The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus by Andy Martin – review

The story of how two French thinkers fell out over Marx is retold here with a lightness of touch rare in philosophy primers

The Guardian – Sunday 24 June 2012

Do we look the way we are, or are we the way we look? Here to help is the dustjacket of Andy Martin’s The Boxer and the Goalkeeper. In one corner there’s Jean-Paul Sartre, a withered homunculus looking furtively away from the camera. In the other there’s Albert Camus, soft eyes glowing, hair gleaming in what might be a Hollywood portrait. After the war, people were forever telling him he looked like Humphrey Bogart. It was a good call, but it would have been even better if someone had said Peter Lorre’s snivels and grovels would make him an excellent Sartre in a Casablanca-style movie about the two thinkers’ respective contributions to the French resistance.

The Boxer & The Goal Keeper: Sartre versus Camus
by Andy Martin

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Not that Camus ever claimed to have been an action hero. Some anti-Nazi journalism aside, he always said he had done very little in the war. This wasn’t modesty but the reflexive honour of a man who had seen enough active service to know that there were others who had seen a whole lot more. Some of them had seen so much they would never see anything again, including the spectacle of Sartre – who during the occupation had done nothing but kowtow to its leaders in order to get one of his plays put on – talking tough after the fact.

Otherwise, Camus and Sartre had a lot in common. Both men, as Martin points out in his account of the dreads and doubts that fed into postwar French philosophy, grew up without fathers. Both were skirt-chasers. Both believed writing was about pinning down what it feels like to be alive. Both saw the human condition as contradictory, even tautologous. “I am not what I am,” said Sartre. “I am a stranger to myself,” said Camus. Both argued for the possibility of what Martin calls “secular transcendence” – the belief that even in the absence of God an individual human life might still be necessary, might still have meaning. Both, in other words, were existentialists.

Where they differed was over Marx. Sartre thought Marxism compatible with existentialism. Since Marxism is a determinism – you might think you’re in control of your life but you are in fact the plaything of bigger forces such as economics and ideology – you don’t need to be Bertrand Russell to see that Sartre was on dodgy ground. Men are either free or they aren’t, but outside Wonderland they can’t be both. For all his claims to have reconciled humanism and historicism (and Hegel and Heidegger), Sartre hadn’t squared a circle. He’d just run rings around himself. Camus told him so. What Martin calls their “duel to the death” was on.

Or it would have been had Camus not died in a car crash in 1960, aged 46. Their fight had only just got going, really, with Sartre jabbing (and jabbering) about revolutionary bloodshed being not only necessary but self-nullifying (“Violence, like the spear of Achilles, can heal the wounds that it has made”), and Camus counterpunching with the clarity of what ought to be common sense (“no cause justifies the death of the innocent”).

Andy Martin tells this microcosmic story of postwar French thought with a lightness of touch not always found in philosophy primers. Even-handed as he tries to be, the joyous clarity of his prose means he can’t help siding with the straight-talking Camus against the impenetrable posturing of Sartre’s non-fiction. How, one wonders while trying once again with Being and Nothingness, could a man whose novels draw breath from the concrete and the empirical exhale such windy abstractions? Not everything can be made simple, of course, but Sartre’s spiralling, self-mirroring, vertiginous philosophising is nowhere of a piece with the stabbing simplicity of his fiction. The suspicion arises that he wrote like that because he wanted to appear cleverer than he was. If so, he was disobeying existentialism’s first imperative – being true to yourself. No wonder Camus, who was forever admitting to his lies, disapproved.

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper is the latest in a line of recent books about two guys squaring up to one another. Wittgenstein and Popper, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Keynes and Hayek – all have had their tiffs turned into enterprises of great pitch and moment by publishers desperate for new lines on old battles. One of the many virtues of Martin’s book is that its fighting form actually suits its antagonists’ philosophical fisticuffs. Their row about the rights and wrongs of violent revolution was the central showdown of the second half of the 20th century.

Not that everything is quite perfect here. At one point in his narrative Martin tells us that “every serious book reviewer hates the books he reviews”, a suggestion that brought out the syllogist in me. No serious book reviewer likes the books he reviews. I like The Boxer and the Goalkeeper. I am not a serious book reviewer. Which means, perhaps, that you shouldn’t pay me any regard when I say that this is a fine book.

The Boxer And The Goalkeeper: Sartre Vs Camus

Andy Martin

Simon & Schuster, £14.99

By Stuart Kelly, Published on Sunday 3 June 2012

THIS coming November, Penguin are publishing a new translation of The Outsider, the most famous book by Albert Camus, describing it as “the classic existentialist novel”.

It was a label Camus found increasingly irksome; in America, he insisted he was “against modern existentialism”. When Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus’s sometime ally, sometime foe, and the most prominent exponent of existentialist philosophy, was in America, the only question people seemed to want to ask was “what is existentialism?”, despite the fact that Sartre now considered himself a Marxist.

Observations such as these, which complicate and entangle the lazy stereotype of what Camus and Sartre thought, typifies Andy Martin’s elegant study of the pair. It is one of the most accessible and intelligent books on philosophy I have read this year, as alert to the human drama as the intellectual conflict, and unfailingly observant to the nuances and subtexts.

Sartre and Camus are almost a parody of opposites. Camus, the pied noir, had the Bogart-like good looks; Sartre, the Parisian, was notoriously, unashamedly ugly (and usually unwashed). Camus died too young; Sartre lived too long. Camus’s engaged directly with the Resistance as editor of Combat; Sartre “intellectually” resisted (or, as Camus quipped, “aimed his armchair in the direction of history”). Sartre was an indefatigable, profuse writer while Camus aspired to silence, to “writing degree zero”. Sartre joined the Communist Party while Camus declined to be doctrinaire; Camus accepted and Sartre declined the Nobel Prize for Literature; Sartre constantly sought radical disjunctions while Camus looked for underlying continuities. Martin is too subtle a writer (and thinker) to allow these binary opposites to determine the story: time and again we see their positions reversing, merging and shifting.

Although the title presents it as a simple conflict, the text reveals something more like an angst-ridden love affair, with each simultaneously needing and resenting the other. At times their positions seem to become deliberately more extreme in provocation of each other.

For example, in terms of the civil war in Algeria, Sartre is far more extreme than the French Algerian. While Camus refuses to be either a victim or a coloniser, Sartre insists one can only be one or the other. Camus preaches pacificism on both sides while Sartre maintains that only through revolutionary, even divine, violence can the colonised cease to be victims.

The concentration on the Second World War and the Algerian War shows how philosophy, for both men, was not something abstract or confined to the ivory tower, but a profoundly ethical question with life and death consequences. The scene where Camus and a girlfriend come upon a Nazi roadblock while he is carrying the proofs of Combat is a moral parable in miniature: Camus takes a risk that the women are not being searched as thoroughly, and passes the proofs to his girlfriend – which, had he been wrong, would have certainly sentenced her to death. Was what he did rash or pragmatic or brave or cowardly? Martin’s book is a wonderful corrective to the sententious piffle about how to be happy and the benefits of having a holiday that passes as philosophy in Britain today.

Usually, Martin is keen-eyed about odd synchronicities: both Sartre and Camus, for example, were meteorologists during the war, and both responded to their duties in idiosyncratic ways. As such, it is curious he does not dwell more on their parents (perhaps a lingering fear of gauche Freudianism?) Both men lost their fathers at an early age; more interestingly, both exhibit a strange relationship with mothers. In The Outsider, Mersault’s murder of the Arab is inextricably linked to his incapacity to grieve for his mother: the prosecutor practically accuses Mersault of matricide. Sartre dealt with the issue in his play The Flies, an updating of the Greek myth of Orestes killing his mother Clytemnestra. The agonistic relationship between Sartre and Camus – which, before it becomes an intellectual tussle is often evident in their sexual rivalry – seems to some degree Oedipal.

It is as an actual reader of their work that Martin excels. He notices, for example, that while Camus refers to 166 different philosophers and thinkers in The Rebel, the name of Jean-Paul Sartre is a glaring omission. Likewise, in analysing Sartre’s obituary for Camus, Martin pays close attention to the modes and tenses, concluding that, in their final bout, Sartre writes about Camus as if he were already dead long before the fatal car crash.

It is no mean achievement to produce a book which will be surprising and enlightening to readers already acquainted with the work of Sartre and Camus – who would have thought Sartre was so obsessed with octopuses, or that the dog disappeared from the scene of the crash that killed Camus? – and which functions at the same time as an easy but unpatronising introduction for those who are not.

The autobiographical elements – which in other books can be superfluous and jarring – are here pertinent and develop a proper rapport with the reader. The Boxer And The Goalkeeper conjures the worlds and minds of Sartre and Camus with precision and empathy, and suggests the ways in which their differences are still being enacted today.