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Albert Camus’s ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’

A Text and its Contexts


Neil Foxlee

This book was shortlisted for the R.H. Gapper prize 2011.
On 8 February 1937 the 23-year-old Albert Camus gave an inaugural lecture for a new Maison de la culture, or community arts centre, in Algiers. Entitled ‘La nouvelle culture méditerranéenne’ (‘The New Mediterranean Culture’), Camus’s lecture has been interpreted in radically different ways: while some critics have dismissed it as an incoherent piece of juvenilia, others see it as key to understanding his future development as a thinker, whether as the first expression of his so-called ‘Mediterranean humanism’ or as an early indication of what is seen as his essentially colonial mentality.
These various interpretations are based on reading the text of ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’ in a single context, whether that of Camus’s life and work as a whole, of French discourses on the Mediterranean or of colonial Algeria (and French discourses on that country). By contrast, this study argues that Camus’s lecture – and in principle any historical text – needs to be seen in a multiplicity of contexts, discursive and otherwise, if readers are to understand properly what its author was doing in writing it. Using Camus’s lecture as a case study, the book provides a detailed theoretical and practical justification of this ‘multi-contextualist’ approach.


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Introduction 1


Introduction This book applies a multi-contextualist approach to ‘La nouvelle culture méditerranéenne’ (‘The New Mediterranean Culture’),1 an inaugural lec- ture given by the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus to mark the opening of a new Maison de la culture, or community arts centre, in Algiers in 1937. As an early and ephemeral text, Camus’s lecture has usually been viewed against the background of his life and work as a whole, where it is seen as one of the first expressions of what is regarded either as his ‘Mediterranean humanism’ or his essentially colonialist mentality. Whereas some critics of both a humanist and a postcolonial persuasion have thereafter adopted a predominantly text-focused approach to the lecture, there have been two corresponding approaches which contextualize the lecture at a discursive level: while humanist critics have placed it in the context of French dis- courses on the Mediterranean, postcolonial critics have studied it in relation to French colonial discourses on Algeria. In adopting a multi-contextualist approach, however, my study suggests that an adequate account of Camus’s lecture also needs to take account of other contexts, notably the argumen- tative contexts provided by interwar French intellectual debates on culture and the East/West question, the contemporary Algerian political context and the biographical context provided by Camus’s personal background and intellectual development. In so doing, this study sheds new light on a number of important themes that recur in Camus’s later work, both fic- tional and non-fictional. 1 For the benefit of non-French-speaking readers,...

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