Exile and the Kingdom

by Terence MacNamee

L’exil et le royaume was a collection of short stories by Camus. I have often wondered: what exile and what kingdom? One assumes exile from some kingdom. But that is not quite what he says. He talks about exile and a kingdom. The two things don’t seem to exclude each other.

I have just been rereading the book on Camus by the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, who has something to say about this. His main focus, of course, was on Camus being an Algerian, a French Algerian who lived among the Arabs while basically ignoring them. Camus’ problem was for him the problem of the colonial.

O’Brien thought that the French Algerian had a deep feeling of exile – from France, but also from the real Algeria where he lived. And the kingdom? The kingdom is a kingdom of his imagination and his longing. His longing is for the real Algeria, the place where he lives, but a place with which he is fatally out of touch. He longs, in fact, for an ecstatic kind of unity with the land.

In the first story in Camus’ collection, “La femme adultère”, Janine experiences this kind of epiphany when she looks out from a colonial fort in the night on a Bedouin or Tuareg encampment outside the walls, and beyond it sees the vastness of the African sky and the desert; and indeed, she thinks of the “étrange royaume”, the “strange kingdom” inhabited by the nomads, which is a vastness of land and sky.

As a colonial in Algeria, or indeed as an inhabitant of the New World, what one longs for is communion with the land, but it is the huge overwhelming vastness of the land, of desert and sky. In Europe we do not experience that, because the landscape is long since tamed and settled by man, and human traces merge with the landscape and divide it up into parts that are on a human scale. The only way you can experience it maybe is the way the Swiss feel about the high Alps, or what the Portuguese feel looking at the ocean. Maybe when Rilke was so poetically inspired by his trip to Russia, that was what he was picking up on – the vastness of the country stretching off into the East.

To experience that feeling of a vast landscape, you have to go to a vast new land – as a colonist, ironically enough; and as a colonist you can’t really merge in with it permanently, because you don’t belong, like the natives do; you can only have epiphanies. In Camus’ profound story, Janine’s epiphany has to do with thinking of nomads travelling around the vast land of North Africa. Only those nomads – or the Indians in the New World – relate to the land as it is, because they step so lightly there and do not reduce the land to their terms or their scale.

I am reminded of a curious sentence in the book The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. The ornithologist and conservation advocate was writing about his region on the South coast of England, and he goes so far as to call it “a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa”. I now think he was unconsciously trying to cut through the normal Old-World way of relating to the familiar, beloved land, and instead experience it as a vast expanse of wilderness where Nature rules, not man.