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Journal of Camus Studies | JCS

Journal of Camus Studies

The Journal of Camus Studies

Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.

Camus: Portrait of a Moralist | Andy Martin

Camus: Portrait of a Moralist offers a history and brief analysis of Camus' political efficacy that pulls no punches.

Three Stars out of Five

Bronner Camus Portrait of a MoralistStephen Eric Bronner's Camus: Portrait of a Moralist is brief, well written and well organized. The book is in a very basic sense, an easy read. An easy read is not to be confused with a simple read. Camus: Portrait of a Moralist is one of those books one finds oneself reading for longer than one planned. It is a short book, 155 pages, and readers will probably find themselves getting through it in two or three days. Many, I suspect, will read it more than once and Bronner deserves a second reading.

However, a short book covering the work of a man's life-time that seeks definitive conclusions must fail to do justice to the subject. Better, in my opinion, would be to use a short book to pose questions for further study rather than attempt to capture Camus and pin him down to his place in history. Bronner is not offering an introduction to Camus (although, I suspect, many of his readers will be using Camus: Portrait of a Moralist as an introduction to Camus) but 'a work of intellectual history with a political intent'. He has no intention of exhibiting 'reverence' and he is not going to take the 'salience' of Camus's work for granted.

I have yet to find a book on Camus, or anyone else, in which the author explicitly states that they intend to revere their subject and take his or her salience for granted. Obviously, Bronner's statement is aimed at other works that do these things unintentionally but are nonetheless flawed because of it. However, the fact that he mentions this also speaks about his attitude to his own work, recognizing, as he must, that Camus: Portrait of a Moralist does not give Camus an easy ride and that the Camus that emerges at the end is shaken up as a result.

Throughout the book Bronner continually presents Camus' influences and output against a backdrop of current affairs, with a particular interest in the political. This is unsurprising as the author is a political scientist. On the back cover of my edition (University of Minnesota Press, 1999) are extracts from two reviews of the work, one from Mark Kesselman of Columbia University and the other by Dick Howard, SUNY Stony Brook. Kesselman mentions that Camus: Portrait of a Moralist is “... respectful without being sycophantic.” Howard says that “...Bronner provides us with an excellent means of understanding how political thinkers actually 'think'” (my emphasis). Sycophantic Bronner most certainly is not. Reading through Camus: Portrait of a Moralist , one gets the impression that the author is somewhat disappointed in his subject, that Camus never quite achieved what Bronner would have liked him to. If the author's aim was, as Howard reads him, to give us an insight on Camus the political thinker, then perhaps Bronner is justifiably disappointed. As he points out, Camus had little interest in the day to day practicalities of politics; Bronner quotes from Camus' Notebooks 1:8:

“Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounds human. It is always the same words telling the same lies.” [151]

Reading Camus as a straightforward political thinker is going to end in disappointment. Judging art as political commentary doesn't do justice to the artwork or the artist. For instance, in Chapter 2 on The Absurd, Bronner writes of Caligula:

“The dramatic impact of the play is genuine and the characters are multidimensional. Its problems stem from its philosophical premise. Camus wished to identify the revolt against Caligula with the refusal to resign oneself to the absurdity of existence. But, in fact, fascism and communism also sought to combat the prevailing sense of meaningless and relativism. It is unnecessary to take the absurd seriously as a condition of life in order to revolt against intolerance and the dictatorial use of power. A simple commitment to liberalism, religious values or even Marxism can motivate political resistance.” [53]

What Bronner seems to be saying is that the play is nice to watch, dramatic, with interesting characters but fails as a political piece on defying dictators or the problems of totalitarianism. This verdict stems from the author's decision to view Caligula as “... the first of Camus' works genuinely concerned with the political consequences of the absurd.” From this viewpoint the conclusion naturally follows “... its metaphysical assumptions are – ironically – unnecessary for illuminating either totalitarianism or the struggle against it.” Bronner does not offer alternative approaches to tackling the ideas in the play. Those wanting a more philosophical take are referred to David Sprintzen's Camus: A Critical Examination.

Bronner's fourth chapter, entitled Limits, tears apart The Rebel . He includes, here and there, a few sympathetic phrases, usually followed with a but... Camus is 'surely correct' but 'there is nothing original in his claim'; 'The Rebel is a visionary work' he concedes but 'In its own way'. Bronner puts The Rebel firmly in its place thus:

“The Rebel was conceived as a philosophical treatise and as a work of political theory, but there is some question whether it succeeds as either [...] Comparing The Rebel with Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws or Rousseau's Social Contract radically overestimates its importance. It is clearly not on the same scholarly level as Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism or even Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom [...] None of those professing allegiance to The Rebel indicates what it actually contributes to our understanding of totalitarianism, revolution, or the importance of civil liberties and republican values.” [88]

Opinions on The Rebel differ tremendously. John Foley, author of Albert Camus From The Absurd to Revolt considers The Rebel 'Camus's most important book'1. David Sprintzen in Camus: A Critical Examination argues that Camus doesn't offer the book as a comprehensive theory of human nature, politics, or social theory but rather the aim of The Rebel 'is diagnostic, attending to what Camus feels to be a pathology of the Western mind prevalent for the last 150 years'2. In Albert Camus' Critique of Modernity, Ronald Srigley observes that The Rebel is a 'puzzling book'3 before going to explain in detail what is so puzzling about it. Of course, different people will have different opinions and provide various reasons and arguments as to why their particular opinion is worth our consideration. The trouble with Camus: Portrait of a Moralist, as mentioned above, is that it is a very short book aiming to deal with Camus' entire output and so therefore Bronner does not have much room to lay out his position. As a result Bronner comes across as overly dismissive.

It is also clear that Bronner is aware that, despite a few words of praise here and there, the portrait he paints of Camus is not a flattering one. There is nothing wrong with this in itself; books on a particular individuals do not have to be written by sycophants. However, I would expect a book that is on the whole negative to offer more than a brief overview on the subject's failings.

A final quibble is over the book's title, Camus: Portrait of a Moralist. There is no real examination of Camus' attitude to morality or anything like a picture of Camusian ethics in Bronner's book. Instead, morality floats around in the background of Camus' political ideas, rather like Camus is depicted floating around in the background of the political world.

All this said, Bronner's book is a worthwhile read. Readers interested in Camus' politics will find in this book a well written and engaging introduction to Camus' life in politics. It is only those who are looking for a good all-round introduction to Camus or a short book specifically focused on Camus and Morality or Camusian ethics who will be disappointed.

Camus: Portrait of a Moralist

Stephen Eric Bronner

University of Minnesota Press (1999)

ISBN: 0-8166-3284-7

Stephen Eric Bronner Amazon

Bibliography

Foley, John. Camus: From Absurd to Revolt. Acumen (2008)

Srigley, Ronald D. Albert Camus' Critique of Modernity. University of Missouri Press: Columbia and London, (2011)

Sprintzen, David. Camus: A Critical Examination. Temple University Press (reprint edition 1991)

1. Foley, p.55. The full paragraph reads: Philosophically, The Rebel is Camus's most important book. Although it is much maligned and frequently ignored, the fact that Camus spent more time writing it than any other book, combined with the fact that we find in the essay the most detailed articulation, indeed the culmination, of many of the ideas we have examined in previous chapters, justifies a more careful scrutiny than it usually receives. Such scrutiny is given further justification, I believe, precisely by the degree and extent of the critical hostility the essay engendered among Camus's contemporaries.

2. Sprintzen, p.121

3. Srigley, p.48. The full sentence reads: Yet The Rebel is also [he has just called it admirable] a very puzzling book, because virtually all of the things that Camus here criticizes he also defends, in one form or another, at some point in his analysis.

 

Simon Lea | 2011