In all the organized efforts to combat totalitarianism, it is often overlooked that the most Uncompromising fighter against the regimentation of the human spirit by the giant state may well be the unorganized individual who simply insists upon speaking his mind; and Albert Camus here asserts that it is the creative artist and thinker who is this individual par excellence. received. This essay was originally an address delivered at the International Meeting of Intellectuals in Paris last November. It was translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman.
We are living in a time when men, impelled by mediocre and ferocious ideologies, have got into the habit of being ashamed of everything—ashamed of themselves, of being happy, of loving or creating. It is a time when Racine would have blushed for Bérénice, and Rembrandt, to beg pardon for having painted “The Night Watch,” would have rushed off to register at the nearest party local. Writers and artists today have a sick conscience; it is fashionable among us to apologize for our profession. And, to tell the truth, people are zealous in encouraging us in this. From all corners of our political society a great cry is addressed to us, demanding that we justify ourselves.
We have to justify both our being useless and, at the same time, serving by our very uselessness ugly causes. When we reply that it is rather difficult to wash oneself clean of such contradictory accusations, we are told that it is not possible to justify oneself in the eyes of everyone, but that we can obtain the generous pardon of a few by taking their side, which, if one were to believe them, is the only true one. If this kind of argument seems to misfire, the artist is then told: “Look at the misery the world is in. What are you doing about it?” To this cynical blackmail the artist might reply: “The misery of the world? I’m not adding anything to it. Which of you can say as much?” But it remains true that none of us, if he is conscientious, can remain indifferent to the appeal that rises up from a desperate mankind. We must therefore feel guilty, in spite of everything. So we are dragged into the lay confessional, which is the worst confessional of all.
But it is not so simple as that. The choice we are asked to make is not self-evident; it is determined by other and earlier choices. And the first choice an artist makes is precisely that of being an artist; if he has chosen to be an artist, it is because of what he himself is and because of a certain idea that he has formed of what art is. And if these seemed to him good enough reasons to justify his original choice, the chances are that they will continue to be good enough to define his position with respect to history. Since one must justify oneself, I should like to state why there is a justification in practicing, within the limits of one’s strength and talent, a profession which, in the midst of a world withered by hate, enables every one of us to say in all peace of mind that he is no man’s mortal enemy. But this requires saying something about the world in which we are living and about what it is incumbent upon us to do there.
The world about us is in a bad way and we are asked to do something to change it. But what is this bad way? At first sight, it can be defined simply: there has been a great deal of killing in the world in recent years and there are some who foresee more killing. There are so many dead that the atmosphere has finally grown oppressive. Of course this is nothing new. Official history has always been the story of great murderers, and it is not today that Cain is killing Abel. But it is only today that Cain is killing Abel in the name of logic and then claiming the ribbon of the Legion of Honor.
During the big strikes in November 1947, the newspapers announced that the Paris executioner, M. Desfourneau, was also going to stop working. To my mind, not enough attention was paid to this decision of my fellow-countryman. His demands were clear. He naturally asked for a bonus for each execution, which is customary in any enterprise. But, more important, he vigorously demanded that he be given the status of chief clerk. He wanted to receive from the state, which he felt he had well served, the only consecration, the only tangible honor, which a modem nation can offer its faithful servants: an administrative status. Thus came to an end, beneath the weight of history, one of the last of our liberal professions.
In barbaric times a terrible halo kept the hangman outside the pale. He was the man who, by profession, laid violent hands upon the mystery of life and the flesh. He was, and knew he was, an object of horror. And this horror consecrated at the same time the value of human life. Today he is merely an object of shame. Under these conditions, he is undoubtedly right in no longer wanting to be the poor relation whom one keeps in the kitchen because his nails are dirty. In a civilization where murder and violence are already doctrines and are on the way to becoming institutions, the hangman has every right to enter the administrative ranks. The fact is that we French are a little behind the times. Almost everywhere in the world, executioners have already been installed in ministerial chairs. They have merely substituted the rubber stamp for the axe.
When death becomes a matter of statistics and administration, it means that world affairs are not going right. But if death becomes abstract, it means that life is abstract too. The life of each person cannot be other than abstract as soon as one starts making it conform to an ideology. The unfortunate thing is that we are in the age of ideologies and of ideologies which are totalitarian—that is, which are sufficiently sure of themselves, of their imbecilic reason or of their shortlived truth, to see the world’s salvation in their own domination.
There is no life without dialogue. And in the major part of the world, dialogue has been replaced today by polemics. The 20th century is the century of polemics and abuse. These occupy among nations and individuals, and on the very plane of disciplines which were formerly disinterested, the place traditionally occupied by the reflective dialogue. Day and night, thousands of voices, each carrying on its own tumultuous monologue, pour out on the peoples of the world a torrent of mystifying words, attacks, defenses, and over-excitement. But what is the mechanism of polemics? It consists in considering the opponent as an enemy, consequently in simplifying him and refusing to see him. We have no idea of what the man we are insulting looks like, or whether he ever smiles, or how. Having become three-quarters blind by the grace of polemics, we no longer live among men but in a world of silhouettes.
There is no life without persuasion. And today’s history knows only intimidation. Men live and can only live on the basis of the idea that they have something in common on which they can always get together. But we have discovered the following: there are men whom one does not persuade. It was and is impossible for victims in concentration camps to explain to those degrading them that they ought not do so—these latter no longer represent men but an idea raised to the temperature of the most inflexible of wills. The man who wants to dominate is deaf. When confronted by him, the only thing to do is fight or die. That is why men of today live in a state of terror. In The Book of the Dead we read that, in order to merit forgiveness, the just Egyptian had to be able to say, “I have caused no one fear.” Under these conditions, we shall in vain seek our great contemporaries in the ranks of the blessed on Judgment Day.
No wonder that these silhouettes, henceforth blind and deaf, terrorized, fed by ration tickets, their entire lives summed up in a police questionnaire, can then be treated as anonymous abstractions. It is interesting to note that the regimes which are born of these ideologies are the very ones which, as a matter of system, proceed to uproot populations, moving them about over the surface of Europe like bloodless symbols which take on a paltry life only in statistical columns. Since the entrance of these fine philosophies into history, tremendous masses of men, each of whom once had his own way of shaking hands, have been buried once and for all beneath the two initials—“D.P.”—which a very logical world has invented for them.
Yes, all that is logical. When one wants to unify the whole world in the name of an ideology, there is no other way but to make this world as fleshless, as blind, and as deaf as the ideology itself. There is no other way but to cut the roots which bind man to life and nature. It is no accident if one does not find landscapes in the great European literature since Dostoevsky. It is no accident if the significant books of today, instead of being interested in the nuances of the heart and the verities of love, get excited only about judges, trials, and the mechanics of accusation, if instead of opening windows on the beauty of the world, one carefully closes them on the anguish of the solitary. It is not an accident that the philosopher who today inspires all European thought is the one who wrote that only the modern city allows the mind to become conscious of itself, and who went so far as to say that nature is abstract and only reason is concrete. This, in brief, is the viewpoint of Hegel, and it is the point of departure of a tremendous adventure of the intelligence, which ends by killing everything. In the great spectacle of nature these drunken spirits see nothing but themselves. This is the ultimate blindness.
Why go further? Those who know the ruined cities of Europe know what I am talking about. They offer up the image of that fleshless world, lean with pride, where ghosts go wandering through a monotonous apocalypse in search of a lost friendship with nature and human beings. The great tragedy of Western man is that the forces of nature or those of friendship no longer intervene between him and his historical development. His roots cut, his arms withered, he begins to merge with the gallows that is promised him.
But at least, having reached this height of unreason, there is nothing to prevent us from exposing the gullibility of this century, which makes a show of running after the empire of reason, whereas in fact it merely seeks abstract reasons for loving in order to replace the love it has lost. Our writers, who all end up appealing to that wretched, loveless substitute called ethics, are well aware of this. The men of today may be able to master everything within them, and that is their greatness. But there is at least one thing that most of them will never again be able to find, the strength to love which has been taken from them. That is really why they are ashamed. And it is only right for artists to share this shame since they have contributed to it. But let them be able to say that they are ashamed of themselves and not of their profession. For everything that makes for the dignity of art is opposed to such a world and challenges it.
The work of art, by the mere fact that it exists, denies the conquests of ideology. One of the directions of the history of tomorrow is the struggle, which has already begun, between conquerors and artists. Yet both once had the same end in view. Political action and artistic creation are the two faces of the same revolt against the world’s disorder, the same desire to give the world unity. For a long time the cause of the artist merged with that of the political innovator: Bonaparte’s ambition was the same as Goethe’s, though Bonaparte left us the drum in the lycées and Goethe the Roman Elegies. But with the intervention of ideologies of efficiency based on technology, the revolutionary by a subtle transformation has become a conqueror, and the two currents of thought have diverged. What the conqueror of the Right or Left seeks is not unity—which is above all the harmony of opposites—but totality, which is the stamping out of differences.
The artist distinguishes where the conqueror levels. The artist who lives and creates on the level of flesh and passion knows that nothing is simple and that the other person exists. The world of the artist is one of live debate and understanding. The conqueror wants the other not to exist; his world is a world of masters and slaves, the very one in which we are living. I do not know of a single great work built on hatred alone, whereas we are all familiar with the empires of hatred. In a time when the conqueror, by the very logic of his attitude, becomes an executioner and policeman, the artist is forced to be refractory. Faced with contemporary political society, the artist’s only coherent attitude—otherwise he must renounce art—is refusal without concession. He cannot, even should he want to, be the accomplice of those who use the language or the means of contemporary ideologies.
That is why it is useless and ridiculous to ask the artist for justification and engagement, involvement. By his very function, the artist is the witness of freedom, and this is a justification for which he sometimes pays dearly. By his function he is engaged in the density of history, where man’s very flesh stifles. The world being what it is, he is involved in it whether he likes it or not, and he is by nature the enemy of the abstract idols which are triumphant today, be they national or partisan. And he is their enemy not in the name of morality or virtue, as some try to suggest—by a further gullibility. It is in the name of man’s passion for what is unique in man that the artist must always abhor undertakings which cloak themselves in what is most impoverished in reason.
But this defines at the same time the solidarity of all artists. It is because we have to defend the solitude of each that we shall never again be solitary. We are in a hurry, we cannot work all alone. Tolstoy was able to write the greatest novel in all literature about a war in which he did not participate. Our wars do not leave us time to write about anything other than ourselves and, at the very same moment, they kill Péguy and thousands of young poets. Beyond frontiers, the artists are working together, sometimes without realizing it, on the thousand faces of a single work which will rise up and confront the totalitarian creation. Yes, all together, and with them those thousands of men who are trying to erect the silent forms of their creations in the tumult of cities. And along with them, even those who think that they can work for totalitarian ideology by means of their art, whereas, at the very heart of their work, the power of art shatters the propaganda, insists upon the unity of which they are the true servants, and singles them out for our forced fraternity and, at the same time, for the mistrust of those who are making use of them temporarily.
True artists do not make good political disciples, for they are incapable of taking their opponent’s death lightly. They are on the side of life, not of death. They are the witnesses of the flesh, not the law. They are condemned by their vocation to understand the very one who is their enemy. That does not mean that they are incapable of judging good and evil. On the contrary. But their aptitude for living the lives of others enables them to recognize, even among the most criminal, the constant justification of men, namely, suffering. That is what will always keep us from pronouncing absolute judgment and, consequently, from endorsing absolute punishment. In the world of condemnation to death which is ours, artists bear witness to that in man which refuses to die. No one’s enemy, unless it be the hangman’s!
And that is what will always single them out, eternal Girondins, for the threats and blows of our Montagnards in celluloid cuffs. But, after all, this awkward position, by its very inconvenience, makes for their grandeur.
A day will come when everyone wall recognize it, and, respectful of their differences, artists will then stop lacerating themselves as they do. They will recognize that their deepest vocation is to defend to the very end their opponent’s right not to be of their opinion. They will proclaim, each in his own way, that it is better to be wrong without murdering anyone than to be right in the silence of the charnel-house. They will try to demonstrate that though revolutions may succeed by violence, they can be maintained only by dialogue. And they will then know that this singular vocation creates for them the most overwhelming of brotherhoods, which, through all the ages of the intelligence, has never stopped struggling to affirm against the abstractions of history that which exceeds history, and that is the flesh, be it suffering or be it happy. All of presentday Europe, puffed up in its pride, cries out to them that this undertaking is ridiculous and vain. But all of us are in the world to demonstrate the contrary.