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Authors: Jean-Paul Sartre

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Jean-Paul Sartre


Hayden Carruth

Existentialism entered the American consciousness like an elephant entering a dark room: there was a good deal of breakage and the people inside naturally mistook the nature of the intrusion. What would it be? An engine of destruction perhaps, a tank left over from the war? After a while the lights were turned on and it was seen to be "only" an elephant; everyone laughed and said that a circus must be passing through town. But no, soon they found the elephant was here to stay; and then, looking closer, they saw that although he was indeed a newcomer, an odd-looking one at that, he was not a stranger: they had known him all along.

This was in 1946 and 1947. And in no time at all Existentialism became a common term. No question of what it meant; it meant the life re-emerging after the war in the cafes of the Left Bankùdisreputable young men in paint-smeared jeans, and their companions, those black-stockinged, makeupless girls who smoked too many cigarettes and engaged in who knows what follies besides. And their leader, apparently, was this fellow Sartre, who wrote books with loathsome titles like Nausea and The Flies. What nonsense, the wiseheads concluded. Perfectly safe to dismiss it as a fad, very likely a hoax.

Meanwhile at centers of serious thought the texts of Existentialism, especially Sartre's, were being translated and studied, with a resulting profound shock to the American intellectual establishment. On one hand the Neo-Thomists and other moral philosophers were alarmed by Existentialism's disregard for traditional schemes of value; on the other the positivists and analytical philosophers were outraged by Existentialism's willingness to abandon rational categories and rely on nonmental processes of consciousness. Remarkably violent attacks issued from both these camps, set off all the more sharply by the enthusiasm, here and there, of small welcoming bands of the avant garde. That the welcomers were no less ill-informed about Existentialism than the attackers, didn't help matters.

Nevertheless Existentialism, gradually and then more rapidly, won adherents, people who took it seriously. Someone has said that Existentialism is a philosophyùif a philosophy at ail-that has been independently invented by millions of people sim-ply responding to the emergency of life in a modern world. Coming for the first time to the works of Sartre, Jaspers, or Camus is often like reading, on page after page, one's own intimate thoughts and feelings, expressed with new precision and concrete-ness. Existentialism is a philosophy, as a matter of fact, because it has been lengthily adumbrated by men trained in the philosophical disciplines; but it is also and more fundamentally a shift in ordinary human attitudes that has altered every aspect of life in our civilization.

The name, however, like the names we give all great movements of the human spiritùRomanticism, Transcendentalismùis misleading if we try to use it as a definition. There are so many branches of Existentialism that a number of the principal Existentialist writers have repudiated the term altogether; they deny they are Existentialists and they refuse to associate in the common ferment. Nevertheless we go on calling them Existentialists, and we are quite right to do so: as long as we use the term as a proper name, an agreed-upon semanteme, it is as good as any, or perhaps better, for signifying what unites the divergent interests.

It is nothing new. William Barrett, in his excellent book Irrational Man (1958), has shown that what we now call the Existentialist impulse is coeval with the myths of Abraham and Job; it is evident in the pre-Socratic philosophies of Greece, in the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides, and in the later Greek and Byzantine culture of mystery; and it is a thread that winds, seldom dominant but always present, through the central European tradition : the Church Fathers, Augustine, the Gnostics, Abelard, Thomas, and then the extraordinary Pascal and the Romantic tradition that took up his standard a century later. And in the Orient, concurrently, the entire development of religious and philosophical attitudes, particularly in the Buddhist and Taoist writings, seems to us now to have been frequently closer to the actual existence of mankind than the rationalist discourses of the West.

Yet in spite of these precursors and analogues we would be gravely wrong to deny the modernity of Existentialism. Philosophical truth assumes many forms precisely because times change and men's needs change with them. Thus what we call Existentialism today, in all its philosophical, religious, and artistic manifestations, springs with remarkable directness from three figures of the last century. Two were philosophers, S0ren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who, although they lived a generation

apart, worked and wrote independently. They arrived at positions that were in many respects entirely contrary, for Kierkegaard was deeply committed to the idea of the Christian God while Nietzsche was just as deeply divorced from it; but in other respects they were alike. They shared the same experience of loneliness, anguish, and doubt, and the same profound concern for the fate of the individual person. These were the driving forces too in the work of the third great originator, the novelist Dostoevski, from whose writings, especially The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground, springs virtually the whole flowering of Existentialist sensibility in literature.

Our own century has devoted much labor and intelligence to the elaboration of these beginnings. It is customary to say that the principal Existentialist philosophers of our time are Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, and of course Sartre. But many others, including thinkers as diverse as Jose Ortega, Martin Buber, Nikolai Berdyaev, and A. N. Whitehead, have been influenced by the main factors of Existentialist concern. In literature many, or even most, of the chief modern authors have been, consciously or not, Existentialists; certainly the tradition is very strong in the line of development represented by Kafka, Unamuno, Lawrence, Malraux, Hesse, Camus, and Faulkner. Even a writer as far removed as Robert Frost from the centers of self-conscious Existentialism joins in this alignment, as we see when we reread such poems as "The Census-Taker" and "Stopping by Woods." Then what is it, finally, that has produced such wide effects'?

Nobody knows. That is, nobody can pin it down in a statement, though a number of people, including Sartre, have tried. Simply because Existentialism is not a produce of antecedent intellectual determinations, but a free transmutation of living experience, it cannot be defined. Nevertheless the important tendencies are evident enough.

In the first place, Existentialism is a recoil from rationalism. Not that Existentialists deny the role of reason; they merely insist that its limits be acknowledged. Most of them probably like to think that their speculations are eminently reasonable, yet not rational; and they emphasize the distinction between the terms. In particular, Existentialism is opposed to the entire rationalist tradition deriving from the Renaissance and culminating, a hundred-odd years ago, in the "cosmic rationalism" of Hegel. Hegel's writing is difficult and often obscure, but his purpose wasto unite tinal Keality with Ideal Reason in a system that sublimated all negative or oppositional tendencies. It was a magnificent work, symphonic in its harmonies and variations, and it took hold on men's imaginations so compellingly that today its effects are dominant everywhere, both in the academic and "practical" worlds. But for a few men, notably Kierkegaard, this apotheosis of the mind did not account for human experience. Pain and ecstasy, doubt and intuition, private anguish and despairùthese could not be explained in terms of the rational categories. Long before Freud, Kierkegaard was aware of the hidden forces within the self, forces that, simply by existing, destroyed all rational, positivistic, and optimistic delusions.

Hegelianism was the philosophy of history and the mass. By projecting a Final Reality toward which all history flows in a process of ever-refining synthesis, Hegel submerged the individual consciousness in a grand unity of ideal mind. But for the Existentialist, who insists that reality is only what he himself knows and experiences, this is meaningless. Not only that, it is cruel and coercive. The Existentialist knows that the self is not submerged, it is present, here and now, a suffering existent, and any system of thought that overrides this suffering is tyrannical. "A crowd is untruth," Kierkegaard repeats with choric insistence. Only in the self can the drama of truth occur.

Yet when the Existentialist looks inside himself, what does he find? Nothing. Looking back beyond birth or forward beyond death, he sees the void; looking into his own center, thrusting aside all knowledge, all memory, all sensation, he sees the chasm of the ego, formless and inconceivable, like the nucleus of an electron. And he is led to ask, as philosophers throughout history have asked: why is there anything instead of nothing, why the world, the universe, rather than a void? By concentrating all attention on this nothing within himself and underlying the objective surface of reality, he gradually transforms nothing into the concept of Nothingness, one of the truly great accomplishments of human sensibility. Nothingness as a force, a ground, a reality ùin a certain sense the reality. From this comes man's despair, but also, if he has courage, his existential integrity.

From this comes, too, the Existentialist's opposition to humanism. Not that he is inhumane; quite the contrary, his entire preoccupation is with the sanity and efficacy of the individual person. But he insists that men must confront Nothingness. In a universe grounded in Nothingness, the anthropocentric vision

of reality that characterized rational humanism from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century is clearly untenable. Mankind, instead of being the central figure on the stage of reality, the rational creature for whom the nonrational world exists, is actually an accident, a late and adventitious newcomer whose life is governed by contingency; and the proof, paradoxically, comes from rationalism itself, from the Darwinian idea of evolution. Whatever may be the case with trees and stones and stars, man the thinker is a by-product, a nonessential component of reality, and he and all his works cling to existence with a hold that is tenuous and feeble.

Beyond this, generalities must cease. Each of the great Existentialist thinkers pursues his separate course toward the re-establishment of the individual person in the face of Nothingness and absurdity. Sartre is only one of them. But clearly Existentialism, the confrontation with anguish and despair, is a philosophy of our age. No wonder the time and place of its greatest flowering has been Europe in the middle decades of our century. It has deep significance for those who have lived through social chaos, uprootedness, irrational torture, and this accounts for the pessimism and nightmarish imagery that pervade much Existentialist writing. But it is worth remembering that if Existentialism flowered in the world of Graham Greene, Andre Malraux, and Arthur Koestler, it originated in the world of Dickens, Balzac, and Pushkin. Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche lived in circumstances that outsiders would judge to be in the least uncomfortable. The aspects of the human condition that they discovered in their inner searching are far more deeply rooted than the particular catastrophes of history.

"Suffering is the origin of consciousness," Dostoevski wrote. But suffering is anywhere in the presence of thought and sensitivity. Sartre for his part has written, and with equal simplicity: "Life begins on the other side of despair."

To Existentialism Sartre has contributed a classically brilliant French mind. If he is not the leader that Americans first took him to be, he is certainly one of the leaders. And his forthrightness, his skill as a writer, his acuity and originality, have won him a wider audience than any philosopher, probably, has ever enjoyed in his own lifetime. He has brought to his work a characteristically French mentality, viz., attuned less to metaphysical than to psychological modes of reasoning. Paradoxicallyùfor Descartes was a leader of Renaissance rationalismùSartre is an Existentialistwho operates in the Cartesian tradition; at the beginning of any investigation he poses the cogito, the self-that-is and the self that observes the self-that-is. From this duality, in almost endless brilliant progressions, he moves through other dualities: knowing-doing, being-becoming, nature-freedom, etc. Only the professional philosopher can follow all the way. But Sartre would undoubtedly subscribe to Nietzsche's remark: "I honor a philosopher only if he is able to be an example." He himself is an example, and has been at great pains to define and enforce his exemplitude: in journalism, in fiction, in drama, in political activity, and in teaching. The question naturally arises: who is this Sartre?

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris in 1905. Brought up chiefly in his mother's familyùthe Schweitzers; Albert Schweitzer was his older cousinùthe boy was educated by his grandfather, who had invented the Berlitz method for teaching languages. In fact Sartre spent so much time in his grandfather's library that he began writing, he said later, out of sheer boredom. Eventually he studied philosophy at French and German universities, and taught at Le Havre, which he took as the model for Bouville in Nausea, his first full-scale work. When it was published in 1938 it was condemned, predictably, in academic circles; but younger readers welcomed it, and it was far more successful than most first novels. Then came the war. Sartre entered the army, was captured and sent to prison camp, then released because of ill health. He returned to Paris. There, under the Occupation, he wrote several plays and his first major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness (1943). By the end of the war he was known as a leader of the entire war-bred generation of Parisian intellectuals.

Since then Sartre's activity has been intense. He has produced novels, short stories, plays, literary and philosophical essays, biographies, many political and journalistic works, pamphlets, manifestoes, etc. He has been called the most brilliant Frenchman of our time; and no wonder. For wit, learning, argumentative skill and polemical zeal, none can match him. Certainly Being and Nothingness, whatever faults its critics, including Sartre, may now find in it, was a brilliant contribution to philosophy; and Nausea was not only a powerful novel but a crucial event in the evolution of sensibility.

BOOK: Nausea
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