Posts Tagged ‘rwemerson’


Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.


The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.


In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.


I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.


A friend of mine was asking about this book a few weeks ago, and I’d never read it, or anything by Lewis, so I gave it a go. I studied literature because I wanted to read books and talk about them with intelligent people, so the emailed conversation we’ve been having has been a rare joy. And I’ve realized that I’ve been conflating Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, which sort of happens when you’ve never really read anything by either.

George F. Babbitt, as my friend pointed out, is the classic Trump supporter, only back in 1920. He’s solid middle class, at a time when that was possible. His is the America that people look back to as being great, prosperous and conformist and sexist and anti-immigration and would probably be racist if there were any other races represented.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. It if was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it.

The people in Babbitt’s life are all pretty much the same. Their god is named Pep, and they all go around “boosting” each other, which I take to mean they advertise each other’s businesses in a loudly jovial fashion. Even their poetry sounds like an ad campaign. Relationships are kind of weird. He never really wanted to marry his wife, he never even asked – one night she was crying on his shoulder and he kissed her and she assumed that meant marriage, so he never contradicted her.

And the strange thing is that the longer one knew the women, the less alike they seemed; while the longer one knew the men, the more alike their bold patterns appeared.

I’d like to talk about gender, because that is one of those things I habitually do, but there’s not a whole lot here. Babbitt tries to avoid spaces that are coded feminine; he doesn’t even sleep in the bedroom, but on a sleeping-porch. He flees his house to get back to masculine spaces, like his real estate office.

The novel is organized as a three-act tragedy. The first part establishes Babbitt’s normal life, with his iron-clad habits and habitual dissatisfaction. The blurbs keep saying this is a book about complacency, but I don’t see the joint pleasure that word implies. His phonograph needle is stuck in this one groove, but he doesn’t like it.

He was conscious of life, and a little sad. With no Vergil Gunches before whom to set his face in resolute optimism, he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business – a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion – a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical gold and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships – back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.

He turned uneasily in bed.

He saw the years, the brilliant winter days and all the long sweet afternoons which were meant for summery meadows, lost in such brittle pretentiousness. He thought of telephoning about leases, of cajoling men he hated, of making business calls and waiting in dirty anterooms – hat on knee, yawning at fly-specked calendars, being polite to office-boys.

“I don’t hardly want to go back to work,” he prayed. “I’d like to – I don’t know.”

But he was back next day, busy and of doubtful temper.

Paul Riesling is important – he and Babbitt complain about their mutual unhappiness, and that releases the pressure so Babbitt can go back to his boringly successful existence. This is the part where I usually speculate on the possibility of their being gay, but no. There are opportunities for that, but I don’t think they go there. It is possible for two heterosexual men to enjoy each other’s company without either of them secretly wanting to have sex.

Act Two describes Babbitt’s rise to power. Lewis always points out the ways that Babbitt is successful, but not the most successful. He belongs to the second-best clubs – nothing is ever quite of the best. But then he starts getting a reputation for being an orator, and makes some well-received public speeches (that to me sound like meaningless jingoism), and he starts climbing the social ladder. In this part of the book, Babbitt is frequently reminded of the fact that there is a pecking order and what his place is in that order – knocked down by those above, slavishly adored by those below.

Frankly, this first two-thirds was sort of dull to me. Conspicuous consumption and the expected indiscretions, like having whisky at a dinner party during Prohibition. His neighbors on either side represent his superego and his id, and it’s all sort of predictable and episodic and boring. Babbitt’s life is boring. It’s hard for me because I see so much of this in my family; they follow the round of business and church and the collective life. There’s a certain degree of comfort in all of it, but it feels like a hairshirt to me. The thing is, that life in gay land isn’t much different. The gay men I’ve met are just as conformist as everyone else, and the cultural push to marriage equality celebrated this fact. Look at us, we’re just as boring as straight people. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like some more prosperity in my life, but I’d prefer a home life with fewer possessions and organizations. Frequent moving has made my life fairly Spartan, both in design choices and social activities. Home is where I go to relax, not to be overstimulated by a lot of people who need attention and a mountain of stuff that needs to be cleaned.

Babbitt’s story gets interesting (to me) when he starts to fall. It starts with Paul Riesling shooting his (own) wife and going to jail. Without that safety valve to release the pressure, Babbitt goes off the rails. His wife goes off for a visit to her sick sister, and he starts going out with a lovely widow who was a lot of young scandalous friends. But as he gets farther and farther into this group, they demand an equal amount of conformity, just of a different variety. They’re just as involved in every aspect of each other’s lives, they just prefer a different sort of life. It’s kind of sad. He learns to hold his liquor and dance the latest steps, but he’s not actually more independent than he was before. His rebellion is as neatly prescribed as his previous life. But then the old crowd cuts him, and he pulls himself out of the new crowd, and he sinks to the bottom. Unlike a good many tragedies, though, he rights himself. His wife gets appendicitis and spends two or three weeks in the hospital. It may seem like the crowning tragedy, but the sympathy generated brings him back into the fold of conservative, right-thinking people. He ends where he began, but with a little less rigidity.

As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture, and he compassionated that husband-and-wife relation which, in twenty-five years of married life, had become a separate and real entity.

The whole thing does improve his relationship with his wife; at least, he has more respect and consideration, and I guess that can take the place of love. I want to live with someone who is kind, and that seems the most important quality to me these days. My current he is kind to me, and good to his family and friends generally. We have some cultural differences that may be irreconcilable – he doesn’t find the strange to be beautiful – but it works for right now.

This week I read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” with my advanced class, and Babbitt is the sort of person the essay decries. He flies from one conformity to another, and never really settles into living by his own values and opinions. His independent thoughts are only for private time and aren’t permitted to dictate changes to his public life. I’m not saying that I never do this. It’s not like Emersonian self-reliance is easy, and I don’t think an extreme devotion to it is healthy because we do need to live in communities. But living according to one’s own opinions and values is important; it’s a vital part of what being American means to a lot of us. Maybe twenty-first century mobility and communication have been necessary to both embrace one’s own priorities and still live in a community. If so, the internet is a great gift to the world.

Sinclair Lewis’s style matches his subject matter. It’s clear and impartial, occasionally descriptive but never really effusive. The book is a good one for people who are interested in the daily lives of the Midwestern middle-class in 1920, but my final evaluation is pretty much the same as my evaluation of the protagonist: not bad, but not interesting enough to keep my attention.

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.


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.