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Nonfiction Essays by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus show why existentialism still matters

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, June 29, 2013, at 10:57 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, June 29, 2013, at 11:01 p.m.

“We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939-1975” by Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian Van Den Hoven (New York Review Books, 576 pages, $22.95)

“Algerian Chronicles” by Albert Camus, translated by Arthur Goldenhammer (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 240 pages, $21.95)

Not long ago, when an acquaintance asked me what I had been reading, I replied, “Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness.’ ” (What can I say? I like philosophy.)

He scoffed: “Why waste your time on someone who got everything wrong?”

Well, not everything. Perhaps Sartre’s politics at the end were a bit idiotic, considering that he interrupted his work on the massive psycho-sociological biography of Gustave Flaubert, “The Family Idiot,” to distribute copies of a Maoist newspaper on the streets of Paris during the 1968 student uprising.

One younger anti-establishment type reputedly said, “Get back where you belong, grandpa!”

So, no, I would never read Sartre for his politics, even though he labored over Marxist worldviews for most of his final years.

To me, he remains compelling for profounder reasons – primarily his philosophical outlook that continues to engage us where we live: in the midst of an often bewildering world of choices, a world that demands strong moral commitments yet destines us to uncertainty, to his infamous “condemnation” of freedom.

No literary genre lets a Frenchman wrestle with this type of ambiguity better than the essay does. After all, Michel de Montaigne invented the form in the 16th century as he attempted (essayed) to understand his real life and interests, without a trace of romanticism.

Sartre looms as Montaigne’s 20th-century heir, even as he disingenuously claims that “the style of the essay remains to be discovered.”

Fortunately, “We Have Only This Life to Live” shows otherwise, displaying his inimitable mastery of the form. He writes with alacrity, insight and wit about a wide array of “passing thoughts” – from jazz to American trade unions to existentialism to “explaining” Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” to his self-portrait, blind and resigned, at age 70.

The pieces collected here present arguably the finest gleanings from the 10 volumes of “Situations” that he published during his lifetime – what he called his “nonphilosophical work which comes closest to philosophy.”

Presented in chronological order and fine-tuned in crisp translations – some in English for the first time – the essays make an exceptional introduction to (or refresher on) Sartre’s development as a thinker.

Two entries in particular stand out. First, an even-handed exercise in literary criticism of a book by the French author Georges Bataille. In it, Sartre analyzes the strengths of Bataille’s style, with its near mystical use of language, then skewers the content of his thought as facile and flabby.

The second, more poignant and personal piece is his “Reply to Albert Camus,” marking the irreparable break between the two greatest writers of their generation.

After World War II, Sartre founded the intellectual journal “ Les Temps modernes” (“Modern Times”), in which he published a scathing review (by another writer) of Camus’ book-length essay on political revolt, “The Rebel.”

Camus lashed out wildly at the reviewer and at Sartre, the editor, attacking them as immoral and irresponsible, even libelous.

Along with Camus’ letter to the editor, Sartre published his reply, in which he expressed deep regret at the loss of their friendship. At the same time, he chided Camus for his political naivete, particularly for saying that he sided with the poor, when he was as much the bourgeois intellectual as Sartre was:

“We know that it takes, if not wealth, then at least culture, the inestimable, unjust riches of culture, to find luxury in the depths of deprivation.”

But now, with the publication for the first time in English of Camus’ “Algerian Chronicles” – a collection of newspaper articles on the impoverished regions of Algeria in the 1950s – Sartre’s critique sounds less convincing.

Born in Oran, and raised by a deaf, illiterate mother and a working-class uncle, Camus grew up in extreme poverty. He had known genuine desolation, as Sartre put it.

Thus, by the time he wrote “The Rebel,” in 1952, Camus’ sympathies clearly lay with the Algerians seeking liberation from France – even as he championed the values of French culture in his homeland.

His belief in the peaceful coexistence of both communities, however, played directly into the hands of the National Liberation Front, whose “dirty war” with France ended in Algeria’s independence.

By then, neither side cared about Camus’ opinions, which is why “Algerian Chronicles” languished unnoticed for the past 50 years.

Read today, the articles brim with his trademark Mediterranean passion, the sensibility that lent all his literary works their moral and lyrical depth.

For example, as he watches shadows descend on the mountains of the destitute region of Kybalia, he writes, “I also knew that while it would have been comforting to surrender to the startling grandeur of that night, the misery gathered around the glowing fires across the way placed the beauty of this world under a kind of ban.”

Clearly, Sartre and Camus needed each other as complementary lights shining on the human condition. French existentialism reached its intellectual zenith in Sartre’s philosophy and its artistic apex in Camus’ novels, short stories and plays.

Who deserves the last word depends largely on which of the new volumes strikes you as more vital.

In either case, the essays and chronicles prove indispensable to a fuller understanding of the intellectual history of 20th-century Europe – a history in which both Sartre and Camus got many things right.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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