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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 3 Humanist and Postcolonial Approaches 51

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chapter 3 Humanist and Postcolonial Approaches As an early and ephemeral text, ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’ has usually been discussed in the context of Camus’s life and work as a whole, where it has been seen as important for two very different reasons. First, it has been seen as the earliest formulation of a ‘Mediterranean humanism’ central to Camus’s world-view. This would most famously be expressed in ‘La pensée de midi’ (‘Noonday Thought’), the concluding part of Camus’s 1951 historico-politico-philosophical essay L’Homme révolté, in which he proposed Greco-Mediterranean thought as a corrective to what he saw as the disastrous influence of German ideology, in the shape of both Marxism and Nazism.1 Second, from a postcolonial viewpoint, the lec- ture has been seen as an early indication of Camus’s essentially colonial mentality, as expressed, for instance, in what is seen as the marginalization of native Algerians in his novels L’Étranger (The Outsider) and La Peste 1 This view is shared even by critics with a low opinion of the work. Despite describ- ing the lecture as sentimental and lacking in intellectual foundations, Roger Quilliot writes that ‘noonday thought, the final theme of L’Homme révolté, […] takes on its full sense from a reading of this text’ (E, 1316). Similarly, Maurice Weyembergh sees some of Camus’s observations as ‘strangely contradictory and superficial’, but suggests that L’Homme révolté represents a mature reprise of his youthful remarks; ‘Camus et Saint-Augustin’, Perspectives. Revue de l’Université Hébraïque de Jérusalem...

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