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Sartre and Camus in New York

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus

The International Herald Tribune recently featured a fascinating article on perhaps the two greatest French philosophers of the twentieth century and their perception of New York. The article, written by Andy Martin, argues that the later schism between Sartre and Camus can already be recognized in their different reactions to New York.

Loving and hating New York
Just after the end of WWII, both Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus spent time in New York. Whereas Camus loved the amount of stimuli to the brain - the colors, the activity, the smells, the sounds, etcetera, Sartre was kind of disappointed with New York and America in general. I am particularly interested by what Sartre says about the city.

The unfree city
Jean-Paul Sartre expected to enter a city that perfectly matched his liberté ideals, but was disappointed by what he found. Being struck by the city’s architecture, he found the scale of the city to be too large for the human perception. He wrote an article titled “Manhattan: The Great American Desert”, saying that the city’s focal point was somewhere around infinity, over the horizon. He saw commodity capitalism as the force that created the endless landscape of anonymous numerical roads and avenues, which was in line with what he called Americanization of society: “America is hypernormative, producing citizen clones”. 

New York’s Grid. ©Zemlinki

The disorienting effect of the metropolis
I never knew much about Sartre, but this article immediately takes his thoughts to “the urban”. It is interesting to see that his thinking is in line with that of people like Richard Sennett and Georg Simmel, who both argue that the metropolis, disorients people. Simmell says that the metropolis in general produces an abundance nervous stimuli that reduces our ability to react emotionally to the things we encounter, creating blasé citizens. Sennett is more concerned with the American metropolis specifically, which because of the commodification of urban land turn out to be endless, mindless and geometric divisions of space in which it is more difficult to establish anything of real value.

Bright future
Sartre is ‘optimistic’, however, holding out the hope that New York will someday witness semi-apocalyptic developments because all those skyscrapers simply cannot last and someday will have to come down.

These are just some random notes and thoughts of me on the wonderful article, which can be read online. I urge you to read it.

Previously, I paid some more attention to the commodification and desorienting effects of urban space:
Rational Order vs. Spontaneousness in the Modern City
The Origination and Mental Effects of New York’s Grid

Filed under Jean-Paul Sartre Albert Camus grid Sennett Simmel

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