4.1. Shadow and Light
At this point, one may wonder how it is possible that Renaud and Camus, who went through the same war and saw the atrocities people can inflict on one another, look in such different ways both at humanity and at art: the first one despairs about our species and rejects art as a lie, while the second one maintains his faith in human beings, who thinks that art is essential in the fight against falsehood, and that the artist has the duty to break the silence. What interests us is trying to understand what separates Renaud from Camus.
This may be due to the fact that Renaud is carried away by his emotions to the point that he is blind, incapable of seeing the whole reality. We can recall the words of Camus:
“Errors are always caused by an exclusion,” Pascal says. […] The Greeks knew that there is a part of shadow and a part of light. Today we see only the shadow and the work of those who do not want to despair is to recall the light, the midday of life.
] (p. 181) [trans. Estelle Carciofi]
Renaud is perhaps one of those who see only the shadow now. Camus, for his part, would be one of those who do not wish to despair, and who, even in the thickest darkness, endeavors to recall “the light, the midday of life.” What Camus talks about when he speaks of “the light, the midday of life” is what creates inside a persona what he calls not the love of life, but “the love of living
”. To feel this love, to be filled with it, is necessary, in the eyes of Camus, to love both humanity and the beauty of the world; he thinks it is impossible to live by hating oneself—and if we hate humankind, we hate our human nature, and thus, we hate ourselves. As for beauty, one might think it is “superficial”, but it is not. It is as essential to a person as bread or oxygen. Camus writes: “Man cannot live without beauty, and this is what our time pretends to want to ignore” [7
] (p. 139). Beauty is so important because it awakens love and gives strength. As we know, Camus wrote amazing texts in which he exalted the beauty of nature. In one of them, he explains that:
In the worst years of our madness, the memory of that sky had never left me. It was it who finally prevented me from despairing […] I rediscovered in Tipasa that we should keep intact in ourselves a freshness, a source of joy, and love the day that escapes injustice and come back to the battle with this conquered light.
] (p. 164) [trans. Estelle Carciofi]
Thanks to the beauty of nature, Camus remains hopeful, strong, even when surrounded by the worst atrocities. Therefore, as difficult as this might be, and even more so when it is hard because ugliness is omnipresent, it is important to keep our eyes open to beauty. This is what Renaud forgets. Camus, even if he sees the shadow (as we have mentioned), endeavors to keep his eyes open to both the shadow and the light. Already in 1952, he wrote:
Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I would like never to be unfaithful to either one or the others.
] (p. 166) [trans. Estelle Carciofi]
Renaud is “unfaithful” to the light. He forgets that the man whom he insults and rejects violently, yes, he is the Nazi, but he is also Benjamin Crémieux. Yes, he is one of those who kill children, but also one of those who, like him, is deeply burdened by this crime. And even in every person, we find both shadow and light. Camus writes:
[…] there are again gutted comrades, members of bodies torn to pieces and eyes whose look has been crushed with heels. And those who did this could give their seat to someone else in the subway, just like Himmler, who had made torture a science and a job, yet came home by the back door at night, so as not to wake his favorite canary.
] (p. 22) [trans. Estelle Carciofi]
4.2. One Common Human Nature and Germs of Evil
This last point is not trivial. Camus reminds us that the Nazis could be nice and considerate. We could add and educated, sensitive and refined, as well. Joseph Goebbels [1897–1945], a close associate of Adolf Hitler, had a PhD in philosophy. We must keep it in mind. This is certainly a part of what Vercors wants to tell us when he writes Les Mots [“The Words”]. In this short story, a Nazi officer orders the massacre of a village. While the soldiers obey him and kill some civilians near him, the officer, who turns his back on them, is painting a beautiful landscape, feeling joy and emotion. The famous street artist Banksy expresses the same idea in The Banality of the Banality of the Evil  (referring, of course, to Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil ). Banksy bought an oil painting depicting an autumnal landscape and he just added a “detail” on it: a Nazi sitting on a bench and admiring the beauty of nature.
It would be a serious mistake to forget that the Nazis and the tormentors and “bad people” in general were and remained human beings—as we have just seen—or conversely, to believe that we have nothing of the “Nazi” in us. Nazis were ordinary people just like you and me. In his “Introduction to The Plague by Albert Camus” , the French novelist and resistance fighter Romain Gary [1914–1980] explains that, in his novel, Camus shows very clearly that everyone has in him germs of evil (hatred is one of the most dangerous) and, as he mentioned it above in Combat, we must be very careful to prevent them from developing. R. Gary writes: “No one is immune”.
This is precisely why some artists consider that they are no different from the tormentors, and that they have to say “we” even when they talk about some people who have done the worst. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn is one of them. In his Nobel Prize speech, he states: “A writer is not the detached judge of his compatriots and contemporaries, he is an accomplice to all the evil committed in his native land or by his countrymen.” R. Gary would go even further and say that every human being is an accomplice to the evil that every other human commits. This is a way of not forgetting that there is always common ground between all men, that even if we are all distinct (tormentors, victims, ordinary people), we are not different—as we will see later.
4.3. Two Kinds of Fires
Now that we have clarified this crucial idea, we can return to our previous point: the fact that if Renaud becomes desperate, it is because he is no longer able to see the “light”. It seems that he has become one of those “proud souls” broken by Hitlerism, a soul that finds nothing to love or admire anymore. And thus, he loses his strength. Renaud keeps only the darkness, the painful heart. For Camus, it would be vain to fight for a world where it would not be good to be alive. This is why he describes his duty as a human being and a writer as follows:
My role […] may be to serve, in my position, the few values without which a world, even if transformed, is not worth living, without which a man, even a new one, will not be worth being respected […]: the simple happiness, the passion for the beings, the natural beauty.
] (pp. 166–167) [trans. Estelle Carciofi]
So, no, he does not want to be one of those “men, driven by mediocre and ferocious ideologies, who become accustomed to being ashamed of everything. Ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being happy, of loving or of creating”. On the contrary, as he writes: we must “live and create” [17
] (p. 58).
We henceforth know why Camus is a proud and grateful artist. Ultimately, the question is: can we keep everything together? Or, as Camus asks: “Can we eternally refuse injustice without ceasing to salute the nature of man and the beauty of the world?” [18
] (p. 345) Can we combine revolt and love? Say no and say yes at the same time? Camus says: “Our answer is yes.” [id.
] We can keep everything together. I would even add that we have to
Renaud lights a fire to destroy art works because he is disgusted by humankind. According to Camus, the only fire worthy of that name is the one we light with loved people, on a warm beach, under the stars, when our body keeps its taste of salt. We find here, again, the three essential elements: “the simple happiness, the passion for the beings, the natural beauty” thanks to which we can continue to live, while fighting:
[…] for those who know the tearings of the yes and the no, of the midday and of the midnights, of revolt and of love, for those who love the fire in front of the sea, there is, there, a flame which is waiting for them.
] (p. 131) [trans. Estelle Carciofi]