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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Camus, Sartre, and Existentialism

Paris, 1944; Seated: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus;
Standing: Jacques Lacan, Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir
Albert Camus, it is generally believed, was an existentialist like Jean-Paul Sartre. But Camus has rejected existentialism and distanced himself from Sartre in several interviews and essays.

In his interview to Les Nouvelles Littéraires (15 November, 1945), Camus declares: “I am not an existentialist.” He points out that his book The Myth of Sisyphus is directed against existentialism: “Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. It’s a joke actually. Sartre and I published our books without exception before we had ever met. When we did get to know each other, it was to realize how much we differed. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.”

He goes on to say that he and Sartre should not be herded into the same philosophical school simply because they do not believe in god. “Sartre and I do not believe in God, it is true. And we don’t believe in absolute rationalism either. But neither do Jules Romains, Malraux, Stendhal, Paul de Kock, the Marquis de Sade, Andre Gide, Alexandre Dumas, Montaigne, Eugene Sue, Moliere, Sait-Evermond, the Cardinal de Retz, or Andre Breton. Must we put all these people in the same school?”

In The Myth of Sisyphus, he compares existentialism with “philosophical suicide,” accusing the existential philosophies of trying to deify what crushes them. “Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.” Unlike Sartre, Camus had a Greek reverence for nature. In The Myth of Sisyphus he depicts Sisyphus (despite being consigned to fruitless hard labor) achieving unity with nature and leading a happy life.

In the 1950s, political differences emerged between Sartre and Camus. Sartre believed in communism; he idolized the Soviet Union and thought that revolutionary violence was necessary to decimate the existing world order and create a communist society.

Camus rejected communism and he abhorred violence. In The Rebel, he articulated a philosophy of revolt, which in essence makes the political case for rejecting anti-freedom systems such as communism. He says: “Russian Communism, by its violent criticism of every kind of formal virtue, puts the finishing touches to the revolutionary work of the nineteenth century by denying any superior principle. The regicides of the nineteenth century are succeeded by the deicides of the twentieth century, who draw the ultimate conclusions from the logic of rebellion and want to make the earth a kingdom where man is God. The reign of history begins and, identifying himself only with his history, man, unfaithful to his real rebellion, will henceforth devote himself to the nihilistic revolution of the twentieth century, which denies all forms of morality and desperately attempts to achieve the unity of the human race by means of a ruinous series of crimes and wars.”

He goes on to call communism a bundle of lies that has made future its only god:

“Thus the ideological consequence has triumphed over the economic consequence: the history of Russian Communism gives the lie to every one of its principles. Once more we find, at the end of this long journey, metaphysical rebellion, which, this time, advances to the clash of arms and the whispering of passwords, but forgetful of its real principles, burying its solitude in the bosom of armed masses, covering the emptiness of its negations with obstinate scholasticism, still directed toward the future, which it has made its only god, but separated from it by a multitude of nations that must be overthrown and continents that must be dominated. With action as its unique principle, and with the kingdom of man as an alibi, it has already begun, in the east of Europe, to construct its own armed camp, face to face with other armed camps.”

In his review of Sartre’s Nausea, Camus was appreciative, but he also found an important flaw which he says prevents the novel from becoming a success. He starts his review by pointing out that “a novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images” and that in a good novel the philosophy becomes one with the images. On this account he faults Nausea—he says that Sartre has broken the balance between the novel’s philosophy and its life, resulting in there being a mismatch between the novel’s descriptive and the philosophical aspects. It is noteworthy that Camus’s review of Nausea was published on October 20, 1938, before he and Sartre had met.

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