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Scott McLemee, "Fighting Words: Sartre and Camus"

"Fighting Words: Sartre and Camus"

"Scott McLemee, Bookforum


Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, Edited and translated by David A. Spritzen and Adrian Van Den Hoven. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books. 299 pages. $45.

Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, by Ronald Aronson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 302 pages. $33.

Sartre on Violence: Curiously Ambivalent, by Ronald E. Santoni. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 179 pages. $35.

Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century by Bernhard-Henri Lévy, translated by Andrew Brown. Cambridge: Polity Press. 536 pages. $30.

In May 1952, after a prolonged spell of what can only be called thoughtful procrastination, Jean-Paul Sartre's journal Les Temps modernes published a review of Albert Camus's L'Homme révolté, known in English as The Rebel. The book had appeared the year before, to much acclaim; it was hailed as a masterpiece of the age. Nobody around TM wanted to touch it. In a series of interviews with Simone de Beauvoir that appeared following his death, Sartre recalled that the feeling about the book within the editorial board was one of loathing — but that, as editor, he wanted to find "someone who would be willing to review it . . . without being too harsh." The topic would come up every couple of weeks, but no volunteer stepped forward.It was an awkward situation. Camus was not part of "the family," as the rather incestuous intellectual entourage around Sartre and de Beauvoir sometimes referred to itself. But he was a kind of honorary cousin, even so. Sartre and Camus were friends. Since the end of the war, they had been closely linked in the public mind; each man's work spoke to the prevailing sense that whatever meaning one could find in life amid the ruins would have to be radically free of the illusions inherited from the old order of things. And while the author of The Rebel would not have classed the book as a manifestation of the same worldview as Sartre's, most of his readers undoubtedly did.

Like The Myth of Sisyphus, published a decade earlier, The Rebel was a philosophical essay — with the emphasis on "essay," since Camus was more adept at synthesizing the work of others into lyrical prose than he was at developing his own concepts. That did not prevent him from trying to sound the deepest of waters, though. The Rebel was an attempt to analyze the rise of totalitarian movements as a misbegotten response to what, in Sisyphus, he had called "the absurd." If the latter notion was much less precise than anything found in Heidegger — or even in Sartre's popularization of the phrase "existence precedes essence" — it was, in any case, a dramatic phrase, evoking a cosmos in which God was dead and everything permitted. But the movements that Camus reflected on in The Rebel (fascism and communism, primarily) did not treat murder as just one of the acts possible in a universe that is fundamentally indifferent to the doings of humanity. Nor was the twentieth century simply a period when people began using improved technologies of violence in the pursuit of familiar political and military ends — self-defense, for example, or territorial expansion.

Rather, for totalitarian movements, as Camus understood them, mass murder became the only manifestation of the sacred possible in a completely desacralized cosmology. To exterminate, say, the "ruling class," or the "international Jewish conspiracy" (whatever group had rendered existence contaminated and unbearable) was a manifestation of humanity's power to transcend and transform its own condition. Not only did such ideologies legitimate murder, they went further, rendering violence self-justifying as an expression of whatever capacity man had to become a deity unto himself — the only god possible in an absurd universe.

So Camus argued, at length, drawing on Hegel and Sade, on Surrealist manifestoes and the testimony of idealistic Russian assassins, on Mussolini and hard-boiled American pulp fiction. The Rebel was a work of great passion and unmistakable intellectual ambition. Neither of which, as such, counted for very much in Sartre's circle, where such qualities were taken for granted. There, the most generous estimate held that Camus was a gifted novelist and an eloquent journalist — and that two out of three wasn't bad, so that perhaps his efforts to theorize a bit should be indulged, or at least not criticized too severely.

There was also the complicating fact that, after several years of trying to maintain a critical distance from both camps in the cold war, Les Temps modernes was shifting toward qualified support for the Soviet Union. The implicit political position of The Rebel was at least broadly consistent with that of "the old TM," so to speak, for which the philosophical primitivism of Stalinist "diamat" (dialectical materialism) was a hopelessly crude guide to interpreting the world, let alone changing it. But that was the problem. An abandoned political stance tends to look like either a blunder ("We were so naive then!") or a reproach ("Look at all the compromises made since we stopped believing that!"), and maybe both.

And so, for month after month, The Rebel went unnoticed in the pages of Les Temps modernes, until the silence itself became embarrassing, at least to Sartre. During an editorial meeting, he finally proposed that a young intellectual from his circle named Francis Jeanson should review the book. Jeanson, he told them, could at least be counted on to be civil about it.

The rest (as the saying goes) is history. With hindsight, it all looks inevitable. The virulent break between Sartre and Camus that followed the publication of Jeanson's article has become such a definitive chapter in the biographies of both men that the very fact they were ever friends now seems like an instance of the cunning of history — a way to get them onstage together, so that each may define the meaning of how his own work struggles with the other's.

As the familiar story has it, the men emerging from this combat represent two opposed conceptions of the intellectual's role in movements toward social justice. One is activist (in Sartre's term, "engaged") — certain of the absolute and irremediable inability of the existing order to transform itself, hence prepared to accept whatever means are necessary to change the world. The other is quietist, for want of a better word, although Camus himself would have bristled at it. It recognizes the tendency of human efforts to misfire; and from this it concludes that the grander the effort to remedy an injustice, the more one should assume it will probably make things worse. That does not mean that no change is possible; but optimism is an invitation to despair, if only for the presumed beneficiaries.

What the various books under review all have in common is that each revisits the debate with an awareness that the Sartre-Camus conflict has become a kind of theatrical set piece. The audience shows up expecting an episode from the cold war, which means that they have already made up their minds as to who gets the better of the argument.

Or, in the case of many spectators finding their way into the hall, they just don't care. "In so many ways the protagonists seem stuck in a world we have lost," writes Jeffrey C. Isaac in his essay for Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation. "The weighty speculation about the future of Communism seems almost comical in the light of recent events; and the seriousness with which both writers treat their political responsibility seems equally out of date at a time in which most intellectuals have long since given up any hope of transforming or transfiguring the world."

Seldom has the enormous condescension of history received such concentrated expression. Arguments over mass murder, concentration camps, and an ideological conflict that threatened for decades to plunge the entire world into thermonuclear war become "almost comical" because the disputants lack the foresight to know how the play will turn out. (As if we really do; as if "the end of the cold war" were an event whose meaning we all know and recognize instead of a puzzle whose implications we have scarcely begun to understand.)

To be fair to Isaac, he hastens to assure the reader that "the debate cannot be so readily dismissed or relegated to antiquarian study." But the simple fact that he must say so is, I think, indicative of something that is always hovering in the background of the abundant recent scholarship on the argument — the problem that all commentators must address, whether explicitly or not. We might call it the philistinism of postideological indifference. The only way to come to terms with the conflict itself is to forgo the unearned sense of superiority that comes from being at a later moment in history.

To do so, you have to sacrifice any sense that either the world or the argument had to develop as it did. You have to get into the spirit of things — the stakes of the debate fifty years ago, the fantastic intensity of the rhetoric, the passions still warm on the page. Doing so turns out to be more than an exercise in imagining the past. The existentialist idiom is passé, and the specific political references are no longer contemporary. But the fundamental question is one of violence and of the seductiveness of its claims to legitimacy. The implications are not merely "relevant" but rather more complicated than might be expected by anyone who assumes that the debate is now over.

Even for someone familiar with the dispute from biographies or the history of cold-war intellectual skirmishes, the dossier of materials assembled in Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation will prove a revelation. The subtle interplay among philosophical argument, ideological warfare, and writerly vanity can really be appreciated only by reading — in sequence, as the public did during the summer and fall of 1952 — Jeanson's severe review of The Rebel, the open letter that Camus wrote to Sartre, and Sartre's reply (a real masterpiece of vituperation).

The edition includes two texts that have tended to be marginal to most accounts of the dispute. One is Jeanson's response to Camus's criticisms of the review — a text so incredibly tedious as to be almost unreadable, like the third round of a Listserv flame war. By contrast, "In Defense of The Rebel" — an essay that Camus wrote several months after the controversy but never published — is an eloquent and surprisingly restrained statement of his basic position, as clarified and consolidated by the dispute. Besides the valuable and complete set of primary documents, Sartre and Camus also contains four scholarly essays reconstructing the circumstances and consequences of the dispute, plus a detailed chronology. The ratio of insight to redundancy is not always rewarding. This becomes even more obvious by contrast with Ronald Aronson's masterful synthesis of intellectual history, political context, and biographical narrative in Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It — a book that will reward both those unfamiliar with either thinker and the expert. It will doubtless be the standard account of the Sartre-Camus debate for a long time to come.

Aronson's book emphasizes something that is easy to overlook, given how swiftly the exchange in 1952 escalated into a debate claiming world-historical stakes: namely, the question of friendship. Aronson handles it as a strictly biographical, rather than philosophical, matter. The history of reflection on friendship from Aristotle through Derrida lies outside his narrative. That is a matter for another (though not necessarily better) book. For Aronson, the problem is to reconstruct the shape of the particular relationship, the structure in which mutual recognition and differentiation took place. Both Sartre and Camus recognized in each other something like an alter ego — someone embodying (or, conversely, traducing) that which he aspired toward in his own work.

It is certainly easy enough to list the contrasts. There was Sartre the Parisian, the "consecrated" insider — of bourgeois origins, but also, and more important, the consummate product of an intellectual milieu that drilled him in the procedures of theoretical analysis and synthesis until they became second nature. Camus was the boy from the provinces — born into the colony of French working-class settlers in Algeria, his academic diplomas counting for much less in his formation than his early experience as a Communist militant and, later, a man entrusted by the French Resistance with editing its newspaper, Combat.

The strange thing about friendship is that the very differences in background and personality that might otherwise sabotage communication are transformed into motives for continuing to try; it is only a very impoverished notion of amity that treats the other as a mirror. But for Sartre's part, anyway, the terms of their friendship were also colored by a demand implicit in his own philosophical work: the effort to make a leap from the radically individualistic implication of the notion of freedom offered up in Being and Nothingness to some kind of politics. His own role in the Resistance had been tangential and episodic. Camus served as a model of the intellectual as a man of action — one able to play an important role in a movement that plunged into history in order to make it, at the cost of getting one's hands dirty.

Camus, of course, having had some experience in the matter, had no incentive to idealize political action as such, let alone violence. For Camus, the basis of political action following the war had to be the recognition that people wanted to be "neither victims nor executioners" (as he put it in a series of essays appearing in Combat in 1946). For Sartre, by contrast, the guiding principle was that of the destruction of a social order that — resting as it did upon inequality and exploitation — limited and crippled the development of human freedom.

In Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (1980), which remains the single best overview in English of the thinker's life and work, Aronson presented an almost step-by-step reconstruction of Sartre's move from a theory of "existentialist psychoanalysis" (placing heavy emphasis on the role of the imagination) to a quasi-Marxist social theory (culminating in his notion of "scarcity" as bedrock human reality). In Camus and Sartre, he takes that trajectory as a given. He remains an admirer — not uncritical, but willing to extend to Sartre an endlessly renewable line of moral credit as a "pillar of revolutionary anger on behalf of the oppressed." In consequence, while striving for a balanced account, he is prone to characterizing Camus's position in terms that echo Sartre's own.

In The Rebel, Camus had contrasted rebellion (in which the revolt of the slave against inhuman conditions implied affirmation of some humanity shared with the master) with revolution (in which the death of the master becomes, in effect, the first step toward creating a superior new humanity). In his review for Les Temps modernes, Jeanson had referred sarcastically to the gap between the rebel and the revolutionary as the "chasm of a vague humanism, leavened with just enough anarchism to express their general protest against everything that is happening in the name of everything they think it would be preferable to have happen." Camus is, Jeanson writes, "seeking a refuge for himself and trying to justify beforehand a possible 'disengagement,' a flight toward some definitive retreat where he can finally devote himself to the rebellious delights of an existence without history."

The same charge of retreating from history occurs in Sartre's essay later, when the conflict heats up. The accusation was that Camus, for all his involvement in the antifascist struggle, had ever been transfixed by the timeless cosmic indifference of "the absurd" rather than fully engaged in the project of seeking to abolish the social and economic conditions that condemned the oppressed to sufferings even more meaningless than those of Sisyphus.

Aronson more than once describes Camus as "preoccupied with keeping his hands clean," if not as someone trying to escape history altogether. But quite a bit goes unquestioned in such formulations. For one thing, they assume that Sartre's movement toward a professedly revolutionary stance should be judged by its own claims. Whether he was proclaiming the Soviet Union a democratic regime in 1954, or supporting the hyperideologized thuggery of the Cultural Revolution in China, or visiting Baader-Meinhof in jail (to give no longer a list than that), Sartre's first impulse when faced with a totalitarian movement of the left was to find something nice to say about it. The benefit to the world resulting from any of these gestures was, perhaps, dubious.

And so, I think, might we question the notion that Camus's stance necessarily yields either a retreat from history into the pure aesthetic contemplation of history (as Jeanson says) or a tacit endorsement of the status quo. In the unpublished essay "In Defense of The Rebel," Camus writes, "The primary task of our public life is to preserve the fragile chance for peace and, to that end, not to serve any of the forces of war in any way whatsoever. I confess that without peace I can see nothing but agony. With it, everything is possible, and the historical contradiction in which we live will be transcended —
with each adversary enriching the other, whereas today each reinforces the other."

Perhaps declining "to serve any of the forces of war in any way whatsoever" is an effort to get out of history. But if so, we should all get out more often.

If the temptation to equate Sartre's radical bona fides with a real contribution to equality and justice ought to be resisted, so should the tendency to regard him as someone for whom revolutionary violence is perfectly self-legitimating. The goal of finding in Sartre an "antitotalitarian" version of the thinker is the primary motive driving Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, by Bernard-Henri Lévy. (Apart, that is, from producing another best-selling book, as this one was in France a few years ago; in the meantime, he has knocked off a couple more.) A similar project is evident in Ronald E. Santoni's monograph Sartre on Violence: Curiously Ambivalent.

Comparing the two is, admittedly, a perverse move on my part. In keeping with the expectations of his public, for which he is something like a philosophical rock star, BHL (to use Lévy's trademark) is dazzling. He has a gift for throwing ideas in the air and keeping them moving, like a juggler, while sustaining a monologue intended to update the world on what BHL thinks about BHL (a topic that clearly fascinates him). Santoni's book, by contrast, is an exacting work of Sartreology, making its way, concept by concept, through each of the philosopher's texts on violence, from Being and Nothingness through the two volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, and culminating in a set of interviews with Benny Lévy (no relation to BHL) published just before Sartre's death.

For all the disparities between method and manner, then, it is interesting that Lévy and Santoni alike find a kind of torque in Sartre's work. For Lévy, there are two Sartres. One is hostile to any constituted order or authority — "anti-fascist from beginning to end." The other Sartre is all too prone to what Lévy calls "humanism" — that is, the philosophical project of defining, and the political goal of enforcing, some transcendental notion of the human.

Lévy was a disciple of Louis Althusser in his youth, as he reminds us in the course of several memoiristic pages. In arguing that two counterposed versions of a thinker can coexist in the same oeuvre (or even the same text), Lévy is in effect reviving Althusser's method of symptomatic reading. Or is he? In practice, his argument about "the two Sartres" proves to be, for the most part, a distinction between the "early" (anarchist-bohemian) and "late" (Marxist/anticolonialist) periods. Presumably the debate with Camus ought to be read as a critical moment (if not a coupure) within Sartre himself. But Lévy's pages on the matter are diffuse — instructing us simply that, while Camus's politics were admirable, Sartre was the more impressive.

Santoni makes no claim to an impressive intellectual pedigree for his analysis of Sartre. He just reads all the passages on violence in the thinker's work, showing how each is embedded within the systemic matrix of his philosophy at any given stage of its development. But in so doing, Santoni comes very close to an improvised model of symptomatic reading; for he demonstrates that a contradictory notion of violence runs throughout Sartre's work.

The sharpest expression of the tendency emerging in the debate with Camus comes a decade later, in Sartre's preface to The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon, where revolutionary terror is presented as the "cleansing force" (in Sartre's words) necessary to "rehabilitate mankind" from the institutionalized and routine violence of colonialism. Santoni traces the deep roots of this argument in Sartre's understanding of consciousness. But he also cites passages in the Notebooks for an Ethics (written in the late 1940s and published posthumously) where Sartre indicates that even justified violence "is an experience that can benefit no one."

The internally fissured Sartre that Lévy conjures through sweeping gestures is actually documented in Santoni's pages — which thereby reveal the 1952 debate to be, in effect, a public staging of an inner conflict, with Camus serving as a proxy for Sartre's reservations. That goes some way toward explaining the tremendous hold the exchange still holds on our attention. Then again, Camus himself seems to have intuited as much. "Each adversary, however repugnant he may be," he wrote a few months after the dispute, "is one of those interior voices that we might be tempted to silence and to which we must listen in order to correct, adapt, or reaffirm the few truths of which we catch a glimpse."

[Scott McLemee is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education and this year's recipient of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, awarded by the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, Lingua Franca, and other publications.]