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Albert Camus’s ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’

A Text and its Contexts

Series:

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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Chapter 1 Towards a Multi-Contextualist Approach 7

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chapter 1 Towards a Multi-Contextualist Approach The Choice of a Methodology Contrary to what one might expect from its title,1 Camus’s lecture on ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’ demands to be read, not as a polite talk on contemporary artistic or social trends, but as a highly charged piece of political rhetoric. From the outset, Camus emphasizes that he is speaking on behalf of a group of left-wing intellectuals against those, such as Maurras, he attacks as right-wing doctrinaires. And in his subsequent references to Hitler, Mussolini, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War, he makes it clear that he is speaking out specifically against fascism and in favour of what he calls a ‘Mediterranean collectivism’, concluding by affirming the possibility of a new Mediterranean culture that will be compatible with the social ideal he shares with his comrades. Given Camus’s self-identification as an intellectual, his explicit ref- erences to the historical context in which he is speaking and the overtly political nature of his speech, ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’ would seem well suited to the approach developed by Quentin Skinner, the pre- eminent theorist and practitioner of intellectual history in the political sphere (in the English-speaking world at least). Together with J.G.A. Pocock, Skinner is the leading figure in the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of intellectual historians. His major publications, which have been widely 1 As noted in my introduction to Chapter 2, Camus’s lecture was printed under the heading ‘La culture indigène’ (‘Native Culture’). See...

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