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The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus; Literary and Philosophical Essays, by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Pope and the Prophet
by Leslie A. Fiedler
The Myth of Sisyphus. By Albert Camus. Knopf. 212 pp. $3.50.
Literary and Philosophical Essays. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Criterion. 239 pp. $4.00.

It is not merely a coincidence of publication dates which brings Sartre and Camus simultaneously to my desk. We can scarcely imagine them apart; for they came into existence together for the American mind, a package deal and the chief cultural importation from postwar France. There has been attached to both from the beginning the same chic aura: Existentialism and the philosophy of the absurd, equally and indistinguishably the latest from Paris for the readers of Partisan Review or Commentary or eventually Life itself. Yet it is hard to think of two men temperamentally more different. Reading their essays, one’s first reaction is to cry out in protest, to try to separate them once and for all before their journalistic yoking is translated into the textbooks and they go down into history as immutably and ridiculously twinned as Wyatt and Surrey.

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The world of Sartre is the European City, the City par excellence; so that when he comes to America, what makes our world surprisingly alien to him (this he touches on several times in the essays) is that he cannot find anywhere a space tight enough to define him. Even New York seems to him too open to Nature; and those typical American urban thoroughfares, the Euclid Avenues and Michigan Boulevards pushing relentlessly toward the open road, offend him. To him a real street leads not through but into a center, it is not a place which one travels but a closed circuit where one talks and pauses to drink with friends and talks again. It is out of such talk, out of the life of such streets, those outdoor drawing rooms, crowded and amiable (but which can seem suddenly prisons—with No Exit) that Sartre’s work comes: his essays first of all, but also his philosophy and novels, his plays and movies. His tempo and style are at once polemical and relaxed, the tempo and style of a man who knows that his audience, friendly or hostile, sits across the table from him and will be found night after night making the same promenade, choosing the same temporarily fashionable place to drink in and argue about the same books and manifestoes. He is sometimes the pundit, sometimes the wise guy; but he never feels it necessary to raise his voice.

Yet there is anguish at the heart of his tight little world; for though it was possible once to believe one’s café really Paris, Paris really France, France really Europe, and Europe really the world, two wars and one defeat have made it clear that France is a province even of Europe, and Europe itself on the verge of becoming the province of the oppressed continents it can no longer hold in submission. Besides, the talkers in the cafés have been made aware by Marx that they are only bourgeois, a tiny doomed colony even inside the province of a province. The unconscious image which haunts Sartre, his unavowed but compulsive myth, is that of a little bourgeois in eyeglasses, articulate above an empty glass, but being looked at in contempt and as an Other by some sullen worker hurrying home along the street he will one day claim as his own. To escape from this bourgeois otherness becomes finally his determining drive. And yet neither this psychological anguish—nor its translation into metaphysical terms—creates in Sartre any real humility. He insists upon being chief of his doomed kaffeeklatsch, pope and promulgator of the dogma of a church which he recognizes for an illusion, in a world without gods.

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Camus’ real world, on the other hand (I mean the world of his childhood, the only world one knows rather than learns) is the world of North Africa: a world of seedy, second-rate towns and the ruins of classical magnificence; but also a world of endless spaces, of the sea and the desert under an unmitigated sun that dispels all illusions. This sea, one must not forget, is not merely a watery waste; it is the Mediterranean, the sea of Odysseus. The North Africa of Camus is not another America, for it extends deeply in time as well as vastly in space; it is remote from the nighttime civilization of contemporary Europe, and equally remote from Negro or Arab culture. It borders on a Greece that is elsewhere dead, or preserved merely in literature. The compelling image of Camus is not a myth of being looked at but of looking: the image of a boy gazing at the silhouetted shape of a girl dancing in a seaside pavilion—who, defined by a Mediterranean sunset, comes somehow to stand for the persistence of Helen. The notion of a natural beauty and a natural happiness, symbolized alike by the thoughtless bather turning mahogany on an Algerian beach and the pillars of a decayed temple among the heliotropes—but denied to the thinking man by virtue of the fact that he tries to know this happiness—this is the clue to the spiritual nostalgia of Camus. Sartre longs to share the misery of the oppressed, in order to be delivered from the more abject misery of not being miserable enough; and this, too, Camus can feel. But he is also moved by an obligation to be happy, as happy as the simple, sensual man.

He is essentially a religious thinker, as Sartre is essentially an ecclesiastical one; though both are atheist and anti-clerical. One feels, as a matter of fact, a double religious pull in Camus: toward the voluptuous polytheism of the Mediterranean and toward the bleak monotheism of the desert. It is tempting to believe that the really God-ridden Camus considers himself an atheist for the same reason as the ancient Romans considered the Jews atheists; that is, the Mediterranean side of his mind finds the image of God proposed by the desert side so austere in its conviction that absence is the essence of the divine that it takes it for an image of Nothing. At any rate, it is as natural for Camus to make myths as it is for Sartre to deal in abstractions; for the one is a poet-mystic who happens to philosophize, the other a philosopher-inquisitor who happens to write novels. Camus is always insisting in his essays that there is no ultimate difference between philosophy and poetry; and The Myth of Sisyphus swarms with a host of of symbolic figures in addition to the legendary sufferer of the title: Don Juan, Don Quixote, Helen, the Conqueror. Sartre at his most mythopoeic gives us the “en-soi” and the Other. It is typical, I think, that Sartre, who thinks he distrusts rhetoric and is really afraid of poetry, can tell us, “I regard Dos Passos as the greatest writer of our time.”

Camus, on the other hand, has developed in his essays a rhetoric, rich and varied, a style quite surprising to anyone who has assumed that the narrative technique of The Stranger, disjointed, spare, dry, represents the real voice of the author. No, he speaks in his own voice as the prophet out of the desert: in part as a man still talking to himself in order to people the waste with images and sounds; in part as one who carries a message, “Accept and rejoice!” The anti-rhetorician and the poet, the Pope and the Prophet—they make a strange pair. One would not have been surprised to find them joined in the relationship of hangman and victim, inquisitor and heretic; and in a sense they have at last symbolically attained such a relationship: Sartre with iron resolution identifying himself with the heresy-hunting Communist orthodoxy (in which, naturally, he does not really believe, but—) and Camus taking his stand with the non-violent resisters to its terror. The hard thing to believe is that they were once friends and allies.

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It is difficult to tell from the public record what Camus’ original feelings were toward Sartre; even in the documents which testify to their falling out1 he takes toward his former friend a cold and formal stance, addressing him as “Monsieur le directeur”; but Sartre, who has dealt often with Camus in print, speaks more personally and with at least a show of frankness at the blow-up. The present Collection of Sartre’s essays includes a piece on Camus’ The Stranger, which is, by and large, extremely complimentary. Yet Sartre cannot quite conceal the condescension of the scholar for the poet, observing wryly in reference to The Myth of Sisyphus, “M. Camus shows off a bit by quoting passages from Jaspers, Heidegger and Kierkegaard, whom, by the way, he does not always seem to have quite understood.” And in his final letter to “Mon cher Camus,” he makes it quite clear that he has earlier been somewhat less than candid in his criticism only out of regard for what he now characterizes as Camus’ strange mingling of conceit and sensitivity. What it turns out has all along irked him more than anything else is the formal elegance of Camus’ prose and his sense of himself as a “Mediterranean.” Sartre cannot forgive Camus for writing well.

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What, then, bound together these unlikely comrades for ten or more years? In the first place, of course, the common elements in Sartre’s version of Existentialism and Camus’ philosophy of the absurd: these two parallel attempts to move from nihilism to humanism without any surrender to abstract morality or any leap to faith. In one sense, there is something a little silly in the ideological contortions it cost both men to arrive at the simple, self-evident decision that one must live and act. In another, there is something heroic in their attempt to accept their lives without pretending on any level that death is unreal; and there is something even more touching in their refusal to embrace death (there is no book I know which reveals more vividly the temptation to suicide that haunted their generation than The. Myth of Sisyphus) as an escape from life and death alike.

Beyond this, they share a certain literary initiation, the conditioning by certain books which bound together an even larger number of their contemporaries: Nietzsche and Sade, Dostoevsky and Kafka, the American novel—especially Melville, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Before they had found philosophical justifications for their commitments, they had created the sensibilities to sustain them out of the reading of these problematical and tragic books. In Camus particularly, Kafka appears as a realer, more intimate influence than Jaspers; and even Sartre sharpened his perceptions, critical and metaphysical, by close examinations of the novels of Faulkner. Certainly, even more from these books than from their philosophical sources, they derived a life style based on the satanic hero of the Romantics: the somewhat contradictory pose of the hero-villain who at once defies God and refuses to believe in him—the pose which they delight to call “absurd.”

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Across the circle defined by the cult of absurdity and the belief in the “death of God,” there cuts another circle, determined this time not by literature but by experience, the experience of the Resistance. In the small area at the conjunction of these two circles flourish Sartre, Camus, and the relatively limited group of their colleagues: intellectuals determined to be true at once to their literary heritage and their Great Experience. Through the final recriminations of the two ex-friends, there echoes over and over that key word “Resistance . . . Resistance . . .” and reinforcing it, a group of associated catchwords, “Revolution . . . the Left . . . bourgeois. . . .” Who really represents the spirit of the Resistance? Who is “hopelessly bourgeois”? What is Left, what Right? These are the questions that define the magic circle over which Sartre still presides, and out of which Camus has escaped.

It is important to understand just what the term Resistance means at this moment to a large number of middle-aged men in Western Europe; yet for an American such an understanding is immensely difficult. Half historical event and half legend, it changes shape with the years, like the image of a lost love of one’s youth—as the true participants forget, and their ranks are swelled by imaginary veterans of the movement. An unofficial, spontaneous reaction which defied the Nazis and joined with American and British invaders to create the Liberation, the Resistance has profited by the fact that its victory meant its dissolution; that it never had the opportunity to become an established bureaucracy and reveal its own malice, stupidity, or inertia. The probability that without the armed might of certain “imperialist” foreign powers it would have come to nothing can be ignored. It did in fact share in a victory; and it has been able, therefore, to associate all the glamor of a successful cause with all the purity of a defeated one. It was a victory of the conquered—in what may be understood as the beginnings of a French revolution as well as the end of a war which took place in an already crushed and humiliated France.

By the time the Resistance had taken shape, Soviet Russia had shifted from an ally of Germany to a co-belligerent of the Allied powers; and the Western European Communist parties were able to take leading roles in its underground activities, having secret apparatuses already in existence. Such formerly nihilistic intellectuals as Camus and Sartre, who would have resisted service in the regular French army or have accepted it with reluctance and shame, found it possible to work with Communist “revolutionaries,” in a movement controlled by no established state. Quite unexpectedly, they discovered the possibility of heroism and sacrifice, those virtues which, when espoused by the bourgeoisie, they had regarded as hollow jokes. For this heroic adventure they felt somehow beholden to the Communists, who managed to give them for the first time the sense that they counted in the social life of their country.

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In the postwar world, however, such intellectual members of the Resistance found themselves no longer hunted rebels but the bourgeois they had always been: successful novelists, eminent playwrights, professors. Meanwhile, the bourgeois self-hatred they had acquired first from Romantic literature had been compounded by their association with the Communists. It is almost impossible for any American, I think, to understand the passionate self-contempt of the middle-class intellectual in Europe: the appalling sense of guilt which urges him to seek his own destruction in a world where the existence of classes is offensively evident in a way we find it hard to imagine. Only by yielding again to the working class and its political program did it seem possible to find again the thrill of Resistance days, to escape from the shame of being comfortable and safe. But in France the majority of workers have entered or hover near the Communist party; over the Syndicalists, the Social Democrats, the Anarchists, the Communists have the great advantage of being successful themselves—and of representing the success of the Soviet Union. Whatever seems excessive in the price that has been exacted for such success is excessive, the bourgeois intellectual humbly reminds himself, only to his benighted bourgeois eyes.

There is no room for sentimental nonsense. The legitimate heirs of the Resistance are, everyone knows, the Left, and the Communists have pre-empted the Left. The legitimate development of the Resistance is, everyone equally knows, the Revolution; and the Communists have captured the Revolution; therefore. . . . Sartre has not been able to escape from the trap of this specious logic. Only by following the policies of the Soviet Union and of the Communist party of France does it seem to him possible to be faithful still to a belief in the “death of God” and his memories of the Resistance. He cannot, however, join the party, because its leaders would demand of him not less than everything: the humiliating acceptance of the least tenable of all modern philosophical positions—dialectical materialism, the notion of the “objective” guilt of all who disagree with them, a belief in Stalin’s intelligence and Khrushchev’s, etc., etc.

In an essay called “Materialism and Revolution,” Sartre pleads reasonably and respectfully with the masters of the Communist party to recognize that a real philosopher (Sartre, for instance) might swallow the major part of their political line if only he were permitted to abjure their theoretical “materialism”; and he has proved his case by accepting their version of the Korean war, the Rosenberg case, etc., etc. But even this is not enough; the Communists will not permit him to make an honest man of himself, insisting that he continue in his accustomed odd fidelity: marrying no one, but sleeping only with Communists.

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Despite the similarity of his background, Camus has in his Homme revolté, and in the concluding essays of the present collection, broken out of this trap of nostalgia and self-hatred. He pursues still that image of Revolution revealed in the days of the Resistance, but for him it is a perpetually retreating horizon, a messiah who is always to come. He likewise chooses still to flee his bourgeois destiny by acting the absolute rebel; but he refuses to identify rebellion with an institutionalized Left. For him the revolution is really permanent, against oppression and terror even in the name of the Revolution, and against all in ourselves which longs for such bloody solutions out of weakness or despair.

It is not really intelligence that protects Camus from the elaborately rationalized abandonment of good sense into which Sartre has fallen. Sartre, as a matter of fact, boasts proudly that he is at home with philosophical texts that Camus pretends to scorn because he cannot understand. But no one is intelligent enough not to be stupid when his inner wishes demand it; and a man may, to his own grief, be smart enough to keep his best friends (though not his most indifferent enemies) from suspecting how hopeless a dupe he really is. I should like to think that it is the artist’s living faith in concrete realities, his inability to deny the world of fact however he may long to (Sartre is theoretically in favor of the concrete, but that is not the same thing) which finally saves Camus.

However one may assess his present anarchist-pacifist-religious position, one at least feels behind it a generous and sensitive man who respects his own humanity and ours, and responds to an actuality of anguish and wonder that we all share. The key, I think, is to be found in a passage of Camus’ essay called “Helen’s Exile.” Referring by implication to the famous phrase of Marx about changing the world rather than understanding it (a sentiment to which, by the way, Sartre eagerly subscribes), Camus observes: “But it is no less true that man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard. It steels itself to attain the absolute and authority; it wants to transfigure the world before having exhausted it, to set it to rights before having understood it. Whatever it may say, our era is deserting this world.” It is Camus’ final virtue that he at least has not abandoned the world, but has persisted in his “lucid love” of man’s condition.

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Footnotes

1 In the course of setting down these comments, I have felt obliged to re-read the exchange of letters between Camus and Sartre which followed upon the appearance in a magazine edited by Sartre of a rather vicious and not very astute review of Camus’ Homme revolMt. The whole exchange I found depressing: Camus is noble to the point of pompousness, Sartre insultingly familiar and flip. The documents are to be found in the May and August 1952 issues of Les Temps Modemes.

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