Sartre vs Camus

Mentioned earlier enjoying the output of Andy Martin – surfer, Cambridge languages don, writer, film-maker. Tremendous personally-engaging, witty style whatever the topic. His latest book is “Sartre vs Camus – The Boxer and the Goalkeeper (aka Philosophy Fight Club)

The premise of the book is typically personal – read the 5 minute memoir – extracted from the introductory chapter, now published in The Independent. (Funnily enough my own early career starts with the guilt of a “stolen” book – when in my final school year I was awarded a book as the school chemistry prize, I didn’t own up to a book I’d taken from the school library a couple of years earlier “Experimental Chemistry Laboratory Manual” and not returned when I left. Still on the shelf behind me as I type.)

Researching philosophy as I have been, I have been tempted to dip into the French existentialist canon, but every dip has been daunting. After trying Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus and finding sense in the later PoMo’s and Lacanian scholar Zizek, I’d concluded I’m already a PoPoMo and Proust, Sartre and Camus would remain left behind as the foggy-froggies I knew of, but would never really know.

Andy’s book provides a sympathetic introduction and summaries as well as the personal back-stories. No surprise to find the reaction to Platonic / Aristotelian ontological certainties mired in the nihilism of suspension in language beyond epistemology and experience of the real. If all philosophy is footnotes to Plato (clearly not true), then all PoMo philosophy Derrida et al, really is footnotes to Nietzche and Wittgenstein. Sartre comes across as grotesque – provocative and experimental living-philosophy sure, but all in-your-face back-story – hopeless – little chance I will actually seek out to read in the original, but Camus, with his balance and mystical Zen interests, comes across altogether more interesting. (Must revisit The Outsider).

Camus realized that in [the] very act of thinking, he was still in some sense a prisoner. Was he not a prisoner now of Plato, of the idea of the philosopher, to some extent chained to these thoughts? … A strange thought – or not even a thought, something more like the opposite of a thought. Camus had the realization, lying in bed, that if he wanted to be a philosopher – seriously – he had to break free of philosophy. He had to overcome thought itself, to somehow outwit and out-manoeuvre the forms of language he had worked so hard to acquire over many years. … In England about the same period, Wittgenstein said that if you wanted to become a philosopher, you should become a car mechanic. For Camus this was too much like hard work and it was enough just to lie there. And light a Gitanes.

He watched the smoke curling upwards towards the ceiling …

Then all at once there was a flash of light as the sun broke through from behind a cloud and illuminated a yellow vase of mimosa in the room. And it was like a bolt of lightning striking the young Albert – a coup de foudre. Transforming him, as if in a magical metamorphosis. He was ‘flooded with a confused and bewildering joy’. He became for a moment something other than he was.

‘I am the world.’

(Ibid, P54/55) Evocative of Pirsig’s motorcycle maintenance and his exhaustion “attempting to outflank the entire body of western thought”. Lots more in there – Peirce, James and pre-conceptual radical empiricism, Kafka, even Ramchandran. And such great chapter titles “Bad Hair Day”, “Fight Club”, “Pen Envy”, “An Octopus and Some Trees”, “New York, New York” and “Philosophers Stoned” to name a selection. About 2/3 through so far. Loving it.

[Post Note : Loved it. This from Stuart Kelly’s very positive review in The Scotsman:

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.

(Andy Martin’s elegant study of the pair … 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.)]

Also published on Medium.

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