Outside View: Bush, Camus and Sartre

By RONALD ARONSON, Outside View Commentator   |   March 3, 2005 at 2:03 AM
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DETROIT, March 3 (UPI) -- A careful reading of "The Fall" reveals that President Bush's quote from Albert Camus in Brussels was an astonishing mistake. Many of our European friends may now be laughing up their sleeves at the United States' head of state. To those who know Camus, a White House speechwriter may have created a spectacle, in which the president unwittingly parodied himself.

The quote, "freedom is a long-distance race," was ripped from its context, one that establishes beyond doubt that Camus' words were not meant straightforwardly. No, a careful reading makes clear they were intended as a spoof of the thought of his former good friend, Jean-Paul Sartre.

The words spoken by the president are part of a reflection near the end of "The Fall" by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the book's narrator and sole character. Clamence offers drinks and tells his story in the Amsterdam bar he habituates. He is a former Parisian defense attorney "specializing in noble causes" until one day when he stood by without lifting a finger while a woman committed suicide by jumping into the Seine. He then abandoned his practice, fled France for the gloom of Amsterdam, and now spends his time luring visitors into hearing his confession and telling their own sins.

The paragraph just before the one Bush quoted begins with Clamence uttering a Sartre-sounding proclamation, "no excuses ever for anyone" and ends by Clamence calling himself "an enlightened advocate of slavery." Both remarks reflect Camus' bitterness toward Sartre after their 1952 breakup, and his admission, in an interview in The New York Times Book Review in February 1957 that Sartre and his close colleagues were targeted by "The Fall."

The paragraph from which the president quoted begins by having Clamence extolling slavery, as Camus believed Sartre had done by aligning himself with the French Communist Party. Then Camus has Clamence condemn himself of hypocrisy, for which Camus criticized Sartre in his journal, by saying that that he "was always talking of freedom. At breakfast I used to spread it on my toast, I used to chew it all day long, and in company my breath was delightfully redolent of freedom. With that key word I would bludgeon whoever contradicted me; I made it serve my desires and my power."

After the "long-distance race" statement Camus concludes the paragraph with other Sartre-sounding phrases, especially on the theme of our being alone with our freedom and freedom being a heavy burden to bear.

Camus' character, while sounding resolute and tireless about pursuing freedom, making it seem daunting and thankless but the mark of a true human being, is really prattling on about freedom. He is intimidating people with it, using it for purposes of self-interest and does not at all believe in it. The grand-sounding phrase about freedom being a "long-distance race" is just another piece of flimflam. Camus, a writer who pondered every phrase, every word, might turn in his grave upon hearing Bush misunderstand his meaning. He might also insist that those responsible for the Camus vogue among the neoconservatives because of his determined opposition to terrorism are picking and choosing their Camus in their own self-interest, ignoring his equally determined condemnation of political violence. But, great French ironist that he was, he meant just as well be smiling a sly smile of satisfaction at seeing the U.S. president spreading freedom on his breakfast toast.

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(Ronald Aronson is author of "Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It." He is distinguished professor of humanities at Wayne State University and can be reached at ac7159@wayne.edu.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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