(Volker Hage’s article appeared in Der Spiegel, 11/6. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.)

Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, two of the most important minds of the 20th century, were closely entwined throughout their careers. On the centenary of Camus' birth, SPIEGEL looks back at their famous friendship and the ideological feud that ultimately unraveled it.

What is a famous man? Albert Camus wrote in his diary in 1946 that it was "someone whose first name doesn't matter." That certainly applies to Camus, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Nov. 7, and it can also be said of his great adversary Jean-Paul Sartre, who was eight years older than him, yet outlived him by 20 years.

Camus and Sartre were the intellectual stars of Paris during the postwar years: the existentialists, the Mandarins and the literary vanguard. They became iconic figures of the ideological conflicts of the second half of the 20th century. Their rivalry shaped intellectual debates in France and around the world.

Camus and Sartre's falling-out in the summer of 1952, which was played out in full view of the public, was a signal, a political watershed. The rupture, in the midst of the Cold War, split the camps. For decades, people would say: Sartre or Camus? Should we hope for a better world in the distant future at the price of accepting state terror? The revolutionary mass politics espoused by Sartre in the name of Marxism would seem to contain this tradeoff. Or should we refuse to sacrifice people for an ideal, as Camus' humanist principles required?

Camus and Sartre basically stood in each other's way right from the beginning. They were both storytellers, playwrights and essayists, literature and theater critics, philosophers and editors in chief. They had the same publisher. They both were awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Camus felt overwhelming gratitude when he accepted his award in 1957. Sartre loftily declined the designation in 1964 – making sure to underscore that he was not insulted "because Camus had received it before me," as he said at the time.

The Company of Women

And there was another — at first glance unremarkable — commonality. Both preferred the company of women to that of men. "Why women?" Camus wondered in his diary in 1951. His answer: "I cannot stand the company of men. They flatter or they judge. I can stand neither of the two." Back in 1940, Sartre used nearly the same choice of words in his diary when noting that he "gets horribly bored in the company of men," yet "it's very rare for the company of women not to entertain me."


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *