What did Renaud Camus really write?
by Charles A. Porter
Near the end of La Campagne de France, Journal 1994 Renaud Camus writes,
Si je disais ce que je pense vraiment, dans n'importe quelle société d'aujourd'hui je serais aussitôt lynché. Et les sociétés qui ne me lyncheraient pas, ce serait par suite d'un malentendu. Et c'est probablement avec elles que serait le plus réel mon désaccord profond... (pp. 407-08 in the original, "withdrawn" edition)
Was Renaud Camus lynched during the recent "affair"? Was "lynching" him the right thing to do?
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Let us begin with a few verities:
Anti-Semitism is loathsome, and so therefore is anti-Semitic language.
Anti-Semitic statements have been quoted from Renaud Camus's La Campagne de France: Journal 1994.
The source of these statements was the most recent in a series of Camus's published personal diaries. Taken together with their immediate context, the anti-Semitic statements represent something like two percent of the content of the 1994 diary.
Anti-Semitic language that incites to violence against Jews is illegal in France; in the United States such language is widely considered to be indecent, but it is ordinarily protected under the constitutional doctrine of "freedom of speech."
Most of the participants in the recent debates should be able to agree on these statements, but further agreement rapidly becomes elusive. Not all will agree with all of the following assertions:
If anti-Semitic language is intended to incite to violence against Jews, it is evil and unacceptable, especially in a modern civilized society like that of France and the United States. Renaud Camus does not have such an intention.
A diarist has the option to choose to report freely the movement and content of his thoughts at a given moment. Such a choice is characteristic of a certain kind of diary, and it is characteristic of Renaud Camus's. If among those thoughts are passing anti-Semitic thoughts, they have to be reported just like other thoughts if the diary is to be complete and honest.
If these assertions are acceptable, they lead to a big question:
If reported anti-Semitic thoughts reflect badly on the diarist who is expecting his diary to be published, should he delete them, and thus risk incompleteness and dishonesty? or keep them in his text and thus show openly what is in his mind-while at the same timerisking, if not "lynching," at least certain denunciation?
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Is there a difference between the following statements?
1) There are too many Jews on Panorama.
2) "There are too many Jews on Panorama."
For a student of Roland Barthes like Camus, who is an enthusiastic proponent of "bathmology," Barthes's science of levels (or "degrees") of discourse, there is a great difference. Statement 2, the quoted statement, is less a claim or opinion than a contemplated notion, set down to be examined. It is not a call to action, not a part of a dictator's harangue. It may be ugly and unpleasant, but it is not criminal.
The debates concerning the anti-Semitic statements in La Campagne de France over the past half-year have been intense, bitter, humorless, and, I maintain, ill conceived. Producing, like so many public disputes, "more heat than light," the debates have rapidly abandoned the statements published by Renaud Camus, their purported subject, for expressions of moral outrage. The moral outrage is no doubt genuine and appropriate, but I must claim that it has been often inappropriately directed at Renaud Camus and his diary. The vast majority of those who have reacted to the "anti-Semitic statements" have done so in ignorance of most of Camus's written work, and what they know of that work tends to be limited to a general impression that it is "homosexual"; they are unaware of its extraordinarily diverse nature and, in particular, of how very small a place the expression of ultra-conservative prejudice occupies in it. Most sadly, to a Renaldian, they do not realize that, by and large, Camus's writings are an enthusiastic paean to the joys and beauty of life, however crankily their author may occasionally bemoan various aspects of contemporary society and yearn for the kind of homogeneous and simple France he sees reflected in the literary tradition of Racine, Mallarmé, Proust, and Valery Larbaud: a France that no doubt exists only in works of art.
What bothers me most, though, is that so many of Camus's severest critics are literary critics and yet seem totally uninterested in distinguishing between statements made in a political tract and those made in a personal diary, or between statements that are declarations and statements that are presented "in quotation marks" like the anti-Semitic statement quoted above. Those quotations marks are not, of course, literally in Camus's text and could not, therefore, be seen by those whose only knowledge of his writing came from extracts in the press. Camus's text surrounding the quotations, however, makes it plain that the diarist is BOTH expressing AND examining critically (and by that I do not necessarily mean unfavorably) his beliefs. How can a diarist not have the right even the duty to examine his thoughts and convictions, whatever they may be?
Camus was astonished shortly after the appearance of La Campagne de France to receive "right-on"'s from a number of politically ultra-conservative anti-Semites, he tells me. Were those anti-Semites good readers?
Unlike most literary disputes and even some moral disputes, this one has the merit of raising really important concerns. It has divided American and French readers, younger from older readers, between and within ethnic groups. I am distressed, however, that it has not more clearly divided those readers who "see red" from those whose usual practice is to read in context. "En désaccord avec [son] temps," as usual, what Renaud Camus really wrote in his 1994 Diary is that he occasionally entertains anti-Semitic and other negative kinds of thought. To speak such thoughts is politically incorrect, certainly, but to write them in a diary that will be published is perhaps also a sign of appropriate frankness and honesty.
Charles A. Porter
Professor of French Emeritus, Yale University