Camus's political Achilles' heel may be his moralism. It is what makes him appealing, but also sometimes questionable. Political realities vanish in fine phrases. This was the heart of Sartre's charge against Camus: He preferred ethereal truths to disorderly choices. Camus's anti-Communism, according to Sartre, became a seductive pose that defended the establishment. Camus was eloquent about the Soviet invasion of Hungary and mealy-mouthed about the French rule in Algeria. To Sartre, Camus sought an unattainable political purity; he did not live in the real world. "I see only one solution for you," Sartre remarked, "the Galapagos Islands." Sartre's existential realpolitik required making hard choices. Yet the Sartrean ethos could easily slide into justifying political misrule and violence--and it did.
Perhaps Camus flinched when it came to Algeria; perhaps his anti-Communism became too strident, his moral purity too precious. Yet he gave us some fine philosophical pieces and some brilliantly wrought novels from The Stranger to The Plague and The Fall. As Sartre admitted in his eulogy, "He reaffirmed the existence of moral fact within the heart of our era...against the Machiavellians, against the golden calf of realism." This is of no small account. Camus protested the leftist pieties, once far more prevalent than now, on the imperatives for revolutionary violence. He also objected to the cheap argument that political reception determines truth and that The Rebel must be suspect if conservatives cheered it. A "book is not true," he pointedly observed, "because it is revolutionary"; it may be revolutionary because it is true.
And Sartre himself? His faults are increasingly obvious--personal, intellectual and political--yet how much poorer would we be without his oeuvre! It is almost the vastness that is startling, the extent that Sartre poured himself into everything--and that words poured out of him. Indeed, his autobiography, which does not get beyond the age of 10, is called The Words. But with all the words he wrote Sartre finished virtually nothing. The hapless reader who makes it through the 800 pages of Being and Nothingness will discover that the last sentence evokes questions that will be taken up in a "future work." Sartre considered his five volumes on Flaubert a preface to his unwritten sixth volume. Yet his shortest works may endure the longest--his What Is Literature?, Anti-Semite and Jew, Existentialism and Human Emotions and other essays, plays, prefaces and lectures.
Aronson bravely challenges the anti-Sartrean sentiment of our day. After all, why assess a chapter in two lives if only to confirm the prevailing sentiment that Camus was a mensch and Sartre a no-goodnik? Unfortunately, Aronson is less convincing than he might have been. His account is ultimately somewhat airless; he opens too rarely the window to larger issues. We circle in and around the comments, writings and gestures of Sartre and Camus. What was the significance of Camus slamming the door after an argument at a party in 1946? Did Simone de Beauvoir misrepresent this incident in her memoirs? How do Sartre's comments about Camus in 1944 tally with his remarks of 1952 and 1970? An impatient reader might want to jump straight to the exemplary collection Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation. This includes not only the pertinent documents--the review of The Rebel by Sartre's protégé Francis Jeanson, which spurred the break, and the responses to it--but essays by American scholars that give the background and context of the fallout.
Aronson is surely right to remind us that both Sartre and Camus fastened on part of the truth--the need, on the one hand, for real, if unpretty choices and, on the other, for moral verities. About Algeria the half-blind Sartre saw further than Camus. Yet Camus possessed a superior moral compass. The early death of Camus precludes a wider comparison. We don't know how he would have evolved as a political thinker, but this may not be urgent. If Sartre and Camus wrangled with each other, they mainly wrangled with the issues of the day. On this they agreed: the necessity of seizing the political moment. The French intellectuals who followed them--the Althussers, Lacans, Foucaults, Derridas--failed to address politics with the same passion and clarity. We return to Sartre and Camus because they were supplanted but not surpassed.