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Journal of Camus Studies | JCS

Journal of Camus Studies

The Journal of Camus Studies

Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.

Sartre Vs. Camus: The Boxer and the Goalkeeper | Andy Martin

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper offers caricatures of Camus and Sartre thinly glossed with philosophy. Camus, in particular, will be unrecognisable to anyone familar with his work and ideas.

The Boxer and The GoalkeeperThe television programme QI is a quiz show that aims to be Quite Interesting; questions are usually about debunking popular myths and provide interesting snippets of information viewers can later repeat in the hope of making their conversations quite interesting. The novels of Dan Brown aim to be, and sometimes succeed, quite interesting. His readers, as well as following the adventures of Professor Robert Langdon, learn all sorts of interesting facts about, for example, the Catholic Church, Freemasons, art, Presidents of The United States of America and so on. These facts can then be dropped liberally into appropriate conversations to make things, the dropper included, quite interesting.

The use of the word ‘quite' is important because these facts are never more that quite interesting. The typical response on hearing, for example, that German Shepherds were rebranded Alsatians in England during the war due to anti-German sentiment is nothing more than a nod, a half-smile, and possibly a polite ‘hmm' of mild appreciation. A similar response comes after the revelation that Isaac Newton was an alchemist. It is not that these facts aren't interesting but just that they are quite interesting. Not, for most people, satisfying enough to qualify as fully interesting and not worth expanding upon, exploring and discussing in greater detail.

Of course, some people are German Shepherd enthusiasts and others are in love with the history of science. These people love to chat about dogs and alchemy and they often do, a lot. However, for them, snippets of information as described above are not sufficiently interesting. They have already heard and discussed these facts in greater depth on many occasions.

Could it be that quite interesting facts prepare the way for deeper study? Sartre was scared of octopuses. Camus wanted to be a professional footballer. Sartre was ugly. As a young man Camus was told he would die of tuberculosis. Are these facts sufficient to excite a greater interest in the work or either man? It is possible, I suppose, but I doubt it is the most efficient way of going about it. Would someone reading The Boxer & The Goal Keeper: Sartre versus Camus be inspired to find out more about Camus (or Sartre)?

Let's look at what kind of book it is. Martin's book is not a biography of either man; there are scenes, vignettes and imaginings taken from the lives of Camus and Sartre used to illustrate ideas. More on this in a minute. It is not an introduction to the art of Camus or Sartre. For ease, I'll refer to the philosophy, literature, writings, politics and political actions of Camus and Sartre as their art (I could just as easily refer to their ‘output' but ‘art' seems more adequate). Far more attention is paid to events in their lives, their physical appearance and so on. The treatment of Camus' ideas are so scant and insufficient you'd wonder if the author had read much Camus at all. In a bizarre opening to chapter 16 the author seems to take pride in the fact that he's given The Rebel a close reading!

Camus mentions approximately 166 separate thinkers or writers or poets or artists in total (I know: I counted them, rather laboriously, one-by-one – and I probably missed a few). [221]

What follows is a superficial account of a complex work that highlights some interesting ideas but adds nothing new. The overview is so slight that the picture, inevitably is distorted, for example, “In The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide offered a quick fix.” While he isn't attempting to write an essay or put together a study guide Martin fails to provide an adequate overview and worse, makes outlandish statements but fails to offer sufficient support; “Camus blames totalitarian societies and the concentration camp and our genocidal tendencies on too much sex.” I get the impression, reading the chapter, that the author doesn't expect his readers to have read any Camus and doesn't expect them to go on to read any in the future. It's easy to imagine Martin pouring over The Rebel, counting names and looking for interesting snippets to mention to his readers. A similar process went on, I suspect, for the other twenty-two chapters.

The trouble with such an approach – trying to match a brief gloss of the philosophy with quirky biographical event – is that the resulting book can not avoid a superficial account of philosophers and their philosophy. The writer must look backwards, from the man's art to the events in his life that preceded it. These snapshots in time are only interesting viewed back through the lens of history. Picture Camus lying in a hospital bed and Sartre staring at his own reflection in a mirror; we have to know how Camus' bed-ridden contemplations on death influenced his art and how Sartre's physical appearance was important. To answer these questions we need to focus more on what these men created rather than on biographical vignettes.

One can easily imagine a bad film based on the lives of Camus and Sartre; moody black-and-white shots of Camus, raincoat collar turned up against the Parisian rain, he pauses to draw on a cigarette while we hear him in voiceover offer up a suitably moody quote. Cut to Sartre, close-up, dragging a razor across his ugly face, pauses to put back on his glasses, squints, wipes his hand across the mirror revealing behind him the hideous image of a man-size lobster taking a bath. Running from the hallucination he searches for his friend Pierre but finds… nothingness (cue Sartrean quote in voiceover). Such a film would be bad because the characters are reduced to caricatures and without their art they become ridiculous. It's rather like Camus' man on the telephone in The Myth of Sisyphus; we see him gesticulating away but can not hear him and he appears absurd, we wonder why he's alive. Perhaps this was the author's intention, the dust jacket bio tells us Andy Martin, as well as teaching at Cambridge, is a Hollywood scriptwriter. Chapter 20 is partly written in script form.

The book is supposedly an account of the fall out of Camus and Sartre. This event (or series of events) has already been well covered – one book that instantly springs to mind is Aronson's (it even gets a brief mention in Chapter 21). Martin's account, because it is so light on the philosophy, focuses far too much on the characters of the men involved rather than the clash of ideas. We're left with two quirky philosophers and a clash of egos.

The real problem, however, is that the Camus portrayed in the book is a character grotesquely distorted through caricature. Anyone familiar with Camus studies will not find the thinker they recognize. We've already taken the author to task over his treatment of The Rebel now consider Martin's treatment of The Fall, it's arguably Camus greatest work yet there are just three slight references to it in the book:

  1. On discussing swimming ‘…and it is the failure to dive into the Seine to save a drowning woman that torments Clamence in his late novel The Fall.'
  2. A quote to round off a chapter on the falling out of Camus and Sartre, ‘"There are always good reasons for murdering another man," Camus wrote in The Fall. "It is, on the other hand, impossible to justify why he should live."'
  3. A sentence to mention that The Fall subtly recalls ‘episodes of the Sartre/Camus drama'. (To be fair, Martin points out at this point that if readers are interested in the falling out of Sartre and Camus then Ronald Aronson has already written about it!)

Clearly Sartre Vs. Camus: The Boxer and the Goalkeeper is not a book for people with a genuine interest in Camus (or Sartre). It is for people familiar with the names and perhaps a vague idea of what these men achieved. The book is easy to read, humorous in parts, and provides enough of those quite interesting snippets that come in handy for dinner party conversation. All this would be harmless if the book didn't perpetuate the lazy stereotype of Camus and his art.

Sartre Vs. Camus: The Boxer and the Goalkeeper

Andy Martin

Simon & Schuster (2012)

ISBN: 978-1-84737-417-2

Andy Martin Amazon

Simon Lea | 2012