Camus and Sartre’s intellectual fisticuffs

A fascinating and entertaining new book explores the fractious relationship between two of the twentieth century's most compelling intellects.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre Vs Camus. The title of a new book by Andy Martin, a dude-like don from Cambridge University, isn’t that promising. Neither is the subtitle: ‘They should have been a dream team. It turned into a duel to the death.’ And the cover, just to ram home the gimmicky, ‘prize bout’ theme, is mocked up like a 1950s boxing promotion.

Thankfully, The Boxer is not as naff as it sounds. In fact, Martin has produced a rather lovely, sometimes playful, sometimes moving and often very droll take on the life, loves and, yes, thought of two of the twentieth century’s most compelling intellects. The combative element is there, of course. And Martin certainly has fun pitting the two writers and thinkers against one another. Their ‘binary antagonisms’ seem to proliferate under Martin’s gaze: Jean-Paul Sartre the thinker versus Albert Camus the man of action; the lover of the symbolic versus the savage lover; the prolix writer versus the minimal stylist; and, of course, the ugly versus the beautiful. Lest we forget, Camus, eight years Sartre’s junior, was blessed with good looks. A young Humphrey Bogart, reckons Martin. Sartre, meanwhile, looked like ‘something hanging off the side of Notre Dame’.

But there are also good historical and biographical reasons for basing a book around a conflict between the two. For nearly a decade, up until Camus died in a car crash in 1960 aged 46, the two were engaged in an intellectual war with one another. Sartre’s support for Communism, albeit without actually joining the French Communist Party, had driven a wedge between the two one-time brothers in arms. For Camus, Sartre had sacrificed any notion of existential freedom at the altar of historical determinism; revolution was a mere prelude to tyranny. For Sartre, Camus had lost any sense of commitment, of the necessity of choosing sides; if Camus is not with us, then he’s against us. ‘An anti-communist is a dog’, Sartre was fond of saying at the time. But, and this is key, this wasn’t just a squabble between vainglorious intellectuals. In it, something of the historical moment was captured, too. The end of ideology, heralded by the likes of sociologist Raymond Aron, part of the original Les Temps Modernes editorial team alongside Sartre, had yet to be confirmed.

Yet, if it was the grand conflict between two visions of society which finally drove Camus and Sartre apart in the 1950s, tensions had long been simmering. Sartre intimated as much in the ferociously haughty critique of Camus he wrote for Les Temps Modernes in 1952: ‘My dear Camus, our friendship was never easy, but I will miss it.’

It certainly was never easy, as Martin makes clear. Even before they physically met, personal and professional antagonism permeated their relations. In 1938, a then 24-year-old, not to mention little-known Camus was busy writing the ‘Reading Room’ column for Alger Républicain. As he told his confidantes at the time, he was in awe of a brilliant new novel called Nausea, written by a rising intellectual star called Jean-Paul Sartre. Some of that enthusiasm comes through in the subsequent review: ‘The natural suppleness in the way he explores the extremes of conscious thought, his lacerating lucidity, reveals limitless gifts’, he said. But Camus, a man with literary aspirations himself, also had to define his idea of literature against Sartre. So Camus looked, with justification, for fault, too: ‘[Sartre’s] remarkable fictional gifts and the play of the toughest and the most lucid mind are both lavished and squandered.’ There is simply too much philosophy in Nausea, Camus argued. ‘Theory’ has eclipsed ‘life’.

Four years later, Sartre, confronted by Camus’ now burgeoning reputation, took his quiet revenge in a 20-page review of The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus. So while praising the works’ literary qualities, he was dismissive of their theoretical value: ‘M. Camus has the affectation of quoting the works of Jaspers, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, without, however, fully understanding them.’ This time, it seems, life had eclipsed theory. ‘Most of the criticisms are fair’, noted Camus, ‘but why that acid tone?’.

There was no acid when the two finally did meet in 1943, at the opening of Sartre’s new play, The Flies, a reworking of the myth of Orestes into an anti-Nazi allegory. Afterwards they went out for a drink with Simone de Beauvoir, which led to Sartre suggesting they go back to de Beauvoir’s hotel room to read his recently written play No Exit. A play about three people set in a single room was thus performed for the first time ever by three people sat in a single room.

And here Martin is very good: the background to the initial meeting is suddenly brought to the fore. They weren’t just meeting anywhere; they were meeting in the lobby of the renamed Théâtre de la Cité. And why had it been renamed? Because it used to be called The Sarah Bernhardt, a name that was far too Jewish in Occupied Paris in 1943. Martin brings the context to life, and with it he illuminates the thought of Sartre and Camus. They weren’t alone when they talked; they shared their cafes and their theatres with Nazi and SS officers. Anti-Jewish posters were plastered everywhere. Paris was, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, ‘a vast Stalag’.

It was this background which lent urgency to Camus’ and Sartre’s views on freedom and the human condition. Thanks to the Occupation, there was a heightened sense that history could go either way, that a fight was well and truly on. In this divided city, actions had weight, decisions mattered. ‘I have to choose between making a bomb and concentrating on philosophy’, Camus wrote from the mountains of the Massif Central during the war. The security of life, the solidity of being, of the in-itself, had vanished. ‘Friends and acquaintances would simply disappear in the night’, Martin writes.

It wasn’t that the Second World War created this feeling of uncertainty. Martin points out that in Nausea, written in the mid-1930s, the academic protagonist Roquentin feels that his biography of an obscure eighteenth-century nobleman is a ‘lie’ because it is written as if the outcome is known. A narrative, a teleology, orders life. But in everyday life, ‘the present, the future has by definition not yet taken place’. Without the comforting narrative complete with its clarifying coda – the Allies will beat the Nazis – the present becomes precarious. If the war didn’t create the awareness of the contingency of life, it certainly confirmed it.

Not that Martin is under any illusions about the heroic pretensions of his antagonists. His portrait of private Sartre is just the right side of bathetic. Having been called up in September 1939, Sartre finds himself, not at war, but in the ‘orderly countryside of Alsace Lorraine’. Clearly a little bored in his nine months at the front, Sartre found time to pen The Age of Reason, several works of philosophy, and fill 15 notebooks with notes. Little wonder that when his war did finally start, Sartre barely noticed that the Germans had encircled the regiment. While a few French soldiers took refuge in a nearby church and went down fighting, like Sartre’s alter ego Mathieu appeared to do in the third volume of the Roads to Freedom cycle, Sartre found himself holed up at a girl’s school in a village in north east France. He was struck by the last task scribbled in the exercise books: ‘Your mother is ironing. Describe her.’ This, Martin suggests, was exactly the sort of thing Sartre would have excelled at.

The Boxer is packed full of such revealing vignettes. It is also very funny. Martin often illustrates Sartre’s conflict-ridden view of human relations, a lustier version of Hobbes’ war of all against all, with reference to Sartre’s all-conquering sex life – this is perhaps best thought of as a series of triumphs over physical adversity. Sartre, as Martin never fails to remind us, was none too keen on bodily or dental hygiene. Indeed, the only maltreatment he suffered as a POW was from his fellow prisoners who forcibly showered him. Little wonder one of his objets d’amour had something of a visceral reaction to one of Sartre’s seduction routines: ‘The first time he kissed her and held her down on her bed and made himself comfortable on top of her… she managed to get away and hurried to the bathroom to throw up.’ Elsewhere, when Camus asked Sartre why he was such a labour-intensive seducer, Sartre explained by gesturing to his face, ‘have you seen this mug?’. Indeed, Camus’ ease with the ladies, including Sartre’s own conquests, was a constant source of friction.

But as illuminating and entertaining as The Boxer can be, there is always something inescapably reductive about intellectual biography, no matter how intelligent the writing. Too often the philosophical flights and fights of Sartre and Camus are brought too firmly down to earth. Sartre’s agonistic view of life is collapsed too easily into his agonistic sex life; Camus’ quest for a cool, ‘degree zero’ form of writing is linked too immediately to his fear of ecstasy, or better still premature ejaculation. The Boxer is never vulgar in its links and associations, but it still fastens the work to the concrete lives of its antagonists. At one point, even the startling, angst-ridden revelations of Nausea are potentially attributed to Sartre’s experiments with mescaline.

In this reducing, grounding movement, what lends the work of Camus and Sartre its resonance is hidden. After all, it is difficult to grasp the universal when it is weighed down by so much concrete detail. As one says of a badly told anecdote, ‘I guess you’d have to be there’.

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.

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Topics Books


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