Trips and Travels

Kamis, 17 Desember 2015

The Friendship of Camus and Sartre

As maître of the mid-century French philosophical scene, Jean-Paul Sartre wielded some considerable influence in his home country and abroad. His celebrity did not prevent him from working under the editorship of his friend and fellow novelist, Albert Camus, however. Camus, the younger of the two and the more restless and unsettled, edited the French resistance newspaper Combat; Sartre wrote for the paper, and even served as its postwar correspondent in New York (where he met Herbert Hoover) in 1945. According to Simone de Beauvoir, the two became acquainted two years earlier at a production of Sartre’s The Flies. They were already mutual admirers from afar, Camus having reviewed Sartre’s work and Sartre having written glowingly of Camus’ The Stranger. Ronald Aronson, a scholar and biographer of the philosophers’ relationship, describes their first meeting below, quoting from de Beauvoir’s memoir The Prime of Life:

“[A] dark-skinned young man came up and introduced himself: it was Albert Camus.” His novel The Stranger, published a year earlier, was a literary sensation, and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus had appeared six months previously. [Camus] wanted to meet the increasingly well-known novelist and philosopher—and now playwright—whose fiction he had reviewed years earlier and who had just published a long article on Camus’s own books. It was a brief encounter. “I’m Camus,” he said. Sartre immediately “found him a most likeable personality.”
As the recently discovered letter above shows—from Camus to Sartre—the two were intimate friends as well as collaborators. Thought to have been written sometime between 1943 and 1948, the letter is familiar and candid. Camus opens with “My dear Sartre, I hope you and Castor [“the beaver,” Sartre’s nickname for de Beauvoir] are working a lot… let me know when you return and we will have a relaxed evening.” Aronson comments that the letter “shows that despite what some writers have said, Sartre and Camus had a close friendship.”
Aronson’s comment is understated. The querulous falling out of Sartre and Camus has acquired almost legendary status, with the two sometimes standing in for two divergent paths of French post-war philosophy. Where Sartre gravitated toward orthodox Marxism, and aligned his views with Stalin’s even in the face of the Soviet camps, Camus repudiated revolutionary violence and valorized the tragic struggle of the individual in 1951’s The Rebel, the work that allegedly incited their philosophical split. Andy Martin at the New York Times’ “The Stone” blog writes a concise summary of their intellectual and temperamental differences:
While Sartre after the war was more than ever a self-professed “writing machine,” Camus was increasingly graphophobic, haunted by a “disgust for all forms of public expression.” Sartre’s philosophy becomes sociological and structuralist in its binary emphasis. Camus, all alone, in the night, between continents, far away from everything, is already less the solemn “moralist” of legend (“the Saint,” Sartre called him), more a (pre-)post-structuralist in his greater concern and anxiety about language, his emphasis on difference and refusal to articulate a clear-cut theory: “I am too young to have a system,” he told one audience [in New York].
While Camus’ political disengagement and critique of Communist praxis in The Rebel may have precipitated the increasingly fractious relationship between the two men, there may have also been a personal disagreement over a mutual love interest named Wanda Kosakiewicz, whom both men pursued long before their split over ideas. 
Satre and Camus in New York
In December 1944, Albert Camus, then editor of Combat, the main newspaper of the French Resistance, made Jean-Paul Sartre an offer he couldn’t refuse: the job of American correspondent. Perhaps, in light of the perpetual tension and subsequent acrimonious split between the two men, he was glad to get him out of Paris. What is certain is that Sartre was delighted to go. He’d had enough of the austerities and hypocrisies of post-liberation France and had long fantasized about the United States. Camus himself would make the trip soon after, only to return with a characteristically different set of political, philosophical and personal impressions.

The Chrysler and Empire State buildings seemed to Sartre to be like ancient ruins.

In some sense, existentialism was going home. The “roots” of 20th-century French philosophy are canonically located on mainland Europe, in the fertile terrain of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. But it was not entirely immune to the metaphysical turmoil of the United States at the end of the 19th century. French philosophy retained elements of the pragmatism of C.S. Peirce and the psychologism of William James (each receives an honorable mention in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”). More significantly, both Camus and Sartre had learned and borrowed from 20th-century writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and dos Passos —and, of course, from the films of Humphrey Bogart. Camus, in particular, cultivated the trench coat with the upturned collar and described himself as a mix of Bogart, Fernandel and a samurai.

When Sartre stepped off the plane in New York in January 1945, only months after the liberation of Paris, his head full of American movies, architecture and jazz, he might have expected to feel in his natural habitat — the pre-eminent philosopher of liberté setting foot in the land of freedom, a nation temperamentally and constitutionally addicted to liberty. Was there not already something of the existential cowboy and intellectual gunslinger in Sartre’s take-no-hostages attitude? Camus must have thought so in dispatching him to the United States. 

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

Sartre wrote dozens of articles for Combat while in the States, often phoning them back to Camus in Paris, and eventually went on to talk philosophy at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and elsewhere. In the process, he acquired an American girlfriend (about whom he wrote abundantly and explicitly to Simone de Beauvoir: “I am killed by passion and lectures.”). But the very personal article he wrote for Town & Country, “Manhattan: The Great American Desert,” records that he suffered on arrival from “le mal de New York.” He never really recovered.

Sartre, leaving the confines of the Plaza Hotel, walked up Fifth Avenue beneath a frozen sky, looking for New York, but not finding it. There was nothing on which to focus his gaze; it was a city for “the far-sighted,” he wrote, since the natural focal point was somewhere around infinity, over the horizon. He missed the intimate quartiers of Paris, finding in their place only “filmy atmospheres, longitudinally stretched masses with nothing to mark a beginning or end.” Just the kind of place, one might think, where an expatriate existentialist ought to fit right in. And yet he suffered stubbornly from a sense of disorientation. “In the numerical anonymity of roads and avenues, he wrote, “I am just anybody, anywhere.” New York put him in mind of the steppes or the pampas.

But soon enough he started to realize what his fundamental objection really was. The whole point of the city was to fortify itself against nature. But Manhattan failed to do that: an “open” city with a limitless sky above, it let nature in on every side. It was, of course, an island, and thus too exposed to the elements: to storm, hurricane, snow, heat, wind, floods. It had no real protection against anything. “I feel as though I were camping in the heart of a jungle crawling with insects.”` Therefore he learned to appreciate it only while crossing it in a car, as if he were “driving across the great plains of Andalusia.”

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre

And just as he inverts the perception of the American city, so too Sartre turns the notion of American freedom inside out. By February, having been shuttled to and fro across the States, wined, dined and given propaganda tours to industrial installations, he comes to the conclusion in another article, written for Le Figaro, that America is the land of conformism. He finds that beneath its notional attachment to “individualism,” America does not actually trust the solitary individual. Despite the “liberal economy,” America is an embodiment of a Rousseauist “social contract” in which the general will of the “collectivity” dominates: “Each American is educated by other Americans and he educates others in turn. Everywhere in New York, in colleges and beyond, there are courses in Americanization.” Existentialist anomie is prohibited: America is hyper-normative, producing citizen clones. 

It is Sartre’s most powerful and recurrent complaint: that people are being treated as things. The “nausea” of the 1930s, elicited by pebbles and trees and ocean depths (and thus, as in New York, nature in general) morphed, in the ’40s and ’50s, into a specific aversion to the nonorganic products of economic forces. In America he understood that things (the “in-itself”), in all their massiveness, were threatening to reify the amorphous human (or “for-itself”) and produce what he called in a later formulation the “practico-inert.” 

Still, Sartre holds out the hope that New York is moving in a generally Sartrean and semi-apocalyptic direction. All those skyscrapers? Obviously, they are doomed. “They are already a bit run-down; tomorrow, perhaps, they will be torn down. In any case, their construction required a faith that we no longer have.” The Chrysler and the Empire State already appear to Sartre like ancient ruins. 

Camus — officially a cultural emissary of the French government — followed in Sartre’s footsteps in 1946, providing an ironic commentary on his predecessor. Where Sartre was obsessed with architecture, Camus was indifferent, oblivious. “I notice that I have not noticed the skyscrapers, they seemed to me perfectly natural.” He had no issues with commodity capitalism. He admired colors, foodstuffs, smells, taxis, tie shops, ice cream, the “orgy of violent lights” that was Broadway, a jazz bar in Harlem and the giant Camel advertising icon of “an American soldier, his mouth open, puffing out clouds of real smoke.” 

He fell in love several times over, notably with Patricia Blake, a 19-year-old student and Vogue apprentice. He read her pages from “The Plague” and she, in return, noting his fascination with the American way of death, found him issues of undertakers’ trade magazines — Sunnyside, Casket,and Embalmer’s Monthly. He particularly admired a funeral parlor ad: “You die. We do the rest.”

Camus had to keep explaining to American students that he never had been an ‘existentialist.’

At Vassar he gave a lecture on “The Crisis of Mankind” and was dazzled by the spectacle of “an army of long-legged young starlets, lazing on the lawn.” But he was preoccupied by what he thought of as the “American tragedy.” The tragedy of the students was that they lacked a sense of the tragic. For Sartre the tragic was the mechanization and objectification of the human. For Camus, the tragic was something more elusive: whatever it was, it was missing in America. 

There was an obvious difference of context between Camus and the students he was addressing. He’d come from Europe, which had just spent several years tearing itself apart, whereas they remained more or less physically untouched by the war. Camus was welcomed both as literary luminary (the translation of “The Outsider” came out during his stay) and Resistance hero. But his tragic perception of life was not reducible to the question of the Second World War. Sailing back from New York to France, at night in the middle of the Atlantic, staring down from the deck into the ocean, mesmerized by the wake of the ship, Camus spoke of his love for “these seas of forgetfulness, these unlimited silences that are like the enchantment of death.”

Camus, the Resistance philosopher of solidarity, discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) the problem of other minds in New York. Unlike Sartre, he had no difficulty with things, trees, the Empire State Building, the impersonal ocean. It was only on looking into the face of another human being that he fully experienced a sense of the tragic. While hell-is-other-people Sartre came to invoke a notion of the “group-in-fusion,” Camus — who had to keep explaining to the students that he was not and never had been an “existentialist” — increasingly redefined the “absurd” in terms of an inevitable failure of language to bridge the gap between individuals. And it was not just the problem of inadequate English in speaking to Americans. He had the same feeling in Quebec. 

The clash between Sartre and Camus would come to be defined by their political divergence in the ’50s, crystallized by the publication of “The Rebel” by Camus. But already, in their different reactions to the United States — and particularly New York — we have the ingredients of a philosophical schism. Sartre, on his return to Europe, recalls above all America’s racism and practice of segregation, the inevitable counterpart to its drive to conformity. He writes a play, “The Respectful Prostitute,” that dramatizes the episode of the Scottsboro Boys in the ’30s. The split between contending forces — East and West, black and white, bourgeoisie and proletariat, humans and things — becomes the defining concern of his philosophy, summarized in the (admittedly rebarbative) phrase he comes up with in his “Critique of Dialectical Reason” to define boxing, but which also applies to his relationship with Camus: “a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity.” Existentialism in this form, inflected with Marxism, infiltrates the American intelligentsia, is absorbed into black power philosophy (“black existentialism”) and finds an echo in writers as disparate as Richard Wright and Norman Mailer.

Camus, on the other hand, begins to sound more like Samuel Beckett. While Sartre after the war was more than ever a self-professed “writing machine,” Camus was increasingly graphophobic, haunted by a “disgust for all forms of public expression.” Sartre’s philosophy becomes sociological and structuralist in its binary emphasis. Camus, all alone, in the night, between continents, far away from everything, is already less the solemn “moralist” of legend (“the Saint,” Sartre called him), more a (pre-)post-structuralist in his greater concern and anxiety about language, his emphasis on difference and refusal to articulate a clear-cut theory: “I am too young to have a system,” he told one audience. And it is this anti-systematic aspect of America that he retains and refuses to clarify: “After so many months I know nothing about New York.”

Paradoxically, it is clear that Sartre took his notion of collective action from what he witnessed in the United States rather than in the Soviet Union. It is typical that he should choose to frame his notion of freedom and the fate of individual identity in essentially literary (or textual) terms. Beware the editor! He didn’t like the way his articles were butchered when they appeared in American journals and admits to being apprehensive of something similar — “le rewriting” — happening to his plays, should they ever be put on in the United States. The F.B.I., while accusing Camus of writing “inaccurate reports,” also misidentified him as “Canus” and “Corus.”
Sartre and Camus’s love-hate relationship was played out and reflected in their on-off romance with America. As Camus put it, “It is necessary to fall in love … if only to provide an alibi for all the random despair you are going to feel anyway.” Above all the two thinkers emphasize that America is always balanced precariously, like a tight-rope walker, on the thread of a philosophical dialectic.

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