Two Thinkers Who Squared off over Communism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

Two Thinkers Who Squared off over Communism


Byline: Stephen Goode, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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