Reading Camus at 18 and 52


By Umar Timol

The beauty of Albert Camus’ writing remains, of course. All those perfectly crafted words that unfold on the page and in my imagination. The Stranger and its contained lyricism, its sharply cut words of incredible precision; Summer in Algiers and its liberated lyricism, words that are incantations and prayers that celebrate the enjoyment of being in the material world; and The First Man, pages and pages that speak of the work of memory and of words. I will continue to read Camus, undoubtedly until the end of my life, because French, more than any other language, resonates within me. This language manipulates my flesh, it jostles and violates it, it opens up a universe of possibilities and limitations. It is a thwarted love and a consenting defeat.

Then, there is everything that has changed.

At eighteen, our eyes are turned towards the West, which then symbolizes desirable otherness, culture, science, horizons of transcendence. These are fantasies, of course, but they draw from a powerful relationship of domination – economic, political, and cultural – that often crushes the psyche of the dominated and causes them to ignore their own condition. And this problem persists today. How can we imagine thinking beyond the West? How can we construct another paradigm when everything comes from the West? We adhere to its rebellions, its radicalism, its whims and conformism. And Camus, at eighteen, embodies this. First, there is the language that I am learning to love, which harmonizes with the nuances of my being, then the vitalities of the seduction of Promethean thought, far from the confines of tradition, fixed thought, a finite world. So, we must leave, go on a quest for language, for the other, go there because it is there that we learn to be, that we can be. Eighteen is the age of naive ambitions and absent lucidity, the necessary fuels of life.

Then there are the shocks, the readings of Said, Fanon, and more recently Wael Hallaq. And I understand that the journey from the periphery to the center inevitably brings the colonized back to the periphery, to what he is, to the figure of the other, of difference. He can certainly find his place at the center, he can flourish there, he can escape from his condition as a native, but he can only be there by submitting to the dictates of the dominant order. Many play this game, sometimes out of cynicism or because they have to survive or because they have no choice, but also because in the anxious heart of the colonized, there is an unspoken but visceral desire for the dominant to recognize his humanity, that he is, despite his complexes and doubts, up to the task, that he is in his place among “us”.

Tell me what I am, and I will tell you what you want to hear.

And gradually, the West reveals itself in its nakedness. And the spectacle is far from beautiful. It is often atrocious. Wise minds will tell you that we must avoid binary thinking, liberate ourselves from simplistic divides. And that we can only deconstruct the center by being at the center. They are right, but we do not recover from this unwanted nakedness that reveals a diseased and hypocritical flesh that we do not want, that we refuse to see, but that we are nevertheless forced to see.

The beauty of words remains, of course.

But at fifty-two years old, I read Camus differently. What strikes me is the absence, like a black hole that devours all matter, of the Arab, a nearly invisible character who serves as the backdrop and pretext for the existence of the colonizer. This invisibility is explained by the fact that domination allows us to be blind to the other. But even more so, the absence of Islam. How can it be explained that this writer, who grew up in Algeria, in the land of Islam, who lived there for a long time, never or almost never talks about it? In his philosophical writings, he only cites Western thinkers, this thought that is ultimately truncated, reinvented, whitewashed to exclude the other, to whom it owes everything or almost everything. Why is this writer, whose lucidity is dazzling, unable to show lucidity in this case? Because he is a European writer in a conquered land. Because he is rooted in a dominant paradigm. Camus’s writing, as I mentioned earlier, is a black hole that brings together the strangeness of absence with the certainty of domination paradigms. But we must go further. It is argued that decolonization is an appropriation and subversion of literature without questioning the concept of ‘literature’ as a form of sacralization that is the product of a historical contingency, the secularization of the West. The divinization of words is made possible by the suppression of the divine. At 52, Camus is no longer the orgiastic substance of plenitude but an empty shell, painfully void of its matter. But the words remain.

This journey has led me from naivety to lucidity, or is it from a denial of lucidity to a possible lucidity? The question now is whether we can free ourselves from our blindness. Camus wrote that “the only way to face a world without freedom is to become so absolutely free that your very existence becomes an act of rebellion.” This absolute freedom which is an act of rebellion is, however, elsewhere, in another place, another paradigm, a foreign place that remains to be imagined, to be invented.

Umar Timol is a Mauritian artist.


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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


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