Unacceptable clarity

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To canonize Camus on the obvious occasion of his centenary is to attempt what his worst enemies could not do: domesticate him, or bury him in irrelevance. The causes he cared about – Algeria and Hungary, among others – are now forgotten. It is easy to pick a few catchy quotes and put them under black-and-white photos of him, and you have a comfortable icon of Camus to be used in legitimizing our positions and prejudices.

But you need only read him, and the holy effigy speaks out to the present. To speak clearly, for Camus as for Orwell, was a duty both esthetic and political. Words had an urgent task to do. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Camus reviewed the grim landmarks that had molded his generation. Born on the eve of the Great War, he grew up amid the rise of communism and fascism, and later the extermination camps and the unprecedented specter of nuclear war. In this landscape, nothing was easier than to opt for blind ideology, or nihilism or fatalism. Camus chose skeptical rationality, observation; the search for tangible, modest solutions; to improve things by possible degrees.