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Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre first met in 1943
at the premier of Sartre's play The Flies. Camus was the young debonair,
French-Algerian from working class roots (who famously played for the Algerian
football team) whilst Sartre came from stable middle class stock. Though
Aronson underplays their class difference, it is clear in their political
leanings that the issue of 'class' is hugely relevant -- separating the
political practice of Camus from the theoretical Marxism of Sartre. Even today,
Camus remains the hero of the left -- whilst Sartre, following in the footsteps
of Husserl and Heidegger -- for whom he could only pay homage, never managed to
escape Cartesian dualism, using Hegelian language in an attempt to reconcile
the mind/body, theory/practice split. It is within literature -- specifically Nausea
and Huis Clos (which famously declares 'Hell is Other People') that
Sartre is most remembered, coupled with his illustrations of Bad Faith (the
Unhappy Homosexual, the Waiter et al) in Being and Nothingness that maintains
Sartre's place in the history of ideas; whereas for Camus, it is The Myth of
Sisyphus with its explanation of human suffering and his novel The
Outsider for which he is best remembered.
Whilst their differing backgrounds may seem
immaterial to both men's political views Sartre was accused by fellow
Communist members of being too middle class -- whilst Camus was blamed for
holding a chip on his shoulder -- the writer Pierre Hervé comparing him to 'a
bishop conducting a service [who] objects to a dog's barking in his neighborhood'.
In the Algerian war, Sartre was the one to defend Algerian independence whilst
Camus supported France's control, gaining the criticism from Aronson that he
was simply naïve. But Camus owed everything to the French education system
which had allowed him to pursue, against all odds, an intellectual life. He
also saw the futility of violence, desiring above all else a non-violent
reconciliation between the native Algerians, whose rights he championed, and
the French colonialists. In contrast, Sartre's support for political violence
and his failure to attack Soviet Russia, comes across as much worse than simple
Camus became a fervent anti-communist whilst
Sartre, abandoning existentialist subjectivity, embraced revolutionary
communism, albeit from the safety of his armchair. This heralded the beginning
of the end of both men's friendship. In asking Francis Jeanson to review Camus'
book The Rebel in the journal Temps Moderns the final seeds of
dissolution, for what had become an already tetchy relationship, were sewn. Jeanson's
review was vitriolic but when Camus responded Sartre turned their political
differences into something much more personal, saying of Camus: 'how cleverly
you play at being calm … and with what art you reveal your wrath, only to hide
it immediately behind a falsely reassuring smile. How serious you are,
and to use your own words, how frivolous!'
Prior to Aronson's book the only reliable source
on the state of their friendship came via Sartre's life-long partner, Simone de
Beauvoir, in her novel The Mandarins. Learning that Camus had turned
down her sexual advances, and of Arthur Koestler's friendship with Camus,
agitated her, and Sartre unfurls the cold academic exterior of Camus' friends
and later protagonists, making them appear both petty and pretentious
Although Aronson attempts a reconciliation of
sorts at the end of the book: 'we can now appreciate both Camus and Sartre and
reject the either/or that broke them apart' one feels a clear siding on Aronson's
part with Sartre's philosophy and Marxist leanings. Yet, for those of us who
have always found in Camus an authenticity of being as well as a social
political commentary and philosophy far succeeding Sartre's great philosophical
work (Being and Nothingness), which reads like bad-Hegelianism, Camus
remains the working-class hero whilst Sartre's thought merely flutters behind
the wings of postmodernism. But to say that this deflates the book would be to
fall into the clandestine squabbling that one supposes plagued Sartre and Camus
throughout their lives, both as friends and later as enemies. Ronald Aronson
has produced a provocative account of the contribution that Camus and Sartre have
made to both modern literature and philosophy, and his anecdotes of the insecurities
that beset both men made his book both enjoyable and entertaining.
2006 Eccy de Jonge
Eccy de Jonge is the author of Spinoza and
Deep Ecology, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004
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