Dirty Hands


In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre, the privileged, amphibian-faced philosopher, befriended Albert Camus, the Bogart-esque, working-class novelist who shared his “gritty humanism.”But the friendship went up in smoke in a notorious dispute in 1952. Sartre converted to Communism and insisted that revolution meant getting your hands dirty, while Camus wanted to be “neither victim nor executioner” and denounced the Soviets. For Camus, Sartre’s insistence on political “commitment” was an attempt to shanghai artists onto a “slave galley.”

Ronald Aronson sees this fight as a tragedy in which each side was “half-right and half-wrong”; the ideal would be a hybrid “Camus/Sartre.” Aronson admits, though, that Camus “will remain the more sympathetic of the two.” It’s hard to disagree; for instance, while Camus took actual risks in the Resistance, the “tangential” Sartre did little more than publish some articles in the final days of the liberation—which were actually written by Simone de Beauvoir. In the ’50s, Sartre refused to condemn anti-Semitic purges in Czechoslovakia and the USSR. The one comparable flaw in the French-Algerian Camus is his tendency to condone French colonialism.

Aronson does a fine job of reconstructing this relationship and its undoing. The ideas at stake (like those in the King-Malcolm X dispute in the U.S.) are important. Sometimes, though, you wonder whether all the details of the 52-year-old polemic are worth rehearsing; they can come across as a tempest in a Parisian teapot, where the rhetoric and personalities overshadow the ideas. Not to deny the book’s nonintellectual pleasures. Sartre and Beauvoir surrounded themselves with a famille (Left Bank for “groupies”) in which all the heterosexual combinations were eventually exhausted—providing fodder for Beauvoir’s roman à clef The Mandarins. Well, all the combinations but one: Camus rebuffed Beauvoir’s overtures. As he explained to Arthur Koestler, “Imagine what she would be saying on the pillow afterwards. How awful—such a chatterbox.” It’s not the only point in this history where Camus shows good judgment.