Sartre versus Camus, beyond 'The Magic Mountain'

By Gallimard, Robert; Mann, Frido | Newsweek International, July 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Sartre versus Camus, beyond 'The Magic Mountain'


Gallimard, Robert, Mann, Frido, Newsweek International


A PHILOSOPHICAL FALLING-OUT: French editor Robert Gallimard worked with both Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He describes how a difference of opinion transformed the two celebrated authors from close friends to bitter adversaries.

When Sartre and Camus worked together on "Combat" after the liberation of France, they would drink and joke together as good friends do. They had great mutual admiration, but from the beginning their thoughts and their backgrounds differed. Camus praised "Nausea" highly in an article for the Chronique d'Alger. His only reservation was that it was a little too philosophical. When "The Stranger" came out, Sartre was duly complimentary but once again there was a slight reserve; the thinking was too "light."

Camus was an artist, Sartre was a thinker. If you read Camus's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, you can see his preoccupation with art and beauty. His artistic work was the most important to him. He also had great doubts about his abilities. One day he said to me, "It's over, I'm finished, I am empty." And then "The Fall" was published, his chef d'oeuvre. By contrast, Sartre never doubted himself; he was certain of his talent and yet also indifferent. Once he had delivered the book he would never ask when it was to be published. He was a muscular thinker. Sartre had a great strength; in his youth he boxed. His greatest power was his intellect.

The divergence of their ideas centered on the subject of tyranny. Camus saw the tyranny in the Soviet bloc as a crime whereas Sartre didn't want to agree, because it disproved his systematic thought. Camus believed systems were dangerous and contrary to liberty. He was a man of the people. He had experienced real poverty in his childhood in Algiers; his mother's illiteracy meant that she never read one of his books. Sartre was the opposite--he came from a bourgeois family and enjoyed a cultivated upbringing. So whereas Sartre believed that man is responsible for his destiny, Camus believed more in chance or accident. He died in an accident. After the liberation, Camus wrote articles that moved the whole of France. He had risked his life for the Resistance, so when war in Algeria broke out, it was difficult for him. He viewed Algeria as part of France, but then his whole family was Algerian. When he had won the Nobel Prize, an Algerian student asked him why he wasn't for independence and he replied, "If someone places a bomb on a bus in the name of liberty and my mother is on that bus, then I am no longer for liberty. …

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