Sartre and Camus in New York

New York Times – Opinionator

In December 1944, Albert Camus, then editor of Combat, the main newspaper of the French Resistance, made Jean-Paul Sartre an offer he couldn’t refuse: the job of American correspondent. Perhaps, in light of the perpetual tension and subsequent acrimonious split between the two men, he was glad to get him out of Paris. What is certain is that Sartre was delighted to go. He’d had enough of the austerities and hypocrisies of post-liberation France and had long fantasized about the United States. Camus himself would make the trip soon after, only to return with a characteristically different set of political, philosophical and personal impressions.

In some sense, existentialism was going home. The “roots” of 20th-century French philosophy are canonically located on mainland Europe, in the fertile terrain of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. But it was not entirely immune to the metaphysical turmoil of the United States at the end of the 19th century. French philosophy retained elements of the pragmatism of C.S. Peirce and the psychologism of William James (each receives an honorable mention in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”). More significantly, both Camus and Sartre had learned and borrowed from 20th-century writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and dos Passos —and, of course, from the films of Humphrey Bogart. Camus, in particular, cultivated the trench coat with the upturned collar and described himself as a mix of Bogart, Fernandel and a samurai.

When Sartre stepped off the plane in New York in January 1945, only months after the liberation of Paris, his head full of American movies, architecture and jazz, he might have expected to feel in his natural habitat — the pre-eminent philosopher of liberté setting foot in the land of freedom, a nation temperamentally and constitutionally addicted to liberty. Was there not already something of the existential cowboy and intellectual gunslinger in Sartre’s take-no-hostages attitude? Camus must have thought so in dispatching him to the United States.

Sartre wrote dozens of articles for Combat while in the States, often phoning them back to Camus in Paris, and eventually went on to talk philosophy at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and elsewhere. In the process, he acquired an American girlfriend (about whom he wrote abundantly and explicitly to Simone de Beauvoir: “I am killed by passion and lectures.”). But the very personal article he wrote for Town & Country, “Manhattan: The Great American Desert,” records that he suffered on arrival from “le mal de New York.” He never really recovered.

Sartre, leaving the confines of the Plaza Hotel, walked up Fifth Avenue beneath a frozen sky, looking for New York, but not finding it. There was nothing on which to focus his gaze; it was a city for “the far-sighted,” he wrote, since the natural focal point was somewhere around infinity, over the horizon. He missed the intimate quartiers of Paris, finding in their place only “filmy atmospheres, longitudinally stretched masses with nothing to mark a beginning or end.” Just the kind of place, one might think, where an expatriate existentialist ought to fit right in. And yet he suffered stubbornly from a sense of disorientation. “In the numerical anonymity of roads and avenues, he wrote, “I am just anybody, anywhere.” New York put him in mind of the steppes or the pampas.

But soon enough he started to realize what his fundamental objection really was. The whole point of the city was to fortify itself against nature. But Manhattan failed to do that: an “open” city with a limitless sky above, it let nature in on every side. It was, of course, an island, and thus too exposed to the elements: to storm, hurricane, snow, heat, wind, floods. It had no real protection against anything. “I feel as though I were camping in the heart of a jungle crawling with insects.”` Therefore he learned to appreciate it only while crossing it in a car, as if he were “driving across the great plains of Andalusia.”

And just as he inverts the perception of the American city, so too Sartre turns the notion of American freedom inside out. By February, having been shuttled to and fro across the States, wined, dined and given propaganda tours to industrial installations, he comes to the conclusion in another article, written for Le Figaro, that America is the land of conformism. He finds that beneath its notional attachment to “individualism,” America does not actually trust the solitary individual. Despite the “liberal economy,” America is an embodiment of a Rousseauist “social contract” in which the general will of the “collectivity” dominates: “Each American is educated by other Americans and he educates others in turn. Everywhere in New York, in colleges and beyond, there are courses in Americanization.” Existentialist anomie is prohibited: America is hyper-normative, producing citizen clones.

It is Sartre’s most powerful and recurrent complaint: that people are being treated as things. The “nausea” of the 1930s, elicited by pebbles and trees and ocean depths (and thus, as in New York, nature in general) morphed, in the ’40s and ’50s, into a specific aversion to the nonorganic products of economic forces. In America he understood that things (the “in-itself”), in all their massiveness, were threatening to reify the amorphous human (or “for-itself”) and produce what he called in a later formulation the “practico-inert.”

Still, Sartre holds out the hope that New York is moving in a generally Sartrean and semi-apocalyptic direction. All those skyscrapers? Obviously, they are doomed. “They are already a bit run-down; tomorrow, perhaps, they will be torn down. In any case, their construction required a faith that we no longer have.” The Chrysler and the Empire State already appear to Sartre like ancient ruins.

Camus — officially a cultural emissary of the French government — followed in Sartre’s footsteps in 1946, providing an ironic commentary on his predecessor. Where Sartre was obsessed with architecture, Camus was indifferent, oblivious. “I notice that I have not noticed the skyscrapers, they seemed to me perfectly natural.” He had no issues with commodity capitalism. He admired colors, foodstuffs, smells, taxis, tie shops, ice cream, the “orgy of violent lights” that was Broadway, a jazz bar in Harlem and the giant Camel advertising icon of “an American soldier, his mouth open, puffing out clouds of real smoke.”

He fell in love several times over, notably with Patricia Blake, a 19-year-old student and Vogue apprentice. He read her pages from “The Plague” and she, in return, noting his fascination with the American way of death, found him issues of undertakers’ trade magazines — Sunnyside, Casket,and Embalmer’s Monthly. He particularly admired a funeral parlor ad: “You die. We do the rest.”

Camus had to keep explaining to American students that he never had been an ‘existentialist.’

At Vassar he gave a lecture on “The Crisis of Mankind” and was dazzled by the spectacle of “an army of long-legged young starlets, lazing on the lawn.” But he was preoccupied by what he thought of as the “American tragedy.” The tragedy of the students was that they lacked a sense of the tragic. For Sartre the tragic was the mechanization and objectification of the human. For Camus, the tragic was something more elusive: whatever it was, it was missing in America.

There was an obvious difference of context between Camus and the students he was addressing. He’d come from Europe, which had just spent several years tearing itself apart, whereas they remained more or less physically untouched by the war. Camus was welcomed both as literary luminary (the translation of “The Outsider” came out during his stay) and Resistance hero. But his tragic perception of life was not reducible to the question of the Second World War. Sailing back from New York to France, at night in the middle of the Atlantic, staring down from the deck into the ocean, mesmerized by the wake of the ship, Camus spoke of his love for “these seas of forgetfulness, these unlimited silences that are like the enchantment of death.”

Camus, the Resistance philosopher of solidarity, discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) the problem of other minds in New York. Unlike Sartre, he had no difficulty with things, trees, the Empire State Building, the impersonal ocean. It was only on looking into the face of another human being that he fully experienced a sense of the tragic. While hell-is-other-people Sartre came to invoke a notion of the “group-in-fusion,” Camus — who had to keep explaining to the students that he was not and never had been an “existentialist” — increasingly redefined the “absurd” in terms of an inevitable failure of language to bridge the gap between individuals. And it was not just the problem of inadequate English in speaking to Americans. He had the same feeling in Quebec.

The clash between Sartre and Camus would come to be defined by their political divergence in the ’50s, crystallized by the publication of “The Rebel” by Camus. But already, in their different reactions to the United States — and particularly New York — we have the ingredients of a philosophical schism. Sartre, on his return to Europe, recalls above all America’s racism and practice of segregation, the inevitable counterpart to its drive to conformity. He writes a play, “The Respectful Prostitute,” that dramatizes the episode of the Scottsboro Boys in the ’30s. The split between contending forces — East and West, black and white, bourgeoisie and proletariat, humans and things — becomes the defining concern of his philosophy, summarized in the (admittedly rebarbative) phrase he comes up with in his “Critique of Dialectical Reason” to define boxing, but which also applies to his relationship with Camus: “a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity.” Existentialism in this form, inflected with Marxism, infiltrates the American intelligentsia, is absorbed into black power philosophy (“black existentialism”) and finds an echo in writers as disparate as Richard Wright and Norman Mailer.

Camus, on the other hand, begins to sound more like Samuel Beckett. While Sartre after the war was more than ever a self-professed “writing machine,” Camus was increasingly graphophobic, haunted by a “disgust for all forms of public expression.” Sartre’s philosophy becomes sociological and structuralist in its binary emphasis. Camus, all alone, in the night, between continents, far away from everything, is already less the solemn “moralist” of legend (“the Saint,” Sartre called him), more a (pre-)post-structuralist in his greater concern and anxiety about language, his emphasis on difference and refusal to articulate a clear-cut theory: “I am too young to have a system,” he told one audience. And it is this anti-systematic aspect of America that he retains and refuses to clarify: “After so many months I know nothing about New York.”

Paradoxically, it is clear that Sartre took his notion of collective action from what he witnessed in the United States rather than in the Soviet Union. It is typical that he should choose to frame his notion of freedom and the fate of individual identity in essentially literary (or textual) terms. Beware the editor! He didn’t like the way his articles were butchered when they appeared in American journals and admits to being apprehensive of something similar — “le rewriting” — happening to his plays, should they ever be put on in the United States. The F.B.I., while accusing Camus of writing “inaccurate reports,” also misidentified him as “Canus” and “Corus.”

Sartre and Camus’s love-hate relationship was played out and reflected in their on-off romance with America. As Camus put it, “It is necessary to fall in love … if only to provide an alibi for all the random despair you are going to feel anyway.” Above all the two thinkers emphasize that America is always balanced precariously, like a tight-rope walker, on the thread of a philosophical dialectic.

Sartre, Camus and a woman called Wanda

Sartre looked like an ogre; Camus was a movie star among philosophers. Their biographer Andy Martin recounts the love triangle that soured their friendship.

The Telegraph – 07 Jun 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre, the great existentialist philosopher, had one big problem: he looked like something hanging off the outside of Notre Dame. This wouldn’t have been so much of a problem except that he was also a self-confessed Don Juan. His philosophy explained how to score even though ugly. It was like a self-help manual for ogres and losers. But then he had the misfortune to run into Albert Camus: another philosopher, another self-confessed serial seducer, but – and this was the key point – much, much better looking.

Camus was a movie star among French philosophers. He had Resistance chic, and wore the collar of his trench coat turned up like Humphrey Bogart. He was a man Vogue wanted to photograph, who never really had to try too hard. Whereas Sartre had to try very hard. “Why are you going to so much trouble?” Camus, all laid-back cool, said to him one night when they were out drinking in some Left Bank bar and Sartre had been laboriously applying his chat-up routine. “Have you had a proper look at this mug?” Sartre replied. So when they fell out it was always about more than a woman. But it was definitely about a woman, too. Her name was Wanda.

In the middle of the Second World War, Sartre and Camus had their own private little war going. But Sartre’s relationship with Wanda went right back to before the war, pre-Camus. For years, Sartre had been obsessing over Wanda’s older sister, Olga Kosakiewicz, one of Simone de Beauvoir’s students. De Beauvoir seduced Olga to start with, then tried to pass her on to Sartre. But Olga wasn’t really up for it. De Beauvoir was a lot better looking than Sartre, and taller, too. So began Sartre’s fixation on the first of the half-Russian Kosakiewicz sisters. Olga got into his plays; she got into his novels. But one thing he could never quite pull off was getting her into his bed. She resisted without ever entirely pushing him away. She was Sartre’s unattainable object of desire, the “transcendental signifier”, as their friend Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst, would have said. I think Sartre managed to interpret all his sexual frustration as good for his existential soul.

None of which stopped him from changing course when her younger sister, Wanda, arrived in Paris in 1937 and seducing her instead. And for real this time, not just literarily. Mate or sublimate? It was like a test of existential freedom: you had to be able to overcome such apparent drawbacks as (a) sub-Napoleonic stature; (b) one “lazy” eye; (c) poor complexion, thinning hair, inadequate hygiene, pipe-smoking, et cetera. If he could bed Wanda, it would be proof that existentialism really worked after all. If he could bed Wanda, anyone could do just about anything in this world – the era of absolute freedom for all would finally be ushered in. In theory.

In practice, the affair with Wanda did not go smoothly. He thought she had “the mental faculties of a dragonfly” and told her so. She didn’t care. She was an artist, not a philosopher. She admitted to him that she didn’t know what sensuality was. Sartre offered to educate her. The first time he kissed her and tried to hold her down on her bed, she managed to get away and hurried to the bathroom to throw up.

The Extract: ‘The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus’

After his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre had turned to bitter rivalry, Albert Camus found peace in rural Provence. It was not to last…

The Independent – SATURDAY 26 MAY 2012

Albert Camus’s friend and publisher Michel Gallimard (along with Ringo Starr, Ava Gardner, and the King of Morocco) owned an unusual, expensive, and elegant car. One advert described it as “the fastest 4-seater sports coupé in the world”. It had a 360 horsepower engine and was capable of up to 240 kph.

The car was a Facel Vega. The Vega began, in 1954, as a two-door but in 1956 Facel developed a four-door model, with a bigger engine and rear-hinged doors – known as “suicide doors”, because it would be relatively easy to open them at speed and fling yourself out (and were popular with gangsters of the thirties because they enabled you to dispose of people with style). The sporty, speedy two-door Vega had its own problems. Michel Gallimard, for example, had some anxieties about the rear left wheel, which had a tendency to seize up. And there was known to be a lot of freeplay in the Facel Vega’s steering. The mechanic who repaired Gallimard’s said: “This car is a coffin on wheels.” In the first week of January 1960, Camus was due to take the train with his wife and family. He already had a ticket. Then Gallimard offered him a lift in the Vega.

Over the winter, Camus had been living and working in the Provençal village of Lourmarin, between Aix and Avignon. Here he was as contented with life as he had ever been. Aged 44, he quoted Nietzsche at the age of 43: “My life is at this instant at its meridian.”

Here he felt at home, mingling with poets (René Char, an old friend from the war days) and footballers (members of Lourmarin United). Lourmarin was in France but out of it. It belonged to the vague and vast “South”, the Mediterranean civilisation that Algeria too was part of. The “Nordic” (especially Paris) was for Camus the land of the cold philosopher kings, of Descartes and Jean-Paul Sartre and the symbolic, while the savage “South” was the realm of instinct and passion and well-being. Camus was always desperate to leave Paris in the rear-view mirror, almost like a fugitive, a man on the run.

For most of 1959, far from Paris, Camus was working away on his semi-autobiographical novel, The First Man, in the loft room on the second floor, which he had converted into a study. He didn’t work feverishly like Sartre, “rushing” night and day, but he was assiduous: he could sit for hours at a time, recalling key experiences, struggling to reformulate them, just as he used to stare at a clock or practise doing nothing, trying to imagine all the time that writing was just like swimming in the Mediterranean.

Everything reminded him of his homeland, the vineyards and the mountains. That one thing could be like another, that one being could resemble another – a metaphorical principle – underlay all his thinking. For Camus in this last phase of his life, Algeria represented the primal state: it was pre-literary; it was truth. Everything that came afterwards was already removed from the truth. Truth was something that one had to return to, to recover. Perhaps it was also the “one thing” that could never be fully expressed.

It would be too narrow to say that – like some intellectual foreign legionnaire – he was trying to forget. Much less that he was specifically trying to forget Sartre. But it is clear that he was trying to go back to before Paris, to before 1943 and the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the “society of signs”. To recover everything that had been lost along the way. Arriving in Lourmarin from Paris on 28 April 1958, Camus lingered outside, soaking it all in, embracing the countryside and the sky and the evening: “Grey sky. In the garden marvellous roses weighed down with water, as delicious as fruit. The rosemary is blooming. Go for a walk. In the evening the violet of the irises even deeper.”

Perhaps, like an antithesis of Sartre, Camus was always a Zen-inclined poet of nature at heart. So we find him, for example, enjoying – so simple – the “rustle of the grass” beneath his feet. Or hymning the wisteria. Or lizards. “I love the little lizards,” he wrote, “as dry as the stones they run along. They are like me, all skin and bone.”

The key word in this quasi-haiku, to my way of thinking, is the word “like”: Camus – perhaps it is the silent alter-Camus, the Camus that is not Camus-the-writer – found it easy to identify with lizards, with wisteria, with abstract patterns in the foliage or the ocean. To see the “family resemblances” (as Wittgenstein would say) – a coefficient of relatedness – between himself and other beings; to understand one creature as a simile of another. It is only when it came to other human beings that there was more of an issue.

When Camus asked himself what he shared in common with others, he came up with different answers at different times: a feeling of being alive, the night, the sun, stars, oxygen, grass beneath our feet, desert, sea. But it seemed as if he only half believed his own argument. The one common denominator, the universal, that Camus really seriously believed in is death. Still afflicted with tuberculosis (he had to learn to breathe through only one nostril) he was often preoccupied with thoughts of death, but rarely just his own. In Lourmarin, in September 1959, he calculated how many people were dying at any time, around the planet.

“He died instantly.” It is a phrase often used, about Camus for one. But it is an idea that Camus himself derided and rejected, notably in “Reflections on the Guillotine”: nobody died instantly; death was always a long drawn-out affair. He was always guessing at it, imagining, living it. He thought (as Sartre once had) of the condemned man in a novel of Faulkner’s who recognises his guilt and is resigned to death. The prisoner on death row, again, was a dead man walking, which is how Camus tended to see himself and why he identified so readily with the condemned. He – like Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel; like his own, Meursault – found himself at home on the scaffold. He even got his daughter to hop into a big chest they kept in the loft to see what it looked like being in a coffin.

And yet, for all his dark, doom-laden thoughts, now – at the end of the 1950s – he felt more intensely alive than ever. On the brink of attaining immortality, or at least a sense of eternity in the everyday. If only it were possible to attain absolute truth in one’s very being. To be, without ambiguity or equivocation, and enjoy the kind of intensity Sartre too once dreamed of: “The lie is a form of sleep or dream, like illusion. Truth is the only power, effervescent, inexhaustible. If we were capable of living only on and for truth: youthful, immortal energy that is in us. The man of truth does not age. One more small effort of will and he will never die.”

This was the “degree zero” state that he had sought when he was a student: the impossible, savage state of “being truth” that implies making war against oneself. Camus’s answer was to split off the writing and attribute it all to his magic pen (just as a surfer speaks of his board doing the work for him, or a golfer of a club letting him down): “I am a writer. But it is not I but my pen that thinks, remembers or discovers for me.”

Camus strained to juggle the savage and the symbolic. It was like a high-wire balancing act or one of his unfeasible yoga positions that could be sustained for only so long: “this precious vibration” alongside which “nothing else exists”. And if he fell off? “If I can’t stick to this discipline, given the way things are, then I accept I have to pay the price and be punished.” This constant striving to attain truth or to be truth – perhaps that was all that truth could really be.

At other times, moodily wandering the countryside, Camus wondered if it was possible to love anyone. He had been reading Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago and he read it as not just, obviously, a love story – the relationship, torn by Revolution, of Zhivago and Lara – but a meditation on love: “this is the kind of love that expands to encompass all beings at once. The doctor loves his wife, and Lara, and others, and Russia. If he dies, it is from being separated from his wife, from Lara, from Russia and everyone else.” The implication was that if only it were possible to love enough, then you would never die. It was a new theory of his: love – intransitive love – as a form of immortality. While Sartre was wrestling with Marxism, Camus was translating Groucho Marx’s theory, “You’re only as old as the woman you feel”, into a more lyrical vein.

On Saturday 2 January 1960, having fired off a volley of love letters, Camus saw off Francine and the twins at Avignon railway station. Then he got back in the car and put his train ticket in his pocket (where it would later be found intact). He had his unfinished novel “Elements for The First Man”, together with a copy of Nietzsche’s Le Gai Savoir, in his briefcase. Michel Gallimard had persuaded him to drive to Paris in the Facel Vega.

Albert Camus died after a road accident on 4 January 1960.

This is an edited extract from ‘The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus’, published on 6 June by Simon & Schuster. Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University © Andy Martin

Five-minute memoir: Andy Martin recalls how a stolen book changed his life

The Independent – SATURDAY 26 MAY 2012

It was a small family bookshop, on a peaceful back street in a small town on the fringes of London. I treated it as my own personal library, and I would sit there for hours on end, often on the floor, usually not buying anything. I loved that bookshop, so naturally I had to go and betray it.

I had a particular soft spot for the foreign-languages section down in the basement. It was like going somewhere far far away, but without the trouble and expense of hopping on a boat or a plane. On this particular day – I was aged 15 and a half – there was no one else in ‘FOREIGN’; I had the place all to myself. For some reason I pulled the fattest book I could find off the shelf.

I couldn’t understand too much of it, and not just because it was in French, but I felt as if it could understand me. Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) had a special kind of music to it, like a remix of “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus”, that instantly jazzed up my brain cells. Up until that point I had been a generally law-abiding citizen. Now, suddenly, I could feel a strange metamorphosis creeping over me.

Not long before, I had been stood up – waited for a girl to turn up at a local coffee shop, only she didn’t. Her name was Sylvie. Then, riffling through the pages of Being and Nothingness, I read this, with an electrifying feeling of identification. “I have a rendezvous with Sylvie at 4 o’clock.” Re-reading it now (page 43) I see that the author wrote “Pierre”, but I am sure that I read “Sylvie”. And, look, this was surely my café too, “replete with customers, tables, booths, mirrors, light, smoky atmosphere, the sound of voices, the clinking of saucers, footsteps”. All in all, yes, “a plenitude of being”. And yet, when he looks for the face of Sylvie and doesn’t find it, “absence haunts the café”.

All this sound, the people, the food, the coffee: it was all subtly permeated, perfumed, with the vacancy, the lack, that was Sylvie. It was obvious that the relationship with Sylvie was not going to work out too well, but if I didn’t have Sylvie at least I had Sartre. Maybe he was more my type anyway. He took my existence – broadly stupid, meaningless and futile – and made it existential.

The book had found its ideal reader: I had found my book. And if I had had any sense or regard for morality, I would have duly saved up and bought it. But I could feel this big book in my hand urging me on to do something reckless and illicit. The book made me do it.

When I went up the stairs and crept past the bookseller and the till, where I did not stop to pay, I was sure that it was making an enormous guilty hump in my coat.

But I kept on going regardless, out the door, down the street, expecting alarm bells at any moment, the scream of sirens, pursuit by high-speed police cars. I was ready to face the consequences, whatever they may be. I would assume responsibility.

I didn’t think my parents or teachers or twin brother would understand, but the book would. The author would. I was at large in the world, on the run, a fugitive from justice, on my own – except for the book.

So this was what it felt like to be alive. I existed – for the first time. The book-thief was escaping on a bus and he was reading Being and Nothingness. I see now, of course, that he (my younger, more felonious self) was not escaping at all: he was hooked, on a bus driving him deeper and deeper into a terrible addiction to French philosophers. I carried the book around with me in the way an apprentice gangster stuffs a gun into his belt.

Many months later, driven by remorse and the 103 bus, I went back to that undeservingly ripped-off bookshop, book in hand, with some vague notion of confessing or paying up or doing penance. And, at some level, I really wanted to ditch the Sartre once and for all and recover my innocence.

The bookshop had of course ceased to exist. It had morphed from being into nothingness (a pile of rubble that would later become an estate agent).

This time I really did feel responsible, as if I had personally caused the downfall of a once-mighty edifice by running off with the one book that served as its foundation. I had single-handedly deconstructed an entire shopful of books.

There was no confession. No one could absolve me of anything. But perhaps – I still feel – it is not too late to atone for that original sin and give back the book I stole.

‘The boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre versus Camus’ by Andy Martin has just been published by Simon & Schuster in hardback

Which came first, antisemitism or the Jew? Why not ask the boxer?

The JC.com – June 6, 2012

1 A suave restaurant in Manhattan. Midtown, near the Lincoln Centre. Not long ago. I was having dinner with a couple of women who were Broadway producers, and another guy. I had met him only five minutes earlier. The conversation was relatively unprovocative and mainly to do with musicals. Then, out of nowhere, he fixed me with his gaze, wagged an admonishing finger, and said: “Why do all Brits hate the Jews?” The conversation never fully recovered.

2 As reported by a friend in the Foreign Office. Generally based in Cairo and fluent in Arabic, he happened to be in Israel. He hadn’t even mentioned the Palestinians yet (although that was part of his brief). His interlocutor said: “When I go home, I am going to be listening to Mozart. So what is it you have against the Jews?”

3 Sacha Baron Cohen at the London première of The Dictator. “I am Prince Harry’s father. From his mother he gets his fair complexion. And from me he gets his enjoyment of dressing up as a Nazi.”

He was already so ugly that there was nothing his adversaries could do to him that hadn’t already been done.

In each case, we have a presumption of antisemitism, verging on anticipation, expectation, or invocation. Far from all the fine work and policies in so many enlightened countries prohibiting “hate” crime, there is a counterpoint tending towards something very like the opposite of a prohibition. Underlying all this is a premise (so obvious that it is practically invisible) that the philosopher René Descartes might have expressed in this way: “I think, therefore I am a Jew.” In other words, I know what it means to be Jewish. What can be called the logic, or perhaps the metaphysics of Jewish identity, was once brilliantly – if controversially – clarified by the great, 20th-century French thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre is probably best-known now for his resonant one-liner (from his play No Exit): “Hell is other people”. Being and Nothingness – the immense “essay on phenomenological ontology” which he started in Stalag XIID in 1940 and completed at the Café de Flore in Occupied Paris – can be seen as a meditation on the inevitability of conflict.

Sartre often referred to himself as “the boxer”, and boxing provides his recurrent image of human relations in general. His long-time companion, Simone de Beauvoir, citing Hegel, put it more emphatically in the epigraph to her novel, She Came to Stay. She wrote: “Each of us seeks the death of the other.”

It was hardly surprising that they should have taken this view. It must have seemed like a description of everyday life. People they knew were being arrested and killed. Others were collaborating. Thousands of Jews were being routinely rounded up and shipped off to die in the camps. This was the high tide of the Holocaust. The Gestapo could knock at any time. It is odd then that, as Sartre put it in an essay written some time later: “We were never so free as under the German Occupation.”

Sartre saw the individual broadly on the model of his own escape from the Stalag, in terms of liberation from confinement. The sense of freedom depends on a corresponding experience of opposition, the threat of domination. While the Nazis were intent on “stealing the future”, Sartre defined his brand of existentialism in terms of the annihilation of history: the past (any idea of a genealogy, for example) was nothing, the self-defining “project” everything. There was one obvious choice at the time: you could choose to be a collaborator or a resister – on the side of the fascists or against them.
By the same token, any notion of self-identity was precarious and unstable, balanced on a tightrope. The Nazis wanted to reduce people to the status of things or objects, to be inspected and labelled. They could be measured. They had skin of a certain pigmentation. For Sartre, the human being was no-thing.

When he wanted to criticise his intellectual sparring partner, Albert Camus’s attitude towards another man, he said that you “speak of him as though he were a soup tureen or a mandolin”. Things have a clear-cut function, a purpose or meaning. Humans don’t: they have to invent them.

Sartre was bound to come back to the concept of Jewishness after the war. Not only were Jews targeted by the Reich, objectified, scapegoated, excluded, exterminated but, conversely, the very assertion of Jewishness seemed like a mistake. In Réflexions sur la question juive, his 1946 work, Sartre argued that if Jews did not exist, antisemites would have to invent them. They made a weird, twisted sense of the world, and explained, in a magical way, why everything had gone so wrong with it. But – and this is the crucial insight that seems to me to explain why the guy in the Manhattan restaurant seemed to want Brits to hate Jews – it then also follows that Jews have need of antisemites. Why? Why on earth would you actually want to be hated?

Let me turn this around for a moment and relate another New York experience. New York, as someone once said, is the capital of a country that does not exist. Most of the time it seems exactly what it is: an offshore island (or archipelago). But for one day a year it really feels like an integral part of the United States – on July 4, the US Independence Day. New York joins forces with Americans at large by re-affirming their ancient hostility to colonial Britain. When I joined in the celebrations last year – on a boat on the Hudson River – I wasn’t content with just watching the fireworks. I wore a Union Jack T-shirt. I was praying for somebody to pick a fight with me; to re-enact the original conflict and thus give me a sense of really being British. Alas, everyone I met was unfailingly polite and pretended not to notice the provocation. I suppose in some sense I was yelling out: “Why do all Americans hate the Brits?” I was actually disappointed that no one even came close to chucking me in the river.

Jews, Sartre argued, have no real genetic or historical or cultural foundation. They manifestly don’t have a common faith (maybe they should, some would say, but in reality they don’t). They are a loose collage of myths and rituals (“quasi-history”). Their sense of solidarity arises only in the face of antisemitism. Contrary to all the fascist propaganda that went into overdrive in the 1930s and the Second World War, there is nothing inherent in all the disparate people who might lay claim to a Jewish identity, that could conceivably give rise to or justify the hostility of the antisemite. Antisemitism is irrational. But Jewishness, likewise, is (to use the word popularised by Camus) absurd.

And here we come to the core of the philosophical argument that Sartre boldly advanced (and that still sends shivers through anyone of a nervous disposition).

Jewishness depends for its very existence on antisemitism. Antisemitism is the origin of Jewishness, not the other way around. Only at the very moment when that identity is threatened with annihilation can it be fully affirmed. Which explains the Sacha Baron Cohen line (which is, and is not, a joke): I need to remind myself of Nazism (possibly by dressing up in Nazi uniform) in order to feel good about being a Jew. It is the exact corollary of the Beauvoir epigraph: providing that the other out there wants to do me down (or in), then I exist. The more that the other seeks my death, the more alive I am.

And there is no escape from this argument by erasing “I” and rewriting it as “we”. It is often said that Sartre’s thinking was inflected with Marxism. And it is true that Groucho remains at the core of existential thinking: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

The point about being a Jew is that you are signing up to a club. You are a supporter of a team, a fan, a follower. Maybe it’s a little like joining a fairly large Facebook group. So are we friends or aren’t we? That is the question that comes back time and time again in the writings of (to give two arbitrary examples that spring to mind) Woody Allen and Philip Roth (“now that is a real ‘Jew’! or is it?”). To be or not to be?

Certainly it seems to make a nonsense – an “absurdity” even – of any notion of a “Jewish state” (do we want a state governed by West Ham United, for example, since they have just been elevated to the Premiership, or one run by Spurs? (‘Arry for president?) Or rather the Jewish state is to be fundamentally undecided about whether or not there can be such a thing as Jewishness in the first place. To come back to Sartre’s original insight: Jewishness is a thing – a construct, an architecture of dreams – but I am no-thing.

To some extent Sartre’s purely philosophical point chimes in with more historically orientated but sceptical works such as – most recently – Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People. Sartre would add that Jews have to be perpetually reinvented. But for anyone who is outraged by the enunciation of the unthinkable, the consolation is that exactly similar thinking applies to Muslims. And even to the US itself, which loves a good enemy. So much so that they will happily take on someone else’s.

Sartre discovered his own loved/hated antagonist in Albert Camus. Camus was the handsome one – a movie star among philosophers – while he, Sartre, looked like something hanging off the outside of Notre Dame. His main advantage when it came to boxing was that he was already so ugly that there was nothing his adversaries could do to him that hadn’t already been done.

But here is the ultimate irony. Sartre found himself identifying with the Jews. He was a wannabe Jew. Or a fellow traveller. He reminds me a little of the dentist in Seinfeld who converted to Judaism in order to be able to tell Jewish jokes.

He identified with the proletariat, too, and (inverting the fascist propaganda that all Jews were capitalist fat cats involved in some kind of global conspiracy) saw Jews and workers as suffering similar kinds of persecution and exclusion. There were moments in his work and notably his later interviews (notably with the young Benny Lévy), in which he seemed to swing around to a more classically Jewish view of Jewishness and allow scope for notions of tradition and legacy.

If I am going to be brutally honest here, this was his least compelling period. It sounds like a boxer in his punch-drunk phase, reeling on the ropes. But if we go back to his epic mid-period in which he took on all-comers and knocked them flat, we find a bracing idea: the Jew is no one in particular; the Jew is anyone. That fabulous identity is a thing of smoke and mirrors. But then we are all Jews, groping after some meaning and reason and history that ultimately eludes us. Jewishness is the philosophical state par excellence.

Andy Martin is the author of “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus”, published on June 6 (Simon and Schuster)