The tale of Albert Camus's suicide is more relevant because it directly combines the uneasiness that is sometimes the motivation for an investigation, one of the points from which the research process often starts, with a real-life teaching situation. This is still a personal story, the story of a person whose professionalism is at stake, whose curiosity about a fact got mixed up with issues of professional behavior itself.
Existentialist and Absurdist movements of the period following France's
painful experiences of the Second World War are "ancient history"
now. They were a hot topic at the time I was first studying French in
high school, nearly half a century ago. And they left traces that affected
my own teaching when I was an apprentice, or assistant professor at the
University of Pittsburgh in the late sixties. Those philosophical movements
aroused great controversy and a certain amount of confusion. They expressed,
among other things, the idea that humans are alone in the universe, without
divine help. That attitude was so unpopular here in the United States
in the fifties and early sixties that it left a large number of fairly
negative traces in teaching and writing. I was not even allowed to study
these authors formally in the small college I attended as an undergraduate.
This raises a different kind of question, but an equally common one in practice. I had come by then to hold a doctoral degree in French literature, and had both taught various works of Camus's and studied him at length (though I am not a specialist in his life and works), while the gentleman in the English Department had no specific qualifications that I could discover. I had spent a lot of time working with Camus's essays and fiction and knew that his attitudes varied over his career, with some tendency to cynicism and even depression near the end. I had also learned his death was accidental; he died in a car wreck. I even remembered the winter day when we heard, over the radio, that he had died.
None of what I've just said proves anything either way, as you will have recognized. In the academic universe--and, I think you will agree, in most everyday situations--neither my hazy recollection, nor my advanced degree, nor the fact that specialists habitually treat Camus's death as an ironic accident, gives me the standing to dismiss someone else's claim without even considering it. For all I knew I was lying to my students. Somebody was lying to students. And I felt the obligation to find out what I could about this rather troubling situation.
I checked not in the way a Camus specialist would have but in the way any generalist might. I had forgotten the date of his death, but found it readily in the encyclopedia (January 4, 1960). That gave me the starting point for a consultation of France's newspaper of record, Le Monde, which in those days often cited extensive excerpts from official documents. The January 6 article "Les circonstances de l'accident" quotes the reports of the investigating officers in the field verbatim--as close as we can now get to neutral eyewitness testimony. The story is all too easy to follow, unfortunately, and did not take long to read.
Camus lived at some distance from Paris but had planned to go to the city by train. Instead, he was persuaded by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard to ride in his brand-new Fiat sports car, then just about the hottest four-seater on the road anywhere. I remind you that for many years French highways, even major ones, were lined with trees, deliberately planted, and spaced a little more than a car-length apart. This situation contributed greatly to the high-risk nature of highway travel in France. Zooming toward Paris at 130 kilometers an hour (about eighty miles an hour), the car skidded to the right and went off the two-lane road at a place called Villeblevin. As the published photographs show, it hit a tree pretty directly in the area of the right rear seat, where Camus was riding. The car was totaled--"shredded" was the official term--and Camus was killed instantly as far as anyone could tell. He died with his train ticket in his pocket. He was the only fatality. The national police noted that at least one left tire had blown out, consistent with loss of control and a skid to the right, and added "the driver may have had vertigo briefly." (A little hesitation, but is it enough to hang existentialism?) There was no mention, as far as I could tell, of any other possible cause.
In an important sense, absolute proof is still not the issue in a situation like this. What counts is what is or is not established. And the notion of Camus's suicide, while it may never be considered entirely impossible, does not have the standing to challenge the results of prior investigation, whoever may have carried the investigation out. Among other things, the issue is what we have to assume if we claim he killed himself. Here there is no anomaly in the evidence, beckoning us to clear up what is unclear. We have to go through what is often called special pleading, finding some unusual way to explain nearly everything about a discouragingly ordinary event, if we are to claim suicide. Consider the established circumstances:
Though none of these notions qualifies as totally impossible, we are having to go pretty far in our chain of assumptions. But students don't know that as long as we don't tell them. And where facts are concerned, you can tell students pretty much anything. It's not that they're stupid. The structure of the situation requires them to yield to us some of their autonomy. Being right is thus both a practical and a moral obligation. The truth is not exactly that Camus didn't commit suicide--that's the sort of thing you can argue about in the dorm until three AM any night of the year--the truth is that there is nothing to be gained by saying he did, unless you are tired of the argument and want to win at all costs so you can go to bed. The alternative to suicide is in this case equally interesting. It seems the most famous author of the Absurd was wiped out, ironically, in an absurd accident, despite his often courageous stance. Three years earlier, on receiving the Nobel Prize, he had stated "My work is far from done."