Reading progress update: I've read 270 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

A confrontation with Camus had been building for a while. It was almost inevitable, considering how different their views had become. In 1951, Camus published an extended essay, The Rebel, in which he laid out a theory of rebellion and political activism that was very different from the Communist-approved one.

   For Marxists, human beings are destined to progress through predefined stages of history towards a final socialist paradise. The road will be long, but we are bound to get there, and all will be perfect when we do. Camus disagreed on two counts: he did not think that history led to a single inevitable destination, and he did not think there was such a thing as perfection. As long as we have human societies, we will have rebellions. Each time a revolution overturns the ills of a society, a new status quo is created, which then develops its own excesses and injustices. Each generation has a fresh duty to revolt against these, and this will be the case forever.

   Moreover, for Camus, true rebellion does not mean reaching towards an ecstatic vision of a shining city on a hill. It means setting a limit on some very real present state of affairs that has become unacceptable. For example, a slave who has been ordered around all his life suddenly decides he will take no more, and draws a line, saying ‘so far but no further’. Rebellion is a reining in of tyranny. As rebels keep countering new tyrannies, a balance is created: a state of moderation that must be tirelessly renewed and maintained.

   Camus’ vision of endless self-moderating rebellion is appealing – but it was rightly seen as an attack on Soviet Communism and its fellow travellers. Sartre knew that it was directed partly against himself, and he could not forgive Camus for playing into the hands of the right at a delicate historical moment. The book clearly called for a review in Les Temps modernes. Sartre hesitated to rip his old friend to pieces, so he delegated the task to his young colleague Francis Jeanson – who ripped Camus to pieces, damning the The Rebel as an apology for capitalism. Camus defended himself in a seventeen-page letter to the editor, meaning Sartre, although he did not name him. He accused Jeanson of misrepresenting his argument, and added, ‘I am beginning to become a little tired of seeing myself … receive endless lessons in effectiveness from critics who have never done anything more than turn their armchair in history’s direction.’

   This dig prompted Sartre to write his own response after all. It turned into an ad hominem tirade that was overemotional even by his own recent standards. That’s it, said Sartre; their friendship was over. Of course he would miss Camus, especially the old Camus that he remembered from wartime Resistance days. But now that his friend had become a counter-revolutionary, no reconciliation was possible. Again, nothing could trump politics.

   Camus never published a reply to Sartre’s reply, although he did draft one. Again, the rest was silence. Well, not exactly, because ever since this famous quarrel occurred, a little industry of books and articles has flourished, analysing the confrontation to its last punctuation mark. It has come to be seen as a quarrel that defines a whole age and an intellectual milieu. It is often mythologised as a drama in which Sartre, a ‘dreaming boy’ chasing an impossible fantasy, meets his comeuppance in the form of a clear-sighted moral hero who also happens to be cooler and wiser and better-looking: Camus.

   This makes a good story, but I think there are subtler ways to think about it, and that it helps if we make the effort to understand Sartre’s motivation, and to ask why he reacted so intemperately. Pressurised about politics for years, taunted as a decadent bourgeois, Sartre had undergone a conversion experience which had made him see the whole world in a new light. He considered it his duty to renounce personal feeling for Camus. Individual sentiment was a self-indulgence, and must be transcended. Just like Heidegger in his Being and Time period, Sartre thought the important thing was to be resolute at all costs: to grasp what must be done, and do it. In the Algerian War, Camus would choose his mother over justice, but Sartre decided that it was not right to choose his friend if his friend was betraying the working class. Beauvoir, charmed though she had been by Camus in the past, took the same line: The Rebel was a deliberate gift to their enemies at a crucial point in history, and it could not be allowed to pass.

I've really enjoyed the book (there are only a couple of chapters left to read) but apart from being introduced to Husserl's ideas and Merleau-Ponty's, and getting a much better understanding of Simone de Beauvoir's work, the book has mainly confirmed my preferences of Jaspers and Camus over Sartre. It also confirmed my dislike of Heidegger - both as a person and as a philosopher.


I will definitely have to add books by Hannah Arendt and Gabriel Marcel to my TBR, and, in addition to re-reading de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, I also want to re-read more Camus and explore the books of his that I haven't read, yet.


And this, people, is why my TBR is well out of control - books just lead to more books, or as Bakewell expresses it in a summary of one of Merleau-Ponty's ideas:

We can never move definitively from ignorance to certainty, for the thread of the inquiry will constantly lead us back to ignorance again.