Camus and Sartre Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, Ronald Aronson revisits the relationship between two major intellectual figures of the twentieth century: Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Aronson comes to this topic not only from the perspective of a well-credentialed scholar in the History of Ideas but also as that of an experienced political activist. In addition, Aronson has, in the past, presented himself as a follower of Sartre. By this, Aronson does not mean that he is uncritically loyal to Sartre's situational conclusions and prescriptions. He does mean that he shares Sartre's sensitivity to structural forms of oppression (or violence) inherent in capitalism and colonialism, and that he believes in the Sartrean goal of intellectual “commitment,” as opposed to pure academic detachment. Despite his Sartrean roots, Aronson makes every attempt to be objective in weighing the relative merits of Camus versus Sartre. The result is a book which successfully presents both sides of the argument.

Aronson has engaged in radical political activism, both in the United States and in South Africa. As a critic of the status quo, he sees the need for political ideas and actions that are carefully tailored to the needs of a socially complex and morally ambiguous world. Therefore, for Aronson, the Camus-Sartre debate is not only important historically but also vital to modern affairs.

Aronson proceeds more or less chronologically, though he often jumps forward and backward in time in order to sharpen the context of what is happening in an earlier or later period. He covers Camus's rough start in life as an economically disadvantaged pied-noir (white French colonist) in Algeria, his early anticolonial writings, brief membership in the French Communist Party, and emergence to literary prominence with the publication of his novel L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946). The occupation of France by Nazi Germany early in World War II led Camus to become a part of the French resistance movement, publishing an anti-Nazi newspaper at considerable personal risk.

Sartre, meanwhile, the older man by eight years, had come from more prestigious upper-middle-class roots, pursuing the heights of formal education and contemporary academic philosophy. Ultimately, Sartre came to prominence both as a philosopher and man of letters, studying with some of the most famous continental philosophers of his time and producing a philosophically oriented novel, La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949), which Camus actually reviewed. In addition to his more popular writing, Sartre was busy at work on a technically oriented, barely accessible formal philosophical treatise, finally published in 1943 as L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1956). Sartre's literary and philosophical projects held his attention until relatively late in the war, when he, too, began to use his writing skills to promote the resistance movement.

Camus and Sartre first met in 1942. By the early postwar period, the two were regularly considered in tandem as representing the existentialist school of thought. By the beginning of the 1950's, however, Camus and Sartre had drifted apart. With the publication in 1951 of Camus's book of essays titled L’Homme révolté (The Rebel, 1956), an open feud developed between the two men, one which lasted until 1960, when Camus died. Sartre lived another twenty years, occasionally making conciliatory comments on Camus but never really writing or speaking systematically about their personal and intellectual differences.

In truth, there is much to question about the breadth and depth of the “friendship” between Camus and Sartre, even at its supposed peak. For one thing, Sartre already had, in the precocious author Simone de Beauvoir, a best friend and lifelong lover all wrapped into one. While both Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly (and openly) engaged in extracurricular romantic and erotic trysts, they occupied a space of intimacy in each other's lives that was not easily penetrated by others. In addition, Sartre readily admitted at the end of his life that he had not sustained any enduring friendships with other men, including Camus (though he also mysteriously referred to Camus, after the latter's death, as his last and best friend.) Finally, while Sartre and de Beauvoir did have a circle of literary friends and admirers, at no time was...

(The entire section is 1832 words.)