Animated Video Tells the Story of Jean-Paul Sartre & Albert Camus’ Famous Falling Out (1952)

Yes­ter­day we wrote about Albert Camus’ role as the edi­tor of Com­bat, a news­pa­per that emerged from a French Resis­tance cell and played a cen­tral role in the ide­o­log­i­cal con­flicts of post-war France. Camus wrote essay after essay about the prob­lems of vio­lent extrem­ism and the com­pli­ca­tions inher­ent in form­ing a new demo­c­ra­t­ic civ­il order. Although he briefly fought along­side Com­mu­nists in the resis­tance, and stood in sol­i­dar­i­ty with their cause, Camus would split with his Marx­ist allies after the war and come to define his own anar­chist polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, one he described as “mod­est… free of all mes­sian­ic ele­ments and devoid of any nos­tal­gia for an earth­ly par­adise.”

Camus gave the fullest expo­si­tion of his posi­tion in The Rebel, a cri­tique of rev­o­lu­tion­ary vio­lence on both the left and right. Pub­lished in 1951, this com­pelling, impres­sion­is­tic work is an ethics as much as a politics–indeed, the two were insep­a­ra­ble for Camus. To pro­ceed oth­er­wise was a form of nihilism that would only end in pro­found unfree­dom. “Nihilist thought,” he wrote in the chap­ter on “Mod­er­a­tion and Excess,” ignores the lim­its of human nature; “noth­ing any longer checks it in its course and it reach­es the point of jus­ti­fy­ing total destruc­tion or unlim­it­ed con­quest.”

Fas­cism and Nazism were not far from Camus’ mind when he wrote these words. But he also referred to the increas­ing­ly doc­tri­naire Stal­in­ism of his close friend and fel­low exis­ten­tial­ist Jean-Paul Sartre, who, writes Sam Dress­er at Aeon, read The Rebel with “dis­gust.” Sartre pub­lished a scathing review in his jour­nal, Les Temps Mod­ernes. Camus sent a long reply, and Sartre coun­tered with what Volk­er Hage in Der Spiegel calls a “mer­ci­less” response. “The split between the two friends,” writes Dress­er, “was a media sen­sa­tion,” the kind of pop­u­lar feud between pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als that may only hap­pen in France.

Ani­mat­ed by Andrew Khos­ra­vani, the Aeon video above gives us a brief nar­ra­tive of the famous falling-out. There may be “no bet­ter bust-up in the annals of phi­los­o­phy than the row between” these “two titans of Exis­ten­tial­ism.” The two fought not only over ideas, but over women, includ­ing Sartre’s famous part­ner Simone de Beau­voir. (Camus offend­ed Sartre by turn­ing down her advances.) Both Sartre and Camus “wor­ried about how to make mean­ing in an essen­tial­ly absurd, god­less world.” But Sartre, Camus thought, abro­gat­ed the rad­i­cal free­dom he had writ­ten of in works like Being and Noth­ing­ness with his accep­tance of dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism and his admi­ra­tion for an author­i­tar­i­an regime that impris­oned and mur­dered its own peo­ple.

Camus found the con­tra­dic­tions in Sartre’s thought intol­er­a­ble, and he begins The Rebel with a philo­soph­i­cal inquiry into the ethics of killing. Can mur­der be jus­ti­fied in the name of a utopi­an ide­al? Camus was not a pacifist—he had no prob­lem fight­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion. But he cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly reject­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary vio­lence and all forms of extrem­ism in the name of some “earth­ly par­adise.” Sartre and Camus could not agree to dis­agree and went their sep­a­rate ways, and Camus died in a car acci­dent in 1960. In a heart­felt appre­ci­a­tion that Sartre penned short­ly before his own death 20 years lat­er, he called Camus, “prob­a­bly my only good friend.”

Read more about Sartre-Camus rift at Aeon.

NOTE: The cre­ator of this video is now look­ing to raise funds to pro­duce new ani­ma­tions about philo­soph­i­cal feuds. Please con­sid­er con­tribut­ing to their Kick­starter cam­paign.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Camus, Edi­tor of the French Resis­tance News­pa­per Com­bat, Writes Mov­ing­ly About Life, Pol­i­tics & War (1944–47)      

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”

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

The Exis­ten­tial­ism Files: How the FBI Tar­get­ed Camus, and Then Sartre After the JFK Assas­si­na­tion

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

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