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The other Camus

The controversial author’s work is filled not just with anger but with autumnal regret

Whether because of the imminent general election, and the dawning realisation of what fourteen years of “Conservative” government will have left us with, or whether under the sheer physical heft of those thronging the streets and bridges of London over a sequence of Saturdays since early October, to protest a foreign war from a singular, partisan perspective, certain developments in British demography have started to be more widely discussed, as they have in mainland Europe and the United States. Even if no-one can quite agree what to call them.

The appearance of an English translation of Enemy of the Disaster – Selected Political Writings by Renaud Camus, has, therefore created surprisingly little in the way of discourse. 

This may have disappointed the publishers, who might reasonably have been hoping to create a succès de scandale, or at least a little frisson, a murmur in those salons frequented by the spicier columnists and the better-read members of the IEA, if not your present correspondent, who turns his collar like an earlier Camus to the cold and damp of W1.

Then again, even in France, very few people know who he is. His own introduction acknowledges that despite being perhaps “France’s most prolific living writer”, he is largely unread. Certainly, not on the scale of a Douglas Murray or a Pat Buchanan, perhaps his closest (though still distant) British and American counterparts. 

Furthermore, though he is no doubt a serious intellectual, the size of his oeuvre has essentially precluded it from serious study. It is just too much. One would be better off creating an avatar, a critical cousin to a roman a clef, as might a Borges or Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman, in order to critique a more manageable corpus. 

There is some irony, then. that despite the prodigious verbiage to have issued from his slender wrist, Camus’s fame, or notoriety — no doubt the French have some third word which subtly captures the ambivalence of earning prestige for a fiercely-contested claim — still rests on his coinage of a single three-word phrase. Two thirds of this soubriquet are the definite article and a shop-worn default modifier. The remaining third, it turns out, pure dynamite. 

That phrase is Le Grand Remplacement, or The Great Replacement. It is one which some time ago escaped the narrow confines of intellectual Gallic shruggery, and is now brandished to identify either the greatest threat to Western Civilisation since Thucydides was in short togas, or an inflammatory fantasy to that effect cultivated and recklessly flourished to further the lowest and meanest of agenda by men who are not fit to lace Caesar’s sandals. 

Whether or not one accepts its accuracy, the Wikipedia entry captures the polite, acceptable opinion on the matter: 

The Great Replacement… is a white nationalist far-right conspiracy theory… [viz] that, with the complicity or cooperation of “replacist” elites, the ethnic French and white European populations at large are being demographically and culturally replaced by non-white peoples—especially from Muslim-majority countries—through mass migration, demographic growth and a drop in the birth rate of white Europeans.

The inflammatory part there is clearly “complicity or cooperation”, whence of course it is but a short goose step over to “White Genocide” – until recently the most popular abuse of that category of eradication in regular play.

Then again, as dinner party-friendly US think-maker Andrew Sullivan observed of London: 

[A]n accidental revolution is still a revolution. And I would just ask those who rightly denigrate the term “Great Replacement” to provide an alternative phrase to describe a city which was 87 percent “White British” a half-century ago and 36 percent today? It’s the kind of demographic change only previously seen in other parts of the world in times of plague, invasion, or campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile this phrase, sans Camus, has now of course very much entered the discourse, and has seeded innumerable ova and fathered many offspring, some murderous, which Camus is sincerely eager to disown. 

Why then would I want to handle this tract, this screed, even with tweezers and a half kilo of loose scare quotes and distancing modifiers to place around the offending text?

For two reasons, at least. One, if I am honest, is precisely the sense of its tantalising, crackling radio-activity, its hostile pungency, such as one finds in certain of the more challenging French cheeses. To read Camus is – to borrow a phrase I imagine he would readily recognise – to feast with panthers. 

It is always fun to have a few books on one’s shelf with spines turned to face the wall, my darling, as the gentlemen go by. But they should ideally be of acknowledged literary merit, the author someone who could be trusted to have impeccable manners should the vicar call round. And among connoisseurs of the unsayable, there is a lurking suspicion that as with so many things — here I find myself briefly onside with the Remainers – you do at least get a better class of provocateur with the French. 

The suave Éric Zemmour, for instance, whose name and burnished chestnut features remind one more of the great Charles Aznavour than anything currently lurking in the dank of our own hard right. The French Nouvelle Droite may wear a little too much cologne but at least they do not smell of pubs, Wormwood Scrubs, ou réunions de droite. 

So, Camus is an elegant prose stylist and at 77 years old a strikingly dapper and elegant man too, with a wide-eyed expression that could be profitably employed by Pixar, to animate a principled, defiant, somewhat querulous squirrel. He is an ornament to any problematic bookshelf being mischievously curated for the next BBC Zoom call. Eh, Michael?

There will be those who find nothing amusing about this frame. The idea that a man whose ideas have appeared in various manifestos intended to justify mass murder, should be read for mere titillation, will strike them as grotesque and dangerous. “Sure, Simon,” I hear a Theodore Dalrymple of the Left scold, “you may be able to lash yourself to the mast and enjoy the Siren’s song, but don’t imagine that lending them your own inestimable credibility will be without a socialised cost.” So be it. 

Secondly, and more seriously, I wanted to understand if — as I sincerely suspected — a little crucial quelque-chose — a certain je ne sait quoi, even — had been lost in translation. 

After all the word “remplacement” might easily, in other context, be understood to mean anything from genocide to a re-shuffle.  

I remember being struck during O-level French by the distinction drawn between “Meubles” and “Immeubles” — movables and immovable, literally, but colloquially “furniture” and “block of flats”. The understanding, the registering that some things — like peoples — can function as both, can remain even as furniture comes and goes, but then can also come and go, even as furniture remains — is perhaps a more philosophical or even poetic one, rather than polemical.

My inclination, having read the book, would be to say — up to a point. 

There is no question that Camus is opposed to violence and bitterly regrets and repudiates the actions taken by those who heard them as a call to arms. Nor should there be doubt that his views are carefully unfolded, temperate, qualified and caveated and developed in a manner as reasonable as you are likely to encounter on either side of this white hot furnace of debate.

But equally, there is no doubting his conviction that something not merely tragic and irreversible but planned, and malevolent is underway. That enemies of nationalism and a cohesive French identity are working to destroy something he loves. These are not mere exercises in sophistry or musing argumentation. Camus sees before him — rightly or wrongly — an active crime scene, of near immeasurable proportion. 

His relationship to those who brandish his infamous phrase might be similar to that of Nietzsche to the Nazis, though without the evil, mediating sister. No doubt the original Will to Power, the Blond beast and the Ubermensch and so on were nuanced concepts, later shorn of context, but that does not mean Adolf had read it entirely wrong. 

Nevertheless, Camus, like Nietzsche, is still very much worth reading. These essays are masterpieces of popular philosophy and reflection, and their style, flavour and essence has certainly survived a very deft translation. Even — especially — if you are determined to repudiate everything that Camus stands for, to defend everything he laments, you should address the original text and not the second, third order commentary. 

The essays in this book do largely address the same concerns, albeit from subtly different angles. “The Second Career of Adolf Hitler” is a sort of long-form expression of Godwin’s Law, but the rest are concerned with Decline, and with the demographic component of that effect — and with France essentially bleeding out before his eyes.

… in what epoch have men not composed elegies for the nation of their youth? 

Yet for all that this is strong meat, and some will say (as my mother did, whenever mention of the French skill with spices gave her the opportunity to do so) rotten — perhaps what is most easily missed from second hand accounts and reductive sloganeering is the haunting melancholy that Camus captures, even in his anger, and that I think will touch even those most opposed to his analysis. This is perhaps the quality that is most easily and safely placed in a tradition, for in what epoch have men not composed elegies for the nation of their youth? 

I see in London that which seems strange to me — but does not seem so to my son. And I know that my grandfather felt he had watched even the sleepy St Albans that I grew up in, change beyond his ken. He had seen changes that Thomas Hardy might have chronicled. Meanwhile, long before he found fame with the jarring dystopian nightmare of 1984, George Orwell was lamenting the death of the England he knew and loved in Coming Up For Air — published in 1939. 

This does not mean Camus is simply wrong. 

His regret that words which once held tangible meaning, aromas and textures, are now merely boxes on forms, this surely resonates? Primarily “French”, which once evoked “Montaigne, Jean-Jacques Rousseau [actually Swiss, no?] Burgundy wine and Proust” but is now jealously claimed by citizens whose “Frenchness” is administrative, a matter of the correct documentation. 

This certainly rings true, and in a minor key, even as we remember that Montaigne and Proust themselves were gazing wistfully back over lost time at what had once been, be it the poets and philosophers of Greece and Rome, or the innocence of childhood in Combray. So it goes.

Perhaps the key is the longest piece here, much longer than the title essay, another j’accuse against a colossus of contempt — “The Great Deculturation”. This stout defence of remorseless exclusivity, this eulogy for the lost confidence of the cultural elite, channels Kenneth Clark, Brian Sewell, Peter Hitchens and José Ortega y Gasset more than le Pen, pere ou fille. This I think is key to understanding Camus’s disposition — which as Michael Oakeshott wrote, is what conservatism really is. A disposition rather than a political stance: To prefer the familiar to the unknown.

Camus’ claim that dark forces are at work to dissolve the bonds of nationhood, and wash the bewildered, demoralised, atomised and deracinated constituents down the drain of history may strike many as risible, or worse. But the longest note I savoured after the final draught of this work was not of angry denunciation, bitter animosity towards the other, nor of firebrand-stoking rhetoric or sweaty, pulpit polemic. It was of autumnal regret, of an ear attuned to the everlasting certainty of decline, first heard at least two and half thousand years ago by Plato, if not by Homer themselves. 

It is expressed beautifully in Tolkien’s Long Defeat, the element that to this day stands his work apart from the fantasy genre he largely sired, and which he saw as central to his Catholic faith. The faith that Camus regrets he cannot muster, yet believes was what once sustained the France that is being lost. 

“We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end,” wrote Oswald Spengler, nearly a hundred years ago. “There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honourable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man.”

And this remember, was written before the greatest disaster ever to be visited by man upon himself. One thing seems certain in life — that decline is with us always, and will outlive us all. 

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