The greatest French writer of the 20th century was Marcel Proust, but in their day, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960) enjoyed an intellectual cachet that Proust in his own lifetime could only have dreamed of. Each was a novelist, a playwright, a philosopher, and a political intellectual, and in these various lines of work both were the acclaimed eminences of their time and place. For a while they were considered an item: the twin geniuses of existentialism, the French philosophical movement they pioneered and embodied. And indeed they were often together, the best of friends.
As we learn from Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It, a fascinating and intermittently astute book by Ronald Aronson,1 the two men met in Nazi-occupied Paris at the height of World War II. The occasion was the June 1943 opening of Sartre's play, The Flies, a recasting of the Orestes revenge story with overtones of Resistance heroism.
By this time, both men were public figures. Sartre's novel, Nausea, an account of slipping out of ordinary life into the gradually liberating awareness of life's meaninglessness, had come out five years earlier; his monumental existentialist tract, Being and Nothingness, was about to be published. As for the younger, Algerian-born Camus, both his first novel, The Stranger, and his philosophical signature piece, The Myth of Sisyphus, had been brought out within the previous year to general amazement and acclaim.
Even before the two met, they had reviewed each other's books. Writing in a left-wing Algerian newspaper, Camus had praised Nausea for its dramatic demonstration that “at the bottom of the most elementary act is its fundamental absurdity.” A few months later, reviewing a collection of Sartre's short fiction, he singled out its portraits of individuals who, apprehending the absurdity of existence, begin to realize they are free to make anything they choose of their lives, even if they are sometimes distressingly unsure just what that should be.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus would offer his own depiction of the freedom that comes of accepting the godless universe in which one happens to exist for a brief spell. His appeal to the singular adventure of a life well lived, without hope or fear of eternity, registered powerfully with Sartre. In a 6,000-word review of Camus's The Stranger—about a man who drifts numbly through life until, condemned for murder, he finds happiness in “the benign indifference of the universe”—Sartre sketched an author, Camus, sounding very much like Sartre himself, especially the Sartre of the fiction Camus had himself reviewed.
Soon after their meeting, as Aronson tells it, an obviously thrilled Sartre offered Camus the chance to direct and play the lead in a touring production of his new play, No Exit (the best thing he ever wrote in any genre). Although the production never came off, the bond had been forged, and seemed made to last. The two men “prized living authentically,” Aronson writes, and authenticity could extend to, and survive, candor and even bluntness between them. During one night's boozing, Sartre announced their order of intellectual rank: “I'm more intelligent than you, huh? More intelligent.” Camus agreed.
But if Sartre's was by mutual consent the more imposing mind, Camus was the more impressive man, and both of them knew that as well. Simone de Beauvoir, the writer who was Sartre's lifelong lover, but whose romance with him admitted all manner of extraneous erotic possibilities, told Camus that he could have her if he wanted her. He did not want her. Sartre, one suspects, found Camus's refusal more disturbing than Beauvoir's offer, especially as he happened to be toadishly ugly and Camus handsome and charming.
In addition to handsomeness and charm, Camus also had boldness and courage and integrity; these, along with intelligence, were the qualities Sartre most esteemed. Camus had proved his honor and his nerve in the Resistance against the occupying Nazis, when he edited the clandestine newspaper Combat, whose proud socialist banner read “From Resistance to Revolution.” Sartre for his part had served in the defeated French army, spent several months as a prisoner of war, and then returned to full-time literature.
Sartre was extremely productive during the war. But when he later spoke of himself as “a writer who resisted” rather than a member of the Resistance who wrote, he was implicitly comparing himself to the less intelligent but more impressive Camus. What is Literature?, the classic of literary theory that Sartre wrote just after the war, espouses writing that is itself vital with political commitment—that commitment being, naturally, to the radical Left. Aronson makes the case that the writer who, to Sartre's mind, best fit his specifications was Camus: “This young man was already the person Sartre was trying to become: the engaged but not starry-eyed or ideological writer, at once ‘poet of freedom’ and political activist.”
Sartre's enshrining of Camus bore a price, however. In Aronson's judgment, it complicated the friendship, making Camus fear he would be thought of as Sartre's creature rather than as his own man. The younger man began to feel that “he had to define himself in contrast to Sartre.”
There may be something to this, but Aronson makes too much of it. In fact, the principal source of the growing disagreement between the two was not psychological but philosophical and political. Already in a 1945 interview Camus contended that his understanding of the absurd had nothing to do with Sartrean existentialism. To be more precise, he was becoming disenchanted with the movement's Marxist underpinnings, and was looking for a more accommodating basis for the idea of complete freedom of choice. As Camus saw it, if a man was really free, then he could make of himself anything at all; his actions ought not be circumscribed by the particular historical situation he found himself in, and especially ought not be dictated by some intellectual's telling him he had to decide between behaving admirably like a revolutionary socialist or piggishly like a bourgeois.
By 1951, at any rate, the divergence had become an irreparable rupture. That was the year in which Camus published L'homme révolté, known in English as The Rebel but translated more accurately by Aronson as Man in Revolt. This book ranks with The Myth of Sisyphus and The Fall (1956) among Camus's greatest works, and as one of the landmark titles of the last century. Unfortunately, Aronson finds it ideologically tendentious, and is not much use in helping one appreciate its excellence.
Man in Revolt indicts what Camus sees as the highest form of modern criminality: mass murder on behalf of noble ideas, and specifically on behalf of the idea of a perfected humanity in the manner of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. To Camus's mind, the revolutionary nihilism exemplified by the Russian Revolution and by Nazism (though he barely touches upon the latter) is the supremely beguiling and supremely terrible theme of modern life. He traces its intellectual origins to the metaphysical ponderings of such figures as de Sade, Baudelaire, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Lautréamont, as well as to the revolutionary zealotry of Saint-Just and Marx. To overthrow the divinely appointed natural order, to institute forever the humane and rational arrangements that will allow all to thrive as never before—these became the ends of the revolutionary, and anything at all was permitted in order to achieve them: starvation, slave labor, a bullet in the back of the skull. Camus wanted no part of this viciousness with its eyes wide open.
Sartre, not unexpectedly, loathed Man in Revolt, considered it a personal affront, and spearheaded the effort to discredit it in the pages of Les temps modernes (Modern Times), the hugely influential journal he edited. A Sartre disciple, Francis Jeanson, was enlisted to savage the book; when Camus wrote a hotly contemptuous letter to the editor, Sartre himself responded by turning up the heat in 10,000 vitriolic words, while Jeanson tossed off a 15,000-word justification of his review. Camus wrote an answer that he never sent.
The controversy between the two men, which would only deepen over time, has been newly documented together with four long essays of scholarly commentary in Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, edited and translated by David A. Sprintzen and Adrian van den Hoven.2 The decisive quarrel boiled down to this: Camus spoke for freedom and nature, two of the central principles of liberal democracy; Sartre spoke for justice and history, the guiding lights of socialist dictatorship.
Theoretically, an intelligent liberalism could accommodate all of these competing claims. Of the two men, Camus was more willing to approach such a compromise than the intransigent Sartre. But each had his hierarchy, and in the throes of disputation each hardened his own position so that any reconciliation became impossible.
Like Aronson, who decries “cold-war partisanship,” Sprintzen and all but one of his colleagues have a simple explanation for the friends' bitter falling-out. In Sprintzen's words, “the polarized environment” of the cold war delimited the thinking of supposedly free and reasonable men. What was responsible for causing this polarized environment was, of course, the conflict between Western democracy and Soviet Communism. About this, the commentators in Sartre and Camus strike a putatively agnostic view, apportioning the blame pretty much equally between the two parties, but with a slight preference for the idea that the West, and particularly the United States, was really the more culpable.
Sartre himself was under no compunctions on this score. In the wake of his dispute with Camus, he began to cleave ever more closely to Moscow's party line. He became precisely the sort of Communist whom Camus hated most: not only a zealot for his maniacal idea of justice, careless with other men's blood, but a horrific cynic as well.
To gain admittance to a Communist charade known as the World Peace Congress in Vienna in December 1952, Sartre prohibited a scheduled Viennese production of his 1948 play Dirty Hands, which had offended the Communists, and required that all future productions have the approval of the local Communist party. Two weeks before the Peace Congress opened, he refused to comment publicly on the show trial of the Czech Communist leader Rudolf Slansky, convicted along with others of belonging to an international Jewish conspiracy to undermine the cause of world Communism. Early the next year, he again kept his mouth shut about the “Jewish doctors' plot” that Stalin had contrived to whip up anti-Semitic hysteria.
Even Aronson is appalled by Sartre's doggish behavior. For their part, the scholars assembled in Sartre and Camus generally agree that the brouhaha over Man in Revolt showed both Camus and Sartre at their worst, and that their unthinking vehemence in the thrall of competing cold-war ideologies robbed them of their customary perspicacity. But they are utterly wrong about Camus, and wrong again in thinking Sartre customarily perspicacious. The deformity caused by his political vocation was by no means peculiar to the cold-war period but had showed itself earlier and affected his entire literary career.
The philosophical audacity that was existentialism had itself been born of the most banal political idea. As presented in Sartre's 1946 essay, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”—the essay is essentially a précis of Being and Nothingness—the litany runs like this: there is no God; there is no human nature; there is only the human condition, which is to say, historically determined conditions; within these conditions man is free; “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself”; and each man is responsible for himself—as well as for everyone else.
To put the case plainly, Sartre's existentialism ends in a socialist fantasy because it begins in a socialist fantasy. The nonexistence of God is treated by him as an indisputable given, not as a demonstrable proposition; the idea that man can make what he will of himself is similarly treated as a given and for the same reason—because it is indispensable to his political project. Without these two assumptions, the argument would go nowhere, for if men are created by God, then Sartrean existentialism is a ridiculous exercise in the higher narcissism. The existence of God must be annulled, because it leads to bad politics.
The same flawed reasoning infects almost all of Sartre's work, including some of his best. Within the realm of good socialist politics, the war to the death is the war against the bourgeoisie and its political and religious beliefs, which Sartre lavishly despised. In Anti-Semite and Jew (1946), which professes to be a sober meditation on the rational and the irrational in politics, Sartre is lucid and penetrating about the anti-Semitism directed particularly at Jewish intelligence; but when he proceeds to declare anti-Semitism “a bourgeois phenomenon,” from which the virtuous proletariat is, at least in theory, happily free, his analysis goes off the rails. Though he does not spell out the conclusions of his argument, its inexorable logic is that the unsavory attitudes of the bourgeoisie can be eradicated with a clear conscience, even if doing so entails eradicating bourgeois persons along the way.
As Sartre's politics deform his moral philosophy, so do they turn his fiction into tub-thumping. In the trilogy The Roads of Freedom (1945-1949), which is really an unfinished tetralogy, the word “freedom” appears almost as often as “and” or “the.” Once again, the enemy to be slaughtered without mercy is bourgeois minginess, the epitome of anti-existential unfreedom. In the first installment of the trilogy, titled The Age of Reason, Mathieu, a thirty-year-old intellectual, scrambles over the course of 400 pages for the money to procure an abortion for Marcelle, his lover of seven years; marriage and child being unthinkably bourgeois, both Mathieu and his creator speak of the fetus inside Marcelle as a ripening pustule. In the end, Mathieu gets his “freedom for nothing”—that is, freedom to no apparent purpose—and we are meant to understand this exalted aimlessness as the highest existential awareness anyone can reach. Although there are flashes of brilliance throughout the trilogy, the politicking that shapes Sartre's philosophy kills his every effort to render living beings in art.
Both as a man and as a writer, Camus had a truer feeling for life, including life's freedom. This vital capacity made him more sensible, in the fullest meaning of the word. But it must also be said that it limited his penetration as a political intellectual. For all his loathing of Communism and his devotion to freedom in the abstract, for example, Camus fastidiously declined to come out for the democratic West, and particularly for the United States, as bulwarks against the former and champions of the latter.
Camus's personal moderation and decency make Sartre look like the scoundrel he was. But his hope that moderation and decency would triumph against barbarity was insufficiently appreciative of the unfathomable depth of certain political quandaries—like the one in his beloved native Algeria. In his “Appeal for a Civilian Truce in Algeria,” a lecture delivered in Algiers in 1956 just as Arab anti-colonial militants and immovable French colonists were about to dive into a bloodbath, Camus spoke of a tragic collision of two bands of heedless fanatics, as if, by parting the combatants, temperate intermediaries could yet bring a lasting peace.
But temperance and reasonableness could only delay, not forestall, the fanatical violence, which in Algiers as elsewhere in the modern world was soon directed against the temperate and the reasonable. To argue, as Camus did, that “French and Arabs can be made to coexist . . . [and] that such coexistence will do justice to the rights of both sides” was unconscionably naïve. Today, even Arabs and Arabs do not coexist in Algeria.
The first tremors of militant Islam's crusade against the West, and also against Arab political moderation, were already shaking the ground in the 1950's. Camus felt them, but could not divine their full significance. He did write, in his “Preface to Algerian Reports” and “Algeria 1958,” about the dangers that the ambition for Islamic empire presented; that ambition, he said, if unchecked, could lead to World War III. But he mistakenly assumed it would be checked.
How so? In his philanthropic enthusiasm, Camus exhorted men and women like himself to “gather together to beg merely, without making any other claims yet, that on a single spot of the globe a handful of innocent victims be spared.” Camus did not understand, or could not bear to think, that saving lives then would do nothing to prevent the loss of many others' lives later, and that violent fanaticism must be extinguished if it is not to increase and multiply. Today's free Algeria, which is what the uncompromising Arabs of Camus's day demanded, is a place where 100,000 civilians have died since 1992 in a civil war notable even in that part of the world for its uninhibited brutality, and where the Arabs of the Islamic Salvation Front awaken sleeping Arab children in order to slash their throats. Reality has proved too cruel for Camus's political imagination.
In fact, neither Camus nor Sartre had sufficient imagination when it came to politics. Had they philosophized more and politicized less, their opinions—and, in Sartre's case, his art—could have been what their exaggerated reputations make them out to be: the outstanding intellectuals of their time.
Still, as between the two of them, and despite Sartre's extraordinary intellect, Camus's was without doubt the more significant achievement. Even if he felt too much to think dispassionately, he possessed a born novelist's instinct for capturing the truth alive. As for Sartre, his passionate temperament issued in a disfiguring taste for revolutionary violence, while his ambition to explain the world as nobody had adequately explained it before issued in encyclopedic fatuity. Sartre knew everything, and everything he knew was wrong.
1 Chicago, 291., $32.50
2 Humanity Books, 299 pp., $45.00.