Sartre Writes a Tribute to Camus After His Friend-Turned-Rival Dies in a Tragic Car Crash: “There Is an Unbearable Absurdity in His Death”

The friend­ship of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus end­ed, famous­ly, in 1951. That year, increas­ing­ly frac­tious polit­i­cal ten­sions between the two philoso­pher-writ­ers came to a head over the pub­li­ca­tion of Camus’ The Rebel, a book-length essay that marked a depar­ture from rev­o­lu­tion­ary thought and a turn toward a more prag­mat­ic indi­vid­u­al­ism (as well as recall­ing the anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ism Camus had embraced in the 30s). The doc­tri­naire Sartre and his intel­lec­tu­al coterie took excep­tion, and while Sartre fur­ther pur­sued a Marx­ist polit­i­cal pro­gram, informed by a cri­tique of racism and colo­nial­ism, Camus con­front­ed the absurd; he “begins to sound more like Samuel Beck­ett,” writes Andy Mar­tin at the New York Times’ phi­los­o­phy blog, “all alone, in the night, between con­ti­nents, far away from every­thing.”

The two split not only over ideas, how­ev­er: after the war, Camus became increas­ing­ly dis­il­lu­sioned with Stalin’s total­i­tar­i­an Sovi­et rule, while Sartre made what Camus con­sid­ered weak attempts to defend or excuse the regime’s crimes. At first, writes Volk­er Hage in Der Spiegel, their dis­agree­ments were “lim­it­ed to a rel­a­tive­ly small group of intel­lec­tu­als.” Then Sartre pub­lished Fran­cis Jean­son’s scathing review of The Rebel in the jour­nal Sartre found­ed in 1945, Les Temps Mod­ernes. (See Jean­son dis­cuss the review in the video inter­view below, excerpt­ed from the short doc­u­men­tary on Sartre and Camus at the top of the post). Camus, Hage writes, “made the mis­take of send­ing a long rejoin­der. What fol­lowed was a trag­ic dis­so­lu­tion of what had once been a friend­ship.”

Sartre made his final kiss-off very pub­lic, print­ing in Les Temps Mod­ernes a “mer­ci­less” response, “insid­i­ous and mali­cious, yet also a mag­nif­i­cent mas­ter­piece of per­son­al polemics.” Almost ten years lat­er, in 1960, Camus was killed in a car acci­dent at the age of 46. Though the two nev­er for­mal­ly rec­on­ciled, Sartre penned a heart­felt trib­ute to his for­mer friend in The Reporter that con­tained none of the vit­ri­ol of his past con­dem­na­tions. Instead, he describes their falling out in the terms one might use for a for­mer lover:

He and I had quar­reled. A quar­rel does­n’t mat­ter — even if those who quar­rel nev­er see each oth­er again — just anoth­er way of liv­ing togeth­er with­out los­ing sight of one anoth­er in the nar­row lit­tle world that is allot­ted us. It did­n’t keep me from think­ing of him, from feel­ing that his eyes were on the book or news­pa­per I was read­ing and won­der­ing: “What does he think of it? What does he think of it at this moment?”

Sartre con­fess­es his uneasi­ness with Camus’ moody silence, “which accord­ing to events and my mood I con­sid­ered some­times too cau­tious and some­times too painful.” It was a silence that seem­ing­ly over­took Camus in his final years as he retreat­ed from pub­lic life, and though Camus’ fierce indi­vid­u­al­ism lay at the heart of their falling-out, Sartre wrote in deep appre­ci­a­tion of his friend and antagonist’s soli­tude and stub­born res­olute­ness:

He rep­re­sent­ed in our time the lat­est exam­ple of that long line of moral­istes whose works con­sti­tute per­haps the most orig­i­nal ele­ment in French let­ters. His obsti­nate human­ism, nar­row and pure, aus­tere and sen­su­al, waged an uncer­tain war against the mas­sive and form­less events of the time. But on the oth­er hand through his dogged rejec­tions he reaf­firmed, at the heart of our epoch, against the Machi­avel­lians and against the Idol of real­ism, the exis­tence of the moral issue.

In a way, he was that res­olute affir­ma­tion. Any­one who read or reflect­ed encoun­tered the human val­ues he held in his fist; he ques­tioned the polit­i­cal act. One had to avoid him or fight him-he was indis­pens­able to that ten­sion which makes intel­lec­tu­al life what it is.

Camus’ “silence,” the theme of Sartre’s trib­ute, “had some­thing pos­i­tive about it.” The for­mer harsh­ness of Sartre’s cri­tiques soft­ens as he chides Camus’ refusal “to leave the safe ground of moral­i­ty and ven­ture on the uncer­tain paths of prac­ti­cal­i­ty.” Camus’ con­fronta­tion with the Absurd, writes Sartre, with “the con­flicts he kept hid­den… both requires and con­demns revolt.”

At the bit­ter end of their friend­ship, Sartre vicious­ly con­demned the con­tra­dic­tions of Camus’ polit­i­cal thought as the prod­uct of per­son­al fail­ings, telling him, “You have become the vic­tim of an exces­sive sul­len­ness that masks your inter­nal prob­lems. Soon­er or lat­er, some­one would have told you, so it might as well be me.” In his final trib­ute to Camus, he returns to this idea, in much dif­fer­ent lan­guage, writ­ing that, at the age of 20, Camus had become “sud­den­ly afflict­ed with a mal­a­dy that upset his whole life”; he had “dis­cov­ered the Absurd—the sense­less nega­tion of man.” Rather than suc­cumb­ing, however—Sartre writes—Camus “became accus­tomed to it, he thought out his unbear­able con­di­tion, he came through.”

After the car acci­dent, Sartre acknowl­edged Camus’ fierce indi­vid­u­al­ism and prin­ci­ple in the face of life’s absur­di­ty as an exis­ten­tial tri­umph rather than a hand­i­cap: “We shall rec­og­nize in that work and in the life that is insep­a­ra­ble from it the pure and vic­to­ri­ous attempt of one man to snatch every instant of his exis­tence from his future death.”

Read the full trib­ute essay in a down­load­able PDF for­mat here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Hear Albert Camus Deliv­er His Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech (1957)

The Absurd Phi­los­o­phy of Albert Camus Pre­sent­ed in a Short Ani­mat­ed Film by Alain De Bot­ton

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

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