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  • Memory and Justice:Narrative Sources of Community in Camus's The First Man
  • John Randolph LeBlanc

There as a certain frustration involved in trying to find Albert Camus's conception of justice in express positive statements. But inasmuch as Camus saw his work in the trope of journey, his complex set of ideas about justice are to be discerned in the narrative structure of his texts. This is particularly so in his last work, the incomplete autobiographical The First Man.1 In the novel, Camus has his protagonist and fictional self Jacques Cormery seek the sources of his orientation to questions of love and justice by attempting to reconstruct the brief life of a father he never knew. It is in the life reconstructed, chiefly through the recollected memories of those who knew the man that Jacques comes to understand his own responses to questions of love and justice. A necessary by-product of the process is that through his questioning, Jacques recreates a community of which he is a product but, until the journey is undertaken, he has never been a part. His journey is, thus, one of self-discovery and inextricably ties justice to community formation. Camus's last novel, I will argue, suggests the importance of memory and narrative to the fundamental questions of political theory, particularly, questions regarding community-formation and the role and nature of justice.


Contemporary reflections on the nature of politics take narrative encounters with reality seriously. The significance of narrative to political theory is, I think, tied to the Augustinian recognition that, temporally speaking, we live forward but learn backwards. It is through reconstructing [End Page 140] our experiences as individuals that we learn about who we are and how we got here. Recent political theory has come to recognize that this epistemological structure works at both the individual and the communal level. Michael Walzer, for example, has suggested that a community's culture is the story its members tell so as to make sense of the different pieces of their social life and justice is the doctrine that distinguishes the pieces.2 But distinguishing the pieces can mean and has meant blocking or restricting our access to that reconstruction. While a time-honored political practice, the impulse to control the contents of the narrative by deeming it unworthy or too dangerous to speak became a self-conscious political practice and a particularly dangerous phenomenon in the last century. Controlling the contents of narrative means control in past, present, and future tense. Memory can become a site of resistance because narrative depends on memory for its points of reference. What gets narrated gets remembered. Most often, what does not get narrated either gets lost or must find another way.

Narrative and memory have always been political resources, Joshua Foa Dienstag suggests in his important work on memory and narrative in political theory, but the self-conscious control of them is dangerous.3 At the end of a century wherein we perpetrated much we might be tempted to forget, it is increasingly evident that we must remember before we can speak of justice, that is, our stories must be told and heard before we can reconstitute (or re-member) a functional conception of political community. It is in these terms that I want to talk about narrative and its relationship to political community and justice. But what is silenced is as important as what is articulated. Dienstag, who reads political theory as narrative, suggests that, practically speaking, what we have learned is that memory unarticulated is even more dangerous than memory manipulated. Memory unarticulated either festers and becomes a flashpoint for turmoil or is articulated by an interest for its own ends and becomes a tool of control if not oppression. In either case, memory is bastardized to the ends of power politics and distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic experiences becomes the province of politicians. Leaving these distinctions to politicians, I want to suggest, is risky business. When memory represents the absence of a set of experiences rather than their presence, we are confronted by the end of a community rather than its beginning.

All cultures, Walzer suggests, have an interest in...


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pp. 140-157
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