An Introduction and Some Provocations
by Marc Schachter
I find myself in the rather curious situation of writing an introduction to three short essays reflecting on an international (or : binational) "affair" inspired by a book I have never read. In August 2000, when I invited several academics and cultural critics to address what had already been known as "l'affaire Camus" for perhaps four months, I anticipated having the opportunity to read the unexpurgated edition of Renaud Camus's La Campagne de France: Journal 1994 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France before writing this. Instead, in early September I found myself in Paris confronting at once my own naive expectations of academic privilege and the affair's curiously distorted dissemination. My attempts to page the Journal (which appeared in the library's electronic catalogue) were met with a generic computer-generated message informing me that the book could not be communicated. When I asked a research librarian for assistance, the response stunned me, both because it was ill informed and because it exposed my own presumption. I was told that of course the book was inaccessible, obviously the lawsuit against the publisher necessitated not only the removal of unsold copies from bookstore shelves but also the interdiction of its transmission at the BnF. (In the wake of the Holocaust and the Deportation, French law authorizes legal recourse to combat speech judged to be anti-Semitic.) Now, in point of fact, the threatened legal action never materialized, and Fayard "voluntarily" withdrew the book from circulation early in the affair, before reissuing an expurgated edition. Eventually, I was informed that the book was inaccessible because it had not yet been fully processed, although the BnF staff could not tell me whether the volume wending its way through the library's cataloguing system was the original edition or the expurgated one. (I hope to find out when next in Paris.) Nonetheless, the librarian had been under the impression that La Campagne de France was a banned book, which I suppose in a certain sense it is. And I, in what is probably a bad case of American freedom-of-speech moxie, had assumed that I could get my greedy little scholarly hands on it without any trouble." ...on apprend à vivre avec soi-même. Que crois-tu que je sois en train de faire, mon cher journal ? "
Renaud Camus, La Campagne de France
The "affair" began in April 2000 when accusations of anti-Semitism and xenophobia based on passages in the journal were leveled against Camus in the French press. At the same time, pressure was brought to bear on Fayard to withdraw the book from circulation. (On the nature of Camus's project in writing and publishing his journal, see Charles Porter's "What did Renaud Camus really write?" below.) To complicate matters, just as the media frenzy began in France, Camus departed for a series of speaking engagements at US universities including New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Oregon, and Yale University. (For Camus's account of his own reaction to the first three months of the "affair," including the American tour, see his Corbeaux: Journal 9 avril-9 juillet 2000.) Camus's visit to Yale was also the occasion for a conference on his work, and it was there that the debate over his alleged anti-Semitism was most voluble, judging from the number of missives to the press that emerged from the conference and its aftermath. (Might a lingering hangover from what one could call the "de Man affair" have something to do with this?)
Let me say here that I don't know what to make of the accusations of anti-Semitism that have been lodged against Camus. What with having perused Camus's website (http://perso.wanadoo.fr/renaud.camus), where some of the passages that have been identified as "anti-Semitic" by his accusers are reproduced (along with numerous articles and letters condemning and defending him), and having read the revised edition of the journal, I think I have seen most of the text that appeared in the original La Campagne de France, although I don't know for sure. (See Lawrence Schehr's "Monicamus?, or, Sighting / Citing / Siting Antisemitism" below for reflections on the role of Camus's website in the affair.) Even had it been possible for me to read the ostensibly anti-Semitic passages in context without engaging in a kind of readerly bricollage, it is not clear to me that I would have a clearer sense of what I think on the questionof Camus's relative guilt or innocence. But what I find far more interesting than the issue of culpability is the phenomenon of the affair itself, a phenomenon in which an author with a devoted but quite small readership is suddenly at the center of a frenzy of petitions, letter-writing and editorializing-much of it by France's reigning progressive intelligentsia-that gives him and his ideas far more circulation-if not currency-than they would otherwise ever have had.
Not that allowing anti-Semitism or other forms of racism to languish in relative obscurity is an adequate or even a preferable response, but it is perhaps important to take stock of the complex modalities of anti-racist work and the not always transparent nature of its targeting even as one explores racism's various odious manifestations. (On the cultural politics of self-flagellating societal auto-accusations of anti-Semitism in contemporary France, see Jeffrey Mehlman's "Anti-anti-anti-semitism?" below.) More interesting to me than the question of whether or not some of the remarks in La Campagne de France express racist or essentialist notions about French identity is the ease with which the long history of violent political and cultural work that has produced something that could even be imagined as a coherent national identity can be forgotten. Benedict Anderson's remarks about the tropology of the Albigensian crusades and the St. Bartholomew Day massacres in French historiography are salient here. In more modern French history, we might think of the suppression of Breton as a viable regional language or the rhetoric of the memorial on the Île de la Cité in Paris which speaks of the Frenchmen deported during World War II without ever specifying who was deported and who did the deporting.
The fact that Camus is gay and, while he probably wouldn't want to be known as a gay writer, writes at great length about the various sexual subcultures in which he participates, has also largely been ignored in discussions of the "affair." Might this central aspect of his work contribute to his vulnerability within a culture that continues to value discretion, a discretion perhaps masquerading, in its conspicuous absence from debates on the "affair," as political correctness? Not that one's homosexuality should in any way excuse one's racism. While Claude Durand, the editor of La Campagne de France, is probably right when he asserts in an "avant-propos" to the expurgated edition of the journal that "on n'a jamais songé à réclamer l'interdiction de la littérature des grands "touristes" [e.g., Gide, Genet, Burroughs, etc.] des médinas et plages maghrébines" in the literary supplement of Le Monde (which in fact happened to Camus), the role of sexual tourism in the history of (post-) colonialism and the construction of occidental sexualities should continue to be a subject of critical inquiry. And perhaps therefore advocates of censorship should consider what forms of inquiry and contestationcensorship might foreclose. Just as the precipitous withdrawal from circulation of La Campagne de France made an informed discussion of its content difficult if not impossible, so too the curious reticence about Camus's sexuality (and about the sexually explicit nature of his writing) has obstructed a potentially volatile, but perhaps therefore all the more important, discussion about the links between certain modalities of homosexuality and the kind of cult ural conservatism exemplified in Camus's attitude towards a unified French identity and the purity of the French language. Is the fact that such an inquiry would certainly be deployed to homophobic ends a reason for gay men concerned with resisting the sometime imbrication of homosexuality and more or less oppressive forms of cultural hegemony reason to desist from the project? What if our project in writing were to learn to live well with others?