Human, All Too Human was a BBC television documentary that originally aired in 1999. Taking its title from Nietzsche’s book of aphorisms Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, the three-part series covers the lives and work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Although biographies, the overall theme was an exploration of the philosophy of Existentialism, as developed by these radical European thinkers.
The final episode, The Road to Freedom, focused on Sartre, whose name, of course, is synonymous with Existentialism. Sartre thought that it was up to each of us to create meaning and purpose in our lives in a Godless universe and the film—one of the only (if not the only) film about Sartre made in English—includes interviews with his life partner, feminist novelist and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir.
(BTW, note that Sartre’s cigarette was airbrushed out in the above image, one of the posters for France’s National Library event celebrating his life and work in 2005. Ridiculous historical revisionism to do that to one of history’s most-committed chain-smokers, obviously, but necessary to circumvent prosecution under France’s strict anti-tobacco laws.)
Camus’ story tells of a so-called “judge-penitent”, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who reflects upon his life to a stranger at a bar the Mexico City, in Amsterdam. As Clamence comments to his nameless companion:
“Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life — and hence its crimes — becomes denser, darker. Here, we are in the last circle.”
Clamence explains how he has had a fall form grace, is now in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam. He describes himself as a good man, giving to the poor, helping the blind across the street, and that he lived his life for others. This was, until one night, as he crossed over the Pont Royal returning home from his mistress, he noticed a woman close to the edge of the bridge. He walks on and then hears a scream, and a muted splash.
“It repeated several times, downstream; then it abruptly ceased. The silence that followed, as the night suddenly stood still, seemed interminable. I wanted to run and yet didn’t move an inch. I was trembling, I believe from cold and shock. I told myself that I had to be quick and felt an irresistible weakness steal over me. I have forgotten what I thought then. “Too late, too far…” or something of the sort. I was still listening as I stood motionless. Then, slowly, in the rain, I went away. I told no one.”
Haunted by his failure to save the woman, or tell anyone about it, Clamence’s life starts to unravel, until one day a woman’s laugh (or is it his own?) causes him to realize everything he has done has not been for others, but always for himself.
To find out who he is, Clamence decides to act out of character, as “no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures”:
“...jostling the blind on the street; and from the secret, unexpected joy this gave me I recognized how much a part of my soul loathed them; I planned to puncture the tyres of wheelchairs, to go and shout ‘lousy proletarian’ under the scaffoldings on which labourers were working, to smack infants in the subway. ... the very word ‘justice’ gave me strange fits of rage…”
Though Camus never thought of himself as an Existentialist (more of an Absurdist writing against Nihilism), many of his concerns stemmed from the same bourgeois preoccupations that inspired Sartre and Existentialism - guilt, alienation, regret, angst. This is limned at the end of the tale, when Clamence reveals his role as “judge-penitent” - in a world without God, we are all guilty of everything, and Clamence must, therefore, sit in permanent judgement over everyone.
They first met through a love of theater, at a production of The Flies. It drew them together, this collective experience towards a creative good. And then, of course, their love of literature and writing, and during the war through the Resistance, and endless conversations in the cafes, which later became famous through association with their names. Jean-Paul Sartre was the leader. Albert Camus the talented writer, a leader in waiting.
Though close, there were early signs of division - Sartre knew Camus was the better writer, something he would never acknowledge publicly - and when the war finished, it wasn’t long for their friendship to fail.
Against the background of Cold War tensions and the threat of nuclear war between East and West, Sartre took the side of the Soviet Union, while Camus said he was on “the side of life”.
“I’m against a new war. To revolt today means to revolt against war.”
But it was Sartre’s blind acceptance of Russia’s concentration camps that proved too much for Camus. He wanted Sartre to denounce them, in the same way they had once denounced the German concentration camps. Sartre refused.
This led Camus to question the idea of rebellion and revolution, in particular the value of the Russian revolution, this at a time when writers on the Left held it up as the socialist dream.
In The Rebel Camus wrote:
‘In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself.
“In contemplating the results in an act of rebellion we shall have to ask ourselves each time if it remains faithful to its first noble promise or whether it forgets its purpose and plunges into a mire of tyranny and servitude.
“In Absurdist experience suffering is individual, but from the moment that a movement of rebellion begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience, as the experience of everyone. Therefore the first step towards a mind overwhelmed by the absurdity of things is to realize that this feeling, this strangeness is shared by all men, and the entire human race suffers from a division between itself and the rest of the world.”
Camus’ intention with The Rebel was to change accepted ideas about rebellion, with a new concept of questioning revolutionary action. For many it was too abstract and too damaging to the communist cause.
Sartre, therefore, decided something had to be done to redress Camus’ apparent attack on Soviet Communism, and by implication all communist belief, and he organized a damning and high-handed response. It proved to be a devastating blow to Camus.
While Sartre could separate the world of ideas from his personal friendship, Camus could not. He believed friendship was essential, and depended on his friends like the strong camaraderie shared by a theater company. Camus believed friendship united people together in the struggle for a better world. He therefore saw Sartre’s actions as the worst kind of betrayal, and it finished their friendship.
This is a short but fascinating extract examining the friendship between Camus and Sartre.
This documentary on Jean-Paul Sartre comes from the BBC documentary series Human, All Too Human, which examined the development of Existentialism through the lives and work of three philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Beginning with Sartre’s notion that he only ever felt “truly free” under the Nazi occupation of France, the film examines Sartre’s development as a writer and thinker, exploring the difficulties he faced and his often contrary and changing beliefs - what his biographer Ronald Hayman described in 1986, as Sartre’s “thinking against himself by what Marxists call contradictions in the situation.”
“His influence is still enormous, but it cannot be analyzed because it cannot be isolated. Particles of Sartre are in the blood that flows through our brains; his ideas, his categories, his formulations, his style of thinking are still affecting us. Ripples are still spreading from pebbles he threw into the water…
“...A major part of Sartre’s achievement rests on his courage and obstinacy in asserting that we are what we make of ourselves.”