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Arachne: A Literary Journal. No. 1

Concerning Sartre

page 18

Concerning Sartre

(I) The Existentialist Tree

The other day a young New Zealander touring at present the Continent, wrote to me, 'For good or for ill the existentialist approach seems to have made its way into almost every branch of life and thought on the Continent. Such a philosophy of despair, crystallizing as it does, thoughts of futility which must be in the minds of many people in our age, seems to me an extremely negative and dangerous contribution!' He was thinking of Sartre in particular. This is important to note, for existentialism covers a wide range of frequently contradictory views, ranging from militant atheism to orthodox Christianity and varying from an emphatic denial of the possibility of personal communion to an equally emphatic assertion of the reality of the 'we.' And though most existentialists are dependent in one way or another on Kierkegaard, Hegel's celebrated antagonist, there are others, like Gabriel Marcel, who cannot claim to be sons of this 'father' of existentialism. This simple fact alone throws a critical light on Emmanuel Mounier's recent attempt of constructing a family-tree of Existentialism.1 In this tree, Kierkegaard appears as the formidable 'trunk', with Socrates and others as 'roots', while Sartre and Gabriel Marcel find a place among its numerous 'branches'. What then have Socrates and Kierkegaard and Satre in common? That they all said, 'Know thyself'? This would turn the tree into a rather shaky affair, and, in fact, it has not much life in it, for we are given no satisfactory criterion which would hold roots, trunk, and branches together. Still, there remains some justification in grouping a number of otherwise divergent thinkers (even though the selection itself is under dispute) under the common head of Existentialism. For they are all united in their reaction against Hegelian logic and metaphysics. They share a disbelief in the possibility of erecting a metaphysical 'system', and they are all pre-occupied with the ontological study of the concrete individual existent. In the following pages I shall confine myself to Satre's Existentialism. I begin with some general observations which, I feel, are necessary for the understanding of Satre's philosophy, and then I turn to some specific aspects of his thought which seem to me to be of general interest.

(II) A Fiasco Of Romanticism

Kierkegaard was a romantic, but he took a critical view of his own romantic position. In Sartre we witness the complete breakdown of romanticism. This can be illustrated under the three heads of 'contingency'; 'irony'; and 'the single one'. The continental romantics betrayed a keen awareness of the reality of contingency, and this awareness has been handed on to the existentialists. Sartre heroically faces in his philosophy the fact of contingency in its bare nakedness. But whereas the romantics found pleasure in the inexplicable irrationality of the contingent, Sartre is offended by it. In him it causes an all-pervading nausea from which he does not permit himself to escape through the backdoor of Platonism either. The eternal verities have gone, and rightly so, for they are, to quote Thomas Merton, 'the big sin of Platonism'2 Kierkegaard, full of scorn for the Hegelian logic which issues into a 'unity of contrasts', had taken over from the romantics their logic of 'irony', a logic which regards the 'cleavage' as the ultimate reality: 'that the two halves of an idea are held asunder by something foreign intervening', 'that an unsatisfied craving has called it into being, yet has failed to find satisfaction in it'. Here, existence and essence are separated by a rigid 'boundary'— a boundary which Kierkegaard still believed he could pass by means of 'the category of the absurd', or, simply, by an act of faith. To Sartre, this passage is closed, and so man is in his sight for ever doomed to failure in his attempt to realise his self.—And finally, the romantic is essentially 'the single one'. Communion with the other never comes naturally to him; it always involves the task of crossing a 'barrier'. This has been so ever since the romantic movement took its origin among the medieval troubadours in the South of France. For the troubadour was 'the single one' in a very real sense as the unmarried retainer who addressed his love to the life of his lord. In modern times, Kierkegaard made very much of the category of 'the single one'. To him the page 19 individual was 'a closed system' open only to God. With Sartre, this last source of communication has gone, and the individual consequently becomes a closed system in a very radical sense. We have then in Satre a romantic who has cast aside everything on which the romantic depends for his happiness: Logical inconsistencies, metaphysical flights of imagination, or revealed religion.

(III:1) 'Abortive Gods'

As Kierkegaard had been considerably influenced by Hegel in spite of his polemic against him, so also Sartre. The following will only be apreciated when it is realised that Sartre transferred the role of the Hegelian 'Absolute' to the concrete individual. In other words, since in his atheistic philosophy he had no room for God, he conferred both divine dignity and function upon man. And as the Hegelian God was consciousness that 'posited' its world, so the Sartrean 'god' is consciousness which 'posits' its world. But, whereas the Hegelian God succeeds in his task, viz., to become what he is (that is, in his consciousness), the Sartrean 'god' is doomed to failure. He always is what he is not and he is not what he is. In fact, he is no full-grown god, but only a 'Dieu manque'. That is, a would-be God, or to do more justice to Sartre's sex-ridden language: an 'abortive god'. This leads us right into Sartre's ontology, for this 'abortive god', as concrete individual consciousness, is one essential part of the ontological structure of Being. Being, so Sartre tells us, is either consciousness (être-pour-soi) or object (être-en-soi). To the latter applies the principle of identity. It is what it is. That is, its existence exhausts its essence. The same can, however, not be said of consciousness. Whenever an individual makes himself the object of his own consciousness, he will be barred from ever becoming the object of his own reflection in such a manner that the principle of identity would apply to him. In other words, the object of consciousness will always remain distinct from the consciousness itself. This analysis of consciousness is certainly questionable and seems to be easily refuted by an appeal to experience. But the explanation for Sartre's contention is that to him consciousness is, in fact, self-consciousness. Consciousness so defined is always consciousness of the object and consciousness of self at once. For instance, if I see a flower, I am, according to Sartre, conscious of the flower and at the same time conscious of my consciousness of the flower. This certainly applies in some cases, but when the same is claimed for all cases of consciousness, then it becomes a false generalisation, and yet for Sartre, this view of consciousness is fundamental, and without it his argument falls to the ground. In short, the pour-soi and the en-soi are for ever doomed to fall apart, and yet at the same time their existence is inseparably linked to each other in that the individual consciousness continues positing the objects of its consciousness. It 'has to be' (as Sartre informs us) what it is not and it is not what it is. It is under a necessity continually to produce this 'endless stalemate'. This necessity, Sartre calls in his typical perverted manner the individual's freedom. In fact, this freedom is what you would expect of an 'abortive god'. "For Sartre, freedom is, like consciousness, a defect, a deprivation."3 Sartre says in one place 4 that freedom is my choice to be God: 'I choose to possess the world'. But we have seen what this 'divinity' amounts to. And so it does not come as a great surprise to us when we learn that freedom manifests itself in 'dread' of 'anguish'. 'Dread', in Sartre's terminology, is not identical with fear. I am afraid of things, but I dread a nothing or 'the' nothing. 'The' Nothing is one of Sartre's philsophical atrocities and it is, together with Being, part of the ontological structure of existence. In other words, to Sartre it is not merely a quality of judgment, but part of the structure of the real. It owes its origin to the pour-soi or consciousness, and it becomes the subject of dread in so far as it separates consciousness from the object of consciousness. That is, anguish is given with the irrevocable fact that the pour-soi is what it is not and that it is not what it is.

(III:2) Twilight Of The Gods

There are, of course, as many 'abortive gods' in Sartre's world as there are individuals. These gods live in continual 'conflict' with one another stabbing and piercing one another by means of a fearful 'look' which 'posits' the rival god as part of one's own world deftly turning him from a subject into an object. This 'look', however, is not deadly. It can be returned with the result that the parts will page 20 be reversed. This makes for complete instability. Whenever another appears on the horizon, my whole world is in danger including myself who am the god of this world. Sartre compares this appearance of the other with 'a kind of landslide of the universe, or with a shifting of its centre which undermines the centralisation operated by myself. It is as if the world had a sinkhole in the middle and were continually emptying itself through that hole'.5 This is what Sartre calls 'the scandal of the plurality of pour-soi's'. All this is rather puzzling, but a shrewd remark occasionally made by Gabriel Marcel will help us on the right track. This astute but by no means unsympathic critic of Sartre suggested that "Sartre's world is the world as seen from the terrace of a cafe."6 This is not a mere witticism. All philosophies have what Gunkel called their 'seat in life'; if you can discover this 'seat' a flood of new light falls on their purely verbal formulations. In other words, philosophers are always tempted to generalise from some concrete situation of limited applicability to universality. This undoubtedly is the case with Sartre, and Marcel has given us a valuable hint as to the situation from which Sartre deduces his generalisations. It is the cafe. The crowded terrace of a cafe provides ample opportunity for looking around. Since you have not much else to do you pass your time in looking at the others who frequent the cafe and in 'sum-ming them up'. Of course, you are not the only one who plays this game; the others are similarly occupied. This naturally makes you somewhat self-conscious. You start to act. You try to be what your consciousness tells you are not. This is a precarious situation, for the next moment somebody may look at you and sum you up. And that is the end of you, at least for the moment. Of course, you do not know exactly what label the other has put on you, but this makes the situation only the worse. On the other hand, you can always retaliate by defiantly looking at the other and summing him up in turn. To any one who has spent some hours in a continental cafe, this game is only too familiar. Now, it is Sartre's contention that life is just like this. And it is only with this fact in mind that we are able to follow Sartre's discussion concerning the relation of the one individual to the other. The existence of the other is no problem for Sartre. The other's existence is given as part of my own existence. 'The other is always there.' Or, 'to be seen by the other' (that is, to be conscious of the other's presence as 'other') is sufficient evidence that I see the other. He is given with the enexplicable and completely contingent fact of my own conscious existence. Or to put it still differently, the être-pour-soi is in its very structure always also être-pour-autrui. The latter term has, of course, nothing to do with the Christian notion that everyone is there 'for the other' viz., to serve him. All that it means in this context is that each individual is continually exposed to the 'look' of the other and that it is only for the other that the pour-soi is what it is and so can assume the nature of l'en-soi from which, in its own consciousness, it is for ever barred. Consequently, the secret of my being lies buried in the consciousness of the other. I wish to get hold of it, but such desire is doomed to end in frustration. For the moment I wish to wrest the secret from him, I 'act upon' him and his person 'collapses' under my 'look' into mere objectivity burying the secret with him. Or, as Sartre puts it also, the moment I wish to get hold of the other, he escapes me and leaves nothing but his coat in my hands. I am like Tantalus, to quote still another metaphor that Sartre uses. I know where my true being lies, but I cannot get hold of it. So we have here another 'impasse' or 'check-mate'. The reason for this lies in, so Sartre would have us believe, the fundamental fact that soul cannot meet soul. In other words, that there are no true personal relationships. Where two people come together the one is bound to reduce the other to the state of an object. From this there is no escape, anly the parts can be exchanged. This is the 'single one' in his inexorable exclusiveness. Even the Sartrean gods, though only 'dieux manques', are jealous gods.

(III:3) A God After All?

In this impasse of man's relation to one another love is no exception. Love, according to Sartre, consists in the attempt to 'appropriate' the other's 'freedom'. That is, in love I wish not to reduce the other to an object, but to possess his as subject. This, Sartre's lover tries to bring about by making himself beloved. In fact, according to Sartre, to love means 'to wish to be loved'. A definition which betrays Sartre's complete incapacity of establishing true personal relationships. As it is Sartre's lover places himself into the some page 21 what difficult position of wanting to be loved, to use his own jargon, 'by a freedom' while at the same time demanding 'that this freedom as freedom be no longer free'. What this jargon amounts to, is simply this: the lover wants to be for the beloved 'the whole world'.7 Or, 'the absolute centre of reference' from which all values for the other issue. Only under these circumstances will the lover be able to feel justified in his existence. This and no less he demands for his security. For once, he would not be an 'abortive god', but a true god round whom the whole universe revolves. How is it that this magnificient 'project' does not work? Sartre's answer is characteristic. The beloved retaliates by loving the lover and since love is by definition 'the wish to be loved', we are faced with another irreducible dilemma. This is how Sartre sums it up. "Everybody wishes that the other loves him without taking into account that to love is to wish to be loved and that consequently in wishing that the other loves one, one merely wishes that the other wishes that one loves him."8

(IV) Conclusion

This is how the contingent world strikes Sartre as a disillusioned romantic. It remains his contribution that he so heroically faced the fact of contingency. Whether it is really as depressing and terrifying as he believes, is a question that demands in the end a religious answer. But I venture to disagree with Kierkegaard when he declared that this answer cannot but offend reason. I grant him, however, it will be 'irrational' on the assumption of a qualitative difference between time and eternity, for on this basis the contingent will never be firmly established in the dignity that pertains to it as the only real existent that there is apart from God. Such a claim has, of course, its tremendous repercussions. For one thing, it means the end of the rule of Platonism in the Christian religion. And it also implies a reorientation in our views concerning God's relation to Time.

(1)Existentialist Philosophies.
(2)Elected Silence, p. 67.
(3)Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existence, p. 67.
(4)L'être et le neant, p. 689.
(5)(5) Ibid, p. 313.
(6)Marcel, op. cit., p. 41.
(7)L'être et le neant, p. 435.
(8)Ibid, p. 444.