“One does not jail Voltaire.” So responded the president of France to calls that Jean-Paul Sartre be arrested for backing an independent Algeria. The year was 1960, and Sartre was traveling the world as a radical ambassador, the guest of Castro, Tito and Khrushchev. He spearheaded a politics that denounced colonialism and imperialism. He would soon write what may be his most famous short piece, the preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, in which he lyrically defends the violence of Algerian rebels against French settlers. In 1960 Sartre seemed to be everywhere. In that year too, Albert Camus died, when the sports car driven by his publisher, Michel Gallimard, slammed into a tree. Camus was 46, Sartre 55.
In death and life Sartre and Camus seem inextricably linked. Their first important works breathed of existential philosophy and the “absurdity” of life. Both Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea and Camus’s 1942 The Stranger expressed a spirit of unease and meaninglessness. Yet their authors were political animals, as much by instinct as circumstance. The onset of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France gave a hard edge to their existentialism. It also brought them together. They had reviewed each other’s books, but first met in 1943 at the Paris opening of Sartre’s allegorical play denouncing Nazi collaboration, The Flies. By that time Sartre was already working on No Exit, and Camus, who loved the theater, accepted Sartre’s suggestion that he stage it. Nothing came of this plan, but for some years the paths of Sartre and Camus would cross and crisscross.
Each became an editor of a left-wing periodical that emerged from the Resistance. Sartre asked Camus to join his editorial staff; Camus gave Sartre newspaper assignments. At the end of the war, they loomed as the new French intellectual stars. Even the American press took note. In 1946 Vogue ran “Portraits of Paris” that featured dark and moody photographs of Sartre and Camus. A year earlier, the magazine had described Sartre “like the men on the barricades in pictures of the Paris Insurrection. Just forty, he is small, intent…[with] his worn trench coat, his pipe, his heavy-rimmed glasses…indeed, a man of the Resistance.”
By 1952 they had broken with each other and never spoke again. What happened? To be sure, to pursue this question requires taking French intellectuals as seriously as they take themselves. This is not always easy. Perhaps only in France could a dispute between two intellectuals generate so much print. It began with a critical twenty-one-page review of Camus’s The Rebel in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps modernes. Camus’s reply took up seventeen pages. Two rejoinders to Camus clocked in at twenty and thirty pages, and that issue sold out twice. The daily and weekly press covered the row as big news. “The Sartre-Camus break is consummated,” announced a typical headline. Does it matter?
Yes, according to Ronald Aronson, who gives us the first full-scale inquiry into the Sartre-Camus fallout. Aronson, who has written books on Sartre and Marxism, argues that only now, with the end of the cold war, can we assess the issues that drove Sartre and Camus apart. More to the point, he believes that both of them have something to offer leftist thought and practice; that Sartre’s rigid radicalism and Camus’s rigid anti-Communism divided the world into a fallacious either/or that we must now overcome. To reconsider their dispute, then, is to reconsider contemporary radicalism. He may be right.
Aronson may be wrong, however, in framing the break as a great friendship that went awry. Perhaps it was the coming together of Sartre and Camus that was the accident, not their falling out. Much separated them. Camus came from a poor French family in Algeria and attended local schools. Sartre came from the old French bourgeoisie and attended the elite École Normale Supérieure. Camus sometimes seemed conceptually uncertain and felt more at home in fiction than Sartre, who confidently scaled the philosophical heights. In 1943 Sartre published a tome that tackled nothing less than Being and Nothingness.