"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

‘Hell Is Other People’–Individualism In A Repressive Society

No Exit, published in 1943, explores the principal idea associated with Sartrean existentialism, namely that man is an absolutely autonomous individual, determined by his own will alone, for whom his consequent separation from others facilitates infallible liberty and free choice.

At the heart of Sartre’s philosophy is the idea of Inherent Autonomy or the intrinsic order of individual independence. Natural rights are the foundation upon which an authentic society rests. All rights are possessed by human beings. Every action and decision is made purely by free will. With no transcendent force "fating" individuals, they are left to make their own decisions. Humans have no pre-defined purpose or future, but through the exercise of free will they become who they are (BATR.org).
Society the enemy of the individual, and the state its worst exponent. Political and social institutions always are antithetical to personal expression.  It is their job to stifle individual will or subjugate it to the collective.

In the play three damned souls, Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are brought to the same room in Hell by a mysterious Valet. They had all expected medieval torture devices to punish them for eternity, but instead find a plain room furnished in Second Empire style. None of them will admit the reason for their damnation: Garcin says that he was executed for being a pacifist, while Estelle insists that a mistake has been made. Inez however, demands that they all stop lying to themselves and confess to their crimes. She refuses to believe that they all ended up in the room by accident and soon realizes that they have been placed together to make each other miserable.

Latif Hussain Kazmi of Aligarh University observed that, “For Sartre human reality or human subjectivity is the foundation of all thought and action. He says that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and consequently defines himself afterwards”.
"As an existentialist play, No Exit necessarily embodies the Sartrean adage "existence precedes essence." As humans, we first exist, with no preconceived expectations, purpose, or ideals to which we must live up. We then define our essence (i.e., who we are) through choice and action. The self is re-created every moment by a conscious choice, and only action dictates our essence and beliefs."
No exit is the plight, which we all share as we experience the harsh reality that hell is other people. Thus, the inescapable conflict between the individual and the social order in human affairs is inevitable.

By the time we have reached the final quarter, there is only time to tie up loose ends, figure out what’s what, to make peace with God, and to catch that last insight which might help us to understand why exist at all.  Alexei Levin in Anna Karenina reflects on the cruel irony of being given intelligence, wit, insight, and reason; scrambling for fifty odd years, and then spending the rest of eternity in the cold clay of the Russian steppes.  Ivan Ilyich finds that his well-ordered life designed to keep other people out has served him poorly.  He is facing death without having the slightest clue why.

If we are honest, we have to admit that no one knows us and no one can know.  No one has access to our inner rooms.  This despite the popular notion that sharing is not only a good thing, but the defining characteristic of life.  It is our connection to others, helps us to belong, to accept, and to become part of the whole.  Sartre knew that not only is individual expression the only possible validation of an essentially meaningless life; but that we have no choice.  We have been constructed as functional units of individual will that have no other purpose than to achieve the fulfillment of our unique and fundamental being.  Sartre explored this theme in his book Being and Nothingness.

Sartre was not the first Existentialist, but one in a long line beginning in the 19th Century.
Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither used the term "existentialism" and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. They focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science, which they believed were too detached or observational to truly get at the human experience. Like Pascal , they were interested in people's quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. Unlike Pascal, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also considered the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs, and how such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser (Wikipedia)
Nietzsche was perhaps the most outspoken exponent of the concept of Will.  Those few individuals who could trust their inner being and value it above all else would act ‘beyond good and evil’.  They would become Supermen, existing above the common herd, controlling it, using it, manipulating it for their own ends.  What other alternative could be so reasonable in a meaningless world, asked Nietzsche?

Sartre was more moderate in his vision of the individual within society:
He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being (The Age of Reason).
His individual did not live in an amoral world beyond good and evil.  He simply created his own personal versions of morality.  The individual was always the arbiter of his own values. Sartre never said that this existential existence was easy.  Whether or not one created one’s one moral universe, one had to brush shoulders with others whose views would necessarily be ignorant, retrograde, and useless.  The would have to be, given everyone’s own inherent autonomy.  Sartre’s was not a happy world, but Nietzsche’s was.  The Superman was a hero.  He was Genghis Khan or Napoleon.  

Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare  many centuries before created their own Supermen – Tamburlaine and Richard III were unbothered by conventional moral strictures.  They were indifferent to them and in their single-minded pursuits of power, they were heroic, alluring, and unforgettable.

We live in a very temperate, unheroic, and collaborative age. The individual is suspect.  He is greedy, venal, self-centered, and arrogant.  The Wall Street investment banker is criticized for accumulating wealth, power, and prestige with nary a thought to the less fortunate. Artists and architects with a supremely self-confident vision are questioned for their social integrity.  Have they used space in a socially-inclusive way?  Have they built with environmentally correct materials?  Gender is homogenized and both the exuberant macho male and the uninhibited and unabashedly girly girl are trimmed to fit into socially accepted patterns.

Yet there is no one who completely and absolutely subscribes to this theory of subsumption – the abnegation of self and the denial of will in the interest of the greater social good - not even the most committed environmentalist, social reformer, or religious evangelist. Every one of us is by nature an individualist.  We know who we are and what we want; and only because of our obeisance to social convention, repressive mores, and self-serving institutions are we never satisfied.

Of course hell is not all other people; and Sartre was enough of a practical realist to know that the conventions of marriage, family, church, and community had their place and their appeal.  He believed, however, that in the end they served only to hem in the individual, to exert a homogenizing pressure, and ultimately to deny him his human legacy. So despite all the well-meaning overtures of Uncle Harry, Cousin Bob, and your regular tennis partner, they make life a living hell.

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