BY ALEX STEWART
“Everything I know about the world, including what I have learned through science, I know through my own perspective, or from direct experience of the world, without which the symbols of science would be meaningless” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty
“After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA” – Albert Camus
Camus’ aphorism, often misquoted as “what I know most surely about morality…I learned from football”, is a favourite of high-brow fans of sport and t-shirt printers everywhere. It is, of course, a reference to his experiences playing in goal for the RUA, the Algiers Racing University football team, and the Montpensier Sports Club. He started playing for them at the age of fifteen and quickly made a good impression. Jonathan Wilson’s beautiful book on ‘keeping, The Outsider, the title of which is surely a conscious echo of Camus’ novel, describes in detail some of his recollections of playing. He was praised for his bravery and his abilities in goal, and was even once knocked out taking a powerful shot straight to the chest, a forewarning of the tuberculosis that would force him to hang up his gloves and, from that point on, only participate in football as a spectator.
Camus’ passion for football is one of his best-known qualities and, perhaps, one of those that makes him more readily accessible as an author, a sign of communality with the rest of us, all too often lacking in literary greats. Indeed, his work is sprinkled with references to football, to its constant power to engage and excite and its presence in the lives of the ordinary people who populate Camus’ works.
The most frequent references to football occur, perhaps not surprisingly, in Camus’ most autobiographical work, The First Man. Camus believed that while no character or narrator was ever solely a representation of the author, an author was a composite of many or all of his characters. In The First Man, there is an immediacy and vibrancy to Camus’ evocation of football that shows his love of, and indeed yearning for, the sport, the matches between Arab and French boys with “a ball made of rags” of his childhood.
The protagonist, Jacques, grows up in a poor household, raised largely by his grandmother, who is tyrannical and tight-fisted. In a celebrated passage, Jacques is forbidden to play football at school during break-time “on the playground, where soccer was his kingdom”. His grandmother forces Jacques to wear “thick solid boots…the soles studded with enormous cone-shaped nails, which were doubly useful: you had to wear out the studs before wearing out the sole, and they enabled her to detect infractions of the ban on playing soccer”. It has even been inferred that Camus’ own decision to play in goal was an attempt to minimise the wear and tear on the nails and so get away with playing more regularly, though one also recalls Jacques making “impossible parries” in the stick and cigar game he plays with friends as a sign that the desperate heroism of the ‘keeper would appeal to him anyway!
Jacques’ desire for football also gives rise to an episode that guiltily haunts him: the theft of two francs. While out shopping, Jacques drops a two-franc piece but then retrieves it; however, he imagines what might happen if he had not been able to find it. He therefore maintains the fiction to his grandmother that it was dropped and lost, so that he could watch a football match without the usual rigmarole of having to “squeeze between two boards to get in the old stadium at the parade grounds and see the match for free”.
Years later, Jacques cannot reconcile his guilt at having stolen from his impoverished family and yet also enjoyed watching the match without needing to sneak in.
Football, then, is part of the frame of reference in which Camus as a child (for the overlaps between him and Jacques are as clear and immediate as with any of his protagonists) develops his sense of right and wrong. The decisions he makes to privilege watching or participating in football are deliberate acts of overthrowing an established order, the order of his grandmother and her rules. Camus as an author was always striving to show that individual choices set a man at odds with what ‘society’ expected of him. In this tension, and the reaction of society to the choices that a man makes, he comes to realise what freedom is, but also the responsibility that such freedom entails. This, indeed, is the crux of the existentialist philosophy that Camus, with others, developed. As Brée writes, existentialism is “an attempt to analyse the structures of human existence, and to give individuals a sense of the essential freedom inherent in material life”. For Camus, football was an immediate and forceful example of the choice between structure, or rules, and freedom and the materiality of football, its joyfulness, won out. Brée goes on:
“Each human being’s situation offers him a range of choices and a field of action in which, by making choices, he can realise his own essential freedom. It follows that every individual is responsible for what he becomes, and that human history is the sum of the choices individuals have made.”
Camus’ early emotional response to watching and playing football created a field of action that he would recall for the rest of his life. It elicited actions that were immoral, lying and stealing, because he loved football so much that he made those choices. Through football, he learned the agony of choice and freedom and, in part at least, his early experiences on the stands and pitches of Algeria helped him develop his conception of being.
But for Camus, football was more than that. In playing football, Camus experienced immediacy, an unmediated present as a series of moments. For existentialists, time is truly of the essence, not the impersonal teleology of grand narratives but the stitching together of a series of moments, of emotions, of choices. In this idea of time, an awareness of freedom leads to a true understanding of the human condition as being not simply subject to the decisions of a God or government, but as a product of each person’s actions. One of the remarkable things about footballers is how clearly most of them can recall moments in a match, even years after it has happened. They exist in a clear, continuous present while playing, a qualitative time of their own making. The central aspect of qualitative time, as understood by existentialists, is an awareness of your place in it and how you shape that time by your actions, responses, and feelings. This awareness is what Merleau-Ponty means in the passage above: you have to live in the world and experience it in order to gain any understanding. He wrote that “‘existence’ is that movement through which man is in the world and involves himself in a physical and social situation which then becomes his point of view on the world”.
Camus, though, as a goalkeeper, was fractionally dissociated from this constant present, as befits the writer who stands a bit to one side of his subject in order to observe it and explain it to the rest of us. This is the inherent tension in the goalkeeper, and one that perhaps explains Camus’ love of the position more than a desire to keep his boots un-dulled.
Camus inhabited the awareness of the participating spectator: the writer seeking to explain what he finds and often throwing himself into his novels is similar to the goalkeeper, at once involved in the ebb and flow of the match and yet also always a peripheral figure, able to see it more clearly than his team-mates. For Camus, this tension was important, because he wanted to show that one could be aware as an individual without being totally cut off from everyone else. And in football, as in love and theatre, Camus found that quality which brings individuals together in common experience.
Mersault, the anti-hero of The Outsider, is condemned by his peers after he murders an Algerian man on the beach and cannot bring himself to express regret. He is unwilling to engage in the emotional expectations of society and thus stands alone, the outsider. Even he, though, finds his solitude and sense of separateness shattered by the visceral joy and communality of the football match and its emotional residue:
“At five o’clock there was a lot of noise as some trams arrived. They were coming back from the local football-ground with bunches of spectators perched on the steps and hanging from the guardrails. The next few trams brought back the players; I recognized them by their little suitcases. They were yelling and singing at the tops of their voices that their team would never die. Several of them waved to me. One of them even shouted to me, ‘We thrashed them’. I nodded, as if to say, ‘Yes’. From that point on the street began to fill with cars.”
Mersault, who cannot express the emotion expected of him when his mother dies or the contrition expected of a murderer is nonetheless captive to the joyous excesses of the fans and the team and chooses to describe them and be affected by them (and one also wonders why the players waved to him – is he imagining his own belonging or did they really single him out?). Though he does not join them in singing or shouting, he is as embroiled in the excitement of the match as he is by anything else in the book, perhaps more so.
The search for a sense of togetherness, for belonging as one individual among many, without the need also to place oneself at the mercy of the strictures (and, indeed, structures) of judicial or religious judgement, is central to the struggle of Camus as a man and writer. He is forever looking to show that men need not exist as individuals, cut off and solipsistic, in order to be free, and that freedom can exist in a crowd, can arrive out of shared joy and sadness and belonging. As he writes in The Fall, “even today, Sunday football matches in a crowded stadium, and the theatre, which I have loved with a unique passion, are the only places where I feel innocent”, where the rules we are supposed to follow are suspended for pure emotional engagement. Freedom is being aware, not being alone. That, perhaps more than, anything, is what football meant to Camus. But it was also Camus’ burden to be the goalkeeper, the individual in the team, aware of his separateness as much as his belonging, the writer standing outside and defending a humanity of which he so desperately wants to be part.