A review of Camus and Satre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It, by Ronald Aronson

A recurrent characteristic of modern Western culture is our evident need to bring together pairs of authors and to form linkages between them. Luther and Erasmus, Voltaire and Rousseau, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Camus—in their time and continuously down to ours, "you can't have one without the other." 

Such associations are complicated by the fact that the "and" between the names is more adversarial than copulative, enforcing a separation as much as a conjunction, a divergence within a conjunction. Each of these cross-rivalries or "dualisms," certainly the most notable and exemplary of their epochs, contains difference, a difference that is real and symbolic, radical and far-reaching. Whether we approve or not, whether we like it or not, difference will find its way and will inevitably come to expression. Dispute is pandemic, and there is never a peace: Polemos rules, as Heraclitus says. But as Dostoyevsky reminds us, polemics lead to clarification. So it is in each of the cross-rivalries mentioned above: the tangled fates and fortunes of the paired authors, their own particular itineraries of encounter, led to remarkable formulations and clarifications that involved not only themselves but their entire societies. They were cast together, pitted against each other, as preeminent and representative figures in periods of profound intellectual ferment and social change.

At one level, such dualisms attract because they have a marvelous story to tell (in the book under review, Ronald Aronson calls the Sartre-Camus dualism "riveting"—and so it is). Their interactions could well constitute a five-act drama. But beyond such ample, storied interest the study of such dualisms has current value because they present a new model of how ideas are produced, one that goes beyond the valuable history of ideas and insists on the pertinent intervention of other qualities—the emotions, temperament, all those things that enter into the make-up of the fully-developed, thinking human being. One does not live and work alone; there are intersection points with others. More dramatically, we write against figures leaning over our shoulders, faces in the mind, words that strike and stick. In these particular dualisms, such interchange is constant and complex, and inextricably merging with the dominant issues of the day, the crucial turning points of a culture in a time of crisis. These dualisms represent a startling blend of private and public.

In his remarkable book, CamuSartre (as the device on the cover has it), Ronald Aronson has all these points right, and more besides. His thoughtful work is a classic of the genre, assuming a place of honor alongside, for example, Heinrich Bornkamm's essay, "Erasmus oder Luther." Henri Gouhier's magisterial study, Rousseau et Voltaire: Portraits dans Deux Miroirs (1983), and N.F. Budanova's Dostoyevsky and Turgenev: A Creative Dialogue (1987, my translation). Aronson's study is fully detailed, benefiting from much of the new work in the 1990s on both Camus and Sartre, always fair-minded, and yet unflinching in its critical judgments.

Such hallmark studies as these are not produced by advocates nor are they written for ecumenicists. We are not dealing with love affairs manquées, nor "chance meetings," nor more simply with the falling out of friends (as the publisher's subtitle would seem to indicate). These are sustained stories of grand collision courses. As Simone de Beauvoir herself wrote of Sartre and Camus, "the final quarrel between [them] was simply the final moment of a
long disagreement."

Yet, like the other pairs, Camus and Sartre at first were joined together in great causes, comrades-in-arms in the vanguard of the progressive intellectual movements of their day. They seemed to share genuine affinities. Too often unremarked, they were both, as was typical of so many of their age, children who had lost fathers, a generation, as it were, self-born. The belief that one has the freedom to make oneself anew out of an absurd situation arose almost as a natural element of their thought (however fully qualified in Camus's later development). In this vacuum of a truly "lost generation," they moved into the center of French intellectual life quite easily, and each achieved an early frothy fame—usually with their names in tandem. They held sway by their broad appeal: each was a novelist, a playwright, and a philosopher. Each became a public intellectual, in his works not only addressing the most pertinent issues of the day, but also embodying a certain way of life, which would affect an entire generation. They were "existentialists"—though against the name and the shared honor Camus would later recoil. 

But as Aronson remarks acutely, and as Cain and Abel testify, kinship is not sameness. In fact, behind these apparent grand alliances there existed serious fissures over background, temperament, and intellectual approach. Camus came from a family so impoverished even Christianity did not penetrate—Cristo si e fermato a Eboli. Yet he grew up in an atmosphere of street-life freedom, happy with his chums, possessed of athletic skills as well as personal charm and good looks (later Bogartesque, with that inevitable cigarette dangling roguishly). Coming from the proletariat he suffered no sentimental nostalgia to be a proletarian, although he remained a syndicalist throughout his life. Sartre, on the other hand, as he tells us in his literary masterpiece, Les Mots, was raised by women, sequestered, and knew little of the street life, or the companionship of pals. His family members were the Protestant heirs of Voltaire, cultivating an upper-crust, self-contented Protestantism without protest. Brimming with intellectual self-confidence, a birthright as it were, he gained entrance into the highest intellectual cockpit of his day, the Ecole Normale Superieure. No wonder, as he was later to declare, his friendship with Camus was not an easy one. A kind of wariness prevailed, which prevented their frequent meeting from turning into closeness, as if there were areas that were shut off. Later, this would include politics. But Sartre always wrote condescendingly of Camus's dearth of training in so-called technical philosophy—a criticism that even some sympathetic to Camus have swallowed. Well aware of their differences, Camus was more willing to attribute them to the gap between an intuitive, instinctive intelligence and a critical one.

There were other differences. Very early Camus was engaged in political life and for a short time a member of the Communist Party. He also made personal journeys into the Kabylie and wrote searing reports about the miseries and deprivations of the Arab population under colonialism. At the same time Sartre was largely disengaged. He spent 1933-34 in Germany without any apparent apprehension about Hitler and, despite his appropriate sympathies, was content to be a spectator of the Spanish Civil War. What for Camus had been part of his early adulthood—engagement, commitment, full appreciation and involvement in the life of the people—was to become for Sartre an intellectual and personal acquisition. It was he who underwent something like a "conversion" experience. It was he who needed to be a man among men, to create a solidarity with the working class. More and more he required that his thought be brought into connection with his life. Perhaps it was his Protestant tradition that impelled him to this unity, lest he experience "bad faith"—that curious expression. The presence of such personal needs and drives helps explain why Louis Althusser was able to call Sartre
"our" Rousseau.

* * *

Whereas Sartre moved toward unity, Camus was able to live in contradiction. A reviewer in the New York Times Book Review a few years ago faulted Camus for being one of those "destroyed" because they could not take an unequivocal stance. Alexander Nehamas correctly responded that a sense of complexity, a responsiveness to several proper constraints (not to all points of view), can be the most productive way of acting, and is no bar to having a position: it is simply refusing to be limited by an either/or proposition. 

As Coleridge was fond of saying, such unlikes must soon lead to dislikes. The dualism between Sartre and Camus (Camus was irked that in the coupling of their names, his was always second, even as he objected to being thought a "satellite" member of Sartre's famille), like the other great dualisms, was an "in-house" quarrel. Their very shared affinities contributed to the later conflagration, to the warfare that became generalized, cosmic. Arthur Koestler, who figured so centrally in the political break between the two, wrote that the quarrel of the future would be between Communists and ex-Communists, or as we might say, between liberals and neocons. Aronson quotes Camus to this effect: "The struggle between the free Left and the progressive Left is the essential problem of our movement." 

This also means that their dialogue is creative (to borrow Budanova's subtitle), dominated by "inter-responsiveness." Even after the break, especially after their break, Sartre and Camus continued to address each other through their works. Here Aronson is especially good as he uncovers the "coded" messages, the cryptophasis, with which they carried on their dispute, leading up to a brilliant analysis of Camus's last masterpiece, The Fall. The difference between dualisms and the falling out of friends is that friends may reconcile: Rousseau restored his relationship with Diderot, Turgenev with Tolstoy, and Sartre with Merleau-Ponty. But with figures involved in a great dualism, the division is "unending," as Budanova argues was the case with Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. Down to the very end intellectual enmity figures in response.

At the 20th-century's midpoint, these looming differences broke out into open warfare over Camus's Man in Revolt(Aronson's preferred translation in place of The Rebel) and the review in Sartre's Les Temps modernes, with subsequent rejoinders by Camus and Sartre himself. This was the explosive moment in a relationship that had begun much earlier, quite coincidentally and on terms of mutual respect. In 1938 Camus, a young provincial intellectual, had reviewed in short order Sartre's Nausea and The Wall, praising each work, commending their author, but also pinpointing some deficiencies inNausea—for instance, its episodic nature, its lack of a cohesive aesthetic form or controlling mythos. On his part, writing in the early '40s, Sartre found a sympathetic absurdist colleague in the author of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, insightfully describing Camus as a moralist of the 18th century, another Voltaire. He did have some reservations about Camus's actual familiarity with the philosophers he discussed, causing Camus to complain privately about Sartre's "acidity."

They did not meet until 1943, when they became regular members of a talented and fun-loving group of play-goers, party-givers, and activist intellectuals. They continued to write and publish under the Occupation, and Sartre in particular looked back to those years with some nostalgia. In fact, the end of the Occupation fractured the Left's unity; their divided attitudes and projections about the future began to reveal their true differences.

Aronson discusses evenhandedly but critically the reasons for the break: Camus's refusal to turn a blind eye to the USSR's totalitarian despotism; Sartre's bilious anti-anti-Communism ("every anti-communist is a dog"); his penchant for violence, at first as a means of countering the allegedly systematic violence of the West, and then as a means of colonial liberation. In the beginning, after the debate in the pages of Les Temps modernes, Camus felt outvoted, ostracized, silenced. Curiously enough, Aronson detects a tandem fall into silence on Sartre's part, as though their rupture had a "twin" effect.

With his final position of determined silence about the war in Algeria, Camus only felt further estranged from French intellectual life. After all, some twenty years earlier had he not outlined a program of social and economic assimilation between the French and Algerians which, if followed, would have prevented the accelerating violence? And in the event of such violence, had he not accurately foretold the triumph of a kind of Islamic fundamentalism? He broke this silence in The Fall, and here Aronson shows superbly how Camus in the voice of Clamence skewers the arguments against him in the pages of Les Temps modernes, creating a genuine "hero of our time," one duly situated in the lowest circle of Hell. But neither does he spare himself, attributing to Clamence many of his own failings and mistakes. This short novel represents a signal triumph of creative endeavor, a breakthrough of enormous proportions, one indeed that was acknowledged by Sartre, who with his genius of recognition, called it a masterpiece.

Camus was killed in an automobile accident in early January 1960; Sartre outlived him by some twenty years, only to see himself bypassed by the generation of '68. Yet today their argument seems as pertinent as ever. Following the interludes of structuralism and post-structuralism, as the brilliant writer Jose-Guilherme Merquior in his From Prague to Paris (1987) has argued, they returned in full force, Sartre as the last totalizing French intellectual, armed with wrath against Anglo-American hegemony; and Camus as the latest in a long line of French moralists, who believe there is a capacity for moral judgment outside the strict laws of historical necessity, and who do not mind being right, even if that places them in a minority.