The Camp of the Saints
by Jean Raspail, translated by Norman R. Shapiro
Norman Shapiro’s newly republished translation of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, and Gerda Bikales’ accompanying translation of the introduction to the 1985 French edition, focus intensely on the author’s rhetorical intent. Raspail wants to agitate his readers by highlighting the passivity of an already threatened West; and the translator makes this clear by his skilled rendering of Raspail’s didactic and often frenzied prose.
After the first French edition in 1973 and after the first English one in 1975, The Camp of the Saints aroused both angry criticism and ardent defense. Significantly, most of the commentary generated by the text had little to do with its structure or the quality of Raspail’s narrative. As a college professor discussing his work with my colleagues, I noticed that none of them spoke about his literary merits. For them as for Le Monde, Nouvelle Ã‰cole, The Atlantic Monthly and National Review, Raspail’s work stood or fell on its argument about third world immigration turning into an invasion of Europe. A highly complimentary review by the conservative commentator Jeffrey Hart typified this reaction. After dismissing the charge by the intellectual left that Raspail was writing about race and not civilization, an accusation Raspail himself addresses in the 1985 edition, Hart goes on to praise his subject as a “tremendous rhetorician, his disdain boiling from the page in a torrent reminiscent of CÃ©line.”
The comparison to CÃ©line is instructive. Like this passionately anti-liberal physician who wrote modernist novels in argot, Raspail, to his admirers, is a brave opponent of the politically correct. And while, unlike CÃ©line, he is no romancier argotique, his style is both deliberately impressionistic and dramatically staccato.
Having read CÃ©line and Raspail, I think that another shared feature should be noted: both alternate between striking passages and less than memorable pages. Neither sustains dramatic impressions over entire chapters, though each creates unforgettable scenes: e.g. CÃ©line’s evocations of France at the end of the German occupation or Raspail’s depiction of boatloads of starving Indians invading a France paralyzed by complacency and resignation. But what distinguishes Raspail from CÃ©line is his status within Francophone society, as a respected fantasy novelist and depicter of exotic peoples. His Seven Horsemen and The King’s Game incorporate medieval textures and, in the second case, the Arthurian legends, to describe noble courage and the agonistic life in a temporally vague setting. Raspail transfers characteristically medieval themes and backdrops into a kind of neomedieval future. His rÃ©cits de voyage are set predominantly in and around Tierra del Fuego, and since 1951 Raspail has been exploring Paleolithic cultures in that region. Two books, dealing with that interest, have won coveted awards, including the Grand Prix du Roman de l’AcadÃ©mie FranÃ§aise and the Prix Inter.
It may be useful to stress this point in order to contextualize The Camp of the Saints. Raspail is by no means a xenophobe, if that term can still be used meaningfully and not simply to disparage. He does not hate non-Europeans, and though his description of teeming human life along the Ganges and on board the Last Chance Armada is far from flattering, as he himself explained, he is only depicting the “welter of drug and debauch” caused by an excess of human bodies. It would be accurate to call Raspail a man of the right, but what makes him that is not disdain for non Europeans. The source of that rightism is his emphatically neopagan worldview, one that permeatesThe Camp of the Saints and is sometimes mistakenly identified with racial prejudice. One finds that view well expressed in Qui se souvient des Hommes, Raspail’s lament for the Alakalufs, a Paleolithic tribe which vanished from the Strait of Magellan after unfortunate contact with Europeans. Raspail clearly admires these naked Amerindians who survived in a hostile natural environment which wiped out waves of European settlers. And he treats the Catholic mission from Dawson Island as a “determining cause in the disappearance of the Alakalufs.” “They did not believe in a good and merciful god, and this god made them pay for it.” Raspail judges Christian religion and customs to be incompatible with the attitudes necessary for survival in the brutal environment inhabited by his subjects. With heavy-handed mockery, he shows the Spanish missionary settlers in Nombre de JÃ©sus (symbolically analogous to the Camp of the Saints) wasting away before the puzzled eyes of the aborigines. The emaciated, pale cadavers of the Europeans are made to recall the deity whose image they had carried beyond the Strait of Magellan, that suffering god nailed to a cross, an image suitable to a world without struggle.
While not xenophobic, Raspail is fatalistic about the effects he believes must result from the association of widely divergent cultures. Both the missionary penetration of Tierra del Fuego and the overrunning of France by an armada of starving Indians illustrate this kind of entrechoquement. Raspail editorializes about the fate of societies that will not or cannot resist invaders. In the introduction to the 1985 edition of The Camp of the Saints he deplores the “emptiness of Europe and the moral desiccation” of his French countrymen. “They are content just to endure. Mechanically, they ensure their survival from week to week, evermore fully. Under the flag of an illusory internal solidarity and security. They are no longer in solidarity with anything or even cognizant of anything that would constitute the essential commonalities of a people.” From Raspail’s perspective, cultural and moral attitudes shape the consciousness of peoples. Europeans, led by their intellectuals, churchmen and business corporations, accept the Gangean invaders, but a pro-European Indian actively resists them. Though Raspail speaks inexactly about “races,” which he turns into a metaphor for civilizations and peoples, and though his comments about the world population being a time bomb seem sometimes overwrought, he also presents a compelling historical argument. Peoples have been overrun before, and the world gives evidence of this fact while continuing to exist. The absorption of foreign groups by a host culture may be a strategy of survival, but it may also betoken the unwillingness to recognize or defend a distinct identity or homeland.
Curiously, Raspail has a highly ambivalent attitude toward the European world which he claims to be defending as a cultural and geopolitical entity. In his descriptions of paleolithic religion and of the Indian invaders of France, he reaches for contrasts with Christianity. In The Camp of the Saints, churchmen, particularly the Pope, who dies in a plane crash while en route to welcome the Indian armada, represent the surrender to inwardness and passivity which increase the difficulty of European self-defense. The announcement by the Indians at the beginning that they intend to occupy France does not evoke among most of the French population a will to resist; indeed this will does not develop even in the face of imminent invasion. While Raspail spares no venom in imagining the likely reaction of all “do-gooders” to this turn of events, he deals in particularly malicious detail with the response of the Catholic hierarchy. This is not accidental and squares with his depiction of Catholic missionaries to the Alakalufs.
To the observation that Christianity was once the religion of an expansive Europe, Raspail would most likely respond that Christian faith was never that. To the extent that Europe was ever self-confident, it was due to non-Christian influences assuming a Christian facade. In his medieval and neomedieval narratives, Raspail features clergy but never emphasizes any specifically Christian virtues. Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche and the European New Right, Raspail equates Christianity with otherworldliness and almost smug acceptance of worldly doom. Here there is need for a historical perspective which is missing from Raspail’s interpretation. There have been different forms of Christianity in different ages and cultures, and these have carried different theological emphases. Raspail describes what is one timebound form of Christianity and it is hard to see how that form influenced Spanish imperialists of the 16th century. Equally questionable is the hope of removing Christian or Judeo-Christian aspects from that European heritage Raspail is intent on preserving. Though a heritage may be synthetic, it also consists of elements that have become fused over time. Thus European feudalism was not an exclusively Germanic, Celtic, Roman or Christian institution. It developed by embracing all of these predicates. It is also important to separate reality from fictional hypotheses. Raspail shows in The Camp of the Saints one conceivable reaction to a hypothetical invasion of Europe by an overpopulated Asian country. As he himself admits, such a disaster may never occur, and even if it did, one should not rule out the possibility that self-described Christians would resist.
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and is currently at work on After Liberalism, an examination of modern political theory.