Jay Fox on Albert Camus' The Rebel
By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Albert Camus' The Rebel, like his more famous work, The Myth of Sisyphus, is essentially concerned with the absurd. "That divorce between man and his life," he writes in the opening pages of the latter work, "the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity." While both works accept the absurd as the state in which humanity finds itself, Sisyphus is a meditation on the subject of suicide in the face of absurdity, whereas The Rebel is largely a treatise on the subjects of rebellion, revolution and murder—or, to be more precise, politically- or ideologically-motivated murder—that are performed within the theater of the absurd. That such atrocities are typically done in the name of justice, equality or some future utopia only serves to further demonstrate the absurdity, as well as to allude to the crisis of legitimacy that has defined the modern era (which, according to Camus, really begins amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution).
While any historian will be impressed by Camus' ability to trace the evolution of rebellion, revolution and terror from the days of Sade and Saint-Just to the era of Dadaism, Stalin and Hitler, the real merits of the book concern his examination of the manner in which people and societies respond to perhaps the two most formidable necessities in life: death and injustice. For Camus, that all people are born to die and to live in circumstances that allow injustice is what causes the initial indignation that can turn into rebellion.
It is no surprise, then, that included in Camus' pantheon of rebels is the first person, according to the Judaic tradition, forced to confront both death and injustice from birth: Cain. Cain is one of Camus' archetypical rebels, as is Prometheus and the romantic Lucifer (the one featured in Milton's Paradise Lost and not the bat-winged beast of Dante and Hieronymus Bosch). Born into a world that admits both death and evil, all three rebels consider themselves compelled to acts that are deemed criminal by an authority figure whose legitimacy they do not fully recognize.
While the acts of Prometheus and Lucifer take the form of direct challenges to a more powerful deity, Cain's sense of outrage is perhaps more understandable to us mortals. He is haunted "by a nostalgia for an unrealizable good." Though he is innocent, he is accursed nonetheless. Suffering due to the weakness of his parents ignites his sense of outrage, the indignation that drives his petulance and ultimately the crime for which he is known.
This is what Camus calls metaphysical rebellion, and it was Cain's real sin. The murder of his brother was merely the manifestation of the resentment he had for God.
While these figures may arouse some sympathy in anyone who cannot accept the type of Panglossianism that presumes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, the petulance of the rebel, when coupled with political cynicism and nihilism, has been behind the most oppressive and monstrous regimes of the twentieth century. This much is somewhat common knowledge. However, as I happened to read a good deal of news concerning ISIS while in the midst of The Rebel, I became acutely aware of the fact that Camus' thoughts can be applied to the outrage du jour among many Western columnists concerning not only ISIS, but the fact that many of the Europeans (or, at the very least, residents of European nations) joining ISIS are seemingly normal, non-radicalized Muslim kids.
One of the most important aspects of ISIS is that it is not just a group of religious fanatics hoping to reestablish a caliphate. Reifying the "nostalgia for an unrealizable good" by recreating the conditions of the seventh and eighth centuries when the original caliphate was at the height of its ascendency is not their goal. The leadership within ISIS knows that the West will not be driven out of the Middle East simply by a return to the "purity" of the past. Unlike some less than famous antecedents,1 ISIS' tactics admit any means necessary to advance its ends—particularly kidnapping.
But what are its ends? We're never really told. The American media has let us know that "they hate our freedoms" and that they would like to expand, but that's about it. On top of falling short of describing ISIS, it overlooks the real novelty in their approach, which is sitting right there in either acronym one uses to describe the group (ISIS or ISIL).
This entity presents itself as a legitimate state. We are not dealing with a loose affiliation of terrorists waging jihad against the West by setting IEDs on the side of a road in Iraq or working within a vast network of splinter cells. We are witnessing the rise of a de facto regime that fancies itself not only among the spiritual vanguard of the Islamic world, but also the only legitimate political entity for Muslims. The words on the cover of the first issue of Dabiq couldn't make this any clearer: The return of Khilafah (the successor or line of successors of the prophet Muhammad).
As I examined Dabiq, I couldn't help but notice that the language appealed to what Camus described as the sense of alienation and disillusionment that afflicts a conquered nation. It does not read like Cain petulantly denouncing the historical circumstances into which he was born; it reads like a National Socialist denouncing the Treaty of Versailles. It does not convey metaphysical rebellion or contain the kind of anti-materialistic vitriol that is vaguely reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn's A World Split Apart. It is nationalist propaganda that is indicative of a gangster morality centered on petty triumphs and resentment. It is attracting followers for the same reason that National Socialism attracted followers—because it seeks the restoration of a cultural identity and a cultural destiny.
That such an identity is specious and that such a destiny is more millennial than either constructive or heroic is immaterial. ISIS is trying to present itself as a state experiencing a Year 1, even if its only achievements seem to be based on a few military victories and the execution of two highway bandits (see the first issue of Dabiq). It proclaims itself to be the successor to a caliphate, to be not one state that happens to be comprised of Muslims, but the Muslim state. However, ISIS is not a caliphate. It does not speak for all Muslims. It does not even speak for all Sunnis.
ISIS is a band of mercenaries, nihilists and fanatics. In many ways, the religion of ISIS is not all that different from how Camus characterized the religion of Hitler: "the God-Providence and Valhalla." If anything, we can only hope that, a few years down the line, we'll be able to echo what Camus said of the reactionary movements that ravaged Germany between the two world wars: "Despite appearances…it was only a primitive impulse whose ravages have been greater than its ambitions."
1 This is evidently fairly common. The two individuals with whom I am most familiar are Neolin, an influential Delaware prophet from the 1760s, and Nongqawuse, a Xhosa prophetess from 1850s. Though the two were separated by thousands of miles of ocean and a language barrier, they both spread a similar millennialism among their people: Return to the old ways, and the white people will be swept away. According to the historian Gregory Evans Dowd, Neolin's words, in part, inspired what became known as Pontiac's War. Those who followed the words of Nongqawuse ended up abandoning even their cattle and their crops. To make matters worse, believers were not satisfied merely to burn their own crops and kill their own cattle, but destroyed their neighbors' means of sustenance, too. This both separated the community, as shown in Zakes Mda's excellent novel, The Heart of Redness, and caused a widespread famine that brought the entire Xhosa nation to its knees. It ultimately made conquest far easier for the British in the Cape Colony.