7th June 2012 - Andy Martin
Andy Martin is the author of The Boxer and The Goal Keeper: Sartre versus Camus, which chronicles the relationship between two of the 20th century's greatest minds. Initially firm friends and mutual admirers, the two were divided by a passionate argument, shared with Simone de Beauvoir, about life and love and literature that culmiated in a culminated in a bitter and very public feud.
As our guest blogger this week, Andy talks about his unexpected encounter with these two intellectual icons on the streets of New York.
I went to Paris looking for Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Couldn't find them. So I went back to the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue. And sought out the ghosts of Sartre and Camus in their books and diaries. Then I gave up totally.
One day in the middle of winter I resolved to get up from my desk and set aside all books for twenty-four hours and relinquish entirely my tenuous hold on language, adopting instead the degree-zero minimalism of Camus, taken to its logical conclusion. I would eschew not just books (as he did at different times) but songs, conversation, newspapers, the radio, television, phones, emails, the endless static of the internet, any and all forms of communication that relied on words. I went out into the world again, on that cold, clear winter's day with only a hat, a scarf, and a coat: no books, no paper, no computer, no pen. (No ereader either, or smartphone - no cheating!) It was a strange feeling, almost like walking down the middle of the street, naked, vulnerable, unarmoured, without crutches. You try it. It's weird.
On any other day, how many conversations would I have had with random strangers on the subway? Today of all days they were lining up to have a chat, talking about the clothes I was wearing ('Cool jacket, man!' - on the platform at Bleecker Street), the weather, the economy, anything. There was no end to them, as if my very silence was a provocation. But I could say nothing in reply. Perhaps they even preferred it this way, as if having a one-way conversation with a dumb animal.
I wandered into the library on 5th Avenue, by way of testing my nerve. I read not one word of the billions on offer. I had resisted the ultimate temptation. But in truth the siren call of words could never be banished. We live (as Camus would say) in a society of signs. Everywhere street signs, brandishing their information about parking and directions. Everywhere word of bakeries, dentists, radio shacks, buns and burgers, pizzas galore, and Broadway smash-hits - flashing out, endlessly, inescapably, with or without neon.
So it was that I headed west, still on foot, towards the Hudson, and walked along the shore for a mile or two, gazing across at the New Jersey side of the river. And then I saw this:
And I felt, suddenly, as if I had somehow rediscovered Sartre and Camus and the epic struggle between them. As I looked out on the half-frozen river, over here all ice and stasis, over there all free-flowing water, it seemed to me that I was looking right into the eyes of Sartre and Camus. Or rather that they were looking out at the Hudson. Arctic immobility on one side; and then, on the other, warmth and motion and the current and waves. Winter and 'invincible summer'. Sartre and Camus, the boxer and the goalkeeper: they were almost like Rimbaud and Verlaine, except that they didn't have sex together and neither pulled a gun on the other. But it was close. The divorce was as romantic, in its way, as the honeymoon.
But out of all the words I heard that day, one continues to echo in my brain. 'Like': one of the most overused words of our era, especially in New York. Not so much as a verb. 'He was like...'. 'She was like...' 'I mean, like...'. As I roamed around the city or rattled around the subway, the sentences that still screamed out at me merged into a long string of 'likes'. There is a degree of epistemological indeterminacy implicit in this habit: everything is only approximately true, it is 'like' this or that, but never quite coincides perfectly with the truth. But then perhaps too there is a series of implied comparisons or similes: my love is like a red, red rose; the city lies around us like a cloak of glittering shells. Everybody is now constantly like something or someone, everyday discourse is shot through with implied family resemblances. 'To say' is now 'to be like'.
At one level it is a form of stuttering, a series of suspensions of meaning, semantic hiccups; at another it is poetry, of a kind Camus would probably have sympathized with. The unalike are secretly alike. I'm not so sure that Sartre would have liked 'like'.
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© 2012 Andy Martin