Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

This is the first of a trilogy that people have called The Roads to Freedom, but I don’t think it’s so much about journeying to freedom. At least, the journey isn’t a pleasant one, and freedom is no triumph.

This book is largely about the life of homosexuals in Paris, the summer of 1938, just before the whole Second World War starts. It’s about an era of enforced closets, where even young philosophy students can’t admit it to themselves.

The man was with a pansy who looked rather attractive from a distance, a fair-haired lad with delicate features, devoid of the usual mincing airs, and not without charm. Boris hadn’t much use for homosexuals, because they always were pursuing him, but Ivich rather liked them; she said: “Well, at any rate they’ve got the courage not to be like everybody else.” Boris had great respect for his sister’s opinions, and he made the most conscientious efforts to think well of fairies.

Boris is as gay as any of them, but just won’t face it.

Of course he preferred Mathieu’s company because Mathieu wasn’t a girl: a man was more intriguing all the time. Besides, Mathieu taught him all sorts of tricks. But Boris often found himself wondering whether Mathieu had any real regard for him. Mathieu was casual and brusque, and of course it was right that people of their sort shouldn’t be sentimental when they were together, but there were all sorts of ways in which a fellow could show he liked someone, and Boris felt that Mathieu might well have shown his affection by a word or a gesture now and then. With Ivich, Mathieu was quite different. Boris suddenly recalled Mathieu’s face one day when he was helping Ivich put on her overcoat; he felt an unpleasant shrinking at the heart. Mathieu’s smile: on those sardonic lips that Boris loved so much, that strange, appealing, and affectionate smile. But Boris’s head soon filled with smoke and he thought of nothing at all.

I lived most of my life with that smoke, though I thought of it more as a sharp turning of the head. When there’s something you really don’t want to see – I don’t mean like those church people who see a porn mag in the gutter and can’t stop looking at it, I mean when you really, deeply cannot see it – you always look away, even if it’s right in front of you. It took me seven years to come out because I could not look at it. I kept having near-miss experiences, like this one:

Sereno burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.

“A man’s man!” said Sereno. “A man’s man! That’s a grand phrase, I must use it whenever I can.”

He replaced the book on the table.

“Are you a man’s man, Serguine?”

“I – ” began Boris, and his breath failed him.

“Don’t blush,” said Sereno – and Boris felt himself becoming scarlet – “and believe me when I tell you that the idea didn’t even enter my head. I know how to recognize a man’s man” – the expression obviously amused him – “there’s a soft rotundity in their movements that is quite unmistakable. Whereas you – I’ve been watching you for a moment or two and was greatly charmed: your movements are quick and graceful, but they are also angular. You must be clever with your hands.”

Boris listened attentively: it is always interesting to hear someone explain his view of you. And Sereno had a very agreeable bass voice. His eyes, indeed, were baffling: at first sight they seemed to be brimming with friendly feeling, but a closer view discovered in them something hard and almost fanatic. “He’s trying to pull my leg,” thought Boris, and remained on the alert. He would have liked to ask Sereno what he meant by “angular movements,” but he did not dare, he thought it would be better to say as little as possible, and then, under that insistent gaze, he felt a strange and bewildered access of sensibility arise within him, and he longed to snort and stamp to dispel that dizzying impulse. He turned his head away and a rather painful silence followed. “He’ll take me for a damn fool,” thought Boris with resignation.

I couldn’t have told you why I liked certain guys so much (that gorgeous blond river guide in my Faulkner class, for example, or the older boy who wandered out of the showers naked at Scout camp), I just did, and I wanted them to like me. I saw in them qualities that I wanted; they were the kind of guys that I wanted to be, confident and muscular and handsome, so I liked being around them. They’re straight, though. I was attracted to them, but there was a strange, different sort of connection with homosexuals. There’s always been a conflict between what I am and what I want to be. Even now that I know I’m gay, I still want to be more confident, more muscular, and more handsome. When I meet men as beautiful as Daniel Sereno, I’m still afraid that they’ll take me for a damn fool.

Boris and Daniel are both quite definitely homosexuals, but they’ve both established relationships with women. Daniel’s been around the gay block a few times and knows the tricks. There are a few places where the gay men hang out, so he meets them and arranges casual hookups. But homosexuality seems more like a compulsion than a desire. It’s not so much what they want or whom they love as what they need, what they can’t stop themselves from doing. Daniel has sex with a guy he finds revolting simply because he can’t stop himself. There are few choices, so he takes the least bad of a bad bunch. With the greater awareness that we have now, eighty years later, I don’t have to resort to this, but I think back to my last closet days, when I knew that this was burning inside me and I couldn’t let it out where people could see it. When sexuality can’t be expressed in healthy ways, it assaults you in unhealthy ways. Daniel knows of two gay men who live together, but they have no sort of social standing and they sleep with other people, possibly for money. And that’s the extent of the courage that Ivich admires so much. I’m not criticizing gay men who lived in less forgiving times, I’m just saying that men who were as open as Oscar Wilde went to jail, so they had to be a lot more careful than I do today. Even in Trump’s America I’m not afraid of the fact that my boss and coworkers know I’m gay, and that one of my coworkers half-outed me to a student. I’m a little irritated at that last, but not afraid.

Since the election people have been writing #gayandscared all over campus, with all sorts of other slogans like #notmypresident and #blacklivesstillmatter, and yes it’s odd to see a hashtag in sidewalk chalk, but I’m not scared. Probably because I grew up in North Carolina, where our state identity is “Just leave me alone.” We pretty much just leave each other alone. HB2 seems to refute that, but if you look at the conservative fear that prompted it, it’s actually just another expression of “Just leave me alone.” They’re afraid of people not being left alone in restrooms. Yes, that fear has led to a law that refuses to just leave a different group of people alone, but it’s the same concept at work. Most transpeople I know identify so strongly with their gender that you can’t tell it’s different from their gender expression at birth, and I can pretty much guarantee that we don’t have police officers stationed at restroom doors, checking genitalia, so “Just leave me alone” also means that the law is largely unenforceable. And now I sound like the gay Arabs who say that it doesn’t matter if the law says they can be beheaded if no one actually reports them to the police. Probably because I’m a white cis-male and I know that the deck is stacked in my favor. I was talking today to someone who’s worried about his friend because, not only is she a single mom, she’s also a Muslim lesbian American citizen.

This paragraph is going to be politically controversial, so skip it if you must. I am very concerned that our country elected an unqualified, repulsive person as president who is putting together a cabinet of equally unqualified, repulsive persons to make the entire country into a scheme for making themselves rich. As such, Trump’s election puts us one step closer to Stalin’s Russia. However, American liberals, you asked for it. Yes, you fucking did. You alienated rural whites while forgetting just how many of them there are. Think about that moment in Ted where Mark Wahlberg reels off a list of all the supposedly trailer-trash female names he can think of – those are the names of almost all the girls I grew up with. Poor rural whites have been the butt of liberal jokes for too long; of course they voted for the candidate who told them it’s okay to be who they are. One of my friends at work has a friend who always looks like she just wandered out of a film about Depression-Era Mississippi, but she can quote every Shakespeare play from memory, in her country-hick accent. Geography does not guarantee level of education, and level of education does not indicate level of intelligence. And even if it did, level of intelligence is no indicator of the worth of a human life. Stop making them the bad guys, and teach them that when we say Black Lives Matter we are not saying that white lives don’t. Women’s rights do not encroach on the rights of men, and gay marriage does not detract from straight marriage. However, you have to show them that, and making memes about how stupid they are is not showing them that you value their lives. If we want to be Stronger Together, we have to make sure that all people feel welcome in our movement, not just the black lesbians. The internet has had a really polarizing effect, which means that we don’t understand people who don’t think like we do any more. We often don’t even respect them. We need to build some bridges, not based on the intersectionality of our own identities (straight white liberals to gay white liberals), but across the wider political divide to the people who are wholly different than we are. If we’re going to value difference, we have to value people who are different, and believe me, my conservative family is very different to me. I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of you, I’m just as ethnocentric as the rest of them. When I read an internet rumor that Kate McKinnon’s character on Ghostbusters is gay, my response was, Of course she is, she’s awesome. Being liberal doesn’t equate to being open-minded. A lot of my friends are sharing articles on facebook written by rabidly fanatic liberals who do not see the value of conservative [poor white Trump-voting] lives, and by devaluing these people they contribute to the divisive atmosphere that led to Trump’s election. We can disagree with their opinions, we can point out how their policies oppress minorities and women, but we cannot make ad hominem arguments that demonize poverty, lack of formal education, whiteness, or men. We cannot tell them that their lives are unimportant. Because it invites them to retaliate and we get Trump as president. It’s like the guys at the beginning of Fight Club who grow breasts after taking testosterone. Quit trying to fight hate with hate. You need love for that.

Political rant over.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), neither Boris nor Daniel is the protagonist. It’s not even Ivich, Boris’s sister. No, it’s Mathieu, whom I find quite unlikable. He’s in his mid-thirties and obsessed with the idea of freedom. By which he doesn’t really mean freedom, he means control over his own life.

“No,” he thought, “no, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.” Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

He is determined not to let fate, destiny, or anyone else control him. But he’s in a bit of a jam, and his style of freedom means that no one will help him. You see, Mathieu has been seeing Marcelle a few times a week for the last seven years. He pursues other women too, of course, like the thing he has for Ivich, who actually seems like a young lesbian. And now Marcelle is pregnant and Mathieu rushes off to find the money for an abortion. He spends the entire book trying to arrange this money, and it’s not until rather late in the day that he stops to wonder whether Marcelle actually wants one. Easy access to abortions does not guarantee that this is the lady’s choice. But the baby represents a significant commitment, and Mathieu isn’t willing to make that commitment. He isn’t really willing to make any commitment, not to her, not to his friends, not to the Communist Party (yes, that comes up – he feels like he should be fighting in Spain instead of dithering in Paris, but he just can’t commit to signing up). And in the end, he realizes that his refusal to commit has made him a nonentity. He sees himself as a vacuum, devoid of personality or ideals or friends or even life. Because he is unwilling to secure himself to anything, he doesn’t have anything.

In many ways, Mathieu reminds me of the qualities that I dislike in myself. Depression and low self-esteem, unwillingness to commit. A tendency to decide which course is best without consulting other people who are involved, and then a blind adherence to that course no matter what difficulties or obstacles present themselves. A habitual lack of funds. I got into a fight with him this week about my level of commitment to his family. I still don’t feel as if he heard what I was saying, that his parents take advantage of people (specifically me), but we’re not fighting anymore, and there will probably come another time for that discussion. He doesn’t see that the concept of taking advantage applies to families, that ‘family’ means they can ask for whatever they want and he has to do it, and now I have to do it too. All I can say is, No. Unfortunately, they literally have no one else in their lives to ask for help, and I’m beginning to think it’s because people don’t like being manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m not even that committed to my own family. Commitment scares me, because (a) circumstances outside my control sometimes prevent my keeping those commitments, (b) committing to someone gives them power to hurt me deeply, like he did this week, and (c) if you commit to one thing, people will take it for granted that you’re committed to other things as well (whether or not they’re directly related), or that it’s okay to expect you to extend a time commitment beyond what you’re really willing to do. Commitment creates the opportunity for rejection and manipulation, and for me, those have been the results. I know that there are also opportunities for love and intimacy and closeness, but I have less experience of those things.

Looking back over the entry I wrote two years ago on Sartre’s philosophy, I think that it’s harder to see existential philosophy in narrative form. Yes, Mathieu comes to see himself as a tabula rasa, existence that has not yet achieved essence, but he’s wrong. He has a personality, it’s just an ineffective one. Personal responsibility, again yes. No one is willing to help Mathieu reach his goal of finding enough money to buy an abortion, so he has to take matters into his own hands. But, and I think this is important, people decide that he’s doing such a wretched job of handling the situation that they take it from him. The solution he works for with his own hands does not solve the problem, and Marcelle makes it clear that it’s not even his problem anymore. He’s not the only string to her bow. But I don’t see anything positive or life-affirming here. Mathieu is more of a cautionary tale; he clings to this idea of freedom so strongly that everyone wishes he would just grow up. Grown-ups recognize that people live in and contribute to communities. Mathieu just takes and takes and takes until he loses it all.

It isn’t that that’s repulsive.

It took me longer to read this than it should have because Mathieu is not a protagonist I want to spend time with. Perspective shifts around a lot, but his friends aren’t really nice people either, except maybe Sarah. This is the type of book that people read to tell themselves that it’s okay not to become an existentialist because they lead wasted lives of self-centered navel-gazing and will probably die alone in a drunken misery.

 

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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.