Albert Camus Writes a Friendly Letter to Jean-Paul Sartre Before Their Personal and Philosophical Rift

Camus letter to 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. Mar­tin also tells that story—one per­haps more inter­est­ing in a dra­mat­ic sense than the abstract sum­ma­ry above—at The Tele­graph. The short doc­u­men­tary clip below also dra­ma­tizes their dis­agree­ment with inter­views, rare pho­tos, news­reel footage, and read­ings from The Rebel. There is no men­tion, how­ev­er, of Wan­da.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philosophy’s Pow­er Cou­ple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir, Fea­tured in 1967 TV Inter­view

Albert Camus Talks About Adapt­ing Dos­toyevsky for the The­atre, 1959

Simone de Beau­voir Explains “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in a Rare TV Inter­view (1975)

Free Online Cours­es in Phi­los­o­phy from Great Uni­ver­si­ties 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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