are shown a second moment of “arrêt” when
the son spends the night on his traumatized mother’s bed, and which,
elaborating on the earlier scene, stresses more explicitly the feeling
that they are “alone against everyone”. Previously, she had sent him
away, but now she is unconscious and dependent; while the “others”
sleep, these two breathe in the same fever:
Lui ne s’était jamais senti aussi dépaysé. Le monde s’était dissous et avec lui
l’illusion que la vie recommence tous les jours. Rien n’existait plus, études ou
ambitions, préférences au restaurant ou couleurs favorites. Rien que la maladie et
la mort où il se sentait plongé… Et pourtant, à l’heure même où le monde croulait,
lui vivait. (E, 27)
He had never felt so cut off from everything. The world had melted away, taking
with it the illusion that life begins again each morning. Nothing was left, neither
studies, ambitions, preferences in a restaurant or favourite colours. Nothing but
the sickness and death in which he felt himself plunged… And yet, at the very
moment when the world was crumbling, he was alive. (SEN, 42)

Once more the Self attains unity at the expense of the outside world,
except that here the mother is incorporated, no longer a person in her
own right but becoming “l’immense pitié de son cœur, répandue aut-
our de lui, devenue corporelle et jouant avec application, sans souci de
l’imposture, le rôle d’une vieille femme pauvre à l’émouvante desti-
née” (E, 27) (“the immense pity of his heart, spread out around him,
made flesh, and diligently playing, with neither posture nor pretence,
the part of a poor old woman whose fate moves men to tears” (SEN,
42-43) ).
Further changes to “Entre Oui et Non” intensify the presentation of
the mother as strange and unnatural. The first person consciousness is
given increased reality by the introduction of a physical location in a
world where others exist independently – an Arab café overlooking
the sea. This device also allows the passage of a present “real” time in
conjunction with the memory of the past. In this present time sits the
Arab café owner, silently watching the speaker; later, he indicates that
he is going to close. Yet this silent presence intensifies certain reso-
nances of the original text, for he too is unknown to the narrator,
equally impenetrable and alien. The description of the café’s walls
with its yellow lions and sheikhs underlines the Otherness of his cul-
ture, while his very physical position, “crouching” in a corner, and his
eyes which “shine” in the dusk (E, 24), link him textually to the theme
Early Confrontations with Others 47

of animality that runs through the essay. The grandmother has an

“animal” pride (E, 25); her daughter returns to her with “docility” (E,
25) after her husband’s death; and the child is afraid of his mother’s
“animal” silence (PC, 274: E, 25).
Such references are intensified by the addition of an anecdote con-
cerning a mother cat and her kittens. It is probable that the incident on
which this was based happened in April, 1936, when Camus wrote to
his friend Marguerite Dobrenn that his own cat had died, and he had
found its rigid body in the middle of a pool of urine.21 In “Entre Oui et
Non”, the cat is unable to feed her kittens and they die one by one.
One evening the narrator finds the last one dead and half-eaten by its
mother. Although this story transparently suggests that the mother
herself was incapable of giving emotional nourishment to her children
and was destroying their normal development, the textual link is made
between mother, Arab and female cat in the lines:
Il sentait déjà. L’odeur de mort se mélangeait à l’odeur d’urine. Je m’assis alors
au milieu de toute cette misère et, les mains dans l’ordure, respirant cette odeur de
pourriture, je regardai longtemps la flamme démente qui brillait dans les yeux
verts de la chatte, immobile dans un coin. (E, 28)
It already stank. The smell of death mingled with the stench of urine. Then, with
my hands in the filth, and the stench of rotting flesh reeking in my nostrils, I sat
down in the midst of all this misery and gazed for hour after hour at the demented
flame shining in the cat’s green eyes as she crouched motionless in the corner.
(SEN, 43)

This repetition of the location “in the corner”, and the reference to the
“demented flame” shining in the cat’s eyes retrospectively reinterprets
the mother figure (and the Arab), who becomes not simply “strange”
but threateningly alien, even further removed from the implied com-
mon humanity of reader and narrator constructed by the universal
Although the cause of great anguish, the perception of the mother
as a dead consciousness is ultimately to facilitate her elevation into a
symbol. Moreover, it aids her absorption into the consciousness of the
writer. Another extract from a related fragment reinforces this view of
the mother as an extension of the Self:
Le vivant, le cœur de lui-même était ailleurs, dans cette chambre de bonne où sa
mère travaillait. Il savait bien d’ailleurs, à réfléchir plus avant, que ce n’était pas
encore sa mère, qu’elle n’était là que pour l’aider à s’opposer à ce nouveau lui-

Albert Camus: une vie, 105.
48 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

même si gravement et si lentement construit. Pour l’instant elle n’était qu’un ins-
trument, il se servait d’elle contre lui-même et ce qui l’entourait. (…) Déjà il sa-
vait que sa mère n’était qu’un symbole. Derrière elle des souvenirs se massaient.
Elle était le reflet de cette misère autrefois si dure et maintenant comprise et jugé
à sa valeur… (E, 1214)
His living being, his very heart was elsewhere, in that maid’s room where his
mother worked. Besides, he knew full well on further thought that it still wasn’t
his mother, that she was only there to help him to oppose this new self, so care-
fully and slowly constructed. For the moment she was only an instrument, he was
using her against himself and his surroundings. (…) Already he knew that his
mother was only a symbol. Behind her, memories piled up. She was the reflection
of that misery once so harsh and now understood and valued at its worth…

The insistence, here and elsewhere, on the mother figure as a tool, an

instrument in the hands of the narrator, enabling him to follow his
own designs, returns power to the Self. Her silence, her apparent lack
of an interior life, authorize her transformation into a symbol – but all
on condition that she does not speak.
Women, Death and an Absurd Sensibility
During the course of this chapter I have several times noted the theme
of death, associated with women. Whereas the men of “L’Hôpital du
quartier pauvre” contemplated their own demise, the actual experience
of death is beyond their knowledge and can only be illustrated through
the deaths of others. The death of the subject signals the loss of all
consciousness and autonomy, whereas the death of the Other concen-
trates all power in the one left behind. The first reference to death in
these writings is at the Arab cemetery of “La Maison mauresque”
where “la seule vertu du silence et de la paix leur apprenait
l’indifférence” (PC, 213) (“the sole virtue of the silence and the peace
was teaching them indifference”). Previously the inhabitants of the
Casbah, outlined metonymically, had been perceived as a discordant
and threatening presence; now, in their final resting-place, even the
Arabic inscriptions on their graves are reassuring, because impossible
to understand (PC, 212). Life, language, and possible threat are extin-
guished, leaving the unquiet conqueror22 as the sole consciousness and
interpreter, unchallenged.
Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi has pointed out that many of the observa-
tions in the Écrits de jeunesse prefigure Le Mythe de Sisyphe, and she
sees in “la voix de la femme qui ne pensait pas” the first awareness of

I have borrowed this term from Camus’s “Misère de la Kabylie” (E, 938).
Early Confrontations with Others 49

the Absurd. She further suggests that Camus writes about death as a
way of escaping his obsession with it, and to give himself the illusion
of escape.23 Similarly, Alain Costes, who had not read the Écrits de
jeunesse, suggests that Le Mythe had a therapeutic value for Camus,
who, by projecting his own conflicts onto the “screen” of philosophy,
wrote it as a means of overcoming the temptation to suicide.24 For
Costes, Camus’s entire literary activity is motivated by the uncon-
scious desire to make his mother speak; to speak to and about his
mother, so that she will speak to him, and in the extracts from “Les
Voix du quartier pauvre” reproduced in the Essais he discovers an
unconscious desire to find an appropriate language for this woman.25
Indeed, the anguish produced by the silence of the mother is beyond
doubt, but it does not seem to me that attempted communication with
the mother is the fundamental problem here. Rather, her silence and
her supposed incapacity for thought are necessary requirements for
her transformation into a symbol in Camus’s future literary produc-
tion. Her actual speech subverts narratorial claims to knowledge,
while the inability to imagine her thoughts, which reveals a non-
omniscient narrator, is replaced by the insistent, if unconvincing cer-
tainty that she does not think.
Without wishing to reduce the Absurd to the status of a family
drama, I believe it pertinent to a consideration of the treatment of
women in Camus’s works to point out the extent to which aspects of
the youthful writings prefigure comments about the Absurd in the later
Mythe de Sisyphe. There is in these early works a constant association
between women, death and an absurd sensibility. Many of these asso-
ciations are most clearly applicable to the mother-son relationship, as
when Camus writes in Le Mythe that “l’absurde naît de cette confron-
tation entre l’appel humain et le silence déraisonnable du monde” (E,
117-18) (“the Absurd is born of this confrontation between human
need and the irrational silence of the world”). Again, although Camus
attributes to others the feeling that what he fails to understand is “sans
raison. Le monde est peuplé de ces irrationnels” (E, 117) (“lacking in
reason. The world is peopled with such irrationals”), this flawed logic
is clearly followed by the son with respect to his mother. But although
the “hostilité primitive du monde” (E, 108) (“primitive hostility of the

La naissance d’un romancier, 182.
Albert Camus et la parole manquante, (Paris: Payot, 1973), 106, 108, 135.
Ibid., 127, 132.
50 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

world”) may initially reside in the mother figure, the impenetrability

of the colonized population and women in general likewise incorpo-
rates a threatening potential which distinguishes them from the Euro-
pean male community.
“Le climat de l’absurdité est au commencement” (“The climate of
absurdity is at the beginning”), finding its initial focus primarily in the
mother figure and in those groups whose difference threatens the ob-
server with superfluity – of being de trop and of disturbing the Other’s
narrow, empty and closed universe (PH, 59). “La fin, c’est l’univers
absurde” (E, 106) (“The end is the absurd universe”). Camus’s subse-
quent formulation of the Absurd finds its initial impetus in early pre-
occupations with death which find their concrete model in the female
body. During the process of Camus’s artistic development the specific
gradually comes to signify a “universal” condition; man’s recognition
of his mortality gives birth to lucidity and the heroic awareness of the
Absurd. Nevertheless, as in the case of Mélusine, woman remains the
verb in this process (PC, 266), her death functioning as a source of
these intimations of mortality which remain unavailable to her as sub-
In “Entre Oui et Non” the mother as a symbol of poverty and
childhood substitutes for the depiction of an actual woman. However,
although representing the beginnings of a resolution of the narrative
difficulties inherent in her depiction, this is not a suddenly acquired
symbolic status, nor a form of artistic decision on the part of the au-
thor, for it is clear that from the very earliest writings woman has the
status of an instrument and symbol. The moment of communion de-
picted in “Entre Oui et Non” is a continuation of the earlier project of
transforming and elevating the everyday to the status of art, the con-
templation of which leads to “the divine”.
Chapter 2
The Death of Woman and the
Birth of Culture

The image of the dead woman is to recur throughout Camus’s writ-

ings, but during the early phase it is foregrounded to such an extent
that Jean Sarocchi calls it an obsession (MH, 210). A similar phe-
nomenon has been noted by A. James Arnold in his research on the
early versions of Caligula, where he remarks that the subsequently
effaced theme of the dead woman, so crucial to the genesis of this
play, has been generally overlooked: to a far greater extent than in
L’Étranger, the death of a woman sparks off the action of the 1938-41
versions of Caligula (CAC 4, 134). This notion of a woman’s death as
leading to some form of awakening for the always male onlooker, and
setting in motion a series of other, more significant events, is a feature
of Camus’s early writings in particular. The most striking example of
this is, of course, in L’Étranger, but it is my intention here to examine
those writings that predate this novel in order to investigate the
mechanism by which Camus moves onto the universal level at which
that novel has been read.
In linking the death of woman with the birth of culture and of the
artist in this chapter, I am seeking to outline the particular trajectory
through which Camus moves from a concentration on specific prob-
lems of interpretation and depiction to a more general and universal
plane. Camus’s reputation is indissociable from his concern with a
universal human condition, although this status has been challenged in
the years since his death, in particular by those writing from the per-
spective of French colonialism.1 At the same time, I want to reinte-
grate the question of women into the general framework of Camus’s
developing ideas concerning the collective identity of the French Al-
gerian community. In doing so, I will return to those issues raised in
chapter 1 surrounding the question of “historical origination – racial

See, for example, Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994);
Azzedine Haddour, Colonial Myths: History and Narrative (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2000).
52 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

purity and cultural priority”. Through an examination of the historical

conflicts surrounding the meaning of assimilation, I shall attempt to
outline its contradictions within the Algerian setting – for the collec-
tive identity embraced by Camus in the writings up to 1938 is specifi-
cally French Algerian, and although he was never directly to address
this issue, the symbolic role of women in the “virile” society he por-
trays can be readily discerned.
I shall argue that this shift of level is accomplished through the ex-
clusion of women as thinking, conscious beings from the Camusian
universe. Woman is translated into a dead consciousness, carrying the
burden of death in a process that entails far more than a simple sup-
pression; it is rather a necessary condition for the rebirth of man and
the birth of culture. Whereas in Camus’s early writings there is a con-
stant and repeated attempt to depict the female character, either as a
sexual partner or in variations of the mother figure, his later fictional
writings show a marked absence of focus on women. This suppres-
sion, which coincides with the take-off of Camus’s publishing career,
seems to stand as a founding moment, an essential preliminary to the
birth of the author.
The Death of Woman
The trajectory through which the woman’s death gives birth not only
to her male creator but to the world itself is already apparent in “Le
Livre de Mélusine”. There, the fairy’s death / metamorphosis is in-
strumental to the attainment of a divine “communion” experienced by
the narrator’s double – the child left alone in the forest. In her self-
absorption, it seems that Mélusine is touched by death alone, and this
accounts, perhaps, for the element of pleasure accompanying the de-
scription of her impending death with the coming of night: ‘Habillée
de l’angoisse de ce qui va passer, ma fée est encore plus belle’ (PC,
264) (“Clothed in the anguish of what is going to happen, my fairy is
even more beautiful”). Her death entails a metamorphosis engendering
the earth and life itself:
Du Rêve jaillit l’existence, mais de moins en moins y vit Mélusine. Sous la joie de
la musique, de l’amour et des couleurs se cache Mélusine lentement dégradée, se
connaissant de moins en moins. Le Rêve continue, lentement, jusqu’à l’adoration
de la terre, se courbe. Le monde jaillit encore. Irréelle genèse dont Mélusine est le
verbe. (PC, 266)
Existence springs from the Dream, but Melusina lives less and less within it. Me-
lusina conceals herself beneath the joy of the music, the love, and the colours
slowly diminishing, knowing herself less and less. The Dream continues, slowly
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 53

bowing to adore the earth. The world still springs forth. An unreal genesis of
which Melusina is the verb. (YW, 187-88)

Most importantly, this death engenders the storyteller himself through

a non-biological means of Self-creation: “Indigne, impur, jaillit du
Rêve enfin celui qui conte pour dire Mélusine, seul moyen de s’en
rapprocher” (PC, 266) (“Unworthy, impure, finally springs from the
Dream he who tells the tale in order to speak of Mélusine, the only
means of coming close to her”). As in the case of the mother figure, it
is as if only her destruction and transformation into art will allow the
artist the complete knowledge he seeks. But this total power is one of
monologue. She is superseded in death by the narrator in the character
of a child, her presence dispersed onto music and water. Throughout,
the fairy has been compared with these, described as “immatérielle
musique, phrase libérée d’une âme enfantine” (PC, 258) (“insubstan-
tial music, liberated from a child-like soul”). Her movements are like
those of a stream in which one might:
sentir le courant fuir et rester entre les doigts. Mort de tous les instants suivie de
renaissance. Miracle renouvelé, ce ruisseau. Car c’est la voix de notre fée qui
chantait sans le savoir. (PC, 259)
feel the current flow and stop between the fingers. Death of every moment fol-
lowed by rebirth. Endlessly renewed miracle, this stream. For it is the voice of our
fairy, who was singing without knowing it. (YW, 182)

In her death she becomes mist (PC, 264), her robe a trail of silver mist
across a lake (PC, 266). This imagery later recurs as the child contem-
plates “les ombres vertes, lincueil d’Ophélie” (PC, 269) (“green shad-
ows, Ophelia’s shroud”). The constant theme of eternal regeneration
recalls an earlier essay, “L’Art dans la Communion”, where art is de-
fined as a moment of pause that conquers the fleeting nature of life
itself. Thus, Mélusine becomes the stuff of art itself, and death (as that
aspect of the real that art conquers) is integral to her representation.
However abstract her initial portrayal, she is finally dispersed further
into aspects of the landscape, and the song of the forest heard by the
child in his moment of “communion”. This pattern is later to be dis-
cerned in Noces, where female sexuality is dispersed onto the land-
A similar process might be noted in “La Voix qui était soulevée par
de la musique”, third of the “Voix du quartier pauvre”, where the
woman’s words only have meaning when accompanied by the sound
of music. Art elevates her to the status of a symbol, as
54 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Woman (PC, 281); a process that strips her of her individuality and
consciousness. The meaninglessness of her speech, emptied of its con-
tent, is reinforced by the comment that those listening to her were
moved, not by her words but by this musical accompaniment
(PC, 281). Once more, the woman becomes the unwitting means of
transcendence, or “communion”, for her listeners. In a prefiguration of
the Absurd, we are told that when she leaves:
Elle n’existe plus puisqu’elle n’est plus là. (…) Elle va rentrer dans son noir, après
en être sortie par le miracle d’une musique sotte. Sa vie nous échappe et sa voix se
perd, s’éteint déjà pour nous plonger dans l’ignorance et nous masquer un coin du
monde. Et c’est comme une fenêtre qui se ferme sur le bruit d’une rue. (PC, 282)
She does not exist any longer, since she is no longer there. (…) She is going back
into her darkness, after having briefly emerged because of the miracle of a stupid
tune. Her life escapes us and her voice is getting lost, is extinguished already,
plunging us into ignorance and masking a corner of the world from us. like a win-
dow closing off the noises from the street. (YW, 200-201)

Without the benefit of art, she and her words return to the vacuum of
the irrational from whence they came. The first line of this quotation
prefigures the observation in Le Mythe de Sisyphe that “faire vivre
(l’absurde), c’est avant tout le regarder. Au contraire d’Eurydice,
l’absurde ne meurt que lorsqu’on se détourne” (E, 138) (“keeping the
Absurd alive is above all contemplating it. Unlike Eurydice, the Ab-
surd dies only when we turn away from it” (MS, 53) ). Unlike men,
women incorporate a mysterious secret: knowledge of Mélusine gave
access to the secret of the world (PC, 265, 267). Here, however, “Quel
est donc son secret sur cette terre?” (PC, 282) (“What then, is her se-
cret on this earth?”), a question that returns with repeated insistence
throughout Camus’s early portraits of the mother figure. But in this
Quelque chose d’inconnu, qu’elle porte en elle, déborde son corps pour rejoindre
les autres corps, le monde, quelque chose qui ressemble à une musique ou à une
voix qui dirait la vérité. C’est comme un visage que l’on contemple dans une gla-
ce et qui paraît dégrossi, affiné, plus divin, je veux dire étrange. (PC, 282)
Something unknown that she bears inside flows from her body to join other bod-
ies, the world – something resembling music or a voice that would tell the truth. It
is like a face one contemplates in the mirror, which seems altered, purified, more
divine, I mean strange. (YW, 200; translation amended)

In these youthful writings, such premonitions of the Absurd are inti-

mately associated with female figures. However, traditional associa-
tions between Woman and the emotional and private sphere combine
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 55

to divert attention away from the role of female characters in the con-
struction of the Absurd. Arnold explains changes in the depiction of
Caligula himself through reference to Camus’s changing intellectual
development; initially cast in the mould of the Dionysian hero of
Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Caligula’s subsequent portrayal
reflects Camus’s need to distance himself from Nietzsche (CAC 4,
135). The significance of Drusilla, on the other hand, is explained
through resort to psychoanalysis and the supposed need to elaborate a
process of mourning – a constant feature and recourse of analyses of
the female character in Camusian studies. I draw attention to these
differing types of explanation – the one concerned with intellectual
development and the other with the unconscious and the emotions –
because this reproduces a wider distinction between the traditionally
gendered public and private spheres. The treatment of women is thus
relegated to a personal and affective sphere of the emotions which
seems to discount rational argument.
Yet it is clear that on an intellectual plane Camus continues to be
interested in finding a more general significance to the death of
woman, as opposed to death in general. In 1935 he writes to Claude de
Fréminville of his wish to show the “two faces of the same event”:
Une femme malade, par exemple: exposer alors très simplement. Et puis le conflit
formidable qu’une femme malade, une jeune fille morte crée dans toute conscien-
ce sensible; conflit de l’au-delà – d’orgueil ou de résignation (Claudel). Chaque
événement est aussi susceptible de deux interprétations.2
An ill woman, for example: to be expressed very simply. And then the formidable
conflict that an ill woman, a dead young girl, creates in any sensitive conscious-
ness; a conflict concerning what lies beyond – of pride or of resignation (Claudel).
So each event is susceptible to two interpretations.

Camus’s earliest attempt to confront the problem of death was in two

short pieces, “Devant la Morte”3 and “Perte de l’être aimé” (dated Oc-
tober 1933), an elaboration of that earlier fragment. These two works
serve as a template tracing a movement from concrete depiction in the
former towards abstraction and generalization in the latter, reflecting
the more general process through which women are effaced from Ca-
mus’s writings in favour of a symbolic role.

Albert Camus: une vie, 73.
In the new Pléiade edition of Camus’s collected works, this is entitled “Voilà! elle
est morte”.
56 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

In Le Mythe de Sisyphe Camus remarks that we can have no direct

experience of death beyond the observation of death in others – which
is difficult to apply to ourselves (E, 108). Hence, the recognition of
their own future mortality may bind men together in “L’Hôpital du
quartier pauvre”, but it is “Devant la Morte” that presents death as a
concrete reality, an empirical fact. Legitimately, the focus is not on the
dead young woman (who no longer exists) but on the emotions of the
young man contemplating her, and her most significant characteristic
is that she is now “sans pensée” (“devoid of thought”) (PC, 227) – an
attribute that aligns her with Mélusine and the mother figure. In “Entre
Oui et Non”, by contrast, the mother speaks: she reacts with fear and
hosility to the son’s invasion of her privacy. In their later conversa-
tion, moreover, it is she who comments on his silence (E, 29). Such
factors undermine the insistence that she does not think. Death, on the
other hand, is unambiguous and guarantees the silence of the Other. In
such circumstances she is entirely at the mercy of the one observing
her, and his narcissistic reactions are legitimated by the fact that she
no longer has hopes or fears of her own. Thus, the young man is free
to take the measure of death as he chooses, and to “learn” its lesson:
Il comprenait au contraire que la morte obscurcissait tout un coin de l’avenir, qu’il
voyait maintenant net et lavé comme le ciel après la pluie. De nouvelles aspira-
tions s’élargissaient en lui et lui faisaient une âme neuve et brillante. (PC, 229)4
He understood all too well that the dead woman was darkening a whole corner of
the future, which he now saw washed clean like the sky after rain. New aspira-
tions were expanding within him and making him a new and shining soul.
(YW, 161; translation amended)

From the physical presence of the dead female body lying before the
speaker in “Devant la Morte” we witness in the following essay her
suffusion into a wider and more abstract category of “loss” where the
gendered “la morte” (“dead woman”) becomes a neutral “être aimé”
(“loved one”). “Perte de l’être aimé” is a series of reflections on loss,
of which the loss of the loved one is only one example. This effective
obliteration allows a concentration on the fact of death in general
rather than her death in particular, and attention can be better trans-
ferred to the speaker and his feelings. This loss, moreover, is now
aligned with “incertitude sur ce que nous sommes” (PC, 231) (“uncer-
tainty about what we are”) and the feeling of release her death had

The text here reads “la mort” (“death”), but Lévi-Valensi reads on the original
manuscript “la morte” (“the dead woman”), and I have adopted this correction here.
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 57

brought is here elaborated into a reflection on the shared human con-

dition which partly incorporates the earlier text:
(L)’être aimé obstruait tout un coin du possible, pur maintenant comme un ciel la-
vé de pluie. (…) Quand un intérêt de notre vie s’écroule sous nos pieds, nous re-
portons sur une autre possibilité l’intérêt que nous lui accordions, et de celle-ci sur
une autre et à nouveau, sans désemparer. Incessant besoin de croire, perpétuelle
projection en avant, cette nécessaire comédie, nous la jouerons pendant long-
temps. (PC, 231)
(T)he loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a sky
washed by rain. (…) When some interest in our life crumbles beneath our feet, we
transfer the interest we had accorded it to another possibility, and from this to an-
other, and again, without cease. An incessant need to believe, a perpetual projec-
tion ahead – such is the necessary comedy, and we shall enact it for a long time.
(YW, 162)

As in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, initial ambivalence in the face of death is

transformed into a heroic quest for experience that prefigures that of
Don Juan. The woman’s humanity is erased in favour of the heroic
battle of life itself. Already abstracted, she is here integrated into a
series of natural or existential phenomena which efface her presence.
The original event can then be presented in terms of the reactions of
the one who suffers bereavement, themselves transformed into a form
of bravery which valorizes the individual and justifies his apparently
counterfeit nature.
“Devant la Morte” recalls Le Mythe in a further significant way. In
his grief and anger at being left with only her body, the young man
strikes the cadaver (PC, 228). A variant records:
Il regarda sans bienveillance le corps. Une pensée lui vint qui le fit frissonner: sa
gifle n’avait laissé aucune trace. Vivante, le sang aurait afflué aux endroits meur-
tris. Et puis aussi la bonne complexité d’une révolte aurait jailli. Il alla se laver les
mains. Il sentait au bout de ses doigts la lourde inertie de la tête. (PC, 300)
He looked at the body without kindness. A thought came to him that made him
shiver: his slap had left no trace. Had the body been alive, the blood would have
rushed to the places hit. And then, too, the good complexity of a reaction would
have sprung up. He went to wash his hands. At the end of his fingers he felt the
heavy inertia of the head. (YW, 218)

Although completely at his mercy, the dead woman is also completely

beyond his power – unaware of his presence, impervious to his touch.
I will examine the links between death and pollution in chapter 3, but
here my point is that this remark prefigures not only Caligula’s reac-
tion to Drusilla’s death but also the comment in Le Mythe that “de ce
corps inerte où une gifle ne marque plus, l’âme a disparu” (E, 109)
58 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

(“From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has
disappeared” (MS, 21) ). Clearly, the provenance of the inert body in
Le Mythe can be traced to this early essay, and I suggest that we may
here map the beginning of a process of generalization and universali-
zation that is to culminate in Le Mythe. This operation accomplishes
the obliteration of women as human subjects from the universe of the
The Birth of Culture
I have suggested that from a very early stage in Camus’s writings
woman becomes a symbol in a move that obviates the necessity to
depict her interior life. The transfer of the fact of death specifically
onto women reflects a need on the part of the writer to define and con-
trol his fictional universe; in the face of the perceived impenetrability
of Woman, she is redefined as a dead consciousness. At this formative
stage in Camus’s intellectual development, I want to attempt to inte-
grate the treatment of women into a developing framework of ideas, in
a wider social and intellectual context, and to indicate a relationship
between the subsequent treatment of women and the intellectual rather
than the emotional influences on Camus. The Écrits de jeunesse dem-
onstrate a move away from highly introspective concerns towards a
growing recognition of the outside world, and the desire to bear wit-
ness to the world of “le quartier pauvre”. At this point I want to sug-
gest ways in which some of the earlier conflicts concerning the men of
his own community are resolved. At the same time I want to suggest a
wider significance of death in this intellectual framework.
The aftermath of the First World War led to a profound question-
ing in Europe of the shared values of Western society. A number of
works written at this time were not only questioning Western civiliza-
tion but also attempting a re-assessment of the “primitive” cultures
with which the West had come into contact, in part through the very
process of colonization. What seems certain is that a way of thinking
about the world had been profoundly shaken.5 One major contribution
to this debate was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, first
translated into French in 1924, and in France as elsewhere, an influen-
tial work.

See Raoul Girardet, L’Idée coloniale en France 1871-1962 (Paris: La Table Ronde,
1972), 155.
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 59

Camus was 21 years old at the end of 1934 when “Les Voix du
quartier pauvre” was dated, and was to develop and refine his ideas
during this period, becoming involved in the literary movement later
to be known as L’École d’Alger. Already in 1935 the young Camus
shows an interest in connecting the individual observation of death
with a wider social significance. At the end of that year he mentions to
Claude de Fréminville various writing projects, amongst them
“quelque chose sur l’expérience de la mort – et sa valeur ‘sociale’ –
dans une culture, une civilisation” (“something on the experience of
death – and its ‘social’ value – in a culture, a civilization”).6 The lack
of explanation here suggests that the two had already discussed such
questions, while the apparent distinction between civilization and cul-
ture suggests a Spenglerian influence, if not an actual first-hand
knowledge. In The Decline of the West Spengler was to connect the
fact of death and its social meaning in a manner that is strikingly
reminiscent of both “Devant la morte” and “Perte de l’être aimé”:
We so often find the awakening of the inner life in a child associated with the
death of some relation. The child suddenly grasps the lifeless corpse for what it is,
something that has become wholly matter, wholly space, and at the same moment
it feels itself as an individual being in an alien, extended world. (…) And thus
every new Culture is awakened in and with a new view of the world, that is, a
sudden glimpse of death as the secret of the perceivable world.7

Although there is no evidence that Camus had read Spengler at this

stage (or that he had not), it is probable that he came into contact with
his ideas either through Jean Grenier or his many friends.8 In 1959,
when speaking of Grenier’s influence, Camus again associates the
recognition of mortality with the discovery of culture. Recalling the
impact Grenier’s Les Îles had on himself and his contemporaries when
he was twenty years old, he remembers that they lived a life of sensa-
tions, on “the surface” of the world (E, 1157). Initiating them into dis-
enchantment, Les Îles taught them that these things would perish:
“nous avions découvert la culture” (E, 1158) (“we had discovered cul-
Spengler regarded history as an inevitable process, following an
organic life cycle of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter; hence, cul-
ture is defined as the Spring-time of a nascent people, rooted in the

Albert Camus: une vie, 97.
The Decline of the West, translated with notes by Charles Francis Atkinson, 2 vols
(London: Allen & Unwin, 1971), I, 166-67.
For further associations, see La Naissance d’un romancier, 122-23
60 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

soil and deriving its character from the land on which it develops. In
this argument, civilization is the inevitable organic development of all
culture – its destiny. In the process, however, civilizations become
increasingly dislocated from the soil which gave them birth, becoming
the “most external and artificial states of which a species of developed
humanity is capable, (…) petrifying world-city following mother-earth
and the spiritual childhood of Doric and Gothic”.9 The winter of
Western civilization sets in during the nineteenth century with the
dawn of the megalopolis, the domination of money, the rise of form-
less, nomadic masses, and the formation of “Cæsarism”. Written
shortly before the outbreak of the First World War and announcing
that for the peoples of the “old Europe”, the hour of destiny had ir-
revocably sounded, it is not surprising that The Decline of the West
had such an impact in Europe.
From the other shores of the Mediterranean, however, the culture
Camus and his friends discover is not the dying civilization of the old
Europe, but that of the “new” Algeria, space of the people without a
past (E, 74), the fatherless first men. If Europe is in decay then it is
from Algeria, undergoing the pangs of birth, that hope for the old con-
tinent lies. In this respect Spengler’s ideas only reinforced those al-
ready established in Algeria itself that France, worn out by centuries
of civilization, might be rejuvenated by contact with a vigorous “bar-
barism”.10 The early conflicts of “Intuitions” concerning the men of
Camus’s own community and their “animal stupidity”, find here a
resolution, for these men may be seen as the raw material of a new
and vibrant culture in the making which may perhaps offer hope for
the peoples of the old world. At the same time, Camus finds his own
place as an intellectual and shaper of this new culture:
Le contraire d’un peuple civilisé, c’est un peuple créateur. Ces barbares qui se
prélassent sur des plages, j’ai l’espoir insensé qu’à leur insu peut-être ils sont en
train de modeler le visage d’une culture où la grandeur de l’homme trouvera enfin
son vrai visage. (E, 74)
The opposite of a civilized people is a creative one. These barbarians lounging on
the beach give me the unreasoned hope that, perhaps without knowing it, they are

Ibid., 31.
See Louis Bertrand’s preface to the new edition of Le Sang des races (Paris: Geor-
ges Crès et Cie, 1921), XI. Similar ideas are demonstrated in Le Premier Homme,
reflecting this collective mentality: “il n’y a plus d’hommes en France” (“there are no
more men in France”) (PH, 168).
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 61

modelling the face of a culture where man’s greatness will finally discover its true
visage. (SEN, 88)

In 1937 Camus refers to Spengler’s distinction between civilization

and culture, noting civilization as the fatal final stage of culture (C1,
50). Although this influence has inevitably been noted, its significance
for Camus’s stance towards Europe vis-à-vis the Mediterranean is not
generally appreciated. As the general secretary of the newly-formed
“Maison de la culture” in 1937, Camus’s inaugural address, “La Cul-
ture indigène, la nouvelle culture méditerranéenne” (E, 1321-27) pre-
sents the relationship between peoples and their environment as an
organic one where man expresses himself in harmony with the land
(E, 1322), implying that character is determined by geography – as his
contrast between Europe and the Mediterranean demonstrates. The
men of the South, Camus says, all belong to the same family, and are
quite distinct from the men of the cold North. Camus had spent two
months in Central Europe, feeling a “gêne singulière qui pesait sur
mes épaules” (“singular unease weighing on my shoulders”) which, he
realized, stemmed from the fact that everyone was “buttoned up to the
neck” (E, 1322). Such details, he contends, give meaning to the notion
of a homeland:
La Patrie, ce n’est pas l’abstraction qui précipite les hommes au massacre, mais
c’est un certain goût de la vie qui est commun à certains êtres, par quoi on peut se
sentir plus près d’un Génois ou d’un Majorquin que d’un Normand ou d’un Alsa-
cien. La Méditerranée, c’est cela, cette odeur ou ce parfum qu’il est inutile
d’exprimer: nous la sentons tous avec notre peau. (E, 1322-23)
The Homeland is not the abstraction that drives men to massacre, but a certain
taste for life common to certain people, through which one can feel closer to a
Genoese or a Majorcan than to a Norman or an Alsatian. That’s the Mediterra-
nean, that odour or perfume which it’s useless to try to express: we all sense it
through our pores.

Certainly, it is possible to speak of this “Mediterranean spirit” as a

nebulous feeling of the heart, as does Jean Grenier,11 but this is no
mere sensibility, for Camus’s stance with regard to Europe, the Medi-
terranean, and their respective cultures grows out of an underlying
system of established ideas emanating from the European mainland
but developing their particular character within the Algerian context.
Throughout his life Camus may have distrusted doctrines or ideolo-
gies, just as he may have believed that he was here aligning himself

Albert Camus: Souvenirs (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 125.
62 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

with a certain “taste” for life as opposed to what he called “abstrac-

tion”; but this does not necessarily make it so, and neither does this
mean that he was immune to ideology, as all too many commentators
suggest. It is in the nature of ideology that it be identified as transpar-
ently “true”.
In this network of ideas where Mediterranean culture has virility as
its chief characteristic, we may deduce the place of women who, de-
spite their absence, are not casually overlooked, but allotted a specific
role outside of history and the making of this social world. Woman’s
sphere is the traditional one, rooted in the organic – the family and the
reproduction of the generations. The belief is far more widespread
than Spengler alone that “the man makes History, the woman is His-
tory”.12 For Spengler, as for many others, the feminine:
Is the primary, the eternal, the maternal, the plantlike (…), the cultureless history
of the generation sequence, which never alters, but uniformly and stilly passes
through the being of all animal and human species, through all the short-lived in-
dividual Cultures.13

Although I am obviously not suggesting that Camus derived his views

of gender relations from this source, these comments might easily il-
lustrate the role ascribed to the mother in Le Premier Homme, while
Spengler’s account of the conflict between the two types of history
represented by men and women is likewise applicable to Dora in Les
Justes. In a variant of La Peste Camus is more explicit with respect to
Rieux’s wife:
Elle n’avait connu de la terreur que la séparation, il est vrai. Elle n’avait aucune
idée du monde insensé où il avait vécu (…). Mais tout cela était bien puisqu’elle
était la femme, c’est-à-dire ce qui échappe à l’histoire. (TRN, 2002)
She had known nothing of the terror except for separation, it’s true. She had no
idea of the senseless world in which he had lived (…). But all of that was as it
should be, since she was woman, which is to say that which escapes history.

Although isolated from that other history of men, as the source of the
generations woman is allotted a significant role in the creation and
development of this culture living in the trees, hills and in men (E,
1327). Here, the mystical, organic relationship between a people and
the soil sheds light on the ambivalent first reference to the mother,
noted in chapter 1. There, following Homi Bhabha, I speculated that
this was an indirect reference to origin, both biological and cultural,
The Decline of the West, II, 327.
Ibid., 327-28.
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 63

which raised the difficult and nebulous question of “racial purity, cul-
tural priority”. As far as Camus’s address to the “Maison de la cul-
ture” is concerned, Jean Sarocchi at least has no doubt: “Bref, cela est
affaire de peau. On oserait dire (mais l’auteur de Noces ose le dire) de
race” (“In short, that’s a question of the skin. One might dare to say
(but the author of Noces dares to say it) of race”).14
Racial Purity
The so-called African dimension of Camus’s upbringing was often
stressed by his contemporaries with little regard for the realities of the
situation, but this strongly influenced how this intellectual circle saw
themselves. Emmanuel Roblès recalls that in those days they were all
“unconscious Mediterraneans, almost militantly so”, grouped around
the bookshop of Edmond Charlot.15 In 1960 Gabriel Audisio stressed
Camus’s mixed Spanish and Alsatian origins, commenting that this
same diversity was to be found amongst other French Algerian writ-
ers, given the mixed blood in the European community there,16 while
Jean Grenier writes that it is impossible to understand Camus without
taking into account the exuberant climate and the “mélange des sangs”
(“mixture of blood”).17 Camus also subscribes to such views when,
asserting that Africa begins in the Pyrenees,18 he writes in 1959 that
Emmanuel Roblès is therefore doubly Algerian:
unissant en lui, comme beaucoup d’entre nous, le sang espagnol et l’énergie ber-
bère. On sait assez que cela donne aussi une race d’hommes qui se sent mal à
l’aise en métropole, mais devant qui, aussi bien, les métropolitains se sentent dans
l’inconfort. De même manière, cela donne des œuvres particulières qui (…) se
distinguent aussi par un air de barbarie, parfois subtil, parfois sans apprêts. (E,

“L’Europe, Exil ou Royaume”, in Albert Camus et l’Europe (OFIL, 1995). These
conference papers are available only on floppy disk, and are unpaginated.
“Jeunesse d’Albert Camus”, in Nouvelle Revue Française, “Hommage à Albert
Camus” (March, 1960), 410-21 (413).
“la même diversité se remarque chez les autres écrivains français d’Algérie, parce
qu’il y a de nombreux ‘sangs’ plus ou moins mêlés, chez tous les Européens al-
gériens” (“L’Algérien”, in “Hommage à Albert Camus”, 434).
Albert Camus: Souvenirs, 167.
Such “spiritual” borders might also be found in Jean Hytier’s L’Iran de Gobineau
(Alger: Éditions Cafre, 1939), where his essay “L’Orient de Gobineau” begins with
the comment that the true Persia begins in Isfahan, not Tehran (19). Hytier was in-
volved in the setting up of the review Rivages, and this collection of essays was pub-
lished by Camus and his friend Claude de Fréminville.
64 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

uniting in himself, like many of us, Spanish blood and Berber energy. One knows
well enough that that also makes a race of men that feels ill-at-ease in the me-
tropolis, but in whose presence Metropolitans feel discomfort as well. In the same
way, that engenders works (…) which are distinguished by an air of barbarism,
sometimes subtle, sometimes unvarnished.

Thus, Spanish blood becomes itself an “African” credential, in turn a

qualification for “Algerianity”. Similarly, when Camus wrote in his
“Présentation de la revue Rivages” that “s’il est vrai que la vraie cultu-
re ne se sépare pas d’une certaine barbarie, rien de ce qui est barbare
ne peut nous être étranger. Le tout est de s’entendre sur le mot ‘bar-
bare’” (E, 1330) (“if it’s true that true culture cannot be separated
from a certain barbarism, nothing of what is barbarous can be foreign
to us. It all depends on agreement over the word ‘barbaric’”) this ap-
pears less an opening out towards an indigenous population, or a
“mythical” hope in racial mixture19 than the construction of an appro-
priated identity in which “Africanity” and “barbarism” are crucial in-
dicators of authenticity. Conor Cruise O’Brien has criticized Camus’s
lecture at the “Maison de la culture” on the grounds that his claim of
linguistic unity in the region overlooks the presence of the colonized
population, and that the Mediterranean culture he espouses is a Euro-
pean one.20 But this criticism of Camus’s reference to a new race with
a shared linguistic heritage and origin is misplaced, for in this context
(and French Algerian history) there is no confusion. The indigenous
population simply does not constitute part of this “new culture” to
which Camus refers.
Although Grenier insists on the “mixing of blood” for an under-
standing of Camus, at the same time he notes that there was no mixing
with Arab blood in Algeria, since there were no mixed marriages. Al-
though this had caused some surprise to the Frenchman, he notes that
only retrospectively had Camus himself been surprised by it, during
the Algerian war when he had been studying statistics on the subject.21
According to Jacques Berque, there were no intermarriages, not even
any “bastards” during the 1930s.22 Although exaggerated, his com-
ment reflects the atmosphere of the times. There were on average only
45 marriages a year in the four leading cities of Algeria between 1930-

Jean Déjeux, “De l’éternel Méditerranéen à l’éternel Jugurtha”, Revue algérienne
des sciences juridiques, économiques et politiques, 14 (4) (Dec. 1977), 658-728 (691).
Camus (London: Fontana, 1970), 12, 13-14.
Albert Camus: Souvenirs, 167.
Le Maghreb entre deux guerres (Paris: Seuil, 1962), 341.
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 65

1953, with a drastically reduced rate for Muslim women (who were
not legally allowed to marry non-Muslim men until 1932).23 It is very
surprising that Camus failed to notice this earlier, but suggests that the
notions of “Africanity” and “barbarism” had a purely symbolic sig-
nificance. Audisio saw this new race as still in its early stages, but ar-
gued that the Algerian was already conscious of his unique racial
status. This belief appears to have been genuine – to the extent that in
the early 1950s he was to deny the existence of this new race on the
grounds that there was practically no racial assimilation.24 Other writ-
ers treated the subject of inter-racial relationships, yet, as has often
been pointed out, the colonized population is hardly represented in
Camus’s fictional works, and his protagonists are without exception
“des Blancs toujours, de sang indigène impollus” (“always Whites,
unpolluted by indigenous blood”).25
Le mélange des sangs
My preference for a literal, if awkward, translation of “le mélange des
sangs” as “mixing of the blood” arises out of an attempt to underline
the biological overtones of such terminology. But, as Jean Déjeux
points out, other expressions such as “race”, “people” and “soul” were
also in vogue at the turn of the twentieth century.26 Throughout his life
Camus was to use the terms “people” and “race” interchangeably, and
although he offers no definition, it is certain that he would have re-
jected the overt racism of those such as Louis Bertrand. Nevertheless,
the young man’s use of such words, as in Noces, has an emotive di-
mension in view of the French Algerian context and the political cli-
mate of the 1930s.
Racism was perpetrated on two fronts in the Algeria of the early
twentieth century. The French character of the European population of
Algeria had always been threatened by the large numbers of European
immigrants not of French origin, and in 1889 automatic naturalisation
had been introduced in an attempt to stem this “foreign peril”.27 Dis-

Alf Andrew Heggoy, “Cultural Disrespect: European and Algerian Views on
Women in Colonial and Independent Algeria”, Muslim World 62 (October, 1972),
323-34. As Heggoy points out, it is inconceivable that a process of assimilation was
taking place in view of such statistics.
Cited by Déjeux, “De L’Éternel Méditerranéen à l’éternel Jugurtha”, 687-88, 692.
Le Dernier Camus ou le premier homme, 155.
“De l’éternel Méditerranéen à l’éternel Jugurtha”, 672-73.
Charles-Robert Ageron, Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine (Paris: PUF, 1979) 2
vols, II, 118-33.
66 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

crimination against the néos (as those of non-French origin were

called) ensured that the autochthonous French maintained their supe-
rior position, particularly in an education system which, in 1904, was
practically non-existent for néos.28 Racism was certainly not solely
directed at the colonized population, and questions of racial assimila-
tion concerned primarily this European group. The Spanish in particu-
lar were seen as an inferior race:
Par le sang arabe qui coule dans ses veines (…) par son tempérament fanatique et
brutal, par son indolence, par son fanatisme, l’Espagnol est à demi africain; n’est-
il pas à craindre que, l’action de la race s’ajoutant à celle du climat et lui donnant
plus de force, le peuple algérien ne devienne plus espagnol que français?29
Through the Arab blood running in his veins (…) through his fanatical, brutal
temperament, his indolence, his fanaticism, the Spaniard is half African; is it not
to be feared that, the action of the race contributing to that of the climate and giv-
ing it more force, the Algerian people might become more Spanish than French?

However, given much smaller numbers of women, combined with the

fact that in the Spanish community women outnumbered men until the
turn of the century, mixed marriages within the European group in-
creased. In France, as in Algeria, these alliances began to be seen as
the formation of a new race. In 1898 it was claimed that a new race
was forming in Algeria, whose mentality differed profoundly from
that of France. Although seen as full of initiative and energy, they
were seen as lacking all the finer sensibilities of the French spirit.30
Only after 1914 did the tensions between these races began to allevi-
ate and this new group began to call itself Algerian rather than French,
identifying themselves as separate and distinct from the French
mainland population. The new race of which Camus speaks in Noces
is this European mixture of French, Italians, Maltese, Spanish – those
of the European shores of the Mediterranean. In 1947 he is to write of
Algiers, echoing the views of Louis Bertrand:
Les Français d’Algérie sont une race bâtarde, faite de mélanges imprévus. Espa-
gnols et Alsaciens, Italiens, Maltais, Juifs, Grecs enfin s’y sont recontrés. Ces
croisements brutaux ont donné, comme en Amérique, d’heureux résultats.
(E, 848)

Daniel Leconte, Les Pieds noirs: histoire et portrait d’une communauté (Paris:
Seuil, 1980), 85.
Cited in Les Pieds noirs, 85. Given the Spanish origins of Camus’s own mother, it
will be seen that he had a personal involvement in such ideas.
See Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine, 131.
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 67

The French of Algeria are a bastard race, made up of unforeseen mixtures. Span-
iards and Alsatians, Italians, Maltese, Jews and Greeks have come together there.
As in America this brutal interbreeding has had happy results. (SEN, 133)

Clearly, this new stock is derived from a biological fusion or assimila-

tion that is quite distinct from the assimilation supported by Camus
and his friends on the political and cultural levels. But with respect to
the French Algerians, this emphasis on the mixing of the blood has a
significant status in Camus’s early essays, and denotes a commitment
to the idea that a distinctive new (European) people is in the making.
Cultural Priority
The French civilizing mission, which Camus espoused, was an un-
ashamed assertion of cultural priority. In metropolitan France assimi-
lation was seen as a way of bringing civilization to the Arabs, where
an eventual fusion of the races was envisaged. Consequently, colonial
demands made in the name of assimilation were viewed favourably. In
this view, racial assimilation is a logical consequence of that on the
cultural, educational and political levels. Maurice Viollette discusses
the question of nationality with regard to the illegitimate children of
French soldiers, and asserts that foundlings of mixed race should be
subject to the same laws as are applied in France, and consequently
they should be declared French. Clearly, for Viollette assimilation en-
tails not only a cultural and educational process, but an eventual bio-
logical one also. Unlike Camus in his writings on Algeria, he also
confronts the question of the status of women.31 In Algeria itself,
however, the prospect of a fusion of the two races raised the spectre of
being swamped, obliterated by an overwhelmingly larger colonized
population; for the majority of French Algerians there was no question
of treating Muslims as future French citizens with equal rights to po-
litical representation.32 For the European settlers assimilation referred
to the acquisition of land and property rather than people.33
The conquest itself, under the direction of General Bugeaud, had
been prolonged and brutal. In 1847 de Tocqueville was famously to
report that Muslim society had been rendered more miserable, igno-

L’Algérie vivra-t-elle? Notes d’un ancien gouverneur général (Paris: Alcan, 1931),
382. See also his chapter on “La femme indigène”, 412-18.
Charles-Robert Ageron, Les Algériens musulmans et la France (1871-1919), 2 vols,
(Paris: PUF, 1968), II, 1231.
For a thorough treatment of this subject see Les Algériens musulmans et la France,
I, 3-55.
68 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

rant and barbaric than before the French arrived.34 Bugeaud himself
had no illusions about how to maintain control over the conquered
territory once the military had left; a settlement of soldier citizens.
Settlers from France must be enticed to Algeria by the promise of the
best lands, in Tlemcen, Mascara, and everywhere where there was
plentiful water and fertile land; this was a more important priority than
worrying about who these lands belonged to. Bugeaud’s hopes of
mass French immigration to supplant the indigenous population were
particularly fanciful,35 given what Camus was later to call the “gallop-
ing demography” of the indigenous population (E, 1012), which was
to increase fifteen-fold after 1830.
Founded on the expropriation of native lands, the new European
settlements were necessarily in conflict both with the indigenous peo-
ples and with the assimilationist aims of the French government. Their
wish was to be freed from the restrictions of military law, yet to re-
main under the protection of France. In 1845, the territoire civil was
assimilated to France and given access to French law. But the colonial
conception of assimilation concerned only the French and naturalised
Europeans, who were thus given further advantages.36 Until 1870 Al-
geria was to experience alternating periods of military and civil rule.
Although military government was a source of contention for the set-
tlers, who pressed for full assimilation, the colonized population
feared the prospect of a civil régime which represented the confisca-
tion of their lands, the loss of their traditional laws, and juries of set-
tlers who would decide on their legal claims.37 One reason for the
Kabyle insurrection of 1871 was the generalization of the civil régime
in March, 1870.38 This uprising and its consequent suppression put an
end to this period of instability, marking, according to Ageron, the
definitive defeat of the indigenous population, and the final victory of
the settlers. Brutal reprisals were taken against the Kabyle population,
many of whom were dispossessed of their lands and reduced to pen-
ury. But, as Ageron points out, these acts of dispossession were not
the work of the military, but the first political act of the settlers.39

Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine (1830-1994), Que sais-je? 17-18.
Les Algériens musulmans et la France, vol.1, 53.
Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine (1830-1994), Que sais-je? 22.
Charles-André Julien, Introduction to Les Français d’Algérie, 16.
C.-R. Ageron, Politiques coloniales au Maghreb (Paris: PUF, 1972), 222.
Politiques coloniales au Maghreb, 228-29.
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 69

In Camus’s notes for Le Premier Homme he refers to the insurrec-

tion, but only to emphasise the civilizing mission through the observa-
tion that the first to be killed in the Mitidja was a schoolteacher (PH,
305), who thus acquires a heroic status and an innocence that sit un-
easily in the face of the historical record. Although he was to ac-
knowledge the injustices of colonialism in his journalistic writings he
was ever unwilling to confront the full implications of this particular
aspect of colonial history.
Myths of Origin
Colonial literature in Algeria was to reflect the conflicts surrounding
issues of assimilation and race. In 1895, Louis Bertand, himself an
immigrant from France, was the first to focus on this “new” European
people for whom he created a myth of origin. For Bertrand, the occu-
pation of Algeria is a return rather than an invasion, and the Latin
races of the Mediterranean are picking up a history that predates the
temporary deviation of the Arab occupation. In this view, the settlers
are only returning to a “lost province” of Rome:
Héritiers de Rome, nous invoquons des droits antérieurs à l’Islam. En face de
l’Arabe usurpateur et même de l’Indigène asservi et refaçonné par lui, nous repré-
sentons les descendants des fugitifs, des vrais maîtres du sol, qui débarquèrent en
Gaulle avec leurs réliquaires et les archives de leurs églises.40
Inheritors of Rome, we invoke rights anterior to Islam. In the face of the usurping
Arab and even the indigenous people, subjugated and refashioned by him, we rep-
resent the descendants of the fugitives, the true masters of the soil, who disem-
barked in Gaul with their reliquaries and Church archives.

It is above all in the light of this myth of Latinity that the Mediterra-
nean counter-myth associated with Camus and Gabriel Audisio must
be viewed. While rejecting the racism and developing fascism sur-
rounding the myth of the Latin homeland, the myth of the “eternal
Mediterranean”, using the same terminology, nevertheless substitutes
a Greek origin for that of Rome. In rejecting this Latin ideology, Ca-
mus claims that as far as the Mediterranean is concerned, the error is
to locate in Rome what in fact began in Athens (E, 1321). Thus the
circle around the Charlot bookshop assumed the same discourse con-
cerning the formation of a distinctive new racial mixture and with a
lack of precision that appears to stem from their own confusions.41
Preface to Villes d’or, 9. Cited in “De l’éternel Méditerranéen à l’éternel Jugurtha”,
Ibid., 687-88.
70 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The Mythical Woman

I have suggested that the idea of death, initially associated with
women, gains a symbolic status as it becomes incorporated into a
framework of ideas where man’s recognition of mortality leads on a
personal level to a form of lucidity or éveil (“awakening”); and on a
collective level to a form of cultural awakening. From his earliest at-
tempts to depict the mother figure, moreover, Camus refers to her as
an instrument or symbol. To Brisville he remarked that in Le Premier
Homme he would speak about women for the first time: “Dans ses
livres précédents, les femmes sont, selon lui ‘mythiques’” (“In his
previous books, women were, according to him, ‘mythical’”).42 Nei-
ther then, nor elsewhere, does Camus offer an explanation of what he
means by this term, and it would appear here to be synonymous with
symbol. Although on the level of ideas the role of woman in this or-
ganic culture can be deduced, at this very early stage in Camus’s liter-
ary career it is not surprising that her precise symbolic function
remains unclear. Whereas Camus depicts the social life of men in
“L’Été à Alger”, “Le Minotaure” and “Amour de vivre”, women are
not presented here as subjects, but as the cement of the homosocial
bonds between men.
Monique Crochet and Fernande Bartfeld have noted the importance
of Camus’s attention to Spengler for his development of the mythical
aspects in his work.43 Crochet’s analysis in particular sheds light on
the reasons why Spengler’s observations might be significant for the
treatment of women. She notes Spengler’s argument that the use of
myth in Antiquity corresponded to an a-historical perspective where
“the history of Alexander the Great began even before his death to be
merged by Classical sentiment in the Dionysus legend”.44 As Crochet
points out, for Spengler this represented a move away from notions of
interior evolution, an interpretation which Camus understands as “le
mythe et sa signification antipsychologique” (C1, 100) (“myth and its
anti-psychological meaning”). This perspective justifies the move
away from attempted depictions of the interior life of others, while the

Albert Camus: une vie, 741.
Monique Crochet, Les Mythes dans l’œuvre de Camus (Paris, Éditions universitai-
res, 1973), 45; Fernande Bartfeld, Albert Camus ou le mythe et le mime, Archives
Albert Camus 5 (Paris: Lettres modernes, 1982), 22.
The Decline of the West, I, 8 (cited by Crochet, 45). Such a perspective, Spengler
continues, is impossible for the men of the West. Crochet is referring to a series of
quotations from Spengler made by Camus (C1, 99-101).
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 71

subsequent use of myth and symbol in Camus’s work establishes a

supposedly Greek provenance in keeping with this new culture, and a
distinctiveness from that of Europe.
Thus, early features of the treatment of women begin to find a new
justification on the intellectual level. Woman becomes a symbol of the
earthly delights offered to man, one of the pleasures he must experi-
ence in quantity during his brief stay on the earth:
À l’heure où le goût des doctrines voudrait nous séparer du monde, il n’est pas
mauvais que des hommes jeunes, sur une terre jeune, proclament leur attachement
à ces quelques biens périssables et essentiels qui donnent un sens à notre vie: mer,
soleil et femmes dans la lumière. Ils sont le bien de la culture vivante, le reste
étant la civilisation morte que nous répudions. (E, 1330)
At a time when the taste for doctrines would separate us from the world, it’s not a
bad thing that young men, in a young land, proclaim their attachment to that per-
ishable and essential wealth which gives meaning to our lives: sea, sun and
women in the light. They are the bounty of a living culture, the rest being dead
civilization, which we repudiate.

As part of its perishable wealth, women are banished from this soci-
ety, while constituting that part of the natural world which gives
meaning to the lives of men. As commentators have often noted, na-
ture itself takes on the qualities of a woman, freely available to man;
as in “Noces à Tipasa” man is offered a form of sexual union from
which the female partner has been entirely abstracted.
Nature equals equivalence, Camus notes (C1, 40), an equivalence
that effaces women as subjects:
Chaque année, la floraison des filles sur les plages. Elles n’ont qu’une saison.
L’année d’après, elles sont remplacées par d’autres visages de fleurs qui, la saison
d’avant, étaient encore des petites filles. Pour l’homme qui les regarde, ce sont des
vagues annuelles dont le poids et la splendeur déferlent sur le sable jaune. (C1,
Each year, the flowering of girls on the beaches. They only have one season. The
year after they are replaced by other flower-like faces which, the season before,
were still little girls. For the man watching them, they are annual waves whose
weight and spendour unfurl on the yellow sand.

As an aspect of the landscape, woman is eternally renewed; through

such non-human equivalence she gains a form of immortality that dis-
tinguishes her from men. This is the form of immortality ascribed to
Don Juan’s conquests, each of whom is eternally replaced by the next.
As with the ripe peach in Tipasa (E, 58), women are designed for im-
mediate consumption, after which they are of no further use; they have
72 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

only one season (E, 829).45 Le Mythe presents Don Juan as the heroic
agent of such a harvest, gathering in the grain and burning the after-
math: “ces visages chaleureux ou émerveillés, il les parcourt, les en-
grange et les brûle” (E, 154) (“Those welcoming or wonderstruck
faces, he runs through them, garners them and burns them”).
The conflation of women with nature confers a form of chastity
and purity on this metaphysical sexuality precisely because of the ab-
sence of actual women. Unsurprisingly, the lyrical essays are more
successful in the presentation of women as an extension of the natural
world, as there the focus is on one subjective consciousness, where
viewpoint and narrative voice coincide. In these essays Camus is
spared the necessity of presenting the individual woman and individ-
ual consciousness which the novel form demands. Equally, Camus
comments that when young one is more likely to be attached to a
landscape than a person because a landscape (silent and unresponding)
allows itself to be interpreted (C1, 48). Alan J. Clayton links this ap-
proach to an emotional incapacity on the part of Camus himself: in
order to overcome an incapacity for love, this emotion is transferred
onto a higher level where women become intermediaries between the
Self and the world, a process that permits the avoidance of real contact
with the Other.46 Raymond Gay-Crosier applies a similar argument to
the Don Juan of Le Mythe, which seeks to clarify the right and proper
stance of the Absurd hero towards women and the inanimate world in
which they belong. Furthermore, he extends this “lack of authentic
feelings” to all the heroes of Camus, as well as to the author himself.47
In a long passage that prefigures some of the major themes of La
Mort heureuse, Camus was to write in September 1937 of “cette en-
tente amoureuse de la terre et de l’homme délivré de l’humain” (C1,
75) (“this amorous understanding between the earth and man deliv-
ered of the human”). For Laurent Mailhot, man “delivered” of the
human is delivered above all of woman, sexuality and love.48 This is
Here, the lesson of Nietzsche that the superior man must die “at the right time” is
given a slightly different interpretation with respect to women. Whereas Zarathustra’s
advice is that “one must stop permitting oneself to be eaten when one tastes best”,
Camus’s injunction to women seems to be the reverse. See the section “Of Voluntary
Death” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with an introduction by R. J. Hollingdale (tr.)
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 97-99.
“Camus ou l’impossibilité d’aimer”, AC7 (1975), 9-34 (12).
“Camus et le donjuanisme”, 825-28.
Laurent Mailhot, Albert Camus ou l’imagination du désert (Montréal: Presses de
l’Université de Montréal, 1973), 273.
The Death of Woman and the Birth of Culture 73

the story of Patrice Mersault, hero of La Mort heureuse: delivered of

sexual jealousy, delivered of human vulnerability, but above all deliv-
ered of mortality. Here is the embodiment of pure Will or conscious-
ness, unfettered by social or moral constraints: the man-god.
Chapter 3
The Man-god and Death as
an Act of the Will

Beginning with the youthful writings, the theme of the man-god, the
Artist-god, or the aristocrat is a constant feature of Camus’s work.1 In
Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus points out that for Dostoevsky’s Kirilov
the divinity in question is entirely of this earth. If God exists, then we
must not disobey His will: if He does not exist, we are answerable
only to ourselves:
Pour Kirilov, comme pour Nietzsche, tuer Dieu, c’est devenir dieu soi-même –
c’est réaliser dès cette terre la vie éternelle dont parle l’Évangile. (E, 184-85)
For Kirilov, as for Nietzsche, to kill god is to become god oneself; it is to realize
on this earth the eternal life of which the Gospel speaks. (MS, 98)

By choosing to die Kirilov’s death would be an act of sacrifice, a

“pedagogical suicide” that demonstrates this truth; men would finally
be enlightened and the earth, now peopled by Tsars, would be illumi-
nated with human glory (E, 185). Kirilov believes, not in an eternal
afterlife, but in the eternity of the here and now where, for the enlight-
ened, freedom has no restraints.
The Emperor Caligula, for whom everything is literally permitted,
is likewise a pedagogue, except that he spreads enlightenment by kill-
ing others. His aim is to surpass rather than to equal the gods them-
selves. But the first “pedagogical” death was no suicide, no act of the
unfettered Will. As in “Devant la morte”, the death of a woman is the
first cause of individual enlightenment; as there, the young lover ad-
vances towards the dead woman’s body, which he touches before, fol-
lowing a moment of reflection, he finally turns away (TRN, 11). But
the mighty Caligula has no obligation to play the role of the “broken”
man: this death means nothing, he tells Hélicon, except as the sign of
a greater truth (TRN, 16). Becoming a man (TRN, 26) entails the rec-

For a discussion of this theme with respect to Camus’s approach to the theatre, see
my “Camus and the Theatre”, in Edward J. Hughes (ed.), The Cambridge Companion
to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 67-78.
76 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ognition that all men are “condemned” to death. Of equal significance

is his further conclusion that “Ah! c’est maintenant que je vais vivre
enfin. Vivre, Cæsonia, c’est le contraire d’aimer” (TRN, 28; CAC4,
36) (“Ah! It’s now that I’m finally going to live. Living, Cæsonia, is
the opposite of loving”). The final version of Caligula effaces the un-
derlying stages of this “logic” which equates love with death. In the
1941 version of the play, Caligula remarks that of the woman he
loved, all that remains are his memories and “sa pourriture” (“her rot-
ting (corpse)”) (CAC 4, 34). Of her living body, all that strikes now is
“l’ordure puant que cela est devenu en quelques heures” (TRN, 1761:
CAC4, 36) (“the stinking ordure this became in a matter of hours”),
words which directly precede the above statement that life and love
are opposed.
All men are condemned to die, but women, symbol of this fact,
teach the physical reality of death; decomposition and its stench, the
gradual seeping of bodily fluids into the earth. This reality is not lim-
ited to the female corpse; the sexual act prefigures the cadaver’s lack
of physical integrity:
Tout de même, comme c’est laid d’être jaloux! Souffrir par vanité et par imagina-
tion! Voir sa femme qui ouvre les genoux, qui reçoit dans son ventre le ventre
d’un autre. Faire tourner l’existence d’un amour autour de ces affaires de mu-
queuses! (CAC 4, 55: TRN, 1769)
All the same, how ugly jealousy is! To suffer from vanity and imagination! To see
one’s wife opening her legs, receiving into her body the body of another. To make
the existence of a love turn around these mucous affairs!

This image, also in the context of sexual jealousy, is likewise conjured

up in La Mort heureuse. Here one can certainly trace an emotional
reaction to the infidelity of Camus’s first wife; as Jean Sarrocchi has
pointed out, a vengeful stance towards women is expressed in these
two works.2 But if here the emotional impulse becomes an intellectual
alibi, it must not be forgotten that such links between women and
death predate any history of sexual jealousy. In chapter 1 I suggested
that one source of conflict lies in the relationship between the superior
individual and other men of his community, while woman as biologi-
cal being and source compromises the identity of the individual who

See the section on “Les femmes” in his doctoral thesis, “Le Thème de la recherche
du père dans l’œuvre d’Albert Camus” (Paris IV, 1975), 61-65. Unless I am mistaken,
this section is not reproduced in his book, Le Dernier Camus ou le premier homme
(Paris: Nizet, 1995).
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 77

gives birth to himself. This chapter examines this theme, and the asso-
ciated argument that in order to realize his own divinity the superior
individual must suppress those ties binding him to women: lucidity
must conquer biology. Through an analysis of related texts I shall ar-
gue that Camus’s own defeat of death in Le Mythe de Sisyphe by an
emphasis on lucidity and consciousness is also a defeat of women,
whose significance is effaced (although not eradicated) from this point
onwards. I have noted an association in Camus’s youthful writings
between women, death and an absurd sensibility, and suggested that
man’s éveil, which takes as its point of departure the recognition of his
inevitable mortality, is illustrated elsewhere in the body of the woman.
Despite his continuing “envy” for those who are entirely at one with a
world where intelligence has no place, lucidity is increasingly valor-
ized in Camus’s early writings and creates a gendered borderline on
one side of which lies life and the faculty for consciousness, and from
which the woman, as a dead consciousness (or a body without a soul),
is excluded. This banishment, I shall argue, permits man’s glorious
revolt against death.
In “Devant la Morte” the young man washed his hands after strik-
ing the woman’s cadaver, as if to wash away the physical pollution of
death. Biology, the sign of mortality and physical decay, reminds us of
the impurity of death, an impurity that resides above all in the female
body, source of the life cycle. This is what must be thrown away:
Un homme aime une femme et il lit sur son visage les signes de la peste. Jamais il
ne l’aimera autant. Mais jamais elle ne l’a autant dégoûté. Il y a divorce en lui.
Mais c’est toujours le corps qui triomphe. Le dégoût l’emporte. Il la prend par une
main, la traîne hors du lit (…). Il la laisse devant un égout. “Après tout, il y en a
d’autres”. (C1, 231)
A man loves a woman and reads the signs of the plague on her face. Never has he
loved her so much. But never has she so disgusted him. He is divided against him-
self. But it is always the body that wins. Disgust prevails. He takes her by the
hand, drags her from the bed (…). He leaves her near a sewer. “After all, there are
other ones”. (SEN, 226)

I have suggested that the female character challenges the artist’s om-
niscient position, revealing underlying vulnerabilities and a recogni-
tion of difference that threatens the integrity of the Self.
Indecipherable, woman is presented as a body without a soul, becom-
ing the monstrous repository and source of death itself. Julia Kristeva
has noted such links between the perception of death and the female
body in her work on abjection (“throwing away”):
78 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The cadaver (cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably fallen, is cesspool and
death. (R)efuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to
live. (…) If ordure signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not
and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border
that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expell, “I” is expelled.
(…) The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjec-
tion. It is death infesting life. (I)t beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.3

Elements of this particular reaction are equally to be found in Camus’s

first published essays, L’Envers et l’Endroit, where strong associa-
tions between women and death are to be found.
Bodies without a Soul
The old woman of “L’Ironie”4 whose family goes to the cinema is just
as terrified at the prospect of being left alone with only the thought of
her death (E, 17) as is the talkative old man in the second sketch who
cannot be silent without thinking of his imminent end (E, 18). Indeed,
he too is “alone, forsaken, already dead” (E, 20) – yet his need to talk
bears witness to a determination to demonstrate that he is nevertheless
still alive. His desperate attempts to stave off the thought of death in-
spire compassion in his mysterious observer (E, 19). By contrast, the
compassion of the young man listening to the old woman’s complaints
quickly turns to unease, irritation, horror, and finally the violent im-
pulse to strike her. Half paralysed after an illness, this old woman only
had half of herself in this world while the other was already foreign to
her (E, 15). She embraces illness and death, “un grand noir profond où
elle plaçait tout son espoir”(E, 16) (“a vast deep blackness in which
she placed all her hope”), as a means of gaining attention. When this
increasingly dehumanized and baleful figure “who continued to exist
behind his back” as he eats (E, 16), tries to retain hold of his hand, it is
as if she seeks to drag him into her own vast and deep darkness. I sug-
gest that this threat of being engulfed by death prompts his sudden
feelings of violence, his ferocious hatred for this woman arousing the
sudden wish to strike her (E, 17). This reaction recalls the “explosion
of hatred against the body without a soul” in “Devant la Morte” (PC,
230). Certainly, violent death is central in La Mort Heureuse and
L’Étranger, but I know of no instance in Camus’s writings where such
violence, when directed towards other men, is accompanied by the

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection, Leon Roudiez (tr.) (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 3-4.
This essay incorporates the fourth of “Les Voix du quartier pauvre”, written in 1934.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 79

emotional outbursts of hatred or fear that are a feature not only in the
above examples but, later, of Jacques Cormery’s confrontation with
his grandmother in Le Premier Homme, when he is suddenly “mad
with violence and rage”, intent upon striking her (PH, 252-53). In
each of these cases violence is suppressed, but denotes another mo-
ment of liberation marking off the past from the future, and establish-
ing a separate and independent identity.
The title piece of this collection, “L’Envers et l’Endroit”, likewise
underlines the affinity between women and death. Here, the narrator
recalls the story of an old woman who, on inheriting a sum of money
from her sister, buys herself a plot in the local cemetery which she
prepares for her own use, and on which she has her name engraved. In
a regular rehearsal for death she goes into the tomb and recognizes
while doing so that she is already dead in the eyes of the world; this is
later confirmed when visitors leave flowers on the empty tomb. Her
life is a preparation for death in which her daughter finally colludes by
dressing her for the funeral while still on her death-bed – before her
limbs stiffen: “Mais c’est curieux tout de même comme nous vivons
parmi des gens pressés” (E, 50) (“But it’s odd, all the same, how we
live amongst people in a hurry”). The only discernible difference be-
tween this woman and a corpse is that she is still capable of move-
ment. Death here is transmitted through the female line, via the
sister’s legacy to her, and down to her daughter in the next generation.
I have already noted that portraits of the mother consistently depict
her as a dead consciousness, that place “where meaning collapses”,5
and that one fragment presents her as an actress only playing the role
of a living woman (E, 1216). Another passage from “L’Ironie” (“Le
Courage” in the youthful writings) picks up this theme of the woman
as actress. Here, rather than simulating life, the grandmother is de-
picted as simulating death. She is another actress, whose subsequently
fatal illness is initially treated by her family as one more example of
her acting abilities. She had always feigned illness with ease, espe-
cially after family arguments, but also had a liver complaint that
caused her to “infect life” in a very public fashion:
Elle n’apportait aucune discrétion dans l’exercice de sa maladie. Loin de s’isoler,
elle vomissait avec fracas dans le bidon d’ordures de la cuisine. (E, 21)
She never showed any discretion in the exercise of her illness. Far from isolating
herself, she would vomit noisily into the kitchen rubbish bin. (SEN, 36)

Powers of Horror, 2.
80 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Here, that space associated with the preparation and ingestion of food
is contaminated by further associations with its physical expulsion.6
When she takes to her bed, although the doctor’s diagnoses become
increasingly grave, the younger of the two children persists in the be-
lief that this is only one more example of acting. Here, the viewpoints
of the narrator and the child converge, resulting in a confusion of per-
spective when he declares that those who “play at” being ill some-
times experience it for real and that the grandmother carried her
simulation to the point of death. Apparently, this woman is such a
consummate actress that she can stage her own death, a final act that is
once more accompanied by the emission of her internal physical cor-
Le dernier jour, assistée de ses enfants, elle se délivrait de ses fermentations
d’intestin. Avec simplicité, elle s’adressa à son petit-fils: “Tu vois”, dit-elle, “je
pète comme un petit cochon”. Elle mourut une heure après. (E, 21-22).
On her last day, her children around her, she delivered herself of the fermentations
in her intestines. With simplicity, she spoke to her grandson: “You see”, she said,
“I’m farting like a little pig”. She died an hour later. (SEN, 36)

At her funeral the grandson cried, but with the fear of being insincere
and of telling lies in the presence of the dead (E, 22). This emotion
recalls the young man’s feeling of duplicity in “Devant la Morte”, ex-
acerbated by the prospect of the funeral, when he will be expected to
play the insincere role of a broken man (PC, 228-29). The burial scene
has been regarded as having a key importance in Camus’s work, and it
has been argued that here one sees the first evidence of an emotional
inability to undergo a process of mourning, later discernible in other
Camusian protagonists.7 It is not, however, the mourning but the dying
that counts. In “L’Été à Alger” Camus speaks of a collective, matter-
of-fact attitude towards death revealed in the words “le pauvre, il ne
chantera plus” (E, 73) (“the poor man, he won’t sing any more”). Le
Premier Homme shows this to be a more polite version of the grand-
mother’s words: “il ne pétera plus” (PH, 153) (“he won’t fart any
more”). This, I suggest, is the sentiment which, like a grim, secret
irony rebounds on the grandmother in “L’Ironie”. The old bitch is
This association is echoed years later in Le Premier Homme with the uncle’s convic-
tion that his plate smells (PH, 110).
See especially Arminda A. de Pichon-Rivière and Willy Baranger, “Répression du
deuil et intensifications des mécanismes et des angoisses schizo-paranoïdes. (Notes
sur L’Étranger de Camus)”, Revue française de psychanalyse 23 (3) (1959), 409-20;
Costes, La parole manquante: Gassin, L’Univers symbolique.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 81

dead; her farting days are over and her infectious corruption will
henceforth be confined to her own body, beneath the soil. The mem-
ory of her will be forgotten and her power in this life is at an end.
Here is an exorcism without mourning, a cleansing that once more
leaves the future purified “like the sky after rain”. That is surely the
true connection to be made in the lines from which Costes derives his
equation between Nature and the beloved Mother: “Le cimetière
dominait la ville et on pouvait voir le beau soleil transparent tomber
sur la baie tremblante de lumière” (E, 22) (“The cemetery dominated
the town and one could see the fine, transparent sea trembling with
What is revealed by this very private joke – the satisfaction at her
death and the wish for her death – is undermined by the haunting un-
certainty as to whether she is really dead. If he is playing the role of
grieving mourner, this performance fades in comparison to those of
which Woman is capable. Woman, the dead consciousness, is also the
first actress, the template for all dramatic roles. If she can act the roles
of a living woman or a dead woman, who better to see through his
own act? The word “liar” resonates through the childhood of Le Pre-
mier Homme, and the grandmother is the one who uncovers these lies,
discovering the monster in her grandson. The grandson’s unease at the
funeral concerns not her death, but his belief in her uncanny power to
survive, simulating death. This scene is another horrifying example of
woman as the walking dead.
Moreover, it demonstrates not only the instability of the border be-
tween life and death but also the extent to which this cadaver contin-
ues to infect the living, as is demonstrated by the textual link between
the words “she delivered herself” of her intestinal fermentations and
the grandson’s inability to follow suit: he could not deliver himself of
the idea that the last and “most monstrous” of this woman’s perform-
ances had been played out in front of him (E, 22).9 Her contaminating
influence does not, after all, die with her, for he has inherited her tal-
ent for acting (lying) – as is revealed by the scene where he is asked
whom he prefers, his mother or his grandmother (E, 20). This ques-
tion, reserved for an audience, becomes worse for the child in the
mother’s presence, when he names his grandmother while feeling an
enormous love for his silent mother (E, 20-21). Verbal expressions of

La Parole manquante, 41.
The verb in both cases is “se délivrer”.
82 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

love are a lie; the one who professes this emotion is an actor, a liar.
This is the grandmother’s legacy. When Lucienne of La Mort
Heureuse accuses him of not loving her, Mersault’s response is dis-
gust (MH, 162). Love is irrelevant, he proclaims to any woman who
will listen. A childhood without love, where the mother is not a source
of love; henceforth, the longest thing in the world will be to learn how
to love.
With Le Mythe comes a resolution of sorts, for Don Juan need
never experience the self-doubt of the young man in “Devant la
Morte”, nor the conflict of the young child before the grandmother.
The inner division felt there is healed by the defiant assertion that love
is an act; Don Juan speaks his lines in the full knowledge that they
contain no truth and thus he coincides with himself; herein lies con-
trol, and the mark of his superiority. The ritualized funeral “game”
repeated again and again in Camus’s early writings denotes no unfin-
ished process of mourning but, once more, that first grim satisfaction
at being finally rid of the woman, again and again.
Kristeva speaks of the clean and proper body, which must bear no
trace of its debt to nature, for these are the signs of mortality.10
Woman’s ability to reproduce and nurture human life places her al-
ready on a borderline between human and animal, life and death. In-
gesting and expelling mortal life, the horror and disgust provoked by
the female body is clearly to be read in Patrice Mersault’s reflection
Ce qui le frappait dans l’amour c’était, pour la première fois au moins, l’intimité
effroyable que la femme acceptait et le fait de recevoir en son ventre le ventre
d’un inconnu. (MH, 59-60)
What struck him about lovemaking was, for the first time at least, the terrible in-
timacy the woman accepted and the fact that she could receive part of a stranger’s
body inside her own. (HD, 25)

A woman’s body is porous; its boundaries are not so clearly, nor so

cleanly defined and her potential for promiscuity is inherent in this
lack of physical integrity. The life she confers is indissociable from
mortality; hers is an inner, physical corruption, an internal decomposi-
tion, for woman brings death into the world. This same physical cor-
ruption is evident in the illness of Mersault’s mother, her face
deformed by terrible swellings, immobilized because of her swollen
legs (MH, 39).

Powers of Horror, 102.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 83

Precisely because of her lack of physical integrity the woman

threatens to contaminate as, for example, through her traditional asso-
ciations with the preparation of food, and a number of these writings
connect the horror of death with the consumption of food. The integ-
rity of the body is compromised by the ingestion of pollutant foods
which break down borders, allowing death to infiltrate the soul. From
the young man unable to eat because of his awareness of the old
woman behind his back, the grandmother ostentatiously vomiting in
the kitchen, or the smell of pickled cucumber in La Mort Heureuse
with its greasy-mouthed girls eating (MH, 99-103), the horror of death
is intensified by the perceived porosity of the male onlooker’s own
body. In “La Mort dans l’âme” when the narrator stares into the “end-
less abyss”, his actions reproduce those of the mother as he counts the
cracks in the floor, stares “madly” at the door handle, his mind
“empty” (E, 36). Death infiltrates; the child’s body will be forever
“impregnated” by the maternal home with its cockroaches and “stink-
ing” hallway (E, 25).
I have noted associations between the maternal and the filth of life
in the incident of the cannibalistic mother cat and her putrefying, half-
eaten kitten. Just as there the narrator sits, his hands buried in urine
and excrement, breathing in the smells of putrefaction (E, 28), so Mer-
sault wishes to immerse himself in the mud of Silesia (MH, 116-17).
But if he would declare his solidarity with life in its most filthy and
abject squalor, it is not decomposition, putrefaction and disintegration
he accepts; impenetrable, its boundaries clearly defined, the “pierre
parmi les pierres” (MH, 204) (“stone amongst stones”) is on the other
side of that border. Like Empedocles, his death will affirm his divin-
ity; not a body without a soul but a soul without limits.
The narrative voice of the final essay of L’Envers et l’endroit clearly
indicates the overall lesson to be learned:
Laissez donc ceux qui veulent tourner le dos au monde. Je ne me plains pas puis-
que je me regarde naître. À cette heure, tout mon royaume est de ce monde. (...)
Ce n’est plus d’être heureux que je souhaite maintenant, mais seulement d’être
conscient. (E, 49)
Then leave those who wish to turn their backs upon the world. I do not feel sorry
for myself since I can see myself coming to birth. At this moment my whole king-
dom is of this world. (…) It is no longer happiness that I now wish for, but only
awareness. (SEN, 64)
84 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Far greater than the contrast between youth and age in these essays is
that between men and women, the significance of which is subsumed
beneath the generic term “man”: “men” and the tombs they buy (E,
48); “un homme contemple et l’autre creuse son tombeau: comment
les séparer?” (E, 49) (“one man contemplates and the other digs his
grave: how can we separate them?”). Gender is the only means of
separating them, for the only ones “in a hurry” to die (E, 50) are
women, already half in the dark abyss. The old man of “L’Ironie” may
not be deemed lucid, yet he is conscious of his fate and resists it. Men
alone contemplate their death, and they alone have the potential for
lucidity, which brings with it a new relationship with the surrounding
Si j’essaie de m’atteindre, c’est tout au fond de cette lumière. Et si je tente de
comprendre et de savourer cette délicate saveur qui livre le secret du monde, c’est
moi-même que je trouve au fond de l’univers. (E, 48)
If I try to reach myself, it is in the very depths of this light. And if I try to under-
stand and savour this delicate taste which reveals the secret of the world, it is my-
self I find at the depth of the universe. (SEN, 63)

Despite the “lesson” that courage consists of keeping one’s eyes open
equally to the light and to death (E, 49), the polarization of the envers
and the endroit of life reveals a gulf in the text between men and
women: the latter are associated with death and darkness while the
former display at least the potential for lucidity. This allows a privi-
leged access to the here and now, and to a natural world divested of its
traditional associations with the feminine – for, in an echo of the
Nietzschean eternal return, it is himself the narrator finds at the end of
the universe and his own rebirth he witnesses (E, 49).
Man is endowed with a potential for consciousness that sets him
apart from the object world – a distinction elucidated by J. S. T. Gar-
fitt, who notes of one of Jean Grenier’s essays entitled “Le Chat”, that
for Grenier the cat represents “a metaphysical completeness, a coinci-
dence with self and the world, which serves to emphasize his own in-
completeness as a human being”. For the cat, mind and body are
entirely at one, by contrast with the writer himself, who is “mutilated”
– separated from himself because of his capacity for reasoning.11 This
is the symbolic sense of the mutilated male bodies in which La Mort
Heureuse abounds – from Zagreus himself to the one-armed fisher-

“Grenier and Camus: from Les Îles to La Chute”, in Forum for Modern Language
Studies (17) (1981), 221.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 85

man, Perez, or the blind accordionist of Prague. Besides symbolizing

their metaphysical condition (and, as I shall suggest later in this chap-
ter, such mutilation or dismemberment has further mythological over-
tones), all are active in the world and their injuries are the result of
such action.
Women, on the other hand, are just as surely and irretrievably rele-
gated to the animal state as is the cat. Hence, in La Mort heureuse the
constant parallels between women and cats, as in the case of Rose in
her “secret marriage” where woman and cat see the universe through
the same eyes (MH, 142); or Lucienne, whose silence reduces her
completely to her movements, “perfecting” her resemblance to cats
(MH, 144). She perceived with her body what her mind could not un-
derstand (MH, 154). Despite the mystical resonances here, it is the
superior quality of lucidity that allows man to confront his own death
with open eyes. This distinction between an animal world that explic-
itly includes women and the human one, endowed with consciousness,
is repeated in Le Mythe de Sisyphe:
Si j’étais arbre parmi les arbres, chat parmi les animaux, cette vie aurait un sens
ou plutôt ce problème n’en aurait point car je ferais partie de ce monde. Je serais
ce monde auquel je m’oppose maintenant. (E, 136)
If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning
or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should
be this world to which I am now opposed. (MS, 51)

Lucienne’s lack of intelligence delights Mersault, who finds some-

thing divine in beauty without mind (MH, 144). Such incongruous
juxtapositions are made elsewhere in the text, as in the description of
Mersault’s ascetic life-style where he arrived at a “pure” state of life,
rediscovering a paradise given only to animals of the least or the
greatest intelligence (MH, 171). It is unlikely that he places himself in
the former category. Such contrasts recall Spengler’s view of the
feminine as the “cultureless history of the generation sequence, which
never alters, but uniformly and stilly passes through the being of all
animal and human species” and which is surely informed by
Nietzsche’s Dionysian life force flowing through all creation and
given individual form by the masculine Apollonian principle. By vir-
tue of his lucidity man, the potential Artist-god, gives form and mean-
ing to all creation.
86 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Death as an Act of the Will

I noted in chapter 2 that a woman’s corpse is buried in Camus’s essay
on the Absurd (E, 109). A variant of the text records:
“Mieux vaut un chien vivant…”, cette pensée a du style. Comprendre qu’un être
mort est bon à jeter aux ordures, se persuader que les souvenirs n’y feront rien, ce
sont là de véritables progrès spirituels. (E, 1433)
“Better a living dog…”, this thought has style. Understanding that a dead being is
fit only to throw into the rubbish, persuading oneself that memories are no help, is
true spiritual progress.

The quotation is taken from the Old Testament:

A living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but
the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the mem-
ory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now
perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done
under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9, 4-6)

Perhaps these lines were suppressed from Le Mythe because they sug-
gest too close a connection between the living dog and the Absurd
hero. In Noces the situation is reversed when a dead dog substitutes
for the female cadaver, while the same dread of pollution is retained:
Je me dis: je dois mourir, mais ceci ne veut rien dire, puisque je n’arrive pas à le
croire et que je ne puis avoir que l’expérience de la mort des autres. J’ai vu des
gens mourir. Surtout, j’ai vu des chiens mourir. C’est de les toucher qui me
bouleversait. (E, 64)
I say to myself: I am going to die, but this means nothing since I cannot manage to
believe it and can experience only other people’s death. I have seen people die.
Above all, I have seen dogs die. It was touching them that overwhelmed me.
(SEN, 78-79)

Apart from “perfecting” women’s resemblance to dogs, when ex-

tended to Le Mythe this reverses the sense of Ecclesiastes, a transmu-
tation where those living lions (the conqueror, Don Juan, the actor) are
immeasurably better than both the dead dog and the dead woman. On
one side of this divide lies consciousness, emotion, a present and fu-
ture life: on the other side is the non-sentient, non-human, outside the
course of time. As long as this border can be maintained (i.e. as long
as men do not die), then, as in “Devant la Morte”, death itself is liber-
ating, opening up new possibilities for the future, and new aware-
nesses. This is the trajectory of Le Mythe where, when death can be
diverted onto the female body, man can profit from this experience
through an awareness of his own more distant mortality which, uni-
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 87

maginable, is endlessly deferred. The insistence that the ideal of the

Absurd man is to live his life in a succession of present moments (E,
145) thus abolishes future mortality, but carries in its wake a gen-
dering of death that promotes the impression of evasion rather than
The Fool of “Intuitions” asks whether living is not a sufficient re-
volt (PC, 182). As in Le Mythe, the response of Camus’s later work
seems affirmative when even the instinctual action of eating is pre-
sented as a conscious decision in favour of life: “On choisit de durer
dès l’instant qu’on ne se laisse pas mourir” (E, 865) (“You choose to
stay alive the moment you do not allow yourself to die”). Death seems
an act of cowardice or evasion, while living is transformed into an act
of heroic revolt. In Le Mythe, by narrowing the range of possible re-
sponses to only three alternatives (suicide, faith, or lucidity) Camus
prepares his reader for the heroic choice. Hence, the sight of the body
without a soul prompts only two apparent courses of action: “Faudra-
t-il mourir volontairement, ou espérer malgré tout?” (E, 109) (“Must
one die voluntarily or hope in spite of everything?”), as if there were a
logical connection between the two. Given such unsatisfactory op-
tions, the only desirable recourse is the attitude of the Absurd hero
who, despite the knowledge that he will one day die, engages in a “re-
volt” against death. The rejection of suicide, hope and despair all
combine in Le Mythe to suggest that Camus’s proposed model, Ab-
surd man, faces his inevitable fate without evasion. Yet, the emphasis
on lucidity and awareness of the Absurd is in practice balanced by the
focus on suicide rather than the universal inevitability of death (E,
101). The contrast here, based on a conscious attitude towards the
question of whether life is worth living, is not between life and death,
but between life and one relatively rare form of death, suicide, which
(along with murder) is the only instance when death is under the con-
trol of the will. Thus, the fact of being alive may be elevated into a
heroic choice – surely seductive to those readers who may discover in
their own passive inaction a hitherto unsuspected heroism.
If the men who hurry towards and embrace death are in practice
women this does not, of course, mean that men do not die. Indeed,
violent death occurs in “La Mort dans l’âme”. However, of “involun-
tary” death Camus writes that nothing is more despicable than illness,
which is like a remedy against death:
88 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Elle y prépare. Elle crée un apprentissage dont le premier stade est l’attend-
rissement sur soi-même. Elle appuie l’homme dans son grand effort qui est de se
dérober à la certitude de mourir tout entier. (E, 64)
It prepares us for it. It creates an apprenticeship whose first stage is self-pity. It
supports man in his great effort to avoid the certainty that he will die completely.
(SEN, 78)

This observation is amply illustrated by the old women of the early

essays and La Mort heureuse. But neither is the lucid man immune
from death; rather, he exerts control by the way he faces it. In The
Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche wrote:
The invalid is a parasite on society. In a certain state it is indecent to go on living.
To vegetate on in cowardly dependence on physicians and medicaments after the
meaning of life, the right to life, has been lost, ought to entail the profound con-
tempt of society. 12

Over such an ignominious fate the recommendation is that the “con-

scious” man should freely choose the inevitable and die “proudly”
when he can no longer live proudly. This is the course adopted by
Mersault after his illness. Women are hardly so heroic in the manner
of their going, and a number of early, unpublished writings describe
the lingering death of a woman from diabetes. Mersault’s half-blind
mother, with her bloated body, lingers on for ten years in this state
(MH, 40), exhausting all the concern of her family and friends. Such
“parasites of society” suck the life from those around them. Although
the physical disability of such women is superficially comparable to
that of Zagreus, the “half-man” of La Mort Heureuse, the contrast
could not be greater between their states of mind. Although clinging
on to life, he is nevertheless ashamed, admitting that even in his own
eyes he cannot justify his existence – a sentiment with which Mersault
readily agrees (MH, 69-70). By “sacrificing” Zagreus, Mersault res-
cues him from his ignoble condition, while in the manner of his own
death he exemplifies how to remain lucid until the end. But, as for
Nietzsche, this conscious death is strictly “une affaire entre hommes”
(MH, 203) (“the business of men”).
A Homosocial Death
The virile heroism of Le Mythe is foreshadowed in La Mort heureuse,
except that here the tone verges on grandiosity. When Camus writes

Twilight of the Idols / The Anti-Christ, R.J. Hollingdale (tr.) (Harmondsworth: Pen-
guin, 1990), “Expeditions of an Untimely Man” (36), 99.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 89

about conscious death in “Le Vent à Djémila” these reflections are not
out of keeping with the general tone of the essay:
C’est dans la mesure où je me sépare du monde que j’ai peur de la mort, dans la
mesure où je m’attache au sort des hommes qui vivent, au lieu de contempler le
ciel qui dure. Créer des morts conscientes, c’est diminuer la distance qui nous sé-
pare du monde, et entrer sans joie dans l’accomplissement, conscient des images
exaltantes d’un monde à jamais perdu. (E, 65)
It is when I separate myself from the world that I fear death most, attaching my-
self to the fate of living men instead of contemplating the unchanging sky. Creat-
ing conscious deaths means lessening the distance which separates us from the
world, and entering joylessly into fulfilment, alert to the exalting images which
belong to a world forever lost. (SEN, 79; translation amended)

The antithesis to such contemplation is losing oneself in the fate of

living men, and a return to the earlier conflicts of “Intuitions” with its
dual aspiration towards divinity or fraternal solidarity. Yet, the at-
tempted transposition of such ideas to a fictional format results in ob-
scure and comically heroic allusions to this same unchanging sky, as
when Mersault listens to the “strange” story of Zagreus “in front of the
sky” (MH, 75). Amongst sketches for the novel Camus had outlined a
wider project: “Œuvre philosophique: l’absurdité. Œuvre littéraire:
force, amour et mort sous le signe de la conquête” (C1, 40) (“Philoso-
phical work: absurdity. Literary work: force, love and death under the
sign of conquest”), while announcing his intention to mix these two
genres. In an entry on La Mort heureuse in January 1936 he was to
recommend that as one thinks only in images, the would-be philoso-
pher should write novels (C1, 23), an idea repeated two years later in
his review of La Nausée where the novel is describe as philosophy in
images (E, 1417). Such ambitions are reflected in La Mort Heureuse,
whose obscurity can be dispelled only through recourse to
Nietzsche.13 The commitment now is not to the interior world of emo-
tions and “psychology” but to the external one of ideas and the “phi-
losopher novelists”.
Despite this emphasis on the intellect rather than the emotions, as
he was writing La Mort heureuse in 1937 Camus noted his need at
times to write things that partly escaped him, and which seemed be-
yond his control (C1, 60). The equivalence of women, first argued in
1933, assumes the uniqueness of the male observer. If, in his early

For an illuminating reading from this perspective, see Maurice Weyembergh, “Une
lecture nietzschéenne de La Mort Heureuse”, in Paul F. Smets (ed.) Albert Camus, 35-
90 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

relationship with Simone, Camus had been chosen over his friend,
Max-Pol Fouchet, his later discovery of his first wife’s infidelity
taught him that he was himself interchangeable. In Salzburg in 1936
Camus opened a letter to his wife from one of her lovers, receiving
what he described as one of the most painful blows of his life.14 His
stay alone in Prague and the alienation he experienced there (recorded
in La Mort Heureuse and “La Mort dans l’âme”) took place shortly
after that, and it is clear that in its initial stages the theme of sexual
jealousy was central. In 1937 Camus reiterates this theme when he
refers to the novel as a story of sexual jealousy that leads to dépayse-
ment, followed by a return to life (C1, 66). However, as Camus begins
to give priority to ideas, the motive for murder is transferred onto an
unrelated intellectual level.
The barely distinguishable female characters have little reality be-
yond their symbolic function as ciphers or the embodiment of natural
and mystical forces.The stance towards women is nevertheless crucial
to the definition of the superior individual and Camus returns inces-
santly to the task of defining what this attitude should be. La Mort
Heureuse begins this project on the level of the novel, and one of its
major arguments is that happiness is not to be found in heterosexual
love: on the contrary, the superior individual must transcend the emo-
tional ties binding him to women. In order to realize his own divinity
he must suppress those ties binding him to woman: lucidity must con-
quer biology.
Women are put in their place from the outset. Marthe is presented
as the instrument of Mersault’s self-esteem, a status symbol whose
beauty elevates him in his own eyes. The admiration she inspires, with
her “flower-like face” and “violent beauty”, is reflected onto him, and
his ownership of her serves to aggrandize him in his own eyes (MH,
52). The fragility of such happiness is revealed, not on his discovery
of her infidelity but merely because she acknowledges another man in
the cinema. This innocuous gesture arouses a jealousy based not on
the fear of losing her but on the fear of the other man’s reactions. His
“panic” at what he might be thinking of him makes Mersault “crum-
ble” inside and he forgets about Marthe, only the “pretext” for his joy
(MH, 53-54). What Mersault discovers here is not his vulnerability to
women, but to other men.

Albert Camus: une vie, 113.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 91

Simultaneously, the relationship with Marthe reveals the degree to

which Mersault has been beguiled and immobilized by the self-image
such relationships transmit. This has already been indicated with re-
spect to Mersault’s mother when, after her death, we are told that
when he thought sadly of her, he was really pitying himself (MH, 41);
it is more explicit in Cardona’s grief over his own mother’s death,
likewise self-referential and incapacitating; when Cardona spoke of
“Poor Maman” it was himself he was pitying; when he said he loved
her, Mersault translated this as “She loved me”; and “she’s dead” as
“I’m alone” (MH, 87-88). Like Raymond of L’Étranger, Cardona is
unable to move on, remaining instead frozen before this mirror. As if
to demonstrate that by contrast, Mersault has broken free of this nar-
cissistic trap and taken action in the world, this passage is followed by
the bare statement that the next day he killed Zagreus. Thus begins a
process of separation, or in Nietzschean terms, “individuation”, such
as is suggested by the words cited earlier from “Le Vent à Djémila”:
fear of death is heightened when the individual loses himself in the
fate of living men, whereas the conscious death requires “lessening
the distance” that separates him from the world, “entering joylessly
into fulfilment, alert to the exalting images which belong to a world
forever lost” (E, 65).
Mersault’s cultivation of his superior potential is a long process
only perfected towards the end of his life, when one mark of success is
that he can finally think with equanimity that after he is dead Lucienne
would give herself to the first man who put his arms round her (MH,
200). An important object of Mersault’s quest is not only to transcend
his emotions, but to attain precisely the form of chaste sexuality
achieved in L’Étranger – a sort of bodily hygiene that has no greater
significance than any other physical function and where one woman is
equivalent to the next. Chastity is what he seeks at the “Maison devant
le Monde”, while he clearly regards his stay there as a temporary
stage in his conquest of perfection:
Comme d’autres ont besoin de solitude avant de prendre leurs grandes décisions et
de jouer la partie essentielle d’une vie, lui, empoisonné de solitude et d’étrangeté,
avait besoin de se retirer dans l’amitié et la confiance et de goûter une sécurité ap-
parente avant de commencer son jeu. (MH, 120, my emphasis)
As other men need to be alone before making their great decisions and playing the
crucial match of their lives, he, poisoned by solitude and alienation, needed to
withdraw into friendship and confidence and to enjoy an apparent security before
beginning his game. (HD, 59)
92 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

This initiation ritual involves a preliminary process of purification.

Roger Dadoun has compared the “Maison devant le monde” to a
harem centred around Mersault the demi-god,15 except that this Don
Juan exerts the rule of chastity, sharing perhaps a similar pleasure in
his power as does the narrator of Mélusine.
This is the form of control Mersault seeks after his early crisis of
jealousy, and the text affords him numerous opportunities to teach his
women-friends that love is antithetical to happiness and to life. To
Marthe he points out that love is only for impotent old age (MH, 62);
to Catherine he explains that he is leaving because he would risk being
loved, which would be an obstacle to his happiness (MH, 155);16 when
Lucienne, like Marthe before her, asks whether he loves her, this gives
him another opportunity for the didactic message that love is irrele-
vant (MH, 161-62). As these repetitions suggest, women erroneously
equate love with happiness when all that really counts is the power of
the individual Will:
une sorte d’énorme conscience toujours présente. Le reste, femmes, œuvres d’art
ou succès mondains, ne sont que prétextes. Un canevas qui attend nos broderies.
(MH, 178)
a kind of enormous, ever-present consciousness. The rest, women, art, success,
are nothing but pretexts. A canvas awaiting our embroideries. (HD, 91)

If women achieve a form of immortality through integration into the

object world (or Dionysian life force), this is not the apotheosis he
seeks. The Artist-god as sculptor is derived from Nietzsche’s The
Birth of Tragedy, and represents an active and divine (Apollonian)
force shaping this world, creating form from the imperfect “clay” of
humanity. As an artist, Mersault is his own creation:
Comme un pain chaud qu’on presse et qu’on fatigue, il voulait seulement tenir sa
vie entre ses mains. (…) Lécher sa vie comme un sucre d’orge, la former,
l’aiguiser, l’aimer enfin. (MH, 124)
Like warm dough being squeezed and kneaded, he wanted only to hold his life be-
tween his hands. (…) To lick his life like barley-sugar, to shape it, sharpen it, love
it at last. (HD, 62)

“Albert Camus: fondations d’anarchie”, in Camus et la politique, Jean-Yves Guérin
(ed.) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1985), 257-65 (264).
Astonishingly, Geraldine Montgomery’s exuberance for the author leads her to the
claim that this conversation incorporates a feminist statement addressed, via Mersault,
to all women. See Noces pour femme seule, 121.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 93

Like the Fool of “Intuitions”, or Kirilov in Le Mythe, Mersault has a

truth to impart to men, just as the artist, having lovingly created his
work, feels the need to show it to other men (MH, 181); and like the
actor of Le Mythe who “sculpts” his characters, of all the individual
men Mersault had carried in him, “il savait maintenant lequel il avait
été” (MH, 199-200) (“he knew now which one he had been”). The
superior man embodies this potential for divinity whereas woman is
only a passive conduit for the divine (Dionysian) principle flowing
through all creation; hers is an unthinking, animal divinity (MH, 61).
Lucienne, the painted goddess in whose eyes shine an animal stupidity
(MH, 54), is of a kind with the dancer of Palma in “Amour de vivre”.
Whereas a man’s beauty represents inner, functional truths that ex-
press what he can do, a woman’s face expresses only “magnificent
uselessness” (MH, 52). Mersault’s project is directed towards unity
with no maternal principle but with a masculine Apollonian force,
shaping that primal Oneness of which Nietzsche speaks in The Birth
of Tragedy. As the artist of his own life, Mersault gives birth to him-
self. This theme is underlined on the mythological level, which denies
the biological role of women.
The Twice-born Man
I mentioned that Camus’s reading of The Birth of Tragedy sheds light
on the novel’s more obscure themes. There, Nietzsche outlines two
metaphysical forces, the Appollonian and the Dionysian; under the
Dionysian influence, which Nietzsche compares to intoxication, the
individual forgets the Self to merge with the chaotic life force running
through all creation. The coming of Spring, the drinking of intoxi-
cants, were all associated with these bacchanalian rites throughout the
ancient world. In the non-visual arts, as Camus noted in his youthful
writings, this ecstatic experience is most closely related to that of lis-
tening to music.
In La Mort heureuse the name Zagreus is a clear reference to the
dismembered Dionysus of the ancient Eleusinian mysteries; he is the
god who undergoes:
the suffering of individuation, of whom the marvellous myths relate that he was
dismembered by the Titans and that, in this condition, he is worshipped as Za-
greus. This suggests that dismemberment, the true Dionysiac suffering, amounts
to a transformation into air, water, earth, and fire, and that we should therefore see
94 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

the condition of individuation as the source and origin of all suffering, and hence
as something reprehensible.17

In this sense we might interpret Zagreus’s physical state as a “half

man”. However, the argument of The Birth of Tragedy is that this cha-
otic Dionysian “torrent” needed to be tamed and given form precisely
through that “individualizing principle” represented by Apollo, god of
all the plastic arts – the chief amongst which is sculpture. For
Nietzsche, Greek tragedy reached its most perfect stage only through
the union of the Dionysian with the Apollonian. In the highest form of
tragedy “Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo finally
speaks the language of Dionysus”. In this melding of the two princi-
ples is “the supreme goal of tragedy and art in general” attained.18 On
this level, then, Mersault’s sacrifice of Zagreus transcends the Diony-
sian through the affirmation of this Apollonian principle. Lucidity,
that masculine quality, charts the pathway to the divine.
Although initially this union is fleetingly compared by Nietzsche to
the duality of the sexes,19 there is no question here of any union be-
tween “masculine” and “feminine”. Common to all the myths sur-
rounding the Orphic Zagreus-Dionysus and Dionysus is that he is not
of woman born. Zagreus-Dionysus was torn to pieces as a child and
eaten by the Titans: only his heart remained, from which he was re-
constituted. In other myths, the mother of Dionysus was killed before
his birth, and the unborn child sewn into the thigh of Zeus, his father.
Hence, he was known as the “twice born”.20 The god of wine and or-
gies, his savage female followers were known as the Maenads
(“Madwomen”), who, on the orders of Dionysus, murdered their hus-
bands and tore Orpheus limb from limb. If the twice-born Dionysus
owed his birth to no woman, this rejection of the maternal role is fur-
ther reinforced by Apollo, who famously argued in The Eumenides
that: “The mother is not true parent of the child which is called hers.
She is a nurse who tends the growth of young seed planted by its true
parent, the male”.21 This judgement was upheld by Athena, herself
born from the head of her father Zeus, and who declares that because

The Birth of Tragedy (10), 52.
The Birth of Tragedy (21), 104.
Ibid. (1), 14.
See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (2 vols) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), I,
Aeschylus, The Oresteian Trilogy, tr. Phillip Vellacott (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1972), 657-60, 169.
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 95

no mother gave her birth she supports the father’s claim “and male
supremacy in all things”.22 The Oresteia overturned the ancient
mother-right, in which the primary obligation was owed to the mother
because of the biological bonds of blood. If the reborn Dionysus owed
his birth entirely to the father, his suffering likewise becomes the
source of life. Zeus reduced the Titans to ashes with his thunderbolt as
they feasted on the body of the young Zagreus-Dionysus; from these
ashes arose humankind. For Nietzsche: “From the smile of this Diony-
sus were born the Olympian gods, from his tears mankind”.23
Although (as one might expect from a first, abandoned novel) the
themes of La Mort heureuse remain obscure, the form of transcen-
dence Mersault achieves through his death is an affirmation of these
masculine principles. In his Dionysian return to the truth of motionless
worlds he embodies also that Apollonian principle of individuation as
the “pierre parmi les pierres” (MH, 204) (“stone amongst stones”),
thus asserting in all things the primacy of the male. Just as commenta-
tors have detected Christian overtones of sacrifice and resurrection in
Caligula or L’Étranger, so the myth of Dionysus has been linked with
early Christianity.24 But if Patrice Mersault is to become, in a second,
perfected incarnation as the Meursault of L’Étranger, “le seul christ
que nous méritions” (TRN, 1928-29) (“the only Christ we deserve”),
then this is the son of no Christian God.
Absurd Man
Camus was never again to refer to La Mort Heureuse after the novel’s
abandonment. While continuing to assert in Le Mythe that great novel-
ists are philosophers, he was to insist that this underlying philosophy
should remain unexpressed: the “true” work of art is that which says
“less” (E, 176). This withdrawal of the Self is illustrated in the dispas-
sionate presentation of the Absurd hero in Le Mythe de Sisyphe; al-
though the question of “donjuanisme” is often analysed in terms of
Camus’s personal preoccupations, these do not intrude into the text. If
resentment against women underlies “donjuanisme”, as a number of

Ibid., 172.
The Birth of Tragedy (10), 52.
See, for example, Marcel Detienne, Dionysos Slain, Mireille Muellner, Leonard
Muellner (trs) (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1979), 68-69.
96 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

commentators suggest,25 then these emotional elements have been ex-

cised from the section on Don Juan. This increased control is certainly
facilitated by the difference in genre, yet Camus’s first published work
of fiction likewise achieves this goal of saying “less”. In both cases
the status of women needs no longer to be demonstrated or argued but
is assumed as a given.
Marie is a further development of the women of La Mort heureuse.
Like Marthe with “her face of flowers and smiles” (MH, 51), Marie
with her “flower face” (TRN, 1148) and her constant smiles, shares
these characteristics. An important difference between Marie and the
women of La Mort Heureuse is that she is divested of sexuality. Al-
though they sleep together on the first night, there are no descriptions
of this physical experience. Their first sexual encounter is introduced
very discreetly: “En sortant (du cinéma) elle est venu chez moi. Quand
je me suis réveillé, Marie était partie” (TRN, 1139) (“On leaving (the
cinema) she came to my place. When I woke up, Marie had left”).
Marie appears passively to accept Meursault, for of her own sexual
desires we know nothing. Indeed, we know so little about her motiva-
tions that many of the opinions expressed about her are dependent not
on textual evidence but on assumptions about women in wider society.
Patrick McCarthy may claim that “Marie’s strong sexuality contrasts
with her silly romantic ideas about love” but as we do not know what
prompts her questions about love and marriage we can characterize
them neither as silly nor romantic. Neither would it be possible to find
evidence for the interpretation that “by confusing sexual desire and
love Marie is indulging in a false romanticism, which blinds her to her
body and her situation as a working class woman” because here Meur-
sault’s sexual desire is confused for Marie’s sexual availability –
which may be completely divorced from desire.26 Such comments ap-
ply not to Marie but to a general stereotype concerning women. For no
apparent reason, and only a matter of days after the beginning of their
relationship, Marie is also concerned by the question of love:
Elle m’a demandé si je l’aimais. Je lui ai répondu que cela ne voulait rien dire,
mais qu’il me semblait que non. Elle a eu l’air triste. Mais en préparant le déjeu-

For example, Gay-Crosier finds the first cause of Don Juan in an unconscious wish
for vengeance against the mother rather than the sexual partner, and as a response to
the deprivation of maternal love (“Camus et le Donjuanisme”, 826).
Albert Camus: the Stranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 83,
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 97

ner, et à propos de rien, elle a encore ri de telle façon que je l’ai embrassée.
(TRN, 1151)
She asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything, but that I
didn’t think so. She looked sad. But as we were getting lunch ready, and for no
apparent reason, she laughed again, so I kissed her. (TO, 38)

Possibly serious discussions with Marie concerning both this and the
question of marriage are resolved by her smiles, for Marie is as much
“image” or surface as the women of the earlier novel in the sense that
Meursault’s complete lack of curiosity about her means that the reader
can glean very little about her life, her thoughts and her motivations.
This one-dimensional status makes her unthreatening, as she has few
opinions and desires that might conflict with those of the hero.
Meursault has already reached the stage of detachment or indiffer-
ence to which Patrice Mersault aspires. Towards the end of the novel,
thinking of Marie for the first time, it occurs to him that she might be
ill, or dead, which seems to him in the order of things; all that bound
them together was physical proximity, and, once separated: “À partir
de ce moment, d’ailleurs, le souvenir de Marie m’aurait été indif-
férent. Morte, elle ne m’intéressait plus” (TRN, 1206-207) (“From that
point on, anyway, the memory of Marie would have meant nothing to
me. Dead, she would no longer be of interest to me”). He has never
been the victim of a crisis of jealousy such as that experienced by his
predecessor. At Marie’s apparent attempt to make him jealous (or at
least to arouse his curiosity about her life) he fails even to notice the
invitation. Having openly expressed his admiration for the other
women on the street, and having sought her agreement (to her own
equivalence), Meursault wants Marie to stay with him. Although,
when she says she has things to do, Meursault fails to show the slight-
est interest in this invitation to ask about her life, her reproachful look
quickly changes to laughter (TRN, 1155-157) and possible disagree-
ment is diverted. Meursault is here entirely unconscious of sexual
jealousy – of either having aroused it in another, or feeling it himself.
This is underlined at the end of the book when he asks what it matters
that Marie might be kissing “a new Meursault” – a recognition like-
wise made by his predecessor, but only after the painful process of
development charted in La Mort Heureuse.
Discussions of marriage here avoid the didacticism of La Mort
Heureuse while demonstrating more clearly the degree of control
Meursault has in his relationships with women. He has no need to ar-
gue the unimportance of such questions as his predecessor had done,
98 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

confining himself solely to responding to Marie’s questions. More-

over, his eventual consent to marriage underlines more surely its ir-
relevance. The reasons why Patrice Mersault marries Lucienne remain
inexplicable, since she has expressed no such desire. When he decides
to leave Algiers, asking her to remain behind but to put herself en-
tirely at his beck and call, she accepts this arrangement. Despite her
acquiescence, Mersault tells the apparently uninterested Lucienne that
if she so wishes he will marry her. In the face of her apathy and his
own declaration that such an action is pointless, he inexplicably does
so a week later (MH, 154).
In Le Mythe de Sisyphe and L’Étranger Camus presents an absurd
hero who has been “depersonalized”, purified of the writer’s own sub-
jective emotions. With respect to women this quest for depersonaliza-
tion may be regarded as a form of exorcism through which the author
attempts to deliver his fictional kingdom from the phantoms which
haunt it: fear of rejection by a mother whose inner world is beyond his
reach; her denial of love and the consequent view of himself as un-
worthy of love; fear of sexual rejection by a partner for whom his
presence is perhaps superfluous; above all, the fear of being on the
outside of a female world which exists independently and lies beyond
his powers of explanation or control. These ghosts are eliminated
through the excision of an autobiographical Self and replaced by an
object world devoid of “psychology” where “I see equals I believe”
(E, 59). The mystical associations between women and nature are
toned down in L’Étranger, which stresses rather physical vitality in
the depiction of Marie as brown-skinned, athletic and wholesome.
Here, there is no mystery surrounding women, who are no longer the
source of some secret. Rather, a woman’s external appearance is her
only truth, an unthreatening “truth made of flesh”.27 Like the imper-
sonality sought by Patrice Mersault (MH, 71), Camus’s search for de-
personalization is a quest for invulnerability in a world where the
intangible emotions have no place. Out of La Mort heureuse emerges
an authorial voice apparently divested of the presence of the sexually
threatening female character.
In Le Mythe woman is unproblematically constructed as an object,
while no ambiguities in this depiction subvert the presentation of the

Cf. “Je veux délivrer mon univers de ses fantômes et le peupler des vérités de chair
dont je ne peux nier la présence” (E, 179) (“I want to deliver my universe of its phan-
toms and people it with truths of flesh and blood whose presence I cannot deny”).
The Man-God and Death as an Act of the Will 99

Absurd hero. In this essay, Camus uses the metaphor of water to de-
scribe the personality:
Ce monde, je puis le toucher et je juge encore qu’il existe. Là s’arrête toute ma
science, le reste est construction. Car si j’essaie de saisir ce moi dont je m’assure,
si j’essaie de le définir et de le résumer, il n’est plus qu’une eau qui coule entre
mes doigts. (E, 111)
This world, I can touch it, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my
knowledge, the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel
sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through
my fingers. (MS, 24)

This metaphor is employed in 1957 when he writes in the preface to

L’Envers et l’Endroit that the work of art must use the dark forces of
the soul – but not without channelling or creating a dam around them
so that their levels rise (E, 12). If the portrait of Meursault’s relation-
ship with Marie would appear to signify that Camus has successfully
rid his fictional universe of the phantoms associated with women, the
significance of the treatment of women in L’Étranger lies precisely in
the channelling of these “obscure forces of the soul”.
Chapter 4
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger

Comme les grandes œuvres les sentiments profonds signifient toujours plus qu’ils
n’ont conscience de le dire. (TRN, 105)
Like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of say-
ing. (MS, 17)

In his review of Sartre’s Le Mur in 1939 Camus expressed unease

about the gratuitous use of sexual description (E, 1420),1 a complaint
that could not be levelled at his own work. On the contrary, depictions
of sexual behaviour are rare. Despite the preponderance of female
characters in La Mort heureuse, references to sexuality are virtually
non-existent: they are either expressed in generalisations, or confine
women once more to the symbolic status of intermediary between man
and nature. Exceptionally, in the depiction of European women there
is no suggestion of this mystical dimension and description of the sex-
ual act itself is restricted to the encounter with Helen (MH, 119-20),
the European prostitute, where geography isolates her from the
women of the South. Helen’s disinterested kiss is, both then and later,
enigmatically described as pure (MH, 166). Jean Daniel has spoken of
Camus’s attraction to brothels, where he would listen attentively to the
conversation of prostitutes, saying that only they were honest.2 Pre-
sumably, this honesty relates to the fact that they at least have no pre-
tensions. The sexual act is a transaction and all women engage in this
with ulterior motives (whether for love, marriage, or money).
Throughout his life Camus was to compare cities, landscapes and
countries with women. Above all, he is increasingly to equate the land
of his birth with his own mother, a further ingredient in the equation
made between Algeria and innocence.3 “Être pur, c’est retrouver cette
patrie de l’âme où devient sensible la parenté du monde” (E, 75) (“Be-

Cf. his condemnation of the sexual crudity in some modern novels (E, 1136). Parts
of this and chapter 3 were first published as “The Dark Continent of Camus’s
L’Étranger”, French Studies, 55 (1) (2001), 59-73.
“Imagine Camus Happy”, BBC Radio 3, n.d.
See Jean Grenier, Albert Camus: Souvenirs, 181.
102 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ing pure means rediscovering that homeland of the soul where one
becomes sensitive to one’s kinship with the world”) writes Camus in
“L’Été à Alger”, where the purity of sexual desire is certainly associ-
ated with Algeria. In commercial Europe (C3, 329), by contrast, sex-
ual relations become a form of commodity transaction. As far as
women are concerned, a topography of sexuality can begin to be
traced over this spiritual landscape, in conformity with this Europe-
South opposition. As I have argued, the woman of French Algeria,
purified of sexuality, occupies a significant role as the biological
source of the new culture and guardian of the generations. The Euro-
pean peoples of the Mediterranean are all from the same “family”
(E, 1322), and this model governs relationships at “la Maison devant
le Monde”, resting as it does on the simultaneously paternal and sib-
ling nature of relationships there. Alluding to the above quotation
from Noces Jean Sarocchi writes instead that “être pur, c’est retrouver
cette patrie de l’âme où devient sensible la parenté du sang” (“being
pure means rediscovering that homeland of the soul where one be-
comes sensitive to the kinship of the blood”) in a suggestive misread-
ing4 – for Algeria constitutes here a spiritual landscape based on the
bonds of blood.
The form of chaste sexuality spoken of earlier is, I suggest, inti-
mately bound up with notions of racial purity and cultural priority,
because the women of Noces and “La Maison devant le monde” are
French Algerian, equally unmarked by the stigmas of race and carnal
sexuality. I have spoken of the ambiguous mixture of assimilation and
competition with respect to indigenous identity in Noces. The brown
skin of Marie in L’Étranger is the mark of such authenticity, in con-
trast to the white skin of Raymond and the people of Paris. But this
form of authenticity, as I have pointed out, does not signify the racial
mixture for which Audisio hoped. In a reversal of Homi Bhabha’s
comments on the colonial subject, authenticity requires that this colo-
nizing population must be “almost the same, but not quite”.5
In my examination of the treatment of women in L’Étranger I will
focus on this opposition between purity and sexual pollution as it op-
erates through the distinctions between French Algerian women
(Marie and Meursault’s dead mother) and the sexualized woman of
Camus (Paris: PUF, 1968), 48.
“Of Mimicry and Man: the Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” in Modern Literary
Theory: A Reader, Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh (eds) (Edward Arnold: London,
1992), 234-241 (235). This article was first published in October (28) (Spring 1984).
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 103

race, Raymond’s mistress. The presence of these figures recalls “La

Maison mauresque”, where I hypothesized that the ambivalent turn to
the mother there follows the perceived hostility and resistance of the
colonized population. The mother symbolizes birthright, authenticat-
ing subsequent claims to ownership of the Algerian soil and sky. Ac-
cordingly, the maternal symbol necessarily represents a “pure origin”.
Yet, questions of pollution through biological inheritance already sur-
face in that text. In L’Étranger this conflict finds a partial resolution
through the suppression of the actual mother at the beginning of the
book. Nevertheless, her trace remains, and I propose to show that in
L’Étranger these same issues of biology subvert the overt purity of the
maternal stereotype, underlining the fact that via female sexuality all
women are “sisters beneath the skin”.
The discourse of masculinity in L’Étranger and “L’Été à Alger”,
with its emphasis on “being a man” (E, 72), is presented as a distinc-
tive feature of Camus’s new Mediterranean culture. This particular
brand of masculinity, whose chief characteristic lay in its machismo,
was common to all the races and, as Jacques Berque points out, when
transplanted to the French metropolis, young students of both commu-
nities were united by inflated estimations of masculinity and sexuality
that distinguished them from their metropolitan counterparts.6 But if
masculinity represents a shared “taste for life” (E, 1322) casually ap-
plied to all, then the realities of cultural difference undercut superficial
similarities, for male sexuality was an arena where both patriarchal
and colonial conflicts were expressed.
Germaine Tillion also remarks on this excessive valorisation of viril-
ity, prevalent throughout Southern Europe and North Africa; the blood
feud, which compelled male relatives to murder in revenge for dis-
honour, was indissociable from a “scenario of female infidelity”. The
strict segregation of the sexes in the Muslim community led not only
to a universal (if silent) acceptance of prostitution, but to what she
calls a sexual obsession on the part of men, who made advances to any
woman if the opportunity arose.7 According to Fadela M’Rabet, in the
eyes of Arab men there are only three types of women: sisters, wives
and prostitutes. The relative freedom of European women made them

Le Maghreb entre deux guerres, 338-39.
Le Harem et les cousins (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 117-19
104 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

seem an easy and available prey, and M’Rabet suggests that they were
coveted either as a sign of personal status, or for a form of sexual re-
venge.8 For their part, European men found the absence of Algerian
women a source of humiliation: the domestic and religious lives of the
indigenous population were taboo for the settlers. For Pierre Nora, the
absence of women was a source of heated fantasy, as his own remarks
La femme musulmane se dérobe derrière son voile, mais elle n’en attire que da-
vantage. Sa réputation de docilité amoureuse est d’autant plus énervante que toute
idée de conquête militaire et de rapports féodaux s’accompagne du traditionnel
espoir de cuissage, rendu plus séduisant par un exotisme oriental qui (…) se nour-
rit encore du mirage d’un Orient lointain, des images de harem et de mille et une
nuits. Et quel homme ne serait pas jaloux d’une société polygame?9
The Muslim woman hides behind her veil, but is all the more attractive. Her repu-
tation for sexual submissiveness is more especially frustrating, as every idea of
military conquest and feudal relations is accompanied by the traditional expecta-
tion of the droit du seigneur, made all the more seductive by an exoticism which
(…) is nourished by the mirage of a faraway Orient, images of the harem and the
1001 nights. And what man would not be jealous of a polygamous society?

As to this, I cannot say, but such issues have persistently held sway
over the male imagination. Malek Alloula records fantasies of the
harem in the postcards sent from Algeria to France, depicting Algerian
women in the first half of the century.10 As Carol Shloss notes, Al-
loula’s reaction seems provoked more by the perceived dishonour to
Algerian men than concern for the women themselves, whose recircu-
lated and re-exposed images leave them “still silent, newly imprisoned
by the very text that purports to liberate them”.11
I have suggested that Camus’s dream of the new Mediterranean
race of men ignores the realities of the colonial situation. Not only
were mixed marriages extremely rare, but during the 1930s the separa-
tion between the races widened as the rich colons left the land for the
suburbs and the Europeans left the inner cities. The influx of the in-
digenous population into the towns as a result of increasing poverty
began to threaten traditional patriarchal relations as men began to lose
control of “their” women. In the face of cultural disapproval, women

La Femme algérienne (Paris: Maspero, 1965).
Les Français d’Algérie (Paris: Julliard, 1961), 175.
Le Harem colonial: images d’un sous-érotisme (Paris: Slatkine, 1981).
“Algeria conquered by postcard”, New York Times (January 1987).
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 105

sought the only employment they could find as maids (fatmas).12 At

this same time, Muslim men, in the face of their treatment in the wider
society, were turning to their family as a last refuge and source of self-
It was not only as a result of economic forces that the traditional
patriarchal system of indigenous males was being threatened, for on
the political level the long-term aims of France were a consideration.
Algeria was unique amongst the French colonies in North Africa be-
cause it was officially defined as an extension of the French mainland,
and it became three departments of France. As Kenneth Jan Dorph
points out, this French assimilation of Algerian territory created a con-
tradiction, particularly with regard to the status of women. It had been
French policy to respect the “private” customs of its conquered territo-
ries, customs which generally referred to religious beliefs. This divi-
sion between public and private essentially concerns gender relations,
given the relegation of women to the family sphere. Hence, Article 1
of the Senatus Consulte in 1865 makes specific reference to the tradi-
tional status of women: “the practice of the Muhammedan religion
will remain free... and... their women will be respected”. The status of
women in nineteenth century France was in many ways comparable to
that of Algerian women; even polygamy, alien to the French legal sys-
tem, had some similarities with concubinage. However, as French
women were to gain more rights over the course of the twentieth cen-
tury, including in 1945 the right to vote (Algerian women first voted
in 1958), this political contradiction was to become ever more appar-
ent. In 1931 the Algerian Court of Appeals overturned some elements
of the formerly inviolate personal law, such as the marriage of Muslim
women to non-Muslim men, and reforms in the laws governing mar-
riage and divorce were encouraged.14
After the liberation of Algeria from French rule these were among
the first reforms to be overturned. Hence, a major cause of conflict in
the context of colonialism (and the looming war of independence)
concerns the status of women and the patriarchal power of men. The
symbol of the veiled woman was rapidly becoming one of the few re-

Alf Heggoy, “Cultural Disrespect: European and Algerian Views on Women in
Colonial and Independent Algeria”, Muslim World, 62 (October 1972), 321-35 (329-
Ibid., 330; Le Maghreb entre deux guerres, 339.
“Islamic Law in Contemporary North Africa: A Study of the Laws of Divorce in the
Maghreb”, Women’s Studies International Forum, 5 (2) (1982), 169-82 (170-71, 172).
106 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

maining sources of power for the Muslim man.15 It must be acknowl-

edged that in reality indigenous Algerian women were neither a ho-
mogeneous group nor the passive victims of a conflict between two
sets of patriarchal interests. Indeed, many took advantage of the new
laws passed by the French to ameliorate their situation. Yet (as with
the imagery of the harem), the discourse of both sides in this struggle
has clear ideological and political overtones which entirely discount
the interests of women themselves. In a different context, Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak speaks of “woman as the ideologically excluded
other” and she comments that “if the ‘she’ is seriously introduced”
into a discussion, then the shape of the general argument might
change.16 I have attempted to illustrate this point in chapter 3; in this
instance, there can be little doubt of the degree to which Algerian
women and their interests have been ideologically excluded in argu-
ments over the veil and its symbolism. As Pierre Nora’s comments
illustrate, men’s preoccupations with the supposed fantasies of other
men seem often highly charged with a combination of moral outrage
and vicarious pleasure. In the course of the colonial conflict, the writ-
ings of Franz Fanon reveal the importance this “woman” had as-
sumed, and he relates the colonization of Algeria to the symbol of
Algeria “unveiled” without any apparent recognition of the all-too-
clear subtext concerning control over women.
Fanon records that the “battle over the veil” began in the 1930s
with the attempt to change the status of women and win them over to
French values. Still in 1959, he writes, the dream of a “total domesti-
cation” of Algerian society with the help of unveiled women “com-
plicit” with the occupier, continues to haunt the makers of colonial
policy (but not, apparently, its most vocal male subjects).17 It is not
only in Orientalist discourse that Algeria is equated with the Algerian
woman.18 Western “penetration” into this sphere is, in this view, like a
castration of the indigenous male: each veil thrown aside uncovers
horizons hitherto forbidden to the colonizers and shows them, piece
by piece, Algerian “flesh” laid bare. In stark opposition to his over-

Le Maghreb entre deux guerres, 400.
“The Politics of Interpretations”, in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics
(London: Methuen, 1987), 118-33 (129).
“L’Algérie se dévoile”, in Sociologie d’une révolution (l’an V de la révolution al-
gérienne) (Paris: Maspero, 1968), 20.
Assia Djebar powerfully makes this point in her “Regard interdit, son coupé”, in
Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Paris: des femmes, 1980).
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 107

heated fantasy of a colonial strip-tease, Fanon contends that the in-

digenous man does not “see” the veiled woman,19 an assertion flatly
denied in the writings of Djebar. Thus, while uncovering at length the
supposed sexual fantasies of the European male when faced with the
veil, he passes over in silence the attitude of the indigenous male.
Heggoy, on the other hand, notes that unaccompanied women of
all races are likely to be approached in the streets, but that European
women in particular were accosted.20 (His view of such behaviour as a
“normal, simple impulse” is one Camus himself shared. It will be re-
membered that he normalises this form of sexual harassment in La
Mort heureuse, while he noted the difference between the U.S. and his
own culture in terms of this “Mediterranean trait” while lecturing to
an audience in America.21) Berque also notes that for Algerian men,
the European woman (equally forbidden and unknown to them as was
the Algerian woman for Europeans) seemed to encapsulate all that
colonialism had destroyed.22 Exacerbated by the increased separation
of the races and reports of syphilis among the Muslim population, a
new trend became noticeable in the 1930s which became more explicit
after independence: “This was the attempt by many Algerian men to
gain revenge for their hurt pride” and they felt it proper “to conquer
the denied yet despised object, the European woman”.23 Although cer-
tain cultural activities such as football brought men together in an ap-
parent social harmony, Daniel Leconte records an atmosphere of
violence underlying all European-Arab relations:
La vie est menacée mais l’honneur l’est aussi, car ce “barbare” qui voile ses fem-
mes n’hésite pas à courtiser celles des autres. Les regarder même constitue sou-
vent pour l’Européen une agression.24
Life is threatened, but honour is as well, for this “barbarian” who veils his women
does not hesitate to court those of others. For the European man, even looking at
them often constitutes an aggression.

“L’Algérie se dévoile”, 24, 26.
“Cultural Disrespect”, 332.
Lottman records that during a question and answer session at Columbia “Camus
said that he had visited several European capitals where men would stare at women on
the streets, but it didn’t seem to happen in New York and he wanted to know why.
The question was greeted by embarrassed silence” (Albert Camus: a biography, 383).
Le Maghreb entre deux guerres, 342.
“Cultural Disrespect”, 332.
Les Pieds-Noirs: histoire et portrait d’une communauté, 161-62.
108 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Calls for independence, first voiced in Algiers around 1930, are inte-
grally bound up with this battle for power over women, a significant
source of antagonism throughout colonial rule.
In La Mort heureuse the women of the North are associated with
money, while those of the Mediterranean constitute earth’s bounty.
Set mainly in Algeria, this novel effaces colonialism so completely
that, apart from one reference to a maid (MH, 137), the indigenous
female population is not represented at all. However, given the covert
references to Arab women in “La Maison mauresque”, it seems that
the Arab woman also has her price. Camus must have known of the
status of Algiers at the turn of the century as a centre for the sex trade,
much of which was concentrated in the Casbah. Berque notes that
each town had its special district, set aside for the purpose, and to
which peasant women flocked in defiance of convention. A form of
segregation operated even in the brothels of the Maghreb between
Muslim women and Jews or Europeans, as it was not unknown for the
prostitute to refuse foreigners. However, increasing poverty provoked
a rise in the repudiation of wives and the sale of daughters, leading to
the breakdown of these conventions as prostitution spread.25
The association between Raymond and an Arab woman appears
highly unusual, nevertheless. She is introduced in the context of
money, the root cause of Raymond’s conviction that she has cheated
him. Thus the suppressed theme of sexual jealousy resurfaces, di-
verted onto a minor character, in a sordid context more reminiscent of
“commercial” Europe than of bountiful Algeria. The Arab woman
conforms to a racial stereotype of the times, yet one which has been
reduced to a squalid reality far removed from any fantasy of the
Inserting L’Étranger into the Century
Pourquoi diable aller chercher dans le siècle ce qui, en critique littéraire, se trouve
dans les textes?26
Why the devil go looking into the century for what, as literary criticism, is to be
found in the texts?

In the decades since its first publication, L’Étranger has been exhaus-
tively analysed, often without saying anything new – which is perhaps

Le Maghreb entre deux guerres, 304-05, 340.
Alain Costes, “Le double meurtre de Meursault”, in Albert Camus: Œuvre fermée,
œuvre ouverte? 55-76 (66).
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 109

understandable given the wealth of attention it has aroused. One factor

that has encouraged a diversity of explanations is, as Alec Hargreaves
suggests, bound up with the post-war process of decolonization:
“From their different positions in time and space, Camus’s readers
have inevitably approached L’Étranger with markedly contrasting
horizons of expectations”.27 It is not surprising, then, that issues of
colonialism and race have most starkly demonstrated the impact of a
changing readership whose concerns reflect wider social changes over
time. Nor should it be the cause for surprise that this has caused some
tension with those who would preserve their idea of a “pure” literary
criticism, immune from wider concerns. By contrast, differences be-
tween men and woman are conceived of as natural and perennial, and
hence more easy to overlook. Hence the Freudian critic Alain Costes
can question the validity of looking towards the “century” as opposed
to a hermetically sealed literary criticism while at the same time in-
serting through his analyses one of the most powerful social theories
of the twentieth century which, although itself bearing the marks of its
own class and cultural origin, universalises relationships between
women and men for all time.
The publication of L’Étranger in the years leading up to Algeria’s
war of independence focused attention on other social contradictions it
seemed to embody. The virtually non-existent Algerian readership of
the early 1940s is not that of the 1960s onwards, and once these new
reading communities were established, along with a greater political
awareness on the French mainland, attention was focused on the
book’s central event – the murder of and Arab – in a way that has not
always been welcomed by established critics.28 What is of interest
here, it seems to me, is not whether it is possible to “convict” Camus
of the charge of racism (or, indeed, of misogyny), but precisely this
tension between a critical establishment which was, in part, based on a
personal admiration for the writer himself, and conflicting interpreta-
tions which have more interest at times in making political points.
The interpretation of L’Étranger was for a long time shaped by
Sartre’s 1943 “Explication de l’Étranger”, where Le Mythe de Sisyphe

“History and Ethnicity in the reception of L’Étranger”, in Adèle King (ed.), Ca-
mus’s L’Étranger: Fifty Years On, 101-12 (102).
Reactions to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book, Camus (London: Fontana, 1970), are
particularly instructive. See, for example, André Abbou’s review, “D’un mirage
l’autre, ou les pièges de la critique symptomale” in AC 5 (1972), 179-87: Jean Gassin,
“Camus Raciste?” in AC 5 (1972), 275-78.
110 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

is viewed as the commentary on the novel, one being seen as the ex-
perience of the Absurd and the other as its philosophical justifica-
tion.29 Only towards the end of the 1950s did commentators begin to
break away from this influence, which has nevertheless remained
strong. Additionally, Camus was himself anxious to correct early (and
in his view, erroneous) interpretations of his central character. Hence,
in his avant propos to the 1955 American edition of the book, his fa-
mous assertions that Meursault, the only Christ we deserve, refuses to
lie and dies because of his passion for the truth (TRN, 1928-29). Such
repeated interventions are perceived by Philip Thody in 1961 as a
source of conflict for literary criticism per se.30 This conflict becomes
even more urgent in the late 1970s as Thody considers the growing rift
between the author’s publicised intentions and certain segments of his
readership. It was not until 1961, he comments, that “any critic sug-
gested in print that Camus’s L’Étranger could be read as a ‘racialist’
novel”. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book is “one of the best examples of
the way in which a work of art can, with the passage of time, take on a
meaning which is completely different from the proclaimed intentions
of its author”.31 Despite his earlier comments, Thody appears to mar-
shall in defence of Camus a mixture of authorial intention (Meursault
is a martyr to the truth, who is not executed for shooting an Arab but
for his failure to cry at his mother’s funeral), the reader’s identifica-
tion with Meursault (with whom “we” sympathise) and Camus’s own
political credentials (he was the first French writer “seriously to con-
cern himself with the Algeria problem”). Such preliminary remarks
soften the disturbing recognition that:
(T)he racialist undertones of L’Étranger become so easy to detect that one won-
ders why critics should have taken so long to point them out. (...) For what actu-
ally happens in L’Étranger, when seen from the standpoint of the Arabs, is a
peculiarly unpleasant example of both racialist and sexual exploitation.32

Such ambivalence is subsequently resolved by the call to another au-

thority: “I have yet to find any recognised scholar of Camus’s work
who is prepared to give (the charge of racialism) any serious consid-
eration whatsoever”.33 It appears that Thody recognised an aspect of

“Explication de l’Étranger”, Situations I (Paris: NRF Gallimard, 1947), 100.
“Meursault et la critique”, in Albert Camus: Configuration critique 5 (Paris: Revue
des Lettres Modernes, 1961), 11-23.
“Camus’s L’Étranger revisited”, Critical Quarterly 21(2) (1979), 61-69 (61).
Ibid, 62.
Ibid., 65.
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 111

the novel that he found difficult to confront, in part because of the

pressures of recognised scholarship.34 The integrity of this critic is not
in question, and it is for this reason that I cite this example as an illus-
tration of how the weight of a prevailing orthodoxy may stifle con-
tinuing debate. Although today, even in Camusian circles, it would be
impossible not to associate Camus’s prose fiction with colonialism,
much of this debate has taken place outside of these circles.
What rarely varies in such discussions, on the other hand, is a con-
tinuing ideological exclusion of women. I have pointed out in this
chapter the degree to which women themselves have been discounted
in arguments over the veil. Spivak further identifies as a mark of ide-
ology at work “excluding or appropriating a homogeneous woman”,35
a procedure which consistently recurs in Camus’s works and their in-
terpretations. With respect to the dead mother in L’Étranger, it is pre-
cisely her exclusion as a living being that allows her appropriation as a
By resituating women in the social context from which Camus’s
female characters are drawn, I have tried to show that this dimension
is far less negligible than is often supposed. The depiction of the Alge-
rian mistress reflects discourses about indigenous women while simul-
taneously indicating a highly charged political dimension hidden in
the novel. This is easy to overlook precisely because it is rooted in the
sexual and racial stereotype. If the racial stereotype has since acquired
political significance, the same cannot be said of the sexual stereotype
in Camusian studies, and critical assumptions about the Algerian mis-
tress are de-politicised once these stereotypes converge in this figure.
The power of the stereotype lies precisely in the fact that it relies on
shared social prejudices and beliefs. Unchallenged assumptions about
women continue to permeate the secondary literature, and to shore up
the supposition that the female figures in Camus’s works are of impor-
tance solely with regard to a personal and emotional (a-political and
non-intellectual) dimension.
As my concern is with the treatment of women in this work, I pro-
pose to examine the female character most often overlooked and yet
who functions, I suggest, as the touchstone for all the others in the
book; Raymond’s mistress functions not only as a foil, conferring pu-

Cf. Louise K. Horowitz, “Of Women and Arabs: Sexual and Racial Polarization in
Camus”, Modern Language Studies 17 (3) (1987), 54-61.
“The Politics of Interpretations”, 120.
112 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

rity upon Marie and the dead mother, but her presence also reveals an
underlying connection between all women that undermines their rep-
resentation as pure. The recognition of her importance in L’Étranger
partly entails “searching into the century”, as I have done, in order to
restore the sexual, social and political dimensions of the novel. As I
have argued, not only was the Muslim woman a major preoccupation
of both communities at this time, but she above all symbolised the
brewing conflict.
Although attention has focused on the murder of the Arab, the like-
lihood is that the sister herself was the first ingredient in the book. It is
well-known that for a time work on La Mort heureuse overlaps with
writings which eventually went into L’Étranger, and that some scenes
from the abandoned novel were re-used. From the evidence of the
Carnets the first two pieces independent of La Mort heureuse to be
textually incorporated into L’Étranger are as follows. In May, 1938,
the first fragment concerning the old woman in the home appears,
along with the Arab nurse and the old man (here a gravedigger) who is
to become Thomas Pérez. This is followed by notes for “L’Été à Al-
ger”, and between August and December, 1938, three scenes entitled
“Belcourt”, the third of which concerns the “histoire de R.” (C1, 122-
23). This outlines the story that will go into L’Étranger, incorporating
details about money, his ill-treatment of the woman, and many of
Raymond’s own words, along with the comment that Raymond is a
“tragic” character because of his wish to humiliate her (C1, 123). The
last sentence of this section is “c’est une Arabe”. The final positioning
of this short sentence throws the entire emphasis on her race, and
serves as a comment on what has gone before. Given the context of
the scene (life in Belcourt, extracts not unlike “Les Voix du quartier
pauvre”) and the period during which it was written (when Camus was
working on Noces) it seems highly likely that this insertion of an Arab
woman serves a dual purpose: importantly, it demonstrates that Ray-
mond is not racist, as it is the anonymous narrator and not he who
draws attention to this.36 The choice of an Arab as the victim in
L’Étranger has been the cause of much debate, and explanations range
from the need for a “forgettable” murder, to the hypothesis that in
choosing the Arab, Camus was revealing his own repressed desire to
eradicate the indigenous population from the face of the country. This

In Le Premier Homme Camus again depicts brawls between Arabs and Europeans
as not motivated by racial hostilities, despite the belief of Arab bystanders (PH, 258).
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 113

entire incident appears consciously selected in order precisely to dem-

onstrate that race was not a factor in this particular conflict. Apart
from speculations about the substitution of the term “mauresque”,
there is no indication of racial motive on the part of Raymond or
Meursault in the initial plan to punish Raymond’s mistress. Far from
demonstrating an inexplicable insensitivity to the implications of his
plot, at a time when he himself had been involved in reporting on the
famine in Kabylia, it would seem plausible to suggest that Camus was
here concerned to show through the medium of fiction that the aver-
age French Algerian man in the street was not implicated in the op-
pression of the colonized population.
A second purpose served by the insertion of the Arab woman is
that it again takes up the preoccupation with the story of sexual jeal-
ousy from La Mort heureuse. The incident concerning the Arab
woman becomes isolated from her race, serving as a cautionary tale
about the dangers of placing too much emphasis on one woman alone:
had Raymond adopted a more “lucid” view, such as that espoused by
Meursault in his association with Marie, then he would not have been
trapped in this obsessive relationship, with the consequences that en-
sue. On the surface, then, her race is not a factor. Yet the combination
of sexuality and race here suggests a dangerous sexuality which again
contrasts with the domesticated form displayed in the character of
Marie. As I have earlier noted, the scenario depicted is central to ac-
tual hostilities between the French Algerian and the Arab male popu-
lation, which concern both colonial and patriarchal power.
Thody’s pinpointing of “racial and sexual exploitation” in 1979
was preceded in 1961 by the recognition that Meursault, this “martyr
to the truth”, lies not to save a “mate” but to facilitate the persecution
of an indigenous woman who “might well be innocent”.37 In 1946,
Cyril Connolly’s introduction to the first English edition of
L’Étranger raises the “failure of sensibility on the part of Camus that
the other sufferer in his story, the Moorish girl whose lover beats her
up and whose brother is killed when trying to avenge her, is totally
forgotten”.38 As consensus develops about the meaning of the book,
she takes her place as a minor character in a story that raises larger
issues. In the main, she remains totally forgotten, “political” or “per-

“Meursault et la critique”, 15.
Introduction to the first English edition of The Outsider (London: Hamish Hamil-
ton, 1946), 10 (my emphasis).
114 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

sonal” interpretations having overshadowed her. When circumstance

dictates she, along with other minor female characters, may be exhib-
ited to sustain differing interpretations. Thus, Jan Rigaud uses this
character to defend Camus from charges of racism. With no textual
evidence to support his claim, he remarks that Raymond was disliked
not because his mistress was an Arab but because he was a pimp.
“More significant(ly)”, he argues, she is protected by both the French
Algerian community and by French law:
Regardless of the victim’s racial background, justice for Camus must prevail for
all and should know no boundary. While a maudlin woman, who could have been
charged with prostitution, is let go, a baffled Raymond is ordered to appear at po-
lice headquarters.39

I cite this curious comment because it demonstrates how defending the

“good name” of the author has so often conflicted with the interests of
literary criticism per se. On a more general level, unexamined social
stereotypes allow this same critic to categorise her treatment as a “per-
sonal and domestic conflict”40 and hence by a mysterious process iso-
lated from the social and political dimension. Patrick McCarthy
likewise makes this arbitrary distinction, while reversing Rigaud’s
conclusion. He comments that as we do not at first know the race of
the mistress we interpret the fight as an issue of control over women.
The discovery of her race then invites us to re-read the previous pages
and to re-interpret them in terms of colonial politics.41 Thus McCarthy
conflates two distinct forms of oppression into the presumably more
important political one.
In Alain Costes’s attempt to exonerate Camus of charges of racism,
he confronts the question of why the victim of the murder is an Arab,
and why Meursault “kills” him twice. He finds in Camus’s earlier
works nine versions of the inability to mourn the death of a mother,
and six versions of a sadistic brother who forbids his sister to see the
man of her choice. In L’Étranger, he suggests, this brother becomes
an Arab who strictly supervises his sister.42 Noting that Arab women
are even rarer in Camus’s works than Arab men, Costes draws atten-
tion to the 1933 text, “La Maison mauresque”. Here, what he alights

“The Depiction of Arabs in L’Étranger”, in Camus’s L’Étranger: Fifty Years On,
183-92 (187). Raymond is close here to being viewed as the tragic figure suggested in
the Carnets.
“The Depiction of Arabs in L’Étranger”, 188.
Albert Camus, The Stranger, 48.
“Le Double meurtre de Meursault”, 57-62, 64.
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 115

on is not the evocation of the very Arab woman whose absence he has
noted, nor the frame of reference of the Casbah, city of prostitutes,
which a “search” into the century might reveal, but the colour blue
(which is linked with Arabs). Costes’s interpretation of the murder43
paints the woman as flighty and promiscuous, her brother as a power-
ful overseer who wishes to control his sister’s amorous adventures.44
However, this brother, if he is so fiercely possessive of his sister, must
also be a miserable failure in this respect as she is already linked with
Raymond: if he is protecting her honour then he is, to say the least, a
little slow. Moreover, this analysis entirely effaces what appears to be
the actual reason for the brother’s grievance, i.e., Raymond’s habitual
mistreatment of her and his threat that this is not over (TRN, 1150). It
is not my intention to suggest here that although the brother was pre-
viously happy about his sister’s behaviour, he objects only to the vio-
lence done to her (a cursory glance in the direction of the century
would suggest otherwise), but to point to the reversal of the actual
situation whereby Raymond becomes the third party in a quarrel es-
sentially between siblings. Additionally, Costes’s analysis diverts this
network of relationships onto the psychological relationship between
mother and son.
Indeed, the mother herself has become an all-purpose symbol not
unlike the Arab woman. Although psychoanalytical approaches have
made a rich contribution to the study of Camus, the troubling tendency
of such analyses to reduce all female figures to avatars of the mother45
recalls Spivak’s identification of the homogeneous woman, excluded
or appropriated, as a mark of ideology at work. With respect to
women, there is unity on both sides of the “racism debate”. In
McCarthy’s discussion of the Arab nurse he effectively effaces her
from the social map through her association with the mother figure.
Her disease, he contends, “removes her from history” by contrast with
Raymond’s mistress, who is the object of political (but not sexual?)

Briefly, the murder of the Arab is firstly an oedipal killing of the brother as brother
and paternal figure: secondly, it is a killing of the Arab as aggressor of Camus’s own
“Le Double meurtre de Meursault”, 71.
Cf. Vicky Mistacco, “Mama’s Boy: Reading Woman in L’Étranger”, in Camus’s
“L’Étranger”: Fifty Years On, 152-69. Mistacco contends that such psychoanalytic
interpretations “have instituted and reinforced a kind of doxa, a rigid hermeneutic grid
that only permits repetition of the same, phallocentrism, and generates the greatest
degree of critical excitement around the ideas of incest and castration” (152-53).
116 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

oppression.46 Through an analysis of the text, and reference to “Entre

Oui et non”, McCarthy establishes a link between this nurse, the
mother figure and the Arab. In “Entre Oui et non”, he suggests, “the
Arab (shares) in the authenticity with which the mother is endowed”.
He concludes that the nurse, through association with Meursault’s
mother, unites the psychoanalytical and political components of the
If Meursault may be said first to kill his mother and then in the second half of the
book to atone and (...) to be reconciled with her, then the way he achieves this is
to strike at her other self, the Arab. If the murder of the Arab is the act of a pied-
noir community seeking to assume the authenticity that it admires and resents in
the Arab, then this can only be done by striking at the mother.47

Here, the mother, Arab, and the Arab nurse are conflated in a manner
that robs each of a separate identity or function, making them inter-
changeable. The invitation to see the mother as a symbol is of course
proffered by Camus himself, who not only presents her as a symbolic
figure but describes her in this way in a fragment of his earlier writ-
ings (noted in chapter 1) where she is seen as his “instrument” linking
him with his childhood world of poverty. Although I have suggested
that this figure represents a form of authenticity, I shall argue that in
L’Étranger she “authenticates” the protagonist in a different way: her
presence diverts attention from the Arab and effaces his presence. On
the other hand, her similarities with Arab women destabilise the no-
tion of authenticity as being “like, but not quite”.48
In 1970 Roland Wagner pointed out that “it is almost too easy to
psychoanalyze The Stranger”.49 Indeed, psychoanalytical interpreta-
tions have proliferated, all based on the mother-son relationship, and
in a manner which diverts attention from other features of the book.50
From the first sentence of L’Étranger our attention is drawn to the

“The First Arab in L’Étranger”, Celfan Review /Revue Celfan, 4 (3) (May 1985),
(23-26), 24.
Ibid., 25, 26.
“Of Mimicry and Man”, 235.
“The Silence of the Stranger”, 31.
The earliest reviews of the novel focused on this aspect of the novel. See, for exam-
ple, Fieschi, “L’Étranger par Albert Camus”, N.R.F. 30 (343) (September 1942), 364-
70. In “The last four shots: problems of intention and Camus’s The Stranger”, Ameri-
can Imago 45 (4) (1988), 359-74, George Makari pertinently notes that such attempts
to unravel Meursault’s desires lead to a perverse collusion in which “nearly every
critic (addresses) the inner workings of the murderer’s mind, while dismissing his
victim as mere narrative device” (369).
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 117

significance of this maternal figure, and the son’s relationship to her.

We are invited to read the book from this optic, and to look for clues
as to the son’s feelings about his mother. Indeed, in part 1, this rela-
tionship is not only central in the first chapter, but chapters 2-5 con-
clude with references to the mother. Likewise, the scene of the murder
in chapter 6 expressly compares the day to that of the funeral (TRN,
1166), and is reinforced by numerous symbolic references that have
often been pointed out. The second part of the book makes such “hid-
den” references explicit by judging Meursault as a son rather than a
murderer. It is this fact that makes the protagonist seem innocent, for
although his feelings about his mother are ambivalent this does not
mark him either as abnormal or as having killed her. Thus, his pun-
ishment is excessive and unjust, and in this sense he is an “innocent
This effect is produced by thematic parallels between the two parts
which overlay its structural disjunction. René Girard long ago pointed
out this structural flaw in the novel, commenting that:
(T)he irritating cult of motherhood and the alleged profundities of the absurd must
not obscure the main issue. (...) Do we really believe that the French judicial sys-
tem is ruthlessly dedicated to the extermination of little bureaucrats addicted to
café au lait, Fernandel movies, and casual affairs with the boss’s secretary? 51

Two narratives run concurrently in the book; the first concerns the
death of a mother, and the son’s reactions to this death; the second
concerns his involvement in a dispute over the possession and control
of an Arab woman, and the resultant blood feud. The outcome of this
second sequence of events is murder, yet the logical chain of cause
and effect is here dislodged so that the trial becomes a pretext not for
the examination of the murder, but for the examination of the son’s
emotions. This first narrative overlays the second and appears to pro-
vide a coherent sequence of events which diverts attention from this
disjunction, seeming to confirm that “in our society every man who
does not cry at his mother’s funeral risks being condemned to death”
(TRN, 1928).
Hence, the symbolic significance of the maternal stereotype au-
thenticates both the murder and Meursault’s innocence. Furthermore,
parallels often noted between the defunct mother and Salamano’s dog
divert attention from a much more striking parallel with the living Al-
gerian woman. The introduction of Raymond is directly framed by a

“Camus’s Stranger Retried”, 523.
118 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

conversation with Salamano about his dog, and the moaning of the
dog (TRN, 1143, 1147). Meursault participates in Raymond’s pro-
jected further assault of his mistress by writing the letter to her, which
was composed of “coups de pied et en même temps des choses pour la
faire regretter” (TRN, 1146) (“kicks and at the same time things that
would make her regret”), a mixture of affection and violence that mir-
rors Salamano’s relationship with his dog: “je la tapais, mais tendre-
ment, pour ainsi dire. Elle criait un peu. Je fermais les volets et ça
finissait comme toujours” (TRN, 1145) (“I used to hit her, but in a
tender sort of way. She’d cry out a bit. I’d close the shutters and it’d
end as it always did”). This is reinforced by textual links between
Salamano and his dog and Raymond and his mistress, such as Meur-
sault’s comment one could never know about others’ relationships
(TRN, 1142, 1145). But this parallel is effaced by the direct reference
to the dead mother at the end of their conversation (TRN, 1146).
Meursault’s sado-masochistic impulse can then be interpreted as pri-
marily one against his dead mother rather than as an identification
with Raymond and his wish to punish the Algerian woman. The the-
ory that Meursault is unable to elaborate a process of mourning for his
absent mother thus obfuscates his actual collaboration in the control
and punishment of this present female figure, a form of control at the
heart of the discourse of masculinity embodied in the novel and which
is seen in “L’Été à Alger” as integral to Algerian everyday life.
It is in the spirit that “entre hommes on se comprenait toujours”
(TRN, 1146) (“men always understood one another”) that Raymond
first tells Meursault about his fight with the other man. The Arab is
depicted as speaking the same language of masculinity: “Descends du
tram si tu es un homme. (...) Il m’a dit que je n’étais pas un homme”
(TRN, 1143) (“Get down from the tram if you’re a man. (…) He told
me I wasn’t a man”). Despite the partiality of Raymond’s account,
Meursault, usually so neutral, instantly agrees that Raymond was right
and the other at fault (TRN, 1144). When Raymond goes on to tell him
“his story”, in a context where he has total control over money and
strictly regulates his mistress’s activities, it is he who becomes her
victim, even though it is he who had beaten her until she had bled
(TRN, 1145).
The Dirty Joke
Although Meursault might seem the passive and chance third party, he
in fact participates in the punishment of the Arab woman through his
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 119

encouragement of Raymond. Indeed, this role of the passive listener is

a crucial one, a point made by Freud in his consideration of the smutty
joke. Originally directed at a woman who is the object of a hostile or
obscene intention, the joke requires a third person with whom it is
(I)n addition to the one who makes the joke, there must be a second who is taken
as the object of the hostile or sexual aggressiveness, and a third in whom the
joke’s aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled. (...) It is not the person who makes
the joke who laughs at it and who therefore enjoys its pleasurable effect, but the
inactive listener.52

This third person thus becomes his ally, before whom the woman is
exposed and, according to Freud, he becomes like the spectator of an
act of sexual aggression. The exposure of the woman in L’Étranger is
effected by the explicitly sexual language (“il avait encore un senti-
ment pour son coït” (TRN, 1145) (“he still thought she was a good
screw”) and the detailing of the nature of the proposed punishment: “il
coucherait avec elle et ‘juste au moment de finir’ il lui cracherait à la
figure et il la mettrait dehors” (TRN, 1146) (“He’d sleep with her and
‘right at the crucial moment’ he’d spit in her face and throw her out”).
Of such language, Freud contends that “the utterance of the obscene
words (…) compels the person who is assailed to imagine the parts of
the body or the procedure in question and shows her that the assailant
himself is imagining it. It cannot be doubted that the desire to see what
is sexual exposed is the original motive of smut”.53 Here, as the re-
cipients of the joke, Meursault and the reader are equally implicated
by imagining the situation and filling in the details.54 This degradation
of the woman to her sexual function has the effect of making her des-
picable, so that Raymond achieves “in a roundabout way the enjoy-
ment of overcoming (her) – to which the third person, who has made
no efforts, bears witness”.55
This identification does not signify identity. Whereas in La Mort
heureuse it is the protagonist who suffers from jealousy and hence
dependency on women, in L’Étranger this mark of inferiority is trans-

Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, James Strachey (tr.),
Angela Richards (ed.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), 143.
Ibid., 143.
In “Le sadisme dans l’œuvre de Camus”, in AC6 (1973) (121-44), Jean Gassin
rightly draws attention to the sadistic and voyeuristic element in Meursault’s behav-
iour. On Meursault’s part, however, he regards this as directed at the mother.
Jokes, 147.
120 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ferred onto Raymond, leaving Meursault himself untainted. Further-

more, as a disinterested third party, Meursault’s conduct cannot leave
him open to charges of being motivated by jealousy as that of his
predecessor may be. I previously suggested that Raymond’s unprepos-
sessing white skin sets him apart from those such as Marie and Meur-
sault himself, while the monetary nature of his sexual relationship
further distances him from “authenticity” in this new culture.56 Ray-
mond is entangled in a relationship from which he is unable to extri-
cate himself; his vulnerability, translated as the inability to relinquish
control over this woman,57 renders him the “tragic” character initially
described in the Carnets.
Meursault is not Raymond’s “dupe”. Unlike Meursault himself, he
falls far short of the discourse of masculinity he espouses, and his atti-
tude towards women is not that of “my pal Vincent” in “L’Été à Al-
ger” (E, 69). Raymond is incapable even of writing his own letter, and
constantly worries about the presence of the Arabs. From an appar-
ently disinterested stance Meursault is the one who takes over Ray-
mond’s quarrel, carrying it to its conclusion and thus demonstrating
what it is to “be a man”. Meursault’s initial encouragement through
his agreement that there had been some some sort of deception, and
that he understood why Raymond wants to punish his mistress (TRN,
1145) escalates when he takes Raymond’s place in writing the letter,
while this identification is most explicit during the scenes directly pre-
ceding the murder,58 to the extent that Meursault takes the place of
Raymond in the final confrontation.
Brian Fitch suggests that during the course of the trial Meursault
begins to see himself through the eyes of others, and he illustrates this
by singling out the passage where Raymond’s evidence is examined

Meursault, usually so amenable to Raymond, refuses to go with him to the brothel,
because “je n’aime pas ça” (TRN, 1150) (“I don’t like that sort of thing”).
His threat to the woman that they will meet again (TRN, 1150) belies the insistence
that it is now “une histoire finie” (TRN, 1159) (“end of story”), while his feelings are
put in doubt by the dual meaning in his words, “tu m’as manqué” (TRN, 1149)
(“You’ve let me down” / “I’ve missed you”).
This is demonstrated by the use of words such as “our two Arabs”, “our arrival”
(TRN, 1163): Meursault’s appropriation of Raymond’s phrase that “pour moi, c’était
une histoire finie” (TRN, 1165) (“for me it was the end of the story”); his claim that he
had returned to the scene without thinking (TRN, 1165), which is put in question by
his earlier suspicion that Raymond knew where he was going (TRN, 1163); and the
fact that not only does Meursault take the gun from Raymond without returning it, but
he offers to shoot the other Arab for him (TRN, 1164).
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 121

by the prosecution lawyer. Indirect speech disappears and the prosecu-

tor’s use of the word “he” is translated as “I”, so that Meursault him-
self seems to say that “j’étais son complice et son ami” (TRN, 1191)
(“I was his accomplice and friend”). For Fitch, instead of giving us his
own point of view, Meursault assumes the judgement passed on him
by others.59 Such complexity obscures, however, that this is a state-
ment of fact, a form of indirect direct confession. It will be remem-
bered that when Raymond first recounts his story to Meursault this
passage also is rendered in direct speech, unusual for this text, and
inviting the direct identification of which I have spoken.
The very clear parallel is with Salamano and his dog, which was
acquired as a substitute for his wife.60 Yet, as I have pointed out, the
reference here to the mother, which introduces the groaning of the dog
(TRN, 1147), effects a change in focus that re-interprets Meursault’s
participation in the light of this relationship, and from the point of
view which the reader is invited to adopt, which is from the vantage
point of Meursault’s feelings about the death of his mother. Thus the
dead mother “rescues” him from charges of direct involvement in ra-
cial and sexual oppression, diverting attention to his assumed unex-
pressed ambivalence.
Race is more convincingly here presented as irrelevant than in the
first formulation of the Carnets, where it clumsily drew attention to
itself. In this later version it is no longer the anonymous narrator who
discloses that she is “an Arab” but Meursault, who remarks upon it,
information casually revealed as an indirect result of his writing the
letter (TRN, 1146). In this process the question of her race is more ef-
fectively erased while exculpating both men of any racist motive.
Meursault, then, is entirely detached from any personal involvement.
Yet his identification with Raymond undercuts this seeming detach-

“Aspects de l’emploi du discours indirect libre dans L’Étranger”, 87.
This parallel is later reinforced by a perhaps coincidental similarity. When Sala-
mano loses his dog (immediately after Raymond has likewise “lost” his mistress), he
is advised to seek her at la fourrière (TRN, 1151). “La fourrière humaine” was a term
employed to describe the cell in which women were kept after their arrest for prostitu-
tion. See Jean-Marc Berlière La Police des mœurs sous la IIIe République (Paris:
Seuil, 1992), 31. One might see here a further parallel with the mother, sent to the
122 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The Dark Continent

In L’Étranger the Arab woman is charged with the representation of a
treacherous and fascinating sexuality which acts as a foil in relation to
both Marie and the mother figure.61 The way this marginalised charac-
ter has been ignored in critical reactions parallels the representation of
black women in the Hollywood cinema, as traced by Mary Ann Do-
ane.62 In a discussion of the role played by the repression of the in-
stincts as a necessary condition for the development of civilization and
a parallel repression of infantile sexuality as the child grows to adult-
hood, Freud commented that:
We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not
feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a “dark
continent” for psychology.63

Thus he clearly connects female sexuality with the racial notion of

“primitiveness”. Doane points out that this trope of the dark continent
denotes “an intricate historical articulation of the categories of racial
difference and sexual difference”, and, following Sander L. Gilman,
she argues that “the exotic and the erotic were welded together, situat-
ing the African woman as the signifier of an excessive, incommensur-
able sexuality”.64 Gilman traces a history of the visual representations
of the black woman and the white woman in paintings and literature of
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, showing how the presence of
the black woman (often as a servant or child) came to signify the
availability of the sexualized white woman in the same painting. The
white woman may look beautiful, but the black woman’s presence is
the outward sign of the former’s inner corruption. These associations
between female sexuality and race were to become manifest with the
syphilophobia of the late nineteenth century, of which Gilman com-

In Les Mythes dans l’œuvre de Camus (Paris: Éditions universitaires, 1973),
Monique Crochet argues that the traditional motif of the sexually treacherous woman
who brings about the hero’s downfall is absent from L’Étranger. Her consideration of
the book entirely overlooks the Arab woman.
“Dark Continents: Epistemologies of Racial and Sexual Difference in Psychoanaly-
sis and the Cinema” in Femmes Fatales. Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis
(New York, London: Routledge, 1991) 209-248.
“The Question of Lay Analysis: Conversations with an impartial person” in The
Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XX
(London: Hogarth Press, 1953), 212. The term “dark continent” is in English in the
“Dark Continents”, 212-213.
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 123

ments that “black females do not merely represent the sexualized fe-
male, they also represent the female as the source of corruption and
disease”.65 In L’Étranger, Marie’s purity is established by contrast
with the Algerian mistress, while the latter’s presence simultaneously
subverts this purity.
Of Zola’s Nana, who develops smallpox, Gilman points out that
“the decaying visage is the visible sign of the diseased genitalia
through which the sexualized female corrupts an entire nation of war-
riors”.66 These observations return me to a consideration of the first
Arab in L’Étranger whose nose has been eaten away by cancer. I ear-
lier referred to the parallel drawn by McCarthy between the mother
figure, the Arab nurse, and Arabs in general. But McCarthy’s deter-
mination to equate the mother and Arab in a positive form of authen-
ticity blinds him to the ambiguities of their depiction. This is
combined with the unwillingness to allow sufficient weight to the sex-
ual oppression on which I earlier commented. He remarks that “rather
than making her an object of political oppression like Raymond’s mis-
tress, her disease takes her outside of history”. Further, he suggests
that because of her facial disfigurement the nurse, like the mother, is
not cast in “an overtly sexual role”.67 On the contrary, the mark on her
face places her very firmly in history, and points up the associations to
which Gilman refers between race, female sexuality and disease. Dur-
ing the first part of the twentieth century the widespread fear of syphi-
lis amongst the indigenous population in Algeria contributed to the
segregation of the races. The “nez rongé” (“decaying nose”) was a
common sign in the countryside of such venereal contagion.68 Al-
though the condition was in decline in the 1940s, this particular racial
stereotype would have been recognised by a French Algerian reader-
ship and it is one that aligns the nurse (and indirectly the mother) with
another powerful stereotype, which was that the colonized woman

“Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late
Nineteenth Century Art, Medicine, and Literature”, Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn
1985), 204-42 (221, 231). See also Zine Magubane’s important critique of Gilman,
“Which Bodies Matter? Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoreti-
cal Odyssey of the ‘Hottentot Venus’”, Gender and Society, 15 (6) (Dec., 2001), 816-
Ibid., 235.
“The First Arab in L’Étranger”, 24.
Le Maghreb entre deux guerres, 88-89.
124 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

shared many physical and mental traits common to the European pros-
Gilman’s article refers to the pathological model that was applied
to both female sexuality and race during the nineteenth century; the
notion of sexual excess, associated with race, came to be seen as a
congenital disease:
The model of degeneracy presumes some acquired pathology in one generation
which is the direct cause of the stigmata of degeneracy in the next. Surely the best
example for this is the concept of congenital syphilis as captured in the popular
consciousness by Henrik Ibsen’s drama of biological decay, Ghosts.69

It will be remembered that the first entrance of the mother in Camus’s

youthful writings is in the epigraph from this very play, in “La Maison
mauresque”, and I commented on its high degree of ambivalence in
chapter 1. These observations endow the shared authenticity of mother
and Arab with a far greater degree of complexity than McCarthy is
prepared to allow, and I suggest that this follows from his inability to
differentiate between the maternal stereotype and the physical and
human status of this character. Camus may have determined that the
mother figure was to become a symbol in his writing, but this move
cannot entirely extricate her from the associations of her biological
status as a woman and a mother.
Camus’s text introduces the colonized woman in a more explicitly
sexual manner than in any of his other works. Despite affinities be-
tween the white woman and the black woman, as exemplified by the
figure of the European prostitute, the white woman is simultaneously
opposed as a symbol of purity. Such a polar opposition is apparent in
L’Étranger, where the indigenous woman signifies sexual excess,
while Marie and the figure of the mother represent an ideal of purity.
Marie’s visit to the prison, when she is surrounded by Moorish women
(TRN, 1176), further points up such a contrast.
I spoke in chapter 3 of the desexualisation of Marie’s relationship
with Meursault. Sexual desire is expressed in an innocent (although
fetishistic) way: “J’ai eu très envie d’elle parce qu’elle avait une belle
robe (…) et des sandales de cuir” (TRN, 1148) (“I really fancied her
because she was wearing a pretty dress (…) and leather sandals”). Via
the juxtaposition of Marie and the Arab mistress a less “pure” sexual-
ity is exposed in association with Marie. In this same scene, Marie has
stayed the night and the two are to eat together. Meursault has heard

“Black Bodies, White Bodies”, 218.
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 125

the voice of the Arab woman in Raymond’s room, so that he knows

not only what is happening (thanks to Raymond’s earlier lurid descrip-
tion), but what is about to happen. Immediately after hearing the Arab
woman’s voice, that of Salamano is introduced: “Salaud, charogne”
(TRN, 1148) (“Filthy, lousy animal”) – as if in anticipation of Ray-
mond’s voice. One might speculate that this secret knowledge adds a
pornographic spice to Meursault’s relationship with the woman in his
room. He implicates the unknowing Marie in this episode by telling
her not the story of Raymond but its counterpart, the story of Sala-
mano and his dog – at which, as if sharing this “dirty joke”:
(E)lle a ri. Elle avait un de mes pyjamas dont elle avait retroussé les manches.
Quand elle a ri, j’ai eu encore envie d’elle. Un moment après, elle m’a demandé si
je l’aimais. Je lui ai répondu que cela ne voulait rien dire, mais qu’il me semblait
que non. Elle a eu l’air triste. Mais en préparant le déjeuner, et à propos de rien,
elle a encore ri de telle façon que je l’ai embrassée. C’est à ce moment que les
bruits d’une dispute ont éclaté chez Raymond. (TRN, 1149)
(S)he laughed. She was wearing a pair of my pyjamas with the sleeves rolled up.
When she laughed, I fancied her again. A moment after, she asked me if I loved
her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so. She looked
sad. But as we were getting lunch ready, and for no apparent reason, she laughed
again, so I kissed her. It was at that point we heard a row break out in Raymond’s
room. (TO, 38: translation amended)

The first lines of this quotation underline the function of constant ref-
erences to Marie’s clothes, disguising the immediacy of cause and
effect, for Meursault’s desire is linked to her laughter and her innocent
implication in an entirely different sexual scenario. Once more, their
own (possible) sexual activity is lost in the silence between the words,
for sexual desire is brought abruptly to a full stop, while the following
words (“a moment after”) prompt the question “after what?” The sex-
ual charge in this scene depends on the interplay of contrast and simi-
larity between Marie and the Arab prostitute, recalling Gilman’s
comments about the presence of the black woman as a signifier of the
white woman’s sexuality. Furthermore, Marie’s emotional concerns
are diminished in such a setting. Framed by two such examples of
“love”, Marie’s question becomes itself a joke, while the truth of
Meursault’s response is simultaneously demonstrated by both Sala-
mano and Raymond.
Parallels between Meursault and Marie, and Raymond and his mis-
tress have the effect of putting Marie in her “place”, one that cannot
compare with the understanding “between men”. Whereas Raymond
prepared a meal and shared it with Meursault during the planning of
126 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

the woman’s punishment, when Meursault prepares a meal for Marie

this scene ends in Meursault alone eating the food without comment.
Her voice is negated by the use of indirect speech: to her expression of
horror, Meursault does not reply, and refuses to fetch the police on the
grounds that he “didn’t like” them (TRN, 1149). The Arab woman
likewise speaks an incomprehensible language: we hear only her
“voix aiguë”, but Raymond’s voice is endowed with meaning: “Tu
m’as manqué, tu m’as manqué. Je vais t’apprendre à me manquer”
(TRN, 1149) (“You’ve let me down, you’ve let me down. I’ll teach
you to let me down”): like a dog, “la femme a hurlé, (...) la femme
criait toujours, (...) la femme a pleuré” (TRN, 1149) (“the woman
howled, (…) the woman was still crying out, (…) the woman cried”).
Her only direct speech consists only of the words “il m’a tapée, c’est
un maquereau” (TRN, 1150) (“He hit me. He’s a pimp”), which she
repeats, while crying, throughout Raymond’s interchange with the
policeman. Here, the focus is on his loss of face before Meursault.
Both her speech and that of Marie are equally devoid of meaning, and
she plays the same marginal role in this scene as she has in the book,
which is as a catalyst. It is difficult to see how this “maudlin”
woman’s crying could be called the first “cry of revolt”.70
Marie’s individuality has no greater importance than the clothes
she wears. During their second conversation about love and marriage
this “equivalence” between women is underlined (TRN, 1154), for her
importance resides purely in the fact that she is the one who is there.
This is reinforced towards the end of the book when Meursault imag-
ines her dead, and of no further interest to him (TRN, 1204-5). In ex-
actly the same way, “le chien de Salamano valait autant que sa
femme” (TRN, 1209) (“Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his
wife”). The Arab woman is the one with no substitute, and to her
Raymond constantly returns, his punishment of her infinitely pro-
longed, never completed. As I have pointed out, Meursault’s interven-
tion in this relationship suggests an involvement which belies his
apparent indifference towards women. Although his relationship with
Marie presents him as “lucid” in his relationships with women, his
failure to adopt this such an attitude with regard to the Algerian
woman is the ultimate cause of his downfall – a factor that disrupts the
portrait of him validated by Marie’s presence.

McCarthy, The Stranger, 18.
The Dark Continent of L’Étranger 127

At other times, race provides a foil for the character of Marie. Her
prison visit is framed by references to both race and marriage. Firstly
her letter is mentioned, which informs Meursault that she is not an
officially recognised visitor because she is not his wife (TRN, 1175).
This prefigures the depiction of Marie as his mistress at the trial, and
hence indistinguishable in the eyes of the administration from the Al-
gerian woman. Her visit directly follows the recital of the incident
where the other prisoners, mainly Arabs, help Meursault to arrange his
mattress (TRN, 1175). Although this scene has been interpreted as an
indication of the solidarity between the Arab prisoners and Meursault,
and of an understanding for his situation, McCarthy is right to point
out that there are no other echoes of this theme,71 nor is it integrated
into the book, except during the prison visit where the issue of race is
once more foregrounded, and Marie is introduced as being “sur-
rounded” by Algerian women (TRN, 1176). She is likewise set be-
tween the figures of the talkative wife and the silent mother and son,
whose communication is depicted as intuitive and beyond words
(TRN, 1176). Although “surrounded by Arab women”, her immediate
neighbours are two pied-noir women, a wife and a mother. As fiancée,
Marie stands between the two categories,72 at times smiling and silent
like the mother, at times shouting out empty phrases of encourage-
ment like the wife. The valorisation of the mother-son relationship in
this scene is clear, and it is contrasted not only with that between
Marie and Meursault, but with that of husband and wife. There are
three levels of communication in the scene – the murmur of the Arabs,
the shouting of the pied-noirs, and the silence of the mother and her
son (TRN, 1177). The demeanour of the mother blurs racial categories,
universalising her and setting her above such considerations.
This idealisation of the mother has been the focus for much critical
comment, along with the simultaneous ambivalence in relation to the
portrait of Meursault’s actual mother. It is her death, her non-
existence, that allows her idealisation as a symbol, so that the other
woman for whom there is apparently no substitute (in parallel with the
Arab mistress), is the extinct mother. If death has put her beyond such
comparisons, the living woman is always contaminated by her sex.
Hence the Arab nurse with whom she has been compared bears the

Ibid., 58.
Cf. Anthony Rizzuto, “La scène d’amour chez Camus”, in Albert Camus: les ex-
trêmes et l’équilibre, 211-26.
128 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

syphilitic mark of her race and gender upon her face, a link further
reinforced by the parallels between Arab mistress, mother and Sala-
mano’s dog. While the ideal image of the mother is an a-sexual one,
the living mother had also taken on the role of “fiancée” to her friend
Pérez, which equates her, albeit ironically, with Marie and ultimately
the Arab mistress. It has been suggested that Meursault’s relationship
with Marie is an attempt to replace the idealised “lost object” of the
good mother, and her symbolic association with the sea, commonly
linked with the mother figure, is offered as evidence. But the trial fur-
ther underlines the lack of distinction between her status and that of
the Arab prostitute: in the sight of the law his relationship with Marie
is as much “the most shameful debauchery” (TRN, 1193) as the in-
trigue with Raymond; although Meursault initially greets the reference
to Marie as his mistress with incomprehension (TRN, 1196), he later
uses it himself (TRN, 1206); and, one might justifiably ask, what is the
difference between them, if it is not one of race alone? At the same
time, the woman’s apparent infidelity equates her with Marie, whom
Meursault pictures in the arms of another Meursault (TRN, 1211).
Hence, underlying the opposition between the “white” woman and the
Moor, there is a slide into indistinctness: beneath the skin, all are
alike. Only the dead woman may function as an immutable symbol of
I have emphasised the figure of the Algerian mistress at the ex-
pense of the traditional emphasis on the mother figure because it
seems to me that she functions as a touchstone by which all other fe-
male characters in the book may be judged. In her the ideologically
laden categories of race and sexuality are united; while race forms the
basis of the contrast between her and the major female figures, her
gender betrays the underlying similarities between them. A considera-
tion of her as a historical figure disrupts her stereotyped portrayal,
while the blurring of racial categorisations, when taken in conjunction
with female sexuality, provides a further disruption to the opposition
between the “white” woman and the colonized woman.
Chapter 5
Mythical women in La Peste

Myths of Origin
Jusqu’ici je ne suis pas un romancier au sens où on l’entend. Mais plutôt un artiste
qui crée des mythes à la mesure de sa passion et de son angoisse. (C2, 325)
Up to now I have not been a novelist in the usual sense. But rather an artist who
creates myths on the scale of his passion and anguish. (SEN, 290)

In chapter 2 I referred to two competing myths of origin connected

with two schools of literature in colonial Algeria: Algérianisme, linked
with Louis Bertrand, and the École d’Alger, associated with Gabriel
Audisio and Albert Camus. As I noted there, although the École
d’Alger locates Algerian history in Ancient Greece, thus demonstrat-
ing its opposition to the Latin past proposed by Algérianisme (and as a
resistance to the fascism increasingly associated with Rome), this
myth of origin likewise overlooks the intervening occupation of Alge-
ria by a vast indigenous population. Each literary school thus supplies
a history for a new people which has none and establishes historical
rights of occupancy over the Algerian soil.
This myth of origin is embedded in Camus’s work in the form of
mythological allusions. As Jean Sarocchi points out, as a creative art-
ist Camus’s philosophy is expressed in metaphorical, symbolic and
mythological ways, as with Sisyphus rolling his rock, Helen in exile,
or Ulysses navigating home: “Penser se confond alors avec le poign-
ant retour vers l’Ithaque des certitudes premières”1 (“Thinking merges
then with the poignant return to Ithaca of the first certainties”). Ithaca
in particular comes to signify this mythical homeland, reflecting the
degree to which this space is less a geographical location than a spiri-
tual landscape where “Africa begins in the Pyrenees” and Europe is
the cold North, associated with the rule of money and ideologies. Ca-

Camus, 16.
130 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

mus had never known his father’s family, “those Germans”,2 but in his
address to the “Maison de la culture” in 1937 he claims that geogra-
phy accounts for the differences between German and Italian fascism,
for the Italians are closer to the sea.3 Character is determined by geog-
raphy but – for the sons of woman – is it also a question of the blood?
The Fatherland; a Misunderstanding
Whereas in Le Premier Homme the young Jacques Cormery must ask
his uncertain mother the meaning of the word “patrie”, for his French
schoolfriend, Didier, there is no doubt: he is keenly aware of the fam-
ily throughout the generations, and of his country of birth through its
history. Jacques, by contrast felt as if he were from a different species,
“without a past, or a family home, or an attic stuffed with letters and
photographs” and he and his friend Pierre were only “citizens in the-
ory of an imprecise nation”. In the margins of this text Camus notes
the discovery of the homeland in 1940 (PH, 191) – a discovery made
in exile in France, and in a Europe at war. Yet the meaning and loca-
tion of this homeland remain ambiguous.
In Le Premier Homme Camus will make the distinction between
those ties that are freely entered into, and those which are not chosen –
the ties of the blood. The vocabulary of kinship and the home, as
Benedict Anderson reminds us, is assimilated to the self-sacrificing
love inspired by the idea of the homeland through the notion of what
is “natural”, instinctive, and therefore unchosen.4 These themes are
already apparent in Le Malentendu, where Jan, returning to a bleak
Europe after years of happiness in the sun, tells his uncomprehending
wife that happiness is not everything; he has the duty, as a man, to
rediscover his mother and his homeland (TRN, 124); indeed, he re-
veals that one cannot be happy in exile or oblivion, living forever as a
stranger (TRN, 127). Despite his reasons for not immediately identify-
ing himself to his mother and sister, the need for instinctive recogni-
tion appears to be a factor in what he seeks. But in this cold, European

Camus had believed his paternal ancestors were from Alsace-Lorraine, and, accord-
ing to Lottman, this was how his aunt referred to them (Albert Camus: a Biography,
In 1955 he repeats this same assertion. Lottman records that in an interview “he
spoke of Greece as the source of Mediterranean civilization, again expounded on
Mediterranean equilibrium: fascism, when it reached Italy, hadn’t shown the barbarity
of German fascism” (Albert Camus: a Biography, 548).
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Lon-
don: Verso, 1983), 131.
Mythical Women in La Peste 131

setting the ties of blood are overtaken by the language of commerce: a

son who entered here would find what any customer is sure to find, his
mother tells him (TRN, 139). Despite her claim that age “unteaches” a
mother to love her son (TRN, 139), she had not even kissed him good-
bye twenty years earlier (TRN, 122). Equally, as a true son of Europe,
he had forgotten her without a backward glance (TRN, 143). In their
own murderous “career” Jan’s mother and sister repeat his gesture and
sever the ties of blood in order to profit from his death.
Jean Sarocchi has pointed out the play’s associations with Ibsen’s
Ghosts, and Gide’s Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue.5 As I noted in
chapter 1, the epigraph from Ghosts in the 1933 “La Maison Maur-
esque” – “Mère, donne-moi le soleil” (PC, 215) (“Mother, give me the
sun”) – is a far from unambiguous “return” to the mother. To be pure
is to rediscover that homeland of the soul, to recognize the bonds of
blood – but is such purity possible when those blood ties are rooted in
the brothel of Europe? In 1942, exiled in his fatherland, Camus re-
writes the horrors of Ghosts and the bonds of blood – the inheritance
of exile: “L’Exilé (ou Budejovice)” (C2, 59). But from what is Jan of
Le Malentendu in exile – from his family or his “true homeland”? If
he had said “it’s me, this is my name” (TRN, 1729), would this be an
acceptance of permanent exile? The prodigal son returns to the house
of his fatherland where he is given beer in return for his money rather
than the feast for the prodigal son (TRN, 122). He finds not a home but
a “derisory house of bricks” (TRN, 120), an “inn”.6 As in a brothel (or
the Europe of La Mort Heureuse) Jan has “the rights of a client” pro-
vided he adopts the same language (TRN, 134, 135).
Sarocchi has noted the series of gender reversals in this play’s pas-
sage from the Biblical parable via Ibsen, Gide and “Noces à Tipasa”.
In the epigraph to “La Maison mauresque” the prodigal son asks his
mother for the sun. Here, Martha is the one who would kill for it and
holds her mother responsible for bringing her into a land of clouds
rather than sunshine (TRN, 143). Ibsen’s Oswald, dying from syphilis,
carries the fatal mark of his parentage, just as Martha, dying for lack
of the sun, has likewise inherited her father’s criminal legacy (TRN,
142). Martha and Patrice Mersault both kill for money, but for Mer-
sault murder is an impersonal act undertaken solely to facilitate the

“Le Malentendu par André Gide”, Littératures 22 (Spring, 1990) (191-206), 195.
My interpretation of Le Malentendu is greatly indebted to this article.
“Le Malentendu par André Gide”, 195.
132 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

birth of a potential Self of his own creation. Martha, on the other hand,
hopes to become someone else and her actions are governed by sexual
frustration and the emotions of vengeance, envy and resentment for
what others have and are. She is the one who stayed behind, while he
left their mother without a word; everything life can offer has been
given to him:
Moi, je suis restée ici. Je suis restée, petite et sombre, dans l’ennui, enfoncée au
cœur du continent et j’ai grandi dans l’épaisseur des terres. Personne n’a embrassé
ma bouche et même vous n’avez vu mon corps sans vêtements. Mère, je vous le
jure, cela doit se payer. (…) Nous pouvons oublier mon frère et votre fils. Ce qui
lui est arrivé est sans importance: il n’avait plus rien à connaître. Mais moi, vous
me frustrez de tout et vous m’ôtez ce dont il a joui. (TRN, 167-68)
Me, I stayed here. I stayed here, eating my heart out in the shadows, small and in-
significant, buried alive in a gloomy valley in the heart of Europe. Buried alive!
No-one has ever kissed my mouth, and no-one, not even you, has seen me naked.
Mother, I swear to you, that must be paid for. (…) We can forget my brother and
your son. What’s happened to him is unimportant; he had nothing more to get
from life. But me, you frustrate me of everything, cheating me of the pleasures he
enjoyed. (CCP, 145-46: translation amended)

Although Sarocchi sees in Le Malentendu a variant of Œdipus Rex,7

this Greek tragedy for contemporary times contains strongly Oresteian
echoes, by way of Euripides and Sartre. The scenes between Martha
and Jan are reminiscent of Orestes’ first meeting with his sister – his
temptation to reveal himself, her resentment that she has lost her
youth, and the promise of salvation this unknown stranger brings to
her. But here salvation is not the thirst for justice in payment for a fa-
ther’s death, but for money, the European perversion. The life of this
Electra (always the father’s daughter) is overshadowed by sexual frus-
tration, for (as in Camus’s depiction of Europe at “La Maison de la
culture”) she has always been “buttoned up to the neck”. Blighted by
geography, Martha is not a true woman, for as with all the frigid pros-
titutes of Europe her actions are transactions conducted in return for
money. Kinship is irrelevant, and she would have killed her brother
even if she had recognized him (TRN, 168), having learnt her lesson at
her mother’s knee (TRN, 167). Martha is not, nor could she ever be, a
woman of the South.
By dreaming of an identity she can never claim, Martha resembles
her brother: “My dwelling is not here” (TRN, 120). Yet, she has
known no other home except this “house of no-one” (TRN, 162). By

Ibid., 201.
Mythical Women in La Peste 133

contrast, Jan can assert the identity she craves (“I come from Africa”
(TRN, 131) ), but he is unable (or unwilling) to claim his genealogical
inheritance in that “sad Europe” where all are homeless. Despite the
joys of his African life something has been lost from which he is in
exile. As in Le Premier Homme, his true family is not the one forged
through marriage (TRN, 132) but the blood family he left behind; yet
this lethal rediscovery means that he will die in continuing exile (“en-
core dépaysé” (TRN, 157) ).
From Camus’s earliest works the mother is connected with the idea
of the lost homeland, but this connection is increasingly to present her
as a pure symbol, culminating in the equation between mother and
Algeria in Le Premier homme. In Jean Grenier’s view, for Camus each
composed a past on which he felt an increasing need to lean.8 In
L’Étranger the presence of the colonized woman is sufficient to taint
the purity of the mother figure. Although Camus was apparently un-
conscious of the displacement of female sexuality onto the colonized
woman, the impossibility of maintaining such a polarization subverts
the portrait of both the mother and Marie – for all women are biologi-
cal beings. The mother above all embodies these contradictions, for
she is at once the site of idealization and the biological source. Evi-
dently, Camus did not recognize the ambivalence surrounding the
mother figure there, yet in La Peste the idealization of the maternal
presence divests her of a physical reality. Likewise, the problem of
women as flesh and blood sexual partners is solved by their absence
from Oran. In this setting men are freed to fulfill their heroic mission
without the distraction of one source of plague. In La Peste purity is
Beyond the Absurd
I have commented on the figure of the dead woman in the first cycle
of Camus’s work. From the perspective adopted in this book it is im-
possible not to regard this image as a symbol of the Absurd, while the
development of Camus’s writings into the phase of revolt is accompa-
nied by a further metamorphosis in the female role. Maria did not
originally appear in the first act of Le Malentendu although Jan refers
to her at length in monologues where, as Roger Quilliot remarks, she
appears as a certain, generalised conception of Woman; in contrast to
a virile taste for adventure, she represents the flesh, is rooted in the

Albert Camus: souvenirs, 181.
134 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

earth, and uncomplicated (TRN, 1791-92). In later versions, Camus

added the scene between Maria and Jan, during 1943 when he was
also rewriting parts of Caligula. E. Freeman finds it significant that
Camus was working on Maria around the time he was adding greater
weight to Cherea, and he suggests that she was developed by Camus
to counterpoise Jan in the same way that Cherea became a focus of
opposition to Caligula. However, “a serious defect in Camus’s han-
dling of this relationship in Le Malentendu (…) is that Maria does not
exist on the same plane of reality – or rather unreality – as the other
three main characters”.9
In his examination of the reworking of Caligula between 1941-43,
A. James Arnold notes that the monologue on Caligula as monster
disappears (and with that the significance of Drusilla), while he also
dispenses with Drusilla in scene 2 (CAC 4, 166-67). Cherea as a resis-
tant is not evident in the 1942 manuscript, where he is more strongly
identified with Caligula; but Camus is thinking about both of these
plays in December, 1942. His revisions to Caligula in 1943 result
from alterations in Camus’s stance towards Nietzsche as a conse-
quence of the war, and with a change of emphasis onto revolt, when
Camus needed Cherea to incarnate this theme of resistance. At this
time Camus is not only reformulating his definition of tragedy as a
balance between two equally legitimate and opposing forces (C2, 103)
and retrospectively applying these ideas to Caligula, but he is also
developing the role of Maria as a resistant – hence, Caligula’s com-
ment that “my freedom is not the right one” is echoed in Maria’s
“your method is not the right one” (CAC 4, 170-74).
However, although Maria and Cherea share a similar function,
Freeman’s point that “Cherea understood the Absurd and could speak
the same language as Caligula in the end; Maria is totally uncompre-
hending”, underlines the significance of gender in this conception of
theatre, for the female character is not integrated into the play “at the
same philosophical level” and neither can she challenge Jan on this
level.10 For these reasons, I suggest, Cherea rather than Caesonia is
transformed and elevated in importance while the significance of Dru-
silla (and her connection to the Absurd) is effaced. In Camus’s theatri-
cal works the “equally legitimate opposing pole” supplied by female

The Theatre of Albert Camus: a Critical Study (London: Methuen, 1971), 68.
The Theatre of Albert Camus, 68, 69.
Mythical Women in La Peste 135

characters represents an emotional, not an intellectual challenge (as I

shall argue later in this chapter).
Just as in Caligula the early emphasis on the dead woman is sup-
pressed as Camus’s attentions turn towards the idea of revolt, so Ca-
mus’s first versions of La Peste focused on the character Stephan, a
schoolteacher, writing a letter to his lost (“dead”) wife, Jeanne (C1,
134-48). This letter later forms part of the discourse of Joseph Grand.
Although Stephan was conceived before the project of a novel on the
plague, it is noteworthy that the development here follows the same
trajectory as other works during this period: La Mort heureuse, Ca-
ligula and L’Étranger all effect a similar suppression of women.
In its beginnings Camus’s meditations on the plague reflect his
early preoccupations with women:
Un homme aime une femme et il lit sur son visage les signes de la peste. Jamais il
ne l’aimera autant. Mais jamais elle ne l’a autant dégoûté. Il y a divorce en lui.
Mais c’est toujours le corps qui triomphe. Le dégoût l’emporte. Il la prend par une
main, la traîne hors du lit (…). Il la laisse devant un égout. “Après tout, il y en a
d’autres”. (C1, 231)
A man loves a woman and reads the signs of the plague on her face. Never has he
loved her so much. But never has she so disgusted him. He is divided against him-
self. But it is always the body that wins. Disgust prevails. He takes her by the
hand, drags her from the bed (…). He leaves her near a sewer. “After all, there are
other women”. (SEN, 226)

Writings in the Carnets during this period (1941-42) are interwoven

with misogynous references to sexuality as a form of servitude while
the plague is seen as “liberating” (C1, 229). In 1942 Camus writes:
La vie sexuelle a été donnée à l’homme pour le détourner peut-être de sa vraie
voie. C’est son opium. En elle tout s’endort. Hors d’elle, les choses reprennent
leur vie. En même temps, la chasteté éteint l’espèce, ce qui est peut-être la vérité.
(C2, 49)
Sexual life was given to man to divert him perhaps from his true path. It is his
opium. In it everything slumbers. Outside of it, things resume their life. At the
same time chastity extinguishes the species, which is perhaps the truth.

Towards December 1942, the first reference to the Orpheus and Eury-
dice myth are made (C2, 56, 66) and at the end of December Camus
decides to rewrite Stephan completely, suppressing the theme of love
(C2, 67) and embarking on a second version of La Peste that incorpo-
rates this legend. This mythical undercurrent liberates men to follow
their “true path” in a real world, while the plague-stricken woman
need no longer be left to die in the gutter; instead, she stands outside
136 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

of events and becomes the purified symbol of their tragedy (separa-

tion) and of all they are fighting to restore to the homeland.
The legend of Orpheus and his attempt to retrieve Eurydice is not,
however, the novel’s only mythological underpinning. “L’Exil
d’Hélène” might be read as an intertext of La Peste, and the relevant
mythological allusions occur in the Carnets as early as 1942, when
Camus refers to the Iliad (C2, 15, 16) and the episode in the Odyssey
where Calypso offers Ulysses the choice between immortality with
her, or the earth of his homeland (C2, 22). Of course, “choosing the
earth” has been a constant theme of Camus’s writings, but its direct
embodiment in the legends surrounding the Trojan war provides an
implicit justification for the absence of women. Moreover, the pure
space of these legendary heroes becomes an Algerian one; through the
setting of Oran, the “Chicago of our absurd Europe” (E, 188), Camus
relocates Europe in Algeria / Greece. From here, the main characters
are in a position to defend the values of their homeland against the
encroachment of “German ideology” (E, 701-2), in the process redis-
covering the higher value of the heroes of Troy; fraternity. The soli-
darity of “L’Hôpital du quartier pauvre” here finds a coherent
amplification and is situated within the course of time; the resistants
of the plague enter into history.
This sheds a retrospective light on the ambiguities surrounding the
status of the conqueror in Le Mythe. Whereas Camus’s previous allu-
sions to conquest seem to lack a concrete model, in La Peste the leg-
end of Troy indirectly explicates the underlying thought. “Myths are
made to be given life by the imagination” (E, 196) and this is what
Camus achieves; although there is no direct reference to the Trojan
war, those fighting the plague demonstrate the parallel through their
actions. At the same time, the absence of women permits their trans-
figuration into the embodiment of disincarnated ideals.
Le roman-mythe
John Cruickshank has commented on the extent to which the word
“myth”, used indiscriminately in French literature, has come to mean
“a widely shared attitude or an idea shaping the outlook of a large
mass of people; it is no longer confined to the dictionary definition of
an ancient story embodying significant actions performed by legen-
dary figures or supernatural beings”. Despite Cruickshank’s objection
to this lack of precision the universalizing dimension of La Peste leads
Mythical Women in La Peste 137

him to call this book “one of the most impressive novels of recent
times to which the term roman-mythe may be applied”:
Camus describes a particular event (the plague) in a geographical location (North
Africa), but he handles his subject in such a way that he extends its meaning be-
yond the particular to the universal. He conveys a general picture of man’s posi-
tion in the universe, faced by the problem of evil and the necessity of suffering.11

However, this transition from the concrete and specific to the abstract
and universal level has often been seen as problematic, and Cruick-
shank concurs with those who criticized the plague as a symbol of the
Occupation on the grounds that “it is powerless to convey a sense of
human agency and moral ambiguity”.12 Clearly, Camus’s choice of the
plague in particular was intended to recall the catastrophic plagues
recorded throughout history, and thus to endow it with a universal and
mythical dimension. Ironically, when combined with the real setting
in Oran, it is precisely this mythical dimension of the plague that
founders, and as a result precisely of human agency. As the ex-
governor of Algeria recollects, the plague (and cholera) were easier to
deal with than typhus, as long as energetic action is taken:
C’est ainsi qu’à Oran, en 1926, 43 cas de peste ayant été relevés en quelques
jours, j’ai aussitôt prescrit le cordon sanitaire et l’épidémie a été maîtrisée sans
peine. Le typhus est, lui, au contraire, endémique. Il est la conséquence de la mi-
sère et dans les années de disette qui ne sont pas encore très rares, surtout dans le
Sud, il sévit durement.13
Thus in Oran in 1926, 43 cases of plague having been recorded in a few days, I at
once ordered quarantine measures and the epidemic was easily contained. Typhus,
on the contrary, is endemic. It is the consequence of dire poverty and during the
years of drought, which are still not so rare, especially in the South, it is still rife.

The contrast Viollette makes between the easily contained plague and
the much more lethal typhus14 is reinforced by Ageron, who points out
that typhus, which often followed on famine, was linked to social
conditions (and hence to human agency); endemic amongst the poor,
it only became epidemic at times of immense poverty and suffering.15

Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978
[1959]), 164, 166.
Ibid., 177.
L’Algérie vivra-t-elle? 176-77.
According to Marie-Louise Blondeau, there were 55,000 cases in 1941, nearly
200,000 in 1942, and 45,000 in 1943 (“Notes pour une édition critique de La Peste”,
Roman 20-50 (December, 1986), 80).
Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine, II, 294.
138 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Although in reality human agency was able to stem the plague, it

might also be argued that human agency played a role in the real
plague of typhus that beset colonial Algeria. In the novel’s real geo-
graphical location, extreme poverty engendered typhus and the lesson
learned by those who suffered it might have been of a different nature
from that of Rieux.16 On the real level, then, Camus’s choice of setting
undermines the universal resonances of the plague. The fictional
treatment of the plague in Oran is literally anachronistic whereas on
the symbolic level the more realistic choice of typhus would clearly be
unsatisfactory because too specific, too familiar, and it would raise all
too starkly those issues of human agency for which the novel has been
criticized. If, from the viewpoint of recent history, the choice of set-
ting raises problems, this has been further attacked on the grounds that
it erases political realities.
Camus’s attempt to universalize the setting of the novel is attacked
by those who point out that Oran is above all a colonial town where
colonial injustice is tangible. Likewise, Conor Cruise O’Brien finds a
“serious flaw” in the setting of the plague in Oran, which thus be-
comes a “never-was city”, and he points out that after the first inter-
view between Rambert and Rieux “the native question is simply
abolished, once it has served to reveal the differing standards of two
Europeans”.17 Observing that the Muslim Algerians in Oran could
have provided “an excellent illustration of an imprisoned people”,
Edward Hughes likewise notes that the abstract and a-political level
on which debates about human affairs are conducted results in exclu-
sion rather than inclusion.18
The first conversation between Rambert and Rieux not only dem-
onstrates the former’s attitude towards the truth, but it is followed by
the suggestion that in the plague Rambert has a more fitting subject
for his reports (TRN, 1227, 1287, 1288), implying that whatever the
injustices of this situation, its roots are to be found in a greater evil
lying in human nature itself. Although this may in part explain Ca-
mus’s refusal to address the “plague of colonialism”, the human na-
ture of which La Peste speaks is that of a very particular form of

For a consideration of typhus, vagrancy and famine as the “plagues of colonialism”,
see Azzedine Haddour, Colonial Myths: History and Narrative.
Camus, 47.
Camus: Le Premier Homme: La Peste, Glasgow Introductory Guides to French
Literature 33 (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 1995), 44.
Mythical Women in La Peste 139

Western man, transplanted onto an Algerian context that is in turn ef-

faced. This select group is then universalized.
Woman; that which escapes History
This particular problematical trajectory from the concrete to the ab-
stract and symbolic level finds a parallel in the treatment of women in
La Peste. In chapter 2 I noted that Camus attempts to give women a
mythical status, although he offers no explanation when he calls his
female characters “mythical”. For Roland Barthes, myth entails a pas-
sage from history into nature and the reduction of complex human
affairs to the “simplicity of essences”; myth, he argues, is a depoliti-
cized form of speech, a metalanguage whose referents are a-political,
a-historical and posed in universal terms such as “charity”, or “hu-
Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them;
simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eter-
nal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that
of a statement of fact. 19

Woman as “myth” is similarly robbed of individuality and rendered

eternal, outside of history and human life itself. In “L’Exil d’Hélène”,
this legendary figure is divorced from her context to become all that
has been banished from the modern Western city as represented by,
for example, a money-fixated Oran. Helen is both Beauty and Nature,
upon which the West has turned its back, and symbolizes that home-
land of the (Greek) soul contained in the notion of “the true home-
land”.20 Here also female figures of justice (the Erinnyes and
Nemesis) will punish the excesses of Europe. Woman – an unchang-
ing feminine essence – represents an eternal value in a way that recalls
Spengler’s view of the feminine.
In his letter to Barthes in defence of La Peste Camus suggests an
evolution from the solitary hero to one who engages in collective
struggle. He adds that Rambert, who embodies the theme of separa-
tion, renounces private life in favour of this community (TRN, 1974).
This particular distinction between public and private mystifies the
relationship between these two aspects of daily life and abstracts emo-

Mythologies (London: Vintage, 1993), 143.
Quilliot has reflected that ever since the summer of 1939 when Camus’s project of
visiting Greece vanished, the dream of an inaccessible Greece, “homeland of the
soul”, occupied a special place in Camus’s heart (La Mer et les prisons, 251).
140 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

tional (heterosexual) relationships from the real. A passage crossed

out from the typescript of the second version of La Peste offers an
explanation for this contradiction. As the plague begins to recede,
Rieux contemplates the prospect of beginning again with his wife,
who had no conception of what he had been through:
Mais tout cela était bien puisqu’elle était la femme, c’est-à-dire ce qui échappe à
l’histoire. Elle était la chaleur et la chair dont il avait besoin après la hideuse abs-
traction de ces mois de peste. (TRN, 2002)
But all that was as it should be since she was woman, which is to say that which
escapes history. She was the warmth and the flesh he needed after the hideous ab-
straction of these months of plague.

The division of human life into a masculine terrain of action, experi-

ence and development, and a female preserve of absence and stasis
reproduces a consistent dichotomy in Camus’s work, yet this exclu-
sion of all women from daily life and experience does not make his-
tory the concern of all men. In “Remarque sur la révolte”, which
Camus was writing during the same period, the non-Western world is
likewise abstracted from history and, most importantly, from the pos-
sibility of revolt. There, he asserts that:
Il est évident qu’un paria hindou, un guerrier inca, un primitif de l’Asie, n’ont pas
la même idée de la révolte. On pourrait même établir avec une probabilité extrê-
mement grande que la notion de révolte n’a pas de sens dans ces cas précis. (…)
Autrement dit, le problème de la révolte semble ne prendre de sens précis qu’à
l’intérieur de la pensée européenne. (E, 1687)21
It stands to reason that a Hindu paria, an Inca warrior, an Asian savage do not
have the same idea of revolt. One could establish with very great probability that
the notion of revolt has no meaning in these precise cases. (…) In other words, the
problem of revolt seems only to have precise meaning from the interior of West-
ern thought.

Given these comments it is clear why both Western women and the
indigenous population of Algeria are dismissed from the novel; each
category, outside of history, is irrelevant to its concerns. Although the
concept of human nature remains implicit in “Remarque sur la
révolte”, it is clearly conveyed in the idea that through his movement
of revolt man recognizes a humanity common to all – a sense of
community greater than himself. This sense of community, on which a
very particular concept of human nature is founded, is the province of
Western man alone.

Cf. L’Homme révolté (E, 430).
Mythical Women in La Peste 141

Despite the widely accepted view that it concerns a universal hu-

man condition the universalism of La Peste is constructed on a series
of exclusions of what might be considered integral to its setting and
subject matter. Given the ethnic composition of Oran at the time
(when Arabs and Berbers numbered roughly 24%) this instability is
most clearly demonstrated by the insistence on the fiction that in this
domestic setting there are so few women who either suffer the anguish
of separation or carry out their traditional role of caring for the sick.22
As a metaphor for the Occupation, moreover, the implication is that
women were in some way immune from suffering or death and inca-
pable of resistance.23 The extent of their engagement in actual physical
combat was certainly no less than that of Camus himself.
The ejection of women from the town has led Jean Gassin to comment
that this puts them to some degree on the same side as the plague it-
self, and he wonders whether there might be a subtle link between
women and the plague.24 Indeed, the first act of dératisation in La
Peste is that of the woman as sexual partner. Clearly, as an emanation
of an indifferent nature the plague is on the same side as women; as an
embodiment of death, moreover, it takes on the role implicitly as-
signed to women during the Absurd cycle – although, of course, the
plague is an active agent of death, and the concrete enemy against
which the heroes may legitimately fight. Given the continuing identi-
fication between woman and nature it is not surprising to find an equa-
tion drawn between women and the rats of the plague.
The “flower-like girls” of the lyrical essays are endowed here with
other more sinister qualities; just as the faded petals of flowers “were
strewn on the dusty pavements” (TRN, 1311), so the dead rats “were
strewn on the stairways” (TRN, 1228), while in an echo of Don Juan
“the harvest was more abundant every morning”. With “a little flower
of blood on their pointed noses”, this link between death and the natu-

As incidental characters, women are usually featured as helpless wives of the sick;
although nurses are generally male, mention is made of two female nurses (TRN,
1386); those who suffer the torments of separation, however, are male lovers and
mothers, not wives (TRN, 1292, 1458, 1463).
This is illustrated by one early note where Camus considers an ending focusing on a
woman in mourning whose suffering symbolizes what the men have sacrificed in
blood and life (C2, 112).
“Le Sadisme dans l’œuvre de Camus”, 137.
142 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ral world is extended. Simultaneously, their death cries (TRN, 1229)

prefigure the human deaths to come.
Furthermore, the earth’s loving and maternal embrace is of a dif-
ferent nature in La Peste. Here, the earth seems to overflow its
boundaries to pollute and contaminate everyday life. Its emissaries,
the plague rats, seem to emanate from the bowels of the earth – from
basements, cellars and sewers – as if nature were purging itself of the
pus, filth and corruption in its entrails:
On eut dit que la terre même où étaient plantées nos maisons se purgeait de son
chargement d’humeurs, qu’elle laissait monter à la surface des furoncles et des
sanies qui, jusqu’ici, la travaillaient intérieurement. (TRN, 1229)
It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted
humours, thrusting up to the surface the abcesses and pus-clots that had been
forming in its entrails. (P, 16)

This passage invites direct comparison with the grandmother of “Le

Courage” and “L’Ironie”, vomiting up the fermentations in her intes-
tines (PC, 221; E, 22). Thus, this negative imagery is further charged
with the baleful presence of women through the association with the
grandmother as judge and the uncanny powers of the woman to be
dead-but-alive and alive-but-dead.
To be sure, it might be argued that this imagery of the filthy, rat-
infested bowels of the earth signifies the terrible vengeance that will
be wreaked on those men who have turned their backs on the natural
beauty of the world and all that is symbolized by a highly refined and
purified stereotype of woman in favour of the pursuit of money and
commerce. Such an interpretation is certainly sustained by the descrip-
tion of the Oranais in La Peste, or by Camus’s later “L’Exil
d’Hélène”. Furthermore, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which is
profiled here, suggests that search for reunion with the lost loved one,
or lost beauty, which commentators have often noted. Yet this pas-
sage, with its evocation of the vile and filthy earth, troubles such
analyses and challenges the easy and often-used trope of death as a
return to the earth’s maternal embrace. The plague rats themselves
carry other disturbing associations; with a similar vocabulary of the
body, the factories and warehouses “disgorged” hundreds of dead rats
(TRN, 1228). In the town, their bodies “lay in piles, in dustbins, or in
long lines in the gutters”, so that orders are given for their removal to
the municipal incinerator (TRN, 1229). Such descriptions recall the
comments already cited on the dead or dying woman who is herself so
Mythical Women in La Peste 143

much ordure, fit only for the gutter (C1, 231). This is also the fate of
the doctor’s wife.
The opening scenes of La Peste draw a parallel between the plague
and Rieux’s wife. When he sees a second dying rat:
Ce n’était pas au rat qu’il pensait. Ce sang rejeté le ramenait à sa préoccupation.
Sa femme, malade depuis un an, devait partir le lendemain (…). (TRN, 1223)
He wasn’t thinking of the rat. That glimpse of spurting blood had brought him
back to something that had been on his mind all day. His wife, who had been ill
for a year now, was due to leave the next day (…). (P, 9)

The sight of death and blood continues the associations with women
established in Camus’s earlier writings. This parallel persists after
Rieux’s farewell to his wife, when he meets Judge Othon, and rats and
wife merge as the two men consider the dead vermin:
“Les rats…” dit le juge. Rieux eut un mouvement dans la direction du train, mais
se retourna vers la sortie. “Oui”, dit-il, “ce n’est rien”. Tout ce qu’il retint de ce
moment fut le passage d’un homme d’équipe qui portait sous le bras une caisse
pleine de rats morts. (TRN, 1226)
“The rats…” the magistrate began. Rieux made a brief movement in the direction
of the train, then turned back towards the exit. “Yes”, he said, “It’s nothing”. All
he retained of that moment was the passing of a railwayman with a box full of
dead rats under his arm. (P, 12)

There is a circularity in these two scenes where, on the one hand a

dead rat reminds Rieux of his wife, and on the other hand her depar-
ture is symbolized by the clearing away of dead rats. His ambiguous
final comment (“it’s nothing”) suggests judgement on both.
The image of the vile earth purging itself of infestation is followed
by the first death – of the concierge, whose dying words, “the rats!”
seem to denote the nature of that terrible creature which, “from the
depths of the earth, was calling him without respite” (TRN, 1234).
Thus, the myth of Eurydice, introduced here, contains a much higher
degree of ambivalence than is generally acknowledged. There is only
one direct reference to this myth, in Tarrou’s diary where the weekly
performance of Glück’s opera is described (TRN, 1379), and as if to
underline the contrast between reality and romantic fiction the opti-
mistic ending of the opera is brutally curtailed when the singer playing
Orpheus dies on stage immediately after the farewell arias have been
sung. In a world at war there are no happy endings, while men are the
ones who suffer and die.
144 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

This distinction between the real and the imaginary or unknown is

similarly underlined when, in their hasty scene of farewell25 Rieux and
his wife find themselves on opposite sides of the train window. It is as
if she has already entered that other world:
Il la serra contre lui et, sur le quai maintenant, de l’autre côté de la vitre, il ne
voyait plus que son sourire. “Je t’en prie”, dit-il, “veille sur toi”. Mais elle ne
pouvait pas l’entendre. (TRN, 1225-26)
He took her in his arms, then stepped back on to the platform. Now he could only
see her smile across the window. “Please”, he said, “take care of yourself”. But
she could not hear him. (P, 11-12)

This scene recalls “La Voix qui a été soulevée par de la musique”,
when the closed window conjures up a world where “the agitation of
men seems emptied of meaning and their gestures ridiculous, almost
falling into the void” (PC, 279). Rieux’s subsequent conversation with
the judge, when he dismisses the rats (the wife) with the words “it’s
nothing”, might be interpreted as a restatement of the earlier observa-
tion that “she no longer exists, since she is no longer there. (…) She is
returning to her darkness (…). Like a window closing off the noise of
the street” (PC, 282). The symbolism of the window pane here sepa-
rates a rational world of men from the irrational of an intangible
“feminine” world. Later, when contemplating with horror the long
litany of plagues in history, it is through the window that Rieux looks
out onto the world:
Le docteur ouvrit la fenêtre et le bruit de la ville s’enfla d’un coup. D’un atelier
voisin montait le sifflement bref et répété d’une scie mécanique. Rieux se secoua.
Là était la certitude, dans le travail de tous les jours. (…) L’essentiel était de bien
faire son métier. (TRN, 1250)
The doctor opened the window, and at once the noises of the town grew louder.
The brief, intermittent sibilance of a machine-saw came from a nearby workshop.
Rieux pulled himself together. There lay certainty, in day-to-day work. (…) The
thing was to do one’s job well. (P, 37)

When Rieux opens the window he hears the sounds of everyday, mas-
culine activity through which men give meaning to life, whereas its
closure brings him face to face with the indifference and impenetrabil-
ity of the natural world. The above passage is a reformulation of the
earlier “I see equates with I believe” in “Noces à Tipasa”; man exerts
control over his environment through his activities in the concrete

Here, time accelerates, so that Rieux’s wife seems to depart almost as soon as he
returns home rather than the following noon.
Mythical Women in La Peste 145

world, whereas speculations about a metaphysical or emotional di-

mension are fruitless and sterile. On this concrete level lies the “true
path” (C2, 49), in a quantifiable and controllable world.
Passion and the Egoism of Love
In 1943 Camus reflected that living with one’s passions supposes one
has mastered them (C2, 104). In writing La Peste the author was con-
sciously trying to create a new form of classicism, the central aim of
which he identified as the domination of the passions (C2, 130). Un-
surprisingly, then, a central theme of the novel concerns this struggle
for mastery over the emotions. Of Tarrou, Camus notes that he likes
the company of the Spanish dancers: “He only loves passion. Natu-
rally, a man must fight. ‘But if he stops loving outside that, what is the
point of fighting’” (JV, 46). These words, with slight variation, are
attributed to Tarrou in La Peste just before he and Rieux swim to-
gether. Paneloux, Grand and Rambert are all driven, in different de-
grees, by passion but the story of Rambert, the journalist from Paris
who has been unexpectedly cut off by the town’s closure, serves as the
focal point of this struggle. To some degree, Rambert may be seen as
a variant of Grand, also recreating an idealized image of the lost loved
one, which becomes more real to him than reality itself. His presence
demonstrates above all what it is to live in the Underworld of the
separated. In order to carry out the daily task men must master their
emotions, and throughout the chronicle we witness Rieux’s own at-
tempts to keep his emotions under control. The consequences of the
failure to do so are demonstrated above all by Rambert, although
Paneloux’s stance is analogous; his sermon is spoken in a passionate
voice (TRN, 1296), and he makes the same distinction as Rambert be-
tween “you” and “I”; likewise, he has put all his faith in an idée fixe –
a factor defining “the passionate ones” (TRN, 1461) – insisting that
men of religion have no need of friends as they have invested every-
thing in God (TRN, 1409).
What signals Rambert’s different priorities most starkly is his atti-
tude towards his job; he was not put on earth to write news reports, he
tells Rieux; but perhaps he had been put on earth to live with a woman
(TRN, 1288). His standards clearly do not measure up to those of
Rieux during their first conversation; he is not dispassionate, the im-
plication is, and therefore would be unable to tell the whole truth
(TRN, 1226-27). This impression is confirmed when Rambert holds
Rieux directly responsible for his quarantine in the town:
146 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

J’ai pensé alors que, pour un cas au moins, vous pourriez défaire ce que vous
aviez contribué à faire. Mais cela vous est égal. Vous n’avez pensé à personne.
Vous n’avez pas tenu compte de ceux qui étaient séparés. (TRN, 1290)
I thought that in one case at least you could unmake what you had helped to make.
But it’s all the same to you. You never gave a thought to anybody. You didn’t
take those who were separated into account. (P, 74)

Rambert, unable to contain his emotions, is very agitated, raises his

voice and speaks impatiently. Rejecting the idea of collective suffer-
ing with his words “I don’t belong here”, he tells Rieux “you’re
speaking the language of reason, you’re living in abstraction” (TRN,
1289). The dichotomy has been adequately underlined, which is no
doubt the reason for Camus’s erasure of the words “you’re speaking
the language of reason (and I the language of passion)” (TRN, 1987).
Rambert’s emotional priorities blind him to his situation, yet pre-
cisely because he is thus blinded he is provided with a distraction from
the plague which softens its impact on him. Like the opiate of sexual-
ity itself, however, this distraction is in fact a failure to face reality, so
that he becomes like a dead man in the world of the dead; he is “une
ombre perdue” (TRN, 1309) (“a lost shade”), wandering aimlessly
(TRN, 1308) as if in a twilight world, where his only activity is the
sterile, unproductive yearning for lost times. The plight of the separa-
ted is a collective isolation:
(I)ls flottaient plutôt qu’ils ne vivaient, abandonnés à des jours sans direction et à
des souvenirs stériles, ombres errantes qui n’auraient pu prendre force qu’en ac-
ceptant de s’enraciner dans la terre de leur douleur. Ils éprouvaient ainsi la souf-
france profonde de tous les prisonniers et de tous les exilés, qui est de vivre avec
une mémoire qui ne sert à rien. (TRN, 1277-78)
They drifted rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like
wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root
themselves in the solid earth of their distress. Thus they felt the profound sorrow
of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live with a memory that serves no purpose.
(P, 61-62)

Although their individual despair saves them from panic, this is an

ironic consolation, for they are completely unprepared if the disease
takes them:
Tiré de cette longue conversation intérieure qu’il soutenait avec une ombre, il était
alors jeté sans transition au plus épais silence de la terre. Il n’avait eu le temps de
rien. (TRN, 1281)
Snatched suddenly from his long, silent communion with a wraith, he was
plunged straightaway into the densest silence of the earth. He’d had no time for
anything. (P, 65)
Mythical Women in La Peste 147

In the necropolis of Oran (TRN, 1359), then, there is an Underworld of

spirits who are lost and whose activity is as sterile as love itself (TRN,
Those who yearn after their absent loved ones are caught up in a
private emotion and the stasis of an idée fixe (TRN, 1461), in the “ego-
ism of love” (TRN, 1368). Indeed, there is literally room for only one
ego, given the portrayal of heterosexual love in this novel; Rambert’s
obsession is with his own happiness, not a shared one; what he finds
most unbearable is the possibility that his girlfriend may grow old be-
fore he can rejoin her (TRN, 1341). The notion of heterosexual love as
a purely private and one-sided emotion, where the woman is simply
objectified, is consistently repeated, rather than presented as a rela-
tionship or commitment between two people.27 Hence, it can be un-
problematically presented as a selfish search for individual and a-
social happiness.
Monique Crochet argues that Rambert is reunited with his Eury-
dice precisely because he has preserved the image of his love. Along
with Dr Castel and his wife, she contends, Rambert represents all
those for whom human feelings are stronger than the abstraction of
evil. For those like Rieux, Tarrou and Grand, the plague has an inte-
rior origin, which is that they have become prisoners of their profes-
sions and daily activities, and consequently unable to communicate
with their loved one.28 This interpretation conflicts with the clear val-
orization of these principal heroes, alongside a consequent subtle de-
valuation of those like Rambert, however sympathetic their portrayal.
Rambert’s reunion with his lost love at the end of the plague is the
moment of Eurydice’s death:
Il aurait souhaité de redevenir celui qui, au début de l’épidémie, voulait courir
d’un seul élan hors de la ville et s’élancer à la rencontre de celle qu’il aimait. Mais
il savait que cela n’était plus possible. Il avait changé, la peste avait mis en lui une
distraction que, de toutes ses forces, il essayait de nier, et qui, cependant, conti-
nuait en lui comme une sourde angoisse. (TRN, 1462)
He would have liked to become again the man who, at the outbreak of the epi-
demic, wanted in one bound to run out of the town and throw himself at the

Such descriptions point up the very strong resemblances between the respective
situations of Rambert and Clamence.
Anthony Rizzuto makes the point that love, marriage and procreation are social
activities to the same degree as politics, yet for Camus marriage and politics are seen
as “contradictory and mutually exclusive” (Camus: Love and Sexuality, 102).
Les Mythes, 179, 181.
148 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

woman he loved. But he knew that was no longer possible. He had changed, the
plague had forced on him a detachment which, try as he might, he couldn’t deny,
and which like a formless fear haunted his mind. (P, 240)

His idealized image of her, created in her absence, is destroyed by her

actual presence. Moreover, the additional gap between the experiential
development of men in the real world and the stasis of women, outside
of history, threatens here to be unbridgeable.
La Vraie Voie
Rieux is portrayed as sympathetic to Rambert’s plight and his attempts
to rejoin his love in the outside world. Hence, we have the impression
of differing yet equally valid points of view. Yet the conclusion is
clearly conveyed that in times of emergency such as the plague men
are constrained by certain necessities which over-ride individual pref-
erences. This fact is underlined by Rambert’s eventual realization that:
Il peut y avoir de la honte à être heureux tout seul. (…) Maintenant que j’ai vu ce
que j’ai vu, je sais que je suis d’ici, que je le veuille ou non. Cette histoire nous
concerne tous. (TRN, 1389)
It may be shameful to be happy by oneself. (…) Now that I have seen what I have
seen, I know that I belong here, whether I want it or not. This business concerns
all of us. (P, 170)

When deluded by the “egoism” of love Rambert had believed himself

a free man, able to choose; but the narrator consistently promotes the
idea that in such circumstances this is in fact a refusal to face reality;
although some continued to believe they could still make individual
(E)n fait, on pouvait dire à ce moment, au milieu du mois d’août, que la peste
avait tout recouvert. Il n’y avait plus alors de destins individuels, mais une histoire
collective qui était la peste et des sentiments partagés par tous. (TRN, 1355)
(A)ctually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the
plague had swallowed up everything. No longer were there individual destinies,
but a collective destiny which was the plague and emotions shared by all. (P, 138)

As their memories fade, lovers become increasingly like everyone

else, and are forced to recognize this new reality; they had lost the
“egoism” of love and the ambiguous advantages it brought them. At
least now the situation was clear, the narrator comments: “the scourge
concerned everyone” (TRN, 1368-69).
Rambert’s final acknowledgement of reality is, then, a belated one;
those like Tarrou, Rieux and Grand had recognized this from the be-
Mythical Women in La Peste 149

ginning, and thus theirs is the viewpoint that prevails rather than a se-
ries of equivalent points of view. Rieux’s behaviour is finally the one
Rambert emulates:
Rien au monde ne vaut qu’on se détourne de ce qu’on aime. Et pourtant je m’en
détourne, moi aussi, sans que je puisse savoir pourquoi. (…) Guérissons le plus
vite possible. C’est le plus pressé. (TRN, 1389)
For nothing in the world is it worth turning one’s back on what one loves. Yet this
is what I am doing, without knowing why. (…) Let’s cure as quickly as possible.
That’s the most urgent job. (P, 170-71)

Endless soul-searching is a self-indulgence men cannot afford, for, far

from seeking “refuge” in their profession, it is the heroism of men do-
ing their job unflinchingly which transforms the world in a world
where love is “useless, burdensome, inert in us, sterile like crime or
condemnation” (TRN, 1369). Men’s failure to value love is not the
problem here, but their tragic condition as men which necessitates that
they have their sights set on a more imposing level of reality. It is
what Rambert sees and experiences that changes his mind.29 Happi-
ness and beauty remain goals worth striving for, yet the modern world
forces more immediate priorities on men. La Peste does not focus on
love, nor even the loss of love; it demonstrates that “the important
things lie elsewhere” (C2, 58). During the course of such struggles a
greater virtue, “the strong and chaste friendship between men” (E,
167), is born.
The Dialogues of Men; the Silence of Women
Through collective struggle men with no other connection but the
plague recognize their shared humanity and become friends. Far from
being unable to communicate, as Crochet suggests, they confide in
one another and reveal their most intimate secrets. Grand discusses
with Tarrou and Rieux the work which stems from his most private
emotions; Rieux and Tarrou become involved in Rambert’s emotional
struggles; Tarrou, of whom none of the inhabitants knows anything,

This theme is constantly reiterated: Rieux tells Tarrou that he had had to see some-
one dying (TRN, 1323); Paneloux speaks in the name of Truth because he has not seen
enough death (TRN, 1322); those around the bedside of Othon’s son are changed be-
cause they have to look the death of an innocent child in the face (TRN, 1394); and
Tarrou asks Rieux whether he has actually seen a man shot (TRN, 1424); the impact
of seeing with his own eyes a man condemned to death is the incident that first set
him on the “path of truth”. Hence also, of course, the narrator’s insistence that he is
only reporting what he has seen and heard.
150 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

confides in Rieux his intimate biography, whilst Rieux himself shame-

facedly admits impulses to confide in both Grand and Tarrou. Indeed,
in La Peste Camus achieves his first successful portrayal of a social
group where verbal communication is of such importance.
The importance of speech in the affairs of men is elsewhere dem-
onstrated by the very fact that the rebel is the man who says “No” (E,
1682). In Ni victimes ni bourreaux Camus argues the need for dia-
logue, claiming that today, no-one speaks out any more (E, 331). Be-
cause ours is a “century of fear” the long dialogue between men has
ended, while an immense conspiracy of silence is spreading over the
earth (E, 332). Indeed, Rieux expressly disassociates himself from this
condition by the very act of writing, which he undertook “so as not to
be amongst those who remain silent” (TRN, 1473). The emphasis on
the importance of dialogue is demonstrated in La Peste by the devel-
oping male friendships, which are both a bi-product of and the cement
for their collective struggles. Even the silent communion of Rieux and
Tarrou during their bathe in the sea is preceded by the confirmation of
their friendship through dialogue, when Tarrou confides his private
life and emotions. In such relations silent understanding is a conse-
quence of verbal understanding.
The situation with regard to women is quite the reverse. In his
analysis of the Camusian love scene Anthony Rizzuto demonstrates
the extent to which heterosexual love and speech are regarded as anti-
thetical, resulting in a situation where silence underlies the authentic-
ity of love and simultaneously guarantees its future downfall.30 This
symbolic petrefaction of women is expressed in the activities of Jo-
seph Grand, whose confidences to Rieux mirror the latter’s own
evaluation of love as inevitably a “long habit between two people”
(TRN, 1220). The story of Grand’s marriage is presented as a univer-
sal one for men, where work must take precedence over love to such
an extent that one “forgets” to love (TRN, 1286):
La fatigue aidant, il s’était laissé aller, il s’était tu de plus en plus et il n’avait pas
soutenu sa jeune femme dans l’idée qu’elle était aimée. Un homme qui travaille,
la pauvreté, l’avenir lentement fermé, le silence des soirs autour de la table, il n’y
a pas de place pour la passion dans un tel univers. (TRN, 1286)
Owing largely to fatigue he let himself go, was increasingly silent, and failed to
keep alive the feeling in his wife that she was loved. A husband who works, pov-

Camus: Love and Sexuality, 92.
Mythical Women in La Peste 151

erty, the gradual loss of hope in the future, silent evenings at home – there is no
place for passion in such a universe. (P, 70)

The experience he recalls might be that of Rieux himself, but it is not

limited to pre-plague Oran, for the emphasis on fatigue, exhausted
silence, and the incongruity of passion reflect the present. This is the
permanent experience of men struggling against their plague-ridden
lives, and one only another man could understand. Passion – the loss
of emotional control – is always “useless” and “heavy to carry” in any
such universe. Passion must be transformed and sublimated in order
for it to enhance the life of man productively. It is after the loss of his
wife that Grand has discovered passion, and thanks to her absence that
he has been able to develop a passionate interest in his work. This is
apparent long before we know his secret; although he had heard of
them, he had not noticed the fate of the rats because he had “other
worries” (TRN, 1233); later, when he talks about Cottard, who had
seemed to want to talk, he explains his failure to do so because he was
“working” (TRN, 1243). It is very clear that he is in the throes of a
secret passion when even discussing his work, for his hands tremble
and he perspires (TRN, 1304). But whereas the protection afforded to
“the passionate ones” is an illusory one, Grand’s obsession does not
disrupt his sense of priorities and prevent him from joining the fight
against the plague. As he tells Rieux: “There is the plague, we must
defend ourselves, it’s obvious! If only everything were so simple!”
(TRN, 1328). And he returns to his sentence. This particular diversion
also brings relief to Rieux and Tarrou as they involve themselves in
the search for the right word (TRN, 1328), an activity Rieux had first
engaged in precisely as a means of escape (TRN, 1302).
As Camus repeatedly reflects in his notebooks, men and women have
a different conception of heterosexual love. Women dream of an emo-
tion that conquers all, enduring beyond the grave (C1, 131). In 1942
he complained of the excessive use of Eurydice in contemporary lit-
erature, which he attributed to the fact that never had so many lovers
been separated before (C2, 56). In La Peste, however, as if to empha-
size the difference between romantic fantasy and reality, the actor
playing Orpheus dies from the plague. Camus’s treatment of this myth
in La Peste suggests a dismissal and surpassing of Eurydice which
parallels his own development as an author.
152 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Maurice Blanchot has presented Orpheus as a template of the he-

roic artist who will venture into the unknown for the sake of his art.
Eurydice here represents that “feminine” space, “the profoundly ob-
scure point toward which art and desire, death and night, seem to tend.
She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as the other
night”. This Orpheus does not want Eurydice “in her daytime truth
and her everyday appeal”. He wants to see her:
not when she is visible, but when she is invisible, and not as the intimacy of a fa-
miliar life, but as the foreignness of what excludes all intimacy, and wants, not to
make her live, but to have living in her the plenitude of her death.31

Certainly, such an ambition clearly applies to Camus’s very early pre-

occupations with respect to women; and above all, to that search for
total knowledge to which women present such an impediment. But the
author of Le Mythe has consciously gone beyond such concerns.
There, the emphasis is consistently on the limits of understanding as
being circumscribed by the concrete – those truths which the hand can
touch (E, 136). Although a consequence of the human consciousness
and therefore itself equally a construct of the imagination, the Absurd
is presented as a logical deduction based on empirical evidence which,
in its very essence, differs from the intangible emotions. To turn away
from such a form of knowledge would be an evasion:
Abolir la révolte consciente, c’est éluder le problème. (…) Vivre, c’est faire vivre
l’absurde. Le faire vivre, c’est avant tout le regarder. Au contraire d’Eurydice,
l’absurde ne meurt que lorsqu’on s’en détourne. (E, 138)
To abolish conscious revolt is to elude the problem. (…) Living is to keep the Ab-
surd alive. Keeping it alive is above all looking at it. Unlike Eurydice, the Absurd
only dies when one turns away from it. (MS, 53)

In their daily activities and their “revolt” against death the combattants
of La Peste re-assert these priorities. Eurydice is of no consequence;
she is already dead. Although all the major characters bear the mark of
Orpheus, the treatment of this legend in La Peste, and particularly the
example of Rieux, suggests its repudiation. Rambert may be reunited
with his loved one, but “in her daytime truth and her everyday appeal”
this was not the woman he sought.
Grand, on the other hand, will never suffer Rambert’s disappoint-
ment of reunion with the loved one because, like Rieux, he knows al-

“Orpheus’s Gaze”, in The Space of Literature, Ann Smock (tr.) (London: Univer-
sity of Nebraska Press, 1989), 171, 172.
Mythical Women in La Peste 153

ready that passion fades. Jeanne’s gift to him was her absence, which
has endowed him with a creative passion, channelled into art and the
impossible desire for perfection. He has not sought Jeanne “in her eve-
ryday reality”, but rather to replace her with his perfect woman, and to
substitute for the habit of a familiar life the fantasy of the ideal
woman. As in “Le Livre de Mélusine”, the quest is of greater impor-
tance than the attainment of the desired object, whose absence alone
sustains desire.
Tarrou’s quest most closely resembles that of Blanchot’s Orpheus.
Like Patrice Mersault of La Mort heureuse, he is not enslaved by sex-
ual passion; and, like him, he seeks to lead his life through an asser-
tion of the Will. In a world where all carry the plague everything else
– health, integrity, purity – is an effect of the will, which must be un-
L’honnête homme, celui qui n’infecte presque personne, c’est celui qui a le moins
de distraction possible. Et il en faut de la volonté et de la tension pour ne jamais
être distrait! Oui, Rieux, c’est bien fatigant d’être un pestiféré. Mais c’est encore
plus fatigant de ne pas vouloir l’être. (…) Mais c’est pour cela que quelques-uns,
qui veulent cesser de l’être, connaissent une extrémité de fatigue dont rien ne les
délivrera plus que la mort. (TRN, 1426)
The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest
lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous willpower, a never-ending tension of
the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-
stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. (…) But that is also why
some of us, those who want to stop being this, feel such an extremity of fatigue
from which nothing will deliver us except death. (P, 207)

During such an extremity of fatigue he records his reactions to

Rieux’s mother, whose Eurydice-like qualities attract him, reminding
him of his own mother:
“Ma mère était ainsi, j’aimais en elle le même effacement et c’est elle que j’ai tou-
jours voulu rejoindre. Il y a huit ans, je ne peux pas dire qu’elle soit morte. Elle
s’est seulement effacée un peu plus que d’habitude et, quand je me suis retourné,
elle n’était plus là”. (TRN, 1446)
“My mother was like that, I loved in her the same self-effacement, and it’s her
I’ve always wanted to rejoin. Eight years ago, I can’t say that she died. She only
effaced herself a little more than usual and, when I turned around she was no
longer there”. (P, 225)

This woman’s death is virtually indistinguishable from her life; she

has only taken one step further into her darkness. Likewise, Mme
Rieux, who “knew everything without ever thinking about it”, is no
woman of flesh and blood, but of “silence and shadow”, sitting mo-
154 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

tionless in front of her window, until the dusk turns her into “a black
shadow” before finally dissolving her immobile silhouette entirely
(TRN, 1446). Tarrou follows this figure into the dark, and her increas-
ing empire over him is evidenced by the fact that he is already begin-
ning to succumb to the plague as he writes these words. Dying, he
watches this “little shadow” at his bedside (TRN, 1456), and it is she
who assists his passage into the lethal “peace” he seeks. Tarrou had
found this only in death, “at the hour when it could serve no purpose”
(TRN, 1467). This judgement, passed by the narrator towards the end
of the novel, ultimately aligns Tarrou with all who lift their eyes to-
wards the heavens, yearning after the intangible in a quest that will
never be realized on this earth.
Tarrou’s metaphysical preoccupations are presented as beyond the
understanding of the more practical Rieux, whose concern is with the
daily reality of diagnosing the sick. Yet Tarrou’s nightmare vision of a
world where the plague is simply the human condition, and where,
willy nilly, all men are murderers, does not differ markedly from
Rieux’s view of a world ruled over by death and where each victory is
necessarily provisional (TRN, 1323). The major distinction between
them seems to lie in their attitudes towards metaphysical questions – a
dimension resolutely rejected by Rieux.
I earlier noted the presentation of nature at the beginning of the
novel, and the parallels drawn there between women and the plague
rats. Such imagery contrasts with the narrator’s self-portrait as a man
who firmly rejects those occasional nightmarish fantasies that haunt
him. Grand’s defining characteristic, that he seemed to be always
seeking the right word (TRN, 1231), is shared by Rieux as narrator,
whose “precautions of language” (TRN, 1222) are likewise aimed at
making his chronicle “stick to reality” (TRN, 1305), except that he
does not seek artistic perfection but objective truth: “he had made
hardly any changes for the sake of artistic effect” (TRN, 1365).
Rieux’s concern is to base his writing on fact – to “reproduce” real-
ity, and in pursuit of this goal he uses documents, first-hand testi-
mony, and personal experience. Seeing himself as the objective
reporter of events, he states that:
Sa tâche est seulement de dire “Ceci est arrivé” lorsqu’il sait que ceci est, en effet,
arrivé, que ceci a intéressé la vie de tout un peuple, et qu’il y a donc des milliers
de témoins qui estimeront dans leur cœur la vérité de ce qu’il dit. (TRN, 1221)
His business is only to say “This is what happened”, when he knows that it actu-
ally did happen, that it closely affected the life of a whole populace, and that there
Mythical Women in La Peste 155

are thousands of eye-witnesses who can appraise in their hearts the truth of what
he writes. (P, 7)

In this dispassionate spirit he recounts his daily activities, where prac-

tical action takes priority over emotional empathy, and love, memory,
pity and “peace” are progressively discarded as serving no useful pur-
pose. Pity is despatched as an unproductive emotion on the occasion
of Rieux’s visit to the house of Mme Loret and her daughter (TRN,
1292-93). Whereas at other times his examination is firstly of the
armpits or the neck of the victim, here Rieux knows immediately
where to look:
Et lui, relevant drap et chemise, contemplait en silence les taches rouges sur le
ventre et les cuisses, l’enflure des ganglions. La mère regardait entre les jambes
de sa fille et criait, sans pouvoir se dominer. (TRN, 1292)
And he, raising the coverlet and chemise, gazed in silence at the red blotches on
the girl’s thighs and stomach, the swollen glands. The mother looked between the
legs of her daughter and cried out, uncontrollably. (P, 76)

This deathbed scene insistently mirrors so many scenes of childbirth,

except that what they witness is not the arrival of new life, but the
“microbe” of death itself and that spreading contagion that will con-
taminate all it touches. Here, a fascinating mise en abyme is created
where the mother, as if it is she upon whom the Medusa’s petrifying
gaze has been deflected,32 confronts herself as the source of all mortal-
ity; all earthly corruption emanates from between the woman’s legs.
One might speculate that Rieux’s determined insistence on the
“facts”, the primacy of empirical reality and everyday work stems not
from a lack of imagination but from an excess of it. Indeed, as he re-
marks, a doctor has seen more suffering and consequently has more
imagination (TRN, 1248). As the narrator of this chronicle, his are the
words that conjure up the image of the vile and vengeful earth sum-
moning the concierge into death, and he is the one seeking refuge
from the irrational world of the emotions through his insistence that
certainty lies in the concrete world. This is an Orpheus who has em-
phatically turned his back on Eurydice because he has already looked
into the void and seen that other night. If Blanchot’s Orpheus cannot
do otherwise than turn towards Eurydice because this is what he wants
to see, Camus’s Rieux cannot help but turn away, in a gesture that re-

See Freud’s essay “Medusa’s Head”, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychologi-
cal Works of Sigmund Freud, vol.18, trans. by James Strachey (ed.) (London: Hogarth
Press, 1955), 273-74.
156 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

flects that of the author when he writes in Le Mythe “I want to deliver

my universe from its phantoms and to people it with truths of flesh
and blood whose presence I cannot deny” (E, 179).
On this level the Orpheus and Eurydice myth may be seen as the
“elaboration of a process of mourning”. From an initial disbelief at the
death of the loved one and the useless quest to bring back the dead,
the final backward glance of Orpheus is not the cause of Eurydice’s
death. Rather, it is the final stage of a mourning process – the ac-
knowledgement of the fact of death. And beyond that borderline
where none can follow and return alive there is “nothing”. For Rieux,
in the case of his wife, or for the author in the case of his impenetrable
mother, she no longer exists, since she is no longer there. Omniscience
requires the exclusion of the unknown.
Despite resemblances between them, Rieux’s activities surpass
those of Grand because he has chosen a more fitting subject for his
writing in depicting the reality of fraternal struggle and the collective
passions of his fellow-citizens. Grand’s folly lies not in his ambition,
but in his failure to recognize the initial cliché of the perfect love on
which he bases his creative efforts, and hence by striving to create the
perfect woman in a world of which he knows nothing (TRN, 1305).
His attempted ressuscitation of a dead love dooms his effort to failure.
Heterosexual love is founded on silence and there are no words to re-
vive it:
“Tant que nous nous sommes aimés, nous nous sommes compris sans paroles.
Mais on ne s’aime pas toujours. A un moment donné, j’aurais dû trouver les mots
qui l’aurait retenue, mais je n’ai pas pu.” (TRN, 1286)
“As long as we were in love we didn’t need words to understand one another. But
people don’t love forever. A time came when I should have found the words to
keep her with me, but I couldn’t.” (P, 70)

Love is a perishable commodity which, once it has died, leaves only

“a memory that serves no purpose” (TRN, 1278). Fraternity, on the
other hand, is based on both action in the real world and verbal com-
munication; dialogue. The reality man sees changes him, whereas Eu-
rydice dissolves before his eyes because she is already a shadow in the
world of shades. In the case of both Grand and Rieux the loss of the
loved one engenders creative activity, but whereas Grand’s monument
to Jeanne is his horsewoman, Rieux’s monument to Tarrou is the
chronicle of La Peste.
The story of Orpheus does not end with his failure to regain Eury-
dice. Like Rieux in his friendship with Tarrou, he discovers a higher
Mythical Women in La Peste 157

form of love. After the episode in the Underworld he was torn to

pieces by women because he had preached the greater virtue of homo-
sexual love.33 But this ignoble death at the hands of women was a
punishment of the gods because of Orpheus’ cowardice in not being
prepared to die for his love. By contrast, they rewarded Achilles be-
cause, in the full knowledge that by killing Hector he would bring
about his own death, nevertheless he avenged the death of his friend
Patroclus.34 After the account of Orpheus and Eurydice, Plato’s Sym-
posium turns to the question of homoerotic love, distinguishing be-
tween two types of love. The love inspired by Aphrodite in her
celestial aspect (not of woman born) is “wholly male, with no trace of
femininity”, and this attraction is for what is “inherently stronger and
more intelligent – an inclination towards the male”.35
An Inclination towards the Male
Rieux may not understand his friend’s quest for peace, yet after Tar-
rou’s death he understands that he himself has lost it forever:
Le docteur ne savait pas si, pour finir, Tarrou avait retrouvé la paix, mais dans ce
moment tout au moins, il croyait savoir qu’il n’y aurait jamais plus de paix possi-
ble pour lui-même, pas plus qu’il n’y a d’armistice pour la mère amputée de son
fils ou pour l’homme qui ensevelit son ami. (TRN, 1458)
The doctor could not tell if Tarrou had found peace, now that all was over, but for
himself he had a feeling that no peace was possible to him henceforth, any more
than there can be an armistice for the mother bereaved of her son or for the man
who buries his friend. (P, 235-36)

Achilles was the first literary figure to endure such torment. In March,
1942, Camus refers to the Iliad, the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ re-
turn to the battle, and his immense grief at the loss of his companion
(C2, 15). Having avenged Patroclus and buried his friend, nevertheless
the solitary Achilles:
Wept still as he remembered his beloved companion, nor did sleep
who subdues all come over him, but he tossed from one side to the other in long-
ing for Patroklos, for his manhood and his great strength
and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships

Ovid: Metamorphoses, Mary M. Innes (tr.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955), XI
Plato: Symposium, Robin Waterfield (tr.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994),
Symposium, 181c.
158 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters. Remembering
all these things he let fall the swelling tears.36

Such is his unending grief that Achilles continues still to punish Hec-
tor, “killing” his lifeless corpse again and again and dragging it around
the tomb of Patroclus. Camus’s reading of the Iliad seems to have in-
spired his further comment on the “humiliated image” of man that the
past 2,000 years of Christianity have brought about, and he asks what
man might have been like today if the classical ideal with its admira-
ble image of man had been preserved instead (C2, 16).
“L’Exil d’Hélène” contains a reference to this bond of male friend-
ship. In speaking of contemporary times Camus writes:
Nous lutterons pour celle de ses vertus qui vient de loin. Quelle vertu? Les che-
vaux de Patrocle pleurent leur maître mort dans la bataille. Tout est perdu. Mais le
combat reprend avec Achille et la victoire est au bout, parce que l’amitié vient
d’être assassinée: l’amitié est une vertu. (E, 856-57)
We shall fight for that of its virtues that comes from afar. Which virtue? Patro-
clus’s horses weep for their master, dead in battle. All is lost. But Achilles returns
to the fray and victory lies at the end because friendship has been murdered:
friendship is a virtue. (SEN, 139-40)

The relationship between Rieux and Tarrou has been forged over time
in the course of struggle and shared experiences. When Tarrou sug-
gests they should consecrate an hour to friendship, it is mutually un-
derstood that “doing one’s job” takes priority, an understanding that
contrasts with Rieux’s guilt over his neglect of his wife. Each man
regards this hour as a brief interlude snatched from the struggle and,
unlike heterosexual love for the woman outside of history, their
friendship has been tempered by that same struggle. Against a back-
ground of conflict (cries, shots fired) Tarrou confides in Rieux, thus
sealing their relationship through verbal communication. Words are
here an essential precursor to the silent understanding defining this
type of love, and of which they are an essential part.
In chapter 1 I suggested that there is already evidence of the desire
for acceptance in the community of men. In “L’Hôpital du quartier
pauvre” the all-encompassing narrative voice undercuts possible di-
versity. In La Mort heureuse Camus makes two more attempts to
demonstrate such fraternity with Zagreus and Bernard. Each time
there is a quasi-religious, confessional interview between the solitary
hero and the other man, but on neither occasion is a shared under-

Iliad, XXIV, 4-9.
Mythical Women in La Peste 159

standing achieved. The exchange of confidences leads to the feeling of

contempt on the part of one of these pairs (MH, 79, 180-81), and in
the interview with Bernard the suspicion that he might despise Mer-
sault for what he has done provokes a form of fragmentation where
Bernard becomes like an externalized manifestation of himself (MH,
184). Such problems are by no means resolved in La Peste, where it
could be (and has been) argued that each of the principal characters
represents an aspect of Camus himself; moreover, the narrator’s con-
trol over the text confers on him disturbingly god-like powers of
knowing (or insisting on) what others are thinking. However, only in
La Peste does Camus succeed in demonstrating an apparent diversity
amongst the main characters which is resolved in a harmonious unity,
and this is achieved through the presence of an external, unifying fac-
tor; rather than a shared “philosophy of life”, these men display unity
of purpose.
What has been injected into La Peste is that dimension stemming
from the experience of war and the feelings of solidarity Camus knew
as a result of his activities in Combat. Whereas in his personal note-
books and his imaginative writings up to this point there is no overt
political engagement, Camus’s notes for La Peste increasingly find
their place alongside notes on revolt that will ultimately be incorpo-
rated into L’Homme révolté. Indeed, as commentators have noted,
Tarrou’s confession to Rieux picks up the same vocabulary used in Ni
Victimes ni bourreaux. 37
Jean Gassin has pointed out the very close textual similarities be-
tween Mersault’s bathe in the sea and that of Tarrou and Rieux. In
1976 he cites Alain Costes to the effect that the aim of Camus’s work
was to find the right language to declare his love to his mother, and
that this impulse arises directly from forbidden incestuous desire.38
Hence, Gassin’s interpretation of the bathing scene in La Peste de-
pends on its relationship to “Entre Oui et Non” and the son’s silence
before a mother to whom he is unable to declare his love. Linked with
this desire to speak is the œdipal fear of castration as evidenced by the
“primal scene” of the night spent with the mother. Given this empha-
sis on incestuous desire, it is not surprising that elements of homo-
erotic love present problems for such an argument, and Gassin is
Jean-Yves Guérin has demonstrated the extent to which the themes of the novel are
reflected in the editorials of Combat, in “Jalons pour une lecture politique de La
Peste”, Roman 20-50, 2 (December, 1986), 7-26.
“De Tarrou à Camus: le symbolisme de la guillotine”, AC8 (1976), 73-102.
160 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

keenly aware of the difficulty of distinguishing between the incestu-

ous or homosexual nature of this relationship.39 If the object of this
scene is the other man rather than the mother, then it would indeed be
difficult to sustain this argument, which is nevertheless repeated with
little change of emphasis in 1981,40 while Gassin confronts elsewhere
the question of homosexuality. Here, “Entre Oui et non” is not men-
tioned, while the forbidden nature of the swim taken by the two men is
given a more explicitly sexual emphasis, and in which Rieux takes on
the “feminine” role which had previously alternated between them.41
Gassin is right to point out such ambiguity, and the apparently ho-
mosexual undercurrents in Camus’s work, which become more subtle
over time. In La Mort heureuse, where the superior attractions of the
male body are clearly signalled, they are difficult to overlook. But
women are an essential component in the relationships between men,
cementing the bonds between them and providing a form of propriety
by supplying an overtly heterosexual context – as in La Peste, where
the mother presides over the ménage of Tarrou and Rieux. The em-
phasis in these masculine relationships is rather on chastity,42 and it
seems more appropriate to call this bond a homosocial one.43
Although Mme Rieux mère is generally viewed as replacing the
wife, she is the necessary forerunner for Tarrou, who eventually
moves into the household (TRN, 1375). He has no attachments to any
particular woman, although the implication is that he knows how to
enjoy life – watching the dancers and following courting couples in
the company of Cottard (TRN, 1376-77), who calls him “a man”, the
highest accolade of virility (TRN, 1375). Their relationship is sancti-
fied not only by their shared battle, but by the presence of Rieux’s
mother, whose instrumental role here is of considerable importance.
Her presence often introduces that of Tarrou; in this new household
arrangement she becomes the “mother” of both men, who are thus

Ibid., 79.
L’Univers symbolique, 244-49.
“Les facteurs homosexuels de la création littéraire: le cas d’Albert Camus”, Austra-
lian Journal of French Studies, 17 (2) (May-August 1980), 181-93.
Redmond O’Hanlon, in “The Rite of Friendship: An Analysis of the Bathing Scene
in La Peste”, Modern Languages, 61 (3) (Sept. 1980) (120-25), points to the symbolic
significance of both the moon and the stars, whose light becomes “the light of purity”
I have adopted this term from Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, Between Men: English
Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press,
Mythical Women in La Peste 161

“brothers in arms”; and it is she who voices Rieux’s own inclination to

break the rules and keep the dying Tarrou with them (TRN, 1452).
Thus the scrupulously law-abiding Rieux twice contravenes the regu-
lations for the sake of this friendship.
The Maternal Stereotype
In this masculine society, the only significant female character is the
mother herself, whose aura is such that her status is rarely questioned.
Indeed, the extent to which Tarrou’s evaluation of her is accepted
without comment is cause for surprise. After their first meeting Tarrou
notes the colour of her eyes and remarks that a look of such goodness
would always be stronger than the plague (TRN, 1312). If the narrator
finds such a statement “bizarre”, then this, apparently, serves only to
further illustrate his lack of imagination, or the extent to which he
takes her for granted. Those of us who are mothers might be more
wary of such bizarre propositions.
The presence of this maternal figure demonstrates the success of
Camus’s attempt to achieve a “mythical woman”. This explains her
proclaimed immunity to the plague, just as her apparent lack of inter-
est in events is explained by her undefined “indifference”, which im-
plies an infinite wisdom and understanding. The equation made by
Tarrou between authentic truth and silence (TRN, 1314) is exemplified
by her. Whereas Rieux feels guilt at his neglect of his wife, he need
feel no such burden in the case of his mother, who is content to pass
her days sitting in a corner awaiting his return (TRN, 1319). After a
moment of animation on his return she falls silent again, thus meeting
the requirements of the taciturn Rieux who has no wish to engage in
conversation. Here is the ideal mother who has no expectations, makes
no demands, and has no apparent interest except in her son.
Mme Rieux is not the sole repository of the maternal stereotype,
for Rambert also is touched by its aura during his attempts to escape.
At the home of the guards, Louis and Marcel, he meets their mother, a
wrinkled old Spanish woman full of smiles, whose innocuous ques-
tions about his girlfriend give Rambert cause for reflection (TRN,
1385). In his state of uncertainty he moves from this mother to that of
Dr Rieux, and from there to Tarrou and Rieux in order to announce his
decision that he will not leave. The mother has a benign influence on
all her sons, sanctifying their commitment to one another. While
“real” women are banished from La Peste, an ideal of woman remains
as a talisman to sanction the activities of men. Hence, Rambert’s dis-
162 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

covery that Rieux’s wife is dying out of sight contributes to his change
of mind; Grand first confides in Rieux after he catches sight of her
photograph (TRN, 1283); and Rieux’s grief over the loss of his friend
is conveniently followed by the announcement of her death. Although
this is eclipsed by that of Tarrou, Rieux’s emotions can be attributed
to and justified by the loss of his wife.
Apparently without any recognition that he is doing so, Pierre
Nguyen Van Huy gives a detailed description of the maternal stereo-
type when, overlooking all ambiguity, he embraces the mother figure
as a pure expression of the mutual relationship between the author and
his mother. Based on an apparently automatic bond, maternal love is
regarded as unproblematically unconditional, altruistic, disinterested
and universal.44 While there can be no doubt that such an idealization
takes place in Camus’s writings (and La Peste is the prime example),
Van Huy accepts this at face value as a constant and unambiguous
mutual emotion; both on the level of the author’s actual relationship
with his own mother and on the fictional level, he confuses this stereo-
type for reality.
With respect to the undoubted association between mother and na-
ture, he first draws a descriptive parallel between the two and, on this
basis, makes them an identical force. Thus the term “maternal” be-
comes entirely detached from any human associations and is applied
not only to nature but to the struggle between the (paternal) “German
ideology” and the (maternal) “Mediterranean spirit”. He thus arrives at
the astonishing and untenable argument that Noces represents a vic-
tory for “maternal” values, where in “L’Été à Alger” the values the
author defends are those of the matriarchal or gynocratic tradition, and
the moral code he both follows and announces is that of Woman.45
According to this view the fight against the plague represents the vic-
tory of the “matriarchal camp” over that of the father. It does not seem
to occur to this critic that there is something suspect about the use of
such terms in the face of a near total absence of women. Again, I re-
turn to Spivak’s statement that such an appropriation is the mark of
ideology at work. What is the value of this stereotype (this symbol, the
“mythical” woman)? Because it applies to no recognizably human
figure its attributes become portable, extendable – universal. Because
it is non-specific, non-embodied, in cannot be scrutinized in the same

La Métaphysique du bonheur chez Albert Camus, 94, 89.
Ibid., 106-7, 117.
Mythical Women in La Peste 163

way as, for example, a character such as Rieux. It is a communal

property, finding its meaning less upon the page than in what we all
already know – and do we not know the meaning of mother love and
its inexhaustible, unconditional altruism? Undoubtedly, the work of
Camus makes use of familiar and widespread sexual stereotypes in
conformity to Nguyen Van Huy’s syllogistic and patriarchal “mater-
nal” principle, but this is far from the expression of a woman-centred
ethical code, as he claims.
The Battle of the Sexes
There are two sorts of destiny, two sorts of war, two sorts of tragedy – public and
private. Nothing can eliminate this duality from the world.46

When Camus writes (in a comment that follows an extract for La

Peste and precedes drafts for his essay on revolt) that the battle of the
sexes exists and we can do nothing about it (C2, 122), it is unlikely
that he envisaged a battle between two loosely defined “matriarchal”
and “patriarchal” camps where gender is immaterial. On the contrary,
sexual difference is here a significant indicator of probable character
type and social role. This is most clearly evident in the theatrical
works, which depict a universe polarized by gender, and where
women consistently argue against the more abstract concerns of men.
In this traditional division of the world into a political and social
“masculine” sphere of ideas and action, and a domestic, emotional,
“feminine” sphere, although both Spengler and Camus categorize
woman as outside of history, Spengler identifies two kinds of history
fighting for power:
Woman is strong and wholly what she is, and she experiences the Man and the
Sons only in relation to her and her ordained role. In the masculine being, on the
contrary, there is a certain contradiction; he is this man, and he is something else
besides, which woman neither understands nor admits, which she feels as robbery
and violence upon that which to her is holiest. This secret and fundamental war of
the sexes has gone on ever since there were sexes, and will continue – silent, bit-
ter, unforgiving, pitiless – while they continue.47

The theatrical works mobilize such a definition of the battle of the

sexes; not only is it fitting that this should be woman’s role, but also
that she should herself voice the claims of this other history, hence
embodying this honourable and “natural” battle.

The Decline of the West, II, 329.
Ibid., II, 327.
164 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Camus selected two women from the plays (Maria and Dora) when
asked who his three favourite characters were (E, 1922), an approval
that suggests a clue to the role of his female characters there. His dis-
like of a psychological dimension in the theatre was often mentioned;
in Sur l’avenir de la tragédie he claimed that Euripides upset the clas-
sical balance of tragedy by concentrating on individual psychology
(TRN, 1707), while in the English-language edition of his plays he
expressed the aim of presenting human destiny as a whole rather than
that of individuals. “Psychology” left him indifferent (TRN, 1733-34).
This conception of classical tragedy was perhaps a justification and
rationalization of an inability to create a character from the inside – as
in L’État de Siège, for example, where Diego and Victoria are “virtu-
ally puppets, only too obviously exemplifying Camus’s evolving phi-
losophy of limits. They are not credible as human beings”.48
In December, 1959, he divided his work in the following way:
J’écris sur des plans différents pour éviter justement le mélange des genres. J’ai
composé ainsi des pièces dans le langage de l’action, des essais à forme rationnel-
le, des romans sur l’obscurité du cœur. Ces livres différents disent, il est vrai, la
même chose. (E, 1926)
I write on different levels precisely to avoid the mixing of genres. In this way, I
have composed plays in the language of action, essays in rational form, novels on
the obscurity of the heart. These books say, it’s true, the same thing.

This classification suggests a reason for Camus’s fondness for his the-
atrical characters where the emphasis on the language of action with
regard to his theatrical works dispenses with the need for psychology,
or the investigation of the obscurity of the heart. I have at several
points suggested that through his literary production the author seeks a
form of control over his social environment. Perhaps only the creative
artist has the possibility of transforming and correcting his universe.
Roger Quilliot observed that in Camus’s eyes the entire universe was
a vast theatre (TRN, 1689), while Jean Grenier recalls that Camus felt
very strongly that the man of the theatre was a second god.49 The thea-
tre is not merely a means of “peopling solitude” but it is a means of
recreating, directing and controlling a microcomic universe. In this
contained environment where the presence of a female character on
stage requires more than silence, the “battle of the sexes” can be
played out and stylized as that between two opposing forces, each rep-

The Theatre of Albert Camus, 95.
Souvenirs, 118.
Mythical Women in La Peste 165

resenting aspects of a universal human destiny. Moreover, the role of

the women in the plays does not conflict with that allotted to those
such as Marie in the fictional works. Marie herself expresses a certain
displeasure at Meursault’s refusal to say he loves her, calling him “bi-
zarre”, and this role seems to have been passed on to her theatrical
sisters – a contained revolt belonging in an honourable, “feminine”
tradition. It is to be noted, furthermore, that all the women in the plays
are of European descent and hence racially transparent, as if belonging
to no race. Woman defends the claims of the emotions in the theatrical
works because, as I have pointed out, she is allotted her role in the
traditional, private sphere of the family, the biological reproduction
and care of the generations.
The Psychology of Women, Intent on Desire and Possession
Despite Camus’s rejection of psychology there is a covert psychologi-
cal dimension to his female theatrical characters. Without ties of af-
fection to friends, children or other family members, the solitary
woman represents private life with a vengeance. Camus presents the
“amour du couple” in isolation from any other network of social or
emotional support. Woman’s emotional focus is entirely on one man,
whom she seeks to detach in turn from his wider preoccupations.
Diego asserts in L’État de Siège that the men of his blood belong only
to the earth (TRN, 268), but for Victoria “you should have chosen me
over the heavens themselves. You should have preferred me to the
entire earth” (TRN, 297). Victoria is strong, but all in the service of
this “egoism”; she has no concern for and no ties to the community in
which she lives:
J’ai trop à faire pour porter mon amour! Je ne vais pas encore me charger de la
douleur du monde! C’est une tâche d’homme, cela, une de ces tâches vaines, stéri-
les, entêtées, que vous entreprenez pour vous détourner du seul combat qui serait
vraiment difficile, de la seule victoire dont vous pourriez être fiers. (TRN, 262-63)
I’ve too much to do in carrying my own love! I’m not going to burden myself fur-
ther with the pain of the world! That’s a task for men, one of those vain, sterile
and pointless tasks that you take on in order to avoid the only combat that would
be really difficult and the only victory of which you could be truly proud.

Whereas Diego refuses to save himself and Victoria at the expense of

the town (TRN, 288), there is little doubt as to the choice she would
have made in the same situation; a blind choice that would have
brought disaster on all. His love for her has ethical limits, and his self-
sacrifice extends beyond this unique emotion, resulting in the libera-
166 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

tion of the town. She would die with him, but only in the name of
“At least they do not have the obligation for greatness that we men
have” (C2, 322). Such concerns and duties are meaningless for
women, who are like a human embodiment of the “selfish gene”; yet
for this same reason the war of women against men merits respect, for
it is the claim of biology and the continuation of the species, in the
name of a highly privatized private sphere. Both La Peste and L’État
de Siège demonstrate the necessity of overcoming such claims – for
man is more than his biology and his instinct of revolt is the only de-
fence against the definitive silence of totalitarianism. Without the ca-
pacity for “greatness” in men the instinctive concerns of women
would be impossible. For all her force, Victoria is incapable of follow-
ing Diego’s path and repeating the revolt that saved him from the
plague. This “conflict” in fact reveals its complementary nature: “(the
world) needs our women to learn how to live. We, we have never been
capable of anything except dying” (TRN, 297).
The female assistant to the Plague likewise demonstrates this inter-
dependence; a female deity of Classical times, she symbolizes the
forces of destiny, perverted by the forces of history (TRN, 293).
Women are more easily swayed, more readily seeking compromise
with dictatorships – as the female chorus illustrates (TRN, 282). (In-
deed, such a judgement might be attributed to Camus himself. Jean
Grenier recalled that in Camus’s eyes some men of letters behaved
“like women”, their attitudes reflecting that of “weakness impressed
by force”. He told Grenier the story of a small girl in Budapest who,
when asked which party she would subscribe to later, replied “the
most cruel one”; if it won she would be protected and if it lost she
would have risked nothing.50) But the secretary retains a memory of
her older role and becomes complicit with Diego, helping him to see
the value of his revolt and hence to discover his duty.
Love rather than Justice
Both Kaliayev and Diego are concerned with duty and honour, for
such is the unhappy lot of men. Each aligns himself with the collective
and, in so doing, must withdraw from the all-consuming love of the
couple. Les Justes demonstrates the tragic consequences for the
woman in love who seeks to enter into the “collective passions” of the

Souvenirs, 50.
Mythical Women in La Peste 167

century and assume the role of a man. There can be no doubt of

Dora’s commitment to the cause, nor of her (qualified) acceptance
into the fraternity, yet she stands outside of this band of “knights”
(TRN, 352) precisely because of her emotional allegiances. Whereas
Kaliayev is unable to distinguish between her, the cause and the
brotherhood, she (like Victoria) needs to signify an individual rather
than a “collective” passion; she needs him to say that he loves her
more than justice and the organization – even if she were “unjust”
(TRN, 352) – and to commit himself to love before justice (TRN, 383).
Her commitment to abstract ideals has resulted in a feeling of fossili-
zation – as if something within her has died (TRN, 384). It seems rea-
sonable to conclude that this concerns her more “feminine” qualities –
especially in view of her final question: “Am I a woman now?” (TRN,
392). By aligning herself with revolt and stepping outside of her or-
dained role woman does violence to her very nature.
More ominous, however, is the comparison made by Stepan when
he says that Dora resembles him now (TRN, 393). Indeed, despite her
clear opposition to Stepan there are also parallels between them, for
his hatred is a sign that he is also driven by passion: “Where would I
find the strength to love? I have at least enough to hate. That’s better
than feeling nothing at all” (TRN, 357). Both he and Dora had sought
full details of the execution – she because she loved him, and he be-
cause he “envied” him (TRN, 390). In the Camusian vocabulary this is
a highly-charged Nietzschean term, and implies that Stepan is like a
slave, or a woman. Dora’s metamorphosis is finally accomplished at
the end of the play when she renounces her femininity and demands
her place in the front line. We cannot know what her subsequent mo-
tivations will be, yet the probability is that she has indeed come to re-
semble Stepan.
Chapter 6
Woman, Race and
the Fall of Man

In chapter 5 I argued that the absence of women from La Peste is le-

gitimated by underlying mythological allusions which reconstruct
woman as “myth”, standing outside of human affairs. The heroes of
La Peste are transformed into those of the Iliad fighting to retrieve
Helen; Beauty, and all that has been lost in the modern world. From
the myths of origin discussed in chapter 2 Camus recreates Greece on
the Algerian soil; a land fit for heroes, where women are in their
place. In the absence of a physical reality, the maternal symbol con-
fers purity on these men, legitimating their struggle and representing
the values for which they fight. In La Chute the fragility of this my-
thopoetic position is revealed as other political and biographical fac-
tors intrude; the furore following the publication of L’Homme révolté
leads to a disillusionment with the ideal of fraternity, while the illness
and attempted suicide of Camus’s wife as a result of his neglect and
many infidelities brings the personal sphere into sharp relief. Above
all, the Algerian conflict and the impending loss of his homeland is to
cause a personal crisis with far-reaching reverberations.
Intertextual echoes between La Chute and Camus’s later writings
on Algeria are unmistakable. In his 1958 avant-propos to his Chro-
niques algériennes Camus was to write that if some of the French con-
sidered that France’s colonial past placed her in a state of “historical
(I)ls n’ont pas à désigner les Français d’Algérie comme victimes expiatoires
(“Crevez, nous l’avons bien mérité!”), ils doivent s’offrir eux-mêmes à
l’expiation. En ce qui me concerne, il me paraît dégoûtant de battre sa coulpe,
comme nos juges-pénitents, sur la poitrine d’autrui, vain de condamner plusieurs
siècles d’expansion européenne, absurde de comprendre dans la même malédic-
tion Christophe Colomb et Lyautey. Le temps des colonialismes est fini, il faut le
savoir seulement et en tirer les conséquences. (E, 897)
(T)hey don’t have to appoint the French Algerians as sacrificial victims (“Die, we
deserve it!”), they should offer up themselves in expiation. As far as I’m con-
cerned, it seems to me repellant to proclaim one’s guilt, as our judge penitents do,
170 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

not by beating one’s own breast but that of others; vain to condemn centuries of
European expansion; absurd to lump together as the same curse Christopher Co-
lumbus and Lyautey. The time of colonialism is finished, one need only know this
and draw the consequences.

Such modern-day judge-penitents pass “sans transition, des discours

sur les principes d’honneur ou de fraternité à l’adoration du fait ac-
compli ou du parti le plus cruel” (E, 897-98) (“without transition,
from discourses on the principles of honour or fraternity to adoration
of the fait accompli or the most cruel party”). The reference here is to
the FLN, which Camus held responsible for atrocities against civilians
(French Algerian and Muslim alike) that can only be described as de-
praved or barbarous. The repressive French response to such acts, and
in particular the use of torture, evoked in him a despair that with such
nihilism “nous retournons (…) à la jungle où le seul principe est la
violence” (E, 893) (“we’re returning (…) to the jungle where the only
principle is violence”).
In this light, the final words of La Chute, “Il est trop tard mainte-
nant, il sera toujours trop tard. Heureusement!” (TRN, 1551) (“It’s too
late now, it will always be too late. Fortunately!”) echo Camus’s
words to Grenier, cited in chapter 1, and his inexpressible despair that
French Algeria might once have been saved. It is one argument of this
chapter that the impending fall of French Algeria underlies La Chute,
as well as the short stories of L’Exil et le Royaume. Here, the treat-
ment of women, particularly of female sexuality, reflects and ex-
presses a new and nightmarish vision of a post-colonial world where a
future Algeria, unmoored from France and devoid of its settlers, is tied
to an Islamic empire (E, 901).
In this chapter I shall return firstly to the question of origins, and
the superior man who creates himself. This is prompted by Cla-
mence’s reference to his own perceived origin as a fils de roi (king’s
son), a figure whose provenance I will trace back to the writings of
Gobineau. The fils de roi is the First Man in the sense that he owes
nothing to his own direct genealogy, but to a mythical forefather of
the distant past. In an examination of Gobineau’s influence (which
Camus freely acknowledged) I will point to a further unacknowledged
dimension from which vantage point the question of race may be
viewed. Although Camus may have been drawn to the aristocratic
overtones of the fils de roi, in its original context this figure is the
symbol of “historical origination – racial purity, cultural priority”.
From this angle I will examine Camus’s attitudes towards race as they
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 171

are expressed during his stay in South America, and the possible con-
sequences for his own view of Algeria and the literary myths he and
his contemporaries embraced. Such questions are brought into sharp
relief after the post-war worsening of the Algerian situation and the
onset of colonial war in 1954. While continuing to focus on the
mythological undercurrents in Camus’s work I will argue that a new
dimension associated with women enters into La Chute, which is an
“African” paganism emanating from Brazil. Woman as a sexual and
racial being retrospectively pollutes the purity of La Peste. When con-
sidered in conjunction with the Christian imagery often noted by
commentators, Camus’s third, unrealized cycle, Nemesis, seems pro-
filed in La Chute.
There are two levels to the depiction of women in La Chute. On the
one hand, this is the first work where the discourse of the protagonist
centrally concerns his own dealings with women, and in this sense
women are the subject of his monologue. Underlying this discourse,
on the other hand, La Chute continues the construction of the mythical
woman through allusions to Greek mythology, the Bible, and more
contemporary mythical figures who enter the writings at this point.
Here, a chaotic hybridity underlies and undermines the rational order
of Clamence’s discourse.
The Politics of Envy
“Adoration” of the cruellest party is not the sole preserve of contem-
porary political commentators and intellectuals. As the female chorus
of L’État de siège illustrates, women are more easily swayed, more
readily seeking compromise with dictatorships (TRN, 282). I noted in
chapter 5 Camus’s judgement that some men behaved “like women”,
their response one of “weakness impressed by force”; and his anec-
dote about the girl in Budapest who, when asked which party she
would subscribe to later, replied “the most cruel one”, because, what-
ever the outcome, she would have risked nothing.1 In chapter 5 I also
pointed out that Martha is driven by envy to murder her brother, be-
cause he has what she cannot have, and he is what she can never be. I
suggest that such is the fate of women in the theatrical works of Ca-
mus, and in their “silent, bitter” war against men their overriding im-
pulse is of envy for that other world they will never comprehend and
of which they can never truly be a part.

Souvenirs, 50.
172 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

There is and ever will be a secret politic of the woman (…) that seeks to draw
away her male from his kind of history and to weave him body and soul into her
own plantlike history of generic succession – that is, into herself.2

In his preface to L’Envers et l’Endroit Camus speaks of resentment

and satisfaction as the two dangers threatening the artist; as for him-
self, the sun that had reigned over his childhood had deprived him of
resentment (E, 6). In the following two pages he further illustrates
what he means by resentment, for which he substitutes the word
“envy”. Indeed, in L’Homme révolté we see the importance ascribed
to envy as an ingredient of resentment when he comments that envy is
strongly tinged with resentment (E, 427). The high degree of defen-
siveness in Camus’s preface gives pause for thought; why should Ca-
mus go to such lengths to defend himself, his family (and his
community) against charges that have not been made? Ironically, such
denials seem to anticipate the more perceptive analyses of some Ca-
musian scholars who have detected, on the contrary, a profound re-
sentment about the poverty into which he was born.3
In late 1949 Camus wrote an early draft for this projected preface
which makes no mention of such themes, although he speaks of the
mother’s central importance in his work (C2, 297-98). In 1950, a re-
flection on his family begins to suggest the significance with which
the terms “envy” and “resentment” are laden:
Près d’eux, ce n’est pas la pauvreté, ni le dénuement, ni l’humiliation que j’ai sen-
tis. Pourquoi ne pas le dire: j’ai senti et je sens encore ma noblesse. Devant ma
mère, je sens que je suis d’une race noble: celle qui n’envie rien. (C2, 326)
With them I have felt neither poverty, nor deprivation nor humiliation. Why not
say it: I have felt and still feel my nobility. When I am with my mother, I feel that
I am of a noble race: one that envies nothing. (SEN, 290)

Here, the absence of envy is the defining characteristic of nobility.

Maurice Weyembergh sheds light on these terms when he argues that
in L’Homme révolté Camus is trying to go beyond some of
Nietzsche’s theories while seeking to maintain this philosopher as an
ally.4 Weyembergh focuses on Nietzsche’s central theory of ressenti-

The Decline of the West, II, 328.
See, for example, the section of Jean Sarocchi’s doctoral thesis (“La Recherche du
père”) entitled “Les quatre points cardinaux du ressentiment”; and Gassin, L’Univers
symbolique, 158.
“Révolte et ressentiment”, in Albert Camus, 12 (1985), 65-82. What follows is a
summary of his comments (68-70). For an assessment of Nietzsche’s influence in Le
Mythe de Sisyphe see also his “Camus et Nietzsche: évolution d’une affinité”, in Al-
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 173

ment, according to which Western history is one of decadence initially

set in motion by the triumph of Christianity after the fall of the Roman
Empire. The driving force is the resentment of the weak against the
strong; the revolt of the slave is a reactive denial through which what
is good is defined (and therefore governed) by the denial of the mas-
ter’s values. Hence, the decline of Western history is conditioned by
the revolt of slaves. Nietzsche’s solution to this decadence is through
the education and production of masters rather than slaves, and he
identifies two systems of education, dressage and élevage. Dressage
entails the elimination of instinct and of all links with nature and the
jungle, which, according to Nietzsche, was the method of Christianity,
and led to the production of slaves and criminals. Élevage, on the
other hand, is based on strict laws aimed at the conservation of castes
and the exclusion or extermination of those of mixed race.5 This,
Weyembergh argues, is the direct consequence of the theory of re-
sentment, in turn a central component of his philosophy. Yet, Camus
fails to address this crucial problem except through the intermediary
of Max Scheler, to whom he attributes this theory of resentment (and
in spite of the fact, Weyembergh points out, that Scheler himself is
citing Nietzsche).6 In the attempt to avoid this negative revolt of the
slave, fuelled by resentment, Camus is at pains to stress the simultane-
ity of affirmation and negation in the initial movement of revolt, and
thus his model of revolt differs from Nietzsche’s. However, Camus
passes over in silence Nietzsche’s theory of resentment.7
Camus does not deny the existence of this slave mentality. Rather,
his concern is to defend a certain group from this charge. Although
Weyembergh points to the substitution of Scheler for Nietzsche, he
ignores the further diversion of Camus’s argument onto the “femi-
nine” nature of resentment (a view likewise shared by Nietzsche):
Scheler lui-même met l’accent sur l’aspect passif du ressentiment, en remarquant
la grande place qu’il tient dans la psychologie des femmes, vouées au désir et à la
possession. À la source de la révolte, il y a au contraire un principe d’activité su-
rabondante et d’énergie. Scheler a raison aussi de dire que l’envie colore forte-

bert Camus 1980, Raymond Gay-Crosier (ed.) (Gainesville: University Presses of

Florida, 1980), 221-31.
Ibid., 74.
Ibid., 66.
Ibid., 68. Camus’s direct comment on dressage and selection is that such considera-
tions are “puerile” (E, 477).
174 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ment le ressentiment. Mais on a envie de ce qu’on n’a pas, tandis que le révolté
défend ce qu’il est. (E, 427)
Scheler himself emphasizes the passive aspect of resentment, and remarks on the
prominent position it occupies in the psychology of women, bent on desire and
possession. The mainspring of revolt, on the other hand, is the principle of su-
perabundant activity and energy. Scheler is also right in saying that resentment is
always highly flavoured with envy. But we envy what we do not possess, while
the rebel defends what he has. (R, 23)

If resentment is the natural quality of women, then it can be encom-

passed in the Camusian model of revolt, as women are not the makers
of history and do not, in Camus’s eyes, participate in revolt. Revolt,
by its very nature, is the business of men. This diversion of the slave
mentality onto the female section of the population raises another is-
sue concerning the relation of the non-Western world to revolt. Just as
women represent a different form of history, so this world is relegated
to a space outside the conditions of revolt. To be outside of history is
lauded in the idea of the Mediterranean as a Greek homeland. But
Camus’s construction of Algeria as a land without a past ignores the
pre-existing population, which has no sure place in the confusion be-
tween the imaginary French-Algerian space outside of history and the
world of “the sacred” where revolt is inapplicable. Here enters the fe-
male slave mentality which gives the virility of the indigenous Alge-
rian male its equivocal status. Other indications in L’Homme révolté,
such as the emphasis on speech as a sign of revolt, further equate si-
lent Arabs with silent women.
Insisting on the differences between Camus and Nietzsche,
Weyembergh maintains that Camus’s conception of history is not that
of the philosopher: “à la vision d’un déclin toujours recommencé il
opposerait, dans nos sociétés, ‘l’accroissement dans l’homme de la
notion d’homme’” (“against the vision of an ever-renewed decline he
would oppose, in our societies, ‘the increase in man of the notion of
man’”).8 Camus is the one who limits such a development to the West
alone (E, 430), thus excluding women and those who share their
slave-like and “feminine” characteristics.
The notion of grandeur, from whose obligations women are exempt,
is linked for Camus with a certain ideal of aristocracy, and there are
numerous references in the Carnets to this ideal. All of Camus’s male

“Révolte et ressentiment”, 76.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 175

protagonists exemplify forms of this aristocracy, from the supermen

Caligula and Mersault to the chivalric circle of those orchestrating the
fight against the plague in La Peste, or injustice in Les Justes. The
artist in particular has a privileged status, as the parallels between art-
ist and rebel reveal in the section on revolt and art in L’Homme
révolté. During his voyage to South America in 1949, Camus told a
correspondent in Santiago that he was convinced that, both during and
after the coming “chaos”, it is to writers, philosophers and artists that
the task will fall of reaffirming the value of the spirit and of life, in the
face of oppression.9 This historic mission is again profiled when Ca-
mus writes of the “creators”, who will have to fight when the “catas-
trophe” comes:
Si c’est la défaite, ceux qui auront survécu regagneront les terres où il sera possi-
ble de rassembler la culture: Chili, Mexique, etc. Si c’est la victoire: le plus grand
danger. (C2, 337)
If there is defeat, those who have survived will reach the lands where it will be
possible to reassemble culture: Chile, Mexico, etc. The greatest danger is in vic-

Again, in South America Camus asserts that one of the directions of

history today is the struggle between the artists and conquerors, be-
tween words and bullets.10 For Camus there are two possible forms of
aristocracy, that of the intellect and that of labour (C3, 105), yet in his
writings the extent to which such nobility is a consequence of inheri-
tance or of the individual will remains unclear.
With respect to Nietzsche, Camus is not entirely without models.
Spengler’s The Decline of the West (mentioned again in his notebooks
in 1954) seems to have exerted a continuing influence on his thought.
Although his ideas parallel Camus’s distinction between Civilization
and Culture, as expressed in 1937, Camus’s diagnosis of Western civi-
lization in L’Homme révolté diverges from Spengler as he envisages
the Mediterranean world as a source of regeneration for the dying
West. His comments during his stay in South America further reflect
both his divergence from and debt to Spengler, in a way that places
into doubt Weyembergh’s assertion that Camus does not support the
view of history as a cyclical process of decline and regeneration. Fer-
nande Bartfeld reports that during his voyage Camus comments that
the savoir-vivre of the South Americans placed them in a good posi-

Ercilla, 23.8.49 (cited by Fernande Bartfeld in Camus voyageur et conférencier, 31).
Ibid., 71.
176 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

tion to transform the mechanistic nature of modern life into something

living and perhaps more powerful: to transform civilization into cul-
The notion of aristocracy is central for both Nietzsche and
Spengler. For Spengler “the coming of a Spring-time consistently co-
incides with the birth of a primary nobility”, so that the birth of Cul-
ture is identified with the advent of this group, growing “plant-like”
from the soil in which it is rooted.12 This first nobility “is the fine
flowering of the people, the vessel in which the national character –
unconscious, but felt all the more in its cosmic pulse – receives its
destined Style”.13 Such comments are easily applicable to Camus’s
earlier hopes for his own community as outlined in chapter 2.
A further widespread influence in Algeria during Camus’s child-
hood was Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, who likewise claimed the natu-
ral aristocracy of certain groups. As far as I am aware, Camus never
expressed an opinion about the nature of these ideas, but the impres-
sion made on him as a young man by Gobineau’s novel Les Pléïades
cannot be doubted.14 In 1946, after his first visit to the U.S., Camus
sent a copy to the young writer, Patricia Blake.15 The publication in
1939 by Camus and his friend Fréminville of Jean Hytier’s collection
of essays, L’Iran de Gobineau, further testifies to the attraction he
held for those grouped around the École d’Alger, as did the term “cal-
ender, fils de roi” (calender, king’s son), used by Hytier without defi-
nition.16 Camus uses this expression himself in 1951 when, in his
recollection of André Gide, he writes that Gide seemed like the model
of the artist, “le gardien, fils de roi, qui veillait aux portes d’un jardin
où je voulais vivre” (E, 1118) (“the guardian, the king’s son, who kept
watch over the gates of the garden where I wanted to live”). This as-
sociation with Gide may lie in the fact that between February and
May, 1938, Hytier also gave a series of six lectures on this author at
the university in Algiers, later published by Charlot.

Camus voyageur et conférencier, 8. This comment was taken from El Mercurio,
The Decline of the West, II, 338.
Ibid., 172.
Les Pléïades, introduction and notes by Jean Mistler (Monaco: Éditions du Rocher,
1946 [1876]).
Albert Camus: une vie, 417.
L’Iran de Gobineau, 21.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 177

Les Pléïades introduces three such sons of Kings, European travel-

lers whose paths cross. The young Englishman, Wilfrid Nore, bestows
this label on himself and his companions, pointing out that in Arab
storytelling the one claiming such a title is more often than not “a poor
devil” with no paternal inheritance. By using this formula he is claim-
ing “particular and valuable qualities” that raise him above the vulgar
masses.17 What is important is not the status of the father, the King,
but that of the son; this cannot be measured in terms either of envi-
ronment or direct descent. One of his companions understands this:
whereas true kingship is now only a memory, an ideal barely recog-
nisable in the modern world, its essence remains indissolubly linked to
the qualification of:
(F)ils de Roi. C’est celui qui a trouvé les qualités que vous avez dites, pendues à
son cou dès le jour de sa naissance; celui-là, incontestablement, par un lignage
quelconque, a reçu du sang infusé dans ses veines les vertus supérieures, les méri-
tes sacrés que l’on voit exister en lui, que le monde ambiante ne lui a pas commu-
“King’s son”. He is someone who found the qualities you mentioned fastened
round his neck from birth; and undeniably, through some lineage or other, he has
received from his heredity the superior virtues and lofty destination which can be
seen in him and which can’t have been transmitted to him by those around him.19

In this rejection of the father the fils de Roi is a variant of the First
Man. Jeanine Parisier Plottel focuses on the intertextual references
between Les Pléïades and the passage in La Chute where Clamence
calls himself a fils de roi (TRN, 1490), pointing to the insecurities re-
vealed there which suggest an element of doubt lying between the
claim to being a King’s son and the possibility of being rather one of
the slaves in Gobineau’s mass of humanity.20 Such ambivalence
would likewise explain the defensiveness in the preface to L’Envers et
l’Endroit. However, Parisier Plottel’s concern is limited to an intertex-
tual comparison with one passage from La Chute, overlooking the
wider importance of Gobineau’s argument, which is founded ulti-
mately on biological inheritance.

Les Pléïades, 19.
Ibid., 20. The story is that of the three Dervishes, “The Porter and the three girls of
Baghdad”, in Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, N.J. Dawood (tr.) (Har-
mondsworth: Penguin, 1973).
Sons of Kings, Douglas Parmée (tr.) (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 14.
“Intertextuality in Albert Camus”, in Critical Essays on Albert Camus, Bettina
Knapp (ed.) (Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1988), 116-27.
178 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The seven stars of the Pleiades shine in the firmament, and are the
guide for seafarers – the one sure reference point for the voyagers of
the Iliad and the Odyssey, guiding Ulysses towards Ithaca. This is how
the sons of kings function in the universe of Gobineau, as stars and
leaders of men, whose superiority derives ultimately from biological
inheritance. This is:
Une réunion complète en sa personne des éléments nobles, divins, si vous voulez,
que des aïeux anciens possédaient en toute plénitude, et que les mélanges des gé-
nérations suivantes avec d’indignes alliances avaient, pour un temps, déguisés,
voilés, affaiblis, atténués, dissimulés, fait disparaître, mais qui, jamais morts, re-
paraissent soudain dans le fils de Roi dont nous parlons.21
A mysterious, innate mixture within himself, a complete combination of noble or,
if you like, divine elements that earlier ancestors possessed to the fullest degree
and that later generations by cross-breeding in unworthy unions had for a time
disguised and covered up, weakened, diluted, hidden, driven away, but which,
never dying, suddenly reappear in the king’s son of whom we are speaking!22

By contrast, most of the population is degenerating into a chaotic mass

whose lives are worth nothing.
Gobineau’s chief claim to fame is as the author of the infamous Es-
sai sur l’inégalité des races humaines,23 which he saw as the precursor
to his novel. There, he argues that all human beings are descended
from the race of Adam, of which all knowledge has been lost (I, 120).
After some form of cosmic cataclysm (I, 140) the races were separated
into three main groups, the black, yellow and white races. Throughout
human history there has always been a degree of assimilation between
the races, and this fact is responsible for the development of civiliza-
tion. Predictably, the black and yellow races are permanently inferior
to the white race (I, 142-3), although they may have other qualities,
such as a more highly developed imagination and sensuality (I, 214-
15). Such variations give assimilation a beneficial effect, particularly
for the non-white races who, otherwise, would have crawled forever at
the feet of the white nations (I, 217).

Les Pléïades, 20.
Sons of Kings, 15.
Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1940 (1853). Further references to this book will be incorpo-
rated into the text. Gobineau was a friend of Richard Wagner, whose son-in-law,
Houston Chamberlain, became president of the Gobineau Vereinigung, an inner group
of the Wagnerian circle. The “Prophet of the Third Reich”, his book, Foundations of
the Nineteenth Century (1899), contributed to the growth of Nazi racism.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 179

All civilization results from the infusion of white blood, wherever

evidence of civilization is to be found (I, 220). Biological assimilation
is facilitated by the fact that although the races feel a natural repul-
sion, they are also mutually attracted (I, 172, 176) – an attraction that
seems in practice to be on the side of the (male) white race:
Les penchants essentiellement civilisateurs de cette race d’élite la poussaient
constamment à se mélanger avec les autres peuples. Quant aux deux types jaune et
noir, là où on les trouve à cet état tertiaire, ils n’ont pas d’histoire, car ce sont des
sauvages. (I, 153)
The essentially civilizing tendencies of this elite race constantly pushed it to mix
with other peoples. As to the two yellow and black types, where they are to be
found in their tertiary state, they have no history, as they are savages.

The Gendering of Race

The “civilizing” activities of the white race are further explained by
the categorization of the races into male and female types, and the be-
lief that every human activity has its source in one or other of these
two male or female currents. Although all races possess elements of
each characteristic in varying degrees, maleness is the quality essential
to the establishment of culture and ultimately civilization (I, 88). Here,
whiteness equates with masculinity. Robert Young sees in this attribu-
tion of gender to the races a naturalisation and justification for the op-
pressive relationships between them: “the orthodox hierarchy of
gender is confirmed and reaffirmed at the level of race, which then in
turn feminizes males and females alike in the black and yellow races”,
while sexual difference is “translated into the sexual division of race,
so that the white male’s object of desire has been relocated across the
racial divide”.24 As Young points out, if all the non-white races are
female, then the gender of individuals becomes immaterial and “as so
often in the colonial arena, civilization thus begins with an inter-racial
Young’s comments parallel Pierre Nora’s analysis of French-
Algerian attitudes towards the “weaker race” in Algeria. The almost
complete absence of women from the public arena led to an atmos-

Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge,
1995). My interpretation of the relationship between gender and race in this instance
owes much to this account (99-117). See also Christopher Miller, Blank Darkness:
Africanist Dicourse in French (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985) who also
investigates Gobineau and this “gendering” of race.
Colonial Desire, 109.
180 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

phere of competition between the men of both races in the “superviril-

ity” stakes, thus leading to a heightening of violent tensions. At the
same time, this absence of women led to erotically charged social rela-
tionships between men where aggression was accompanied by a inti-
mate and profound “tenderness” felt by the French Algerians towards
their Arab workers.26 This attitude may offer some explanation for the
homosocial strand in Camus’s work noted by some commentators.
In Gobineau’s writings this sexual variant of the civilizing mission
has a dual implication. If the spread of civilization depends on assimi-
lation then its benefits for the supposedly superior white race will be
limited, for once assimilation has reached a certain level this race be-
gins to degenerate (I, 218), and anarchy results. In a passage that di-
rectly reflects the conversation earlier cited from Les Pléïades,
Gobineau argues that invasions, commerce and colonialism have all
contributed to the creation of this chaos:
Voilà le phénomème offert par les grands nations civilisées, et on l’observe sur-
tout dans leurs ports de mer, leurs capitales et leurs colonies, lieux où les fusions
s’accomplissent avec le plus de facilité. À Paris, à Londres, à Cadix, à Constanti-
nople, on trouvera (…) en se bornant à l’observation de la population qui se dit
indigène, des caractères appartenant à toutes les branches de l’humanité.
(I, 154-55)
There the phenomenon offered by the great civilized nations is to be found, ob-
servable especially in their seaports, their capitals and their colonies, where fu-
sions are most easily accomplished. In Paris, London, Cadix, Constantinople, one
will find (…) by limiting oneself to the so-called indigenous population, charac-
teristics belonging to all branches of humanity.

At the expense of the races of princes whose “subdivided and impov-

erished” blood is the “dishonoured” element in such a metamorphosis,
racial mixing continues apace as men form new mediocrities in in-
creasingly debased alliances: of this is born a confusion which, “like
Babel, ends in the most complete impotence, and leads societies into
the oblivion against which there is no remedy” (I, 219-20). The de-
generation of language and civilization, symbolized by Babel in the
above quotation (or the gorilla / barman of La Chute who cannot un-
derstand the speech of his client) reflects this disintegration. Bars such
as the Mexico-City with its clientele of pimps and prostitutes, the cos-
mopolitan ports through which degeneration is transmitted to the
European capitals such as Paris, these are the landscapes of Go-
bineau’s universe, and perhaps an illustration that “The end of history
Les Français d’Algérie, 176.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 181

our men of progress speak of is the orgy” (C3, 153). This is the Un-
derworld of La Chute, where woman, the instrument of such assimila-
tion, has brought about the downfall of man.
Gobineau is describing the Fall of Western man; of those who,
once Kings upon this earth, now leave only the occasional trace
amongst their distant heirs, and at long remove down the generations.
A line of direct succession no longer exists, and the search for the fa-
ther (the King) is impossible, as he is lost in the mists of time. Each
man demonstrates himself to be the son of a King only by being the
First Man; those belonging to the Pleiades hold membership by virtue
of the purity of their blood, a line of racial purity, natural aristocracy,
which distinguishes them from their countrymen and women. Les
Pléïades transfers the theory of racial inequality into a fictional for-
mat, but it is not this Camus discusses when he refers in L’Homme
révolté to the novel (E, 667). Again, one might agree with Weyem-
bergh that Camus is unwilling to confront some of the influences of
his youth.
Landscapes of La Chute in the Journaux de Voyage
In late 1948 Camus makes a further reference to Gobineau in remark-
ing that although we are not descended from monkeys, this is what we
are becoming (C2, 251). This does not suggest a general belief in “the
growth in man of the notion of man”. Camus briefly hopes for a cul-
tural rebirth in Brazil: the future is not “with us”, he writes, and there
is nothing we can do against this irresistible movement:
L’Allemagne a perdu la guerre parce qu’elle était nation et que la guerre moderne
demande les moyens des empires. Demain, il y faudra les moyens des continents.
Qu’y faire? Le seul espoir est qu’une nouvelle culture naisse et que l’Amérique du
Sud aide peut-être à tempérer la bêtise mécanique. (JV, 91-92)
Germany lost the war because it was a nation and modern warfare demands the
means of empires. Tomorrow, the means of whole continents will be required.
What is to be done? The only hope is that a new culture might be born and that
South America might help to temper this mechanical madness.

Although Camus’s voyage to South America is usually associated

with the writings of L’Exil et le Royaume it must not be forgotten that
La Chute had been originally intended as part of this collection, and
there are many direct parallels with this récit. Camus was suffering
from bouts of depression and ill-health during this voyage and there
are numerous references to fever, gin, neon lighting (JV, 63, 92, 94,
95), all of which reoccur in La Chute. Likewise, the prostitutes of La
182 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Chute, the “ladies behind these windows” have been transposed from
Brazil, where they are likened to birds in cages (JV, 117). The
macumba ceremony described in the Journaux de Voyage, which en-
tails calling down the gods to earth, recalls the people of Holland
praying to the gods of Indonesia (TRN, 1480), as well as the hopes of
Clamence that the doves will descend to him. Above all, exotic sexu-
ality and the macumba ceremony are fused with and superimposed
onto the activities of the prostitutes and their clients: “Vous entrez,
elles tirent les rideaux et la navigation commence. Les dieux descen-
dent sur les corps nus” (TRN, 1481) (“You enter, they draw the cur-
tains and the navigation begins. The gods descend onto the naked
Sexuality, in the form of miscegenation, is a constant underlying
preoccupation of the South American journal. But the theme is not one
of cultural rebirth; rather it is of being swamped, of degeneration.
avec sa mince armature moderne plaquée sur cet immense continent grouillant de
forces naturelles et primitives me fait penser à un building, rongé de plus en plus
avant par d’invisibles termites. Un jour le building s’écroulera et tout un petit
peuple grouillant, noir, rouge et jaune, se répandra sur la surface du continent,
masqué et muni de lances, pour la danse de la victoire. (JV, 109)
with its frail modern structure plastered over this enormous continent swarming
with natural and primitive forces, makes me think of a tall building, increasingly
gnawed away by invisible termites. One day the building will crumble and an en-
tire mass of little people, black, red and yellow, will swarm across the surface of
the continent, masked and brandishing spears, for the dance of victory.

Elsewhere Camus speaks of ever-increasing crowds on the surface of

the world “qui finiront par tout recouvrir et s’étouffer” (JV, 94) (“who
will end up covering and stifling everything”). He is constantly struck
during this voyage by the degree of miscegenation, and the “multi-
coloured” population. Even black people become mildly repellent by
virtue of their imagined whiteness:
J’aime les noirs a priori et suis tenté de leur trouver les qualités qu’ils n’ont pas.
Je voulais trouver beaux ceux-ci, mais j’imagine que leur peau est blanche et je
trouve alors une assez jolie collection de calicots et d’employés dyspeptiques.
Abdias confirme. La race est laide. (JV, 93)
I like blacks a priori and am tempted to find in them qualities they don’t possess. I
wanted to find these ones handsome, but I imagine that their skin is white and
then I find myself faced with a fine bunch of peddlers and dyspeptic employees.
Abdias confirms. The race is ugly.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 183

Yet the immediate further reference to mixed-race women who come

and drink at their table, of whom one or two are pretty, recalls Go-
bineau’s belief that these are amongst the most attractive of women (I,
155), which Robert Young diagnoses as a “covert obsession with sex-
ual transgression between races”.27 Submerged sexual desire surfaces
in the account of the macumba ceremony, where Camus is particularly
delighted by one of the dancing women whose cries remind him of
those of a bird and whom he calls a “black Diana” (JV, 106). Of
course, this figure has been associated with her counterpart in “La Pi-
erre qui pousse”; but she also has associations with the prostitutes
compared to caged birds, and hence to the women of La Chute.
Sexuality, embedded in the primitive, is a property of Brazil as
Camus recalls his conversations with Oswald de Andrade and his view
that Brazil is peopled by “primitives”, which is “for the best” (JV,
115). He proposes cannibalism as a “world vision” and, in response to
the failure of Descartes and science, a return to primitive fecundation:
matriarchy and cannibalism (JV, 117). Here, Freud’s dark continent of
female sexuality aligns with the traditional Western stereotype of the
primitive and irrational, in conjunction with the nightmare of biologi-
cal assimilation. Although Camus leaves no details of their actual
conversation, Andrade was associated with the modernist movement
in Brazil, whose method he had outlined in The Brazilwood Manifesto
and The Cannibalist Manifesto.28 This consisted of swallowing and
absorbing what was useful from a culture and excreting what was un-
wanted. The model for this relationship between Brazil and the out-
side world was the supposed cannibalism of the indigenous population
(and Camus notes Andrade’s account of early missionaries who had
been eaten by the locals).
Some parallels between Algeria and Brazil might be observed here,
as the whites in Brazil were outnumbered three to one by the black
and mulatto population. The hope was that through a process of as-
similation the black would be absorbed by and disappear into the
white population.29 Ideas such as this were widespread; Benedict
Anderson records the nineteenth century Colombian liberal, Pedro
Fermín de Vargass as expressing the wish that the Indian population

Colonial Desire, 115.
See Zita Nunes, “Anthropology and race in Brazilian modernism”, in Colonial Dis-
course / Postcolonial Theory, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret
Iversen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 115-25.
Ibid., 119-20.
184 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

might be extinguished by miscegenation with the whites.30 Thus, can-

nibalism as a form of assimilation where, for the good of the other
race, the white man “eats” the mulata31 here reflects Gobineau’s the-
sis. This resembles the aim of the French civilizing mission, except
that in this case the black is seen not as indigenous but as external to
the nation.32 Although in 1931 some voiced the idea that a slow proc-
ess of miscegenation with the French might lead to assimilation,33 if
applied to Algeria such a theory would entail in practice the absorp-
tion and disappearance of the Europeans themselves; the Mauresque
would eat the white man in a nightmarish version of assimilation.
Thus, in Brazil Camus meets a different and more threatening form of
paganism from his Greek model.
Cannibalism recurs in La Chute with the reference to the piranha of
Brazil as the primitive present is transposed to Amsterdam to express
the condition of urban man. The dream of the new culture, last hope
for modern civilization, cannot develop in Brazil:
Pays ou les saisons se confondent les unes avec les autres, où la végétation inex-
tricable en devient informe, où les sangs sont mélangés à tel point que l’âme en a
perdu ses limites. (JV, 128)
Land where the seasons merge with one another, where the inextricable vegetation
become formless, where the blood is mixed to such a point that the soul has lost
its boundaries.

This is the landscape of La Chute.

Ulysses and the Dream of Ithaca
As I noted earlier, the mythological figure identified with the Mediter-
raneanism of the École d’Alger is above all Ulysses, “true prototype of
Mediterranean man”. Gabriel Audisio saw Ulysses, this symbol of the
Eternal Mediterranean, as being above all a navigator.34 For Jean
Déjeux the emphasis on the universal and the flight to the sea both
furnish examples of an evasion that he considers characteristic of the
École d’Alger. Indeed, the sea for Camus has an ambiguous status, at

Imagined Communities, 21.
“In Brazilian slang comer (eat) means to have sexual intercourse; the couple is
rarely a white woman and a black man” (Nunes, 124).
Brazil received 37% of all the African slaves brought to the Americas, compared
with 5% for North America (ibid., 115).
Albert Camus: une vie, 49.
Jean Déjeux, “De l’éternel Méditerranéen à l’éternel Jugurtha” Revue algérienne
des sciences juridiques économiques et politiques, 14 (4) (1977), 658-728 (689).
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 185

times associated with freedom, at times with exile and threat: “j’ai
toujours eu l’impression de vivre en haute mer, menacé, au cœur d’un
bonheur royal” (E, 886) (“I have always had the impression of living
on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness”). Nauti-
cal imagery is widespread in Camus’s work, often in conjunction with
the two poles of the voyage; setting sail, and the homecoming. The
contemporary artist has embarked in the galley of his times where he
must take his turn at the oars, on the high seas (E, 1079). In a variant
of L’Homme révolté the reference is directly to Ulysses, who, to es-
cape the stifling confines of his island “quitte sa patrie et prend la mer,
‘la haute mer sans bornes’” (E, 1661) “leaves his homeland and takes
to the sea, ‘the boundless high sea’”). “La Mer au plus près”, con-
ceived during Camus’s journey to South America, is a log-book of the
sea voyage, while in “Retour à Tipasa” Tipasa is the “refuge and port
for her sons, of whom I am one” (E, 872). In an echo of this return,
Camus elsewhere compares the return of the Jews from the concentra-
tion camps to an Odyssey where Ithaca is surrounded by barbed wire
and Ulysses bludgeoned (E, 718).
The star further symbolizes Ulysses, for it is the only navigational
guide and the only means of return to Ithaca. When Camus writes in
1950 that instinctively he has always followed an invisible star (C2,
303), the unexpressed comparison is with this navigator. In 1952 he
expresses his disillusion in the same terms:
Ce qui m’a toujours sauvé de tous les accablements c’est que je n’ai jamais cessé
de croire à ce que, faute de mieux, j’appellerai “mon étoile”. Mais aujourd’hui, je
n’y crois plus. (C3, 59)35
What has always saved me from being overwhelmed is that I have never ceased
believing in what, for want of a better word, I’ll call “my star”. But today I no
longer believe in it.

As I pointed out, the star is the mark of the aristocrat, the one who has
been appointed. In the case of Jonas his creativity marks him out, set-
ting him literally above the increasingly overpopulated Europe where
he lives.
It is not my aim here to supply a potentially endless list of quota-
tions with the redundant goal of claiming that Ulysses and Ithaca oc-

Cf. Carl A. Viggiani, “Notes pour le futur biographe d’Albert Camus”, in Albert
Camus 11 (1968), 200-18, where Camus speaks of having a particular star (206).
186 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

cupy a central place in Camus’s thought; this much is well-known.36

Even after the second World War, when Camus perceives an increas-
ingly polarized and unstable world (and despite bouts of pessimism),
the dream of a new Ithaca and faith in the possibility of a new culture
continue to sustain him. Yet this dream, outlined in L’Homme révolté,
begins to disintegrate during the 1950s, in part because of Camus’s
travels in South America, where he confronts a different form of pa-
ganism and an assimilationist model more akin to a nightmare. Tied to
the wider trend towards de-colonization throughout the post-war
world, events in Algeria give this question a new urgency. Since the
Sétif massacres of 1945 the possibility of Algeria as a new space has
increasingly receded, finally to disappear with the outbreak of the Al-
gerian war of independence in 1954. Camus tells Quilliot that in the
event of Algerian independence he will leave France altogether for
Canada.37 But this dream was always destabilized by what Camus
calls in Le Premier Homme the permanent and unspoken danger of the
Arab presence, the invisible menace one could smell in the air
(PH, 257-58).
My immediate purpose in making these observations is to draw a
parallel between Ulysses and Clamence, the one-time fils de roi who
has lost his star. Before turning to La Chute I propose one more com-
ment concerning Ulysses – for he, too, is known as the man of two
faces, homo duplex. His cunning was legendary, and for Audisio he
embodied a duality and ambivalence that was the essence of Mediter-
ranean man, “two Ulysses in one”:
La Fiction et la Réalité, l’Amour et l’Infidélité, l’Aventure avec le Foyer, la Mer
avec le Terroir, la Bravoure et la Peur, la Douce-mort et la Mort détestée.38
Fiction and Reality, Love and Infidelity, Adventure and the Hearth, Sea and Land
combined, Bravery and Fear, the sweetness of Death and the horror of Death.

The constant references throughout La Chute to duality, hypocrisy and

the impossibility of separating the truth from lies appear to reflect this
duality; Clamence, the hero of our times, is a degraded version of
Ulysses masquerading as God because he is afraid to “learn how to die

See, in particular, Maurice Weyembergh’s excellent analysis of La Chute in Albert
Camus ou la mémoire des origines (Brussels: De Boeck University, 1998).
Albert Camus: une vie, 723.
Ulysse ou l’intelligence (Paris: Gallimard, 1946) 56, 57. In his illustration of these
pairs Audisio dwells on the nature of Ulysses’ amorous affairs, pointing out that (as in
La Chute) his “navigation” consists mainly of this (ibid., 69-89).
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 187

and refuse divinity” (E, 1661). He admits as much by claiming as his

sign a dual face, a charming Janus (TRN, 1499); this reference to the
Roman god indicates the extent to which the Greek ideal has been cor-
rupted, for it is in the Roman Empire that Cæsarism is born.
No man today can claim to be a true son of Greece; at best he is a
“renegade son” (E, 854). Clamence has reversed the choice made by
Ulysses, for he has chosen Calypso and the illusion of immortality:
Calypso lui offre l’immortalité et l’amour sans fin. Mais Ulysse regarde au loin de
l’autre côté des eaux. Le goût de la terre, les souvenirs de la chère Ithaque rem-
plissent alors sa bouche. Il refuse l’immortalité, renonce au rêve et à l’impossible
et prend à nouveau la mer. (…) Ulysse revient vers la terre où l’on meurt. (E,
Calypso offers him immortality and endless love. But Ulysses looks far across the
waters. The taste of the earth, memories of his dear Ithaca fill his mouth. He re-
fuses immortality, renounces the dream and the impossible and once more takes to
the sea. (…) Ulysses returns to the earth where one dies.

The consequence of modern man’s failure to choose the earth and

mortality (or to risk death in the waters of the Seine) is silence, mono-
logue and a society of slaves.
Christianity and Greek myth
C’est un destin bien lourd que de naître sur une terre païenne en des temps chré-
tiens. C’est mon cas. Je me sens plus près des valeurs du monde antique que des
It’s a heavy destiny to be born in a pagan land in Christian times. That’s the case
for me. I feel closer to the values of the Classical world than to Christian ones.

In La Peste, underlying mythological references are extremely subtle

and most easily accessible through a familiarity with the wider body
of works, as it is in Camus’s imaginative essays that such allusions are
more direct. When such intertextuality is taken into account, it is all
the more surprising that La Chute seems marked by a relative paucity
of such allusions, especially in the light of Camus’s insistence that
Clamence indicates himself to be Sicilian and Javanese, not at all
Christian (TRN, 2011). Critical attention has been drawn instead to the
Christian symbolism in this book, which (in contrast to that of La
Peste) is far from subtle. The imagery of Nietzsche’s “slave” religion
may be foregrounded, but this does not preclude the existence and
significance of pagan dimensions.

Albert Camus éditorialiste à “l’Express”, 121.
188 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

In 1956 Camus envisaged La Chute as a precursor to his third cycle

of work, “Nemesis” (C3, 187), which would address the mixture of
paganism and Christianity in the modern world. Jean Grenier noted
that in 1951 Camus was thinking of a new essay, provisionally entitled
Le Mythe de Némésis, which was to consider the relative gains and
losses brought by Christianity to Hellenism:
Jamais dans l’histoire de l’humanité, il n’y eut un tel tourment, un changement
aussi capital. Comment une sensibilité aussi nouvelle a-t-elle pu faire son appari-
tion, une sensibilité aussi différente de l’ancienne?40
Never in the history of humankind had there been such a torment, such a capital
change. How had such a new sensibility been able to make its appearance, a sen-
sibility so different from the ancient one?

It will be remembered that Camus’s student dissertation (to which he

refers in this conversation) had concerned this very subject (E, 1224-
313). Hybridity is what strikes Camus during his visit to South Amer-
ica, where the religious practices in Brazil seem to him a mixture of
Roman Catholicism and African paganism, with a heightened sexual
component resulting from this fusion. This mixture of religion and
sexuality is pointed out to him (JV, 74), while of the macumba cere-
mony he notes the fusion of the Catholic religion and African rites
(JV, 83-84), whose goal is to achieve the descent of the god by means
of a state of trance induced by dancing and chanting (JV, 83). These
“degraded rituals” (JV, 106) are first alluded to at the beginning of La
Chute, which has its own mixture of Christianity, primitive paganism
and sexuality. I use the term “primitive” here to distinguish between
that pagan world of Greek myth, characterized in La Chute by its
chastity and purity (its masculinity), and the savagery of “African
rites”, where women do not stay out of sight but participate in and
lead the ritual dancing. Algeria is perhaps not after all a part of
France, home of the new Greece; it is also (as it ever was) Africa and,
further South, the land of the cannibal. Does the domesticated “femme
adultère”, in her own orgasmic rite, intuit this? If my analysis of
L’Étranger has revealed a dark continent of women, then La Chute
enters into this heart of darkness.
In the Olympian religion the old female deities (the Erinnyes) had
lost their archaic power; instead they were allotted an honourable yet
contained role in the new patriarchal religion (a gesture repeated in
Camus’s theatrical works). In “L’Exil d’Hélène” Nemesis and the Er-

Souvenirs, 134.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 189

innyes will punish the excesses of modern Europe in the name of

Beauty lost. In the Old Testament Babel was God’s punishment on
humankind; this is also Gobineau’s vision of the future of humanity,
where we are not descended from the apes but are rejoining them with
all speed (C2, 251). The Mexico-City, presided over by a “gorilla”, is
both the illustration and cause of such disintegration, for it symbolises
the loss of both racial purity and cultural priority. As in every port
across the world, this bar receives sailors of all nationalities (TRN,
1477); awaiting their arrival are the prostitutes, pimps (the Clamences)
who form its resident clientele. The implied transaction is debauchery,
leading to a state of “primitive fecundity” (JV, 117) where “blood is
mixed to such a degree that the soul loses its boudaries” (JV, 128). For
this reason Mexico City is in Amsterdam; Babel and Cro-Magnon
man are at the “heart of things” as the heart of this darkness transfers
to modern Europe.
It will be remembered that linguistic unity was one of the factors
for cohesion mentioned by Camus at the “Maison de la culture” as
being fundamental to the new Mediterranean culture. In La Chute,
chaos is reflected precisely in the disintegration of language; the bar-
man’s speech is a series of grunts that Clamence must translate for his
new “client”; the “civilized languages” (TRN, 1477) are everywhere
spurned, for even this client reacts negatively to Clamence’s educated
style of speech (TRN, 1478). Clamence’s linguistic sophistication
relegates him to the past; in this space of linguistic chaos, he is him-
self the sole island of a lost civilization and a lost cultural priority.
The Fall
Many projected titles are associated with La Chute, and even after the
contract had been agreed Camus was unsure of a title. Only after
much discussion was Roger Martin du Gard’s suggestion followed,
and the novel finally entitled La Chute. It is unfortunate, however, that
this title has drawn so much critical attention towards the vertical tra-
jectory of a fall, so that the whole book is often interpreted in terms of
various forms of decline. Such interpretations are facilitated by the
apparent division of Clamence’s life into two parts – a time of inno-
cence before and a time of guilt after his “fall”, reflecting the Chris-
tian eschatology concerning the fall from Eden (an interpretation
which is openly encouraged by Clamence, moreover). Of course, I do
not dispute these interpretations, which are based on valid textual evi-
dence, yet such attempts to map, or stabilize, the progress of the fall
190 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

provide only an illusory consolation. As Maurice Blanchot points out,

the monologue of the fall challenges above all the certainties of “those
who believe they stand and rest among stable things”; if we could for
a moment silence “the chatter of the stable life” we might hear that:
What (the character who speaks) murmurs grimly behind us is the space in which
we are invited to recognize that, without knowing it, we have always been falling
without respite. Everything must fall, and all that falls must drag into the fall, by
indefinite expansion, all that means to remain.41

This is the permanent condition of humankind; there is nothing out-

side the fall, no “before” and no “afterwards”. The concept of the fall
as a spatial and temporal trajectory between two points (departure and
destination, before and after) is rendered meaningless by the perma-
nence of the fall and the absence of all landmarks along the way. For
its duration, it cannot be distinguished from flight, while “soaring”
(TRN, 1490) might equally be stasis. In such conditions the vertical
trajectory is as much a horizontal one – an emphasis more in keeping
with Camus’s distinction between Classical and modern, European
man, where since the beginning of Western colonialism:
À partir de Colomb, la civilisation horizontale, celle de l’espace et de la quantité,
remplace la civilisation verticale de la qualité. Colomb tue la civilisation méditer-
ranéenne. (C3, 87)
From Columbus onwards, horizontal civilization, that of space and quantity, re-
places the vertical civilization of quality. Columbus kills Mediterranean civiliza-

This comment recalls an earlier quotation concerning Cecil Rhodes:

“Impérialisme est civilisation pure. Cf. Cecil Rhodes. L’expansion est
tout” (C1, 50) (“Imperialism is pure civilization. Cf. Cecil Rhodes.
Expansion is everything”). Such distinctions between the vertical and
horizontal planes and their associated world views are derived from
Spengler and encapsulated in his distinction between the Greek
“Apollinian” and the modern European “Faustian” soul – a distinction
central to La Chute, where the emphasis is on Faustian man.
On this horizontal plane without landmarks the shift is also an ele-
mental one from air to water – from the vertical trajectory to the hori-
zontal state of being adrift (“à la dérive”) on the uncertain boundary-
space between water and air, sea and sky. The landscape of La Chute
collapses all boundaries of time and space. The primitive is not a past,
Friendship, Elizabeth Rottenberg (tr.) (California: Stanford University Press, 1997),
205, 207.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 191

nor an elsewhere, but the here and now as Mexico and Indonesia in-
vade modern Europe. Cro-Magnon man at the Tower of Babel (TRN,
1475) is not a mythical past, but the cosmopolitan present.
Navigation and the Opium of Sexuality
As in the Heart of Darkness where the waters of Africa run in the
Thames, in La Chute the sea destroys all boundaries. Holland is not
stable ground with clear definition, but “la mer, la mer qui mène à Ci-
pango, et à ces îles où les hommes meurent fous et heureux” (“the sea,
the sea that leads to Cipango and those islands where men die mad
and happy”); it is “un songe” (a dream) peopled by questing Lohen-
grins who are both “here” and “elsewhere”. But while these dreamers
are in Java, “the distant isle”, the gods of Indonesia to whom they pray
“wander at this moment above our heads” (TRN, 1482). The sea
breaks down all borders between “here” and “elsewhere”, while the
reference to Cipango (the antique term for Japan, so named by Co-
lumbus, who first brought America to Europe) breaks down temporal
distinctions between a colonizing past and a decolonizing present. (Al-
though not in the orthodox Camusian repertoire, we need not be sur-
prised if La Chute takes a colonial turn, written as it was at this
particular historical juncture. If, in post-war Amsterdam, the newly
decolonized Indonesia is still to haunt its former colonial masters, then
this, too, should cause no surprise. Only in France might one wonder
why the Algerian war of independence gives way to other concerns
when La Chute is under consideration.)
Admitting that “je dérive, moi aussi” (TRN, 1525) (“I, too, am
adrift”), Clamence also claims to navigate supply (TRN, 1547); he
claims development, progression – in the stages of his confession, or
the stages of his life, before and after. Yet all the stages of his life are
collapsed into one, and there is no vraie voie from which he could
possibly digress; he is always “dans (s)on sujet” (in his subject), what-
ever the subject. Yet he above all knows that this is a dream; “sur
l’eau plate, monotone, interminable, qui confond ses limites à celles
de la terre” (TRN, 1531) (“on the flat, monotonous, interminable water
whose boundaries merge with those of the earth”) there is no solid
ground, “nous marchons sans aucun repère, nous ne pouvons évaluer
notre vitesse. Nous avançons, et rien ne change. Ce n’est pas de la
navigation, mais du rêve” (TRN, 1525) (“we are walking without
landmarks, we cannot evaluate our speed. We advance, and nothing
changes. It is not navigation but dream”). In 1949 Camus wrote for his
192 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

“essay on the sea” that the man in despair has no homeland (C2, 290).
In that same notation, as in “La Mer au plus près”, he makes clear that
such is not the condition of the navigator of whom he writes. Exile is
not the homelessness of despair; for Ulysses, as for the heroes of La
Peste, exile implies homecoming – the certainty that love exists and is
worth fighting for (E, 880). In “La Mer au plus près” where “nous
naviguons sur des espaces si vastes qu’il nous semble que nous n’en
viendrons jamais à bout” (E, 882) (“we navigate over spaces so vast it
seems we’ll never reach the end”), South America may be the final
port of call, but this is only temporary, for the homecoming will fol-
low. Clamence is a Rieux with insight, the désespéré, for he long ago
made the wrong choice, afraid to “risk the worst” (TRN, 1483). He has
despaired of love, allowed Helen to die, and consequently he is alone
with no navigational guide on these “limitless spaces” (E, 882), and
with no destination, only ports of call. There is no Ithaca. With no
landmarks, Clamence is a Ulysses without the stars. He knows this,
and for this reason he is a tragic figure.
Clamence’s aim may be to entrap his listener (or his reader) and to
this end he may navigate “supply” (TRN, 1547); but he also knows
this activity has no goal and no destination, for there is no way out of
this “enfer mou” (“flabby hell”); “nous ne sortirons jamais de ce bé-
nitier immense” (TRN, 1531) (“we will never get out of this immense
basin of holy water”). It is commonly said (following Clamence him-
self) that through his monologue Clamence aims to confront his lis-
tener by holding out a mirror in which the interlocutor will finally
recognise himself. Why should he fashion, and to whom should he
extend, this far-from-spotless mirror when his Interlocutor already
resembles him, and there is no-one other than the “hero of our times”?
When the judge is indistinguishable from the judged, when water be-
comes fog, rain, snow to merge the boundaries of earth and sky, how
can he soar above (“planer au-dessus”)? There is no elsewhere, and no
Other to be.
Jean Sarocchi is right to say La Chute derides the Odyssean myth
suggested in L’Homme révolté.42 In La Chute the islands of Circe and
Calypso are the only possible destination. (But this is not navigation;
we advance towards Circe without movement and nothing changes;
the islands are adrift; she is already here.) The first reference to an
island is to Java, in Western stereotype the home of the cannibal, and

“La recherche du père”, 152.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 193

quite a different form of paganism from that claimed by Camus for

himself. In The Odyssey, islands are the home of the dangerously fas-
cinating sexualized woman – Calypso, Circe, the Sirens, all of whom
would prevent Ulysses from returning to Ithaca. Calypso keeps him by
force until commanded by Zeus to let him go; Circe reduces men to
swine, while of the Sirens she warns Ulysses that the man who “lis-
tens to the Sirens singing, has no prospect of coming home”.43 In La
Chute such allusions immediately follow the first pagan reference to
Java and are clearly signalled in the reference to those islands where
men die mad and happy (TRN, 1482). When Clamence asks “Oh! en-
tendez-vous les sirènes du port? Il y aura du brouillard cette nuit, sur
le Zuyderzee” (TRN, 1480) (“Do you hear the sirens of the port?
There will be fog tonight, over the Zuyderzee”), he is referring to
more than the weather, for fog also symbolizes lust. Later, he ampli-
fies on the significance of this. Like the navigators of the Odyssey, lost
travellers (fornicators and readers of newspapers) arrive from every
corner of Europe:
Ils écoutent les sirènes, cherchent en vain la silhouette des bateaux dans la brume,
puis repassent les canaux, et s’en retournent à travers la pluie. Transis, ils viennent
demander, en toutes langues, du genièvre à Mexico-City. Là, je les attends. (TRN,
They listen to the sirens, vainly try to make out the silhouettes of boats in the fog,
then turn back over the canals and go home through the rain. Chilled to the bone,
they come and ask in all languages for gin at Mexico-City. There, I wait for them.
(F, 13: translation amended)

Clamence has lost la vraie voie and prostitutes himself to ensnare oth-
ers. But this particular opium of sexuality is not entirely of Greek ori-
gin; here, the prostitutes of South America (JV, 117) are transposed to
the port of Amsterdam, upon which is further superimposed the quasi-
Catholic macumba ceremony (JV, 106). Those “ladies” behind the
windows symbolize:
Le rêve, monsieur, le rêve à peu de frais, le voyage aux Indes! Ces personnes se
parfument aux épices. Vous entrez, elles tirent les rideaux et la navigation com-
mence. Les dieux descendent sur les corps nus et les îles dérivent, démentes, coif-
fées d’une chevelure ébouriffée de palmiers, sous le vent. Essayez. (TRN, 1483)
Dream, Monsieur, a dream at small cost, a voyage to the Indies! Those persons
perfume themselves with spices. You go in, they draw the curtains and the naviga-
tion begins. The gods come down on to the naked bodies and the islands are set

The Odyssey of Homer, Richmond Lattimore (tr.) (New York: Harper Collins,
1991), XXII, 39.
194 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

adrift, mad, crowned with the tousled hair of palm trees in the wind. Try it.
(F, 13-14)

In an era of decolonization where the borders between nations and

continents increasingly break down, the colonial past, with its hybrid
beliefs, inhabits modern Europe. Andrade’s theory of cannibalism as a
method of assimilation is no longer elsewhere but here; the cannibals
have come to Europe.
The Pure Space
When love is an abstract concept existing elsewhere, man need never
face the judgement of woman. With his wife safely out of the way to
suffer and die in her own private hell, Rieux need never confront the
problems in his own marriage. His inability to voice a “vrai langage
du cœur” (TRN, 1280) (“true language of the heart”) becomes instead
an expression of the collective condition of all who are separated, an
experience that he alone interprets, and which justifies him, while the
solitary Cottard becomes the scapegoat for all sins. Basking instead in
the warmth of non-judgemental mother love, which requires no verbal
explanations, Rieux is free to pity and understand those like Rambert
with their unproductive private obsessions, secure in the knowledge
that “le plus important est ailleurs”.
I cannot agree with Jean Sarocchi’s insistence that La Chute draws
a clear distinction between the pagan world of the archipelago and the
Christian city.44 On the contrary, and most emphatically, there is noth-
ing but cross-contamination (“hybridization”) of these categories,
which have no clear boundaries, for Java and Sicily disrupt the pagan-
ism of Greece. Clamence speaks of two types of island and archipel-
ago – those associated with Greece, and those associated with
Indonesia (Java, Amsterdam, Paris). Sicily is the link between the two,
demonstrating the lack of distinction between them. When Clamence
calls himself Sicilian and Javanese and not at all Christian (TRN,
1545), this is the paganism that contaminates both town and archipel-
ago. When read through The Odyssey the term “Sicilian” refers to the
race of dealers in slaves.45 In his Carnets long before Camus noted
that in politics a certain type of equality is the enemy of liberty: in
Greece, there were free men only because there were slaves (C1, 234):

“La recherche du père”, 152. Indeed, this seems to be the critical consensus.
The Odyssey, Glossary, 373,
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 195

À partir du moment où l’esclavage est supprimé, on met tout le monde au travail.

Et c’est à l’époque où la prolétarisation de l’Européen est le plus avancée que
l’idéal de souveraineté populaire se fait le plus fort; cela est impossible.
(C1, 247-48)
Once slavery is abolished, everyone has to work. And it is when European man
has reached the furthest extreme of proletarianization that the idea of popular sov-
ereignty is at its strongest: this is impossible. (SEN, 259)

Years later, the “Sicilian” slave-dealer dreams of Greece:

Il y faut des cœurs purs. Savez-vous que là-bas, les amis se promènent dans la rue,
deux par deux, en se tenant la main. Oui, les femmes restent à la maison, et l’on
voit des hommes mûrs, respectables, ornés de moustaches, arpenter gravement les
trottoirs, leurs doigts mêlés à ceux de l’ami. En Orient aussi, parfois? Soit.
(TRN, 1523)
There it requires pure hearts. Do you know that there friends walk along the
streets in pairs holding hands? Yes, the women stay at home and you often see
middle-aged, respectable men, sporting moustaches, gravely striding along the
pavements, their fingers locked in those of their friend. In the Orient as well, at
times? So be it. (F, 72-73)

In this ordered land, where women and slaves were out of sight, the
pure space of La Peste was created and heroic male friendships were
possible. But there was no order, and this restoration of Greece on the
soil of Algeria was an illusion. Thus, La Chute rereads La Peste, for it
challenges not only the idea of such friendships, but recognizes that
the barbarians had always been already inside the gates of Oran (of
Europe). “Chaque homme a besoin d’esclaves comme d’air pur”
(TRN, 1498) (“Each man needs slaves as he needs pure air”). There is
no pure air.
The Nightmares of Colonialism
When read within the context of Greek myth Sicily contaminates the
dream of Ithaca. But Clamence is both Sicilian and Javanese, and here
the contemporary reference further pollutes the Greek ideal. In early
October 1954, Camus spent two days in Amsterdam; on November 1st
the Algerian war of independence began. The contemporary history of
Indonesia provides a nightmare model of the future for Algeria, for,
after a four-year-long bloody war Indonesia finally gained its inde-
pendence and drove out the Dutch in 1949. The ideology of Dutch
colonialism differed starkly from that of France, for they would have
no truck with notions of assimilation. On the contrary, strict segrega-
tion was enforced between the Dutch, the Chinese (imported as a la-
bour force because the natives were seen as naturally lazy) and the
196 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

indigenous Indonesians. These other races were not expected to aspire

to the dizzy heights of the Dutch language and education system. This
archipelago of many islands was marked by its extremely high degree
of ethnic diversity, with three hundred ethnic groups speaking their
own languages and dialects. By 1957 numerous revolutions were to
lead to the imposition of martial law and an authoritarian regime
which was to culminate in a totalitarian society.
The colonial past invades Amsterdam / Europe, fragmenting the
apparent unity of the Dutch, those “nostalgic settlers” (TRN, 1480).
Fanon’s colonial brothel returns to Europe, and the vengeance it ex-
acts is that of the ancient matriarchy – not the Greek Erinnyes defend-
ing the sacred bonds of blood, but the cannibals of Brazil and Java
who engulf the world, destroy the bloodline:
Un jour le building s’écroulera et tout un petit peuple grouillant, noir, rouge et
jaune, se répandra sur la surface du continent, masqué et muni de lances, pour la
danse de la victoire. (JV, 109)
One day the building will crumble and a entire little people, black, red and yellow,
will swarm over the surface of the continent, masked and armed with spears, for
the dance of victory.

Paris is already organized around the principles of cannibalism; a job,

a family, organised leisure, and “little teeth attack the flesh, right to
the bone” (TRN, 1479). The piranha of Brazil are Clamence’s fellow
Parisians. There is no dream of Greece, only nostalgia for what is rec-
ognized as an illusion; the “bad dreams” (TRN, 1483) of colonialism
are the nightmare of the exotic.
In 1939 Camus’s intention to retrace the steps of Ulysses had been
thwarted by the outbreak of war. Instead:
J’ai pris ma place dans la file qui piétinait devant la porte ouverte de l’enfer. Peu à
peu, nous y sommes entrés. Et au premier cri de l’innocence assassinée, la porte a
claqué derrière nous. Nous étions dans l’enfer, nous n’en sommes plus jamais sor-
tis. (E, 842)
I took my place in the queue shuffling towards the open mouth of hell. Little by
little, we entered. At the first cry of murdered innocence, the door slammed shut
behind us. We were in hell, and we have not left it since. (SEN, 129)

The Christian symbolism in La Chute and, in particular, the references

to Dante, convey the impression that Hell has a clear location (in Am-
sterdam) and that Clamence accompanies his client further through
these circles of Hell, which are clearly indicated (TRN, 1483, 1518).
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 197

Such clarity would suggest that Clamence’s client was not in Hell be-
fore his arrival in Amsterdam (and leaves unanswered the question of
why he sits in the Mexico-City at all). Furthermore, it suggests an ele-
ment of choice on his part; if he resists Clamence, he can go away
again – into the “pure” air of Paris? The Christian may find some
comfort in Dante’s vision of Inferno with its clarity of stable location,
the rigid gradation of the degrees of eternal damnation. But is there
any consolation in the knowledge that one is only slightly damned,
only slightly in Hell?
Hell has no circles. We do not move further into it as the book pro-
gresses; it begins and ends in Hell and neither is there any time nor
space outside of it. Those bound for Hell do not navigate towards its
gates – for “this is Hell, nor are we out of it”.46 There is only the taint
of the endless fall; nothing but Hell, nothing but fall:
La vie sexuelle a été donné à l’homme pour le détourner peut-être de sa vraie
voie. C’est son opium. En elle, tout s’endort. Hors d’elle, les choses reprennent
leur vie. En même temps, la chasteté éteint l’espèce, ce qui est peut-être la vérité.
(C2, 49)
Sexual life was given to man to divert him perhaps from his true path. It is his
opium. In it, everything slumbers. Outside of it, things take on their life again. At
the same time, chastity extinguishes the species, which is perhaps the truth.

Since its very origin the human race has survived in Hell, through de-
bauchery. Man cannot, like an Olympian god, give birth to himself.
Consequently, he can never claim to be a fils de roi, because he is al-
ways, inevitably, the son of woman. Hence, the gates of this Inferno
are at the origin and the first breath of life. “La vraie débauche” (true
est une jungle, sans avenir ni passé, sans promesse surtout, ni sanction immédiate.
Les lieux où elle s’exerce sont séparés du monde. On laisse en y entrant la crainte
comme l’espérance. (TRN, 1528)
is a jungle with no future nor past, above all without promise or immediate sanc-
tion. The places where it is practised are separated from the world. One abandons,
on entering, fear as well as hope. (F, 76-77)

Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus, Roma Gill (ed.) (London: A & C Black, 1990). I
have here adapted the words of Mephistopheles to Faustus in Scene 3. Having seen
the face of God, for Mephistopheles Hell is everywhere else. If in 1946 Camus had
expressed the belief that the threshold of hell had been crossed with no return (E,
842), this conviction may well have been strengthened by subsequent events in Alge-
198 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Debauchery is neither a phase in Clamence’s life, nor a stage in his

confession; it is the very context of his seductive monologue. He sig-
nals this when he says that he had always lived in debauchery, never
having ceased wanting to be immortal (TRN, 1527). Calypso, and the
prostitutes behind the windows offer this illusion of immortality – and
why else should the bourgeois tourist (the fornicator) stray in these
quarters? Reflecting the themes of the first chapter, debauchery is “a
long slumber” (TRN, 1529), and ubiquitous. “Ideas and fornication”
characterize the rapidly rising population of modern Paris, but all of
Europe is already there (TRN, 1479). Marriage itself is a form of insti-
tutionalized debauchery, and one of Clamence’s mistresses, from the
best society, marries precisely to satisfy her unbridled instincts (TRN,
1529). Another of Clamence’s conquests had been on the point of
starving herself to death until:
Heureusement, j’arrivai à temps et me résignai à lui tenir la main, jusqu’à ce
qu’elle rencontrât, revenu d’un voyage à Bali, l’ingénieur aux tempes grises, que
lui avait déjà décrit son hebdomadaire favori. (TRN, 1527)
Fortunately I arrived in time and submitted to holding her hand until she met, on
his return from a voyage to Bali, the engineer with greying temples who had al-
ready been described to her by her favourite weekly. (F, 75)

For man there is no return from Bali. Woman is the only destination.
Where all men are criminals, woman is the reward, not of the warrior,
but of the criminal:
Elle est son port, son havre, c’est dans le lit de la femme qu’il est généralement ar-
rêté. N’est-elle pas tout ce qui nous reste du paradis terrestre? (1526)
She is his port, his harbour; it is in the bed of woman that he is generally arrested.
Is she not all that remains to us of earthly paradise? (F, 73)

In that earthly paradise, it was Eve who afflicted us with death; sexual
life is death. The only alternative is chastity, extinguishing the species.
Where debauchery equates with marriage, bourgeois marriage will
soon bring us “aux portes de la mort” (TRN, 1529) (“to the gates of
death”). Like justice, death is a sexual partner. Clamence succeeds,
apparently, in uniting two opposing poles when he claims that he
managed to love at the same time women and justice (TRN, 1489).
Earlier, he suggests that justice slept with him each night (TRN, 1484);
each morning, death was faithful at his bedside, “je me levais avec
elle” (TRN, 1522) (“I rose with her”). There is no contradiction here,
for death, justice and women are interchangeable. In the absence of
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 199

paradise, justice requires that woman should be the deadly deserts of

all who are fallen.
Clamence’s monologue is a defence against the feeling of being
adrift, with no bearings and no ultimate destination. This condition
reflects not only a state of despair or disillusion, but powerlessness.
Ultimately, such navigators are at the mercy of the sea. The island is
already occupied. Clamence indicates as much when he decides to flee
the society of men: “Non, non, je n’ai pas cherché d’île déserte, il n’y
en a plus. Je me suis réfugié seulement auprès des femmes” (TRN,
1526) (“No, no, I didn’t look for a desert island, there are none left. I
only sought refuge with women”). The island is the space of sexual
temptation and irredeemable corruption, but even on the seas of the
world woman, the nemesis of man, is inescapable.
I have pointed out the destructive role of water in La Chute. It is
ubiquitous, uncontrollable, and destroys all boundaries, constantly
bringing elsewhere, the past, memory here. I previously drew attention
to metaphors of water used by Camus in speaking of the Self and
those dark forces of the soul:
Si j’essaie de saisir ce moi dont je m’assure, si j’essaie de le définir et de le résu-
mer, il n’est plus qu’une eau qui coule entre mes doigts. (E, 111)
If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it,
it is nothing but water slipping between my fingers. (MS, 24)

This observation applies most importantly to others, who escape con-

tainment and stable definition. Such is the clarity Clamence seeks in
his nostalgia for the deserted island – stable ground, fixity, and the
impression of permanence (immortality) amongst the flowing seas.
The island, never swept away, appears to dominate all that flows,
while Clamence from his even higher vantage point can view the sur-
rounding chaos, master of both:
La vérité est que je me force à admirer ces canaux. Ce que j’aime le plus au mon-
de, c’est la Sicile, vous voyez bien, et encore du haut de l’Etna, dans la lumière, à
condition de dominer l’île et la mer. Java aussi, mais à l’époque des alizés. (…)
D’une manière générale, j’aime toutes les îles. Il est plus facile d’y régner. (TRN,

This reference to the alizés is a further echo of Camus’s voyage to South America.
The English “trade winds” better indicates their function, recalling their benefit for
early sailors and their many trades. It seems no coincidence that after these allusions
to Sicily, Java and the trade winds Clamence immediately turns to the subject of slav-
200 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The truth is that I force myself to admire these canals. What I like most in the
world is Sicily, you see, and especially from the top of Etna in the sunlight, pro-
vided I dominate the island and the sea. Java too, but at the time of the trade
winds. (…) In a general way, I like all islands. It is easier to reign there. (F, 34)

The truth is that for Clamence the canals of Amsterdam are the best
alternative, as they too give the impression that water and human rela-
tionships can be controlled and channelled. In Amsterdam there is no
confusion; women are prostitutes and men are pimps, wearing their
signs (as in Hell) without hypocrisy. When Clamence ascended the
Pont des Arts it was precisely to look at the river and to savour the
feeling of being an immortal god. He has already given an ironic de-
scription of his previously successful life – which is to say that from
the very beginning he destroys the idea of Eden as a space of inno-
cence or purity: what his “good” criminals paid, they were paying to
some extent on his behalf:
L’indignation, l’émotion, le talent que je dépensais m’enlevaient, en revanche,
toute dette à leur égard. Les juges punissaient, les accusés expiaient et moi, libre
de tout devoir, soustrait au jugement comme à la sanction, je régnais, librement,
dans une lumière édénique. (TRN, 1489)
The indignation, talent and emotion I expended on them washed away, in return,
any debt I might feel towards them. The judges punished, the defendants expiated,
while I, free from any duty, shielded equally from judgement as from sanction, I
reigned, freely, in an Edenic light. (F, 21-22)

Clamence associates with the weak (in particular the widow and or-
phan) in order to confirm his own superiority, while his “good mur-
derers” are usually men who have killed their wives. Indeed, only
because he has no wife to kill does Clamence avoid the risk of joining
the criminal camp (TRN, 1485). He managed to love both women and
justice (TRN, 1489) because, as in the Greek archipelago, this Eden
has the clarity of order: “aucune confusion; dans la lumière précise,
tout était repère” (TRN, 1525) (“no confusion; in the sharp light every-
thing is a landmark”). In everyday relations (pitying the widow, ac-
cepting her gratitude, helping a woman with her luggage) the
inferiority of women is established. By defending the wife-murderer
in the name of justice, this order is confirmed – an order in which
woman lives and dies by the will of man. Later, Clamence is more
“Supposons que j’aie accepté de défendre quelque citoyen attendrissant, meurtrier
par jalousie. Considérez, dirais-je, messieurs les jurés, ce qu’il y a de véniel à se
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 201

fâcher, lorsqu’on voit sa bonté naturelle mise à l’épreuve par la malignité du

sexe.” (TRN, 1523)
“Let us suppose that I have accepted the defence of some pitiable citizen, a mur-
derer through jealousy. Gentlemen of the jury, consider (I should say) how venial
it is to get angry when one sees one’s natural goodness put to the test by the ma-
lignity of the fair sex.” (F, 69)

As he argues, death is the ideal state for all others, but (as there are no
Others) primarily for the woman as sexual partner.48
I have already suggested associations between woman, the island
and the sea. Hence, when Clamence recounts his experience on the
Pont des Arts, it is not surprising that this is already expressed in
terms of sexual satisfaction:
Je sentais monter en moi un vaste sentiment de puissance et, comment dirais-je,
d’achèvement, qui dilatait mon cœur. Je me redressai et j’allais allumer une ciga-
rette, la cigarette de la satisfaction, quand, au même moment, un rire éclata derriè-
re moi. (TRN, 1495)
I felt rising within me a vast feeling of power and – I don’t know how to express it
– of completion, which cheered my heart. I straightened up and was about to light
a cigarette, the cigarette of satisfaction, when, at that very moment, a laugh burst
out behind me. (F, 30)

Such overtones are later reinforced when Clamence turns specifically

to his relationships with women, while the full significance of the
laugh becomes clearer when he relates his experience of the appar-
ently passive woman.
Women, on the Surface of Life
There are two levels to the depiction of women in La Chute. This is
the only fictional work where the protagonist speaks about his rela-
tionships with women, who are therefore central to the discourse, al-
beit absent from the récit. Here, Clamence’s activity reflects that of
the author himself, and even Brian Fitch, usually dismissive of such
interpretations, has argued that this autobiographical dimension cannot
be overlooked.49 All too often, however, the autobiographical details
chosen for consideration concern the conflicts following the publica-
tion of L’Homme révolté. As far as the treatment of women in La
Chute was concerned, Francine Camus at least detected a further per-

See José Barchilon, “A Study of Camus’s Mythopoeic Tale The Fall with Some
Comments about the Origin of Esthetic Feelings”, Journal of the American Psycho-
analytic Association 19(2) (April 1971), 193-240.
The Fall: A Matter of Guilt (London: Twayne, 1995), 23.
202 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

sonal parallel. As she revealed to Roger Quilliot, when he wrote about

the woman who drowns in the Seine she remarked to Camus that it
was basically their own story. As is well-known, during the early
1950s Camus’s wife had suffered a nervous breakdown, and attempted
suicide. Camus told Quilliot the following day that his wife could no
longer bear his many liaisons, adding that he did not feel guilty, but he
felt responsible. His final words to Quilliot had been that he never
should have married.50 The interest of this parallel with the drowning
woman lies in how it is incorporated into the novel and its subsequent
treatment. In contrast to Camus’s own words to Quilliot, expressing
responsibility but denying guilt, the emphasis is reversed; although
Clamence is clearly not responsible for the anonymous woman’s sui-
cide, he is apparently plagued by guilt. The reader is invited to draw
such conclusions and, as in L’Étranger, the question of guilt is untied
from its moorings – the issue of responsibility. The drowned woman is
revealed as a narrative device whose function is not unlike that of the
mother in Camus’s first published work.
Clamence is the one who distinguishes between two levels of real-
ity when he says that he lived on the surface of life, “in words, in a
way, never in reality” (TRN, 1501). On the surface of life, meaning
can be created. Words impose order on chaos, conveying the impres-
sion of clear boundaries and progressions, where life becomes a story
in stages, with a beginning and an end, and Hell might be pictured as a
Dante-esque inferno. With words Clamence constructs the meaning of
his life, and he gives it a purpose; seducing his client through his own
confession, he creates a collective experience, the image of universal
man into which his client will fall. Of course, his client resists; for
Clamence, where would be the pleasure in an easy victory? Watching
Clamence’s feverish decline, his listener may feel he is the one who
grows in strength. Perhaps, in his laughter, his client pities the deluded
and wheedling storyteller with his transparent movement from “I” to
“we” (TRN, 1548). But this is only the prelude to the Interlocutor’s
own downfall, after he has been lulled into this false sense of superior-
ity. Clamence’s warning that his ravings are “dirigés” (TRN, 1550)
(“controlled, directed”) should not be dismissed as ravings, for he is
indeed in control. But where is the victory in that?
Interview with Roger Quilliot in Albert Camus: combat contre l’absurde, Arte-La 5
(24.4.97). Camus’s reply to his wife was not recorded. For a more detailed account of
these events see Albert Camus: une vie. In substance this autobiographical dimension
has long been known.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 203

Clamence’s stated intention in recalling his life is to induce a simi-

lar confession on the part of his listener, thereby achieving dominance
over him. To this end, a major part of his account takes the form of the
confession of a Don Juan; yet one who is unreformed, continuing now
as before in the same mode of existence:
Je n’ai pas changé de vie, je continue de m’aimer et de me servir des autres. Seu-
lement, la confession de mes fautes me permet de recommencer plus légèrement
et de jouir deux fois, de ma nature d’abord, et ensuite d’un charmant repentir.
(TRN, 1548)
I haven’t changed my way of life; I continue to love myself and to use others.
Only, the confession of my crimes allows me to begin again lighter in heart and to
savour a double enjoyment, first of my nature and secondly of a charming repen-
tance. (F, 104)

In this way he constantly relives these pleasures. What else can he do?
As the storyteller, it is he who controls such disclosures and deter-
mines the depiction and classification of the women of whom he
speaks (and does not speak), while he alone, like an omniscient god,
retains the knowledge concerning their truth. On this level Clamence
cynically uses his sexual conquests, and the story of the drowned
woman, as material in the furtherance of his own ends. From any per-
spective, he maintains control over the women in his past, who have
no independent voice.
This control of the storyteller is further illustrated after the laughter
on the bridge, when Clamence delivers his anecdote about the incident
at the traffic lights, his related experience of being made a laughing
stock, and his consequent sweet dreams of oppression (TRN, 1501-
504). This, and the preceding discourse on the necessity of slavery
(TRN, 1498-500), introduces his disclosures about his relations with
women, where he continues to dominate:
Je jouais le jeu. Je savais qu’elles aimaient qu’on n’allât pas trop vite au but. Il
fallait d’abord de la conversation, de la tendresse, comme elles disent. (…) Je
changeais souvent de rôle; mais il s’agissait toujours de la même pièce.
(TRN, 1506)
I played the game. I knew they didn’t like one to reveal one’s purpose too quickly.
First, there had to be conversation, fond attentions as they say. (…) I often
changed parts, but it was always the same play. (F, 45)

Clamence’s nostalgia is for order, and an innocence that is located on

the football pitch or the stage, where the rules of life are fixed and
clear, and where all acknowledge the “game”:
204 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Je n’ai vraiment été sincère et enthousiaste qu’au temps où je faisais du sport et,
au régiment, quand je jouais dans les pièces que nous représentions pour notre
plaisir. Il y avait dans les deux cas une règle du jeu, qui n’était pas sérieuse, et
qu’on s’amusait à prendre pour telle. Maintenant encore, les matches du diman-
che, dans un stade plein à craquer, et le théâtre, que j’ai aimé avec une passion
sans égale, sont les seuls endroits du monde où je me sente innocent.
(TRN, 1520)
I have never been really sincere and enthusiastic except when I used to indulge in
sports and, in the army, when I used to act in plays we put on for our own amuse-
ment. In both cases there was a rule of the game which was not serious but which
we enjoyed taking as if it were. Even now, the Sunday games in an overflowing
stadium and the theatre, which I loved with an unparalleled devotion, are the only
places in the world where I feel innocent. (F, 65)

As for Don Juan, innocence is the condition of avowed duplicity,

where sincerity, enthusiasm and love are nothing more than the repro-
duction of the counterfeit, without subterfuge. Hence, Clamence the
counterfeiter (TRN, 1538) is only truly alive when acting a role: “dans
un sens, d’ailleurs, je croyais à ce que je disais, je vivais mon rôle”
(TRN, 1507) (“besides, in a sense I believed what I was saying, I lived
my role”). As in Le Mythe, this donjuanisme requires the death of the
Other, who can be allowed no autonomous life. Death would be the
ideal solution:
Cette mort eût définitivement fixé notre lien, d’une part et, de l’autre, lui eût ôté
sa contrainte. Mais on ne peut pas souhaiter la mort de tout le monde ni, à la limi-
te, dépeupler la planète pour jouir d’une liberté inimaginable autrement.
(TRN, 1510)
Her death would, on the one hand, have fixed our relationship once and for all
and, on the other, removed its constraint. But one cannot long for the death of eve-
ryone or, to go to extremes, depopulate the planet in order to enjoy a freedom that
is unthinkable otherwise. (F, 50)

Clamence remains in control, while his illustration of himself as a

laughing stock concerns a trivial incident entirely divorced from his
relationships with women. Thus, the laugh heard on the bridge is most
closely associated with the motorcyclist through its narrative prox-
imity, while the second example of losing face is distanced by its in-
sertion within Clamence’s discourse on his sexual success.
On this occasion he is attracted by a woman who does not play the
game. Despite her passive air, she had confided his sexual inadequa-
cies to another (TRN, 1508). The true scandal of this betrayal rests in
the fact that Clamence had wrongly believed her incapable of having
an opinion, only to find now that she was capable of judgement. This
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 205

is not part of Don Juan’s bargain with women, who must exist in iso-
lation from social life, without friends in whom to confide and with
whom they might display independent judgement. This revelation of
an autonomous existence breaks the contract imposed long before on
which Absurd man flourished. What man is a hero when the lowliest
and most passive of women can judge him and snigger behind his
back about his virility?
The laughter Clamence hears on the bridge, at the height of his sat-
isfaction, is female laughter deriding him on the level where he feels
most alive, most innocent – in the theatre of love. This parallel is un-
derlined by the repetition of the same phrase in dismissal of each inci-
dent: he thought about the laughter for a while, then “forgot” about it
(TRN, 1495), just as he “forgot” about this woman (TRN, 1506). It
matters little that he has described his revenge on her in graphic detail,
for he cannot delete her powers of judgement. Memory, furthermore,
is not within Clamence’s control; he neither summons up nor dis-
misses it. It returns to him (TRN, 1501).
Although the young woman’s suicide takes place some years ear-
lier, the laughter is the precursor to the woman’s cry. Such parallels
are deliberate and designed to focus the listener’s attention on this in-
cident at the “centre” of his memory and presented as an unwilling
revelation he can no longer evade (TRN, 1510). Martyrs, Clamence
later remarks, must choose between being forgotten, mocked, or made
use of (TRN, 1514). Unforgotten, this suicide allows him to present
himself as a tragic figure – the man haunted by the cry of a young
woman whom he did nothing to save. Indeed, the tragedy is com-
pounded by the fact that he could have done nothing to save her. Al-
though critical opinion is divided on this point, and Clamence is
variously seen as responsible and wanting her to die, or responsible
only of an “innocent crime”, what is clear is that Clamence is always
in control of his disclosures about women. The ambiguity surrounding
them is deliberate, as are his final words on the subject: “Il est trop
tard, maintenant, il sera toujours trop tard. Heureusement!” (TRN,
1551). On the level of words, and within the terms of the confession,
this “real” woman has served her purpose, and:
Les auteurs de confessions écrivent surtout pour ne pas se confesser, pour ne rien
dire de ce qu’ils savent. Quand ils prétendent de passer aux aveux, c’est le mo-
ment de se méfier, on va maquiller le cadavre. (TRN, 1538)
206 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The authors of confessions write above all to avoid confessing, to tell nothing of
what they know. When they claim to get to the painful admissions, you have to
watch out, for they are about to dress the corpse. (F, 89)

Although many have argued for Clamence’s deterioration over the

course of his monologue, and that the Interlocutor plays a far more
active role than might first appear, I have emphasised instead the high
degree of control that Clamence exerts over his material and his Inter-
locutor. If Clamence is defeated, it is surely not by those with whom
he comes into contact at the Mexico-City, but by the very pointless-
ness of the exercise in which he is engaged. The contemporary judge-
penitent may proclaim his guilt by beating the breasts of others (E,
897-98), but however guilt (or responsibility) may be apportioned,
nothing will retrieve that original loss. One is left forever with only
the corpse.
Mythical Women in La Chute
I have noted the critical focus on Christian imagery in La Chute. Ad-
ditionally, Greece is regarded as a strictly delineated pure and Edenic
space. However, I have argued that from the outset pagan imagery is
intertwined with references to Christianity, the slave religion; not only
do the allusions to Dante make clear that the setting of this symbolic
space is the pagan world (the first circle of Dante’s inferno is Limbo,
where the unbaptised and the virtuous pagans are to be found), but the
allusions of the first chapter are to the pagan legends of the Odyssey;
fittingly, in view of the fact that Dante’s guide is Virgil. Here, the in-
direct references are to the women of such myths (the Sirens, Circe
and Calypso) who entrap the unsuspecting navigator. The ordered
world of the Christian inferno is thus revealed as inapplicable, for this
is simultaneously the second circle of Hell – the realm of the lustful,
as is symbolised by the rainy and foggy climate of Amsterdam.51
Thus, in contrast to La Peste, La Chute evokes an underside of Greek
mythology – not the chastity of the homosocial world where men may
walk hand in hand while the women stay at home, but its duality, and
My source for these points is Dante’s The Divine Comedy (vol.1): Inferno, Mark
Musa (tr.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971). It is to be noted, moreover, that Ulysses
was himself condemned to the 8th bolgia of the inferno (Canto XXVI) because of his
duplicity. From there he recounts his final voyage when, having left Circe for the last
time, he and his crew are caught up in a storm and wrecked, whereupon “the sea was
closed again, above us” (142). This final line resembles those of Moby Dick and re-
calls Camus’s comment that Melville was the “Homer of the Pacific”. Camus added,
however, that with Melville Ulysses is never to find Ithaca again (E, 1909).
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 207

the world of sexual temptation. At the same time, references to Java,

the voyages of discovery (Cipango) and the prostitutes of Amsterdam
evoke the memory of Brazil and the African paganism of the
macumba ceremony. Again, the order of Greece, the Inferno, and the
temporal-geographical order are subverted by these contemporary ref-
erences, while the female figures profiled there are those of “African
rites” (JV, 83-84).
In the above examples direct references in the text create intertex-
tual links with legendary or mythical female figures. In other cases, as
with Helen, the associations are more complex, for this text contains
no possibility of Redemption. In the world without Ithaca, female
symbols of purity are exiled. Yet, as in the case of the drowned young
woman, and as in the case of the Van Eyck painting, their significance
is written on the empty space.
Clamence, who is there when he is elsewhere, most absent when he
occupies the most space (TRN, 1520), takes his client to the island of
Marken to witness the horizontal lines of universal obliteration, ever-
lasting nothingness made visible (TRN, 1512). This is what really mat-
ters: le vide, the void, the emptiness of space where a painting was
once hung. Van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Lamb has long been seen
as the source of much of the iconography of La Chute,52 and towards
the end of his monologue Clamence reveals his ownership of the fa-
mous stolen panel from this polyptich, “The Just Judges”. Although a
copy of this lost panel with its false judges is displayed for the admira-
tion of a world unable to distinguish true from false, Clamence alone
possesses the true one; this, he argues, is right and proper because the
judges are on their way to meet the Lamb – and there is no longer a
Lamb, nor any innocence (TRN, 1542). He does not court arrest or
judgement, nor does he harbour illusions of martyrdom or grandeur.
He has no illusions. When innocence is separated from justice, only

For a thorough consideration of the painting and its links with the novel see Jeffrey
Meyers, “Camus’s The Fall and Van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Lamb”, in Mosaic,
7 (3) (Spring, 1974), 43-51; Burton M. Wheeler, “Beyond Despair: Camus’s The Fall
and Van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Lamb’”, Contemporary Literature, 23 (3) (1982),
343-64. For an interesting analysis of this painting’s relationship to La Chute, see Jean
Gassin’s “La Chute et le retable de ‘L’Agneau Mystique’: étude de structure”, in Al-
bert Camus 1980, 133-41.
208 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

the emptiness of judgement remains.53 Clamence refers six times to

this absence in the course of his monologue (TRN, 1478, 1495, 1521,
1542, 1549), like a conjuror inviting us to look in the wrong direction
and solve the mystery of what does not matter. What he will never
possess is Redemption.
Existing now only in the world of La Chute, the lost panel of “the
Just Judges” once stood on the margin, at the outermost edge as one of
twelve panels, in the lower register of the open polyptich. It is hardly
central, and judgement and justice do not always coincide. In Cla-
mence’s world, only they remain, while the absence to which their
presence points is The Adoration of the Lamb itself. This is what Cla-
mence knows he will never have; salvation. When closed, the Ghent
Altarpiece depicts the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, above
whose head is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This scene an-
nounces the beginning of the Redemption, for at the moment of the
Annunciation the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ the Redeemer,
entered the world: Redemption is the theme of the opened polyptich,
which depicts the Lamb in the fields of Paradise, and in the upper reg-
ister, at the right hand of Christ sits Mary, “the spotless mirror of
God”. The Adoration of the Lamb expresses belief in the salvation of
Redemption, then, exists elsewhere, beyond the confines of Am-
sterdam. The presence of Adam and Eve, standing in the upper regis-
ter of the painting at the two edges furthest from the centre, points to
the origin and purpose of the Redemption. In her hand Eve holds the
fruit with which she tempted Adam, and over her head, as if sculpted
in stone, is depicted the first murder, by Cain of Abel. At her feet, in-
scribed in Latin, are the words (the just judgement), “Eve afflicts us
with death”. Whereas over the head of the Virgin is the dove (the
Third Person of the Trinity, the Rewarder who bestows grace on the
elect), Eve carries on her head the first murder and her progeny, the
first criminal, who brought Damnation. For the sons of Cain, all that
remains of paradise is man’s first disobedience and the eternal fall. In
La Chute, Mary, “the second Eve”, will never redeem her mortal

Nowadays, Camus wrote, the word “justice” has been prostituted, and might be
heard on the lips of both the Algerian peasant and the Yemeni slave-dealer (E, 1852).
In the twentieth century, judgement only favours cruelty and force.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 209

Just as “the Just Judges” announce the absence of salvation (The

Adoration of the Lamb), so the references to Dante’s Inferno point to
the absence of Paradise. The quest for Beatrice is the reason for
Dante’s presence in Hell. Like Orpheus, he enters in search of the lost
loved one, the “Lady of Grace” whose name signifies salvation.54
Whereas the Inferno is the point of departure in pursuit of a goal, in
La Chute there is no exit: we will never leave this immense basin of
holy water (TRN, 1532). And whereas the Divine Comedy eventually
leads to Beatrice and to Paradise, La Chute extends no further than
Hell and the women who belong there. As Claudine and Michel Mail-
lard have pointed out, the theme of the quest (which incorporates not
only Dante but the legends of the Grail) is integral to La Chute.55 The
underlying master-quest throughout Camus’s later work, I have sug-
gested, is that of Ulysses, initially in search of Helen and subsequently
in search of the homeland and Penelope; Lohengrin, with whom the
Dutch are compared, underwent many amorous digressions during his
search for the Grail – in parallel with both Clamence and Ulysses. As
Audisio points out, these women always take Ulysses by force; in
spirit he does not submit (but he enters their beds); he cries about it
(but afterwards). As in La Chute, navigation is equated with sexual
adventure, and eight of Ulysses’ ten years of homecoming were actu-
ally spent on this; the navigator takes no vow of chastity. 56
Such allusions to the quest for grace emphasise only its abortion in
La Chute, which announces instead its impossibility. There is no Lady
of Grace, and the Holy Spirit hovers in the sky with no head on which
to alight (TRN, 1512); Mary, the New Eve, will never redeem her
mortal counterpart, whose heirs are left since the beginning with the
loss of paradise. Afflicted with death, the sons of Cain are mortal and
biological beings born from temptation, the fruit of the first murder,
and fallen long ago. Man has allowed Helen to die, unwilling to risk
his life for those greater values that forge the collective community.
When he hears the sound of a body hitting the water and a cry de-
scending the river, Clamence does not even turn around. The hero of

Inferno II, 76.
Le Langage en procès: Structures et symboles dans “La Chute” de Camus (Greno-
ble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1977), 97.
Ulysse ou l’intelligence, 85, 23, 80.
210 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

our times refuses the moment of choice (Beatrice)57 and consequently

he inhabits the vestibule of Hell (in Inferno the realm of the indeci-
sive). The water is cold, the shroud opaque. He is afraid of death.
Like the young Camus of “Noces à Tipasa” or Le Mythe, Clamence
loves life so much that he cannot imagine anything else:
Je l’aime tant que je n’ai aucune imagination pour ce qui n’est pas elle. Une telle
avidité a quelque chose de plébéien, vous ne trouvez pas? L’aristocratie ne
s’imagine pas sans un peu de distance à l’égard de soi-même et de sa propre vie.
On meurt si’il le faut, on rompt plutôt que de plier. Mais moi, je plie, parce que je
continue de m’aimer. (TRN, 1514)
I love it so much that I am incapable of imagining what is not life. Such avidity
has something plebeian about it, don’t you think? Aristocracy cannot imagine it-
self without a little distance surrounding itself and its own life. One dies if neces-
sary, one breaks rather than bending. But I bend, because I continue to love
myself. (F, 56-57)

Clamence had thought himself one of the elect, a King’s son, marked
out from the mass (TRN, 1490). Instead, he discovers that he is a slave
for whom there is no action worth taking and no values worth preserv-
ing if, by doing so, he risks his own life.
On décidera alors de ne pas agir, ce qui revient au moins à accepter le meurtre
d’autrui, sauf à déplorer harmonieusement l’imperfection des hommes. (E, 415)
We may decide not to act at all, which comes down to condoning other people’s
murder, plus a little fastidious sorrow over human imperfection. (R, 13)

Clamence had believed himself “désigné”, singled out as one of the
natural élite; instead, he is “appelé” (TRN, 1518) (“called”), but this is
not the call to sainthood. From the point at which the woman falls into
the Seine to become a symbol, her cry becomes the call of Fate, a dis-
embodied “truth”, or a “misérable tromperie, perdue dans l’océan des
âges comme le grain de sel dans la mer!” (“a paltry fraud, lost in the
sea of ages like a grain of sand in the ocean”), linking confession to
the only possible absolution of death (TRN, 1521). This cry becomes
his Nemesis, and associated with water, rain, fog (lust) – all that can-
not be controlled. From the water it returns to him, even on the ocean.
Mistaking a piece of debris for someone drowning, Clamence resigns
himself, without revolt, to the knowledge that this cry which had

In The Figure of Beatrice. A Study in Dante (London: Faber, 1943) Charles Wil-
liams points out that Beatrice represents this moment of choice, “a choice between
action and no action” (123).
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 211

sounded over the Seine years before had never ceased, carried by the
river to the ocean, to travel throughout the world, awaiting him:
Je compris aussi qu’il continuerait de m’attendre sur les mers et les fleuves, par-
tout enfin où se trouverait l’eau amère de mon baptême. Ici encore, dites-moi, ne
sommes-nous pas sur l’eau? (…) Écoutez! N’entendez-vous pas les cris de goé-
landes invisibles? S’ils crient vers nous, à quoi donc nous appellent-ils?
(TRN, 1531)
I realized likewise that it would continue to await me on seas and rivers, every-
where, in short, where lies the bitter water of my baptism. Here too, by the way,
aren’t we on the water? (…) Listen. Don’t you hear the cries of invisible gulls? If
they are crying in our direction, to what are they calling us? (F, 80)

These invisible gulls, Clamence insists, are the same ones that were
calling out that day on the ocean. Thus, with her death, the young
woman undergoes a series of metamorphoses connecting her with
truth (or with trash), with water, and with the cry of birds.
I have already noted the associations between women, prostitutes
and birds in the Journaux de Voyage, and that these associations are
carried over into the first chapter of La Chute. The sexual pleasure
offered by women there may be “à peu de frais” (TRN, 1483)
(“cheap”), but one of the central themes of Clamence’s discourse con-
cerns precisely such questions of payment, contradicting the sugges-
tion that any transaction with a woman comes cheap. In his work as a
lawyer, Clamence’s criminals pay on his behalf whilst he is relieved
of any debt, so that, freed from all responsibility, he can reign (TRN,
1489). Likewise, his solicitous attendance at funerals gained him, “à
peu de frais”, the sympathy of all (TRN, 1493); no debt is owed to the
dead, except that of memory. But this exacts a heavier price than he
initially suggests (TRN, 1492). Similarly, in his dealings with women
it was as if he extended to all other women the debt he had just con-
tracted towards one – a comment made immediately before he re-
counts the incident on the Pont Royal (TRN, 1510), and although he
derides suicide as an illusory way of “making people pay”, neverthe-
less he later discloses that women cost him dearly (TRN, 1516).
Woman may be the reward of the criminal and “true debauchery” may
create no obligation, but at the end of all liberty, there is a sentence
(TRN, 1544).
Most transparently, this message is conveyed through Christian
imagery where Salome stands at the intersection of Biblical and Ori-
entalist myth. When Clamence imagines his arrest for the theft of “the
Just Judges”, he again compares himself to John the Baptist:
212 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

(O)n me décapiterait, par exemple, et je n’aurais plus peur de mourir, je serais

sauvé. Au-dessus du peuple assemblé, vous éleveriez alors ma tête encore fraîche,
pour qu’ils s’y reconnaissent et qu’à nouveau je les domine, exemplaire. Tout se-
rait consommé, j’aurais achevé, ni vu ni connu, ma carrière de faux prophète qui
crie dans le désert et refuse d’en sortir. (TRN, 1551)
(I) would be decapitated, and I’d no longer be afraid of dying; I’d be saved.
Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they
could recognize themselves in it and I could again dominate – an exempler. All
would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown,
my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to come forth.
(F, 107)

Salome, the Biblical figure whose seductive dance brings about this
death, has become a symbol of the sexual abandon and duplicity of the
East, and in this sense she represents a fusion of Christian and pagan.
A series of female metamorphoses in the book (from woman into
justice, into death, and into water) is reinforced by a hybridization of
the récit’s Christian imagery. In 1958 Camus reflected that the world
is moving towards paganism although still rejecting pagan values: “Il
faut les restaurer, paganiser la croyance, gréciser le Christ et
l’équilibre revient” (C3, 220) (“They must be restored; the balance
will be restored by paganizing belief, hellenizing Christ”). Clearly, in
speaking of paganism here, Greece and Classical values are the refer-
ence point. Yet, such a fusion seems reflected in the religious imagery
of La Chute, where a new and hybrid image begins to be connected
with women.
Gabriel Audisio speaks of the fabulous hybrid monsters of myth,
such as the Sirens who were half woman and half bird or fish, and the
Harpies – women with the wings of birds.58 Melusina herself was such
a being, of course, and Nemesis, goddess of the golden mean, is often
depicted with the wings of a bird. Nemesis, in the form of a bird, laid
the egg from which Helen was born. She is referred to in L’Homme
révolté as the “déesse de la mesure, fatale aux démesurés” (E, 699)
(“the goddess of moderation, fatal for the immoderate”), and her pro-
file can be discerned behind the birds who call to Clamence, remind-
ing him of his fate. Commentators have often pointed out that in
Christian iconography the dove / Holy Ghost is associated with John
the Baptist, who declared Jesus the “Lamb of God”. Jean-Baptiste
Clamence’s association of himself with the prophet and his constant
references to the doves in the sky of Holland thus leads their presence

Ulysse ou l’intelligence, 93.
Women, Race and the Fall of Man 213

to be interpreted in this light. The Maillards have sought to link the

seagulls with these doves, and suggest that all these birds are related
to the “call”, which is to say to Clamence’s vocation. Yet, as they
note, the doves remain ephemeral, invisible, waiting above with no
head on which to land. They belong instead to the Van Eyck painting
and, beyond that, to the Scriptures.59
However, it must be remembered that in this same network of
Christian symbolism the descent of the dove also signifies the descent
of lust – as in Inferno, where it is offered as an excuse for infidelity
and betrayal.60 Thus, the imagined descent of the doves at the end of
La Chute represents a return to the beginning of the book, with its
landscape of lust (in the second circle of Hell).
Voyez les énormes flocons qui s’ébouriffent contre les vitres. Ce sont les colom-
bes, sûrement. Elles se décident enfin à descendre, ces chéries, elles couvrent les
eaux et les toits d’une épaisse couche de plumes, elles palpitent à toutes les fenê-
tres. (TRN, 1550)
See the huge flakes drifting against the window-panes. It must be the doves,
surely. They finally make up their minds to come down, the little dears; they’re
covering the waters and the roofs with a thick layer of feathers; they’re fluttering
at every window. (F, 22)

Here, the term “s’ébouriffent” (“drift”) recalls the palm trees at the
beginning, and the first invitation to debauchery, when:
Les dieux descendent sur les corps nus et les îles dérivent, démentes, coiffées
d’une chevelure ébouriffée de palmiers sous le vent. Essayez. (TRN, 1483)
The gods descend on naked bodies and the isles are set adrift, demented, crowned
with the tousled hair of palm trees in the wind. Try it. (F, 14)

In this circular trajectory Clamence may savour the eternal return of

the last judgement. What else can he do, knowing, as he does, that he
is going nowhere?
But the birds in the story are not simply “borrowed” from a Bibli-
cal elsewhere, and the seagulls are not simply another version of the
dove, as the Maillards contend. In pagan beliefs, birds also signify the
souls of the dead. When Clamence acknowledges the inescapability of
the cry / drowned woman he points out that they presided over this
incident just as they preside overhead at his recounting of it (TRN,
1532). Thus Clamence is pursued by his Nemesis. This Greek symbol-

Le Langage en procès, 146-47.
Inferno, V, 82-4. In L’Imagination du désert Laurent Mailhot also notes the subli-
mated sexual role played by the dove in Christian symbolism (300).
214 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ism is reinforced when one takes into account the fact that not merely
the sky of Holland, but the “celestial space” is filled by millions of
doves waiting the whole year long (TRN, 1512-13). In Greek mythol-
ogy the seven Pleiades were the daughters of Atlas and were forced to
flee from the amorous pursuit of Orion. The gods, to aid their escape,
changed them into doves and “set their images among the stars”.61 The
name “Pleiades” is believed to derive from the root plei (to sail), and
hence refers to the rising of this group of stars when the season of
good weather for sailing approaches. From this perspective it is, then,
not surprising that Clamence should claim that “the fall” begins at
dawn (TRN, 1549), when there is no possibility of seeing the stars.
The rising of the Pleiades in May began the navigational year, and
their setting in November (the month that marks the suicide and the
cry) signalled its end.62 The King’s son has lost his star, and Cla-
mence’s yearning for the descent of the doves signifies the wish to end
his state of being adrift, with no celestial guide and no destination.
Clamence seeks the end to all navigation, when “je n’aurais plus peur
de mourir, je serais sauvé” (TRN, 1551) (“I would no longer be afraid
of dying, I would be saved”). In La Chute the optimism of of
L’Homme révolté where “nous choisirons Ithaque, la terre fidèle, la
pensée audacieuse et frugale” (E, 708) (“we will choose Ithaca, the
faithful earth, bold and frugal thought”) is denied. Unlike L’Exil et le
Royaume, this is not a story of exile but the message of the damned.
In thinking of that earthly paradise of Camus’s youth and the war
of independence, I am constantly reminded of the words of Mephi-
stopheles, for whom Hell lies everywhere beyond the existence he had
once known:
“Thinks’t thou that I, who saw the face of God, And tasted the eternal joys of
heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells In being deprived of everlast-
ing bliss!”63

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 152.
The Greek Myths, 154, 165.
Dr Faustus, Scene 3 (78-81).
Chapter 7
Sexual topographies

In chapter 6 I suggested that La Chute is haunted by the impending

loss of French Algeria. Written in a post-war climate entirely different
from the days of Camus’s youth, when it was still possible (if unreal-
istic) to harbour other dreams of what Algeria and its settlers might
become, the spectre that now stands behind Camus’s writing is of a
rapidly de-colonizing world; an unknown future for which predictions
cannot be made, except the threat of exile and all that this entails. The
future is lost, that future kingdom destroyed. I have suggested that
such fears are expressed through an imagery of female sexuality; a
loss of control, a loss of personal and political boundaries. As far as
Algeria itself is concerned, “l’autre Algérie” (“the other Algeria”) for
which Camus would never fight, is one “reliée à un empire d’Islam”
(E, 901) (“tied to an Islamic empire”). Moreover, if it is too late for
French Algeria, then it may also be too late for the Western world, for
behind the FLN stands Egypt and the dream of a renascent Arab em-
pire under Colonel Nasser. For Camus (and many others at that time),
the Arab Empire means a third World War (E, 1013).1
This other Algeria underlies L’Exil et le Royaume, the collection of
short stories that La Chute had outgrown: at times it surfaces, as in
“Le Renégat, ou un esprit confus” and “La Pierre qui pousse”. In
L’Exil et le royaume the King’s son is replaced (if not displaced) by a
series of other “princes without a kingdom” first intimated in Le
Mythe (E, 169). While continuing this meditation on the kingdom /
homeland, L’Exil et le royaume is also an attempted reconstruction, a
“making sense” which presages Camus’s final, unfinished work, Le
Premier Homme.
Domestic Sexuality and Exotic Fantasy
I earlier suggested that Camus seeks to create an ordered and sexually
segregated fictional world, and my analysis of the treatment of women
up to this point would predict that women are excluded from this

See also Albert Camus: une vie, 714.
216 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

kingdom. Woman is incapable of lucidity, and is rather an aspect of

that natural world which constitutes man’s “homeland of the soul”.
Yet few commentators challenge the proposition that the ecstatic mo-
ment of communion experienced by Janine at the oasis fort was shared
by the writer himself, and identical to that described in Noces or
L’Envers et l’Endroit. Such interpretations can only be sustained if the
category of gender is ignored. Although this short story is recognized
as being unique in Camus’s work precisely because the main protago-
nist is female, interpretations often bypass this factor in order to as-
similate unproblematically Janine’s experience into that of Camus
himself. As Jean Grenier was famously to remark, “we” have all been,
at times, that “adulterous woman”.2 In challenging the equation be-
tween Janine’s experience and that of Camus, Peter Cryle has pointed
to one distinction that seems clearly gender-related when he notes the
crucial role of lucidity throughout the earlier essays.3 “Arid lucidity”
is not an obvious consequence of Janine’s encounter with the desert
In “Retour à Tipasa” the speaker implicitly compares himself to
Ulysses, while the constant theme there is of the return and the home-
coming. Unlike Janine, the speaker is not a stranger in unfamiliar ter-
ritory; on the contrary, the text is marked by the repetition of actions
such as “finding again”, “seeing again” as past and present unite to
annihilate the intervening twenty years. The writer re-enters a familiar
landscape of his youth where every step of the journey is filled with
memories and sensations. This is no touristic voyage but a homecom-
ing where, in this unchanging space, framed by “always the same” sea
and sky, the writer knows what his goal is and finds again “exactly
what I had come to seek, and which, in spite of the world, was given
truly to me alone in this deserted nature” (E, 872-73). For Janine, on
the other hand, the discovery is that the kingdom she believes has
been promised to her would never be hers, except in one fleeting mo-
ment of spectatorship (TRN, 1570). In Tipasa, the confirmation sought
and found is that of roots and identity. Unlike Budejovice, Tipasa,
even after so many years, still welcomes and recognizes her own, who
willingly claim their heritage in this “refuge and port for her sons, of
whom I am one” (E, 872). In this essay the speaker seeks a temporary

Correspondance Jean Grenier-Albert Camus (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), 199.
Bilan Critique: L’Exil et le Royaume d’Albert Camus: essai d’analyse (Paris:
Minard, 1973), 51.
Sexual Topographies 217

escape, a reaffirmation of roots inextricably bound up with birthplace

and blood ties before his return to the conflicts of Europe. This ex-
perience is a rediscovery of the Self, the recognition that the light sig-
nified by Tipasa burns still within him: “there was in me an invincible
summer” (E, 874), an antidote to the night of Europe and its hatred for
the light (E, 869, 874). Thus fortified, this latter-day Ulysses can pre-
pare with renewed determination to return to the battle (E, 874).
Despite the deliberate ambiguity of “La Femme adultère” it is far
from clear that Janine’s experience parallels this. Janine is aligned
with the night, her experience belongs to the night – the converse of
what Camus is describing in Tipasa. In Le Mythe Camus distinguishes
between two types of spiritual night: that conjured up with the eyes
closed, in which the spirit seeks to lose itself; and the night born of a
lucid despair, a polar night, “veille de l’esprit d’où se lèvera peut-être
cette clarté blanche et intacte qui dessine chaque objet dans la lumière
de l’intelligence, (E, 146) (“vigil of the mind, from which will arise
perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object
in the light of the intelligence” (MS, 63) ). Although she certainly
“loses herself” (to the point of incoherence) the intellect plays no part
in Janine’s experience. Not only is she associated with Europe (or its
Algerian counterpart, Oran), but in Tipasa the night resists description
(E, 875). Bearing in mind that Camus himself said in 1943 that he was
both unmoved and unpersuaded by those who wrote about “ineffable,
inexpressible, infinite” feelings or situations (E, 1663), Cryle rightly
points out that although in his lyrical essays Camus could always de-
scribe and comment on his experience, that of Janine is “ineffable”.4
Even language is beyond her grasp. Before her solitary night expedi-
tion she spoke, but her mouth “emitted no sound”. Indeed, she hardly
heard / understood what she was saying herself (TRN, 1572). This in-
comprehension is extended to Marcel on her return, when she does not
understand his words, and he looks at her without understanding
(TRN, 1575). It remains unclear, however, whether this lack of lin-
guistic communication between them is the result of her experience,
or whether (as the text suggests) it is a feature of their “longue habi-
tude à deux” (“long, mutual habit”), long devoid of any satisfactory
form of intercourse.
Of Laghouat, Camus wrote of the singular impression of power
and invulnerability he had there, because he had come to terms with

Bilan Critique, 28.
218 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

death (C3, 70). Despite Janine’s mystical experience, it seems unlikely

that the two can be compared – especially in view of the great care
Camus takes to emphasise the contrast between himself and his origi-
nal models in his 1954 preface to the story:
J’ai rencontré à Laghouat les personnages de cette nouvelle. Je ne suis pas sûr, na-
turellement, que leur journée se soit terminée comme je l’ai dit. Sans doute ne
sont-ils pas allés devant le désert. Mais j’y suis allé, moi, quelques heures après et
pendant tout ce temps leur image me poursuivait et s’opposait à ce que je voyais.5
In Laghouat I met the characters of this story. I am not certain, of course, that
their day ended as I have told it. No doubt they did not go forth to the desert. But
me, I went there, some hours after that, and during all that time their image pur-
sued me and challenged what I saw.

Marcel and Janine are reminiscent of the citizens of Oran in La Peste

or “Le Minotaure”, who have closed the window and shut themselves
off from the natural world (E, 828) in favour of the pursuit of com-
merce. Their one redeeming feature is that they, too, have had their
lives turned upside down, and must re-adjust. Marcel, for all his flaws,
reflects the indomitable spirit of this emigrant people; although im-
pervious to his surroundings, he adapts, thanks to “his courage in the
face of life”, which (we are told), he shared with all the French of that
land (TRN, 1560).
The Fat White Woman
The particular heroine selected for this unique focus is equally unique
in Camus’s works, although she appears fleetingly in the Carnets. She
is neither a mother, nor a vocal defendant of the claims of women, and
above all she is not one of the French-Algerian “flower-like girls” so
closely associated with the Algerian landscape of the lyrical essays. I
suggest that Janine derives from a sub-text running through Camus’s
writings. Through the details of her life-style, she emanates from:
La dame qui a l’air de souffrir d’une constipation de trois ans: “Ces Arabes, ça
masque leurs filles. Ah! ils ne sont pas encore civilisés!”
Peu à peu, elle nous révèle son idéal de civilisation: un mari à 1200 francs par
mois, un appartement de deux pièces, cuisine et dépendances, le cinéma le diman-
che et un intérieur Galerie Barbès pour la semaine. (C1, 225)
The lady who seems to be suffering from a constipation of three years: “These
Arabs, they veil their girls. Ah, they’re still not civilized!”

Cited by Lottman, Albert Camus, 549.
Sexual Topographies 219

Gradually, she reveals to us her ideal of civilization: a husband on 1200 francs a

month, an appartment with two rooms, kitchen and mod cons, the cinema on Sun-
days and a Galerie Barbès interior for weekdays.

Such a woman clearly goes too far in her pretensions to concern for
social justice. The claim that the Arab woman (by day beast of burden,
by night Beauty6) is in some mysterious way oppressed is dismissed
here in favour of an attack on the one making the claim. Because of
who she is and how she lives, her words are little more than the cover
for racism. Elsewhere, this attribution of racism is given clearer ex-
pression in a deleted passage from Tarrou’s diary. There, the woman
concerned is a Parisian and her social circle, who are all agreed that
the plague emanates from the squalor caused by Jews, Arabs and out-
siders to the town (TRN, 1983-84). Not only their class, but their gen-
der excludes such women from the sphere of political discourse. The
(middle-class, middle-aged) housewife is incapable of compassion,
and her true concern is for the acquisition of material goods, and not
by her own efforts, for she is parasitical on her husband. She enters
briefly into Camus’s journalistic works when the young journalist un-
dertakes a tour around the convict ship, Le Martinière. His closing
reprimand to a group of women onlookers rests equally on this same
stereotype of the parasitical woman. There, Camus is a reporter and
not an idle voyeur: the women are tourists, treating as spectacle the
sight of a human misery they could never understand (CAC 3, 362).7
Camus reserves a special contempt for the customers of the Galerie
Barbès, which he associates with the petty-minded and petty-
bourgeois – as is demonstrated in 1945 when he urges the working
classes never to aspire to the sort of bourgeois life-style of which this
furniture is, for him, one symbol (E, 1545). It seems no coincidence
that Janine’s own home is filled with this furniture (TRN, 1562).
Precisely because it is so widespread, such a stereotype remains
unremarked, explaining why Jean Onimus can speak of humour, in-
significance, and Emma Bovary without questioning the “mystical”
nature of Janine’s experience at the fort. However, much of the hu-
mour in this story hinges on the comical impossibility of someone like

This North African saying is quoted by Berque in Le Maghreb entre deux guerres,
“Ces hommes qu’on raie de l’humanité”, CAC 3, 358-362. See my “Albert Camus
and ‘Ces femmes qu’on raie de l’humanité’: Sexual Politics in the Colonial Arena”,
French Cultural Studies, 10 (2) (29) (June 1999), 217-30.
220 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Janine committing adultery.8 For precisely the same reasons that the
Algerian woman of L’Étranger has been called a “maudlin” woman,
another critic has described Janine as suffering from a “menopausal
depression”. But Janine’s status derives from a much larger stereotype
than this, combining parasitism and racism, for it is also widely as-
sumed that, as Pierre Nora confidently remarks:
La femme, parasite du rapport colonial auquel elle ne participe pas directement,
même si elle travaille, est généralement plus raciste que l’homme et contribue
puissament à interdire le contact entre les deux sociétés.9
The woman, parasitical on colonial relations in which she does not participate di-
rectly, even if she works, is generally more racist than the man and strongly con-
tributes to the taboo on contact between the two societies.

Although often less bluntly expressed, this convenient view of the role
of women in colonialism is widespread, and seems to have been sup-
ported by Camus. In Le Premier Homme emigrant women are pre-
sented as the victims of a historical process they have played no part
in making, crying in the night (PH, 301) and afraid of the unknown
(PH, 172) – as if the men were not. In the history of colonial conquest,
trade precedes the arrival of the military men, while tourism is like-
wise parasitical on the existence of an already pacified indigenous
population, and this form of passive consumption is more readily as-
sociated with women. Marcel arrives at the oasis in order to work;
Janine, with no children or any meaningful activity in her life, follows
him, and has nothing to satisfy except her idle curiosity. She embarks
on an accidental voyage of discovery, for she is in the desert not by
design and with no purpose except sightseeing.
Sexual Tourism
Alfred Noyer-Weidner has underlined the symbolic significance of
physical appearance in this collection, a “coded technique” that dem-
onstrates the degree of control Camus imposes. He suggests that the
dénouement of all the stories is already suggested by the first physical
descriptions of their characters.10 In “La Femme adultére”, the combi-
nation of this title, her name, and her physical appearance work to de-
fine and fix her. Her own name seems to her like a comment on her

“The Adulterous Woman and the Starry Sky”, in Judith Suther (ed.), Essays on Ca-
mus’ “Exile and the Kingdom” (Mississipi: University of Mississipi, 1980), 129.
Les Français d’Algérie, 175.
“Albert Camus in his Short Story Phase”, in Suther, 62-63.
Sexual Topographies 221

“tall and sturdy” body (TRN, 1560), making her feel ridiculous, for it
defines a woman other than she. The term “adulterous woman” also
defines a woman other than she, except perhaps in her dreams. Ulti-
mately, of course, her only adultery will be with herself and an onanis-
tic yearning for what she can never have and never be. This
“metaphysical” adultery is likewise a comment on her physical body,
for how can a romantic heroine be reconciled with a woman whose
ankles swell, and who cannot bend without gasping for breath (TRN,
1560)? Already, on the bus, marriage is opposed to the “free” life she
had abandoned twenty-five years earlier (TRN, 1560). Whatever her
regrets, however, there is no indication that the choice of marriage she
made then, and the reasons for it (fear of being alone, of growing old
alone and unloved), would change were it to face her again. As her
later assurance to the hotel concierge reveals (TRN, 1573), she always
intended to return to Marcel.
We already know the probable nature of Janine’s dissatisfactions,
her desires, age and physical state, before she notices a soldier on the
bus who is looking at her:
Il l’examinait de ses yeux clairs, avec une sorte de maussaderie, fixement. Elle
rougit tout d’un coup et revint vers son mari qui regardait fixement devant lui (...).
Elle s’emmitoufla dans son manteau. Mais elle revoyait encore le soldat français,
long et mince (…) un mélange de sable et d’os. (TRN, 1561)
His grey eyes were examining her with a sort of glum disapproval, in a fixed
stare. She suddenly blushed and turned back to her husband, who was still looking
straight ahead (…). She snuggled down in her coat. But she could still see the
French soldier, long and thin (…) a mixture of sand and bone. (EK, 11)

This mature woman behaves like a blushing young girl, her reaction
once more ill-suited to the reality of who she is. The reason for her
blushes is soon made clear:
Pourtant, elle n’était pas si grosse, grande et pleine plutôt, charnelle, et encore dé-
sirable – elle le sentait bien sous le regard des hommes – avec son visage un peu
enfantin, ses yeux frais et clairs, contrastant avec ce grand corps qu’elle savait tiè-
de et reposant. (TRN, 1561)
Yet she wasn’t so fat – tall and well-rounded rather, plump and still desirable, as
she was well aware when under the gaze of men, with her rather child-like face,
her bright, naïve eyes contrasting with this big body she knew to be warm and in-
viting. (EK, 11-12: translation amended)

This illustration of “the gaze of men” could not be more at odds with
her own belief; not only does her husband repeatedly fail to notice her,
but nothing in the soldier’s behaviour suggests he finds her desirable.
222 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Moreover, her assertion of her own attractiveness is comical, prefaced

as it is by the consolatory statement that she is not so fat! Such con-
cerns are entirely in her head – unless the soldier’s subsequent offer of
a cachou might be taken as some form of declaration (or the only one
Janine is likely to get). On their arrival in the town, Janine is disap-
pointed when, instead of the salutation she expects, the soldier passes
her by without even looking at her (TRN, 1564).
Brian Fitch has pointed out that in this unique text where a woman
is the central character, she is also the only character whose inner ex-
perience is directly shared by the reader; she is more accessible than
any of Camus’s male protagonists.11 It is precisely because of this ac-
cessibility that Janine is rendered ridiculous. From the outside, events
on the bus have no significance, while the soldier’s later failure to ac-
knowledge her is equally insignificant. Only because we know her
thoughts do such incidents derive their importance, which reflects di-
rectly on Janine and her desires. Had the narrator indicated that she
were out of place in this environment (that indeed she takes up alto-
gether too much space) this would be an overtly negative and judge-
mental presentation. Instead, through the style indirect libre, just as
she herself draws attention to the incongruity of her own name, so she
herself is the source of statements that are neutrally related by a narra-
tive voice that has no need for judgement: “she did not know where to
put her bag, where to put herself” (TRN, 1564). Because events are
seen entirely through her eyes, the story’s realism is directed at and
against her, underlining the disparity between her desires and reality.
She had dreamed of palm trees and soft sand; the reality is a biting
wind, stone everywhere, and dust (TRN, 1562). The major contrast in
her mind is between precisely this harsh reality and her previous ex-
pectations, so that “nothing had happened as she expected” (TRN,
1561) becomes a refrain throughout the text. The dream of love and
marriage, of her own desirability, or of the desert oasis (tourist’s para-
dise), nothing resembled her expectations (TRN, 1565). What exactly
she had expected remains undefined, except through reference to her
disappointments, which centre around her marriage and a husband
whose “true passion” she believes to be money and business. Her pre-
sent hopes appear to revolve around sexual desire and a certain “free-

‘“La Femme adultère’: a Microcosm of Camus’s Solipsistic Universe”, in Albert
Camus’ “L’Exil et le royaume”: The Third Decade, Anthony Rizzuto (ed.) (Toronto:
Paratexte, 1989), 118.
Sexual Topographies 223

dom” which is the antithesis of marriage. This is encapsulated in the

romantic and phallic dream of “a sea of erect and flexible palm trees
rippling in the storm” which contrasts starkly with this “heavy”
woman and her “thick” legs (TRN, 1565). The exotic sexual adventure
symbolized by these trees in La Chute is not on offer to her. In reality,
when she actually catches sight of them the bitingly cold wind makes
her shiver, and she turns back to Marcel, whereupon a related dream is
immediately dashed by the “jackal-soldier’s” failure to notice her
(TRN, 1564). Her lot and her fantasy are ironically figured on the wall
of the dining room with its painted camels and palm trees against a
garishly pink and violet background (TRN, 1565).
Her dreams concern that young girl she can no longer be, and the
contrast could not be greater here between Janine and the speaker of
“Retour à Tipasa”, for he acknowledges the impossibility of such a
return. While she dreams of what she has ceased to be (and the text
implies that she never was in fact this young girl of her imagination,
for the reasons for her decision to marry twenty-five years before pro-
vide no contrast with the timid woman of the present), the speaker in
Tipasa “re-finds” what he already is. What he discovers is his own
legacy, bequeathed years before. Janine – as is the wont of Camusian
woman – seeks what she never was, and never can possess.
In this society devoid of women, Janine might reasonably have
imagined herself the subject of interest: on the contrary, she is simply
out of place, in the way. She is not even the object of spectacle when,
outside the hotel, with no female face in sight, she feels that she has
never seen so many men. Not one looks at her, and even those who
turn towards her seem not to see her:
Ils tournaient ce visage vers l’étrangère, ils ne la voyaient pas et puis, légers et si-
lencieux, ils passaient autour d’elle dont les chevilles gonflaient. Et son malaise,
son besoin de départ augmentaient. (TRN, 1568)
They turned that face towards the foreign woman, they didn’t see her, and then,
light and silent, they walked around her as she stood there with swelling ankles.
And her discomfort, her need to leave, increased. (EK, 21)

The realistic presentation of this woman does not extend so far as to

make her the object of a traditional and universally remarked sexual
harassment. Yet the reference to her swollen ankles juxtaposes a curi-
ous “realistic” dimension. Roger Quilliot rightly stresses the place of
the body in this work, which roots the characters in the real, protecting
them from abstraction (TRN, 2040). Yet, as with the reference to the
pork and wine she had consumed, which “lui donnaient aussi de
224 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

l’embarras” (TRN, 1566) (“also bothered her”), the realistic physical

details of this female body find no counterpart elsewhere in Camus’s
works. As Brian Fitch has remarked, her experience of her body is
distinctly atypical; unlike Meursault, Rieux or Tarrou, she is not at
ease in her own body.12 Viewed in this light, such physical details,
when combined with insight into her thoughts, clearly indicate
Janine’s role and function in this story.
Immediately before this incident, she has had an equally humiliat-
ing encounter with a tall Arab, before whose imperious stride the cou-
ple must hastily retreat. This man, who behaves as though they are
invisible and makes no attempt to avoid them, is not unlike the French
“soldat-chacal”; only his turban distinguishes him from the French
officers she had admired in the past (TRN, 1568). As a French couple
and representatives of colonialism they are both humiliated (“they
think they can do anything now”, Marcel grumbles). But she is further
annulled as a woman and her own erotic fantasies rendered ridiculous.
In the face of this obliteration of herself as a sexual being, she thinks
of flight and the security of her home. Thus, the idea of visiting the
fort is a further evasion from the reality of sexual indifference.
There, from the height of the tower and above this level of human
relationships, she can leave the reality of the face-to-face encounter
behind in favour of a further fantasy as she looks far out over this de-
serted “kingdom of stone”. The sight of an encampment some distance
away allows fantasy to fasten on a new and more suitable object in the
form of the unseen nomads whom she does not risk meeting. Precisely
because she has not seen them, she can think only of them, and their
life-style, so different from her own, acquires a heroic aura:
Elle n’avait pas même vu les hommes qui vivaient là, rien ne bougeait entre les
tentes noires et, pourtant, elle ne pouvait penser qu’à eux, dont elle avait à peine
connu l’existence jusqu’à ce jour. Sans maisons, coupés du monde, ils étaient une
poignée à errer sur le vaste territoire qu’elle découvrait du regard. (TRN, 1570)
She hadn’t even seen the men who lived there, nothing was stirring among the
black tents and yet she could only think of them, whose existence she had barely
known about until this day. Homeless, cut off from the world, they were a handful
wandering over the vast territory that her look uncovered. (EK, 23: translation

Without knowledge, Janine is free once more to romanticize. This is

her glimpse of the kingdom, which simultaneously entails the recogni-

“Camus’s Solipsistic Universe”, 119.
Sexual Topographies 225

tion that it would never again be hers except in that fleeting moment
of spectatorship. The “authenticity” of which I spoke in chapter 4 re-
turns here with her acknowledgement that she is “too fat, too white”
(TRN, 1571), unlike the golden Apollos on the Algiers beaches in
“L’Été à Alger” (E, 69). Frankly, Janine is too fat and old, too “meno-
pausal”, too female. A child, the young girl, the dry man, the furtive
jackal were the only creatures who could silently walk that earth
(TRN, 1571). But here that young girl is replaced by the fearful Euro-
pean housewife with her swollen ankles, her sexual frustrations and
her clichéd desires.
The relationship of Janine and Marcel lacks any real communica-
tion or understanding, as their conversations demonstrate. Even their
love-making has produced no children, and no role for her except as a
mother-substitute, and the silent witness of Marcel’s humiliations.
Janine takes a secret pleasure in such occasions (TRN, 1560), some-
thing for which she has many opportunities. Janine’s saving grace is
her silence. She sees, nevertheless, how he demeans himself when
trying to sell his wares, becoming like a woman (TRN, 1567), as if this
is what the reversal of power relations entails; or his humiliation in the
face of the Arab in the square. She is capable of independent judge-
ment. Amidst Marcel’s running commentary on the deficiencies of the
Arab way of life, he asks the old, perilous question and receives the
now standard response: “‘What are you thinking about?’ Janine was
thinking of nothing” (TRN, 1565). Although in this instance no insight
is given into her thoughts and the narrator withdraws into ironic
speculation, the element of threat surrounding previous occurrences of
this question is deflected here onto a man who might be deemed de-
serving of the hidden meaning in the word “nothing”. The reader has a
privileged access into the woman’s mind that is denied to her husband,
while overall control is exercised by the narrator. Throughout the
story, Janine’s thoughts have concerned her dissatisfactions with her
marriage and husband, culminating in the recognition that they had
never loved and should have separated long ago (TRN, 1572).
In this context, the narrator has asserted a control unparalleled in
previous instances of this interchange, where narratorial claims to
knowledge were unconvincing. Not only are Janine’s unvoiced
thoughts known to him above all, but their negative content is de-
flected onto a kind of man for whom Camus had always expressed
contempt; there is no possibility there of confusing character with au-
thor. Furthermore, the woman who finally thinks could not possibly be
226 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

mistaken for the mother figure or for Mélusine (who most certainly
have no such interior life). Rather, she is the kind of woman who
would marry a man like Marcel, and, as I have noted, her present in-
carnation derives from the Carnets. In this case, a persistent doubt
concerning this interior life of women is addressed in a context far
removed from its source.
Within this same “other” framework the question of heterosexual-
ity is also for the first time addressed from the point of view of a fe-
male character. Again, this is far removed from that outlined in Noces
or “Amour de vivre”; it belongs (fittingly, for a European couple) to
the night and darkness, where they made love in the dark without see-
ing one another (TRN, 1572). Pleasure plays no part in this exchange,
which reflects rather their mutual vulnerability, clinging to one an-
other in the face of a threatening post-war world, and in fear of mor-
tality. Janine needs only to be needed, while her diagnosis of male
sexuality recalls La Chute, where women do not condemn, rather they
try to disarm men. For this reason woman is man’s “port”, his “har-
bour” (TRN, 1526). La Chute (chronologically later than this story)
develops this aspect of bourgeois marriage as a form of modern de-
bauchery and death, briefly alluded to here.
But Janine herself is already indirectly associated with death, as is
symbolized by her attraction to the French soldier who resembles a
jackal. In an earlier version this pagan symbolism had been more
overt, and the “jackal” named when “Anubis smiled at her” (TRN,
2041). In Egyptian myth, Anubis was the conductor of souls into the
underworld. His Greek counterpart is Cerberus, yet the choice of this
other pagan deity here suggests a link with the other paganism of La
Chute which closely associates barbarism, female sexuality and death.
The reference to this gatekeeper of the underworld presages Janine’s
night-time experience, and influences the way in which it is read. I
have pointed out that whereas “Retour à Tipasa” is associated with the
light and the day, the events of this story take place in the evening and
the night. Janine may wonder if there is a different kind of love from
that of the darkness, one which might cry out in the light of day (TRN,
1572), but she will never know the answer. Her night-time return to
the fort does not signify her final possession of “the kingdom”, as
most critics seem to believe, but the only kind of adultery this woman
is likely to achieve – with her fantasy of the anonymous nomad. It is,
moreover, far safer than the real thing. Events are under her control,
Sexual Topographies 227

and she returns with the same precaution as when she had left (TRN,
Roger Quilliot notes that over four successive versions Camus em-
phasizes the sexual nature of this final experience (TRN, 2040). Al-
though English Showalter is surely correct when he says that little
attention has been paid to the sexual nature of this experience,13 a fo-
cus on a specifically female sexuality would entail a recognition of
difference that militates against Janine’s assimilation into previous
writings. Edouard Morot-Sir has insisted on a clearly gender-specific
representation of Janine’s experience. In his opinion, when Camus
refers to the “obscure centre” of Janine’s being, this is no metaphysi-
cal allusion, but rather a specific reference to her genitals, which be-
come “liquid” before “shattering in a primitive language of
jouissance”.14 The example of La Mort heureuse supports Morot-Sir’s
argument that the passive form of transcendence undergone here is far
removed from the active, ascetic and essentially chaste experience of
male protagonists.
An Orientalist discourse
I noted earlier that gender itself is rarely a tool of analysis in orthodox
readings of this story. When the fact that Janine is a woman is high-
lighted, this move often permits interpretations that pile one stereotype
onto another, transforming this female character into “Woman”, “the
Feminine”, “the Maternal” (inevitably), and all the familiar permuta-
tions that have dogged and stultified Camus studies for so many years.
They are not my concern. The positive exclusion of women in, for
example, Camus’s depiction of Absurd man, is usually overlooked in
favour of an implicit adoption of women as “honorary brothers”; a
habit that is invisible only because it is habitual. Conversely, one
might smile at Grenier’s claim that “we” have all been this adulterous
woman, but this is precisely because such apparent gender neutrality,
visible only when reversed, is inapplicable in either case. If this were
to be taken seriously, however, the problem lies in knowing how to
interpret what are in practice such gendered categories and concepts as
Absurd man, the Rebel, or even “the tourist”. In a discussion far re-
moved from Camus, Spivak speaks of the unpredictable consequences
if, rather than being included as honorary brothers, women as women
Exiles and Strangers, 25.
“La double transcendance du féminin et du masculin dans ‘La femme adultère’
d’Albert Camus”, Dalhousie French Studies 19 (1990) (51-60), 55.
228 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

were inserted into an argument.15 This is my concern: not to isolate

women from the framework in which they are placed, but to consider
them as women in that framework. This entails seeing what is there,
differently; and taking account of that difference. The treatment of
women in Camus’s work sheds light not on a purely emotional or per-
sonal domain, but has political and social repercussions also. Pre-
dictably, analyses that focus on the colonial dimension in Camus’s
work generally bypass the issue of gender. In such analyses, Janine
the tourist becomes indeed an honorary male, or a gender-neutral
“questing European”, because what is important about her is not her
sex but the position she is deemed to occupy in the colonial hierarchy.
Ironically, when Peter Dunwoodie speaks of the significance of the
Sahara in the Western imagination, he adapts a line from “La Femme
adultère” to illustrate the supposed feeling of predestined possession
felt by Western travellers when confronted by this “vast kingdom
which had been promised to (them)” (E, 1570).16 But a focus on her as
a woman risks the inconvenient recognition that the woman’s place as
the subject of history “is different from man’s all along the race-class
Mary Louise Pratt has drawn attention to strong similarities be-
tween this story and Gide’s L’Immoraliste, and on this basis she
places “La Femme adultère” into an Orientalist literary tradition.18
Pratt argues that it fits an Orientalist model for which the template in
European literature is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. She refers to this
model as the “Voyage South”, where a European is sent to the under-
world of Empire to be tested, and there discovers its forbidden fruits –
sexuality, crime, irrationality, a lost childhood. She further points out
the opposition between a “cerebral” North and a “sensual” South,
where an ideological map is superimposed on the geographical one.
Her examination of this genre focuses on parallels between “La
Femme adultère” and L’Immoraliste, where the initial journey has the
same symbolic connotations: “the South resists the intruder and chal-
lenges their physical and spiritual complacency”. The experience un-
dergone produces the ritual death or loss of the Self, leading to a

Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 32, 38.
Writing French Algeria, 41.
Death of a Discipline, 130.
“Mapping Ideology: Gide, Camus and Algeria”, College Literature, 8 (2) (1981),
Sexual Topographies 229

resurrection or rebirth.19 Pratt argues, however, that Camus’s more

realistic portrayal amounts to “a systematic denial” of the colonialist
paradise created by Gide. Paradoxically, Camus simultaneously pre-
serves this notion by relocating it further South – an apparent contra-
diction that she explains by the complexities of the writer’s position,
in that he is of European descent but born on Algerian soil; he wanted
a French, yet non-colonial, Algeria. Hence, the kingdom is re-located
in the land of the Bedouins, “simultaneously visible yet off limits (...)
to his questing European”. For Pratt “a rejection of European colonial-
ism and its stereotypes is conceived and expressed in terms which are
European and colonialist in origin”.20 Following her, Jack Murray ar-
gues that the subject matter itself belongs so firmly within the Orien-
talist paradigm that Camus is unable to escape it, whatever his
intentions may have been. Camus’s own allegiances and upbringing
inevitably condemn him to such Eurocentric models, with their inevi-
table ideological baggage.21 Murray locates the body as the source of
this contradiction, noting that the typical colonialist mode of descrip-
tion “appropriates the site and its distinctive qualities by an insistence
on bodily enjoyment and absorption of it”, a feature that can likewise
be found in Camus’s earlier lyrical essays.22 He argues that in Ca-
mus’s story disquiet is reflected in the representation of the body,
which is no longer the vehicle of appropriation but an impediment,
and thus the locus where the ideological limitations of such models
are chiefly expressed is the body itself. As he points out, Janine is
never able to escape her awareness of the hostility of those around her
and “settle comfortably into the tourist role”. For Murray, once the
text moves from the realism with which this confrontation is pre-
sented, to her experience on the fort, the story “stalls ideologically”.
The shift away from the colonized setting is underscored by the exci-
sion of any potential partner at all.23
It is very surprising that in their discussions of a type of literary
discourse whose central focus is sexual discovery, neither Murray nor
Pratt addresses the major shift from male to female protagonist that
has taken place. Hence, the significance of such a shift remains unex-

Ibid., 159, 166.
Ibid., 167, 169, 171.
“Colonial Bodies: Gide’s L’Immoraliste as an Intertext of Camus’s ‘La Femme
adultère’”, Modern Language Quarterly 52 (March 1991), 71-85 (79, 85).
Ibid., 75.
Ibid., 80-82.
230 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

plored – in spite of Pratt’s initial comment that the typical protagonist

is almost always male.24 Moreover, in her later book on travel writing,
gender is a necessary component of the power relations she identifies,
as is the role of sight, where the male traveller exerts a visual com-
mand over the landscape, free to look without being looked at; thus, a
relation of mastery is established between the seer and the seen in
what she calls the “monarch of all I survey scene”.25 This description
recalls Janine’s own momentary appropriation of the kingdom follow-
ing her “discovery” of the unseen nomads, who wandered “sur le vaste
territoire qu’elle découvrait du regard” (TRN, 1570) (“over the vast
territory that her gaze uncovered”). But this brief investment of power
in the one who looks is almost immediately followed here by the rec-
ognition of her own exclusion, that this illusory kingdom would never
be hers again. Crucially, the reasons for this exclusion revolve around
her sex, not her position in the colonial power structure: she is a
woman, judged by her age and attractiveness.
The “tourist role” is no empty category, blind to the gender of its
occupant. As Pratt points out in Imperial Eyes, this is a gendered prac-
tice. Here, two competing sets of power relations collide; those of co-
lonialism and those of gender. Just as the negative connotations of the
term “tourist” derive from its association with a passive (and more
inherently “female”) form of consumption, dependent on the prior oc-
cupation of the military, and distinguished from the supposedly active
self-reliance of the solitary traveller, so Janine’s occupation of the im-
perial role is (to recall Nora’s words) “parasitical” on the status of her
husband; she does not authentically occupy it in her own right.26
Whether on the levels of colonialism or of gender, the power invested
in the predominantly male gaze is inaccessible to her. Whereas the
“voyage South” is traditionally associated with the pleasures of vo-
yeurism and the exercise of power through a touristic gaze that signi-
fies possession, here, in a reversal of the usual paradigm (but in
conformity with a paradigm of gender), Janine’s desires concern being
seen and affirmed as a desirable woman. But on each level (as an in-
authentic representative of imperial power, or as a non-existent “jeune
fille”) in this masculine public space “le regard des hommes” (“the

“Mapping Ideology”, 158.
Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992),
See Alf Heggoy, “Cultural disrespect: European and Algerian views on women in
colonial and independent Algeria”, Muslim World (October 1972), 321-335.
Sexual Topographies 231

male gaze”) is denied to her as a subject. On the contrary, she is the

object of an unseeing gaze, as her experience outside the hotel demon-
strates. Even her husband fails to “see” her – looking out of the win-
dow, straight ahead, preoccupied with the luggage, he only twice
actually looks at her (TRN, 1568, 1575), each time without compre-
hension; and even their lovemaking takes place in the dark, “sans se
voir” (TRN, 1572) (“without seeing one another”). Janine certainly
sees without being seen, but the power relation traditionally identified
in the one who looks is here overturned; except for that one occasion
at the fort, her gaze is not one of entitlement or possession. Con-
versely, as a woman her desire to be seen is rejected; she is simply not
worth looking at. Certainly, this withdrawal of recognition is applied
to Marcel as well, when they encounter the tall Arab crossing the
square who neither acknowledges their presence nor attempts to avoid
them, so that they are the ones who must scurry out of the way (TRN,
1568). But Marcel suffers only a momentary humiliation. His self-
esteem depends on commercial success, individual achievement. I
suggest that the apparent paradox identified by Pratt and Murray in
“La Femme adultère” arises not out of unconscious restrictions on the
part of the author, or his inability to escape Eurocentric models, but
from the deliberate choice of protagonist to fulfill the role of “questing
European”. The insertion of a woman as a woman changes the shape
of the argument.
The moment on the fort is not, of course, the culmination of
Janine’s quest, for the following day the couple will be travelling still
further South, after the conclusion of Marcel’s business at the oasis
(TRN, 1565). There, Janine will once more be forced to confront the
reality of the Arab population. This same phrase is repeated in the
context of her fantasies, when Janine feels that something is awaiting
her further South:
Là-bas, plus au sud encore, à cet endroit où le ciel et la terre se rejoignaient dans
une ligne pure, là-bas, lui semblait-il soudain, quelque chose l’attendait qu’elle
avait ignoré jusqu’à ce jour et qui pourtant n’avait cessé de lui manquer.
(TRN, 1575)
Over yonder, still further south, at that point where sky and earth met in a pure
line – over yonder it suddenly seemed there was awaiting her something of which
she had never been aware until now, though it had always been lacking. (EK, 22)

These two references work in conjunction to point up the contrast be-

tween reality and fantasy. The disappointments of her journey thus far
232 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

threaten to repeat themselves the further South she goes, where again
her fantasy will clash with reality.
Murray is only partly right when he distinguishes the same pattern
in the earlier lyrical essays, which reproduces the cerebral North / sen-
sual South division, and where the response to the North African set-
ting privileges the body over the mind,27 for he overlooks the
emphasis there on the mind and lucidity. Furthermore, as I have re-
marked, the indigenous population there is entirely abstracted in fa-
vour of an implied sexual partner who is French Algerian (neither
European nor Algerian). The ideological / geographical map of which
Pratt speaks acquires a far higher degree of complexity in the case of
this Algerian-born writer.
Murray, Brian Fitch, and John Erickson all stress the significance
of the lack of sexual partner in Janine’s act of adultery. For Fitch this
is more evidence of the general solipsism in Camus’s works, while for
Murray this ideological model is so well-established that the place
itself becomes the sexual partner rather than one of the inhabitants.28
On the contrary, what should be stressed in both cases is that here for
the first time the inhabitants are actually associated with this commun-
ion. Janine’s vague romantic yearnings centre around the nonetheless
concrete figure of the nomad, and it is precisely his absence that ren-
ders her final, orgasmic experience an ironic one – an irony underlined
by the bathos of her return and the final judgement that “it’s nothing”
(TRN, 1575). Here, the fantasies of woman are more firmly tied to
carnal sexuality than those of the youthful speaker in the lyrical es-
says, where sexual union is of a mystical nature and with an unpeo-
pled landscape. Their futility is underlined by the fact that a concrete
sexual partner is simultaneously signalled and denied to her.
The nomads remain romantic figures, untouched by the realism of
“La Femme adultère”. While this housewife’s identification with them
is comical, the “kingdom” over which they reign is preserved in the
story by its location outside the town, on the shifting horizon (always
further South, beyond her reach). Camus’s own encounter, on the
other hand, seems to have been empowering – not only, as I noted ear-
lier, in Laghouat, but also when he records his feelings about Boghari-
Djelfa, the route to Laghouat, with its extreme and “royal” poverty:

“Colonial Bodies”, 84.
“Colonial Bodies”, 83.
Sexual Topographies 233

Les tentes noires des nomades. Sur la terre sèche et dure – et moi – qui ne possède
rien et ne pourrai jamais rien posséder, semblable à eux. (C3, 52)
The black tents of the nomads. On the dry and hard earth – and I – who possess
nothing and could never possess anything, am like them.

A man such as Camus could not covet Barbès furniture. I suggest that
the realism in this story is less a “systematic denial” of the colonialist
paradise than a systematic denial of the middle-aged housewife’s right
to entry. The thematic elements at work in the text that disturb the
body’s appropriation of the locale relate to the fact that this particular
body is “menopausal”, with swelling ankles – a female body, too fat
and too old. The relocation of this kingdom further South is in fact its
preservation from those such as her and its retention as a purer, wo-
manless space.
Although “La Femme adultère” is the first text to confront the fact
of the colonized population, this “other” South continues to be pro-
tected from that reality. It is not the speaker of Noces or the writer of
the above entry in the Carnets whose illusions are challenged, but
those of the fat white woman whom nobody loves,29 and the unsympa-
thetic businessman, imported from the Carnets or the shadowy mar-
gins of La Peste. They are the ones who act out the alienation of the
settler from the place of his birth. Via this intermediary Camus returns
to “La Maison mauresque”.
“La Maison mauresque”
Camus frequently stressed repetition and return in his work, which he
saw as following a spiralling course, constantly returning along “old
pathways” in order to advance (E, 1614-15). “La Femme adultère” is
not an extension of “Retour à Tipasa”, nor of the lyrical essays of Ca-
mus’s youth. It returns to a different source, and over a similar tempo-
ral distance of twenty years. The Casbah of “La Maison mauresque” is
relocated far beyond the cosmopolitan town of Algiers – as if Camus
were afraid of finally confronting the unseen Arabs of that essay.30
But the substitution of a female character for the youthful male tourist
in that earlier work provides a further protection from that possibility,
for the underlying hostility intimated there is here deflected onto her.

I am, of course, here citing the poem by Frances Cornford, “To a Fat Lady Seen
from the Train”.
I have here adapted Sarocchi’s remarks about L’Étranger in Le Dernier Camus ou
le premier homme, 151.
234 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

The hostility and resistance felt there remain material for a “voyage
into the Self” which is equally solipsistic and ultimately concerned not
with others but with the Self – except that Camus is himself removed
from this drama. As in “La Maison mauresque”, this “journey” is as-
sociated with the desire for discovery of the alien and unknown Arab
world, yet culminates in an invocation of what lies beyond this town
in the landscape of Algeria itself. If, as Camus claimed, his work takes
the form of a spiral, then the wish for evasion, so central to those
youthful writings and voiced again here, has provoked a detour of
twenty years before returning to this source, for Arabs are marginal to
Camus’s fictional works, either eliminated or confined to unsavoury
roles.31 Although “La Maison mauresque” may be seen as a precursor
of “La Femme adultère”, the significance of this “story of exile”32 lies
in the major differences between these two works.
Whereas in the earlier work the Arab inhabitants entered the writ-
ing metonymically, here the town is peopled and the central character
is forced to confront their presence and her own lack of impact upon
this society. Janine is no adventurer, no conqueror. Yet she is anxious
to decipher the desert and its peoples:
Tout autour, un troupeau de dromadaires immobiles, minuscules à cette distance,
formaient sur le sol gris les signes sombres d’une étrange écriture dont il fallait
déchiffrer le sens. (TRN, 1569)
All around them a group of motionless dromedaries, tiny at that distance, formed
against the grey ground the black signs of a strange handwriting, the meaning of
which had to be deciphered. (EK, 22)

But her clear inability to do so only underlines her alien status. Brian
Fitch has regarded the above reference as a metaphor for the act of
literary creation, and details numerous examples of this trope.33 But its
first occurrence is in “Mélusine” and “La Maison mauresque”, where
it seems to represent the illegibility of woman and of Arab civilization
respectively. In “La Maison mauresque” the meaning of a “natural”
mystic writing is apparently known to the speaker, where “in a great,
disorderly handwriting the bats were beginning to trace their mechani-
cal despair on the sky” (PC, 214). Such ease of interpretation does not
I am here paraphrasing the words of Sarocchi, Le Dernier Camus ou le premier
homme, 149-50.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that, according to Camus at least, the sole theme of
all the stories in this collection is exile (TRN, 2039).
“Camus’ Desert Hieroglyphics”, Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Sym-
posium, 8 (1976), 117-31.
Sexual Topographies 235

extend to the “alien” civilization whose Arabic tombstone inscriptions

are reassuring precisely because they are incomprehensible to the
young tourist (PC, 212). Janine alone is faced with the possibility that
the inscription of this other people and culture contains a possibly in-
telligible meaning. The text of “La Femme adultère” clearly indicates
that she does not belong; if she could do so, is this what she would
read? More threateningly, was this the same hidden message of the
tombstones and the Arab town, long before? With the onset of war,
moreover, this message is no longer unintelligible. In L’Exil et le Roy-
aume the writer attempts to decipher the indigenous culture of his na-
tive land. Yet the possible danger of such an undertaking is diverted
here onto the female body of the “adulterous” woman.
Although the Arabs of “La Femme adultère” remain part of an
anonymous group, nevertheless they are depicted as belonging within
their own social structure, going about their own business and masters
of their own social milieu and natural environment. Some access is
given into their public life, but it should be cause for no surprise,
given the situation and point of view, that we learn nothing more. Ar-
abs are here for the first time at the centre of their own social universe,
rather than peripheral to that of the European, and their dignity con-
trasts markedly with those of the town (TRN, 1566). In this situation,
upon this territory, the Europeans acquire inferior status, becoming the
supplicants – itinerant traders who must please their prospective cus-
tomers. Marcel becomes like a wheedling woman, while previous
rules of behaviour are overturned in the near-collision with the Arab
on the empty square: “they all had that air of pride, but this one was
really exaggerating” (TRN, 1568). Thus the hostilities repressed in the
town (where Arabs are outnumbered) here find expression.
This oasis is the last outpost of empire and its inhabitants remain
colonized, as the presence of the soldier indicates. The dividing lines
are blurred, however, in two respects, for it is the point of intersection
between the Arabs of the town and the nomads beyond; between free-
dom and colonization. In this border region men become indistin-
guishable as geography once more creates a people. Like the native
inhabitants, the French soldier (the “soldat-chacal”) is:
long et mince, si mince, avec sa vareuse ajustée, qu’il paraissait bâti dans une ma-
tière sèche et friable, un mélange de sable et d’os. C’est à ce moment que (Janine)
vit les mains maigres et le visage brûlé des Arabes. (TRN, 1561)
236 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

tall and thin, so thin in his fitted tunic that he seemed constructed of a dry, friable
material, a mixture of sand and bone. Then it was that she saw the thin hands and
burned faces of the Arabs. (EK, 11)

Similarly, the Arab crossing the square is barely distinguishable from

the type of French soldier Janine had often admired. On this frontier
where racial and social distinctions merge an organic form of assimi-
lation is taking place. All who live on this “ideological map” combine
to underline the extent to which the European couple are out of place.
Yet, despite the unsympathetic portrait of Marcel he, too, has shown
signs of adaptation. He is engaged in a form of interaction with the
local community, and feels some identification with their lot. His in-
sensitivity to his environment is often remarked on, and indeed he is
both insensitive and racist. Yet if he fails to be touched by the exoti-
cism of the Arab shop that is because to him it is as commonplace as it
is for its Arab occupants themselves. Despite the negative portrait of
Marcel, he is no tourist and his presence demonstrates the interde-
pendence between colonizer and colonized who must each enter into
the Other’s world and make it, to some extent, their own; hence his
grudging identification with them, as when he admits that life is hard
for everyone (TRN, 1567). Much more than Marcel, Janine is the one
who is out of place in this world of male activity.
As with the colonial process itself, such a form of assimilation is
“an affair between men” which obviates the need for physical con-
gress, biological union. Men assimilate with one another by virtue of
shared lives, hardships, activities. The covert sexual desire touched
upon in “La Maison mauresque” is confronted again in “La Femme
adultère”, but with a reversal of the personae. There are no Arab
women, while the European woman is the one attracted to the men of
this desert landscape, who fail to notice her, neither inviting nor recip-
rocating her attention. Her adultery is entirely in her head, yet its sym-
bolic significance extends beyond a purely solitary and metaphysical
Martha Lynch equates the institution of marriage with colonialism,
in the light of the Algerian war of independence. She suggests that the
question raised in this story concerns the possible future of Algeria:
thus, just as Janine realizes that she must divorce, so the colony must
break all ties with France. For Lynch, Janine symbolizes the nation,
and hence her development parallels the possibilities open to Algeria
Sexual Topographies 237

itself.34 Although this interesting argument is only sustainable in isola-

tion from the rest of Camus’s works, nevertheless her reference to the
traditional symbolism of woman to represent the nation is pertinent to
my analysis.
Pierre Nora’s earlier comments are not, as they might appear, a
simple dismissal of the role of women in colonialism, for this particu-
lar stereotype is likewise inherently unstable (as the statistics concern-
ing mixed marriages importantly demonstrate).35 For both
communities woman is charged with responsibility not only for the
reproduction of the race but for the maintenance and transmission of
its cultural specificity. Nora more charitably describes the Muslim
woman as the best “sentry” of the Muslim world36 but in both cases
the implications are the same. Leaving aside its truth value, Nora’s
vehement assertion that it is the European woman who forbids contact
between the two societies suggests that it has the weight of ideology.
The possibility that the European woman, on her own account, may
desire a sexual contact remains beyond articulation.
Yet this is the possibility raised in “La Femme adultère”, as has of-
ten been noted. For Erickson “the act of adultery is no more nor less
than her congress in her thoughts with the exterior world of the Arabs
and her own assimilation to that world”.37 For Murray “betrayal of the
spouse is made to appear at the same time as an institutional defection
in which the whole (colonialist) culture the renegade represents is cast
aside”.38 Marthe LaVallee-Williams suggests that “Camus might have
blanched a bit at this social and cultural miscegenation” – but the
“fleeting union” she perceives is precisely what does not take place.39
The prospect of such “adultery” may be raised, but it is simultane-
ously ridiculed and dismissed, rendered beyond the bounds of the pos-
sible. Perhaps for the same reasons Janine is introduced as a childless
woman, sterile; questions of racial purity do not apply. Hence Camus

“L’Image du colon dans ‘La Femme adultère’”, A C 14 (1991), 151, 139.
Although few in number, many more European women entered into mixed mar-
riages than men (see chapter 2). Statistics certainly do not support the view that Euro-
pean women were more racist; they might, however, underline a source of insecurity
with regard to the stereotype of woman as guardian of the race and culture.
Les Français d’Algérie, 175.
“A Discourse of Exteriority”, 82.
“Colonial Bodies”, 83.
“Arabs in ‘La Femme adultère’: from Faceless Other to Agent”, 10.
238 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

once more returns “par d’anciens chemins” to another old source of

A Reflection on Laghouat
I have noted the different connotations of the terms “tourist” and
“traveller”. Whereas the tourist is regarded as engaging in a form of
passive consumption, moving from one safe place to another and en-
joying the spectacle of ready-made and suitably adapted entertainment
(such as the fantasia, originally a type of war dance), the traveller is of
a different species entirely. Usually male, and usually solitary, this
figure seems to stand behind Camus’s own visit to the oasis towns,
which may explain his insistence on the difference between himself
and the European couple in his early preface to the story. Although
coincidentally, Camus was following in the footsteps of Eugène
Fromentin, one of the earliest travellers to explore this still perilous
region during the 1840s.40 Fromentin returned to Laghouat in June,
1853 – six months after the bloody siege that ended in the town’s fall
to the French. There, he finds a charnel house still polluted by the
“fetid odour” of hastily buried, decomposing bodies, and is warned to
beware of walking over bones.41 During his stay in the half-deserted
town, Fromentin is told about the recent carnage, and imagines walk-
ing through blood with hundreds of bodies blocking the pathways.42
On leaving Laghouat a few weeks later, he comes across the bodies of
three women, dragged from their make-shift graves by dogs, and a
hand hanging by a shred from one of the corpses. He takes the hand
and hangs it on his saddle as a memento of the “sad ossuary of El-
Those familiar with Camus’s near-contemporary, the Algerian
writer, Assia Djebar, will know that historical accounts occasionally
fall into other hands, and other ways of seeing. Djebar retrieves the
bones of her female predecessors, while noting the passage of Eugène
(A)u sortir de l’oasis que le massacre, six mois après, empuantit, Fromentin ra-
masse, dans la poussière, une main coupée d’Algérienne anonyme. Il la jette en-
suite sur son chemin.

He refers to Fromentin’s impressions of the region in 1953 (C3, 93).
“Un été dans le Sahara”, in Oeuvres complètes, Guy Sagnes (ed.) (Paris: Gallimard,
1984), 77, 78.
Ibid., 134-35.
Ibid., 181.
Sexual Topographies 239

Plus tard, je me saisis de cette main vivante, main de la mutilation et du souvenir

et je tente de lui faire porter le qalam.44
(A)s he is leaving the oasis which six months after the massacre is still filled with
its stench, Fromentin picks up out of the dust the severed hand of an anonymous
Algerian woman. He throws it down again in his path.
Later, I seize on this living hand, hand of mutilation and of memory, and I attempt
to bring it the qalam.45

The centenary of this siege was also marked by unrest in the area, and
because of this Camus had been forced to delay his visit to the South
by several days. A century later, such reminders of Laghouat’s bloody
history remain external to the text. If, in “La Femme adultère”, Camus
presents a certain variety of the homogeneous woman, it seems to me
that he also repeats the final gesture of Fromentin and reburies the
presence of women in colonialism.
Fetishism and the Footnoted Female
The scene of fetishism is also the scene of the reactivation and repetition of the
primal fantasy – the subject’s desire for a pure origin that is always threatened by
its division, for the subject must be gendered to be engendered, to be spoken. The
stereotype, then, as the primary point of subjectification in colonial discourse, for
both colonizer and colonized, is the scene of a similar fantasy and defence – the
desire for an originality which is again threatened by the differences of race, col-
our and culture.46

If Janine is out of place and in the way in the colonial setting, the
presence of women on the colonial scene presents similar obstacles for
theorizations of colonial intersubjectivity. Homi Bhabha’s insight into
the ambivalence of colonial relations, and the consequent instability of
the colonial stereotype have been of crucial significance. Yet, as nu-
merous commentators have pointed out (Bhabha the first amongst
them) his exclusive focus is on the relations between men; as he ac-
knowledges in a footnote, “the body in this text is male”.47 From an
initially keen awareness that the issue of sexual difference might have
(profound) implications for his own analysis, Bhabha eventually dis-

L’Amour, la fantasia (Paris: Albin Michel, 1987), 255. A qalam is a writing instru-
Fantasia: an Algerian Cavalcade, Dorothy S. Blair (tr.) (London: Quartet, 1985),
Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question”, 27.
Ibid., 18. I owe the expression “footnoted female” to Anne McClintock, Imperial
Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London: Routledge,
1995), 183.
240 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

avows the difference as this hitherto perennial footnote finally exits

from his essay, “The Other Question”.48
This problem is of particular relevance precisely because Bhabha’s
analysis of colonial discourse arises directly out of the Freudian ac-
count of sexual fetishism according to which the male child, at the
supposedly traumatic sight of the mother’s apparently castrated geni-
tals, may adopt a fetish object to substitute for the mother’s missing
penis in order to ward off the fear that he himself might be similarly
castrated. Bhabha argues that the colonial stereotype is analogous to
this Freudian fetish:
Fetishism is always a “play” or vacillation between the archaic affirmation of
wholeness / similarity – in Freud’s terms: “All men have penises”; in ours “All
men have the same skin / race / culture” – and the anxiety associated with lack
and difference – again, for Freud “Some do not have penises”; for us “Some do
not have the same skin / race / culture”.49

Whereas the recognition of sexual difference is indispensable to

Freud’s account, in the above quotation the issue of gender is isolated
and erased, as if the colonial subject were not primarily a gendered
subject. Yet sexual difference is not the ingredient in a different rec-
ipe; it is omnipresent in this scenario also. This problematical pres-
ence is foregrounded when one considers that other “median”
category likewise banished from Bhabha’s account – the settler,
whose allegiances are torn, identifying at times with the colonized
population against the metropolitan colonial power and at other times
with that power against the colonized. I have noted the degree to
which sexual difference (through the emphasis on virility and “being a
man”) governs such encounters. Relations of power are articulated
through perceptions of sexual difference in Camus’s work – as when
Marcel, in his dealings with the shopkeepers, is perceived as being
like a woman precisely because he is in a subordinate role. Again, al-
though such encounters are rare, the feminization of Arab characters
has frequently been noted (as in L’Étranger or “L’Hôte”), and al-
though such instances are often interpreted as evidence of homosexual
undercurrents, these factors should not be isolated from race and the
gendering in nineteenth century racial theory which led to the stereo-

See Bart Moore-Gilbert, Post-Colonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (Lon-
don: Verso, 1997), 140-151.
“The Other Question”, 27.
Sexual Topographies 241

typing of non-white races as female. Sexual and racial differences be-

come interchangeable, the one frequently substituting for the other.
In Camus’s work the fetish of virility might unite the men of all
races in Algeria, setting them in opposition to the men of metropolitan
France; yet confrontation with differences of skin / race / culture in the
face-to-face encounter arouses further anxieties which are expressed
in terms of sexual difference: “some men do not have the same skin /
race / culture; they are (or, more worryingly, we are) therefore like
women”. Insecurity arises from the uncertainty as to who exactly oc-
cupies this female role. In such instances the scenario is entirely be-
tween men, but a further complication arises with the presence of
women – not those of the domesticated white variety, but the template
of the species, the one who, in that trajectory further South, becomes
increasingly who she really, originally is. The imaginary woman of
Africa is not characterized by “lack”. This is the voracious matriarch
of cannibalism, and if she threatens to castrate it is not because of
what she lacks, but because of what she has.
In “Le Renégat” race and gender combine, as do the original mean-
ing of the term “fetish” and its Freudian reinterpretation. Numerous
commentators have traced the etymology of this term, which was first
applied to primitive cultures by Charles de Brosses in 1760, who dis-
tinguished between the idol as the representation of the god, and the
fetish as its actual embodiment.50 Christopher Miller points out that
the notion of idolatry was central to the Western understanding of Af-
rica, which was associated with immanence and the flesh as opposed
to the mind and transcendence: “Sexual abandon and idolatry are both
functions of a perceived failure to transcend and dominate the lower
regions”.51 In 1905 Freud, for whom the sexual fetish was analogous
to “the fetishes in which savages believe that their gods are embod-
ied”, reinterpreted the fetish as “a substitute for the woman’s (the

Du Culte des Dieux Fétiches, ou Parallèle de l’ancien Religion de l’Egypte avec la
Religion actuelle de Nigrité (1760).
Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago: Chicago University
Press, 1985), 43. See also William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I”, Res 9
(Spring, 1985), 5-17; Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexual-
ity in the Colonial Contest (Routledge: London, 1995), chapter 4.
242 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

mother’s) penis”.52 Indeed, not until the late nineteenth century were
the fetish and phallus equated.53
The Terror of the Absolute
The question of sexual difference is central to “Le Renégat, ou un es-
prit confus”. Virility is alien to the protagonist of this story; on the
contrary, his characteristics are those of the “womanish” slave. His
confrontation with the barbarous South reveals and confirms this con-
dition. The story concerns a French Catholic missionary who journeys
to the desert city of Taghâsa, renowned for its barbaric cruelty, in or-
der to convert the idolatrous savages to the one, true religion. Instead,
he is himself converted and enslaved, his life henceforth dedicated to
the service of the fetish, their god.
Despite its complexity, this story is clearly a continuation of Ca-
mus’s attack on the worship of ideologies and totalitarianism: as Vic-
tor Brombert pointed out in 1960, “Le Renégat” is a parable of the
modern Western intellectual, heir to a humanist tradition, who betrays
his culture in a gesture which simultaneously reveals “the poison of
ideological absolutes” and “the deep-rooted suicidal impulses of the
intelligentsia”, in a masochistic submission to totalitarian systems
which negate their own values.54 This point is well taken, as well as
his comment that the terror of the absolute is one of Camus’s perma-
nent themes. Whereas, at the time Brombert was writing, this was
more readily applicable to the Cold War and Communist ideologies,
more recently Camus’s arguments in L’Homme révolté have been ap-
plied to the rise of Islamism, and a new totalitarian ideology, by po-
litical commentators such as Paul Berman.55 Following Berman, the
journalist Nick Cohen has argued that the traditional Left has aban-
doned its old anti-fascist principles, and is now in thrall to a “death
cult” that it fails to recognise as such precisely because it does not fit
the traditional parameters of anti-imperialist struggle.56

Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works (Harmondsworth: Pen-
guin, 1991), 66, 352.
“The Problem of the Fetish, I”, 6.
“‘Le Renégat’ or the Terror of the Absolute” in Albert Camus, edited by Harold
Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), 11. This article was first published in
Terror and Liberalism (London: Norton, 2004).
What’s Left? How Liberals Lost their Way (London: Harper Collins, 2007).
Sexual Topographies 243

Reading “Le Renégat” in the twenty-first century, then, one notes

different, more contemporary resonances. Despite the accuracy of
Brombert’s diagnosis, the question remains as to why Camus gave his
parable this particular form and non-European location. In a variant of
his avant-propos to Actuelles III Camus wrote that:
Le mot de liberté commence à reprendre du sens dans le monde mais le mot de
justice y est toujours aussi prostitué puisqu’on le trouve aussi bien dans la bouche
du pauvre fellah de mon pays que dans celle du marchand d’esclaves du Yemen.
(E, 1852)
The word freedom is beginning to get back its meaning in the world but the word
justice is still as prostituted there, since it can be found in the mouth of the poor
fellah of my country as well as in that of the slave dealer of the Yemen.

Such mystifications, he continues, explain why many intellectuals

have concluded that these values are meaningless, and that words con-
tain only the meaning imposed on them by force. Russia is Camus’s
main target in the passage published in his avant-propos (E, 898),
which may explain why this reference to slavery was not included.
But the issue resurfaces in Camus’s fictional story:
Ce sont eux les seigneurs! Ils règnent sur leurs maisons stériles, sur leurs esclaves
noirs qu’ils font mourir à la mine, et chaque plaque de sel découpée vaut un
homme dans les pays du Sud. (TRN, 1583-84)
They are the lords and masters! They rule over their sterile homes, over their
black slaves that they work to death in the mines and each slab of salt cut out is
worth a man in the regions of the South. (EK, 36)

Legal under Islamic law, the slave trade in the Yemen (and in Saudi
Arabia) was not abolished until 1962, two years after Camus’s death.57
The Muslim slave trade from Africa was of similar proportions to the
Atlantic slave trade, and expanded after the abolition of the latter.58
“Strangely neglected” today,59 slavery was a major cause of conflict
between Europe and the Regencies of North Africa in the centuries
preceding the conquest of Algeria, whose wealth derived almost en-
tirely from this trade. Because (unlike the Atlantic slave trade) records
were rarely kept, it is difficult to arrive at firm figures for the numbers
of Europeans kidnapped and enslaved, either on the high seas or from

According to organisations like Human Rights Watch, although now illegal, slavery
still continues in the Yemen, along racial lines.
Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediter-
ranean, The Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (London: Macmillan, 2004), xxiv.
244 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

the coastal regions of Europe – from Iceland to Ireland and the newly
independent United States, but particularly from the coasts of Spain
and Italy. Recent work on this subject has estimated that between 1-
1½ million Europeans were abducted into slavery between the six-
teenth and nineteenth centuries.60 Only fourteen years before the
French fleet sailed into Algiers, the biggest naval bombardment in
history until that point, under Lord Exmouth, had forced the Dey to
release 1000 slaves from inside the city itself.61 As Davis points out,
for those Europeans living during this period, slavery was equated not
with skin colour but with a very real personal threat. In this light, the
conquest of Algiers was widely greeted in Europe as a restoration of
freedom, lifting the threat of slavery.
The significance of the previous quotation is reinforced by a fur-
ther point that appears to have escaped the attention of commentators.
Although Brombert notes orgiastic rituals culminating in scenes of
mutilation, a brutality of “hysterical proportions”, the presence of “sa-
distic women” who assist in torture and rape of others, the privileging
of this story as a “drama of the mind”62 diverts attention from the con-
crete details through which it is constructed. Certainly, as a mono-
logue that takes place entirely in the mind of the garrulous yet silenced
slave, the uncertainty as to whether or not this is in reality the “long,
long dream” of a fevered imagination (TRN, 1593), along with the
title’s emphasis on his confusion, encourage a reading in terms of the
individual psyche – especially as the priest’s itinerary moves, appar-
ently, from the real to the fantastic; from the familiar and concrete
geographical locations of the seminary at Grenoble and the city of Al-
giers to a city built of salt that seems entirely the product of night-
mare. But however apparently fantastic, Taghâsa, was not a product of
the imagination. This ancient town, built indeed entirely from slabs of
salt, was located on the Central Saharan trade route. Recorded as early
as the eighth century, Taghâsa was for centuries the chief source of
salt for areas like the Sudan; from there it was transported 500 miles

See also Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850 (Lon-
don: Random House, 2003); Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East
(Oxford University Press, 1994); “The Crows of the Arabs”, Critical Inquiry 12 (1)
(Autumn 1985), 88-97.
See Oded Löwenheim, “‘Do Ourselves Credit and Render a Lasting Service to
Mankind’: British Moral Prestige, Humanitarian Intervention, and the Barbary Pi-
rates’, International Studies Quarterly 47 (1) (2003), 23–48.
“The Terror of the Absolute”, 12, 9, 11.
Sexual Topographies 245

to Timbuktoo and exchanged for gold and slaves. Destroyed in 1591,

the salt mines were owned by the Berber Masufa tribe, who used Afri-
can slaves to work them.63 The town’s location on a dry river bed ex-
plains the references to its lying in a basin (“cuvette”). Thus, the
whole of time in this story becomes literally one “long, ageless day”
(TRN, 1588); set in a chronologically indeterminate present that simul-
taneously incorporates a biographical past, the French colonial con-
quest and a much earlier era of Islamic imperialism, slavery and
oppression – as if all of history is distilled into the present of the
monologue. In this way, “Le Renegat” anticipates Camus’s presenta-
tion of History in Le Premier Homme as an ever-renewed cycle of
conquest, oppression and enslavement that stretches back to the first
murder. With strongly Spenglerian overtones, this cyclical history also
hints at a possible future.
During the post-war period the terror of the absolute lay primarily
in the Cold War divide. However, Camus was also of French Algerian
upbringing, and he located the seeds of a future world war in what he
saw as Arab imperialism, or an Islamic empire. If, in his avant-
propos, the subject of continuing bodily slavery seems somehow out
of place in a discussion of ideological enslavement, these two poles
are united in his most obscure fictional work, where ideological en-
slavement is expressed in that most potent and concrete metaphor of
this trade in flesh. What Hannah Arendt identified as the “speechless-
ness” of totalitarian violence is literally scored upon the flesh when
the priest’s tongue is cut out.64 This enables a further condensation of
religion and gender: between the slave religion, Christianity, and the
Nietzschean belief in the essentially “womanish” nature of the slave.
“Le Renégat”: a drama of the flesh
Although of little significance in Algeria itself, the Christian mission-
ary who risks his life in order to convert the natives is a perennial fig-
ure of colonialism, bringing to mind the first bishop to arrive in Bahia
who was eaten by the locals (JV, 117). Recalling as they do the rituals
of Brazil, the details of this short story rehearse some of the archetypal
scenes of colonialism, while harking back to the beginnings of Euro-

Mentioned by Ibn Battuta in 1352, there is a wealth of information about Taghâsa
and its salt mines. See, for example, Ian Blanchard, Mining, Metallurgy and Minting
in the Middle Ages, vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001).
“Where violence reigns absolutely (…) everything and everybody must fall silent”,
On Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), 18.
246 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

pean imperial conquest. Thus temporal uncertainty is created, and re-

inforced by the depiction of those stereotypes of “pre-civilization”; the
sexual orgy, barbaric cruelty, idolatry and above all fetishism. This
“drama of the mind” is communicated through a drama of the flesh
that flirts with one of the founding nightmares associated with the
civilizing mission – cannibalism, and an alternative version of the
Freudian “primal scene”.
Here, in the flesh, is that other colonial scene to which Camus per-
sistently returns in his fictional writings after 1950 – the nightmare of
the lustful savage (cannibalism and matriarchy), that irremediable
Other who challenges the fiction of racial purity, cultural priority. In
this nightmare their uncivilizing mission will prevail:
Ils vaincront la parole et l’amour, ils remonteront les déserts, passeront les mers,
rempliront la lumière d’Europe de leurs voiles noirs (…), et des foules muettes
aux pieds entravés chemineront à mes côtés dans le désert du monde sous le soleil
cruel de la vraie foi, je ne serai plus seul. (TRN, 1592)
They will conquer the word and love, they’ll spread over the deserts, cross the
seas, fill the light of Europe with their black veils (…), and dumb crowds with
shackled feet will plod beside me in the world-wide desert under the cruel sun of
the true faith, I will not be alone. (EK, 47)

The apocalypse predicted here is not of European origin: rather, it re-

traces the underlying nightmares of La Chute and foreshadows an-
other in the Appendix of Le Premier Homme, which seems to echo
Oswald Spengler’s predictions about the inevitable decline of the
Demain, six cent millions de Jaunes, des milliards de Jaunes, de Noirs, de basa-
nés, déferleraient sur le cap de l’Europe… et au mieux (la convertirait). Alors tout
ce qu’on avait appris, à lui et à ceux qui lui ressemblaient, tout ce qu’il avait ap-
pris aussi, de ce jour les hommes de sa race, toutes les valeurs pour quoi il avait
vécu, mourraient d’inutilité. (PH, 310)
Tomorrow, six hundred million yellow people, billions of yellow, black, and dark-
skinned people will pour on to the shores of Europe… and at best would (convert
her). Then everything that had been taught, to him and to those like him, also eve-
rything he had learned, on that day the men of his race, all the values he lived for,
would die of uselessness. (FM, 248-49)

The renegade’s monologue expresses the nightmare of Islam for the

European brought up in a rationalist and humanist, secular tradition,65
while the idolatrous nature of the religion depicted here resituates this
Jean Sarocchi, “L’Autre et les autres”, in Anthony Rizzuto (ed.), Albert Camus’
“L’Exil et le Royaume”: the third decade, 98.
Sexual Topographies 247

society still further South, at the beginning of history, in the “eternal

childhood” of the savage. Thus, once in Taghâsa the missionary finds
that time and the notion of progress itself seem to stand still, becom-
ing a “long, ageless day” (TRN, 1588) that only begins again with his
escape. Andrade’s “cannibalism as world vision” in response to the
failure of rationality and science is here returned to its origin in that
“other Algeria” of Africa itself.
This nightmare location is reinforced by the fact that the Taghâsan
religion involves fetish worship, seen as the point zero of primitive
religions. Fetishism (the belief that the worshipped object has inher-
ently magical powers) and idolatry (the worship of a representation of
the god) are associated with the body, animal instincts and passions,
as opposed to the mind and intellectual contemplation. Not only is
fetishism the Other of religion, but the fetish is “produced by a people
stuck at the beginning of time, in a ‘perpetual childhood’, that is, a
pure anteriority. The fetish represents the total otherness of a world
where everything has become God”.66
The equation between fetishism and childhood repeats the ideo-
logical map of which Pratt speaks with respect to “La Femme
adultère”. Furthermore, it reflects the distinction incorporated in a
Freudian analysis where the primitive equates with childhood and
femininity and non-Western societies become a pre-history of the
West. Thus, “Le Renégat” has been read as a refusal of adult, genital
sexuality.67 Gassin and Costes each regard the scene with the sorceror
as a re-enactment of the primal scene; Costes even suggests that the
priest’s castration follows immediately at the sight of the female geni-
tal organs without his having had the time to identify himself with the
sorceror. This abruptness is such that, for Costes, the homosexual
fixation of the missionary is confirmed.68
Clearly, for the missionary the actual fetish and his own God are
symbols of phallic power, as is blatantly revealed in the claim that his
Seigneur is bigger than the savages’ fetish:
La mission, ils n’avaient que ce mot à la bouche, aller aux sauvages et leur dire:
“Voici mon Seigneur, regardez-le, (…) c’est le plus grand des seigneurs, choisis-

Blank Darkness, 179, 43, 133.
See, for example, Albert Camus et la parole manquante; Laurence Joiner, “Camus’s
‘The Renegade’: A Quest for Sexual Identity” in Research Studies, 45 (3) (September
1977), 171-76; L’Univers symbolique, 162-63.
Albert Camus et la parole manquante, 197.
248 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

sez-le, voyez comme il m’a rendu meilleur, offensez-moi et vous en aurez la

preuve”. Oui, j’ai cru râ râ et je me sentais meilleur, j’avais grossi. (TRN, 1580)
Missionary work, that’s all they could say, go out to the savages and tell them:
“Here is my Lord, just look at him, (…) he’s the greatest of masters, choose him,
just see how much better he’s made me, offend me and you will see”. Yes, I be-
lieved, râ râ, and I felt better, I got fatter. (EK, 31)

In itself, such fetishism indicates already his female condition. In

chapter 4 I commented on the great discretion with which Camus il-
lustrates scenes of sexuality and suggested that such restraint only
breaks down when sexuality combines with the exotic, as briefly in
L’Étranger. “Le Renégat” provides a second example. I spoke in
chapter 6 of the trope of cannibalism in connection with the theme of
assimilation, and the related fear that in an Algerian setting biological
assimilation would lead to the swallowing up of the vastly outnum-
bered settler community.69 As Bartfeld has elsewhere remarked, the
writings subsequent to Camus’s voyage to South America are pro-
foundly marked by his experience there.70 I have identified the crucial
factor as the confrontation with a “miscegenated” world, and the allied
image of cannibalism – not as a sadistic impulse to devour, nor as a
passive return to the safety of the womb, but as an explicit threat to
the Self through being devoured.71 The terms “cannibalism and matri-
archy” enter Camus’s writings together in the context of that voyage,
binding together the poles of race and gender.
Fear and desire co-exist in the missionary’s sexual obsessions and
unmastered passions. Already in Europe he wanted to be offended and
martyred by the young girls he passed:
Je pensais alors “qu’elles me frappent et me crachent au visage” mais leurs rires,
vraiment, c’était tout comme, hérissé de dents et de pointes qui me déchiraient,
l’offense et la souffrance étaient douces! (TRN, 1580)
At such times I would think: “Let them strike me and spit in my face”, but their
laughter, to tell the truth, came to the same thing, bristling with teeth and quips

Although they use different approaches, both Jean Gassin and Fernande Bartfeld
have noted this theme of swallowing, which they interpret differently. See Gassin’s
“Le Sadisme dans l’œuvre de Camus” (AC 6, 1973), 122-23; and Bartfeld’s Albert
Camus ou le mythe et le mime, Archives des lettres modernes (Archives Albert Camus
5) (Paris: Minard, 1982), 58, 62.
Camus conférencier et voyageur, 37.
For Freud, the aggressive element of the sexual instinct “is in reality a relic of can-
nibalistic desires”. See Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works,
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), 72.
Sexual Topographies 249

that tore me to shreds, the offence and the suffering were sweet to me!
(EK, 31-32)

Female sexuality is associated with being violently torn apart. Like

Clamence, the priest sees his debasement as a way of rising above and
ruling over others; he dreamed of absolute power (TRN, 1581). The
girls of Grenoble and the savages of Taghâsa are equated in his mind,
the latter being a more exciting version of the former because more
“barbaric” (TRN, 1581).
Janine’s is a cautious and fleeting desire to go native, an unthreat-
ening defection. In “Le Renégat”, by contrast, the reality of this dark
continent is confronted as the male protagonist enters into a veritable
harem ruled over by a despot in the form of the Sorceror. Here, a dis-
torted version of the Brazilian macumba ceremony is further superim-
posed through the ritual of his dedication to the fetish, when he is
made to drink a potion, is anointed with oil, and violently beaten
(TRN, 1586). Like Janine, “I imagined them differently, these barbari-
ans” (TRN, 1582), he reveals. Also like Janine, what he had imagined
differently was his own role in this dream of sexual power – for in this
barbaric harem the missionary is its eunuch, unable to overthrow the
despotic sorceror who alone has no substitute in his sexual conquests
of an endlessly renewed line of “equivalent” women. In his Journaux
de Voyage Camus’s attention is constantly caught by the participation
of women in religious rituals. What the Western onlooker might sus-
pect is made manifest in this fictionalization of the macumba cere-
mony with the brutal rape of the young woman, who seems in a trance
(TRN, 1586-87). The fantasy of the sado-masochist is here triumphant,
for these women not only victimize the missionary but collude in their
own victimization – as he does himself.
Having seen the sorceror’s power, the missionary is henceforth de-
nied this scopic pleasure and must daily confirm his own impotence
by his presence at these rituals he cannot watch. Without the imposi-
tion of external control the missionary is unable to master his own
passions, giving in to the same bestiality when left alone with tempta-
tion in the form of a woman whose face, covered by a tattoo of the
mask of the fetish, expressed nothing but “the unpleasant stupor of an
idol” (TRN, 1588), thus giving the confusing impression that the god
itself is embodied in her. But (as so often in Camus’s works) sexuality
is a false god, and woman is the agent of man’s downfall, leading here
to a symbolic castration of an all-too physical reality when he is pun-
ished by having his tongue cut out.
250 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

However, this particular scene is not the source of the European

priest’s castration but confirmation of his pre-existing state. Despite
previous fantasies, during his first confrontation with the Taghâsans
he was already reduced to silence. His religious fanaticism is an at-
tempt to align himself with a power he does not possess. He does not
yet know himself, he is told while still at the seminary, and his subse-
quent actions are not a fulfillment of his own potential, nor his own
innate qualities. “For want of character”, like a woman he identifies
with something greater than himself, escaping his own identity in that.
For these reasons he misrecognizes cruelty and barbarism as power
and misattributes its source. The role he seeks is that of an idol: “à
travers moi saluez mon Seigneur” (TRN, 1580) (“through me salute
my Lord”). Thus his counterparts are the women themselves, for the
fetish is worshipped through the use of their bodies. More importantly,
his savage counterpart is the woman with the face of the idol, his mir-
ror image:
L’idole, sans rien dire, me regardant toujours de ses yeux dilatés, s’est renversée
peu à peu sur le dos, a ramené lentement ses jambes vers elle, et les a élevées en
écartant doucement les genoux. (TRN, 1588-89)
The idol, without a word, still staring at me with her dilated eyes, gradually
slipped onto her back, slowly drew her legs up and raised them as she gently
spread her knees. (EK, 42)

In La Peste Rieux was unmoved by a similar scene, diagnosing death

with indifference. Here, in the eyes of the missionary her tattoo makes
her indistinguishable from the fetish, she is subsequently confused for
an idol, and only at the end of this sequence is she indisputably only a
woman. This slippage between fetish, idol and woman suggests a con-
tradictory belief on the part of the missionary: the woman is only a
woman, but at the same time she is perhaps also the source of power,
for she is woman as fetish / god. From a Freudian perspective, such
contradictions might signify the power of the woman / mother in the
land of childhood. Equally, it underlines the difference between the
despised young girls of Europe and the magnified power of woman in
the fantasized land of cannibalism and matriarchy.
But, of course, this slave is in no position to know the difference,
for he is himself a woman, identifying out of self-interest with the
most cruel party; like the young girl of Budapest in Camus’s anecdote
to Jean Grenier. With his own religious fetishism, the priest has al-
ways been a slave governed by hatred for his family and identification
with the powerful; he left Algiers without ever finding out “who he
Sexual Topographies 251

was”, with the result that, unlike the virile rebel, he has no Self to af-
firm. “Le Renégat” confirms M. Veillard’s observation that there are
no men left in France (PH, 168).
The Loss of Boundaries
Pays ou les saisons se confondent les unes avec les autres, où la végétation inex-
tricable en devient informe, où les sangs sont mélangés à tel point que l’âme en a
perdu ses limites. (JV, 128)
Land where the seasons merge together, where the inextricable vegetation be-
comes formless, where the blood is mixed to such a point that the soul has lost its

This geographical landscape introduces “La Pierre qui pousse”, denot-

ing the same spiritual climate that threatens to engulf its protagonist.
The opening pages of this story concern another strange and primitive
“monde sans âge” (TRN, 1680) (“ageless world”) where, just as the
appearance of an aeroplane seems out of place, so does that of the car
in which an anonymous white “colossus” and his black driver voyage
through the darkness. This watery jungle landscape is only gradually
revealed as Brazilian forest (TRN, 1660) and, instead of a bridge,
black men and mulattos must ferry the car across the river on a
wooden raft. Life is not contained within stable physical categories
but seems in a constant state of flux or metamorphosis, as when the
all-pervading rain blurs the distinctions between this “vegetal” sea, the
land itself and a sky in which the stars were “swimming”. Bodily
boundaries are invaded by stale odours of indeterminate origin, either
from the land or the “spongy” sky, while they can still taste the red
dust that had blown in their faces all day (TRN, 1660). The ears are
similarly permeated by unidentifiable animal noises and the strange
cries of red-eyed birds which throw themselves from time to time
across the windscreen. If fetishism denotes the total Otherness of a
world where everything has become God, here nature itself is the
scene of such transmutations where the inanimate and the insentient
seem capable of harbouring alien life, as when the “savage” river
seems like a snake with “shining scales” and “long, liquid muscles”.
The underlying animism in this initial presentation is comple-
mented by a mythological dimension that recalls the voyages of Ulys-
ses, or of Dante; the men had undertaken a, long “navigation” over a
red desert, arriving on the other shore of the great river as if “toutes
amarres rompues, ils abordaient une île dans les ténèbres, après des
jours de navigation effrayée” (TRN, 1660) (“all moorings lost, they
252 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

reached an island in the darkness, after days of frightened naviga-

tion”). The liquid landscape itself, in a constant state of metamorpho-
sis, recalls that of La Chute with its lack of clear definition. Moreover,
they later pass through “Japan” (Cipango?) (TRN, 1661), with its in-
scrutable yellow peoples (whose behaviour is greeted by Socrate with
the explanation that they are yellow), thus reinforcing the impression
of a chaotic mixing of the races. These introductory pages seem to
invite a mythopoeic reading,72 an invitation that seems to stall with
their arrival in Iguape, where the emphasis is on the concrete details of
life in the town, poverty and social divisions.73
Yet this atmosphere is integral to the subsequent illustration of the
social setting, so that despite its ordinariness and the familiarity of the
social problems raised (poverty, inequality, the arbitrariness of social
hierarchy), savage and primeval overtones infiltrate the town and its
people. Lurking beneath the surface of this endroit lies another reality;
a duality embodied above all in the religious ritual to which d’Arrast
is invited, dedicated to St George (or the African orisha Ogum).74 Be-
hind the civilized veneer of Christianity stand African gods whose
adherents become possessed in their trance by the spirit of the god. In
such ceremonies cigars play a vital role, for smoke attracts the gods.
When d’Arrast, on his first visit to the hut in the poor quarter, is dis-
turbed by its atmosphere of smoke and poverty (TRN, 1666), perhaps
what catches in his throat is this pagan spirit infiltrating his mouth,
nose and senses. Certainly, he seems entranced by the young black
woman there who offers him a drink, and whose subsequent portrayal
likewise alternates ambiguously between predator and victim.
Although he does not consider himself a seigneur, d’Arrast, from a
long line of nobles, has left Europe because he could not find his place
(TRN, 1679). There are no more nobles left in Europe, whose masters

A. James Arnold makes this point in ‘“La Pierre qui pousse’: Symbolic Displace-
ment in L’Exil et le Royaume”, in Rizzuto (ed.), Albert Camus’ “L’Exil et le Royau-
me”: the third decade, 85-94.
See David H. Walker, “Image, symbole et signification dans ‘La Pierre qui
pousse’”, AC11 (1982) (77-100), for a discussion of how Camus’s use of myth be-
comes steadily more rooted in the real, as here.
See “Symbolic Displacement” for an account of such Afro-Brazilian ceremonies.
Arnold notes how Camus misrepresents the nature of the macumba ceremony, while
Jaime Castro Segovia points to a number of discrepancies between the actual reality
and Camus’s symbolic rendering of it in “L’Image des réalités afro-brésiliennes dans
La Pierre qui Pousse, nouvelle d’Albert Camus”, Présence francophone, 7 (Autumn
1970), 105-120.
Sexual Topographies 253

are now the police and the merchants, he tells the cook (TRN, 1669) in
a conversation reminiscent of that from Les Pléïades (cited in chapter
6). He is one last remnant of that aristocratic European ideal where the
nobility of intelligence and work (C3, 105) combine, for he displays
not only lucidity (through his final rejection of religious superstition)
but practical assistance for the people of Iguape in creating a jetty to
stem the floodwaters. It is surely no coincidence that d’Arrast is mas-
ter of the waves: “Commander aux eaux, dompter les fleuves, ah! le
grand métier” (TRN, 1663) (“To command the waters, tame the rivers,
ah! What a noble profession”). As the man who will engineer the bar-
rier against floods, the “tamer” of rivers, moreover, d’Arrast repre-
sents a form of human achievement much admired by Clamence and
symbolized by the canals of Amsterdam. Camus’s preface to L’Envers
et l’Endroit likewise suggests that the artist in his work must construct
his own barriers against the flood-tides of emotional chaos, so that in
this respect d’Arrast’s occupation reflects the work of masculine and
artistic creation.
On this emotional level is the work that d’Arrast must carry out,
for he begins to be seduced even as he enters the hut in the poor quar-
ter, when, like his priestly predecessor, he is offered a libation by the
young black woman whom he impulsively wants to prevent from leav-
ing (TRN, 1666). His attitude towards her is characterized by non-
rational and unreflecting behaviour; when invited to the feast for St
George, where there will be cigars, saints and women, and all rules are
forgotten, his immediate response is to ask whether all the women of
the town will be there; he feels vaguely disturbed, and on promising to
come “without knowing why” he thinks again of the young girl (TRN,
1671). This lack of insight reflects his earlier wish to retain her, when
his motives are equally transparent yet presented as inexplicable, as is
his subsequent preoccupation when speaking to the cook (TRN, 1666-
67). Again, before leaving for the ceremony, d’Arrast hesitates, as if
waiting for her (TRN, 1673). Sexual attraction, never explicitly ex-
pressed, is presented as involuntary and mysterious.
Jean Gassin has drawn significant parallels between the orgiastic
rituals in “Le Renégat” and the ceremonies of “La Pierre qui pousse”.
In doing so, he regrets the “banal” use of black skin to symbolize sex-
ual excess, which, he notes, reveals the white man’s traditional sexual
insecurity when faced with the black man. Noting this stereotype,
Gassin dismisses it as unoriginal in order to concentrate instead on a
Freudian analysis of the sexuality of the son and the power of the
254 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

mother.75 But the force of the stereotype arises from its very lack of
originality and its mobilization here testifies to what Bhabha has
The traumatic impact of the return of the oppressed – those terrifying stereotypes
of savagery, cannibalism, lust, and anarchy which are the signal points of identifi-
cation and alienation, scenes of fear and desire, in colonial texts.76

Perhaps only outside Algeria might this uncertainty, this suspicion of

the total Otherness of the colonized population be expressed, and that
allied fear that there is no solution, there will be no compromise; there
will be no homeland and no stable point of origin, but only the de-
struction of “everything he had learned” and “all the values for which
he had lived”. If the Algerian war brings into sharp relief for Camus
the question “who am I?” then it raises with equal urgency the prob-
lem of “who are they?” Again, the repetitious nature of this stereotype
testifies to the instability of its nature and the need to fix those demons
that begin to haunt Camus’s discourse.
But this stereotype is above all directed at the black woman. Sander
Gilman has suggested that in nineteenth century medical discourse,
the preoccupation is not with the sexual organs of the black man, for
the absence of interest is “striking” when compared with the focus on
the black woman: “the uniqueness of the genitalia and buttocks of the
black is associated primarily with the female and taken to be a sign
solely of an anomalous female sexuality”.77 During the macumba
ceremony the focus is not on male behaviour but on that of the
women. Indeed, in the move from the Journaux de Voyage to “La Pi-
erre qui pousse”, whiteness (Janine) is displaced, for the “thick white
woman with the animal face” who “barks without stopping” (JV, 90)
is replaced by “une Noire épaisse, remuant de droite à gauche sa face
animale, (qui) aboyait sans arrêt” (TRN, 1676) (“a thick black woman,
moving her animal face from right to left (who) was barking without
stopping”. Thus the participation of the white woman is entirely cen-
sored here, while the heart of this female sexuality becomes entirely
black, unadulterated.
Despite the air of mystery surrounding the young black woman,
with respect to her original model there is no mystery at all, for Camus
openly remarks that she delights him (JV, 106). She later proves cen-

L’Univers symbolique, 163-64, 192-93.
“The Other Question”, 25.
“Black Bodies, White Bodies”, 218.
Sexual Topographies 255

tral to the ritual, where on the one hand she is a “black Diana”, a hunt-
ress, bearing bow and arrow from which hangs a speared bird. At the
same time, through her cry she is herself this bird, while her face re-
flects an “innocent melancholy”, and thus she becomes like a sacrifi-
cial victim undergoing an indescribable initiation ceremony. Her
strange bird cry is nonetheless melodious (TRN, 1677), underlining
not only this ambiguous status but also the combination of attraction
and repulsion felt by the Western onlooker. This association suggests
her exotic and pagan nature, while it later becomes the cry of a
“wounded bird”, suggesting her unwilling participation. As “the beau-
tiful sleeping one” (TRN, 1678), moreover, she is not responsible for
her actions, and thus becomes a vulnerable victim. Hence her status as
huntress or prey is as ambiguous as that of the women in “Le
Renégat”, at once powerless victims yet active participants and the
potential cause of the hero’s downfall.
However, what repeatedly characterizes the bird’s call is its very
strangeness (TRN, 1660, 1661, 1677, 1678), an exoticism that borders
on the unnatural. The strange cries of these birds are first heard at the
river crossing, where they intensify the exoticism of this primitive
jungle landscape (TRN, 1660). Sexuality is another exotic dimension
here, for this imagery recalls Camus’s visit to the red-light area, where
he compares the prostitutes behind their multi-coloured blinds to
caged birds (JV, 117). Given the perception of the macumba ceremony
as a hybrid mixture of religion and sexuality (JV, 74), it does not seem
coincidental that similar associations run through this text.78 More-
over, in this context they convey overtones of Dante’s journey into the
Underworld, and are threatening reminders of the seagulls of La
These red-eyed birds combine with the references to the red desert
and its inscrutable yellow peoples (TRN, 1661) to intensify the atmos-
phere of the exotic and primeval. Furthermore, this strange and de-
monic eye-colouring later pervades the religious ceremony, with its
“reddening light” (TRN, 1675), the red cassock of the chief (TRN,
1673) who becomes a “great red devil” (TRN, 1675) and the red-
painted statue of the horned god (TRN, 1674). Such metamorphoses
reinforce the atmosphere of violence and sexuality associated with the

Indeed, in the Journaux de voyage the description of this woman also contains the
judgement that the ceremony in which she is involved are “degraded” rituals (JV,
256 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

ceremony, while the genesis of the cry, I suggest, is to be found in this

same savage ritual, during which some of the dancers:
précipitaient leur rythme, se convulsant sur eux-mêmes, et commençaient à pous-
ser des cris inarticulés. Les cris montèrent peu à peu et (...) se confondirent dans
un hurlement collectif. (TRN, 1675)
quickened their rhythm, bent convulsively backwards, and began to utter inarticu-
late cries. The cries gradually rose higher and (…) fused in a collective howl.
(EK, 138)

As this builds into a violent frenzy, among references to decapitation

and dismemberment, they begin to howl with a “long collective and
toneless cry” (TRN, 1676). When the women, in a trance, begin to fall
to the ground, this signifies their possession by the spirit, while the cry
finally degenerates into a raucous barking (TRN, 1676). The overall
impression of this entire scene is of degeneration from human to ani-
mal, revealing the innate primitivism of this “multi-coloured” popula-
tion itself, in a land where “the blood and the seasons merged” and
time “liquefied” (TRN, 1678).79 The transformation is from individual
to primeval horde, a duality surrounding the young woman to whom
d’Arrast is attracted – first intimated after d’Arrast’s first encounter
with her, when, despite an attractiveness that singles her out, she im-
mediately becomes indistinguishable from the crowd into which she
Here, a nightmare concerning racial (sexual) assimilation is clearly
apparent. Sexual desire leads to the destruction of categories of self-
definition in which the soul loses its boundaries. For this reason peo-
ple resemble the watery landscape, as when the following day the
crowd itself becomes a “human tide” against which d’Arrast must
fight. This “boiling crowd” is not a collection of people but a many-
headed, Medusan monster – a nightmare “melting-pot” of ages and
races covered with eyes and vociferous mouths (TRN, 1682), whose
arrival is like the chaotic bursting of a dam. These images reflect ear-
lier descriptions of the “savage river” (TRN, 1660), with its “shining
scales” (TRN, 1657) and long, liquid muscles (TRN, 1658). The land-
scape of Brazil, with its vast forest absorbing water like an enormous
sponge (TRN, 1663), reflects the lack of distinction between landscape
and peoples, nature and civilization. Integration here is not of a social

The initial manuscript version retains the wording from the Journaux de voyage,
and better makes the point: “[this land] where the blood and seasons merge, where the
soul loses its boundaries” (TRN, 2069).
Sexual Topographies 257

nature, but organic and non-sentient: “Life here was flush with the soil
and, in order to integrate with it, one had to lie down and sleep for
years on the muddy or dried-up ground”. This recognition causes
d’Arrast to want to vomit up the whole country (TRN, 1678), as if he
had himself partly ingested its contaminating, protean elements – or
been “digested” by it. Indeed, despite his initial detachment, d’Arrast
had begun to be seduced during the macumba ceremony, dancing
without movement or volition before his expulsion. He was himself
like “some bestial and benevolent deity” (TRN, 1674). Assimilation
here is absorption, being swallowed up, not by the spirit of Saint
George but by the pagan and bestial horned, red god. Sexuality (the
instinctive) is the mechanism through which this is accomplished, as
in the case of d’Arrast, whose actions become involuntary and non-
Jean Grenier has suggested that Camus’s work is haunted by a
cry,80 while Olivier Todd has further illustrated a biographical parallel
in the illness of Camus’s wife.81 Given the origin of La Chute in
L’Exil et le Royaume, it is not surprising to find here a variation of this
same cry (which also makes a supernatural link between woman and
bird). In both cases the cry is double: it is not solely a symbol of the
victim in distress, but carries the threat of retribution and vengeance. I
have noted the theme of the aborted quest in La Chute, a theme which
further characterizes the majority of the stories in L’Exil et le Roy-
aume. Having himself faced failure, when someone was to die because
of him (TRN, 1672), d’Arrast also awaits an unknown event – as if his
work were a pretext for what has awaited him patiently at the end of
the world (TRN, 1668). If this quest is indeed to establish a “fraternity
embracing all men”,82 then d’Arrast must first overcome his own in-
stinctive responses and fight against his own absorption.
Clearly, as d’Arrast contemplates the black huntress he is drawn in,
seduced, “fascinated” (TRN, 1677) – a spell broken only by the exter-
nal intervention of the now aggressive cook, who orders him out of
the hut. Indeed, at this point the macumba seems about to culminate in
the secret initiation stage, from which outsiders are prohibited. As in
“Le Renégat”, access to the woman is denied. The tourist may enjoy
the limited pleasures of voyeurism, but is left only to suspect what

Souvenirs, 185-88.
Albert Camus: une vie (see chapter 44, “Le Cri du prisonnier”), 638.
Souvenirs, 98.
258 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

goes on behind closed doors. Here, the change in the formerly affable
cook underlines the theme of duality, and in a manner recalling Homi
Bhabha’s comments on the colonial stereotype:
The chain of stereotypical signification is curiously mixed and split, polymor-
phous and perverse, an articulation of multiple belief. The black is both savage
(cannibal) and yet the most obedient and dignified of servants (the bearer of
food); he is the embodiment of rampant sexuality and yet innocent as a child; he is
mystical, primitive, simple-minded and yet the most worldly and accomplished

These features are readily observable in the depiction of the inhabi-

tants of Iguape, or of Socrate the driver.84 The police chief who ques-
tions the hero’s papers evinces both aggression and servility: likewise,
the smiling judge demonstrates a temper that one would not have sus-
pected (1664). The cook, who shares the same child-like and sunny
temperament, also demonstrates this darker side, equally passionate,
when his formerly kindly eyes reveal an “unsuspected” avidity (TRN,
1677). Beneath the friendly surface lurks hostility, and beneath the
veneer of civilization lies the savage – the nightmare of Western man.
The cook himself exemplifies the debilitating effects of passion, by
which he is entirely overtaken. He had foreseen this probable lack of
control, yet this knowledge does not stop him from attending the
macumba. Instead (like a child) he shifts the responsibility for his own
behaviour onto d’Arrast, asking him to help him keep his vow (TRN,
1671). Predictably, his passions (his animal nature) transform him, so
that he forgets his vow, revealing this true nature. As a consequence,
he is defeated by the stone the following day, his resolution ending in
tears of powerlessness (TRN, 1684). What had saved d’Arrast from
this same fate was his status as a foreigner, for the signs are that he too
would have lost all restraint – unless his clear repulsion had overcome
his equally clear attraction. Despite such ambiguity, the superiority of
d’Arrast is clear, for he not only takes up this burden but by carrying
the stone away from the church and into the poor family’s hut he re-
jects superstition, establishing himself as an example to follow (as the
very model of the civilizing mission). On a realistic level, however, as
Donald Lazère has noted:
The last thing a destitute native family needs is a hundred-pound rock in the mid-
dle of their living room. The story reveals no lucid political consciousness of the

“The Other Question”, 34.
See Arnold’s “Symbolic Displacement” for a consideration of this theme.
Sexual Topographies 259

colonial situation; its tone on the contrary, is patronizing toward the noble sav-

However noble, savages are apparently incapable of helping them-

selves, and need external intervention, thus demonstrating that like a
headless worm, the world “is looking for its aristocrats” (C3, 148). In
picking up his burden, d’Arrast accepts his duty, thus affirming his
noble descent. Savages and women need this guiding hand to lead
them through the chaotic childhood of passion.
D’Arrast in particular is well-suited to this task, for his technical
skill concerns the construction of barriers and the establishment of
definition between land and sea, order and chaos. Hence, a link is es-
tablished between him and the artist who must also create “barriers”
surrounding and channelling those “dark forces of the soul” in order to
create (E, 12). On a fictional level, he enacts this battle between self-
control and “disorder, the violence of certain instincts, abandon with-
out grace” (E, 12). His fight against these internal and external dark
forces is sorely taxed by his experience in Iguape, so that even as he
turns away from the church and towards the hut where the young girl
lives, he acts once more “without knowing why” (TRN, 1684). If his
final action confirms his victory over “the lower regions”, character-
ized by “sexual abandon and idolatry”, then this ambiguity remains
until the end – for the relationship with the “black Diana” remains un-
developed.86 In an earlier projected ending of this story the visitor
loads the stone onto a boat, sailing towards the virgin forest where he
disappears (C3, 42). Although in 1956 Camus wrote to his wife that he
had added to the ending a salutation to life,87 this ambivalence re-
I earlier described the sexuality at the heart of the macumba ritual
as “entirely black, unadulterated” – a judgement that must now be
qualified. If it is the case that (“pure”) whiteness is displaced, never-
theless it is incorporated within the bodies of the participants, for the
society and country depicted are characterized by hybridity – black,
yellow, mulatto. The cook himself (whose family includes the young
woman) has “yellow rather than black skin” and is referred to as both
“the Black” and the “mulatto” (TRN, 1669). The participation of the

The Unique Creation of Albert Camus, 208.
Cf. The Unique Creation of Albert Camus, 209.
Albert Camus: une vie, 661.
260 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

white woman may have been censored, but the innate hybridity of
woman (as underlined by the woman-bird imagery) remains.
Taghâsa is the home of the unadulterated race, that most ignoble of
savages. Iguape may be a source of contamination but there is perhaps
hope in the civilizing mission. The macumba ritual itself is Western-
ized in so far as it is a mixture of Christian and African beliefs, and
Jean Sarocchi is right to point out one conclusion when he says that
the Other (and the other culture) with whom understanding is possible
is the Christianized “cross-breed”: rather than the Muslim North Afri-
can, it is the South-American Catholic – the Other who is “else-
where”.88 But this conclusion holds only so long as such co-existence
has clear boundaries, for, as Sarocchi has likewise noted, all of Ca-
mus’s heroes are white, “unpolluted by indigenous blood”.89 Although
the black Diana retains the same equivocal status as the woman of
Taghâsa, there is a suggestion of hope in her depiction. The quest for
purity implied in the original but aborted turn towards the virgin forest
is here diverted onto this black woman, and the perceived innocence
reflected in her face. Despite his disgust at religious supersititions, and
the realization that he is faced with a choice between “shame and an-
ger” in Europe or “exile and solitude” there, amongst “these madmen”
and their dance of death, she alone offers him hope:
Mais, à travers la nuit humide, pleine d’odeurs végétales, l’étrange cri d’oiseau
blessé, poussé par la belle endormie, lui parvint encore. (TRN, 1678)
But through the humid night, heavy with vegetable odours, the wounded bird’s
outlandish cry, uttered by the beautiful sleeping girl, still reached him. (EK, 142)

This recalls the 1952 entry in the Carnets that begins with the words
“anti-Europe”, concerning an encounter with an innocent and silent
young girl on the Pacific coast of Chile and their “silent lovemaking in
front of the sea” (C3, 58). Thus “La Pierre qui pousse” ends on a note
of ambivalence where attraction and repulsion are intertwined. The
cannibal woman may be the source of a dangerous fascination, but
perhaps if she is young enough, innocent enough, she may be lifted
out of her pagan depravity. D’Arrast demonstrates himself capable of
such a task, for he has overcome temptation, established his will and
confirmed his noble status. Here, sexual attraction becomes a form of
redemption precisely because it is controlled by the will.

“L’Autre et les autres”, 100. In common with many critics, however, Sarocchi fails
to take account of the strong pagan elements in this society.
Le Dernier Camus, 155.
Sexual Topographies 261

The New Aristocracy

I have noted at several points Camus’s belief in an aristocratic ideal,
combined with his disillusion concerning a mercantile Europe. Europe
offers no space for a new and vibrant culture, while such a possibility
becomes increasingly unlikely in the land of Camus’s birth. D’Arrast
appears to have renounced Europe because it is over-run by commerce
and the police, and thus offers no space for the new nobility he repre-
sents. In L’Exil et le Royaume a symbiotic and organic relationship
between geography and biology renders them indistinguishable. De-
spite Marcel’s commercial activities, external circumstances suggest
the possibility of change, just as the frontier geography forces men
into a similar mould. The renegade missionary, however, is irre-
deemably European. Like Martha of Le Malentendu he seeks the
warmth of the sun and to repeat, in fact, the gesture of Jan by leaving
his family “at one go” and beginning “to live at last, in the sunlight,
with fresh water” (TRN, 1579). The “sour and cold” wine of his home-
land symbolizes above all his tainted blood, in a manner reminiscent
of Ibsen’s Ghosts. This corruption spreads through the blood and
voids the possibility of any good: “Goodness! There was sour wine in
me, that’s all” (TRN, 1580). Such is the only possible Eucharist of-
fered by Europe, preparing him already for the ritualistic potion of
Taghâsa. However, as the refuge overseas of d’Arrast shows, even
those made of nobler stuff cannot survive in the dying Europe. This
plight is illustrated by Jonas, “the artist at work” who, despite his no-
ble calling, is differently devoured in the overpopulated Paris.
Chapter 8
The First Man
In L’Exil et le Royaume, I have noted female sexuality as a crucial
point of intersection connecting the treatment of women and issues of
race. In my view, this combination expresses Camus’s increasing dis-
quiet over the atavistic nature of much of the violence against civilians
(settlers and Muslims alike) orchestrated by the FLN, and his convic-
tion, voiced after the Philippeville massacre, that this was leading Al-
geria into a state of increasing barbary. At the same time, these stories
of exile might be viewed as a preparation for Camus’s final unfinished
work, Le Premier Homme – likewise about Algeria and colonialism;
those subjects on which he never ceased to speak throughout the
The Public and Private Spheres
Despite their differences, what unites all the male protagonists in
L’Exil et le royaume is that each is shown carrying out his chosen job
of work and all the events illustrated take place in the course of that
work. From the perspective of Le Premier Homme, moreover, a fur-
ther underlying theme is more easily discerned, for this collection por-
trays a world on the move; a world of emigrant and essentially
homeless populations. This theme is apparent even with the sedentary
family man Yvars, who, nostalgic for a lost youth, finally looks across
the waters and thinks they should have left (TRN, 1608). There is no
reason to suppose that the object of this desire is the “dirty Europe”,
land of the homeless, for the sea has many shores. The same restless-
ness, or air of expectancy, afflicts all the main protagonists in this col-
lection. Apart from the tainted renegade and Janine (for obvious
reasons), each main character also embodies a form of nobility. Daru,
exiled in his own homeland, is a schoolteacher bringing the best of
French culture to his indigent young charges; Jonas belongs to the
natural nobility of the creators; d’Arrast, of noble blood, brings practi-
cal assistance to the poor of Brazil; Yvars represents the nobility of
labour – the craftsman whose trade is dying out in the face of mercan-
264 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

tile historical forces.1 The modern world brings new forms of no-
madism to these threatened aristocracies, who are all part of a new
tribe “making their way through the night of the years on the earth”
(PH, 180-81).2
In chapter 7 I concentrated on the theme of female sexuality, as il-
lustrated by two poles of womanhood, and the threat of absorption by
this form of “cannibalism”. This is not the only theme relating to
women, for L’Exil et le royaume also portrays differing forms of mar-
riage across class and geographical boundaries. Although not always
central, these portraits are nonetheless integral to a process of recon-
struction underlying this collection. If Marcel’s true passion is for his
business affairs, one reason for this obsession stems from his desire to
protect his wife financially. In the face of historical forces this ambi-
tion may be unrealistic, and Marcel is clearly at fault in many respects,
yet his shouldering of this responsibility testifies to the creation of
new alliances across class borders within the geographical space of the
French Algerian “tribe” profiled in L’Exil et le royaume.
Whereas in La Peste the workplace of the men was woman-free,
here women become part of the community, or constitute a comple-
mentary private sphere with mutual responsibilities. This is the case
not only in “La Femme adultère”, but also in “Les Muets” and “Jonas,
ou l’artiste au travail”, where women are no longer a nebulous ideal
for which men fight, but flesh and blood creatures who either help or
hinder their husband in his work. In Le Premier Homme Camus was to
write that the Mediterranean separated two universes in him (PH,
181), and these short stories begin to illustrate the nature of that gulf
through the presentation of this private sphere and its cultural varia-
tions. Fernande is a traditional wife who supports her husband in his
dealings in the public sphere. She ministers to his needs, and the ex-
pertly ironed shirt with which she provides him is a source of con-
tentment (TRN, 1598). This emphasis on the apparently trivial is to
symbolize an important difference between two “races” of women in
Le Premier Homme. Patrice Mersault’s earlier preoccupation with his

For the mythical status with which such figures are imbued, see Philip Dine, Images
of the Algerian War: French Fiction and Film 1954-1992 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1994).
As “La Femme adultère” and Le Premier Homme suggest, this new tribe seems to
embrace the “poor and ignorant” Berber peasant, the settler, the soldier, and the land-
less whites, but excludes “those half-breeds with pointed yellow shoes and scarves
who had only adopted the worst of the West” (PH, 320).
The First Man 265

dishevelled appearance will be remembered from La Mort heureuse,

while in Le Premier Homme the importance for Mediterranean men of
their white shirts and ironed trousers is presented as a tribal character-
istic; throughout his childhood Jacques Cormery’s mother had ironed
his sole pair of trousers until he went away to the “universe of women
who neither wash nor iron” (PH, 60). “Les Muets” brings a new focus
on domesticity and this new emphasis prefigures the reconstruction of
the notion of community in Camus’s final work.
Fernande does not meddle in the affairs of men, and although in-
quiring about their progress she neither offers her own opinion, nor
complains, waiting until he is ready to tell her about his day. During
this time he holds her hand as at the beginning of their marriage (TRN,
1608), as if shared adversity has brought them together. There is no
suggestion of disloyalty (or of independent thought) in her depiction.
Here is the French Algerian working-class wife, the helpmate taking
her place by her husband’s side. A further characteristic of this mascu-
line community lies in their stoical assumption of their responsibilites.
Much of Yvars’ regret concerns his lost youth rather than his domestic
life, even though it is marriage that brought a form of servitude when,
to make ends meet, he had worked through his weekends:
Il avait perdu peu à peu l’habitude de ces journées violentes qui le rassassaient.
L’eau profonde et claire, le fort soleil, les filles, la vie du corps, il n’y avait pas
d’autre bonheur dans son pays. Et ce bonheur passait avec la jeunesse.
(TRN, 1597-98)
Little by little he had lost the habit of those violent days that used to satiate him.
The deep, clear water, the hot sun, the girls, the physical life – there was no other
form of happiness in this country. And that happiness disappeared with youth.
(EK, 50)

Thus Camus returns to his reflections in “L’Été à Alger” concerning

the brevity of youth and happiness in this nascent culture.
As there, the characteristics of a distinctive new culture can be de-
tected, for these men are all of the same stock, sharing similar values
and temperament. Hence, even class differences are effaced by geo-
graphical roots, for the boss shares the same fiery temperament and
abides by the same masculine code as the others: when Esposito tells
him that he is not a man, the “hot-blooded” boss reacts physically and
the two men have to be separated; but the workers are impressed
(TRN, 1600). This is not the behaviour one might expect from the
capitalist classes, but in Algeria the demonstration that one is, or is not
“a man” is the only meaningful morality. These shared cultural norms
266 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

are further reflected in physical appearance, as in “La Femme

adultère”. The boss is thin and brown, looking at ease in his body, and
resembling the inhabitants of the desert. Likewise, in his concern for
his child he shares the same protective attitudes towards his family,
and sympathy towards him is generated precisely by these domestic
difficulties quite independently of the conflict-ridden world of work;
in this land all men, regardless of social status, share the same hard-
ships and responsibilities. Here, their duties towards wife and family
bind them together, creating a level of collective consciousness that
over-rides class differences. On another level, comradeship between
workers is stronger than racial division, as demonstrated when Yvars
shares his sandwich with Saïd (TRN, 1605). Marcel the businessman
may be racist but the struggling skilled artisan is not. This impression,
here muted, is addressed in Le Premier Homme, where the writer ex-
plains the racism of this group, ordinarily “the most tolerant of men”
(PH, 236), in terms of a primeval fight for survival: these “unexpected
nationalists” are not seeking domination or wealth and privilege, but
only the “privilege of servitude” (PH, 237). In a prefiguration of Le
Premier Homme, “Les Muets” demonstrates a culture where men ac-
cept their family obligations, while the wife’s role is to support her
husband in this task and fulfill her own duties through the mainte-
nance of home life.3 Through this network of mutual co-operation the
survival of the tribe is assured. Here, Camus begins to bestow an eter-
nal, a-historical dimension on these people and their social arrange-
ments, which will become prominent in Le Premier Homme. In 1959
he reflected on how his own family remained untouched by techno-
logical advances such as radio or newspapers: “As they were a hun-
dred years ago, and hardly more changed by the social context” (C3,
When seen from the perspective of Le Premier Homme, much of
the ambiguity concerning marriage directly correlates here to geo-
graphical location and cultural variation. Just as La Chute paints a
European perspective on marriage in a world dominated by ideas and
fornication, so this same situation prevails in “Jonas, ou l’artiste au
travail”, which is located at the source of the problem in Paris itself.
However, here the emphasis is as much on external forces shaping

This strict separation of spheres is a feature of Audisio’s new Mediterranean culture
in Ulysse ou l’intelligence. The subordination of women, he avers, is a consequence
of the differing natures of the sexes and hence only apparently misogynous.
The First Man 267

marriage as on individual problems within marriage, and again the

most significant factor relates to the nature of the society in which this
personal relationship is placed. In this respect a new note has been
sounded, for Camus’s own long-standing ambivalence is widely ac-
knowledged, and in the early Carnets, in particular, marriage is re-
garded as a form of suicide for a man. In its earlier conception, this
was precisely the focus of this story. In 1951 Camus writes of the
creator whose over-riding commitment is to his art, for which he sacri-
fices wife and children. “The day his wife dies in hospital, he adds the
final touch and the one who comes to announce his misfortune only
hears him say ‘At last!’” (C3, 14). Here, ambivalence is clearly di-
rected at the woman herself as an obstacle to the wider priorities of
men. In the mimodrame published in 1953 concerning “La Vie
d’artiste” the thinly disguised wish to be rid of the woman is modified,
for the artist displays sorrow at his wife’s death. Continuity is never-
theless maintained, for after her death the painter kisses her, then be-
gins to paint her dead face (TRN, 2061). But “Jonas ou l’artiste au
travail” turns away from these endings, to emphasize instead the
painter’s love for his family: “He loved them! How he loved them”
(TRN, 1654) – thus striking a new note.
Hence, a move away from the mythical woman prepares the way
for a greater realism in the depiction of women in Le Premier Homme,
as flesh and blood creatures who fulfill a concrete function in the life
of the community. The two poles of individual freedom versus the
bondage of marriage are here given much greater complexity as mar-
riage is inserted into a wider social context, and previously excluded
Others affect the relationship of the couple. As a social institution
marriage is no longer uniform, and demonstrates cross-cultural varia-
tions, as the contrast between “Les Muets” and “Jonas ou l’artiste au
travail” demonstrates. If geography creates a people, it also deter-
mines the nature of marriage across those geographical communities.
If I may assume “Les Muets” to be a touchstone here, then the ma-
jor difference between these two depictions concerns the impossibility
of separating public and private spheres. In a European setting such
divisions cannot be maintained, so that “the artist at work” becomes
also the artist at home: his public admirers merge with his personal
friends, while his wife occupies an uneasy border between public and
private sphere. Whereas M. Lasalle’s family, or Yvars’ son in “Les
Muets” do not intrude, Louise cannot devote herself entirely to her
family precisely because of the way these other concerns impinge on
268 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

the domestic sphere. A major contrast between “Jonas” and the other
stories in this collection concerns space: elsewhere, the impression is
of vast and largely unpeopled Algerian and Brazilian landscapes. In
Paris, however, the problem of living space dictates the nature of so-
cial life. This reflects a concern elsewhere addressed by Camus when
he notes that the population of Europe had more than doubled between
1800 and 1914 (C3, 134), while he elsewhere notes the “galloping”
demographic increase of the colonized population of Algeria (E,
1012). Clamence likewise comments on this same phenomenon in Pa-
Près de cinq millions, au dernier recensement? Allons, ils auront faits des petits.
Je ne m’en étonnerai pas. Il m’a toujours semblé que nos concitoyens avaient
deux fureurs: les idées et la fornication. (...) Gardons-nous, d’ailleurs, de les con-
damner; ils ne sont pas seuls, toute l’Europe en est là. (TRN, 1478-79)
Almost five million at the last census? Why, they must have multiplied. And that
wouldn’t surprise me. It always seemed to me that our fellow-citizens had two
passions: ideas and fornication. (…) Still, let’s take care not to condemn them;
they’re not the only ones, all Europe is in the same boat. (F, 7)

La Chute is the lynchpin of several of the stories in L’Exil et le roy-

aume. Whereas “La Femme adultère”, “Le Renégat” and “La Pierre
qui pousse” variously illustrate the nightmare of the voyage to the In-
dies (TRN, 1483), “Jonas” illustrates the nightmare reality of daily life
in Paris.
Jonas’s marriage is a combination of individual failings and such
wider pressures; indeed, what might have been praiseworthy in other
circumstances becomes problematical precisely because of social
trends. Given the inevitable accomodation crisis, Louise’s success in
finding them an apartment, however small, is a considerable achieve-
ment. She is, besides, a devoted mother, and her activities are all un-
complainingly directed towards the maintenance of domestic
harmony. In these respects there is little apparent difference between
her and Fernande; each is following the biological imperative of
women. However, in these activities Louise is herself a symptom of
the very problem afflicting Europe, for she is part of the rising genera-
tion who are particularly inclined at that time to marry and prolifer-
ate (TRN, 1634). She quickly makes herself indispensable to Jonas,
marries him, and rapidly produces on plan two children, followed by a
third. Despite her initial insistence that each has their own work-space,
through her the overpopulation of Paris invades the private sphere, so
The First Man 269

that Jonas becomes a nomad in his own home, wandering from room
to room in search of somewhere to work.
A number of her characteristics reflect those of the Brazilian ter-
mite whose unceasing activities will one day undermine the whole
edifice of civilization (JV, 109). Her appearance (small, with dark
skin, hair and eyes) further aligns her with the small peoples of “La
Pierre qui pousse”, in marked contrast to both d’Arrast and Jonas him-
self. Such hybrid associations are reinforced when she is compared to
an ant, thus recalling the termite’s destructive tendencies:
Jonas, grand et solide, s’attendrissait sur la fourmi, d’autant plus qu’elle était in-
dustrieuse. La vocation de Louise était l’activité. (TRN, 1631)
Jonas, tall and rugged, was touched at the sight of the ant, especially as she was
industrious. Louise’s vocation was for activity. (EK, 86)

The ant is no more to blame than the termite if the long-term conse-
quences of its reproductive imperative lead to the eventual collapse of
the wider society. On the contrary, when properly directed its tireless
activity is beneficial to the entire social organisation.
Initially, this activity is directed at Jonas himself, and to his bene-
fit, for she complements his own predilection for inactivity. In differ-
ent circumstances this complementarity might have aided his work,
for in that respect Jonas is far from apathetic: rather, he is “devoured”
completely by painting (TRN, 1631). Her assumption of everyday
tasks frees him to devote more time to his own vocation; yet despite
her commitment, her activities are misdirected, as is illustrated by her
sudden interest in literature, immediately abandoned once she realizes
his interests lie elsewhere (TRN, 1632). As in La Chute, her points of
reference are the sentimental press and philosophical reviews (TRN,
1631). Instead of taking a traditional role, she interferes with his work,
dabbles in ideas, and thus infects Jonas with this modern disease.
Yet the responsibility is not hers alone, for the problem lies in
Jonas’s failure to establish a balance; he allows himself to be taken
over and overburdened with family responsibilities. In contrast to the
Algerian marriage Jonas could never claim to be “a man”, and respon-
sibility for this lies with him rather than his wife; he is not master in
his own home. Indeed, his often repeated reply “as you wish” (TRN,
1629, 1634, 1636, 1641, 1652) underlines his passive and “womanish”
nature, for this is the response of Lucienne to Mersault’s suggestion
that she should effectively prostitute herself for him. This portrait pre-
figures the comment that there are no men left in France (PH, 168),
270 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

itself recalling Louis Bertrand’s belief in the effeminacy of French

men, and that France, exhausted by centuries of civilization could be
rejuvenated by contact with the barbarian spirit of Algeria.4 Thus the
internal problems in this marriage are generated not by a lack of mu-
tual affection but by the failure of Jonas himself to be a man, set the
priorities and fulfill his role as head of the household.
Jonas’s marriage follows the European pattern, for the breakdown
of his parents’ marriage parallels one of Clamence’s anecdotes;
Jonas’s father could not abide the good works of his wife, a veritable
“lay saint” (TRN, 1630), while Clamence speaks of an industrialist
who murders his perfect wife (TRN, 1485).5 The way his parents are
influenced by modern ideas about the effects of broken marriages on
children is only one example of the more prevalent “disease” of ideas
and fornication. Jonas’s father exemplifies this in his publishing ac-
tivities, which are guided by the belief that the more people buy
books, the less they read them, and that it is sex that sells (TRN, 1630-
Equally, the parasitical critics weave a web of elaborate ideas and
interpretations around the artist’s work which he himself had never
suspected, the end result of which is to elevate the critic as interpreter
to the detriment of both the work and the artist.6 Jonas’s agent like-
wise feeds off his success while failing to appreciate or encourage his
actual work, while a wider parallel can be drawn with the landlords of
the family’s apartment who profit from the overdemand for housing.
The tentacles of these “new princes” extend so far that they not only
rent out restricted living space but also sell the soft furnishings with
which to make it inhabitable (TRN, 1634). Hence Jonas, initially “de-
voured” by his work, is increasingly consumed by these pirhana, as in
La Chute (TRN, 1479).
Thus the fate of Jonas is linked with a number of forms of devour-
ment, and on a number of levels, which range from personal inade-
quacies to a more general social malaise. Hence, Bartfeld is right to

Preface to the new edition of Le Sang des races (Paris: G. Crès et Cie, 1921), XI.
Cf. Terry Keefe “Marriage in the later fiction of Camus and Simone de Beauvoir”, 4.
See also “‘Heroes of our time’ in Three of the Stories of Camus and Simone de Beau-
voir”, Forum for Modern Language Studies, 17 (1) (January 1981), 38-54, for further
parallels between these two works. Brian Fitch, in “‘Jonas’, ou la production d’une
étoile”, AC6 (1973), 51-65, draws other parallels between the two stories.
See Camus’s comments on the destructive effect of this proliferation of commenta-
tors in what he calls the “mercantile age” (C3, 96).
The First Man 271

suggest that in building his loft Jonas evinces the desire to be relieved
of all responsibility, for passivity is an aspect of his personality.7 A
further consequence of this trait is that he allows himself to be swal-
lowed up by the demands of domestic life, so that wife and family
likewise take on a cannibalistic aspect. Given the lack of clarity be-
tween public and private spheres, Jonas is inevitably driven outside of
home in order to seek refuge and consolation as his life is reduced to a
form of nomadism; in public he seeks solitude, escapes into alcohol,
and arrives finally at the inevitable port of fornication. Women “hel-
ped” him:
Il pouvait leur parler, avant ou après l’amour, et surtout se vanter un peu, elles le
comprenaient même si elles n’étaient pas convaincues. Parfois, il lui semblait que
son ancienne force revenait. (TRN, 1650)
He could talk to them, before or after the love-making, and especially boast a lit-
tle, for they would understand him even if they weren’t convinced. At times it
seemed to him that his old strength was returning. (EK, 110)

This “adulterous man” is shown as the victim of forces beyond his

control. However, the sight of Louise’s “drowned face” (TRN, 1650)
prompts a change of direction, and because of his love for his family –
although it is far from certain that the outcome is any more optimistic.
Here, forces combine to present the artist as being faced with insuper-
able odds in following his vocation. Jonas is “responsible”, but he is
not personally “guilty”.
Jonas tries to recreate a personal kingdom through constructing his
loft: d’Arrast seeks refuge elsewhere; even Yvars dreams of emigra-
tion. “Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail” illustrates the fate of those who do
not evade the spreading contamination of Europe, and in an echo of
Camus’s reflection that those creators who survive the “catastrophe”
will have to reassemble culture in lands such as Chile or Mexico (C2,
337). I earlier suggested that the main male protagonists in L’Exil et le
royaume embody a form of nobility. Race in the biological sense may
be a factor in the depiction of Louise (who, after all, has little time to
launder and iron). Race in the sense of nobility is further implicated in
the depiction of Jonas, for he belongs to the aristocracy of the creators.
The noble d’Arrast has escaped Europe, and for him at least salvation
is a possibility; Jonas, on the other hand, becomes progressively more

Albert Camus ou le mythe et le mime, 58.
272 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Le Fils de roi
Brian Fitch has shown the central importance of the star in “Jonas”,
which he identifies as the origin of the text. This is certainly the case
insofar as the notion of aristocracy is a fundamental theme in these
writings. Fitch suggests that the image of the star in “Jonas” may de-
rive from the writings of Henry Miller,8 but he need not look so far;
for, as I have noted, the star is integral to the fils de roi, in turn a mark
of true aristocracy. Clamence’s definition of himself as a King’s son
strongly resembles the attitude of Jonas towards his star (TRN, 1629):
Je refusais d’attribuer cette réussite à mes seuls mérites, et je ne pouvais croire
que la réunion, en une personne unique, de qualités si différentes et si extrêmes,
fût le résultat du seul hasard. C’est pourquoi, vivant heureux, je me sentais, d’une
certaine manière, autorisé à ce bonheur par quelque décret supérieur. (TRN, 1490)
I refused to attribute that success to my own merits and could not believe that the
conjunction in a single person of such different and such extreme virtues was the
result of chance alone. This is why in my happy life I felt somehow that that hap-
piness was authorized by some higher decree. (F, 23)

Jonas evinces a similar attitude, but likewise fails to recognize his ob-
ligations towards this star, so that gradually Louise’s activity sup-
plants the star in Jonas’s life (TRN, 1632). Instead of acknowledging
his own responsibilities, the star becomes his excuse: “it’s the star
which is going far”, he tells himself, whereas he is staying with Louise
and the children (TRN, 1638). If Fitch’s argument concerning word-
play is correct, then it might be said that he begins to worship “false
prophets”, and is led astray by the false stars of others (TRN, 1639),
instead of identifying and serving his own star. Ultimately, it is far
from certain that Jonas is capable any longer of recognizing his true
star, and far from certain that the star he thinks he finds before falling
from his loft is authentic.9 The central dichotomy in “Jonas” is be-
tween the King’s son and the “new princes” of commerce who repre-
sent all those forces besetting Jonas. Not only is he led astray by the
false stars of success, marriage, and fornication, but this fate is re-
vealed as inevitable and the King’s son is supplanted by these new
princes and the powerful forces they represent.
A further analogy is to be found in a notation from the Carnets of
1952 whose terminology is strikingly similar to that of Louis Ber-

‘“Jonas’ ou la production d’une étoile”, 51-52.
This confusion may be compared to that of Clamence, seeing invisible doves in the
sky, or mistaking snowflakes for doves.
The First Man 273

trand. France, Camus writes, has leukaemia and her red blood cells are
being devoured by the white cells. No longer capable of revolutionary
change or waging war, she can only make reforms. Above all else, she
needs new blood (C3, 51). A similar image is applied to the outskirts
of Paris as a vast cancer absorbing healthy tissue when Jacques Cor-
mery returns. It is compared to a cancer reaching out its ganglions of
poverty and ugliness, and “digesting this foreign body” (PH, 44).
From this perspective the fate of Jonas transcends the individual and
his personal strengths and failings. Europe itself is the problem, doom-
ing all those unable to escape its reach. This is the loathsome Europe
that spawned the renegade priest and from which d’Arrast has es-
Thus “Jonas” echoes the themes of La Chute as Jonas likewise
avoids his duty. In La Chute the representation of women has a
marked symbolic dimension associated with the themes of judgement
and pardon as well as the taint of biological corruption. In “Jonas”,
Louise is ultimately portrayed as an individual equally subjected to the
same forces as her husband. Carina Gadourek has remarked on her
unconvincing elevation from caricature to tragic figure as Camus
moves from irony to a more serious tone,10 yet this change also re-
flects a shifting of focus from mythical to “real” women, and the bur-
den of responsibility is diverted onto the institution of marriage.
“Jonas” shifts the perspective from the male protagonist exclusively to
reveal that there is suffering on both sides.11
Nevertheless, Anthony Rizzuto seems optimistic in arguing for an
evolution in Camus’s attitudes towards women. Leaving aside Ca-
mus’s own protestations that Clamence was not modelled on himself
(and his contempt for this character), it is not at all clear that with re-
spect to women Camus underwent a process of self-examination dur-
ing the time he was writing La Peste, or that La Chute was
consciously self-denunciatory.12 Certainly, this interpretation has
some justification in the Carnets, as when Camus writes in 1959 that
it is himself and everything he has believed that he has been subject-
ing to criticism for the past 5 years (C3, 267). Yet the precise nature of
that self-criticism remains unclear, for as far as the conduct of his own
life was concerned Camus’s relationships with women continue to
Les Innocents et les coupables, 217.
In a letter of August, 1956, Camus writes to Francine Camus that he had rewritten
Louise’s situation, by which she is also overwhelmed (Albert Camus: une vie, 661).
Camus: Love and Sexuality.
274 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

display the same personal inadequacies and self-justifications. Olivier

Todd’s biography, in particular, reveals a lack of humanity in his be-
haviour towards women which showed no signs of change. It is tempt-
ing, in telling the chronologial “story” of Camus’s fictional writings,
to seek a resolution of sorts. On the contrary, in this respect the author
continues to show an astonishing lack of insight.
Jonas’s love for his family remains ambiguous, for his reflection
that he loved them (TRN, 1654) need not necessarily include his wife.
In Le Premier Homme the change of emphasis with regard to female
characters throws the focus not on individual women as sexual part-
ners, but on the family network, in a context of celibacy. If it would
finally appear that there Camus is agreeing with his theatrical women
that duty lies with those one loves (TRN, 258) the clarification re-
quired surrounds the identity of those loved ones. In Le Premier
Homme Camus presents a different “amour du couple” from that rep-
resented by Victoria; here, it is not the sexual partner but the mother
who returns, and in whom the themes of exile, confession and pardon
converge, for the “paradise” denied to Clamence is (in the words of
the Coran) at the feet of the mother. Such a move does not denote
resolution, however, for this unfinished work is also written under the
sign of Orestes.
The First Man
In Le Premier Homme the mother figure reappears for the first time
since La Peste, and as a symbol of the homeland. Here, her “real” and
symbolic aspects combine to suggest an apparent resolution of the
conflict between biological origins and the man-god who creates him-
self, and this is borne out by the treatment of family and origins in this
unfinished novel. I have suggested that the recuperation of the domes-
tic sphere in L’Exil et le Royaume prepares the way for a different
treatment of women in Le Premier Homme with its new concentration
on the family. In this respect Camus seems to move away from mythi-
cal women; as he confided to Brisville, in Le Premier Homme he
would speak about women for the first time, and their decisive role in
his upbringing; in his previous works, by contrast, they had been
“mythical”.13 This focus on an autobiographical Self suggests a per-
spective first taken in “Les Voix du quartier pauvre”, and a return to
his first projected novel, referred to as “the poor quarter”. Le Premier

Albert Camus: une vie, 741.
The First Man 275

Homme is foreshadowed and presented in strictly subjective and per-

sonal terms in the preface to L’Envers et l’Endroit where Camus says
that if, after all his efforts, he does not succeed one day in rewriting
that work, then he will have succeeded at nothing. In any case, he
comments, he continues to dream of placing at the centre of this work
“the admirable silence of a mother and the effort of a man to redis-
cover a justice or a love that matches this silence” (E, 13).
The reasons why Camus abandoned his first projected novel are
unknown, but if the mother was to have symbolized this community,
this suggests one reason for its abandonment. In the early writings she
is presented as a unique being of such abnormality that it is difficult to
imagine how she could possibly function as a symbol of anything ex-
cept herself. In Le Premier Homme, she is endowed with humanity
while simultaneously presented as ageless and unchanging. This pre-
pares the way for her status as a symbol not solely of the limited “poor
quarter”, but of her entire race. At the same time those negative as-
pects which militate against this positive symbolic function are ex-
A number of childhood memories are revived here, as with the de-
scription of the barrel-makers’ workshop (PH, 118-21). Camus returns
not only to his early notebooks but also to sources predating L’Envers
et l’Endroit. Le Premier Homme is marked by intertextual continuities
and absences as, “for the first time”, the mother and her blood rela-
tives are endowed with greater reality and humanity. Here, Camus
demonstrates a mature understanding of matters more harshly judged
in previous portrayals; characters are treated with greater compassion,
and reasons sought for their often harsh behaviour. The most negative
judgements on this family have been suppressed, most strikingly in
the case of the uncle, Ernest, whose previous portraits are marked by
an unvarying series of judgements which condemned him as brutal
and despotic. Despite remaining elements, the judgement itself is
overturned. The portrait of the grandmother shows less variation. In
all the early descriptions she is consistently portrayed as domineering
and harshly bringing up the children. What is excised from Le Premier
Homme is the child’s cynical reaction to her death, which acquires
more heroic proportions as we are told only that she died still un-
bowed (PH, 58). Explanations are advanced for her behaviour, all of
which concern the poverty in which she must bring up this family.
This is most starkly demonstrated by her search in the primitive toilet
for the coin Jacques claims to have lost there.
276 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Importantly, emotional deprivation is here presented as an inher-

ited characteristic passed down through the generations, rather than an
individual flaw. In early notes for Le Premier Homme Camus wrote
that they did not know how to love and that his childhood had been
devoid of this emotion: “The mother is not a source of love” (C3, 97-
98). In the case of the grandmother, previously presented as an actress
incapable of authentic emotion, she is endowed with characteristics
already shared by her daughter and grandson; incapable of the verbal
expression of a love she nonetheless feels. Rare glimpses are given of
such moments, as when after the long interview with M. Bernard she
emerges, wiping away tears from her eyes and, for the first time,
clumsily shows tenderness towards him (PH, 152-53). Again, love is
not expressed in her relationship with her son, Ernest. Only, one day
when the young Jacques catches sight of her watching her son with a
tenderness he had never seen before, he realizes that she loved him
and admired his physical beauty (PH, 111). In this, she resembles all
her race with their “cult of the body” (E, 74). Amongst a number of
parallels is the attitude to death, expressed in “L’Été à Alger” by the
words “poor soul, he won’t be singing any more” (E, 73) – a more
polite version of the grandmother’s “he won’t be farting any more”
(PH, 153). (See chapter 2.)
Although in this family more negative emotions are readily ex-
pressed, there is no “language of the heart”; this must be interpreted
by the child, crept up on at unguarded moments and deciphered – as
when Jacques catches sight of his mother looking at him with emo-
tion. He hesitates, and flees:
“Elle m’aime, elle m’aime donc” se disait-il dans l’escalier, et il comprenait en
même temps que lui l’aimait éperdument, qu’il avait souhaité de toutes ses forces
d’être aimé d’elle et qu’il en avait toujours douté jusque-là. (PH, 89-90)
“She loves me, she loves me then”, he said to himself on the stairs, and at the
same time he realized how desperately he loved her, that he had craved her love
with all his heart and that until then he had always doubted whether she loved
him. (FM, 72)

So unusual, so uncertain are such moments that they inspire fear and
flight; what if he is wrong? In such circumstances, only the persistent
vulnerability of doubt remains, most clearly demonstrated when the
grown son goes to visit his mother and she throws herself into his
arms. After exchanging a few words of welcome she immediately
turns away:
The First Man 277

(E)lle semblait ne plus penser à lui ni d’ailleurs à rien, et le regardait même par-
fois avec une étrange expression, comme si maintenant, ou du moins il en avait
l’impression, il était de trop et dérangeait l’univers étroit, vide et fermé où elle se
mouvait solitairement. (PH, 58-59)
(S)he no longer seemed to be thinking of him nor for that matter of anything, and
she even looked at him from time to time with an odd expression, as if – or so at
least it seemed to him – he were now in the way, were disturbing the narrow,
empty, closed universe which she circled in her solitude. (FM, 44)

The emotional insecurity of the son in the face of his mother could not
be clearer than in this, their first meeting in the book.
Jean Sarocchi points out that in this scene the mother is given a
concrete, human status: she has a physical description, grey hair, and
an age. At the same time, as if to compensate, a process of idealization
renders her ageless, the same as thirty years before.14 Although he
profitably compares “Entre oui et non” with this first meeting in the
novel, that first scene is also incorporated when, alone in the house,
she sits in the growing darkness watching the activity of the street.
Here, as he watches her, the child is filled only with a “despairing
love” (PH, 159) that replaces previous uncertainty as to whether he
loves her at all (PC, 274: E, 26), while none of the particular negativ-
ity associated with her remains. She no longer has a strange or super-
natural character (MH, 219): she is no longer staring “abnormally” at
the floor (E, 1215); neither is her brusque rejection of him recorded
here; “He looks like an idiot, watching her like that. He should go and
do his homework” (PC, 274: E, 26). Again, the aggressive impulse
with which the son apparently identifies is suppressed in Le Premier
Homme, which makes no mention of the attack on her in “Entre oui et
non”. Instead, a comparison between these two scenes from the book
sheds further light on the nature of love in this family. In face-to-face
verbal contact the son is left feeling de trop, an intruder in her closed
universe. In the second scene, only such intrusions can be the occasion
for love, always unexpressed. The son is like the thief in the night,
stealing such moments from the insentient mother: voyeurism alone is
the source of power and knowledge, for only such instances offer the
heavily interpreted confirmation of love. The son must unearth these
moments and impose meaning on them. The absence of reciprocation
(the death of the mother) is necessary for such moments, for her inde-
pendent awareness admits the possibility of the wrong response. What

Le Dernier Camus, 54.
278 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

has been removed, however, is not only his own ambivalence but also
his own moment of certainty that the “truth” of her existence is that
there is no existence, and no love: “She knows nothing. She does not
think. What is, then, her secret on this earth?” (PC, 282).
This particular vacuum cannot be filled, for Camus’s continuing
inability to imagine her otherwise remains a central obstacle. At one
point the author considers writing the book to the mother, to reveal at
the end that she cannot read (PH, 292). Although by no means unusual
at that time, illiteracy is her defining characteristic. A sustained ad-
dress to the mother might have proved difficult to realize, as would
the option of alternating chapters giving her a voice to comment on
the same events but, he insultingly adds, “with her vocabulary of 400
words” (PH, 312). It is not surprising that Camus appears to have
abandoned such options.
As in L’Envers et l’Endroit, the mother makes the opening at-
tempts at conversation, and the son, instead of responding, critically
assesses the manner of her speech. When she speaks it is as if she
“emptied” her head of thought, while her ensuing silence signifies not
that her speech has dried up, but the capacity for thought itself (PH,
77). Perhaps only the determinedly wayward reader would think she is
perhaps defeated by her treatment at the hands of a son whose only
attempt at conversation is to interrogate her about his father and, indi-
rectly, himself. But, as in “Entre oui et non”, the text allows no space
for such idle speculation: the “vacuum” of her mind is filled by the
narrator’s insistence on its vacuity. These factors problematize the
assumption that she will be relieved of her mythical status in favour of
a more realistic portrayal. As John Sturrock comments, she is depicted
as “practically without a mind” with “no inner life of any kind, and
her stoicism seems more vacuous than heroic”; his suspicion of Ca-
mus’s motives in creating such a character seems well-founded.15
The First Murder
“For the first time”, then, Camus will bring real women into his work,
because their role was of capital importance in his own development.
Once more, they take up their old role not as the subjects of their own
lives but as the vehicle of male self-representation. One might ask
what has changed, what is being spoken of here for the first time in
this return to the mother as his instrument, his symbol: the mirror that

“Something Royal”, New York Review of Books, 16 (17) (8 Sept. 1994), 6-7.
The First Man 279

does nothing but reflect back to the only subject the childhood of pov-
erty from which he has never done anything else but flee (E, 1213)?
Like Echo, the mirror reflects only the subject standing before it; al-
though these reflections spread wider now, there is only surface rather
than depth. The love that is eternally vacant, eternally turned towards
him, this is the blankness Camus seeks to place at the centre of his
work; and the silence of death.
Under these conditions Le Premier Homme revives the oldest
dream of confession, of rescuing “the truth” from the ocean of the
ages. In the absence of the father, the mother is presented as the only
one who can give absolution, “but you do not understand me and can-
not read my words. And I am speaking to you, I am writing to you, to
you alone” (PH, 319). The impossibility of verbal communication is
forcefully illustrated throughout the work, as in the scene when the
grandmother, on seeing her daughter’s new hairstyle, compares her to
a slut, and the young Jacques tries to tell her she is beautiful; but she
cannot hear him, and waves him away (PH, 116). As if this had si-
lenced forever the verbal expression of love, we read that years later,
when Jacques was about to tell her how beautiful she was, he dared
not speak (PH, 60).
Such poignant moments that stress the son’s continuing fear of re-
jection and his feelings of being superfluous – his own inability to ex-
press his emotions – are, however, far removed from Costes’s
insistence on the wish to make his mother speak, to speak to and about
his mother so that she will speak to him.16 Confession is predicated on
the mother’s exile from the word, written and spoken; perhaps even,
the confession may be envisaged only in consequence of this. This
recalls Camus’s reflection that a man’s dislike of being judged ex-
plains his attachment to his mother; or to the woman blinded by love;
or his love of animals (C3, 115). Like Don Juan’s conquests and like
Ernest’s dog, the woman who does not think is incapable of judge-
I argued in chapter 1 that the young writer’s attempts to recreate
this maternal figure were repeatedly defeated by his inability to imag-
ine her inner life; this failure to give her a human dimension is only
resolved by her transformation into a symbol, a final solution that de-
termines her subsequent treatment. Camus’s entire literary activity is
predicated not on the wish to make his mother speak but on the death

Albert Camus et la parole manquante, 127.
280 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

of the mother, the death of the woman in her, and the death of all im-
penetrable Otherness.17 From the literal death in L’Étranger to the
purely symbolic existence of La Peste or La Chute, there is no longer
the need for surprise that others engage in conversation with her, treat-
ing her as if she were alive (E, 1216); and no need to confess his own
suspicion that she is like an animated corpse. Camus’s literary career
is founded on this first “death”, just as his own entry into the world of
ideas entailed the death of that first world of ignorance and poverty
from which he came. In his long endeavour to bring myths to life (E,
13) it is fitting that this, his final work, should resonate with Oresteian
The Oresteian Trilogy recounts the murder of Agamemnon on his
return from the Trojan war, by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover.
Her son, Orestes, is charged by Apollo to avenge his father’s death,
even though by committing matricide he would transgress the sacred
blood bond, bringing down upon himself the punishment of the Er-
innyes, upholders of the mother-right. This trilogy traces the over-
throw of the old matriarchal religion by the newer, patriarchal one of
Zeus and the gods of Olympus, which gives priority to the role and
rights of the father. The actions of Orestes establish order and the rule
of Reason / patriarchy over the chaos of Passion / matriarchy, as signi-
fied by the blood feud. In her postscript to Freud’s Totem and Taboo,
Luce Irigaray suggests that the murder of the father was preceded by a
more ancient crime, the murder of the mother: that this death marks
the foundation of Western culture. The horror of Oedipus at his
mother’s embrace is prompted not by the paternal taboo against incest
but by the memory and guilt of that long-buried first murder.18 In Le
Premier Homme Oedipus is replaced by Orestes.
The Personal and the Political
Peter Dunwoodie has argued that Le Premier Homme is not primarily
a récit d’enfance, but a political text that seeks to intervene politically

For a broader view of this subject see Colin Davis, “Violence and Ethics in Ca-
mus”, in Edward J. Hughes (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2007), 107-117.
Le Corps-à corps avec la mère (Montreal: Éditions de la pleine lune, 1981). See
Kirsteen H. R. Anderson’s “La Première Femme: the Mother’s Resurrection in the
Works of Camus and Irigaray”, in French Studies, LVI (1) (January 2002), 29-43, for
a different interpretation of the relationship between Irigaray and Camus.
The First Man 281

in the ongoing Algerian war of independence.19 Although posed in

terms of a highly subjective return to personal roots, Le Premier
Homme is clearly also prompted by events at the historical and politi-
cal level. Indeed, after the loss of Algeria and the exodus of the settler
community, there was a surge in writings mourning this lost homeland
whose very existence testifies to the collective nature of that loss.20
Although Le Premier Homme was written before the end of the Alge-
rian war, Camus’s belief that it was politically “too late” for the
French Algerians was accurate, while his personal conviction was that
once his homeland was lost he would himself be worth nothing (C3,
251).21 As in life, personal and political domains are inextricably
merged as a whole community is forced to come to terms with wider
historical forces beyond their control. Le Premier Homme is simulta-
neously a personal testament, a symptom of a collective mourning,
and (regardless of Camus’s continuing attempt to maintain the mother
as the symbol of a community outside of history) a demonstration of
the extent to which no community and no individual are ever outside
of history.
This change of perspective relocates the family drama onto a wider
terrain, moving the presentation of the mother away from a unique
human complexity towards a universal, symbolic function. The escape
from the closed circuit of the family is reflected in other ways, as with
the theme of animality that pervaded “Entre oui et non”. In Le Pre-
mier Homme the mother no longer evinces the “animal silence” that
linked her, the cannibalistic mother cat, and the Arab café owner, and
which was limited to the confines of the claustrophobic family sphere.
Instead, the uniquely negative aspects of this theme are suppressed in
favour of its extension to an entire community living in a pre-
linguistic time outside of history. Now, a collective characteristic is
reflected in microcosm within this family structure. Hence, his uncle’s
“animal” attachment (PH, 118) for all the family is an illustration of
the wider, equally instinctive attachment of the settler for his land, or
of the relationship between Arab and settler; a mixture of violence and
love. Again, if the childhood described in Le Premier Homme is one

See “Negotiation or Confrontation? Camus, Memory and the Colonial
Chronotope”, in Christine Margerrison, Mark Orme, et al (eds), Albert Camus in the
Twenty-first Century (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 45-60.
See Jean Robert Henry (ed.), Le Maghreb dans l’imaginaire français: la colonie, le
désert, l’exil (Aix-en-Provence: Édisud, 1985).
See Grenier-Camus Correspondance, 222.
282 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

where the intellect has no place, this trait is in itself a collective one,
as celebrated in earlier writings. As if in a parallel with the Freudian
view of childhood and the development of civilization itself, the world
of the family and community is presented under the sign of the id; the
passionate outburst, the instinctive bond which has nothing to do with
rational choice or verbal reasoning. Such associations extend far be-
yond the family circle to form the basis for the idea of the nation it-
Commenting on the self-sacrifing love inspired by the idea of the
homeland, Benedict Anderson highlights those ties which are not cho-
sen, expressed in the vocabulary of kinship and the home:
Both idioms denote something to which one is naturally tied. (In) everything
“natural” there is always something unchosen. In this way nation-ness is assimi-
lated to skin-colour, gender, parentage, and birth-era – all those things one can not

This likewise underlies the valorization of the blood tie in Le Premier

Homme, where Camus writes about the greater love as that which was
not chosen: the instinctive love. Jacques Cormery had loved his
mother and his child, everything it had not been within his power to
Les êtres que le destin lui avait imposés, le monde tel qu’il lui apparaissait, tout ce
que dans sa vie il n’avait pas pu éviter, la maladie, la gloire ou la pauvreté, son
étoile enfin. Pour le reste, pour tout ce qu’il avait dû choisir, il s’était efforcé
d’aimer, ce qui n’est pas la même chose. (PH, 309-10: my emphasis)
The people fate had imposed on him, the world as it appeared to him, everything
in his life he had not been able to avoid, his illness, his vocation, fame or poverty
– in a word, his star. For the rest, for everything he had to choose, he had made
himself love, which is not the same thing. (FM, 248: my emphasis)

Biology is destiny: the star. In earlier writings, the mother as biologi-

cal origin was a source of ambivalence, compromising the god-like
status of the individual man who creates himself. In “La Maison
mauresque”, claim to possession of the Algerian soil rests ambigu-
ously on the turn to the mother as origin, and the apparently simulta-
neous recognition of this as a possible source of contamination. Such
hesitancy might be seen in the fragment cited earlier when the son re-
alizes that everything that makes up his sensibility can be traced to the
day he recognized that he had been born of this mother, and that she
almost never thought (E, 1213). The movement away from these roots

Imagined Communities, 131.
The First Man 283

into a world of education and culture is underlined there by a contrast

between the emotions and the intellect, and the fact of biological ori-
gin is presented as paradoxical. This paradox recalls a similar (al-
though by no means identical) conflict experienced by Nietzsche:
When I look for the deepest contrast to myself, the unimaginable baseness of in-
stinct, I find always my mother and sister – to think of myself as related to such
baseness would be blasphemy against my godliness.23

There is no such blasphemy in Le Premier Homme where, on the con-

trary, these very ties are celebrated and, as in the previous quotation,
become the essence of the star (PH, 309). Yet, the King’s son must
look further afield for his intellectual legacy and become, in this re-
spect, his own pure origin. These are the two separate paths traced in
Le Premier Homme, except that now this biological tie is celebrated,
and those allied obscure forces of the soul. This change of emphasis
marks a major shift in Camus’s work in the presentation of the family,
which is no longer a question of heterosexual love, or of the legally
sanctioned choice, but of a biological bond imposed willy-nilly by
blood. No longer a source of contradiction, the affirmation of biologi-
cal roots continues the association made in 1950 between this family
and a notion of nobility:
Près d’eux ce n’est pas la pauvreté, ni le dénuement, ni l’humiliation que j’ai sen-
tis. Pourquoi ne pas le dire: j’ai senti et je sens encore ma noblesse. Devant ma
mère, je sens que je suis d’une race noble: celle qui n’envie rien. (C2, 326)
With them I have felt neither poverty, nor deprivation nor humiliation. Why not
say it: I have felt and still feel my nobility. When I am with my mother, I feel that
I am of a noble race: one that envies nothing. (SEN, 290)

The mother-son dyad establishes the bridge between that commu-

nity / race outside of history and the universe beyond, to which the son
now belongs. The “amour du couple” is redefined – based, not on het-
erosexual or incestuous love, but on the primacy and chastity of the
blood tie:
Je veux écrire ici l’histoire d’un couple lié par un même sang et toutes les diffé-
rences. Elle semblable à ce que la terre porte de meilleur, et lui tranquillement
monstrueux. Lui jeté dans toutes les folies de notre histoire; elle traversant la mê-
me histoire comme si elle était celle de tous les temps. (…) La mère et le fils.
(PH, 308)
I want to write here the story of a couple joined by the same blood and every kind
of difference. She similar to the best this world has, and he quietly abominable.

Julian Young, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), 151.
284 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

He thrown into the follies of our time; she passing through the same history as if it
were that of any time. (…) Mother and son. (FM, 247)

In this distinction between the man thrown into history and the woman
who represents the a-historical and unchanging community, it is no
coincidence that she “escapes” history to signify the biological conti-
nuity of the generations, that “cultureless history of the generation
sequence”. This symbolic dimension serves a dual purpose, as her out-
look expresses also that attributed to her community who, untouched
by modern technology, remain as they were a century earlier (C3,
264). More significantly, who but the mother could represent this
theme of blood and soil?
But this reconciliation remains a source of tension and conflict,
leaving unresolved the paradox of maternal stupidity. The mother’s
blood flows through the son’s veins, but what of the endless abyss of
her mind? One source of resolution lies on the level of myth. The
problem of the blood bond and of that primary instinctive allegiance is
tackled otherwise in the Oresteia, which moves towards the judge-
ment of Apollo that “The mother is not true parent of the child which
is called hers. She is a nurse who tends the growth of young seed
planted by its true parent, the male”.24
Another unnatural son – the fatherless Orestes, son of a king and a
stranger in his native land – likewise grew to manhood without a
mother’s love. But his return marks the overthrow of the old order, the
victory of the intellect over instinct, and the proclamation of the in-
strumental status of the mother, whose body henceforth is the mere
receptacle of a masculine principle.
The Matriarchy
Christ did not set foot in Algeria, Camus was to reflect (PH, 292).
Yet, the Christian overtones of the nativity scene at the beginning of
Le Premier Homme suggest a relocation of the Holy Family in Alge-
ria, the lost Ithaca. Of course, in itself the novel is a work in progress,
and with this in mind I only suggest that one might detect traces of
Camus’s Mythe de Némésis, the provisional title for an essay of which
Camus was thinking from as early as 1951. How had the new religion
of Christianity impacted on the older pagan values of Greece? The
overt Christian symbolism of La Chute (envisaged as a precursor to
his third cycle of work (C3, 187), Nemesis) had been disrupted by two

The Eumenides, 632-61.
The First Man 285

types of paganism: that represented by Greek myth; and precisely that

mixture of Christianity and paganism that he witnessed in the South
American macumba ceremony. There, however, that paganism ema-
nated from Africa, not Greece. It would be as well to remember that
Camus shared Nietzsche’s view of Christianity as a slave religion mo-
tivated by envy of the powerful, and that the only true Christian was
Christ Himself. These details explain, perhaps, the sense of the reflec-
tion in the Carnets of May, 1958, where Camus writes that although
the world is moving towards paganism it still rejects pagan values;
these must be restored, belief paganized, and Christ must be Hel-
lenized (“grécisé”) in order to restore balance (C3, 220). Just as, in
conversation with Jean Grenier, Camus had asked how such a new
sensibility as Christianity, so different from the ancient one, had been
able to make its appearance,25 so one of his aims in Le Premier
Homme appears to have been the examination of “ce que deviennent
les valeurs françaises dans une conscience algérienne, celle du premier
homme” (PH, 314) (“what becomes of French values in an Algerian
consciousness, that of the first man”).
In the pagan world the sexual act lay at the heart of all creation. On
Olympus, Zeus and Hera could dispute which sex derived the most
pleasure from love, and the female followers of Dionysus, in their
frenzy, tore apart King Pentheus, his own mother ripping off his head.
No more than her husband (who, on his return, brought his slave-
concubine, Cassandra, into the home) did Clytemnestra consent to the
ten years of celibacy imposed by Agamemnon’s absence at the war.
She, who had witnessed his sacrifice of their own daughter in the
name of war, took a lover before finally avenging Iphigeneia’s death.
This murderous female sexuality is replaced in Le Premier Homme by
Mary, the Virgin Mother and the immaculate conception. “All that is
left of her loves and desires” writes Irigaray, is “gentleness, tenderness
or compassion”.26 There can be no Clytemnestra in Le Premier
Homme. In this merger of paganism and Christ (or Clytemnestra and
Mary), female sexuality is annulled; the imposition of celibacy per-
mits the return to that female world. Yet, this couple of mother (“who
dies to her generation in order to become merely the vehicle for the
Other”)27 and son also recalls that earlier Apollonian couple, and Leto,
Souvenirs, 134.
Luce Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gillian C. Gill (tr.) (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1991), 167.
Ibid., 166.
286 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

mother of Apollo, torn apart before his birth by the thunderbolt of

The construction of the family around the bonds of blood renders
the (earthly) father superfluous, and the exclusion of the son (a “mon-
ster”), by virtue of his intellectual faculties. The ties of blood over-
ride those of marriage to establish a family structure that banishes the
outsider by blood. As the ascendancy of “blood” over “flesh”, the
“amour du couple” relates here to the mother-son and the brother-
sister tie, which are substituted for those of marriage. After the grand-
mother’s death Catherine and Ernest live together in mutual harmony,
“oui, comme mari et femme, non pas selon la chair mais selon le
sang” (PH, 122) (“yes, like husband and wife, not in the flesh but in
the blood”). Not incest but chastity is here restored at the very heart of
the family. Thus, the chaste environment of “la Maison devant le
monde” or the chaste sexuality of Marie and Meursault are returned to
the “innocence” identified earlier as structuring a sexual topography.
As Clamence noted, Greece requires chastity and pureness of heart.
These archaic bonds take precedence over marriage, with an em-
phasis not on the father or the husband, but on the mother. In eco-
nomic and political terms power in this society is clearly in the hands
of men; equally, the level of male violence, described both here and in
earlier writings, governs the behaviour of women. The rule of the ma-
triarch extends no further than the confines of the claustrophobic
apartment, while in the public sphere she must be defended by the
men of her family.28 However, on the symbolic level the society pre-
sented here is that of the primitive tribe, introspective and jealous of
outsiders, and the role of the father is transient: this is a primitive ma-
triarchy. Such is the central discovery at the cemetery of St Brieuc,
where the adult Jacques discovers himself to be older than his father,
and recognizes this man, of whom he had never thought, as “unjustly
murdered”. The linear order of time itself fragments to reveal that
there was no order, no sense of lineage, but only “madness and chaos”
(PH, 30) where the son is older than his father. At his father’s tomb,
time dislocates, and “this new order of time is that of the book” (PH,
317), moving backwards towards the beginning, before the father’s
death, to the time before his birth.

The scene before the restaurant of the man shot in a brawl is returned here to Al-
giers to demonstrate forcefully the vulnerability of the two women and children (PH,
The First Man 287

In Le Premier Homme this pre-patriarchal framework signifies a

return to the primitive world of the tribe where, in mythology at least,
the father’s role is a frail one.29 Camus constructs a pre-Olympian cul-
ture built around the matrilineal blood bond. After the first World
War, the loss of the father is a European-wide phenomenon, and the
repercussions of this foreign war reverberate throughout Algerian so-
ciety as daily, in every corner of Algeria, hundreds of Arab and
French orphans are born, who would have to learn how to live without
guidance or a paternal legacy (PH, 70). Yet, within Algeria itself these
events are no new turn, but a continuation of the established order.
Jacques’s father was himself from the orphanage (PH, 65) and es-
tranged from his family. His mother and uncle are likewise fatherless,
and the paternal line of their family has died out. This feature of colo-
nization is underlined in Camus’s notes when he writes that of 600
settlers in 1831, 150 died while still under canvas (PH, 267); of these
foundlings of colonization Camus remarks, “Yes, that is all of us”
(PH, 299). The grandmother had married a man whose own paternal
origins were wiped out after the grandfather, a poet, had been shot in
the back by mistake. The result of this had been:
l’installation sur le littoral algérien d’une nichée d’analphabètes qui se reproduisè-
rent loin des écoles, attelés seulement à un travail exténuant sous un soleil féroce.
(PH, 82)
the settling on the Algerian shore of a nest of illiterates who multiplied, far from
any school, harnessed to a life of exhausting labour under a ferocious sun.
(FM, 65)

The son / grandfather had been no match for his energetic young wife,
who bore him nine children: he died prematurely, worn out by the sun,
work, and perhaps marriage (PH, 82). His indomitable widow had
sold the farm and moved to Algiers with her youngest children. Hence
each branch of the paternal line has been successively erased, while
the remaining blood line is matrilineal. Thus is traced the history of
the mythical founding family; from its inception in 1848 the tribe has
been fatherless, and its young men killed off by the violent struggle
for the survival of the race:

See J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged
(London: MacMillan, 1995). The Golden Bough was highly influential at the begin-
ning of the century, and Camus had read it as a student, as Carl A. Viggiani testifies in
“Notes pour le biographe futur d’Albert Camus”, in AC1 (1968), 200-18 (208). It is
also extensively quoted by Freud.
288 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Des foules entières étaient venues ici depuis plus d’un siècle, avaient labouré,
creusé des sillons (...) jusqu’à ce qu’une terre légère les recouvre et la région alors
retournait aux végétations sauvages, et ils avaient procréé puis disparu. Et ainsi de
leurs fils. Et les fils et les petits-fils de ceux-ci s’étaient trouvés sur cette terre
comme lui-même s’y était trouvé, sans passé, sans morale, sans leçon, sans reli-
gion mais heureux de l’être. (PH, 178)
Whole crowds had been coming here for more than a century, had ploughed, dug
furrows (…) until the dusty earth covered them over and the place went back to its
wild vegetation, and they had procreated, then disappeared. And so it was with
their sons. And the sons and grandsons of these found themselves on this land as
he himself had, with no past, without ethics, without guidance, without religion,
but glad to be so. (FM, 150)

The arrival of the illiterate brood on the Algerian shores marks the end
of the old, European civilization and the grafting upon a new geo-
graphical space of that culture not yet born, growing plant-like from
the soil in conformity to Spengler’s vision of the organic cycle of the
birth of culture. Without the Father, Civilization and the Law, mater-
nal biology is the only parental trace. With no forefathers, each man is
necessarily the First Man (C3, 142).
In spite of the orthodox Camusian position which routinely and
conveniently equates the grandmother with the father, this absence of
the patriarchal family structure is reflected in Jacques’s own family in
the return to an older matriarchal system where emphasis is on the
bonds of blood. All the members of the Cormery family are the direct
descendants of the grandmother. Although the son, Joséphin, sleeps
elsewhere, he eats still in the family home, and it is as if this separate
household is a preparation for his later, temporary marriage, which is
kept outside the family sphere (PH, 114). Sexuality brings not renewal
but threat to the cohesion of the family unit. Two incidents illustrate
the banishment of the predatory sexual outsider. The first concerns
Catherine Cormery’s friendship with Antoine, and the violent quarrel
that ensues between Ernest and the other man. The second concerns
the story of Pirette and the perennial nightmare of the guillotine. What
marks out Pirette, servant of the family he slaughtered, is his position
as an unrelated outsider. The grandmother’s enigmatic denial of the
young Jacques’s assumption that he murdered in order to steal (PH,
80) darkly implies an unspeakable sexual motive. Here, the exsan-
guineous outsider had been admitted into the family, for which they
had suffered bloody retribution. Such menace extends to the later
massacre at the Raskil farm and that “permanent danger” presented by
the Arabs, which is further illustrated when the aunt checks each eve-
The First Man 289

ning that all the windows and doors are bolted against this blood-
thirsty intruder (PH, 257) who would destroy the family – a threat im-
plicitly posed by the father himself (or the would-be lover).30
Exsanguineous relationships are temporary – satellites of the central,
enduring maternal bond. The matriarch’s semi-divine status is illus-
trated by the rivalry between the two adult sons. When, during one of
Ernest’s rages, she grabs him by the hair, asking whether he would hit
his own mother, he bursts into tears, telling her that she is to him like
the good Lord Himself (PH, 115).
Such deference to the mother reaches back to the origin of the
tribe, for it is she who ensures the maintenance and continuation of the
race. In this respect all men in this primitive environment are sons of
the mother, a factor that likewise resituates Jacques’s father as a son.
“Madness and chaos” indeed, but herein lies the crucial distinction
between the established civilization of France and the new “barbari-
ans” of Algeria, where each man needs must be the First Man. Chaos
denotes the time before the earth’s creation, while in the cemetery of
Saint-Brieuc the dawning recognition is that there is no patrilineal de-
scent for any son of Algeria, where all that is represented by patriar-
chy – education, culture, and ultimately civilization – has not yet had
time to develop; the efforts of the men have been entirely diverted into
the construction and protection of hearth and home, tribe and race.
Literacy is a useless luxury where life, limb and the survival of the
species are at stake. This is recognized and glorified in the hunting
scene, where Ernest comes into his own (PH, 106).
In 1937 Camus had spoken of a new culture, presented under the
sign of nature rather than the social (E, 1327). In this light, the graft-
ing of the new culture on the Algerian soil was a primeval and neces-
sary battle for space distanced from the act of colonial expansion or
The plant possesses the ground in which it roots. It is its property, which it de-
fends to the utmost, with the desperate force of its whole being, against alien
seeds, against overshadowing neighbour plants, against all nature. (...) The bitter-
est fights over property occur – not in the Late periods of great Cultures, between

For an alternative explanation of the significance of Pirette, see Edward J. Hughes,
‘“Tranquillement monstrueux’: Violence and Kinship in Le Premier Homme”, in
Constructing Memories: Camus, Algeria and “Le Premier Homme”, Peter Dun-
woodie and Edward J. Hughes (eds) (Stirling: Stirling French publications, 1998).
290 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

rich and poor, and about moveable goods – but here in the beginning of the plant

Algeria represents the “naïve times” of L’Homme révolté and its men
are children (E, 413) who reflect this rudimentary infant culture. The
brief and violent pleasures of life, and the cult of virility, celebrated in
“L’Été à Alger”, have not been abandoned here, nor revised.
The life of men takes place outside the family circle, in the homo-
social and natural sphere (under the sun, in the sea). Freed from the
confines and obligations of domesticity, men come into their own,
“uninhibited and in a mood of amused tolerance that is peculiar to
men when they are together for some brief, violent pleasure” (PH,
102-03). Their hunting activities underline the harmony of the male
body in action, and the primeval status of man the hunter in this relo-
cation of the pack at the beginning of time. The narrator’s own admi-
ration for man in nature and his “Adamic innocence” (PH, 98) is
reflected by Jacques’s recognition that the companionship of men
nourishes the heart (PH, 103). This aspect of the child’s education is
as important as any other he is to receive. Culturally, these men are
children (barbarians), but their over-riding superiority lies in the fact
that they are real men, and at the dawn of a new age:
Affrontés à... dans l’histoire la plus vieille du monde nous sommes les premiers
hommes – non pas ceux du déclin comme on le crie dans (mot illisible) journaux
mais ceux d’une aurore indécise et différente. (PH, 321)
Confronting … in the oldest story in the world we are the first men – not those of
the decline as they shout in the (illegible word) newspapers but those of a differ-
ent and undefined dawn. (FM, 255-56)

Those of the decline are the men of the waning European civilization;
such is the implication of the old farmer’s assertion that there are no
men left in France (PH, 168), and the scene sketched out in the ap-
pendix when, after his arrest by the army, the hero comments that the
soldier had doubtless never met “men” before (PH, 285). The violence
of the hunt expresses the link between man, nature and innocence,
where innocence is a total adaptation of the individual to the universe
in which he lives (C1, 90). Theirs is the amoral innocence of wolves,
untamed. This is the same “chaste” violence exhibited in sexual rela-
tionships with women, and as exemplified by Vincent in “L’Été à Al-
ger”. In a different context, the reference to Cain (PH, 178) extends

The Decline of the West, II, 344. Camus was himself careful to distinguish else-
where between imperialism and colonial expansion (E, 897-98).
The First Man 291

this innocence, where violence is naturalized, to social relations be-

tween the races. This is also seen in Veillard’s conviction that, besides
themselves, the only others who can understand are the Arabs:
“On est fait pour s’entendre. Aussi bêtes et brutes que nous, mais le même sang
d’homme. On va encore un peu se tuer, se couper les couilles et se torturer un
brin. Et puis on recommencera à vivre entre hommes. C’est le pays qui veut ça.”
(PH, 168-69)
“We were made to understand one another. Fools and brutes like us, but with the
same blood of men. We’ll kill each other for a little longer, cut off each other’s
balls and torture each other a bit. And then we’ll go back to living as men to-
gether. The country wants it that way.” (FM, 141)

Here is again the belief, expressed in 1937, and implied in “La Femme
adultère”, that the land, and shared activity, creates unique collective
characteristics in its people. In contrast to effeminate and decrepit
European values, only in Algeria is there (in the words of Raymond)
always understanding between men.
The “maternal camp” of the Cormery household is far from a para-
dise of pure, altruistic love. If the young Jacques learns to value the
company of men, a similar emotion concerning women is strikingly
absent from this account of childhood. On the contrary, pleasure is to
be found outside the home, while the return there is associated with
restrictions, repression, and harsh punishments. Although the overtly
cannibalistic aspect of matriarchy is excised here – for there is no
mother cat eating her kittens (E, 28) – the cat’s inability to nourish her
young is expressed in other ways, as illustrated earlier with regard to
the child’s need for love, of which the mother is not a source. This
description seems still to apply to the later draft of the novel, where
affective deprivation is the hallmark of this family and the childhood
“from which he had never healed” (PH, 44). Indeed, the traditional
maternal role is notably absent. The mother is the silent witness of
Jacques’ beatings, yet nothing in her behaviour supports the assertion
that these blows hurt her equally (PH, 61). This faith contrasts mark-
edly with the earlier paradoxical depiction of her as a mother who
knew neither how to love or to caress her children, and hence “indif-
ferent” (MH, 219) – for what is a good mother who does not know
how to love? Both as a child and grown man the son constantly strives
to explain, justify and interpret her apparent lack of maternal feeling.
Ultimately, the solution is found in the harshness and poverty of her
existence, which allows no time nor energy for the expression of love.
She is “prevented” from intervening in their punishments by fatigue,
292 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

inarticulacy and respect for her own mother, but nonetheless in some
intangible, Christ-like way she “endured” those blows on behalf of her
children (PH, 61-62).
During childhood, the search for love is particularly urgent when
Jacques suffers the grandmother’s whip, and the experience of emo-
tional deprivation is at its height. Pain is once more associated with
love when Jacques has an accident at the uncle’s workshop and
Ernest’s reaction leads to the discovery of the uncle’s “quasi animal
attachment” for his family (PH, 118). Later, M. Bernard’s administra-
tion of the cane (the stick of “barley-sugar”) is perceived as containing
a curious mixture of paternal affection and sadism (PH, 142). This is
an unmistakeable echo of Mersault’s ambition to “lick his life like
barley-suger, to shape it, sharpen it, love it at last” (MH, 124): there,
this impulse is associated with the possession of Marthe’s body, which
he could “dominate and humiliate”, while the revolver with which
Mersault murders Zagreus equates with the “barley-sugar stick” when
Zagreus licks the barrel and sticks his tongue into it to suck out “an
impossible happiness” (MH, 78). Even aside from such intertextual
associations it is not difficult to detect a deformation in the emotional
development of the child, where violence and love are intimately re-
lated, in the face of a total absence of any other expression of affec-
tion. Despite the narrator’s denials the social dimension rescues the
family from the charge of monstrosity: they are the victims of poverty
and “elemental need” and cannot be condemned for this, for they hurt
one another without wanting to (PH, 118).
Again, here is hardly the “lost paradise” drawn in the preface to
L’Envers et l’Endroit. Poverty breeds a lack of sentimentality that
might be taken for insensitivity, as in the grandmother’s harsh attitude
towards death. Her attitude symbolizes that of the whole nation, de-
termining the character of a people deprived by their collective destiny
of the sort of “funeral piety” exhibited in more “civilized” lands (PH,
153). Thus, such apparent lack of empathy has a heroic dimension,
further reflected in the plight of the women. They have been forced by
circumstance to fight against poverty in a struggle that is so exhaust-
ing that the maternal function becomes impossible. Both the mother of
Jacques (condemned to a life of celibacy) and her mother might le-
gitimately ask Dora’s question: “Am I a woman now?” This matriar-
chal family is no haven of love and security but the domain of the
chaotic emotions – instinct and passion, violence and ignorance.
The First Man 293

The Patriarchal Trace

I earlier suggested a reconciliation between biology and the intellect.
If Camus had previously felt alienated from these people, the embrace
of blood ties does not in fact cancel out the awareness that the King’s
son must “learn, understand without help, and become a man finally
without the help of the only man (M. Bernard) who had rescued him;
grow and bring himself up alone, at the highest cost” (PH, 163). The
intellectual sphere, and the child’s intellectual mentors, could not be
further divorced from notions of biological inheritance or blood lines.
Amputated from their men, the women create the world implied by
those such as Victoria of L’État de siège: closed in on itself (PH, 163),
with no interest in the wider world, and with no belief system or ethi-
cal principles to pass on to their children. In such circumstances, the
moral development of the child is entirely neglected: in the absence of
guidance he only knows that some things were forbidden and pun-
ished, whereas others were not (PH, 86). Only the school offers such
instruction, and this world provides a sanctuary from the home envi-
ronment, where poverty and ignorance made life “harder and more
bleak” (PH, 137-38). In its various incarnations the masculine world
(school, male friendships, the football field, the hunt, the workshop,
and later, the world of work and the briefly glimpsed ship’s cabin)
offers such refuge, in the form of both physical and intellectual activ-
ity. At times even, this other world intervenes in the isolated “poor
island” (PH, 255) to rescue one of its sons. When Jacques tells his
schoolmaster that his grandmother is in charge (PH, 151), it is he who
visits her and he who throws Jacques into the world, “taking onto
himself the responsibility for uprooting him” (PH, 149). This act of
midwifery is “the only paternal gesture” of his childhood, and M.
Bernard had changed his destiny (PH, 129).
The above comments clearly establish the significance of paternal
figures on the periphery of this society. Another such figure is the fa-
ther of M. Veillard at Solférino, who exemplifies the old settler spirit
despised in Paris (PH, 167). He had ruthlessly succeeded in taming
the soil, a labour seen as the sole product of his own indomitable
spirit. When forced to evacuate his farm, this patriarch tears up his
vines and empties away his wine. His life furnishes a contrast to that
of the grandmother, herself a product of this same spirit – yet when
left a widow she had been forced to break up her family and abandon
her farm for a life of poverty in Algiers. Later, it is Victor Malan (Jean
Grenier) who fulfills the paternal role:
294 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

“Lorsque j’étais très jeune, très sot et très seul (...), vous vous êtes tourné vers
moi, et vous m’avez ouvert sans y paraître les portes de tout ce que j’aime en ce
monde.” (PH, 36)
“When I was very young, very foolish, and very much alone (…) you paid atten-
tion to me and, without seeming to, you opened for me the door to everything I
love in the world.” (FM, 26)

Representatives of a repressive patriarchal power – the police who

break up street brawls, and the priest who unjustly hits Jacques (PH,
158) – are rejected. This is the sense of the reflection that as children
“without God or a father, the masters offered to us horrified us. We
lived without legitimacy” (PH, 321). But the few positive patriarchal
figures (substitute fathers indeed, if far removed from blood lines),
give access not to the Law but to the world of the intellect, recogniz-
ing and encouraging the child’s innate abilities. Even the First Man
needs this inheritance: “even the most gifted need someone to initiate
them” (PH, 36). Thus the child inherits the best of French civilization
which is combined with the best of his own rudimentary native cul-
ture. Yet, this intellectual inheritance entails uprooting, the rejection
of his childhood background: the doors opening to him lead away
from mother and family into a different world, and in order to achieve
these goals, bringing himself up alone, he had to pay “the highest
The Unnatural Son
Before her death at the hands of her son, Clytemnestra has a premoni-
tory dream that she has given birth to a snake.32 A similar theme of the
son as an unnatural monster accompanies the writing of Le Premier
Homme, where a number of extratextual comments reflect on the
son’s alien status and his failure to fit into this environment; just as he
is ashamed of his shame (PH, 187) at their poverty or illiteracy, so his
judgements of his family are turned against him as proof of his own
“monstrous” condition (PH, 127), while a further footnote describes
the adult Jacques as a monster (PH, 185). What marks him out as a
stranger to the family and community in which he was born is pre-
cisely his status as the son of many fathers, and the non-biological
legacy bequeathed to him which will tear him from this world of
women (PH, 163), finally to equip him to change this world. Intellect,
combined with education, alienates him from this world:

The Libation-Bearers, 503-29.
The First Man 295

On ne peut vivre avec la vérité – “en sachant” – celui qui le fait se sépare des au-
tres hommes, il ne peut plus rien partager de leur illusion. Il est un monstre – et
c’est ce que je suis. (PH, 284)
One cannot live with truth – “knowingly” – and he who does sets himself apart
from other men, he can no longer in any way share their illusion. He is a monster
– and that is what I am. (FM, 233)

Just as the Mediterranean is later the symbolic boundary between two

worlds, so during childhood a further boundary separates the domestic
sphere from the world beyond. The return home is associated with the
darkness of night and the anguish of death (PH, 211). This is “the
same anguish” he feels when ordered by his grandmother to fetch a
hen from the yard (PH, 212), for which act of bravado he is invited to
assist in the cutting of its throat. Like the high priestess of an older
religion, the grandmother officiates, draining the struggling creature of
its blood. Later that night, this memory accompanies the child to the
bed he shares with his brother, in which he tries to avoid physical con-
tact. This scene parallels the earlier one when he first heard the story
of his father’s journey to view the execution of Pirette. Lucien Cor-
mery had vomited at the memory of this death (PH, 80), just as his son
swallowed down his nausea at the horror of the hen’s execution.
Jacques’s nightmares, where he imagines himself as the executed
man, reveal the “sole heritage” (PH, 81) passed from father to son –
the status of outsider, facing the inevitable retribution meted out to all
who do not belong.
This sentence is ominously confirmed by the grandmother, who is
compared to Cassandra as she predicts that he will end up on the scaf-
fold. The first oblique reference to her as a prophetess (PH, 81) be-
comes explicit shortly afterwards when “Cassandra” is officiating over
the pots and pans in the kitchen (PH, 84). There, a comical and do-
mestic dimension qualifies earlier connotations as her supernatural
powers are limited to the inspection of the soles of the young boy’s
shoes. However, this new note of humour in her depiction33 alleviates
the violence and threat contained in the first allusion without altering
its significance. In the Oresteia it was Cassandra who prophesied the
death of Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and her lover, and the
later return of Orestes, “a son resolved to kill his mother, honouring

See Le Dernier Camus, 57.
296 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

his father’s blood”.34 The blood-stained farm-house, scene of Pirette’s

crime, becomes like the house of Atreus “whose very stones bear
guilty witness to a bloody act; that hides within these gates remnants
of bodies hacked, and murdered children’s bones!”35 Thus, his sole
paternal inheritance further endows on him the status of a destroyer.
There can be no Clytemnestra, no adulterous and vengeful wife. At
most there is the occasional suggestion, cloaked in humour, that mar-
riage is detrimental to a man’s health. But in Le Premier Homme the
grandmother herself is like one of the dark Furies of the Underworld,
for this matriarch is associated with violence and blood. She it is who
had “reigned” over her own family of nine children and later domi-
nated the life of the child (PH, 81-82), which is overshadowed not
only by fear of punishment, but by her more lasting judgements that
he is a liar and a thief – and, finally, that he is an “enfant dénaturé”
(PH, 253), an “unnatural” son.
The description of childhood is framed by the lies he tells, tracing
the ethical development of the son and the waning power of this ma-
triarch as he grows into adulthood. The typical “lies” of childhood are
caused by the wish to play football, which conflicts with the necessity
not to wear away his shoes, or the wish to watch a football match in
spite of the scarcity of money. Yet, in all cases the judgement is the
same: he is a liar. Shame combines with a disgust that clings to the
grandmother at the memory of one incident where he claimed to have
dropped a two-franc coin in the primitive toilet. Once more, she is in
the kitchen, chopping up food:
Et, épouvanté, Jacques la vit retrousser la manche de son bras droit, dégager son
bras blanc et noueux et sortir sur le palier. Lui se jeta dans la salle à manger, au
bord de la nausée. Quand elle l’appela, il la trouva devant l’évier, son bras couvert
de savon gris et se rinçant à grande eau. “Il n’y avait rien,” dit-elle. “Tu es un
menteur .” (PH, 87)
And Jacques, horrified, saw her roll up her right sleeve, baring her knotty white
arm, and go out onto the landing. He dashed into the dining room, on the verge of
throwing up. When she summoned him, he found her at the washbasin. Her arm
was covered with grey soap, which she was rinsing off in a gush of water. “There
was nothing there,” she said. “You’re a liar.” (FM, 70)

In life as in death, apparently, the grandmother sees the monster in her

grandson, revealed (as ever) through reference to excrement and the

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Philip Vellacott (tr.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972),
Agamemnon, 1085-1107.
The First Man 297

bodily filth of life; as if by searching here it is his own character she

This incident is prefaced by the comment that no-one had ever
taught the child the difference between right and wrong, but ends with
the lesson learned that poverty over-rides ethical considerations – a
lesson reinforced as he enters into manhood. Here, although from the
same cause, it is at the grandmother’s instigation that he lies in order
to obtain temporary employment for the summer. The pay-packet he
takes home burns in his pocket like a brand of shame (PH, 251), but
whereas the first, child’s lie had been prompted by the desire for self-
gratification, the second is told for his family’s sake, and is a neces-
sary lie. Indeed, his family’s pride when he presents his pay counter-
balances this shame. “You are a man”, his uncle tells him (PH, 252).
This entry into manhood also marks his revolt against the grand-
mother’s rule. No longer the child bound to blind obedience:
(Si), un jour, lui qui avait jusque-là accepté patiemment d’être battu par sa grand-
mère (…) lui arracha le nerf de bœuf des mains, soudainement fou de violence et
de rage et si décidé à frapper cette tête blanche (…) que la grand-mère le comprit,
recula et partit s’enfermer dans sa chambre, gémissant certes sur le malheur
d’avoir élevé des enfants dénaturés mais convaincue déjà qu’elle ne battrait plus
Jacques. (PH, 252-53)
(If), one day he who till then had patiently accepted being beaten by his grand-
mother (…) tore the leather whip out of her hands, suddenly crazed, in a furious
rage, so determined to strike that white head (…) that the grandmother understood
him – she recoiled and went to close herself in her room, sobbing certainly over
the misfortune of having raised unnatural children but already knowing she would
never beat Jacques again. (FM, 214)

This challenge to matriarchal power signifies the coming of a new

order; it promises a reconfiguration of French values “in an Algerian
consciousness, that of the first man” (PH, 314). From this chaotic
world without civilization and the Law, a new, Apollonian, principle
might perhaps be glimpsed: what the First Man discovers is that
“every man is the first man, nobody is” (C3, 142)).
The mother symbolizes a “feminine” principle passively enduring
the knocks of an unchanging history (PH, 81) while remaining eter-
nally, “geologically” untouched. In his notes for the novel, an alterna-
tive symbol is proposed when Camus considers beginning the last part
of the book with the image of the blind donkey patiently turning its
wheel in a circle, enduring the beatings, the heat and flies. From this
endless effort springs water (PH, 316), even if through no conscious
design or self-sacrifice on the part of the animal itself. The contrast
298 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

between that Absurd hero, Sisyphus, and the domestic donkey could
not be greater. Although the dead father shares the same quality of
endurance, he, on the contrary, acts within History and remains un-
touched through an effort of the Will:
Un homme dur, amer, qui avait travaillé toute sa vie, avait tué sur commande, ac-
cepté tout ce qui ne pouvait s’éviter, mais qui, quelque part en lui-même, refusait
d’être entamé. (PH, 67)
A hard man, bitter, who had worked all his life, had killed on command, had sub-
mitted to everything that could not be avoided, but had preserved some part of
himself where he allowed no-one to trespass. (FM, 52)

He attains an archetypal status, embodying the active and founding

principle at the tribe’s origins:
[Jacques] voyait son père qu’il n’avait jamais vu (...), il le voyait sur ce quai de
Bône parmi les émigrants (...). Il était là, décidé, sombre, les dents serrées, et
après tout n’était-ce pas la même route qu’il avait prise de Bône à Solférino, près
de quarante ans plus tôt, à bord de la carriole, sous le même ciel d’automne?
(PH, 174)
[Jacques] saw his father, whom he had never seen (…), he saw him on the dock at
Bône amongst the emigrants (…). He was there, resolute, sombre, teeth clenched,
and, after all, was this not the same road he had taken from Bône to Solférino, al-
most forty years earlier, on the wagon, under the same autumn sky? (FM, 146)

Through this unification of the Dionysian and Apollonian, every man

and no man becomes the First Man. For this reason, forever unknown
to his son, the man who is indistinguishable from the rest becomes the
universal figure;36 the early history of colonization intervenes to create
a timeless link between the origins, the father, and the contemporary
Veillard, who recounts the legend of the forefathers (PH, 175-76).
Peter Dunwoodie has pointed out that in this portrait of early colo-
nization, Camus necessarily has recourse to a mythical, collective
memory that supplements personal, or family memory; that Camus is
faced with a stereotype of the founding fathers that was inextricably
bound up with a colonial ideology associated, in particular, with Louis
Bertrand and the Algerianist movement. The two major intertexts of
Le Premier Homme are Maxime Rasteil’s Le Calvaire des colons de
48, published in 1930, and Louis de Baudicour’s Histoire de la colo-
nisation de l’Algérie, first published in 1859.37 Dunwoodie points out

This transformation echoes the desire of the Fool of “Intuitions”, who is “universal
because I don’t want to be individual” (PC, 183).
Paris: Challamel, 1859.
The First Man 299

that Rasteil’s book is a popular version of official, academic histories

that express this colonial ideology. However, perhaps its attraction for
Camus lay in the fact that it was based on a manuscript written by
Eugène François, whose parents were on one of the convoys to Mon-
dovi in 1848 (and whose mother, sister and brother-in-law died in the
cholera epidemic of 1849). Equally, despite Dunwoodie’s surprise that
Camus used Baudicour, such an old history of colonization (published
seven years before Bertrand’s birth) as his second intertext, perhaps
the attraction of this text lay in the fact that it was more of a contem-
porary account than the type of “official” history to which Dunwoodie
is referring.38 Baudicour focuses on individuals and their stories – as is
illustrated by the story of Dr Tonnac, the first settler in the Mitijda,
mentioned in Camus’s notes (PH, 269). Tonnac spoke Arabic, was
careful to abide by traditional rules of behaviour, and appears to have
established amicable relationships with his neighbours – some of
whom, at least, were prepared to side with him against the tribes fight-
ing with Abdelkader.39 If, as Louis Althusser suggested, we cannot
occupy a position outside of ideology, we must nevertheless confront
the difficulty of reading accounts from the past through the ideological
lens of the present day.
Pirette is a further illustration of this problem. Baudicour’s story of
Pirette, reworked in Le Premier Homme (PH, 269), concerns no
slaughter of an innocent family. On the contrary, the Pirette of 1839
single-handedly defended his home against an overwhelming attack,
before being forced to flee death under cover of night.40 This raises the
question of why the family memory of the father’s attendance at a
public execution, which Camus mentioned at several points in his
writings, is conflated in the novel with a different, collective memory
of heroism that reaches back to the beginnings of settlement. Cer-
tainly, Camus had read the account in Baudicour. But Le Premier
Homme reinterprets Pirette the hero as a brutal murderer, as if follow-
ing the course, not of historical fact, but of future interpretations of
such facts – themselves inevitably influenced by changes in ideology.
“Official” history has since become the property of the FLN and its
complexity has, as a result, been reduced to a “narrative of heroes and
villains”.41 As if in anticipation of this imminent monopolisation,
“Camus, Memory and the Colonial Chronotope”, 55.
Histoire de la colonisation, 48.
Histoire de la colonisation, 50-52.
Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed, 5.
300 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

Pirette’s metamorphosis seems symbolic of colonial history and its

changing political interpretations.42
The Blood of History
Alistair Horne decribes a scene from the Philippeville massacre where
an entire pied noir family had been butchered; the mother disembow-
elled and her five-day-old baby, hacked to death, replaced in her
womb.43 This particular type of violence encapsulates that “long, age-
less day” in which the renegade missionary found himself, where his-
tory and progress seem to stand still; a form of barbarism, apparently
timeless, with which Camus associated the FLN (most of whose vic-
tims were other Muslims). To this judgement must be added Camus’s
assessment of Islam, which, as Jean-Yves Guérin has noted, he saw as
obscurantist and reactionary.44 It was with Philippeville in mind that
Camus wrote “Le sang, s’il fait parfois avancer l’histoire, la fait
avancer vers plus de barbarie et de misère encore” (E, 964) (“blood, if
it sometimes moves history on, moves it towards even more barbarism
and wretchedness”).
Violence and the sexual victimization of women are revealed as a
timeless feature as the recent past (the attack on the Raskil farm which
had left the father and two sons with their throats cut, the mother and
daughter repeatedly raped, then murdered (PH, 167) ) merges with the
first trace of settlement and the pregnant woman discovered with “her
belly slit and her breasts cut off” (PH, 177). Sarocchi has suggested
that the mother is absent from chapter 7,45 yet her presence forcefully
haunts such references, providing a yardstick against which the con-
flict is measured, as when Jacques reflects on what he has been told,
thinking of her and the butchered, pregnant woman. This was in the
nature of war, Veillard had said:
“Soyons justes”, ajoutait le vieux docteur, “on les avait enfermés dans des grottes
avec toute la smalah, mais oui, mais oui, et ils avaient coupé les couilles des pre-
miers Berbères, qui eux-mêmes... et alors on remonte au premier criminel, vous

For an alternative account of Rasteil, Baudicour and Pirette, see also Edward J.
Hughes, “Building the Colonial Archive: The Case of Camus’s Le premier homme”,
Research in African Literatures, 30 (3) (Fall 1999), 176-193.
A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York: New York Review of
Books, 2006 [1977]), 121.
“Des Chroniques algériennes au Premier homme. Pour une lecture politique du
dernier roman de Camus”, Esprit, 211 (May 1995) (5-16), 11.
Le Dernier Camus, 227.
The First Man 301

savez, il s’appelait Caïn, et depuis c’est la guerre, les hommes sont affreux, sur-
tout sous le soleil féroce”. (PH, 177-78)
“Let’s be fair”, added the old doctor. “We shut them up in caves with their whole
brood, yes indeed, yes indeed, and they cut the balls off the first Berbers, who
themselves… and so on all the way back to the first criminal – you know, his
name was Cain, and since then it’s been war, men are abominable, especially un-
der a ferocious sun”. (FM, 149)

Let’s be fair. What is briefly alluded to here became a matter of public

record in nineteenth-century France when, in a number of actions per-
petrated by the French military, entire tribes were trapped inside caves
and asphyxiated: children, women, men and their livestock. The Ar-
abs’ early treatment of Berbers in the above quotation is illustrated on
the body of the French soldier, who is in turn the victim of such bar-
barity (PH, 66), while that particular trail of violence ends here (and
not there) in abstraction. Jacques’s thoughts are of his own mother at
the beginning of this passage, with the overt comparison to the mythi-
cal foremother and the anonymous first son, there ripped untimely
from his mother’s womb. More distant history telescopes into family
biography as the brutally ended progress of that first bogged-down
cart is retrieved and carried forwards from the first chapter of the
The mutilated soldier, Motherhood defiled and butchered, are
French Algerian: the threat of danger lingers still in the first chapter,
hovering over the book’s present, with the suggestion in the appendix
that the mother may be killed in an explosion (PH, 279). But this
symbol of suffering motherhood is not all-encompassing: elsewhere,
Assia Djebar reproduces an eye-witness account of the enfumade in
the caves at Dahra:
“J’ai vu un homme mort, le genou à terre, la main crispée sur la corne d’un bœuf.
Devant lui était une femme tenant son enfant dans ses bras. Cet homme, il était
facile de le reconnaître, avait été asphyxié, ainsi que la femme, l’enfant et le bœuf,
au moment où il cherchait à préserver sa famille de la rage de cet animal”.46
“I saw a dead man, with one knee on the ground, grasping the horn of an ox in one
hand. In front of him lay a woman with her child in her arms. It was easy to see
that this man had been asphyxiated, together with the woman, the child and the
ox, while he was struggling to protect his family from the enraged animal”.47

L’Amour, la fantasia, 86-87.
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Dorothy S. Blair (tr.) (London: Quartet, 1985),
302 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

In Le Premier Homme other murdered mothers are buried in the si-

lence of the Algerian caves, briefly resurrected by Veillard to establish
a fleeting balance. Rape, mutilation and murder are the prerogative of
the Arab, as the one-sided wealth of detail implies. One of the few
things Jacques knows about his father is his condemnation of the
“dirty race” who could defile a soldier’s body and display themselves
so unworthy of the label “man” (PH, 66). The races may share the
same male blood, but they are not after all “bound by the same blood”
(PH, 308). The same words, “dirty race”, are heard again in the mouth
of a worker after the bombing of civilians in Algiers (PH, 74-75). The
immediate reaction to outrage (“they must all be killed” (PH, 75) )
expresses, perhaps, the inarticulate belief that, amidst all the horrors of
war, some actions still constitute crimes of war. Thus, the actions of
the other side (the sexual mutilation of soldiers, the murder of civil-
ians) are placed beyond the boundary of civilization.
As to bias, one might as well complain that, despite her numerous
allusions to it, Assia Djebar’s writings do not accurately portray the
full brutality and scale of the North African slave trade in Europeans
and Africans. Edward J. Hughes suggests a collapse of distinctions in
Le Premier Homme between “innocence” and “guilt”, which skews
the historical perspective. He sees in Camus’s “deliberately broad pic-
ture of man’s inhumanity” a form of moral relativism.48 Such emo-
tionally laden distinctions between “innocence” or “guilt” are
inappropriate in this context. Indeed, it was precisely against such
forms of moral relativism that Camus argued in 1958 when he wrote
that, whatever the cause, it was dishonoured by the murder of innocent
civilians (E, 894), and that it seemed to him both indecent and harmful
to cry out against torture alongside those who had directed the massa-
cre at Melouza,49 or the mutilation of European children (E, 894).
Moral relativism is precisely his target when he comments that:
La vérité, hélas ! c’est qu’une partie de notre opinion pense obscurément que les
Arabes ont acquis le droit, d’une certaine manière, d’égorger et de mutiler tandis
que l’autre partie accepte de légitimer (…) tous les excès. (E, 894-95)
The truth, alas, is that one section of public opinion thinks obscurely that the Ar-
abs have gained the right, in a certain manner, to cut throats and to mutilate, while
the other section justifies (…) every excess.

Le Premier Homme: La Peste, 23.
In Melouza in 1957, 378 villagers, suspected of supporting a rival nationalist fac-
tion, had been massacred and mutilated in the course of a night by the FLN.
The First Man 303

Speaking of a “casuistry of blood”, he notes that each side justifies its

latest outrage by pointing out the crimes of the other. In this context,
Camus’s “deliberately broad picture” is a subtle reminder that History
has no beginning; there is always a prior cause used to justify present
violence. Above all, the justice of a cause does not automatically con-
fer moral purity on those who support it, as the contemporary history
of Algeria – and thousands of murdered or exiled Algerians – testifies.
In his Carnets of 1955 Camus reflected that throughout history, once
the slave overthrows his oppressor, he reigns as the master and op-
presses others in his turn (C3, 175). However abstract Camus’s refer-
ence to an alternating cycle of “persecutors-persecuted” stretching
back to Cain may seem, history itself has justified this particular fore-
boding in a manner reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s belief that the
only continuum of history is that of the oppressors, whereas “the his-
tory of the oppressed is a discontinuum”.50 As Shoshana Felman
Because official history is based on the perspective of the victor, the voice with
which it speaks authoritatively is deafening; it makes us unaware that there re-
mains in history a claim, a discourse that we do not hear. And in relation to this
act of deafening, the rulers of the moment are the heirs to the rulers of the past.51

Le Premier Homme seems to anticipate that coming time when the

voices of the Algerian poor will be drowned out by the victorious his-
tory of the independence struggle, policed by the one-party state.52 It
is of those millions whose plight, he says, is never considered in Al-
giers or Cairo, that Camus claims to speak:
C’est à eux et aux miens que je continue de penser en écrivant le mot d’Algérie et
en plaidant pour la réconciliation. C’est à eux, en tout cas, qu’il faudrait enfin
donner une voix et un avenir libéré de la peur et de la faim. (E, 896-97)
It’s of them, and of mine, that I continue to think in writing the word Algeria and
in pleading for reconciliation. It is in any case to them that a voice should at last
be given, and a future freed from fear and hunger.

“Paralipomènes et variantes des Thèses ‘Sur le concept de l’histoire’, Écrits fran-
çais”, Jean-Maurice Monnoyer (ed.): cited by Shoshana Felman, “Benjamin’s Silen-
ce”, Critical Inquiry, 25, 2 (Winter 1999) (201-34), 210.
Ibid, 210.
If the Algerian people are now insisting on knowing the truth of their recent history,
it ill befits others to continue to ignore it. See, for example, Benjamin Stora, “Algérie:
les retours de la mémoire de la guerre d’indépendance”, Modern and Contemporary
France, 10 (4), 2002, 461-473: Martin Evans, John Phillips, Algeria: Anger of the
Disposessed (London: Yale University Press, 2007).
304 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

It remains true that in Le Premier Homme Camus conflates French

settlers and Algerian peasants into a single category of “the poor”,
bypassing the colonial structures that divided them. But with the pas-
sage of time, however utopian this move may seem, his pleas for rec-
onciliation have been reassessed by those such as Assia Djebar.53
As befits Camus’s Spenglerian presentation of history, the mother
represents that eternal and cultureless, generational history; she is pre-
sented as an unchanging figure of reconciliation outside of history.
The friend Saddok from the hero’s youth, who is to turn towards ter-
rorism, renders hommage to this French Algerian mother:
Saddok se lève, va vers (la mère de Jacques), la main sur le cœur, pour embrasser
sa mère en s’inclinant à l’arabe. Or J. ne lui a jamais vu faire ce geste, car il était
francisé. “Elle est ma mère”, dit-il. “La mienne est morte. Je l’aime et la respecte
comme si elle était ma mère”. (PH, 279)
Saddok stands up, goes towards (Jacques’s mother), his hand on his heart, to kiss
her while bowing in the Arab manner. Now Jacques had never seen him make this
gesture, as he was French-educated. “She is my mother”, he said. “Mine is dead. I
love and respect her as if she were my mother”. (FM, 230)

In both communities alike “Paradise is at the feet of the mother”. Yet,

this deference cannot obliterate the memory of the mutilated pregnant
woman, or of mother and daughter raped and murdered. Moreover,
evidence of indigenous culture, singularly absent from the rest of the
book, makes an entrance in connection with Saddok to underline not
its civilization but its oppressive, sexual barbarity. However “assimi-
lated”, Saddok consents to an arranged marriage, identified as a cruel
tradition. The rape of settler women is revealed as the public expres-
sion of the private life of this community when Saddok admits that
through marriage he will strip a stranger of her clothes, and rape her to
the sound of gunshots (PH, 313). It may be argued that here Saddok
becomes a counterpart to Jacques himself, for both men demonstrate
commitment to their roots, despite reservations. Yet here chastity, the
hallmark of the French Algerian family, contrasts with sexual deprav-
ity and excess, rendering Saddok’s commitment to his race far less
honourable or understandable than that of Jacques.
There is, moreover, a more profound significance attached to this
contrast, for other nightmarish fantasies in the Carnets concern above
all the settlers’ fear of sexual defilement to their women – as with the
man who, having fought for the Arab cause, is caught up in an anti-

Le Blanc de l’Algérie (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995).
The First Man 305

French riot and kills his wife in order to save her from rape; or the
man who had fought “for them” for 20 years “and the day of their lib-
eration they killed my mother” (C3, 154). When the wife of a Euro-
pean friend is raped and killed, the “first man” and his friend pursue
and kill the guilty man: “His shame, afterwards. History is blood” (C3,
177). The European who supports their cause is repaid not by grati-
tude but by a sexual blood lust and the destruction of the blood line, to
which the only response is death rather than dishonour. History is
blood in more than one sense, for it is above all the family and the in-
tegrity of that blood.
I earlier suggested that the mother is the traditional symbol for the
theme of blood and soil. For these same reasons this symbol incorpo-
rates conflict on this contested soil. Inherent conflicts surface through
the invocation of the land itself as mother, and the suggestion that
through their shared birth-place all share “the same virile blood” (PH,
168). At the same time, however, Arabs are revealed to fall far short
of the ideal of manhood: “a man”, the father states, would not commit
such butchery (PH, 66). Mother and son are “bound by the same
blood” (PH, 308) in quite a different way, and the fears surrounding
the destruction of such ties point up that difference. These men are not
all from the same family, united by common linguistic and cultural
roots. In reality Jacques is attached not to the romanticised Kabyle
shepherd, but to the one who resembled him the most – his friend Pi-
erre (PH, 193). Individual allegiance to the one who is the same is
reflected on the collective level by the nightmare of the invasion of
Europe by hordes of black, dark- and yellow-skinned races, signalling
the death of himself and of “those who resembled him” (PH, 310) and
their Western values. Thus, associations between mother / earth and
mother / race encapsulate the divisions and conflicts to which the set-
tlers are prey. This contrast subverts the equation between blood and
soil which, under the sign of the mother, confers the same identity on
all the races. Increasingly, the mother is associated with the earth and
that primary, unreasoning allegiance lying in the “obscure part” of the
soul: the love that was never chosen.
Mother Earth
Jean Sarocchi equates the “hymn” to the instincts in the final chapter
with, finally, a return to the Mother Earth; the response of the French
Algerian whose homeland and mother are threatened. His argument is
compelling: it is the tragedy of Oedipus brought to its ultimate conclu-
306 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

sion, incest with the mother earth.54 But associations between “terre et
mère” mark a major theme in the novel concerning the ascendancy of
biology and the durability of this generational history, in turn reflected
by the successive births and deaths of Civilizations on the surface of
this earth.
The visceral reactions when family and homeland are threatened
have long been recognized as a contributory factor to Camus’s pre-
dicament over the Algerian war. Camus’s comments in Stockholm
concerning his mother, that he believed in justice but would defend his
mother before justice (E, 1882), seem to reflect that predicament, as
do his comments in Le Premier Homme concerning the primary bond
as that which is not chosen. These reactions are not unlike those of
Dora, and her yearning for “love rather than justice” (TRN, 385), ex-
cept that the love she claims is of a different nature. For the chorus of
women from L’État de siège, “men prefer ideas. They flee their
mother” (TRN, 298). Jan of Le Malentendu had returned to biology in
the name of duty, and was murdered for his pains. If previously duty
had conflicted with the demands of biology, in Le Premier Homme
these claims are reassessed and duty is realigned. Such a reassessment
is indicated in Camus’s notes of April, 1959:
J’ai voulu vivre pendant des années selon la morale de tous. (...) Maintenant j’erre
parmi des débris, je suis sans loi, écartelé, seul et acceptant de l’être, résigné à ma
singularité et à mes infirmités. Et je dois reconstruire une vérité – après avoir vécu
toute ma vie dans une sorte de mensonge. (C3, 266)
For years I wanted to live according to the ethics of all. (…) Now I wander
amongst the debris, I am without the law, torn apart, alone and accepting to be so,
resigned to my singularity and to my infirmities. And I must reconstruct a truth –
after living all my life in a sort of lie.

In June, 1959 he reiterates that he has abandoned the ethical point of

view, which leads only to abstraction and injustice (C3, 268). Such an
abandonment is already foreshadowed in Camus’s words to Ahmed
Ibrahimi in 1956, when he tells him that the hour is coming when no-
one will be able to remain neutral; if the violence continues then duty
will demand that he return to his own community.55 Duty becomes a
question of primary allegiances; like honour, it is “a matter of the
blood and not of reason”.56 Camus’s star, which led him away from

Le Dernier Camus, 252.
De la décolonization à la révolution culturelle, (Alger: SNED, 1981), 182.
The Decline of the West, 343.
The First Man 307

Algeria and family, now leads him home. From Algiers in 1956,
where he is to present his appeal for a civil truce, Camus rediscovers
this star, lost in the cowardly intellectual climate of Paris, and which is
likewise associated with the accomplishment of duty: “Yes, I rose
happy, for the first time in months. I have rediscovered the star” (C3,
182). Thus Camus reaffirms his own nobility, for in the quotation
cited earlier it is precisely this acceptance of the inevitable that is the
source of the star: “The people fate had imposed on him (...) every-
thing in his life he had not been able to avoid, his illness, his vocation,
fame or poverty – in a word, his star” (PH, 309-10). It is, finally, at
the heart of this family that the writer discovers “true nobility”, inex-
tricably bound up with the obscure forces of the soul. He would never
learn from them who his father had been, nor even whether his child-
hood memories were faithful to the past:
Bien plus sûr au contraire qu’il devait en rester à deux ou trois images privilégiées
qui le réunissaient à eux, qui le fondaient à eux, qui supprimaient ce qu’il avait es-
sayé d’être pendant tant d’années et le réduisaient enfin à l’être anonyme et aveu-
gle qui s’était survécu pendant tant d’années à travers sa famille et qui faisait sa
vraie noblesse. (PH, 127)
It was far more certain, on the contrary, that he was left with two or three favour-
ite images that joined him to them, made him one with them, that blotted out what
he had tried to be for so many years and reduced him to the blind anonymous be-
ing that for so many years had survived through his family and that made up his
true nobility. (FM, 104)

I have tried to distinguish between the fictional person of the mother

and the traditional metaphor of the earth as mother. The return to the
earth is not a return to the mother, but to that which is associated with
her, yet which “he could not obtain” from her. Rather than union with
her we see a fetishistic dispersal onto all that necessarily substitutes
for her – replaces her to fill the void of her dead presence and ulti-
mately to surpass that void; a return not to her but to the obscure part
of the self. Biology as mother adds a further layer to an old preoccupa-
tion: “Finally he takes Empedocles as a model” (PH, 307). Here is a
new variation on the old theme of divine self-creation:
Seule, la terre “grave et souffrante” est vraie. Seule, elle est la divinité. De même
que cet Empédocle qui se précipitait dans l’Etna pour aller chercher la vérité où
elle est, dans les entrailles de la terre, Nietzsche proposait à l’homme de s’abîmer
dans le cosmos pour retrouver sa divinité éternelle et devenir lui-même Dionysos.
(E, 483-84)
Only the “sad and suffering” earth is true – the sole divinity. Like Empedocles
who threw himself into Etna to find truth in the only place where it exists, in the
308 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

bowels of the earth, Nietzsche proposed that man should allow himself to be en-
gulfed in the cosmos to rediscover his eternal divinity and to become Dionysus
himself. (R, 65-66)

This is a return to the “conscious deaths” of Noces and the peopling of

the world with “man-gods” rooted in the earth (C1, 140: E, 88).
Le Premier Homme substitutes a European figure, the Tsar, for the
Oriental fils de roi. In this, Camus returns to Le Mythe de Sisyphe and
to Kirilov, whose contemplated “superior suicide” is not only a revolt
against death but a lesson for all men: “this earth will be peopled with
Tsars and illuminated with human glory” (E, 185). Through his action,
Kirilov annexes Christ to become a “man-god” (E, 184).57 The im-
pulse here reflects that of Intuitions, and Mersault’s conscious death,
while the words “I began to believe in my innocence. I was a Tsar. I
reigned over everything” (PH, 283) carry overtones of Tarrou and of
Clamence. Once more, a contrast is established between the “king of
life” and the secret embodied in the opaque figure of woman – here “a
truth he had lost and which alone justified existence” (PH, 273), pre-
served intact by the mother. This is the nature of the reconciliation
between biology and intellect in Le Premier Homme, for the embrace
of biology (the mother) does not compromise but magnifies the status
of the fils de roi. Just as the private sphere is retrieved in the novel, so
the claims of women (in the theatrical works) are endowed with
“greatness” through their incorporation into a new, masculine ideal of
duty. The parallel established with the birth of Christ at the novel’s
beginning founds a different lineage around the earthly couple of
mother and son. The earthly father is supplanted, and the genealogy of
“J.C.” merges with that of the fils de roi as a son of many fathers who
nonetheless bears the divine mark. The merging of the divine and the
human condition creates a new balance between destiny and biology,
which no longer undermines the role of the intellect. The Tsar (PH,
283) magnifies himself through self-abasement before the mother.
In his examination of the differences between racism and national-
ism Benedict Anderson claims the following distinction:
(N)ationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eter-
nal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless se-
quence of loathsome copulations: outside history. (...) The dreams of racism
actually have their origin in ideologies of class, rather than in those of nation:

Similarly, “maman” is compared to an ignorant “Muichkine” (PH, 295), who, in Le
Mythe “lives in a perpetual present nuanced by smiles and indifference, a happy state
which might well be the eternal life of which the prince speaks” (E, 186-87).
The First Man 309

above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to (…) “breeding” among aristoc-
racies. No surprise then that the putative sire of modern racism should be, not
some petty-bourgeois nationalist, but Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau.58

I have suggested, however, that women and the mother figure herself
are the ones associated with eternal contamination in Camus’s earlier
writings. La Chute is accompanied by the shadow of Gobineau, and
the “galloping” increase of the indigenous Algerian population. To
these is linked that cyclical history proposed by Oswald Spengler, for
whom the decline of the West was inevitable. This is glimpsed in the
appendix to Le Premier homme with its prediction of billions of other
races pouring into Europe. But with the death of the West dies that
ancient dream of the newly-born culture on the Algerian soil. Then:
(T)out ce qu’on avait appris, à lui et à ceux qui lui ressemblaient, tout ce qu’il
avait appris aussi, de ce jour les hommes de sa race, toutes les valeurs pour quoi il
avait vécu, mourraient d’inutilité. Qu’est-ce qui vaudrait encore alors?... Le silen-
ce de sa mère. Il déposait ses armes devant elle. (PH, 310)
(E)verything that had been taught, to him and to those like him, also everything he
had learned, on that day the men of his race, all the values he lived for, would die
of uselessness. Then what will still be worthwhile? His mother’s silence. He lay
down his arms before her. (FM, 248-49)

We cannot know what place this passage might have had in Le Pre-
mier Homme, but in this apocalyptic dream of a “clash of civiliza-
tions”, this first biological tie becomes the repository for all that has
been destroyed and all that might be reborn. Skin colour is the mark of
difference, contrasted to “those who resembled him (...) the men of his
race”. Biology is both a cause of division and a source of refuge, de-
lineating “us” and “them”. It becomes the source of a collective iden-
tity, and I suggest that this is the nature of the resolution between
individual identity and biological origins in Le Premier Homme. No
longer victim of a potential “series of loathsome copulations”, “breed-
ing” and “historical destiny” begin to merge.
The apparently irreconcilable juxtaposition of a destructive racial
chaos and the silence of the mother in the above quotation underlines
her troubled and ambiguous status in the novel. Sarocchi rightly
speaks of the primitive and violent conviction that the Algerian soil, in
contrast to the “land of tender civilization”,59 engenders one race of

Imagined Communities, 136.
Le Dernier Camus, 251. The word “tender” is based on Sarocchi’s reading of the
manuscript: in the text it is designated as illegible (PH, 261).
310 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

men, antagonistic but inseparable, and there can be no doubting this

important dimension, associated with Camus’s view of organic social
development. Yet the mother’s “geological” aspect (PH, 11) collides
with her biological role: offered as a universal symbol of reconcilia-
tion outside of history, or racial and colonial conflict, she is simulta-
neously identified with the French Algerian community. Only as the
celibate mother may she symbolize all the races: yet this virginity also
guarantees the pure origin of the one race and the one son. These la-
tent conflicting messages surrounding her symbolic status here under-
pin the presentation of race. Whereas the text presents a picture of
racial symbiosis, a number of critics have noted the ambivalence of
this move. Although the first chapter demonstrates the interdepend-
ence between settlers and Arabs, they are confined to marginal roles
on the periphery of the society. Guérin points out that this society is
shown as a cosmopolitan melting-pot of Italians, Spanish, or Jewish,
in a manner that recalls L’Été.60 He notes the recurrent linking of the
adjectives “français” and “arabes” throughout the text – as victims of
the First World War (PH, 70) or workers (PH, 196-99). But, he says,
although poverty brings together the French and the indigenous popu-
lation, this does not make them the same, neither does it make them
France is consistently presented as foreign soil – not only to
Jacques’s mother but to the child himself (PH, 137). Despite his at-
tachment to his French friend, Didier, Jacques regards him as an ex-
otic foreigner (PH, 192), in contrast to his friend Pierre (PH, 193).
This is likewise expressed in the image of the Kabyle shepherd watch-
ing migrating birds return from the North. In this echo of Camus’s
earlier identification with the nomads of Laghouat (C3, 52), what
unites Jacques and the shepherd is not only a shared homeland but a
shared poverty, unknown to those from France and over-riding colo-
nial differences. But such insistence on lack of difference resembles
the move in “Intuitions” to swallow up the surrounding environment.
Poverty is equated with the tirelessly repeated trait in Jacques (and
claimed by Camus himself) of generosity and lack of regard for mate-
rial wealth – not locking his hotel door, offering to give all his posses-
sions to his friend Malan. It is not only narcissism that facilitates this
appropriation, but a political and personal point is also being made,

“Pour une lecture politique du dernier roman de Camus”, 8.
Ibid., 13.
The First Man 311

and as articulated in the avant-propos to Actuelles III. The French Al-

gerians descend from those who had chosen France over Alsace in
1871, and given their lives for France in 1914: poor themselves, they
had never oppressed or exploited anyone (E, 897). Poverty thus be-
comes an unequivocal alibi against the charges of colonial oppression
or exploitation. Moreover, Camus insists, the French Algerians are
also, in the strongest sense of the term, indigenous (E, 1013). These
are the political and personal messages underlying Le Premier
The Dark Forces of the Soul
Beneath the impulse to define and appropriate lies an apparent need to
discover, factors reminiscent of the ambivalence discerned in “La
Maison mauresque”. Only in the final chapter are such desires ad-
dressed, in a deliberate move away from everyday reality “on the sur-
face of life” to a deeper, instinctive reality beneath. Because the book
was so tragically severed, it is impossible to know where these reflec-
tions might have led. What seems clear, however, is that the present
text of the novel is only a small part of the work envisaged, which was
to run into two volumes.62 Undoubtedly, the final chapter seems an
important transitional stage which was to have announced a chapter on
the adolescent (PH, 271) and, presumably, a time of sexual awaken-
ing. Whereas the preceding text presents everyday life with a high de-
gree of realism, here the role of the instincts is privileged. At the same
time markers in the text denote that the previous narrative is con-
cluded (“la vie de cet enfant avait été ainsi” (PH, 255); (“The life of
this child had been like this”), and viewed retrospectively from the
vantage point of the forty-year-old man (“tel qu’il était maintenant,
lui, Jacques, à quarante ans” (PH, 255-56); “as he was now – he,
Jacques, at forty”), while the suggestion is that this marks a turning
point (“Mais était-ce là tout” (PH, 256) ) (“But was that all there
was”) inaugurating a concentration upon a “second life” always un-
derlying the first:
(C)’était ainsi, mais il y avait aussi la part obscure de l’être, ce qui en lui pendant
toutes ces années avait remué sourdement comme ces eaux profondes qui sous la
terre, du fond des labyrinthes rocheux, n’ont jamais vu la lumière du jour et reflè-
tent cependant une lueur sourde (...) aspirée peut-être du centre rougeoyant de la
terre (…) où toute vie semblait impossible. (PH, 256)

This is what Camus had said during an interview for Swedish radio, cited by Olivier
Todd (Albert Camus: une vie, 703).
312 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

(T)hat’s how it was, but there was also the secret part of his being, something in
him that through all those years had been blindly stirring like those measureless
waters under the earth which from the depths of rocky labyrinths have never seen
the light of day and yet dimly reflect a light (…) drawn perhaps from the glowing
centre of the earth (…) where any life seems impossible. (FM, 216)

The following sentence continues for a further two pages, like many in
this chapter, as if to underline the break with the realism of the previ-
ous narrative style and the long-held desire to write, without restric-
tion, everything that comes into his head (C2, 299, 301). This desire is
itself associated with the obscure forces of the soul that Camus had
long attempted to surround by barriers (E, 12; E, 140) and which now
seem to come flooding out, or to erupt like the lava from a volcano.
If the mother is a problematical symbol of all the races, it is she
who holds the key to that other secret kingdom of the instincts. I have
suggested that the link between mother, animal and Arab in “Entre
Oui et non” functioned only negatively to increase her own strange-
ness: likewise, the same associations in L’Étranger between mangy
(syphilitic?) Arab nurse, Arab mistress, prostitute, “fourrière” (the
prostitute’s cell) and Salamano’s mangy dog further complicate the
nature of Meursault’s return to the mother. In La Peste Spanish ances-
try is redeemed and incorporated into the maternal symbol – as in Le
Premier Homme, where the author is to speak of both racial discrimi-
nation against the Spanish (PH, 269) and of his own “Spanish side”
(PH, 284).
In turning back to the question of origins, Le Premier Homme re-
turns to earlier associations, later suppressed, that link mother, sexual-
ity and race. These, as ever, are cloaked in obscurity, like the obscure
conviction that prompted Camus to attempt to rewrite L’Envers et
l’endroit (E, 13). If Empedocles dives into the bowels of the earth to
discover the truth, then the earth into which Jacques Cormery dives is
that world of poverty, dirt, ignorance – the world of the instincts and
emotions, sexuality and “et la part d’ombre qu’elle jette sur toute vie”
(E, 1136) (“the shadow it casts on all life”). As ever, this is a journey
into the self but, however narcissistic, this last chapter provides a rich
source of information concerning these obscure forces about which
Camus was increasingly to speak. Apparently written in one burst, it
establishes the chain of associations suggested in this book between
the land, the indigenous population, and sexual desire. These are
authorised not only by the chaste symbolic presence of the mother, but
The First Man 313

by the uncle Ernest and the valorisation of the instincts and the primi-
tive, associated with him.
Such associations begin, however, with the invocation of the hos-
tile land, and the equation between this and Cormery’s own primitive
instincts which, through the years, were attuned to:
(C)et immense pays autour de lui dont, tout enfant, il avait senti la pesée avec
l’immense mer devant lui, et derrière lui cet espace interminable de montagnes, de
plateaux et le désert qu’on appelait l’intérieur, et entre les deux le danger perma-
nent dont personne ne parlait parce qu’il paraissait naturel. (PH, 257)
(T)his immense country around him; as a small child he had felt its weight and
that of the immense sea before him, and behind him the endless expanse of moun-
tains, plains and desert called the interior, and between the two the permanent
danger no one spoke of because it seemed natural. (FM, 116-17)

This “permanent danger” remains un-named, only evoked through the

description of the aunt barring the doors and windows of her isolated
farm. Was it ever named? In L’Étranger, as is often noted, Arabs are
presented as a threatening force of nature, barely distinguishable from
the hostile land. Here, Arabs and land are interchangeable, instilling in
the child a mixture of awe and heroism in the face of this country into
which he had been thrown, as if he were the first inhabitant, or the
“first conqueror”:
(D)ébarquant là où la loi de la force régnait encore et où la justice était faite pour
châtier impitoyablement ce que les mœurs n’avaient pu prévenir, avec autour de
lui ce peuple attirant et inquiétant, proche et séparé. (PH, 257)
(L)anding where the law of the force still prevailed, where justice was intended to
punish without mercy what custom had failed to prevent – around him this people,
alluring yet disturbing, near and separate. (FM, 217)

In the early days of conquest, isolated from the metropolitan centre,

each military commander was king, and each man was the first con-
queror, or “adventurer”. The romantic myth of the adventurer appears
here as part of the folk-lore of his upbringing. I suggested the associa-
tion between the conquest of land and sexual conquest, an association
returning here through reference to its “alluring yet disturbing” peo-
ple. This language recalls that of the first confrontation with the Arab
world in “La Maison mauresque” and the conflicting imagery of
power and impotence, sexual attraction and perceived impassive hos-
tility. Despite intercommunal friendships, each evening they withdrew
into their unknown houses, which the settlers never entered:
314 Women, Race and Origins in the Writings of Albert Camus

(B)arricadées aussi avec leurs femmes qu’on ne voyait jamais. (S)i on les voyait
dans la rue, on ne savait pas qui elles étaient, avec leurs voile à mi-visage et leurs
beaux yeux sensuels et doux au-dessus du linge blanc. (PH, 257)
(B)arricaded as well with their women whom one never saw, or if you saw them
on the street you did not know who they were, with faces half-veiled and their
beautiful eyes sensual and soft above the white cloth. (FM, 217: translation

Here lies the true enigma of this population, in the unknown women
of this community. Each is barricaded against the other: yet latent fear
of the primeval horde surfaces at the sight of the indigenous popula-
tion in their numbers. Although a minority in the towns, they were:
(S)i nombreux dans les quartiers où ils étaient concentrés, si nombreux que par
leur seul nombre (...) ils faisaient planer une menace qu’on reniflait dans l’air des
rues certains soirs où une bagarre éclatait entre un Français et un Arabe.
(PH, 257-58)
(S)o numerous in the neighbourhoods where they were concentrated, so many of
them that by their sheer numbers, even though exhausted and submissive, they
caused an invisible menace that you could feel in the air some evenings on the
streets when a fight would break out between a Frenchman and an Arab.
(FM, 217)

Echoes of L’Étranger resurface in the depiction of the brawl, which,

the writer insists, has no particular significance, yet was not received
in the same way by the Arabs of the neighbourhood, who would con-
gregate as a silent, “steadily agglutinating mass” (PH, 258). Unlike
“L’Été à Alger”, the arrival of the police brings no potential for frater-
nity here, only a conflict of interpretations and coincidence of reac-
tions. Again, the existence of the Arabs is associated with the primary
instincts: as the animal may sniff the scent of danger in the air, so the
European (here the prey) recognizes the menace of the horde, that all-
enveloping mass.
Gassin has described Patrice Mersault as a “flaireur” (“sniffer”),
noting a marked tendency towards coprophilia in the Camusian hero,
and Le Premier Homme provides overwhelming evidence for these
observations.63 Gassin has pointed to the dead kittens of “Entre Oui et
non” and to Mersault’s desired immersion in the mud of Silesia (MH,
116-17), connecting these examples with the mother and the return to
the “Mother Earth”.64 In “Obscur à soi-même”, however, the first allu-
sion to the earth and the sense of smell is connected with the indige-

L’Univers symbolique, 178, 159.
Ibid., 159.
The First Man 315

nous population, and this same sense then links a chain of “obscure
desires” and “powerful, indescribable sensations” (PH, 259) leading
from the ambivalent emotions surrounding the indigenous population
to the smell of books, stables, his mother’s hands, flowers, class-
rooms, to the accoutrements of femininity. These associations lead to
the pleasure experienced in physical contact, first with schoolfriends’
bodies, and then the casual touch of women, in turn associated with
immersion in the warmth of the earth – all that he had unconsciously
hoped to receive from his mother, but did not receive:
(O)u peut-être n’osait pas obtenir et qu’il retrouvait près du chien Brillant quand il
s’allongeait contre lui au soleil et qu’il respirait sa forte odeur de poils, ou dans les
odeurs les plus fortes et les plus animales où la chaleur terrible de la vie était mal-
gré tout conservée pour lui qui ne pouvait s’en passer. (PH, 260)
(A)nd perhaps did not dare to get it, but he found it with the dog Brillant when he
stretched out alongside him and breathed his strong smell of fur, or in the strong-
est and most animal-like odours where the marvellous heat of life was somehow
preserved for him who could not di without it. (FM, 219)

Maternal deprivation appears here a legacy passed down through the

generations, for the attachment of the child to the dog mirrors that of
Ernest (PH, 100), perhaps for the same reasons. The clear parallel is
with Salamano and his dog, yet the couple of brother and sister (PH,
122) or of mother and son (PH, 308) provide a further, ominous anal-
ogy. In each case, the mother occupies the place of the dog, an unfor-
tunate convergence sometimes noted by commentators.65 The
fetishism of the text extends beyond this equation, for the dog sym-
bolically replaces the mother to apply to all women as sexual partners.
These links are confirmed not only by the reference to an un-named
woman he had loved, but by the earlier reference to lipstick, which
they sniffed, “excited and uneasy, like dogs that enter a house where