Philosophical Differences The Falling-Out of Camus and Sartre
Part 2: Tragic Dissolution
The thin-skinned Camus, who was certainly no stranger to polemics, was deeply offended -- and he made the mistake of sending a long rejoinder. What followed was a tragic dissolution of what had once been a friendship. Camus, who was a member of the Communist Party for a period in his younger days, vehemently rejected the insinuation that he had become a right-winger, just because he was applauded from that side of the political spectrum and refused to call himself a Marxist.
His rebuttal was to ask what position his adversaries intended to take on Soviet Communism and Stalin's crimes. What good did it do "to theoretically liberate the individual" when one allows "man to be subjugated under certain conditions"?
Sartre felt challenged. His response, which was printed in the same issue, was merciless. It is insidious and malicious, yet also a magnificent masterpiece of personal polemics. This repudiation from the hallowed halls of politics and philosophy aimed to injure: Sartre wanted to squash Camus.
Already in the first sentence, Sartre severs all ties: "Dear Camus, our friendship was not an easy one, but I shall miss it." This is a mockery in view of the allegations and viciousness that follow, culminating in the ironic questioning of Camus the theorist: "What if your book simply shows your philosophical incompetence?" Then he jabbed: "And if your reasoning is inaccurate? And if your thoughts are vague and banal?"
Sartre gives himself away. "Yes, Camus, like you, I find these camps inadmissible, but equally inadmissible is the use that the 'so-called bourgeois press' makes of them every day." Just as inadmissible? The gulags and coverage of them in the press? This demanded a response. Camus wrote a rejoinder, but he left it in a drawer.
Camus no longer wanted to play along. He was paralyzed by "this sudden eruption of long repressed hatred," as he later wrote to his wife. He retreated from the battlefield. "Upstarts of the revolutionary spirit, nouveau riche and Pharisees of justice," he wrote in his diary of the intellectual scene, adding: "There is deception, denigration and the denunciation by one's brother."
When Camus received the Nobel Prize years later, he appeared relaxed in his response to a question about his relationship to Sartre at the press conference in Stockholm: "The relationship is outstanding, monsieur, because the best relationships are those in which we do not see one other." In interviews and speeches he underscored once again that he always believed a writer could not evade "the tragedies of his time."
"We, the writers of the 20th century, will never be alone again," he said in Sweden. "On the contrary, we must know that we cannot escape the common misery, and that our only justification, if there is one, is that we -- to the extent that we are capable of doing so -- speak for those who cannot."
Viewed from today's perspective, it's easy to see that history has proved Camus right. But until the day of his death, he felt that he was a beaten man who was despised by the main leftist currents in Europe. Sartre, who was not particularly bothered by the new wave of show trials in the Eastern bloc, emerged from the battle the champion -- and, years after Camus' death, became the icon of the student protests of 1968.
Sartre's Hollow Triumph
Sartre basked in his popularity, marched at demonstrations, spoke to striking workers and allowed himself to be arrested. He defended the Chinese Cultural Revolution, showed sympathy for dictators, like Castro and Kim Il Sung, and for the acts of terrorism committed by the German Red Army Faction (RAF).
In an interview with SPIEGEL in 1973, Sartre said: There are revolutionary forces that he finds "interesting, such as the Baader-Meinhof group." But he said that they probably appeared "too early." In December 1974, he visited Andreas Baader at the prison in Stammheim.
It's possible that Sartre might have spared himself certain aberrations if his beloved adversary had still been present as a critically admonishing counterpart.
When Camus, 46, died in a car crash in January 1960, Sartre wrote a stunning tribute. "For all those who loved him, there is an unbearable absurdity in that death," he said. Now, Camus was suddenly indispensable: "Whatever he did or decided subsequently, Camus never would have ceased to be one of the chief forces of our cultural activity or to represent in his way the history of France and of this century."
Fifteen years later, and five years before his death, Sartre, 70, was asked again in an interview for Les Temps Modernes about his relationship to Camus. His answer: Camus was "probably my last good friend."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: The Falling-Out of Camus and Sartre
- Part 2: Tragic Dissolution