An excerpt from Camus and Sartre

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Camus and Sartre

The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It

Ronald Aronson

Chapter 1: First Encounters

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus first met in June 1943, at the opening of Sartre's play The Flies. When Sartre was standing in the lobby, according to Simone de Beauvoir, "a dark-skinned young man came up and introduced himself: it was Albert Camus." His novel The Stranger, published a year earlier, was a literary sensation, and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus had appeared six months previously. The young man from Algiers was marooned in France by the war. While convalescing from an exacerbation of his chronic tuberculosis in Le Panelier, near Chambon, Camus had been cut off from his wife by the Allied conquest of French North Africa and the resulting German invasion of unoccupied France in November 1942. He wanted to meet the increasingly well-known novelist and philosopher—and now playwright—whose fiction he had reviewed years earlier and who had just published a long article on Camus's own books. It was a brief encounter. "I'm Camus," he said. Sartre immediately "found him a most likeable personality."

In November, Camus moved to Paris to start working as a reader for his (and Sartre's) publisher, Gallimard, and their friendship began in earnest. At their first get-together at the Café Flore—where Sartre and Beauvoir worked, kept warm, ate, and socialized—the three started off awkwardly. Then they started talking shop, Camus and Sartre sharing their regard for the surrealist poet Francis Ponge's Le Parti pris des choses. What "led to the ice being broken" between them, according to Beauvoir, was Camus's passion for the theater. Camus had led an amateur political theater troupe in Algiers. "Sartre talked of his new play [No Exit] and the conditions that would govern its production. Then he suggested that Camus should play the lead and stage it. Camus hesitated at first, but when Sartre pressed the point he agreed." They held a few rehearsals in Beauvoir's hotel room for what was to be a low-budget touring production. "The readiness with which Camus flung himself into this venture endeared him to us; it also hinted that he had plentiful time at his disposal. He had only recently come to Paris; he was married, but his wife had stayed behind in North Africa." Sartre was pleased with Camus's work in the role of Garcin, but his financial backer withdrew; this man's wife, who was to be showcased in No Exit, was arrested for suspected Resistance activity. Sartre was then offered the chance to present the play in a professional production on the Paris stage, and Camus obligingly backed out. But the friendship was cemented. "His youth and independence created bonds between us: we were all solitaries, who had developed without the aid of any 'school'; we belonged to no group or clique."

If the friendship seemed so easy at the beginning, one reason was that Sartre and Camus had already gotten to know each other in ways more important than a handshake. Avid readers, each absorbed in shaping his own ideas and styles, the young writers had read each other's books well before they met. Their reviews of each other's early writings are still among the most interesting and enthusiastic commentaries. Although not uncritical, Sartre's and Camus's first responses to each other express the literary and philosophical kinship that underlay their relationship. They also introduce us to one of the most important sites of their interaction for over twenty years—their sometimes direct, sometimes veiled, references to each other. From their first meeting to the last words they exchanged, we will find some of their most vital and charged encounters on paper.

Camus discovered Sartre in October 1938 when he read and reviewed Nausea. The young pied-noir (a Frenchman born in Algeria), was a fledgling reporter and author of a column entitled "The Reading Room" for an Algiers left-wing daily. He had published locally two small books of essays, The Wrong Side and the Right Side and Nuptials, and after abandoning a first novel had begun writing The Stranger. Though only in his mid-twenties, the would-be novelist wrote remarkably self-assured responses in his literary column to the new fiction being published in Paris, including Gide's The Counterfeiters, Nizan's The Conspiracy, Silone's Bread and Wine, Huxley's Those Barren Leaves, Amado's Bahia, and Sartre's Nausea and The Wall.

Camus's review of Nausea was demanding and appreciative. He was no dazzled provincial, light-years from Paris's sophistication, but a peer who deeply shared Sartre's purposes and cheered him on, only to be disappointed by what he saw at this early period as Sartre's ultimate failure. Nausea recounts the breakdown of the reassuring daily life of Antoine Roquentin, who is staying in a western port city and working on a biography of a Revolution-era marquis. Roquentin feels nauseated as he experiences the absurdity normally hidden by his routines, and the truth of that absurdity appears ever more sharply as his life slowly gives way around him. It is a dazzling thought-experiment, containing some marvelous characterizations and descriptions. As Camus had told a friend several months before he wrote the review, he had "thought a lot about" the book, and it was "very close to a part of me." He led off his review by asserting that "a novel is nothing but philosophy expressed in images." In a good novel, however, the philosophy becomes one with the images. Camus gave no indication of knowing that the novelist was also a philosopher who had already published a book on the imagination in 1936 and a long article entitled "The Transcendence of the Ego" the following year. He himself had earned the diplôme d'études supérieures (the equivalent of a master's degree) in philosophy with a thesis on Saint Augustine and Plotinus. Sartre, he insisted, broke the balance between his novel's theories and its life. As a result, its author's "remarkable fictional gifts and the play of the toughest and most lucid mind are at the same time both lavished and squandered." Lavished: each of the book's chapters, taken by itself, "reaches a kind of perfection in bitterness and truth." Daily life in Bouville "is depicted with a sureness of touch whose lucidity leaves no room for hope." And each of Sartre's reflections on time effectively illustrated the thinking of philosophers from Kierkegaard to Heidegger. Squandered: the descriptive and the philosophical aspects of the novel "don't add up to a work of art: the passage from one to the other is too rapid, too unmotivated, to evoke in the reader the deep conviction that makes art of the novel."

Camus went on to praise Sartre's descriptions of absurdity, the sense of anguish that arises as the ordinary structures imposed on existence collapse in Antoine Roquentin's life, and his resulting nausea. Sartre's deft handling of this strange and banal subject moves with a "vigor and certainty" reminiscent of Kafka. But—and here Sartre differs from Kafka—"some indefinable obstacle prevents the reader from participating and holds him back when he is on the very threshold of consent." By this, Camus meant not only the imbalance between ideas and images but also Sartre's negativity. Sartre dwells on the repugnant features of humankind "instead of basing his reasons for despair on certain of man's signs of greatness." And the reviewer was also bothered by the "comic" inadequacy of Roquentin's final attempt to find hope in art, considering how "trivial" art is when compared with some of life's redeeming moments.

Though strongly critical, Camus appreciated Sartre's ideas and enjoyed his honesty and his capacity to break new ground. The review's closing words stress his admiration:

This is the first novel from a writer from whom everything may be expected. So natural a suppleness in staying on the far boundaries of conscious thought, so painful a lucidity, are indications of limitless gifts. These are grounds for welcoming Nausea as the first summons of an original and vigorous mind whose lessons and works to come we are impatient to see.

Was this merely a reviewer's posture, a way of balancing criticism with just enough praise so as to not sound peevish? The impatient critic did not have long to wait. Less than six months later, Sartre's next book fully satisfied him. In February 1939, in reviewing Sartre's collection of stories The Wall, Camus enthusiastically hailed Sartre's lucidity, his portrayal of the absurdity of existence, and his depiction of characters whose freedom was useless to them. Their negativity—if anything, stronger in The Wall than in Nausea—now troubled him less. Overwhelmed by their freedom, these people could not overcome absurdity as they bumped up against their own lives. They had "no attachments, no principles, no Ariadne's thread," because they were unable to act. "From this stems both the immense interest and the absolute mastery of Sartre's stories." The reader does not know what the characters will do from one moment to the next; their author's "art lies in the detail with which he depicts his absurd creatures, the way he observes their monotonous behavior."

Camus confessed to being unable to put these stories down. They gave their reader "that higher, absurd freedom which leads the characters to their own ends." It was a useless freedom, which "explains the often overwhelming emotional impact of these pages as well as their cruel pathos." Sartre described an absurd human condition, but he refused to flinch before it. The philosophy and the images were now in balance. Camus's conclusion indicated not only his enthusiasm for the author but his sense of common purpose with a writer who,

in his two books, has been able to get straight to the essential problem and bring it to life through his obsessive characters. A great writer always introduces his own world and its message. Sartre's brings us to nothingness, but also to lucidity. And the image he perpetuates through his characters, of a man seated amid the ruins of his life, is a good illustration of the greatness and truth of his work.

"Greatness and truth"—"la grandeur et la vérité." Might Sartre have seen this tribute? On his side, all we know for certain is a literary encounter that took place in fall 1942. Discovering Camus only weeks after sending off the completed manuscript of Being and Nothingness, he was moved to devote a generous, detailed, 6,000-word essay to The Stranger. In this striking article, Sartre reads that book alongside The Myth of Sisyphus, the fiction in relation to the philosophy. As he writes, let us listen to the different voices:

The absurd…resides neither in man nor in the world if you consider each separately. But since man's dominant characteristic is "being-in-the-world," the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition. Thus, the absurd is not, to begin with, the object of a mere idea; it is revealed to us in a doleful illumination. "Getting up, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, in the same routine…," and then, suddenly, "the seeing collapses," and we find ourselves in a state of hopeless lucidity.

Here Sartre is approvingly summarizing and quoting from a passage near the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus lays out his basic ideas. Surprisingly, the quoted passage sounds like Camus's paraphrase of none other than Roquentin's experience in Nausea. Sartre continues, in apparent agreement with Camus: "If we are able to refuse the misleading aid of religion or existential philosophies, we then possess certain basic, obvious facts: the world is chaos, a 'divine equivalence born of anarchy'; tomorrow does not exist, since we all die. 'In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.'"

Turning directly to the context in The Myth of Sisyphus where this sentence occurs, and reading from this point forward, we are reminded of Nausea: "At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike a man in the face." And on the next page of The Myth of Sisyphus is the Sartre-like passage about daily routine collapsing, which Sartre quotes in his review. As we turn the page, Sartre's novel is mentioned explicitly: "This nausea, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd." Whose voice, then, is heard in the original quotation above? In a stunning reflection of kinship, Sartre enthusiastically quoted Camus—whose analysis drew upon Sartre. It is both of their voices at one and the same time.

Beyond this kinship, Sartre compared Camus with Kafka and Hemingway, whom he admired, and praised The Stranger for its "skillful construction."

There is not a single unnecessary detail, nor one that is not returned to later on, and used in the argument. And when we close the book, we realize that it could not have had any other ending. In this world that has been stripped of its causality and presented as absurd, the smallest incident has weight. There is no single one which does not help to lead the hero to crime and capital punishment. The Stranger is a classical work, an orderly work, composed about the absurd and against the absurd.

The author of Nausea obviously admired the imaginative power of The Stranger. The stark simplicity of Camus's language, his ability to evoke the physical, the unforgettable descriptions of the funeral vigil, the next morning's procession, and Meursault's daily routines combine with more disturbing aspects—Meursault's lack of normal human emotion, his mindless murder of the Arab, the prosecutor's outrage at the young man's indifference toward his mother's death, his own defiance of the jury and its sense of propriety, as well the improbability of a death sentence for a white man who has killed an Arab in Algeria—to create the great novel of French Algeria. But how did the author of Being and Nothingness respond to The Myth of Sisyphus? Having just completed one of the most original and profound philosophical constructions of the twentieth century, Sartre showed respect for the philosophical essayist who, "by virtue of the cool style of The Myth of Sisyphus" as well as its subject, "takes his place in the great tradition of those French moralists" regarded as Nietzsche's forerunners. "The turn of his reasoning, the clarity of his ideas, the cut of his expository style and a certain kind of solar, ceremonious and sad sombreness, all indicate a classic temperament."

Just as Sartre must have noticed that The Stranger came alive as fiction in ways that his own Nausea did not—as Camus had astutely pointed out four years earlier—so also he must have seen that for all its appeal as popular philosophizing The Myth of Sisyphus was the work of a dabbler in philosophy and not a systematic builder of ideas. Camus briefly dismissed existentialists such as Jaspers, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard en route to insisting that nothing could overcome life's absurdity. Sartre, on the other hand, had spent years working through the phenomenology of Heidegger and Husserl until he synthesized them in Being and Nothingness into a work that sought to penetrate the very nature of being. Starting with Cartesian individual consciousness, Sartre carefully described basic structures of existence, fundamental human projects, and characteristic patterns of behavior such as bad faith. By the end of the book he was poised to follow his philosophy's implications, as he did over the next several years, into virtually every aspect of existence—from daily life and politics to ethics, artistic creation, and the nature of knowledge. In The Myth of Sisyphus, on the other hand, starting from the premise that "the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions," Camus stayed on the terrain of experience and its frustrations rather than pursuing "the learned and classical dialectic." Thus both The Myth of Sisyphus and Being and Nothingness began with the absurd and exuded the same zeitgeist; yet they were vastly different.

Just how different is conveyed joltingly in a single, nasty "by the way": "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." The philosopher, agrégé from the Ecole Normale Supérieure, puts down the philosophizer, diplôme d'études supérieure from the University of Algiers.

Perhaps this is why Camus was not thrilled by Sartre's article. In a letter to his teacher Jean Grenier, who published his own review of The Stranger in the very same issue of Cahiers du Sud, Camus reacted to Sartre on Camus:

Sartre's article is a model of "taking apart." Of course, every creation has an instinctive element which [he] does not envision, and intelligence does not play such an important role. But in criticism this is the rule of the game, which is fine because on several points he enlightened me about what I wanted to do. I also see that most of his criticisms are fair, but why that acid tone?

Acid dissolves, after all, takes things apart. Perhaps the remark about tone means no more than Camus's discomfort at seeing his work being taken apart and explained. Clearly uneasy with being put under Sartre's microscope, Camus defends himself by opposing his instinctive creativity to Sartre's critical acuity, even while conceding that the latter requires more intelligence.

Sartre's put-down may well have been repayment for a slight the reader will have noticed in a passage from The Myth of Sisyphus quoted above: "this nausea, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd." Three years earlier Camus had referred to Sartre the author of novels and short stories as a great writer. Now, relying on the ideas of Nausea, and having mentioned Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Jaspers by name, Camus gives his peer only the most oblique mention. The anonymous "writer of today," thereby placed on a lower level than the named great thinkers, in turn demonstrates his own ability not only to analyze and even cuff a young upstart but also to take the opposite tack, devoting considerable space in his article to generously showing how Camus fits into the aristocracy of literature and ideas.

In addition to revealing a potential for prickliness toward each other, these remarks remind us that the two men's kinship was not sameness. In addition to their mutual praise and sense of discovery, these texts suggest many differences between Sartre and Camus. Sartre had a more negative and Camus a more positive view of both nature and human reality. Merely to open The Stranger alongside Nausea is to be struck by the contrast between Meursault/Camus's dazzling physicality and Roquentin/Sartre's famous disgust for the physical. Camus reveled in the sensuous world of North Africa, as in Nuptials, and his reader can hardly ignore its intensity and its pleasures. Sartre's writing never embraced the physical world or the body in the direct, unquestioning, and often joyous way so natural to Camus. Indeed, one of the most striking contrasts in modern fiction, as Camus himself knew, is that between the gray, ugly Bouville—"Mudville"—of Nausea and The Stranger's bright, shimmering port city, its beach, and its surrounding countryside, Le Havre and Algiers.

Their reviews of each other point up another key difference. Although both wrote important works of philosophy and fiction and successfully tackled a number of other genres, by temperament the one was primarily a philosopher, absorbed with theories and general ideas, the other primarily a novelist, most comfortably capturing concrete situations—Camus's distinction between "intelligence" and the "instinctive element." The brilliant young philosopher took absurdity as his starting point and slowly, in the five years between Nausea and Being and Nothingness, explored how human activity constitutes a meaningful world from brute, meaningless existence. The philosophizing novelist built an entire worldview on the sense that absurdity is an unsurpassable given of human experience.

Despite these differences, the two writers' initial admiration for each other sprang from the closeness of their starting points and the similarity of their projects. Each was trying make his mark in fields kept quite distinct in French education and culture. Each one immediately noticed that the other was writing both philosophy and literature. And each immediately saw how much they shared. Their writing, with its unconventional plots and seemingly unmotivated characters, stressed that existence was absurd. They faced this absurdity honestly and lucidly, and they agreed that most people (including philosophers) did not do so. They prized living authentically.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 9-17 of Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Ronald Aronson
Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It
©2004, 302 pages
Cloth $32.50 ISBN: 0-226-02796-1
Paper $19.00 ISBN: 0-226-00024-9

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