Thursday, January 06, 2005

Ronald Aronson on the Camus-Sartre quarrel

(Update, June 22, 2005: Ronald Aronson has a lovely opinion piece on the occasion of Sartre's birthday in today's International Herald Tribune explaining why Sartre continues to be important, despite irritating and annoying (many of) us (including me). Aronson's book really is outstanding.)

Late nights I have been reading Ronald Aronson's splendid new book, Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (Chicago 2004). It is a very fine book that manages to be both scholarly and lay-user friendly at once. I first read Camus' The Fall in junior high school - I did not understand it as a novel, I wasn't sure what it was, but I was drawn to the cadence of Camus' language, the sheer French brilliance of the phrases, even in translation - and I've returned to it many times. What I did not realize, until reading Aronson, was the extent to which it was a roman-a-clef for the breakup with Sartre. Aronson has also caused me to pick up again The Rebel - a book that I have read repeatedly over the decades. The whole quarrel between Camus and Sartre is, for me at least, one of those exemplary episodes that show that sometimes, anyway, it is the less well-educated, less philosophically brilliant, less sophisticated person who instinctively chooses better. What, in morality and politics, was Sartre, alas, ever right about? Or, if right, so very, very late? Camus was certainly not always right, but he was a man of greater moral decency and right much more of the time. When in high school, I thought Camus was right about his "fastidious assassins," but I now think he was not just wrong, he hopelessly romanticized the moral equation by saying that assassination is made better if you die too - he is way too close, on that matter, to justifying suicide bombing. But on the whole, The Rebel is a profoundly decent book. True, it's not philosophically coherent; on the other hand, it is decent. I want to pick up an idea, though, in a future post, about Camus' "provisional morality," follow it through with his great friend Rene Char, about whom I've blogged here, and curiously, with Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address. But not at this moment.

(Update, Friday, January 7, 2005: See the excellent, erudite review by Algis Valiunas in the January 2005 Commentary.)

(Update, Sunday, January 16, 2005: My thanks to reader Andy for pointing out that chapter one excerpt of the book is available as a teaser from the publisher, here.)

1 comment:

Adfero Affero said...

Rather keen on Camus v. Sartre story too: this CH.1 extract might be useful to append to you comments for people who haven't got round to buying the book itself:

Don't like Sartre as philosophe, but quite liked "The Roads to Freedom" in parts: very good as BBC TV series quite a few years ago.

Finding his pre-WWI reminiscences, "Words" quite enlightening about writing in general, how he got to be one, and his family background.