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  • Rebellion and the SacredSacrifice in Camus's Rebel
  • Brian Harding (bio)

René Girard has argued, in "Camus's Stranger Retried," that Camus's later novel The Fall represents a kind of novelistic conversion on Camus's part: an admission that the ethics of The Stranger were faulty. This is a criticism not only of a character (Mersault) but of the author's own views. In fact, on the Girardian reading, The Fall recognizes that Camus's own activism was never purely altruistic, but partook of a kind of unstated competition, seeking to outstrip others in care for the downtrodden, and thereby prove his supremacy. Both Camus and Clamence, the lawyer in The Fall, recognize that (as Girard puts it)

Mercy, in his hands, was a secret weapon against the unmerciful, a more complex form of self-righteousness. His real desire was not to save his clients but to prove his moral superiority by discrediting the judges.1

The drama of The Fall is this realization and its ramifications. Beyond this, Girard argues, it represents Camus's judgment on his own work; it represents [End Page 29] the realization that his writings hitherto lacked self-criticism. Until The Fall, Camus revolted against everything but his pride, but in The Fall he turns his critical powers inward, writing the novel as a kind of auto-criticism. I think there is a lot of truth to this, and in what follows, it guides my interpretations of The Rebel.

Girard's comments on The Plague suggest that he sees it as essentially "romantic" in the technical sense he gives that term. Like The Stranger, it falls into the illusion of authenticity and autonomy: Dr. Rieux stands apart from the city, paternalistically guiding it without succumbing to the infections circulating around him.2 To the extent that The Rebel is often paired with The Plague (in the same way The Myth of Sisyphus is joined to The Stranger) one might expect that the same could be said of that philosophical essay—that is, that it persists in a romantic delusion of being above or separate from the problems it diagnoses and that The Rebel's defense of the oppressed only serves to assuage the author's conscience, reassuring him that he is one of the good ones—just as did Clamence's work as a defense attorney.

That expectation is, I think, only half right. The Rebel, I believe, oscillates between romantic lie and novelistic truth; Camus senses that he is not above the fray and that the very act of rebellion itself unleashes furies that one struggles to tame. Whether he has reached the full consciousness represented by The Fall is uncertain, but it is clear to me that, at times at least, this awareness rises to the surface in The Rebel. Indeed, the emergence and repression of this awareness are part of the book's fascination and flaws. The apparent inconstancy between Camus's lionization of rebellion and his profound worries about what it unleashes is rooted in this oscillation. Because of this oscillation, The Rebel is too complex a text to be treated in a paper of a reasonable length. To simplify matters, I focus on two parts whose interest to readers of Contagion will need no explanation: first, Camus's gnomic remarks on the relationship between rebellion and the sacred, and second, Camus's discussion of the killing of King Louis and the Terror. Following that, I close with some general remarks.


Camus's rebellion is intimately related to the sacred [le sacré]. To be sure, we should not assume that just because Camus and Girard use the same word that they mean the same thing by it. In fact, Camus primarily uses the term to refer to a religious sensibility without developing, for example, a theory of the violent origins of the sacred. Nevertheless, Camus seems to sense that there is a [End Page 30] connection between the sacred and violence. Moreover, it is of course impossible that Camus intended to refer to Girard's work when he alludes to the sacred. Nevertheless, if Girard is right about the meaning and function of the sacred...