“The Human Crisis” and Impossible Choices
Shortly after World War Two, the famous French writer and thinker Albert Camus was invited to the United States to deliver a series of lectures. He was asked to use his areas of expertise - literature, theatre, and philosophy - to explain France to American audiences. Camus refused to speak on literature or philosophy because, in his own words, these are only reflections of a more fundamental issue: life, and the struggle for humanity.
In his lecture entitled “The Human Crisis”, delivered at Columbia University on March 28, 1946, Camus told of this struggle from the French perspective. For the people of France, the end of the war did not signify an end to the threat against humanity. According to Camus, this threat was a “human crisis” born out of moral decline, and could only be overcome by creating an alternative human ideal.
To explain society’s moral decline, which he termed a “monstrous hypocrisy,” Camus recounted four short stories.
The first story takes place in a European capital, in an apartment that has been seized by the Gestapo. Two accused men, after an entire night of torture, regain their consciousness only to find themselves tied up, still bleeding, and in the presence of the building superintendent. The superintendent, likely having enjoyed a nice breakfast, is cheerfully tending to his routine duties. When one of the torture victims confronts the superintendent, he angrily retorts: “I never interfere with my tenants’ business.”
In the second story, Camus talks of a comrade who is being dragged out of his cell for his third interrogation. His ears have been badly torn in the previous sessions, so he wears a bandage around his head. The German officer dragging him along is the one who conducted the first two sessions, hence the one responsible for the physical damage. And yet, he leans down, and asks, “with an air of affectionate concern”: “How are your ears doing?”
The third story, which inspired William Styron’s award-winning novel, “Sophie’s Choice” (itself made into a movie), is about three brothers are who are taken as hostages in an operation against Greek insurgents. Just as one of the officers who took part in the operation is about to execute the brothers, their elderly mother throws herself at his knees and begs the officer to spare her children. The officer responds that he will spare one of her children, but on one condition: the mother must choose which son lives. The mother chooses to save her eldest, as he has a family to care for. The other two children are executed.
The protagonists of the fourth story are a group of female insurgents, including a friend of Camus, captured and repatriated. On their way to France via Switzerland, they come across a funeral procession. When the women see the procession, they burst in laughter. “So that’s how the dead are treated here", they say.
Camus tells us that he recounted these four short stories in order not to answer the question, “is there a human crisis?” with a simple, clichéd “yes”. According to the writer, “there is a human crisis because in today’s world we can contemplate the death or the torture of a human being with a feeling of indifference, friendly concern, scientific interest, or simple passivity”.
In the 70 years that have elapsed, we cannot say we are living in so different a world. The common response to the third consecutive election victory of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán - who declared, “we do not want our colour … to be mixed with others” and based his campaign on xenophobia - is little more than, “How are your ears doing?”
The widespread tendency in the media and the academic world to whitewash political actors and movements whose racist and nationalist credentials are beyond dispute with sterile, even affirmative adjectives such as “populist” or “nativist,” and their preoccupation with superfluous questions such as “Can there be democracy without liberalism?” while genocides and massacres are happening across the world are no better than the surprised yet cheerful laughter of women insurgents who remarked, “so that’s how the dead are treated here".
Despite the contested nature of the elections that brought these leaders and movements to power, the majorities who support them are hardly questioned. Those that do dare to raise questions are greeted with the angry retort of the building superintendent who chose to tend to his chores instead of caring for the tortured men. The critics are either labelled “elitists” (ignoring the fact that these critical voices also disapprove of the elites’ political choices) or accused of underestimating the concerns of the majority.
Even those who are aware that the world is heading for disaster refuse to speak out; they prefer to remain passive rather taking any risks. As Murat Sevinç noted in a recent article, people are often not even asking the question “why?” Even simple, “risk-free” actions are eschewed (such as not taking a taxi for a day or two if we are upset with taxi drivers’ reaction to Uber; not visiting shopping malls if we are bothered by unplanned urban development; boycotting events at universities that curtail freedom of thought and speech, in some cases even sack academics).
And those who are forced to make a choice by the “officer”, prefer to save the day rather than rejecting the impossible choice. They side with the powerful, because as Camus remarked in his lecture, when moral decline creeps into even the tiniest capillaries of society, all that is left is “power”. The choice is no longer between the just and the unjust, but rather between “masters” and “slaves”, where masters - the superintendent, the torturer, the executioner - will always be in the right.
And so the great “human crisis” drags on…