The end of a friendship

In October 1951 Albert Camus published The Rebel, an essay on man in revolt, concerned with criticising the legitimacy of political violence, irrespective of whether it originated on the left or the right.

The central argument of Camus’ book is that although the origins of revolt are legitimate, there is a point in the revolutionary arc when a rebel’s actions may negate the legitimacy of these origins, and this is the point when the oppressed in turn becomes the oppressor. Against this outcome, Camus argues for the presence of limits or measure in the act of rebellion; a balance between justice and liberty, which he hoped would create a rule of conduct separate from the extremes of both sides of the political divide.

To have such an argument heard in Cold War France was an impossible task. The Rebel sold far fewer copies than Camus’ previous publications. It may have been largely forgotten had it not been for the late, and vitriolic, review that appeared in May 1952, in Les temps modernes, the leading cultural and philosophical journal, operated by Camus’ long time friend, Jean-Paul Sartre.

This review led to a quarrel which effectively—and very publicly—ended the friendship bet ween Camus and Sartre.

A large section of The Rebel criticises the violent excesses of communism; and this came at a time when Sartre and his journal were aligning themselves more closely with the communists. Their view was that any criticism levelled against communism would aid both Western capitalism and the right, and must therefore be silenced.

The eight month delay in issuing this review was partly due to the relationship between Camus and Sartre. On a personal level, they may have been friends, but politically and philosophically the pair had been moving in separate directions for some time. Sartre took a long time reaching his own position, justifying the use of political violence. It was first articulated in some articles he wrote during the eight months between the publication of The Rebel and the appearance of its review. In light of this, any review of The Rebel would no doubt have been negative; but Camus had hoped—perhaps naively—that it would at least be fair. It wasn’t.

The review, published in May 1952, was written by Francis Jeanson, one of the younger members of the editorial board at Les temps modernes. In August, Camus’ furious reply was published, along with Sartre’s acerbic response, and an additional article by Jeanson.

It is difficult to imagine today the significance and the spectacle of this dispute for France in the 1950s. Adding to this difficulty, is that the original articles which appeared in Les temps modernes between May and August 1952 have not been fully available in English, except in scattered quotations teasingly alluded to in studies.

The recent publication of Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, edited and translated by David Sprintzen and Adrian van den Hoven, has brought the texts together in their first complete English translation.

The articles themselves are both interesting and disappointing. They are interesting because of their significance to the study of Camus and Sartre. It is always good to get back to the primary sources. The disappointment, however, comes from the witnessing the shamefully out of character behaviour of these intellectuals.

Jeanson’s 20-page review attacks the reception of The Rebel amongst the right wing press, Camus personally and his previous work. Jeanson then attacks the book itself, albeit bypassing its central arguments.

Understandably, Camus was upset by this treatment, but his wounded pride impaired his judgment, as his 20-page reply shows. Camus completely ignores Jeanson, instead addressing Sartre, as the editor, holding him personally responsible for the attacks. He claims his main arguments were not addressed, but then repeats this error in his own article by focusing, not primarily on the content of Jeanson’s review, but on what Camus took to be the underhanded method which he employed.

Sartre’s response comes next. It opens with him breaking off their friendship; he then uses the friendship as a weapon against Camus, attacking his life, his literature and his thinking. What is most remarkable (and disappointing) about this response, is its viciousness. Even after Sartre has clearly decimated Camus, he keeps going, for 30 pages. Unnecessarily, this is followed by a further 40 pages of derision from Jeanson.

The saving grace of the book is the inclusion (also for the first time in English) of Camus’ article In Defence of The Rebel, written in the months following the quarrel, but only published posthumously. Here Camus has regained his composure and, without overt reference to the quarrel, he sets out to clarify his basic arguments: that true rebellion possesses a limit beyond which it negates its legitimacy, that the role of the artist is to create value in a world which may not intrinsically have any, and that the application of a principle of measure in political activity is necessary so as not to slip into extremism, which excludes parts of reality, and ignores the existence and dignity of other people, including our opponents.

Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation is an excellent book providing the primary sources from an interesting moment in history, but lacks a thorough examination of the context in which this event occurred. The book opens with a 70-page introduction, providing only a rough outline of the historical and theoretical background of the quarrel. This is followed by the translated Les temps modernes articles. Then come two essays which, while purporting to provide ‘contemporary reflections’ on the quarrel, seek only to prove who won. William L. McBride, argues that Sartre had the better of the argument, while Jeffrey C. Isaac argues that Camus had the better of the exchange.

Coinciding with the publication of this book is the publication of another, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It, by Ronald Aronson. Aronson provides a thorough comparative study of the two men, adequately providing a context to the quarrel. The author examines the beginnings of their friendship in the early years of World War II (when their first novels and essays were published), through to the Nazi occupation of France (during which Camus edited the clandestine resistance newspaper, Combat) and into the promising liberation and post-war period (which saw the surfacing of Combat), to the start of Sartre’s Les temp modernes (from which both men gave voice to the cultural reconstruction of France). The promise of a new France, however, quickly faded, first during the purge trials, which began as the necessary bringing to justice of war-time Nazi collaborators, but ended in arbitrary vengeance; and then during the onset of the Cold War. With this came the pressing need to once more take sides to which Camus and Sartre’s friendship fell prey.

The August 1952 edition of Les temp modernes quickly sold out, and when reprinted, sold out again. All the major newspapers in Paris ran headline articles on the quarrel. Retrospectives started appearing before the end of September. Even the tabloids joined in, albeit focusing more on the personal, rather than the intellectual, rift between two of France’s leading intellectuals. Everyone was talking about who won, Camus or Sartre? Fifty years later, the debate continues.

What is remarkable about Aronson’s study is that, unlike van den Hoven and Sprintzen, Aronson refuses to take sides.

‘I discuss this compulsion to take sides,’ he says in chapter six, ‘to show how it came to dominate Camus and Sartre—how they sided against each other, destroyed their friendship, and contributed to the Cold War divisions that shaped the second half of the 20th century. We have to see their rupture in its true colours—as the product of a distorted choice. The Cold War confused political thinking, destroyed friendships and individuals, and deformed the Left and the entire political universe. As with the rest of the Camus–Sartre story, seeing and engaging both points of view critically as well as sympathetically may allow us to free ourselves from the dualistic thinking of the Cold War.’

This also touches on the larger purpose of Aronson’s book, one more relevant to the questions of today, which is to highlight the continuation of this dualistic mindset in the West, which simply exchanges one of its terms, shifting its focus from the ‘East’ to the ‘Middle East’.

The underlying message of Aronson’s book, then, which is negatively reinforced and illustrated by Sprintzen and van den Hoven, is that in maintaining this dualistic mindset there is a danger in intellectual debate for vanity to overcome wisdom, which can only act to undermine the usefulness of such debate in guiding the survival of nations.  

Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, edited by Adrian van den Hoven & David A. Sprintzen.Humanity Books, 2004. isbn 1 591 02157 x, rrp $45

Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, Ronald Aronson.
University of Chicago Press, 2004. isbn 0 226 02796 1, rrp $66

Matthew Lamb has a PhD in Literature, he lives and writes in Brisbane, and will soon commence a PhD in Philosophy, on the work of Albert Camus.

 

 

 

 

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