Camus, Sartre, and Us: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It
An Interview with Ron Aronson

Danny Postel


Ron Aronson is widely regarded as the preeminent scholar of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy in the English-speaking world. A professor of interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, his books include Jean-Paul Sartre, Philosophy in the World (1980), The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (1983), Sartre’s Second Critique (1987), “Stay Out of Politics”: A Philosopher Views South Africa (1990), After Marxism (1995), and Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (2004) which will be published in paperback in April by the University of Chicago Press.  A French translation of the book will appear in March from Editions Alvik. This interview took place at the Left of Center Bookstore in Chicago.


Postel: Why has it taken so long—half a century—for the full story of the Camus-Sartre relationship to be told?

Aronson: It was, of course, wonderful to have the whole story to myself, but it was curious that no one had ever told it before. In 1938 Camus read Sartre’s Nausea with enormous enthusiasm. He discovered it and it had a great effect on him, as you can see in The Myth of Sisyphus. In 1939 he read Sartre’s book of short stories, The Wall. He had been critical of Nausea, but by the time he read The Wall, he said, “This is a great writer.” Sartre discovered Camus in 1942 and wrote a long review of his novel The Stranger in connection with the ideas of The Myth of Sisyphus. Clearly there was a kinship between the two of them before they even met.

Simone de Beauvoir recounts how they met in 1943, at the premiere of Sartre’s play The Flies. This was followed by immediate friendship, particularly because Camus was marooned in France. An Algerian pied-noir (the term for the former French colonists of North Africa, especially Algeria), he couldn’t go back home because of the war. As they became close, Sartre told him about his new play, No Exit. He asked Camus, an actor and leader of a theater troupe in Algiers, to play the lead.  Previous writers have shown little interest in the fact that Garcin, the male lead in Sartre’s most famous play, may have been developed with Camus in mind. But already this suggests that they may have been influencing each other. It is an interaction made to order for the literary biographer, yet no one has told the full story.

The deeper you go into the story, the more fascinating it becomes. As you continue to trace their interaction, you can observe each one influencing the other. In decisive places Sartre and Camus shape themselves in relation to each other. For example, Sartre was sent to the United States by Camus in 1945 to write articles for the former Resistance newspaper he edited, Combat.  Sartre gave a lecture at Columbia University which was never published in French during Camus’s or his lifetime. It appeared in Vogue magazine during July, 1945, entitled “New Writing in France.” In it Sartre spends the most time on “Albert Camus, who is 30 years old.” He relates the plot of Camus’s The Plague, his novel in progress (as a close friend, he happened to be privileged to read a draft). Sartre discusses Camus as a Resistance writer. Putting this lecture alongside Sartre’s celebrated statement published a few months later demanding that the writer should be politically committed, we can see that Camus was a model for Sartre—the committed, engaged writer willing to risk himself as a member of the Resistance.       

As both men continued to develop, Camus related to Sartre’s ideas, and Sartre related to Camus the person. So, why did no one ever tell this story? In part it resembles a marriage gone sour, when, after an ugly divorce, both parties deny any trace of a connection. “He never had any effect on me.” “I never loved her.” Doris Lessing describes this attitude in The Golden Notebook. And that’s really the sort of shutting off that Sartre and Camus did with each other. Each one refused to acknowledge that the other had an effect on them, and everyone close to them followed their lead. The biographers and commentators followed their lead. This is the personal reason the story remained untold, which we can all relate to.

Postel: There’s also a political reason.

Aronson: Yes. The political reason was the Cold War. Sartre and Camus “broke up” in 1952, over the Cold War. Like the “war on terrorism,” the Cold War was a war of “good” versus “evil.” In a Manichean war, whichever side you’re on is the good side, and the other side is the evil side. Dramatically this made their conflict totally uninteresting. It was not a tragedy, but a morality play. And in a morality play, good wins, evil loses, and you pay little attention to the story. This is what happened to the Sartre-Camus relationship. No one was interested in the story, because everyone had to take sides—the  famous Sartrean idea: you must choose. In President Bush’s words: “Either you’re with us or you’re against us.” Sartre and Camus too: you’re with us or you’re with the enemy.  Which side are you on? You’re with Camus or with Sartre. For Camus, Sartre became the incarnation of the devil—and he still is for many people. For Sartre, Camus was politically vapid—and still is to many.

But in fact it is a very interesting story—morally, politically, philosophically, and personally. No one thought it was worth telling. And so not long after the end of the Cold War, I found myself saying, “Wait a second. It’s not that simple. If you start looking at what actually happened, it was profoundly interesting. There was a genuine relationship between them.

Postel: Did you once see the schism in these either/or, Manichean terms, back in the day?

Aronson: Yes, definitely. As I saw it then, Sartre was right. The radical Left, myself included, sided with Sartre. The moderate Left sided with Camus. The radicals saw the moderate Left as always selling out. The moderate Left saw the radicals as being addicted to violence.

Postel: And you chose Sartre’s side?

Aronson: It wasn’t even a question of choosing. Sartre came with the terrain.

Postel: What sort of presence did Camus have in your imagination at that point? Where did he figure in?

Aronson: He was the Other. In the either/or, he was the Other, who one didn’t want to be. He was an anti-Communist. If you were on Sartre’s side, you had to be against Camus. If you were on Camus’s side, you had to be against Sartre.

Postel: Today, some might even say you’re more sympathetic to Camus than you are to Sartre—as did the Village Voice reviewer, who praised you for it. How did your appreciation for Camus eventually deepen?

Aronson: I was asked to do an introduction to a collection of the documents of the Sartre-Camus conflict. The documents include the 1952 review in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps modernes, by Sartre’s young protégé Francis Jeanson, who slammed Camus’ book The Rebel.  The second document is Camus’s angry letter to the journal, “To the Editor”—he refused to say “Cher Sartre.” This is a hostile 16-page reply to the hostile review. And then Sartre wrote an even longer reply to Camus, in which he wiped the floor with him. Then Jeanson concluded with a 30-page reply. These are the documents.

David Sprintzen, the author of an excellent book on Camus, had this project in mind for years. He wanted to present the documents to the public—these primary sources—with essays by various people. I was to write an introductory essay. So I wrote a lengthy essay about my fascination with the Sartre-Camus debate. It was the first time I had read the two together. The Cold War had ended, which had changed everything for me: I no longer had to choose. The either/or was over. As a result, I started seeing Camus with great sympathy. And then I read much more by Camus, and I realized that, in spite of his faults, I loved his work. There’s something so attractive and appealing about Camus as a writer, as a person, as a sensibility­. Very different from Sartre. Sartre was a political and philosophical genius; Camus was a literary genius. Sartre’s relationship with his body was very problematic, as you can see from his writing; Camus is the sensuous writer, totally at home with his body, with the sun and the sand. You can feel the alienation in Sartre’s writing and the heat in Camus’.

Postel: Sartre was the philosopher who dabbled in literature, while Camus was the writer who dabbled in philosophy.

Aronson: Exactly. As I appreciated Camus for himself, the either/or about Communism was fading into the background. I could begin to appreciate Camus’s arguments and feel much more sympathetic to him. This 25-page introduction wound up being 75 pages. I sent it off to the editor and he had no problem with the length. He never said anything negative about it except, when I got it back, he had written an introduction to my introduction. I had been psychologically and politically and philosophically working my way to a more balanced sense of the Cold War, and of Sartre and Camus—of the friendship, of the break, of the issues. I had begun to appreciate both sides, and felt an immense pleasure in this. And then when I read Sprintzen’s introduction, I concluded that he was spinning it Camus’ way: Camus was right; Sartre was wrong. I asked him to change or withdrawal his introduction, and when he didn’t, I withdrew from the project.

And then I found out that an essay by Sartre’s biographer, John Gerassi, who was sharply pro-Sartre and anti-Camus, was rejected. I felt that the book was becoming another post-Cold War effort to vindicate Camus. So I sent my essay off to my editor at the University of Chicago Press, who said, “This should be a book.” And so I became enthusiastic about the idea of telling the whole story.

Postel: And here it is.

Aronson: And here it is. My goal was to refuse to take sides. This is a moving story, a meaningful story. In some ways, a beautiful story. And a tragedy.

Postel: What is the story’s beauty?

Aronson: My book is the biography of the relationship. Most of the other biographers had said, or written as if, the two weren’t important to each other. Patrick McCarthy, for example, argues that the relationship didn’t last very long, only a few months at best. And all of them suggest that the two didn’t care very much about each other. But Simone de Beauvoir said to her biographer, Deidre Bair, that their early relationship was like a love affair.  Sartre was involved with Camus as if he was falling in love, and Beauvoir was very disturbed by this. She insisted that “Sartre was the strongest heterosexual I know”—as if to make sure that no one would suspect any homosexuality. But she also tells us that Sartre was talking about Camus the way one talks about a lover. Clearly Sartre felt a very powerful connection with Camus.

Postel: And the connection was important, based on that sense that they were opposites.

Aronson: They were opposites, yes.

Postel: Camus is beautiful; Sartre is unattractive.

Aronson: Right.

Postel: Camus is younger. He’s from Algeria.

Aronson: Right.

Postel: He’s working-class; Sartre is bourgeois.

Aronson: In his review of my book in The Nation, Russell Jacoby takes issue with my sense of their strong connection by stressing their differences and arguing that theirs was an “accidental” relationship. But so often in falling in love you’re attracted to your opposite. With Sartre and Camus, it’s very clear that opposites attracted. Camus came to Paris from a colonial backwater, and Sartre introduced him to famous Parisian intellectuals and artists like Picasso, and he took Camus into his and Beauvoir’s circle. I don’t think Camus was an opportunist but rather a pied-noir being brought into the exciting world of Paris. Sartre did this for Camus. What Camus offered Sartre was his political involvement, having come naturally to something Sartre wrestled with for years.

Postel: You’re talking about their respective roles in the Resistance.

Aronson: Yes, for Camus, being a political intellectual, entering into the Resistance as a newspaper editor, was not something he pondered endlessly, but came to spontaneously. He never discussed it in his journal. He said, this is just something one does. But it is striking how many times Sartre reflected on it. Most of his plays until the 1950s asked: How do you commit yourself? How do you become politically effective? This was a major issue for Sartre. During the liberation of Paris in August, 1944, Sartre was in the national theater group of the resistance. He was given a rusty old pistol and he went with other theater people to guard the Comedie Française to ensure that the Germans didn’t blow it up as they withdrew. He was part of the troop that was guarding it.

And Camus was the editor of Combat, the underground newspaper that was now publishing openly. As editor, he walked around Paris observing what was happening as the Germans were departing and as the French were taking the city back. Knowing that Sartre was at the Comedie Française he walked into the theatre. And Sartre, who had apparently spent some time walking across Paris to get there, and was exhausted, was slumped in his theater seat, asleep. Camus went up to Sartre and woke him up, saying, “At least your theater seat is pointed in the direction of history.”

Postel: [laughter]

Aronson: Sartre had obviously carried on about being in history’s direction. And Camus was poking affectionate fun at his friend, who could do no more than point his theatre seat in history’s direction, while Camus was putting out a newspaper and influencing events. This was where things stood between them in August of 1944. Camus was the serious political activist, and Sartre was the wall-eyed philosopher who was always thinking about how to become involved but could never pull it off.

Postel: In 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Sartre happened to be studying in Berlin. And there is no account in Sartre’s writings or his diaries that he had anything to say about the Third Reich. In fact, he spent every day during this period, during this historical turning point, in the library with his head buried in the writings of Edmund Husserl, a philosopher who was persecuted by the Nazis for being a Jew.

Aronson: Hitler took power in January of 1933, and Sartre went to Berlin in the fall of that year. German writers like Adorno and Mann were leaving. They were traveling in the other direction while Sartre was in Berlin studying German philosophy. He was disconnected from what was happening historically.

Postel: And in some sense this forms the backdrop to this tension between Sartre and Camus: Sartre had to prove what a committed intellectual he was.

Aronson: Yes.

Postel: How would you characterize the friendship’s trajectory?

Aronson: In researching and writing this book I had no access to unpublished letters. I had access to only a single unpublished work and only when, as the book was being typeset, I was able to see the manuscript of a play Camus had written in 1946. During this period people were writing spoofs about the great genius Sartre. Boris Vian, Sartre’s friend and a jazz musician and novelist, wrote a book in which one of the main characters, Jean-Sol Partre, writes dozens of articles each week and is working on an encyclopedia of vomit. His former student, Jean Kanapa, a Communist, wrote a novel attacking Sartre. This prodigious intellectual was being written about and talked about everywhere. And Camus, too, wrote a play—I think only three people besides me have seen it—called L’Impromptu des philosophes (The Philosophers’ Farce). The main character is M. Néant—M. Nothingness. He carries around a big fat book that no one has ever read. For people in Paris during this period, and for twenty years afterwards, this was a famous joke.

Postel:  Being and Nothingness.

Aronson:  Yes. Everybody owned it; few read it. And this character is carrying this big, fat book no one has ever read, and, as in Moliere, he visits a provincial mayor and traduces the family. He seduces them into his philosophy, which is about absurdity, responsibility, freedom, and nothingness.

Postel: This is during their friendship.

Aronson: During their friendship. Camus wrote a play about this famous French intellectual who is seducing people with his ideas and who, it turns out, has escaped from an insane asylum. The play ends, after a whole family is taken over by his philosophy, when the director of the insane asylum comes to recapture him and bring him back to the asylum, and so everybody returns to their old way of life. Obviously this would have been another of the famous Sartre spoofs of the time, except that Camus never put it on as a play, and never had it published. I told Catherine Camus, his daughter, that it should be performed because it’s delightful. It’s great fun. The point is that, in reading the play, you realize that Camus was making fun of his good friend. He took great pleasure in this, and the spoof suggests that he saw his good friend as a rather strange kind of beast.

Postel: Fascinating.

Aronson: This was a friendship of two men who became famous as soon as Paris was liberated. Their names were on everyone’s lips. One of them was the editor of one of the most important new French newspapers, Combat. The other was the editor of the most important new French magazine, Les Temps modernes. The two publications cooperated, and both sought to create a new non-Communist Left—Sartre acting through a magazine, Camus through a newspaper. Sartre wrote for Combat and Camus declined being on the editorial board of Sartre’s new magazine only because he was too busy.

Postel: Was that the real reason?

Aronson: Your comment indicates a problem. Everybody writing about this is obsessed with seeing the differences between them from the beginning. Again, a la Lessing, once the divorce occurs everyone looks at the early years only to find the seeds of the split. So commentators and biographers claim to find the seeds of their breakup in 1944 or 1945. Like you, they ask why they weren’t working together on the same newspaper, or the same journal. And they claim to find the seeds of hostility and tension, the way we do after a divorce.

But in fact, in 1946, they were still, as Catherine Camus said to me, copains, pals. Of course there were differences. There were disagreements. But they were both on the Left. Communism wasn’t to become an issue between them until after 1949. The Cold War had not started, and after the Liberation they were very much involved in the same or similar projects, and working together.

Now the fascinating thing is that in exploring and discussing this I only looked at a single unpublished work, the one-act play. I did not look at any unpublished letters where one was criticizing the other. As far as I know, there aren’t any. But as we look at their published writings, we begin to notice Sartre and Camus replying to each other.

Postel: Not by name, though.

Aronson: Not by name. Without using names, Camus was replying to Sartre here, Sartre was replying to Camus there. And they were part of a common milieu, the Parisian non-Communist literary and intellectual Left. In 1947 the Cold War was beginning. President Harry Truman went to Rio de Janeiro to announce the Western Hemisphere version of NATO, the Rio Pact. And he announced it saying that Communism was forbidden in the Western Hemisphere; we’re going to defend ourselves against subversion in our half of the world. Camus read about this in Paris and was furious. He said that Truman was creating a new war. Although he was already an anti-Communist and already working on the ideas that grew into The Rebel, he didn’t accept the coming of the Cold War.

Camus wrote an open letter, in which he attacked Truman and the Rio Pact, and he attacked the American efforts to create a cold war. Why is this important? Only because—and no one ever noticed this before, which is a scholar’s delight—we see, in the Sartre bibliography by Contat and Rybalka, an open letter attributed to Sartre dated December, 1947. And upon inspection it turns out that this is, remarkably, the Camus letter revised. The Camus letter was rewritten and given Sartre’s name. What happened? Well, to figure it out, we have to read Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Nelson Algren and her memoirs. In these places she talks about a series of meetings they attended in the Fall of 1947. We can piece together what happened: Camus brought the letter to the first meeting, the goal of which was to set up a non-Communist Left independent of NATO and Washington, and also independent of Moscow. They sought a “third way”—a French path to socialism that would be independent of East and West. And obviously they started with Camus’ text, and it was passed around and they reworked it. The main person reworking it was Sartre. Beauvoir talks about how they met with this group several times in the Fall. She tells us that every comma, every period was reworked. The text they came up with wound up in Sartre’s collected works.

Postel: They were co-thinkers.

Aronson: Co-thinkers. This was Sartre’s first properly political activity. I find it fascinating that Sartre’s first real political activity is to rework a text of his friend Camus, with Camus as one of the participants.

Postel: So they were collaborators, fellow travelers. They were thinking about the same problems, trying to shape a third way. But something obviously went horribly wrong.

Aronson: Yes, and I think it’s worth looking at this in terms of the historical situation. They were not only specific individuals. They became themselves in their historical environment, which made certain demands on each of them, or pushed one in a certain direction and the other in the opposite direction. The Cold War was beginning to impose itself on them, and beginning to push and pull them. And at the same time, they began to get irritated and bothered by each other. Sartre thought that Camus was going along too much with the French establishment. Sartre was too radical for Camus’ taste. It was in and through the demands their situations placed on them that that Sartre became the revolutionary Sartre and Camus became the reformist Camus. And each one was part of the other’s situation: he became the reformist Camus against the revolutionary Sartre. So as we see each man develop, we see how and why Sartre embraces violence. We see how and why Camus criticizes violence. And the Cold-War issue between them became: will you accept violence in the process of embracing social change?  After waiting as long as possible, Sartre attacked Camus for avoiding the issue, and after waiting as long as possible, Camus attacked Sartre for being violent. But each man is in a way attacking his alter ego. He’s attacking the person he chose not to be, or not to become. But this shaping of each against the other took place under the pressure of the Cold War.  If the Cold War hadn’t existed, they might have been able to remain friends.

Postel: So you see the dissolution as having been imposed from outside by the Cold War—its logic, its ethos, the polarizations that it generated.

Aronson: Yes, except that both men were active agents in this process. Both furthered the Cold-War polarization. One of the last friendly encounters between them, which stretched over a period of several weeks, was during the spring of 1951. Sartre’s play The Devil and the Good Lord was in rehearsal. Sartre was at the theater and Camus went there to pick up the love of his life, the actress Maria Casares. A lot of the interaction between them had to do with women, because they were both involved with countless women, and sometimes there was tension and even real anger about it. Beauvoir, in one of her 1970s interviews with Sartre, asked, “Didn’t the breakup have to do with a woman?” And he suggested that this was an important part of the story. It’s not inconceivable that Maria Casares may have been one of those women. She was the female lead in The Devil and the Good Lord. And Sartre and Camus were watching the rehearsals, while Camus corrected the proofs for The Rebel. The Rebel was one of the major Cold War French treatises against Communism, against revolution. Still friends, Sartre asked Camus for his excellent chapter on Nietzsche to be published in Le Temps modernes in the summer of 1951. And Camus agreed. In the play Sartre was intellectually working through the opposite question to the one Camus posed in The Rebel: how do you transform the world while still being a part of it? Sartre’s position was deeply thought out: we have to use the means of this world to make this world a better place. And if this means embracing violence, so be it, because that may be the only tool available to us.

Postel: So if it means getting your hands dirty…

Aronson: Yes, “dirty hands,” exactly.

Postel: Sartre says that Camus is too preoccupied with keeping his hands clean.

Aronson: Exactly. But he doesn’t criticize Camus in the play, only later. Camus was watching the rehearsals of the play in which Sartre is embracing dirty hands for the purpose of revolutionary change. And he was correcting the proofs of The Rebel, which rejects this position. Towards the end of The Rebel Camus discusses not only Sartre but the play. He criticizes the play, which is no surprise because, after all, The Rebel rejects the idea of revolution, while in The Devil and the Good Lord Sartre embraces it. At this point they were developing against each other. They could not avoid this, after all, because they were the two dominant political intellectuals in France. Each man became the symbol for and leader of forces well beyond himself. Each man came to mean much more than he said. Perhaps that is the privilege, and the burden, of their greatness.

Postel: You lament the new consensus that has emerged which holds that Camus was right and Sartre was wrong about the Cold War. But wherein, exactly, is the error in the claim that Camus was right? Wasn’t he, essentially?

Aronson: Camus was half-right. He had a profound insight into the way in which anti-systemic or revolutionary violence, once justified, can become a law unto itself. And he also had insights into how some spirits seek to overcome the world’s absurdity by violently reshaping it. Intellectuals—and policymakers—often approach using violence with the kind of steely abstractness he describes, willing to sacrifice whatever number of lives in the service of a better future. Marxists and Commmunists did this, but so have all wielders of power and their intellectual spokespeople. By itself Camus’s insight is only a half-truth, and it functions among the latter-day Camuseans and “Cold-War vindicationists” (Allen Hunter’s term) to indict the violences we don’t like, while excusing those we find useful. The war in Iraq is one example. Aren’t we remaking the world to our own liking there? Camus was equally selective: while devoting virtually all of his political energy for several years to attacking Communism, he was not above using his anti-Communism against the FLN in Algeria, or approving of the disastrous Suez operation of 1956.

Postel: If he was half-right, what about the other half?

Aronson: This leads us to the unresolved dimension of the Sartre-Camus conflict, the aspect of it that is still very much with us today and needs addressing. The other half of the story is Sartre’s equally compelling insight into systemic violence. Sartre understood deeply the violences built into capitalism and colonialism, which he found no less appalling than Camus found revolutionary violence. He illuminated, as no one else has, the everyday structured violence of oppressive social relations, the violence that comes to be depersonalized and experienced as “the way things are.” Like Camus, he was selective, and thus half-wrong, and for a period he championed overthrowing these violences by any means necessary, including terrorism. 


Danny Postel is a contributing editor to the London-based magazine and to Dædalus. His work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Exquisite Corpse, The Washington Post Book World, The Nation, and Philosophy & Social Criticism.