Camus, Sartre And The Problem With Ascription

They once were friends.

Then Camus and Sartre became antagonists after Camus rose to prominence as a literary darling in the 1940s. This all because of a lady named Wanda, according to a recent article in The Telegraph.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about existentialism, a philosophy that stresses individual freedom and responsibility when it isn’t being used to market Zoloft to moody Parisians. Albert Camus preferred to think of himself as an absurdist; his philosophy contextualizes happiness against a backdrop of sadness, meaning alongside triviality. Both were lumped into the same general category of philosophy. But Sartre was idealistic and Camus pragmatic. Camus was rather unpretentious; Sartre wrote dissertations that rivaled only Heidegger in their tendency to perplex. Camus looked like a young Humphrey Bogart and possessed a devil-may-care swagger; Sartre resembled a “gargoyle” and could be officious.

Sartre, left, and Camus. One was mellon collie and the infinite sadness. One was the birth of cool. Both loved a fish named Wanda.

Sartre was the first to woo Wanda Kosakiewicz, who was an aspiring artist. Sartre originally intended to seduce Wanda’s sister, Olga, but he struck out with her. He decided that the other sister would be worth pursuing. After their first sexual encounter, Wanda told Sartre that she hated him. Whether this hurt him or emboldened him—or both—we can only speculate. Sartre probably was still in love with her. We do know, however, that he decided to give Wanda a role in a production of his play, No Exit. Enter Camus.

Camus had been invited by Sartre to direct the same production of No Exit in which Wanda had a role. To the chagrin of Sartre, Camus and Wanda hit it off. But, as tends to happen sooner or later, the guy got bored with the girl and moved on to another girl. All three points of the triangle were dashed.

Throughout his entertaining article, Andy Martin says things like this:

If [Sartre] could bed Wanda, anyone could do just about anything in this world—the era of absolute freedom for all would finally be ushered in.

Or this:

When [Camus and Wanda] danced together right in front of Sartre, it was like a victory over the entire 700 pages of Being and Nothingness, [Sartre’s] 1943 ‘essay on phenomenological ontology.’

The content of our actions rarely matches our philosophical ideals.

These examples give us insight into one of Martin’s assumptions: that there is a seamless link between a philosopher’s life and their ideas. In other words, that the philosopher is acting out their own philosophical ideas in a kind of performance art, making the otherwise inert philosophy tangible through action.

I don’t doubt that this sometimes happens. (Moral philosophers come to mind.) I doubt that it happens as frequently as we think it does, and I doubt that it was the case with Sartre. That Camus could dance his way to victory over Being and Nothingness sounds like a flimsy reality TV premise: entertaining but highly suspect.

Embodying one’s philosophical ideas is notoriously difficult. Nietzsche talked about Will to Power and the Übermensch, but by all accounts was a sad, pitiful, powerless man. Wittgenstein talked about the social arena in which language was made meaningful, but was horrible at communication. Heidegger’s morality is deeply rooted in authenticity, but the man ingratiated himself to the Nazis and essentially denied it afterward. The notion that philosophers are embodiments of their ideas sets both the wrong standards by which to judge the philosophy, as well as the wrong standards by which to judge the philosopher.

Philosophers are normal people. It’s tempting to ascribe an inescapable link between a philosopher’s life and their ideas, but philosophers are all too capable of acting irrationally, or desperately, or inauthentically—in short, of being people who are either unrecognizable as philosophers or divorced from their philosophy. Philosophers’ ideas should still have currency, even if their actions don’t always live up to their pronouncements. We give all humans the same basic charity because we expect them to be inconsistent. C’est la vie.

Reading about Sartre’s relationships with Wanda or de Beauvoir shows that he was rarely the absolutely free, unconditionally responsible person that he claimed existentialism made possible. We shouldn’t expect him to be. Philosophy sometimes feels like an attempt to turn us into the sort of people we would rather be. Love turns us into the people we really are.


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