Existentialism, Sartre

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Sartre, Iris Murdoch
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, Thomas R Flynn

Existentialism is commonly associated with Left-Bank Parisian cafes and the ‘family’ of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) who gathered there in the years immediately following the liberation of Paris at end of World War II… The mood is one of enthusiasm, creativity, anguished self-analysis, and freedom – always freedom. (Flynn)

These two books are only short, not taking up much room in my backpack, and I thought, rightly as it turned out, that I might at last have the leisure to both read and think about them as I was training and boating around southern Europe. To say that I understood them however, and particularly Iris Murdoch’s dense 1953 account of Sartre’s early writing, would be an overstatement.

I first came to Existentialism when I lost my licence (for speeding in a heavy vehicle) and returned to uni for a year of Arts in 1971, and it subsequently became an important part of my opposition to conscription and the Viet Nam War.

I was impressed by Sartre’s credo – Existence precedes Essence, by his work as a novelist, and by his commitment to Revolution. For a number of years I carried a battered copy of his opus, Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943) with me in the truck, a copy which went missing with many of my ‘political’ books when my son was a teenager, and which I saw maybe ten years ago, on the shelves of one of his friends. When I chipped him about this he said, “Oh yeah, there’s a few of your books in a box out the back.” But that’s as close as I ever got to recovering them.

English philosopher and author Iris Murdoch’s book was the first monograph on Sartre in English (Wiki). Sartre’s writing is notoriously difficult but a beginning to comprehending it might lie in Murdoch’s description of his discursive method of argument. Sartre believes (you can take as read in all that follows, “in my limited understanding”) that you can never know yourself fully through self-reflection, but that, if you are honest with yourself, then each iteration of reflection results in improvement.

According to Murdoch, Sartre is an unwilling solipsist. He wishes to believe in the Other, indeed he imagines himself the unwilling object of the Other’s gaze, but is unable to determine what, or even if, the Other is thinking. And this leads us to ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Good Faith involves constant reflection, to refine our understanding and therefore, our behaviour. Bad Faith consequently, involves a lack of reflection, an acceptance of ourselves as we imagine we are seen by others.

Being and Nothingness is apparently just a (very) extensive rendition of Sartre’s reflections, psychoanalysis as metaphysics according to Murdoch, in which successive iterations progress his arguments (and our understanding, to the extent that we can follow him). Likewise, Flynn’s much later ‘Very Short Introduction’ describes how Sartre’s political thinking was progressed both by reflection and by his better understanding of the external, “real” world, as he got older.

Sartre comes to politics from two points of view. Partly he approaches it as a philosophical solution to a solipsistic dilemma. Partly he meets it as the practical concern of a Western democrat. Sartre has in himself both the intense egocentric conception of personal life and the pragmatic utilitarian view of politics which most western people keep as two separate notions in their head… (Murdoch)

Sartre’s writings were initially concerned with his theories of self, and were very much derived from intense and continuous self analysis. However the War, and in particular of course, the fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940, brought home to him the need to engage with politics. The pivotal position of the Communists in the Resistance, and his own distaste for the bourgeoisie, made them first port-of-call, but he soon found both their totalitarianism and their insistence on historical determinism at odds with his insistence on freedom, and so moved on.

As Sartre’s politics moved increasingly towards the Left, he separated himself from former friends whose political development moved in the opposite direction [referring to Camus and Merleau-Ponty]. By the time of the student revolt of 1968, Sartre was associating with the so-called French ‘Maoists’, who had little to do with China but a great deal to do with such classical anarchist ideals as ‘direct democracy’. (Flynn)

I recommend Flynn as a very clear account of existentialism and its grounding in European philosophy from the ancient Greeks onwards, whereas Murdoch’s book is more one of one philosopher engaging with another, contemporaneously, only a few years after the War, which is to say, at a time when Sartre’s politics and European philosophy were going through some big changes. Flynn goes on to discuss Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism which movements seem to me, to the very limited extent I understand them at all, to both involve a great deal of sloppy thinking, and to have been appropriated by the Right to justify their aversion to truth speaking.

Murdoch and Flynn both see as important Sartre’s What is Literature? (1948) in which he writes, “Though literature is one thing and morality another, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative.” Sartre attempts, unconvincingly, to demonstrate that it is the writer’s intrinsic duty to advance the cause of freedom, and proposes a distinction between Poetry and Prose in which the latter is ‘instrumental’, committed to the alleviation of suffering, whereas Poetry, like Music, is non-instrumental, art-for-art’s-sake. A distinction which I think even he was forced subsequently to disown.

You will have to read Flynn for yourself if you are interested in other authors, first amongst them Camus, who advanced existentialism in their writing, but I will say a little about de Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner for life both personally and intellectually. De Beauvoir, a prolific writer, was probably ahead of Sartre in her understanding of the individual as a member of society. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949) contains the line, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” meaning, I gather, that a woman begins with certain sexual apparatus, but that society imposes on her the condition of ‘being a woman’.

This leads us back to the famous “Existence precedes Essence”, which comes from a 1945 lecture, ‘Is Existentialism a Humanism?’. Sartre and his philosophy were atheist, so there was no obvious basis for acting morally. Sartre claimed that this freedom from doctrine was itself the basis for moral action, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’, not just for himself, but for every member of society. And by “Existence precedes Essence” he meant that every moment of every day we must choose, that our ‘essence’ is what we make of our ‘existence’, and that further, almost the worst choice we can make is to not choose, to be ‘in bad faith’, to abrogate our freedom, to allow our existence to be what others choose it to be.

And that is the basis of my objection to conscription in the Viet Nam War years: that my fellow 20 year olds failed to choose freedom; that they allowed society to choose for them to be soldiers; that they allowed themselves to be used to kill Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians, who were fighting for nothing more than their own right to make their own choices.

Paola (19)

Iris Murdoch, Sartre, first pub. 1953, my edition (not pictured above) Fontana, 1967
Thomas R Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, Oxford, 2006


I’ve been reading Charmian Clift’s Travels in Greece, a combo of Mermaid Singing and Peel Me a Lotus, but have spent too many lotus-eating days myself on Greek islands and so am behind with my review. Luckily I had Sartre ready, and, touch wood, I’ll put up Clift this time next week.

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5 thoughts on “Existentialism, Sartre

  1. I have the VSI about Existentialism too and must read it *before* I read Sartre’s What is Literature which I have as well.
    I like Iris Murdoch’s novels – but I think I’ll pass on her Sartre.
    Enjoy the lotus-eating…

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    • I was impressed with the vsi and might try some others (without inflicting them on you). I have with me somewhere Eagleton on a Marxist approach to literature, so we might be able to compare notes after you’ve read Sartre.

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  2. Still catching up. I had no idea Iris Murdoch had written a book on Sartre – but I think, though I’ve loved almost all of her books I’ve read (which is, I think 4 and I liked 3) I might give them a miss.

    I’m not sure I’m keen on the VSI books overall, but something like Existentialism wouldn’t go astray. My main introduction to existentialism was Albert Camus. It’s something that I grasp then lose, then grasp then lose, but each time I grasp it I lose a bit less! If that makes any sense at all!

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