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Good Lessons from a Bad Book

What I learned from 'The Camp of the Saints'

I spent all morning writing this post. Four hours later, I pressed “publish” … and it disappeared. I am too discouraged to recreate it from scratch. It will probably be better because not so long and digressive. Anyway, here goes my second try.

Overwhelmed by the migrant tide, Germany imposed border controls with Austria on Sunday. From the Washington Post:

Thousands joined a protest in central London, some with signs that said “Reject the Politics of Fear,” the Guardian reported. And hundreds also came for a solidarity concert in Budapest, at a train station where many migrants pass through on the way to Germany. “Refugees Welcome,” a sign read as attendees held hands and sang along to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

In the meantime, Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has suggested a solution: Have the E.U. give $3.4 billion to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to help improve services for refugees who are placed in camps in those areas. In an interview released Saturday in Germany’s Bild newspaper, Orban said, “These people do not come to Europe because they are looking for security, but they want a better life than in the camps.

“If Europe allows a competition of cultures, then the Christians will lose,” Orban continued. “These are the facts. The only way out for those who want to preserve Europe as a Christian culture is not always more Muslims let in!”

The Financial Times writes that many Germans today see accepting refugees as a way to redeem themselves historically and morally:

For some, the scenes at German railway stations carry overtones of historical redemption.

“We want to prove that we are good people. Even if no one wants to be reminded of this, the good that we do has to be seen in relation to the crimes that we initiated,” Arnulf Baring, a conservative German historian, wrote in the Bild tabloid this week.

… The image of a caring, benevolent Germany is a contrast from the Greek debt crisis, another European drama in which the country was often portrayed as a narrow-minded and uncaring villain.

Accepting Third World migrants as an act of redemption. That is one of the main themes of Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, which I finished reading this weekend. It was a relief to reach the end of it. There is only one other book I can recall having finished, and having hated, but still being glad I read it, because I learned something from it: Sayyid Qutb’s condensed Islamist manifesto, Milestones.

The Camp of the Saints is a bad book, both aesthetically and morally. I was ambivalent about its moral status in the early parts of the book. I thought Raspail expressed himself more crudely than I would have done, but his cultural diagnosis struck me as having more merit than I anticipated, given the book’s notorious reputation. In the novel, a million-man armada of the wretched of the earth decide to sail to Europe from India, more or less daring the West to stop their migration. Most of the narrative focuses on how France prepares itself for the invasion.

Raspail, a traditionalist Catholic and far-rightist, draws in broad strokes a portrait of a France that has given up. All the country’s institutions and leaders across the board decide that it is the moral duty of all Frenchmen to welcome the armada with open arms. Raspail is at his satirical best mocking the sentimental liberal humanitarianism of the political, media, and clerical classes, all of whom look to the armada as a form of salvation, of redemption for the West’s sins. As I wrote here the other day, the scenario reminds me of the exhausted civilization in Cavafy’s poem “Waiting For the Barbarians.” A couple of years ago, Cavafy translator Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker about the poem and the poet’s political vision (Mendelsohn’s translation of the poem is in the article). Excerpt:

Cultural exhaustion, political inertia, the perverse yearning for some violent crisis that might break the deadlock and reinvigorate the state: these themes, so familiar to us right now, were favorites of Cavafy. He was, after all, a citizen of Alexandria, a city that had been an emblem of cultural supremacy—founded by Alexander the Great, seat of the Ptolemies, the literary and intellectual center of the Mediterranean for centuries—and which had devolved to irrelevancy by the time he was born, in 1863. When you’ve seen that much history spool by, that much glory and that much decline, you have very few expectations of history—which is to say, of human nature and political will.


The cardinal sins in Cavafy’s vision of history and politics are complacency, smugness, and a solipsistic inability to see the big picture. What he did admire, extravagantly, were political figures who do the right thing even though they know they have little chance of prevailing: the great “losers” of history, admirable in their fruitless commitment to ethical behavior—or merely sensible enough to know when the game is up.

Raspail blames France’s elites for this too, with reference to the problem of multiculturalism and migration. He even waylays the fictional pope, “Benedict XVI” (remember, the book was written in 1973), a Latin American (Brazilian) who sells all the treasures of the Vatican to give to the Third World poor, and who exhorts Europe to thrown open its doors to the migrant horde.

But Raspail’s tragic “losers” are a ragtag collection of soldiers, a pimp, and an elderly aristocrat who go down shooting as many black people (that is, Indians) and white fellow travelers as they can before being blown to smithereens by the government.

It is on balance a repulsive book, one that is forthright in endorsing white supremacy. By the end of the book, Raspail doesn’t even try to cloak his belief in white supremacy, and in the morality of using lethal violence to maintain it. It is all but impossible to read this, knowing what evils the KKK and its fellow travelers worked in the US to maintain white supremacy, and not despise this book. Raspail does not separate skin color from culture and civilization. Sure, he has an Indian, M. Hamadura, joining the tiny resistance at the end, and saying that believing in the superiority of the West is not a matter of skin color, but a state of mind. OK, fair enough, but everything else in the novel ties civilization precisely to skin color. The Hamadura character seems like an add-on, as if to say, “Some of my best friends are black.” It’s not convincing.

(Nota bene: A French reader of this blog writes to dispute my claim that Raspail is a racist or a member of the far right. “He wrote incredibly kind pages about the natives of Patagonia, and he is more a Royalist than far right,” said the reader.)

Even a bad book may have something valuable to say to us. This is true of The Camp of the Saints. One aspect of the novel that I can’t shake off, though, is Raspail’s portrait of the migrants as not giving a damn about European civilization. It’s nothing personal; rather, they don’t believe they are coming to Europe as beggars who ought to be grateful for charity, but move as a mass that believes it is entitled to what the Europeans have. Europeans, by contrast, are, in the book, the ones who agonize over their civilization, whether it is worth defending, and what it means to be truly Western. The leaders in Camp of the Saints are not consciously surrendering, but rather they mask their cultural surrender with humanitarianism. They think that by flinging their doors open to the Third World masses, they are being good Westerners.

This is why the real villains in Raspail’s novel aren’t the migrants, but the European elites. He believes, it appears, that the Europeans ought to do whatever it takes to defend their civilization from the barbarian invasion. Raspail denounces contemporary France, though, as an exhausted civilization that is eager to be relieved of its burdens. To borrow a line from Cavafy, “those people, the barbarians, were a kind of solution.”

Here’s what is so unnerving about reading the damn novel: so much of it could be lifted from today’s headlines. Reading it brought to mind more than once what people used to say back in the Nineties about gangsta rap: that as vulgar and as repulsive as it may have been, it told us something important about conditions in the inner cities. You don’t have to endorse Raspail’s radical racialist vision to recognize that there is diagnostic value in his novel.

But here is something Raspail did not have to contend with when he wrote the book 40 years ago: Europe’s demographic collapse. Says The Observer:

When Spanish business consultant Alejandro Macarrón started crunching the numbers behind Spain’s changing demographics, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I was astonished,” said Macarrón. “We have provinces in Spain where for every baby born, more than two people die. And the ratio is moving closer to one to three.”

Spain has one of the lowest fertility rates in the EU, with an average of 1.27 children born for every woman of childbearing age, compared to the EU average of 1.55. Its crippling economic crisis has seen a net exodus of people from the country, as hundreds of thousands of Spaniards and migrants leave in the hope of finding jobs abroad. The result is that, since 2012, Spain’s population has been shrinking.

Record numbers of economic migrants and asylum-seekers are seeking to enter the European Union this summer and are risking their lives in the attempt. The paradox is that as police and security forces battle to keep them at bay, a demographic crisis is unfolding across the continent. Europe desperately needs more young people to run its health services, populate its rural areas and look after its elderly because, increasingly, its societies are no longer self-sustaining.


By 2060 the [German] government expects [Germany’s] population to plunge from 81 million to 67 million, a decrease that is being accelerated by depressed areas in both eastern and western parts of the country that are haemorrhaging large numbers. The UN predicts that, by 2030, the percentage of Germans in the workplace will drop 7% to just 54%. No other industrial land is as starkly affected – and this is despite a strong influx of young migrant labourers.

In order to offset this shortage, Germany needs to welcome an average of 533,000 immigrants every year, which perhaps gives context to the estimate that 800,000 refugees are due to come to Germany this year.

Emphasis mine. That fact is staggering to me. I had no idea that Germany had that kind of need for labor. How is it, then, that with unemployment at 23 percent in Spain — and a jaw-dropping 49 percent among Spanish youth — jobless Spaniards aren’t migrating within the EU to Germany to fill those jobs? Why are jobless Greeks not migrating en masse to Germany, which is within the EU, to do those jobs? Serious question.

France is actually experiencing a slight demographic turnaround, though the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story:

Most countries in southern Europe are based on something akin to the Japanese package, with fairly rigid family norms in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Malta and Greece. There is social pressure on women not to work while their children are still young, just as it is ill-thought of to live with someone or have a baby outside wedlock. In all these countries the proportion of births outside marriage is below 30%, whereas in France, Sweden and Norway it exceeds 50%. In Japan the traditional family package clearly has a dramatic impact on fertility, with fewer than 1.4 births per woman.

The picture is very different in Scandinavia and France. “In these countries the family norm is much more flexible, with late marriages, reconstituted families, single parents, much more frequent births outside marriage and divorces than further south,” Toulemon adds. “People are far less concerned about the outlook for the family [as an institution].” The positive impact of this open-ended approach to families on fertility is borne out by the statistics, at more than 1.8 children per woman in Sweden, Norway, Finland and France.

Consider, then, that the countries in which the traditional family is strongest are also the countries that are experiencing the worst population collapse. The countries where there is little or no stigma to bearing children outside of wedlock, not marrying, et cetera, are those that are doing the best job of maintaining their population. Think about that, my fellow religious and social conservatives.

To conclude, what are the good lessons from this bad book, The Camp of the Saints? I’m not sure there are “lessons” to be learned as much as the extremely dark novel gives one a more skeptical eye towards humanitarian pronouncements about migrants from European leaders, including church leaders. In the book, the militant pro-migrant humanitarianism of the elites and the masses that follow them do not reflect moral strength, but actually exemplify moral exhaustion. Camp is a dystopian fantasy, certainly, but the core questions it poses regarding what European civilization is, what Christian civilization is, and the lengths to which Europeans ought to be prepared to go to defend what they have, are important ones, even if Raspail answers them in a way that provokes disgust, and that Christians, at least, will find unacceptable.

Alas for Raspail, all those questions may have been rendered pointless by the decisions Europeans made around the time his novel was first published: to stop having babies. Now the Europeans may have to fling open the gates to the “barbarians” simply to have people who can wipe their elderly bums.