Existentialism is a Humanism (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Posted: July 30, 2014 in nonfiction
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I feel that I should preface this discussion with a disclaimer. I am not well read in philosophy; my field is literature. What does this mean? Every discipline has a unique set of assumptions and specialized vocabulary. When Sartre uses the word project, I feel as if I ought to know more specifically what he means because it seems to have a different meaning than when I use that word. I also know Kant and Marx by reputation rather than by a direct knowledge of their works, so I feel like I’m on the edges of Sartre’s conversation instead of a direct participant. It’s like I’m eavesdropping on Sartre talking to someone else who has read the same books that he has. I feel a little rude, a little out of my depth, and almost entirely out of place. [To be better prepared, I should have read Kant and Marx, possibly also Gide and Comte.]

Ever since I was in high school I’ve been meaning to read more philosophy, only to be defeated by the incredible density of their texts. Long sentences, long paragraphs, intensely meaningful short phrases – for someone who reads primarily fiction, it’s daunting. I have to spend most of my reading time looking away from the book, working out what he means and deciding whether I agree with it. Fiction usually elicits a less rational response. However, this text is significantly more approachable than the philosophy I’ve tried to read in the past. The occasion for writing demands that it be so – this is the text of a speech Sartre gave to clarify his position for a non-specialist audience. Audience is particularly important for him here because he sees his audience as changing; philosophers of previous eras could write exclusively for other philosophers and the mass of humanity left them alone, while his ideas get into the common press and existentialism becomes a meaningless buzzword. When uneducated people start confronting his texts, he doesn’t assume they’re all morons and carry on writing above their level; he interacts with his audience as they are even though he can’t choose who they are. As an uneducated reader (in his field), I really appreciate the effort.

There were some things that I really liked about this text, and others I objected to. The primary difficulty I have is Sartre’s absolutism. He assumes that what is true for him is true for everyone, including the tendency to make sweeping generalizations about humanity based on what is true about himself. My ex has a similar tendency to universalize, and as I was reading I could hear echoes of her arguing at me: “Well then obviously . . .” followed by a statement about my motives or reasoning that was patently untrue. So, maybe my tendency to feel combative toward Sartre has nothing to do with him, but that’s not going to stop me.

I felt particularly combative when he referred to The Mill on the Floss. I think that Maggie Tulliver is more complex than “the very incarnation of passion.” Such a phrase will give modern American audiences entirely the wrong idea about her. But that’s not as bad as his characterization of Lucy Deane, whom he does not even name. She’s “a very ordinary young girl,” which may be true, but that doesn’t make her worth less than Maggie, nor does it mean that Maggie herself is so very singular. He also calls her Stephen Guest’s “silly goose of a fiancée,” which is ridiculous. Lucy Deane is an intelligent, capable woman, albeit with some ignorance of human psychology. She believes the best about the people she loves, and we can’t blame her if her manipulations backfire. Stephen and Maggie are very careful to hide their feelings for each other from her and from everyone else. Lucy is very trusting, but what experience does she have of deceit? If a girl’s society protects her from certain harsh realities, we can hardly condemn her for not noticing them.

According to Sartre, the essence of his thought is the idea that ‘existence precedes essence’; or in other words, we exist first, and then we determine what we are. To some extent this is true, but I don’t believe that any child is actually a tabula rasa. We all have to cope with biological, genetic elements that are beyond our control. For a long time, I chose a heterosexual life, complete with marriage and children; however, my body has a noticeable physiological response to the sight, smell, and thought of other men. In this case, no matter how much I wanted to determine my essence, I couldn’t alter my own biology. To give a less politically motivated example, I have an unfortunate genetically determined response to gluten. I identify myself as someone with coeliac disease every time I choose what to eat or drink. If I don’t, if I choose an identity that contradicts my biology, then in a couple of days I (and everyone around me) will notice a change in my brain chemistry due to malabsorption of essential nutrients: depression, anxiety, rage, mood swings, inability to concentrate, and night blindness. Therefore, I think that Sartre is only partially right here. We can determine a lot about ourselves, but I think that an important part of living happily is accepting the limitations that ‘the accident of our birth’ place on us.

My next disagreement is summed up in his statement,

We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.

First, we do not always choose the good. Some people, of the type of Sartre and my ex, always have to rationalize their actions to themselves before they can do anything. I don’t. My ex could never understand or quite accept this about me. I can do something that I know to be wrong and even enjoy the wrongness of it. She can’t. I suspect Sartre couldn’t either. Second, embracing my own homosexuality doesn’t mean that I think everyone should be gay. Accepting coeliac disease doesn’t mean that I want to ban wheat from supermarkets. I can see that heterosexual marriage makes my friends happy; I think that’s great. But it wasn’t the right thing for me. I see the value of bread for other people, even though for me it’s poisonous. Sartre’s combined statement seems to imply that hypocrisy is impossible, but I’ve seen enough to know that people are fully capable of acting one way and insisting that everyone else behave in an opposite fashion.

I think that Sartre uses the word hope imprecisely. This may be an issue of translation. When he is explaining anguish, abandonment, and despair, all he really means is that we accept responsibility for our actions and situations without expecting someone else to come save us. So while he says,

We should act without hope.

He means we should act within the realm of our own responsibilities instead of expecting a supernatural force to intervene on our behalf. It is the specific hope for a deus ex machina that Sartre is teaching against, not hope in general. I don’t believe any of us perform any action without hoping for a certain outcome. Sometimes the hope is very small indeed, but it’s still there. As such, I don’t believe that any human is in a condition of complete despair; even the man committing suicide is hoping for the end of his life, or hoping that someone will care enough to save his life. In another place, Sartre insists that existentialism is the most optimistic of philosophies, and I see his point. If I am responsible for myself, my life, and my choices, and if I determine what defines all of humanity, then I have far more power than I understand. I’m not so much an ant who occasionally has to dodge the focused rays of God’s magnifying glass, but a bull in the china shop of my own being. Therefore, it’s worthwhile for me to hold still and examine what I’m doing from time to time.

Sartre acknowledges that this emphasis on personal responsibility can seem harsh to people who don’t feel like their lives are successful. It does. I generally assume that I haven’t done shit with my life, particularly when I think about high school reunions. But then I tell people that I used to teach in the Middle East, or I did a couple years of mission work in Brazil, or I have three sons, and they always act like I’ve had the most amazing life. In some ways, I suppose I have. But I consider my step-brother. He’s always lived in the same area. He’s spent his life building houses, hanging siding, replacing windows, fishing, the type of work that produces tangible results. He can point to a concrete benefit in the life of every person he’s worked with. I envy that sort of career, even though it seldom gets the recognition it deserves, even though I’m not making any steps toward reshaping my life in that direction. I’m the type of person who likes staying home, and I don’t think that’s likely to change; instead, I move my home all over the place, scouring the earth for something familiar.

The author doesn’t spend a lot of time on intersubjectivity in this discourse, but this was a point where I metaphorically sat up and paid attention, even though there’s only one paragraph on it. You see, if every person redefines the human race according to his own self-perception, that would seem to imply that there are as many humanities as there are humans. But there’s only one. The definition of humanity is infinitely variable; we negotiate that meaning with the people we come in contact with. We work together to create meaning; while this is an essential part of my teaching philosophy in terms of working with text, I like the idea that it also holds true for identities, particularly the definition of our own shared nature. Sartre spends so much time distancing himself from Communism that he often ignores the necessity of living in communities. It’s possible that he explains more about that in other places, but most of this speech seems to champion a sort of Emersonian self-reliance that I find unrealistic.

My favorite part was the end. Sartre spends a lot of time insisting that existentialism is basically an atheistic philosophy, but that’s tempered in the conclusion:

Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God; rather, it affirms that even if God were to exist, it would make no difference – that is our point of view. It is not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the real problem is not one of his existence; what man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself, not even valid proof of the existence of God.

This demonstrates the problems that Sartre gets into by using words imprecisely. It is also the most succinct explanation of the personal philosophy that I have been shaping in the last few years. I once called it ‘apatheism,’ because I don’t find the question of God’s existence interesting or useful. In my opinion, the real question is not, Do you believe in God? Or, Have you been saved? The question is, What are you doing about it? How are you working at becoming your best self? Sartre would say that by becoming my best self, I’m helping to make all of humanity better. I think that personal integrity does inspire others to work toward the same, so maybe Sartre is right. But even if it didn’t, I would still try to be my best. I would still work on speaking the truth and acting in love. And regardless of personal creed, I think that’s a definition of human ethics that most of us can agree on.

A COMMENTARY ON THE STRANGER

Yes, I did reread Camus the other week so that I’d remember it well when I got to this article, which this publisher uses to pad the volume. But I do wish I had also read The Myth of Sisyphus because Sartre treats the two books as a single project explaining Camus’s ideas on the absurd, and seems to quote from The Myth a little more often. A clever publisher would bind The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in a single volume with Sartre’s article as the preface. I don’t know the copyright issues involved, but I’d sure spend ten bucks on a paperback of two Camus works prefaced by Sartre.

As before, I disagree with Sartre’s absolutist statements.

He was happy, he did as he liked, and his happiness does not seem to have been affected by any inner gnawing so frequently mentioned by Camus in his essay, which stems from the blinding presence of death.

I don’t see Meursault as happy. I wouldn’t say that he does as he likes because he doesn’t seem to like anything. I may be projecting my feelings onto him, universalizing as Sartre discusses in the lecture above, but I read Meursault as full of inner gnawing that he doesn’t choose to tell the reader about. What makes Sartre think that Meursault is such a reliable narrator? He occasionally alludes to a feeling or event and says, “But I don’t like to talk about that.” Which begs the question, what else is Meursault not telling us? Probably a great deal of suppressed emotional turmoil, which Sartre implies that Camus’s essay says ought to be in the novel.

Sartre says that this book is an exemplum of the absurd, and finally someone has defined that term for me. People throw it around all the time when they teach twentieth-century narrative, but they don’t always explain what it means. According to my understanding of Sartre’s interpretation of Camus, the absurd describes the struggle produced by the incongruity between a person’s worldview and the world he actually views. Yes, I would agree that the novel relies heavily on this struggle. Yes, I know that incongruity is often a source of humor. However, they aren’t quite the same thing; incongruity can be represented without actually being humorous. Presenting a series of images without explaining the causal connections is not a humorous technique unless what’s being left out is funny. There are some humorous moments in the novel, but Sartre and I disagree about which ones they are.

Sartre quotes someone as saying that The Stranger is like Kafka written by Hemingway, and I can appreciate that comparison. It also lets me know that the things I wrote about style last week are accurate to the original French and not just an accident of translation. I also really appreciate Sartre’s comment on the novel’s style as a method of representing silence, which I had not considered before.

On the whole, I’d say that my first foray into Sartre was a success. I don’t agree with him wholeheartedly, but I understand what he’s saying, and that’s a big step forward for me. I’d like to read more.

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