When Sartre was reading “The Stranger” by Camus


In May 1942, Albert Camus published, at age 29, his first novel : The weird, published by Gallimard. The book caused a stir in the landerneau. Jean Paul Sartrewho published Nausea three years earlier, he had taken on the task of writing a review of the novel in the magazine Southern notebooks (dissident version of new french review then led by the “fascist socialist » Drieu-la-Rochelle), in the February 1943 issue. Having already sharpened his weapons on criticism, Sartre proposes, as the title explicitly formulates, ” one explanation “ Camus text.

Why this somewhat academic formula? Undoubtedly, we can see in this a form of condescension on the part of Sartre towards Camus, who is almost ten years younger than him. After all, one is a normalien, agrégé, doctor and professor of philosophy in khâgne, while the other is just a journalist with a memory of philosophy. Between the lines, Sartre’s text looks like a corrected copy of a stern professor’s hand. Quote The myth of Sisyphuspublished in November 1942, Sartre comments: “M. Camus assumes some coquetry when quoting texts by jaspersof Heideggerof Kierkegaard, which he doesn’t always seem to understand. »

Like a professor in front of a class, he poses a problem, usually very academic too: what does the title mean? The weird ?

“The foreigner, man among men”

Who is the alien in the book? Meursault, the main character, without a doubt. But what does it mean? Sartre indicates, with pedagogy, the different meanings that this term can encompass. In the first place, “the foreigner is the man before the world”. The human being is not thrown into the world, but placed outside it. Hence the sense of absurdity. As a reminder, the disturbing element of the plot is a ray of sunlight on an Algerian beach that blinds Meursault and whose consequences are tragic: it kills “an Arab” with a knife.

Most “The foreigner is also the man among men”. A certain loneliness is consubstantial with our condition. The famous begins of the novel testifies to this: Meursault learns with detachment of the death of his « mama ». At his funeral, he sheds no tears. Finally, The weird ” That is […] me in relation to myself, that is, the man of nature in relation to the spirit.. When the protagonist goes to court, a touch of curiosity invades him, as if he were outside of himself. In short, the foreign is a certain relationship with the world, with others and with oneself tinged with absurdity and disillusionment. This is how the Camusian absurdity is defined, as understood by Sartre, this “original data”.

Highlighting the Camusian absurdity

The text commentary then continues on another terrain. What attitude is necessary for an absurd man? Suicide? Certainly not, says Sartre, because “It’s a passion for the absurd. The absurd man will not commit suicide: he wants to live, without giving up any of his certainties, without tomorrow, without hope, without illusions, also without resignation. » It is, on the contrary, an attitude that aims to put up with this absurdity by trying to transform it: “The absurd mansays in revolt. He faces death with passionate attention and this fascination sets him free. […] Everything is permissible, for God is not and we die. » Sartre realizes that The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus talk secretly: “It certainly appeared first, The weird plunges us without comment into the “climate” of the absurd; comes the essay that illuminates the landscape. »

From this understanding of the absurd, a characteristic feature of the human being arises: he is neither good nor bad. “The absurd man, thrown into this world, revolted, irresponsible, has “nothing to justify” […] He’s innocent. An innocent in every sense of the word, an “idiot” too, if you will. » Meursault remains morally innocent in Sartre’s eyes, despite everything. Shaping the world through revolt allows for another appreciation of time: “All experiences are equivalent, justget as many as possible […] everything is equivalent: write The Taken or drink a coffee with cream. »

An “American style” where every sentence “is an island”

“A novel technique always refers to the novelist’s metaphysics. The critic’s task is to clean this one up before enjoying that one.wrote Sartre about the writer William Faulkner (About sound and fury by William Faulkner, Situations, 1939). He applies the same method with Camus’ text. After a meticulous study of the metaphysical foundations of the novel, Sartre arrives at the author’s own style. From the outset, he rejects the comparison with Kafka (“M. Camus’ views are all terrestrial. Kafka is the novelist of impossible transcendence.) and proposes another approach. For him, Camus’ style is a “american style”for the Ernest Hemingway :

“What our author borrows from Hemingway is, therefore, the discontinuity of his agitated sentences that is modeled on the discontinuity of time. We now understand his story better: each sentence is a gift. But not an indecisive present that stains and slightly prolongs the present that follows it. The sentence is clear, without burrs, closed in on itself; it is separated from the following sentence by a nothing, as Descartes’ moment is separated from the moment that follows it. Between one sentence and another, the world is annihilated and reborn: speech, as soon as it appears, is a creation ex nihilo; a sentence of The weird, It’s an island. And we cascade from sentence to sentence, from nothing to nothing.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, quoted in Sartre. a critical writing (Northern University Press, 2010)

Somehow, “all the sentences in his book are equivalent, as are all the experiences of the absurd man”. Furthermore, the time of history is also not alien to the conception of time conveyed by Camus: “Ç’is to accentuate the solitude of each sentence unit that M. Camus chose to tell his story in the perfect compound [passé composé]. the past defined [passé simple] is the continuity time. »

General comment: encouragement

Despite the tone, which can easily be described as doctoral, of Sartre’s commentary, the text remains very complimentary. some like Annie Cohen-Solalrecognized biographer of Sartre, even argued that this text foreshadowed their friendship – definitely tied when they met for the rehearsal of the play. flies by Sartre in June 1943.

However, clues suggest that the latter did not use it for the skies either, as evidenced, among other things, by the connection Sartre makes between Camus and Voltaire. At the end of his article, if Sartre hesitates to give it the qualifier of “novel” (“M. Camus names [son texte] “novel”. However, the novel demands a continuous duration, a becoming, the manifest presence of the irreversibility of time. It is not without hesitation that I would give this name to this succession of inert gifts.), he compares it to the Voltairean tale genre: « Or else it will bet, in the form of Zadig it’s from Candid, a small moralistic novel, with a discreet touch of satire and ironic portraits, which, despite the contribution of German existentialists and American novelists, remains very close, at heart, to a short story by Voltaire. » Only Sartre does not carry Voltaire in his heart! He even considers his style “a language deader than Latin” (a new mysticSituations, 1943).

Above all, Sartre qualifies The weird d’“classic work ». However, during his lifetime, he will not stop letting himself be carried away against the “great classical tradition which, since Descartes and with the exception of Pascal, is entirely hostile to history” (Reply to Albert Camus, situations, 1953). For Sartre, The weird it is not political enough. Or rather, it is metaphysics, even ethics, but it stops on the threshold of politics. What a pity for Camus, he needed so little to gain Professor Sartre’s favor! So, verdict? for the author of The weirdmaybe not the honor roll, but at least the encouragement.

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