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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 7 The Interwar East–West Debate 163

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chapter 7 The Interwar East–West Debate In ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’, as we have seen, Camus claims that what is most essential in the Mediterranean genius springs from the encoun- ter between East and West. In this context, he refers explicitly to Audisio, whose mid-1930s texts on the subject can in turn be seen as interventions in a contemporary polemic about the Mediterranean and Mediterranean humanism. Audisio’s and Camus’s comments on the relationship between East and West in the Mediterranean, however, also need to be seen against the background of a broader interwar debate on East–West relations that coincided with a sense of crisis in ‘Western’ (i.e. European) civilization after the collective trauma of the First World War. In 1925, both Audisio and Camus’s philosophy teacher and mentor Jean Grenier had contributed – along with many other writers, intellectu- als and academics – to Les Appels de l’Orient (‘The Calls of the East’),1 a special double issue of the periodical Les Cahiers du Mois that was devoted to the East–West question. (As I shall demonstrate later, this was not the only contribution that Grenier made to the debate, in which he played a seminal role.) Although the East–West debate reached its height in the mid-1920s and was increasingly overshadowed by the rise of fascism, a continuing interest in the subject was evident, for example, in special issues of Cahiers du Sud devoted to Islam and the West (1935) and India (1941), to which Grenier contributed an article...

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