Why Sartre Matters

”It’s like this,” Garcin says, forming the question as a statement. ”It’s like this,” the bellhop answers in a bored tone. (No Exit, 1943)

The “it” they are referring to, is hell when Garcin is about to be joined by two other fully formed souls facing themselves. “Hell is other people”, he famously quotes, and we find this in B&W tints on edgy Facebook pages which talk about life and loss. Existentialism, as a branch of philosophy, is too often fetishized by angsty teenagers and college going intellectuals who idolize the left bank cafés in Paris where Sartre churned out his historic ‘La nauseé’. The cultural preponderance of existentialism as a philosophical thought is often outweighed by the whimsical fancies of post-war European men and women smoking cigarette after cigarette, taking a sip of their café au lait’s as they keenly debate on nature of existence, individual liberties and newly found freedom- the freedom of the loss of will to live. Rarely does one imagine the concrete individual, in all her glory and shame (who is ultimately just biological mass inhibiting a senselessly rotating rock on one corner of the universe,) hoping to find meaning in life by subverting in faith, or else alcohol.

While existentialism shaped its roots in the early 18th century, it did not become the enigma of hope/hopelessness it is today until post-war 20th century, while the masses finally realized that lives hold no value or meaning when their lives can be irrecoverably taken away by a Russian missile or a holocaust chamber. The bereavement of a father, a husband or a son finally revealed the “Das nicht‘. What is the purpose of anything if any goal if it is ephemeral?

The tragic purpose vacuum this idea left behind was quickly taken up by existentialist philosophers of the sorts of Sartre and Camus. The human nature, in general, is conditioned by three Meta questions- Why am I here? What does it mean to be human and how should I live my life? The fundamental problem of life, as per this is to recognize the unreasonable confusion of the human world.

Rejection of an all imposing system like the Catholic Church is the foundation of existentialist philosophy. The collateral damage of such a system is the invariable flattening of identities by providing a common answer. For an existentialist, a commune is nothing but a collection of individual identities which are preserved collectively. An all imposing system believes in a Mary Poppins like god figure who, of course, always knows best. An existentialist refutes this theory because it compromises individualistic integrity. Such a binding directive of the sort of “you should not drink alcohol”, for instance, is detrimental to personal growth and development by not allowing the subject in question to perceive and judge for themselves. Organized religion sees divine perspective as the commanding directives of god man is given through a prophet, which Nietzsche described as ‘…human, all too human’.

Sartre first coined the word existentialism at Paris which was internationally influential after WWII. I suppose Paris, after a year or two of Nazi occupation, was never the same as tourist handbooks depict it to be; for a war never ends as abruptly as it begins. Any decree issued to bring about peace is not a green signal for ‘normal’ living. Grief has its inertia, reminiscent of loss and enslavement. It was at such a turbulent time when Sartre published his book, Being and Nothingness (1943).

In arguing that Existentialism is a humanistic science, Sartre places human beings at the top of the value hierarchy. He gathers that our ultimate goal is fostering the freedom of the individual which can be done by fine-tuning one’s choices. This freedom cannot be sacrificed for any higher value, which might be class for the Marxists or god for the Catholics. So one shall take an active stance when it comes to freedom; one can either be for the highest level of personal, creative freedom or against it all. There is no middle path, like that of modern-day liberals, who seem to be in a constant dilemma of whether it is okay to punch a Nazi or not.

(Richard Spencer, a card-carrying member of the white supremacist neo-Nazi alt-right group was punched by an Antifa activist last year. This lead to widespread confusion among the liberal, intellectual community about whether it was okay to punch a Nazi, or whether violence against violence is the correct solution. While Slavoj Zizek was of the opinion that a Gandhian stance of staunch nonviolence is better, Noam Chomsky believes that it is all right to punch anyone who threatens an entire demographic’s existence.)

When asked why he performs his plays almost exclusively in the bourgeois quarters of the city, Sartre replied, “the purpose of my life is to give the bourgeois a bad conscience.” Other famous existentialist philosophers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard also held bourgeois elitism in contempt. Kierkegaard, for instance, is noted for his polemic attitude towards the three pillars of the Danish institution: Hegelian dialectics, the established church, and the popular press. Hegelian dialectics, he felt, ignored the contingencies of life which cannot be uncovered historically. The established church promoted complacency, greed, and tokenism for the poor and the popular press promoted herd mentality by ostracizing anyone who moved against the grain. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was more focused on the formation of the individual rather than the transformation of the society. The social question for the existentialists in the 19th century, which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were apathetic to, is the equitable distribution of the growing wealth to the burgeoning proletariat.

Being a man is a human reality. It means that first, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first, he is nothing. Only afterwards will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no preexisting human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence.


Author: Maitreyi Menon

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