- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004


By Ronald Aronson

University of Chicago Press, $32.50, 291 pages


Ronald Aronson’s detailed telling of the dispute between France’s two leading post-World War II intellectuals (and eventual Nobel Prize winners for literature), which brought a nasty end to their friendship, is engaging and well-written. But “Camus & Sartre” has a major flaw, and it is a nearly fatal one.

Mr. Aronson, who is a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State University, unwisely has chosen to give readers portraits of the two men that show them as moral equals, and it’s this attempt to be even-handed that falls flat and perhaps does so inevitably.

“I mean to get beyond the Cold War partisanship that has colored, along with so much else, the perception of the Sartre-Camus conflict,” Mr. Aronson writes in his prologue. “I intend to describe both adversaries with understanding and sympathy, as well as critically.”

These aims sound well-intentioned but they are finally futile. Part of the problem is that the positions the men took — Camus’ intense anti-communism and denunciation of violence, and Sartre’s embrace of Marxism and of revolutionary violence — were so deeply rooted in the Cold War that they can’t be understood apart from it.

But a big part of the problem, too, is that from the descriptions Mr. Aronson provides, Sartre, as a man, isn’t very likeable, and Camus is, at least for the most part. True, each man had his virtues and each his faults. But if Mr. Aronson’s intention was to convince readers of the “fundamental legitimacy of both sides,” then he fails.

By the book’s end, it is difficult to muster much esteem for Sartre’s ideas or austere intellectuality, while Camus’ Mediterranean moderation by comparison seems exemplary. Indeed, Mr. Aronson more or less acknowledges this toward the end of “Camus & Sartre” when he writes: “Camus, no doubt, will remain the more sympathetic of the two men.”

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) and Albert Camus (1913-60) first met in 1943, though they had known about one another earlier by reputation. In 1938 Sartre earned almost instant fame with his novel “Nausea.” His reputation was already secure.

More recently, Camus’ first novel “The Stranger” and his first important essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (both 1942), placed him among the rising stars of French intellectual life. The two ambitious, talented men became friends, but as Mr. Aronson shows, they differed more than they were united by similarities.

Camus was handsome and virile (Mr. Aronson compares him to the actor Humphrey Bogart); Sartre short, wall-eyed and bookish. More significantly, Sartre came from a family of some distinction (Albert Schweitzer was a cousin) and attended France’s top school for the very bright, the Ecole normal superiere, while Camus, whose father had been an agricultural laborer, attended much less pretigious schools in his native Algeria, then a French colony.

Mr. Aronson rightly sees their vastly different backgrounds as less divisive than the very different roles the two men played in World War II when they met. Camus, active in the underground, was a spokesman for one of the major movements resisting the Nazi occupation of France, a position that made him a genuine hero to many.

Sartre, on the other hand, played no active part in the resistance and passed the Nazi occupation with reading, thinking, and writing — his seminal philosophical work “Being and Nothingness” was published in 1943.

Passivity wasn’t the role Sartre particularly wanted to play, however. He admired — and envied — Camus’ courage and commitment, and wanted very much to follow his younger friend in his activism. In Mr. Aronson’s well-chosen words: “Camus was the captain of the boat that Sartre, it seems, kept missing.”

After the war, Sartre would try hard not to miss that boat again. He became editor of Les Temps modernes, France’s leading intellectual journal. But more to the point he began increasingly to side with communism and the Soviet Union against capitalism and the West.

He also became a vigorous advocate of violence, arguing that it was only through violence of a most thorough kind that the world could be truly changed and a just society established.

Camus’ course was almost the exact opposite. He hadn’t been impressed by many of the communists he worked with in the French resistance. And after the war, he began to see communism as “the modern madness,” a civilizational disease that was destructive of all he valued.

Where Sartre loudly called for violence, Camus came to reject it and argued that he wanted to be “neither victim nor executioner.” He wrote that a just society could never be the result of violence and urged men to live, as Mr. Aronson points out, “in the present and sensuous world,” rather than strive to create some future utopia.

As Mr. Aronson shows, part of Camus’ divergence from Sartre’s thinking sprang from a desire to stake out a position of independence outside the all-powerful circle around Sartre and Sartre’s companion Simone de Beauvoir, the crown prince and princess of French intellectual life of the time.

But Camus came by his anti-communism naturally: It was an integral part of his makeup, inseparable from his very being. How else can we understand the following denunciation of Marxism by the nonreligious Camus?

“Historical materialism, absolute determinism, the negation of all liberty, that frightful world of courage and silence — these are the most legitimate consequences of a philosophy without God.”

Camus put his deepest feelings about communism in his 1951 book, “L’Homme revolte,” whose usual English title is “The Rebel,” but which Mr. Aronson more correctly translates as “Man in Revolt.” Sartre’s Les Temps modernes panned the book in a vicious, ad hominem manner.

Sartre himself had not written the review, but assigned it to one of his lackies. For Camus, who, in Mr. Aronson’s words, “prized personal loyalty above all,” the break with his former friend had become complete and irrevocable.

After 1952, the two men never spoke again. In 1956, after the Hungarian Revolution, Sartre separated himself from the Soviet Union but continued as a highly visible figure to advocate violence when used by colonial peoples rising up to overthrow their European masters.

Camus, who still had family ties in Algeria, hoped that a peaceful compromise might be reached in the brutal war that had broken out by the mid-1950s between the Algerian Arabs and the country’s French population.

It was an unrealistic and unfortunate hope, and one that Mr. Aronson takes Camus to task for, as he does Camus’ failure to side with colonial peoples such as the Vietnamese in their struggle against France.

It’s at this point that Mr. Aronson’s book fails to convince. He wants readers to accept his argument that Sartre’s support for the Soviet Union and his failure to recognize the evils of communism is the moral equivalent of Camus’ failure to denounce colonialism.

And since both men were equally wrong, we can now agree that there’s nothing that would lead us to prefer one over the other, or so Mr. Aronson implies. But this is hardly the case.

That Camus failed to become a leader in the anti-colonial movement now seems small potatoes compared to Sartre’s call for armed and brutal violence and his early Cold War support for communism.

In numbers alone, the colonial wars, though brutish and violent (as Sartre indeed wanted them to be), left fewer people suffering or dead than did the long history of communism from the Russian Revolution to the collapse of the USSR at the end of the century.

In this light, Camus’ passionate, eloquent denunciation of communism in the 1940s and the 1950s when it seemed the wave of the future, and when it was very unpopular in many intellectual quarters to criticize the Soviet Union, was courageous, even magnificent.

It was thus Camus who in the end was the greater friend of humanity, despite his shortcomings and failures. How clearly the great writer from Algeria saw what Sartre’s faults were can be seen in a quote Mr. Aronson takes from Camus’ journals in the 1950s.

“Just as our [French] right-wingers were fascinated with Hitler’s power, so our leftists are entranced by communist power, tarted up with the name of ‘efficiency.’”

Camus died in a car accident in 1960 in his mid-40s. Sartre lived on until 1980 and toward the end of his life said in an interview that Camus had been the last good friend he’d ever had.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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