[No video available for this take. Transcribed from the cassette version of the lecture.]
Transcript: In this third lecture I would like to discuss a figure that is in one sense a paradigmatic intellectual of the 20th Century – certainly one of the most famous intellectuals; a person who many of you know not only as a philosopher but also as a writer and a dramatist – and that’s Sartre the famous French philosopher. Sartre is best known I suppose in the United States for his literary works and I can recommend them. They are, as it were, foundational in our culture for the, sort of, existential experience and I have in mind his novel “Nausea” which is a nice existential phrase; it gets you off in the right direction. In Sartre it’s… again, remember these are not just moods for existentialists; they are structures of our being, not simply moods. This kind of nausea that Sartre discusses can’t be fixed by Dramamine, in other words. Sartre as existentialist will be the first part of this talk.
Sartre’s existentialism is rooted in a strange misreading of Heidegger. Sartre thought that because Heidegger had developed an analytic account of dasein – or being there, human being in the world – that Heidegger had somehow created what Sartre thought was a humanism. This Heidegger informed Sartre in a letter – a famous letter – called “Letter on Humanism” was not the case. It was not Heidegger’s intention to place human being and the self at the centre of his discussion… No, the self or human being was just that entity Heidegger wanted to interrogate in order to discover, as it were, the question of being; the meaning of the question of being. However, even though Sartre misunderstood him and thought that Heidegger was an existentialist and a humanist, it was a productive misunderstanding because it led – as many misreadings do – to a very interesting position which is Sartre’s own early position, which I will briefly discuss as an Existential Humanism. I mean, after all, Saint Paul’s misreading of the early teachings of Christ led to Christianity and so it’s not always bad to have a misreading and Sartre’s misreading of Heidegger has a whole series of interesting effects.
There are a couple of principles of Sartre’s existential humanism that I would like to make clear; lay out in a very simple fashion… one is this. Sartre is an atheist, right up front; in fact it’s almost a first principle of his work. In a certain way his atheism separates him from Heidegger who is deeply concerned with the question of Being with a capital “B”, which certainly retains – at least resonates with – a theological tradition. Sartre’s atheism on the other hand is unrelenting. By that I mean that for Sartre, the only thing that could determine humans in their essence would be God, and without such a determination human beings have no essence. So if you ask Sartre – the early Sartre, the Humanist Sartre – what are human beings, what is the self? Sartre will say it has no essential structure until there is existence.
So for Sartre the principle is as follows: existence precedes essence, for man alone, for human being alone, for no other creature. Every other creature – for Sartre – has some, as it were, brute role in the world. Whether it’s a rock, a dog, a cat, whatever, it’s just brutely there. Sartre talks about the subject versus the object in a way that makes it looks like a real struggle. The “out there” is all that crap we have to deal with, whether its somebody’s dog, or even some other person, as I’ll get to in a moment. But for Sartre, for the individual human subject, for that singular subject of existentialism, your existence precedes your essence, which means you are what you make of yourself.
This is why I have called this lecture “The Roads to Freedom”, because Sartre is engaged in a project where what he wants to make of himself is an absolutely free man in the sense in which Fidel Castro told Barbara Walters that he was an absolutely free man, I mean, he wants to become his own making, and Sartre thinks that this is not a personal choice. He believes – since God doesn’t exist – we are condemned to be free. We don’t have any choice. We have to make our life a project. The only option we have is what Sartre calls “bad faith“.
Bad faith – for Sartre – is where you treat yourself as a thing. You know, as something with an essence created by another where you just act out of your upbringing and don’t make of your life a creation: this is bad faith. I think bad faith is one of the most useful concepts of the early Sartre. It’s a quite common phenomenon, and it’s something you can say of someone; they have acted “in bad faith”. Another way you might put that is “out of character”, but that’s not strong enough. Bad faith is when someone makes an excuse to you along the lines of “I couldn’t have done otherwise, don’t you see?” or “I couldn’t have avoided that, don’t you see”, but on Sartre’s radical view of the freedom of the human to construct himself, there is simply no situation in which you are allowed to say “I couldn’t have done otherwise” I mean, you know, even on pain of death you could choose death, Sartre gives even that radical example. Even in prison, you could refuse to be complicitous with the authorities.
These are dramatic examples that are drawn from Sartre’s experience as a resistance fighter – I am sure – in the war against Fascism. This is not to try to localise or make his views mean nothing, but to show how important they are for this period. I mean, you know, he may not have understood Heidegger well, but politically he made choices that we can only wish that Heidegger would have made, politically.
Well, for Sartre we have this project of freedom from which one can fall, and you see some formal similarity to Heidegger’s inauthenticity here. One can fall in bad faith, and that’s by treating yourself as though you are a creature of necessity when actually you are free to do otherwise. So this for Sartre is bad faith. On the other hand there is a kind of an existential ethic in Sartre’s view of radical freedom, and that existential ethic goes something like this.
When you do act freely, you still need to ask yourself a question that is styled in a form that might have appealed to Kant. Namely, could others act as I do? Could everyone choose as I have chosen? This is a test to which Sartre would like to put his own actions, in other words, when you face a moral dilemma, you’ve got to put yourself – he thinks – in this perspective in which you could say “is this a rule that I want others to adopt for their action, what I have just decided?” This is not a limit on your freedom as long as – and this is a key word for Sartre, it’s been a key word since Kant, it is the key word of some very interesting modern political movements – as long as such a decision is made with autonomy.
In other words, not under the guidance of a moral postulate. In that regard, it’s different than Kant. You asked yourself this question as part of your project, you go “Well, could everyone do this?” You may go ahead even though everyone can’t, but this is at least… at least this gives Sartre’s position some slight ethical dimension missing from the position of Heidegger, where I discussed how you could be authentic in many different ways. Well, similarly, you could be an existentialist and a humanist in many different ways too, but there are some limits on how the project can go. In fact, the humanist part of it means that without God, man is left all alone to create his or her destiny in their own hands, and that’s the sense in which Sartre says we are condemned to be free.
Not only is Sartre an atheist, but as I say, he is not a nature lover either. I mean, the world of brute facticity, sort of, surrounds us. Everything that limits Sartre’s freedom really pisses him off. It’s like Sartre discusses the wall, you know, or any other objectivity as if it were an obstacle. Well, it is, if you think about it. I mean, you know, perfect freedom, I guess, would be to float and fly and jump and zoom anywhere, so the world, sort of, the subject/object world for Sartre, all the freedom is on the subject side, and on the object side is the world of nature which also stands in the way of our actions and our free actions. Now it’s bad faith to say that they always do, see, follow me? Sometimes, you know, the biggest mountain, you could climb it, or better still, to follow the advice of my grandfather, walk around it. My grandfather use to like to say the damn mountain had no business being there, which I guess means he believed in God but thought he had a sense of humour, I am not sure.
Sartre’s account, though, of the brute facticity of nature being a block to freedom… I mean, we are condemned to be free, but there are blocks to it like the facticity of the object world around us. Unfortunately, the self is under siege in Sartre to such an extent that other people are also a block to our freedom. This has been noted a long time in political theory. You know, I mean, it’s easy to imagine a completely free anarchistic singularity, but you get two or three people together and they are bound to start getting in each other’s way. You know, already you begin to see there are problems limiting your freedom. I think Sartre engages in a bit of existentialist overkill in this period in his life. In one of his plays – I am sure you have heard about it – it is called “No Exit”, Sartre goes so far as to say “Hell is other people”; you know, if there was a heaven, I would be there by myself so you folks wouldn’t be around to piss me off.
And he has a wonderful section in “Being and Nothingness” – and I think women should be able to relate to this more than men – about the gaze of the other. It’s especially true if you are like a stranger in a Texas town and you are… you know, in town for just one day to buy some things, and everybody is looking at you; you are the stranger, you know, and they fix you with their gaze. Sartre has a brilliant and beautiful passage in Being and Nothingness about the alienation and distancing effect of the gaze. This of course has become, you know, like, so hip and popularised in feminism that men – at least politically aware men – don’t look at women anymore, or other men, or objects, or at their notes… no, I am sorry… you can’t… see, again, there is a tendency to excess in Sartre.
In any case, he has this discussion of the world as both the field in which we are condemned to be free, but one in which our actions are limited not only by objects; you know, the facticity of the world – the way it is… facticity is a fancy word for the way the damn thing is set up – and by other people.
This is where Sartre’s thought undergoes, as he gets older, a profound change, and I mark that – and I do mark that – with his autobiography: “The Words“. This is where he looks back on his young existentialist period, when he painted the hell the world was in No Exit, and the Nausea he felt in other people and in himself, and his, you know, fear before nothingness and death, and he looks back on that period and he says “I was, as it were, doubled. On the one hand, I was ‘I'; Jean Paul Sartre, you know, the just… person, on the other hand I was the chronicler of hell, the privileged young writer allowed to observe all the torments of the modern personality. I was extremely happy, fake and hoodwinked to my very soul” So this is something, when you have your lecture in here, and I know we’ll have a lecture series on existentialism, be sure to remind whoever is lecturing here that Sartre came to view existentialism in a different light later. In other words, if you are too happy about things like death, despair, dread and anxiety then it’s time to wonder, you know, if this thrills you too much.
This is the period at which Sartre turned to what one might call the more outer worldly tasks of trying to join with other human beings in solidarity in order to alter the facticity of the world, not simply look at it as an obstacle, but to alter it through collective action. Now, you know, it’s misleading without a long discussion to go into Sartre’s Marxism, but it’s fair to say that his attempt to fuse Marxism and Existentialism, which appears in his book “Search for a Method” is a transitional work.
The mature Sartre becomes a rather unfortunate orthodox Marxist – in my view – at least too orthodox for my taste in anything. I mean, I don’t even like a Baptist who is orthodox, or an orthodox any damn thing, so and orthodox Marxist isn’t a particular irritation for me, it’s just a limitation on some of his later work. But in the period where he is trying to fuse the two he undergoes a brilliant set of insights about the relationship between the single solitary self condemned to be free in a world without God and the promethean project of people getting together in groups in order to make the world – not a paradise, but – a place worth living in.
This becomes a project that Sartre sees as doable. As not only doable but as one that it only avoidable if you engage in bad faith. I mean if you see that the problem is there and you have got the freedom to go out and do something about the problem, and of course in this world it wouldn’t take a genius to start enumerating them. Massive poverty, massive ignorance, people that are sick that can’t find a… and just on and on. I mean you don’t need to be a genius to enumerate those problems.
Sartre considers it bad faith that you don’t try to, as it were, fuse yourself into a group. You don’t lose your own autonomy, but you try to form a collectivity with other people who could act together with you to change some of these more, you know, horrible necessities. By the way, these necessities are just things that have been passed along by the role, as it were, of history. History, which as Marx said “weighs upon the brain of the living like a nightmare”… a sort of a scary passage, but when you think about the history of nearly all groups that came to this country, immigrants, and how we all… you know, how there is a struggle in all groups, it is not a bad phrase at all.
Well anyway, this fusion in Sartre’s book Search for a Method will take place through a discussion of the work of Kierkegaard; a great philosopher of the singular autonomous individual and his insistence upon the particularity of the individual and Hegel; the great philosopher of the collective, of the spirit of the time, of the group, of the culture. Sartre’s discussion of them in “Search for a Method” is a discussion about himself, as young existentialist humanist and his older socially engaged radical Marxist, it’s sort of an interesting theoretical book because it’s hard not to see that the theories stand in – the way he places them against each other – as two parts of his personality in the process of forming, and one transmogrifying into the other. In Search for a Method he points out, I think, very cleverly, that either side can hold forth against the other. In other words Kierkegaard could hold forth against Hegel, that no matter how grand your system of collectivity is – of totality – the singular individual could stand against it as an objection. I mean, Kierkegaard would admit as much.
Kierkegaard once wrote – and I think it is a beautiful sentence – he once wrote that… I guess this is in an existentialist vein, if you like that word… Kierkegaard once said that to be in absolute defiance against God was like being an error written into a large text that refused to have yourself erased, because you wanted to stand in that text as witness that who wrote it was a bad author. Now that showed that Kierkegaard understood the singularity that a person even in defiance of God himself… so there is no question that the singular individual can stand in this relation of defiance. On the other hand, Hegel has already anticipated this moment as a moment of what he calls “the unhappy consciousness”. One can stand in such relation to one’s fellow men and women, but not without an unhappy and divided consciousness, and this is the two sides that he plays off in “Search for a Method”.
Search for a Method heads toward a position of the more mature Sartre, which is the position that one must join in the revolutionary struggle. By the way, a position that if modified up to at least the late sixties remains at least quasi-plausible. Certainly in Europe, I mean, we have… in France we have the government falling in 1968; it would be hard to say at that point that Sartre’s idea of a revolution was just a pipe dream, while it had actually occurred. I mean, if the thing is actual, it’s possible. If it’s occurred, that means it can occur, so Sartre’s revolutionary hopes weren’t totally without foundation. A revolution had actually occurred around him, so the possibility that one could occur was not, you know, a utopian projection of Sartre’s own wishes.
In fact, he was, in a way, one of the few intellectuals in Europe to experience both the horror of Fascism and the moment of release and rebellion that was the 1960’s. To experience both of those, and to write and live through both those moments, and by that I mean in a way that is accessible enough to us as readers to understand. Sartre’s experience of the sixties was in many ways as remarkable as Marcuse’s, whom I will discuss in the next lecture. Sartre’s experience of the sixties was one of incredible liberation, in a way, because Sartre saw in the 1960’s the possibility of a group that was truly fused around a few principles that led toward a society that – for him – would be one in which liberation would have meaning. In other words, the things that had grown so corny in popular culture. A society based on solidarity, peace, understanding, mutual respect, love… these are all strange values from a man who began by saying “Hell is other people”, but this is the journey of an extraordinary life.
Sartre’s main interlocutors during this period, of course, were on the one hand Marxists who were more orthodox than Sartre, who viewed the sixties not as a rebellion in the style of Marx, with the working class marching forward arm in arm, you know, in the style of the old worker posters, but rather as this outburst of anarchistic love and madness and music and so on. So on the one hand, the official communists of Europe, who had been around quite a while and done quite a few things – they were, you know, a political party in France – viewed Sartre’s involvement with the students askance, and of course on the other hand the forces of the status quo, of the order of France of that day also viewed his activities with some scepticism. This put Sartre in a position to develop a uniquely revolutionary theory – at least during that period – which Search for a Method only covers in part.
One of the important distinctions that Sartre works on in Search for a Method is the distinction between a working class limited to a factory setting alone – which is the model of the working class that dominates political and even philosophical speculation in Europe, you know, as a political class, and a working class considered more broadly which leads into the work in the late 20th Century of philosophers like Tony Negri and Mary Ortrunty (sp) and others, and that’s a working class considered as those who work. That’s a much broader category than the traditional members of labour unions. If you are a housewife, for example, out there, you may feel that you work. If an orthodox Marxist doesn’t think of you as a worker because you don’t have a waged job, you may resent that. In fact, you should, because the distinction that is relevant to a revolutionary politics of the kind developed in the sixties, it is not the liberation of one class over another, but of the liberation of the human race; of human beings.
So Sartre has hung on to this humanism because this is a very humanistic revolutionary view he has. Not simply the liberation of the working class, but of groups that work that are not traditionally considered a part of the working class. Well, are housewives the only group I can think of? Not at all, while I will say this about mothers and housewives, that is undoubtedly the largest pool of unwaged labour in the world. I mean, I can’t think of another job that has those kind of hours with that kind of pay. If only you had a union. Well, I have got news for you. The late 20th Century develops forms of struggle in which women do get together in groups called “wages for housework”, and who knows, the 21st Century may see women struggle together in groups called “wages for sexual work”, I mean prostitutes already have such groups, and I am not a person to put them down on any moral grounds. I mean, that seems to me what James Joyce called “the inanity of extolled virtue” I don’t look down with some kind of extolled virtue on people making a living.
So the radicality of the Marxism that Sartre was at least polemically presenting later gets worked out theoretically, as I said, by these other people, but polemically what he is presenting is the radicality we get in a film like John Sayles‘ Matewan, where you have the guy telling everyone there “Look, they have got you divided men against women, race against race, old against young, ethnic group against ethnic group, when you all know there are only two sides to this world: those who work, and those who don’t. You work… they don’t. That’s all you need to know about the enemy” Great line in Matewan, and it’s that crude and powerful analysis that Sartre is working toward in this period. Now I admit he doesn’t achieve the clarity that is later achieved about this analysis. One reason he doesn’t achieve it is that he is working under the constraints of being a French intellectual, and that already, you know, is part of the general intellectual’s malady.
I mean, I am not sure… I mean, I am not saying I am free from the intellectual’s malady. The intellectual’s malady is always to think that you know what other people are thinking better than they know themselves before you have asked, okay? This is a malady that is awfully hard to overcome after years spent dealing with books and ideas. But from an account like the one Sartre was developing of Marxism – an account relevant for that period – one would see that person who spends their life with books is no more or less valuable than the person who spends his life, you know, laying down highways. I mean, we have to get from here to there. Or someone who makes the hotel beds up that we are going to sleep in tonight, for those of us who are from out of town. In fact, this has been a fateful division, that has marked and will mark the rest of these lectures, and that’s the division between mental and manual labour. A division that is super important to understand the history of ideas.
In fact, one of the wonderful slogans to develop out of this period which I will identify with Sartre’s Marxism in France is the idea that intellectual labour would not be at all possible unless it was on the foundation of manual labour, I mean, if you… if there are things that need to be done first, like fixing supper so you won’t go hungry, that will be done first, Balzac will be read later. So the Marxism has in a way – at least of the kind that Sartre is developing in the sixties – has a non-elitist undertow, again, one which Sartre does not fully develop, but one which he begins to develop in response to his critics in the orthodox communist party who still want to focus on just the worker and not on issues of culture, and not on these issues of a broader and richer notion of the working class.
If one wants this broader and richer version, one needs to look further into that period which was the most fertile period in Sartre’s intellectual life, and certainly was a period that helped to form my own, and that’s to look at the student as a kind of worker. The student has a boss; the teacher. The student works without a wage, in fact, in a certain way a student is a peculiar… peculiar kind of worker. Even the housewife and mother doesn’t pay to work. They work for free. That’s silly, to work for free. They don’t pay, though. The student does something sillier still: the student pays to work. At Duke this is phenomenal given the rates they pay. I go “You are paying me this much to work? I mean you are doing the work. You are out there writing the papers, you are doing the homework and you are paying someone else to work”
Under the rules of a society based on work, this is not sensible, but of course you know the rationale. It’s as old as every, sort of, hokey game of chance you can imagine, and that’s you put it in the pot now, and you’ll get more out of the pot later. Under the current economic conditions that I am discussing this in today though – the late 20th Century: 1993 – if one is talking about making a lot of money now, I think some students would be better off to place a few dollars on a roulette wheel, turn it, and then have a hell of a lot better chance of getting rich than they will spending four years at Duke and kissing their butt up the corporate ladder. I think their shot is a lot better in Vegas, and they will know a lot sooner, and their lives will be somewhat simpler and while I am not in general for reducing complexity, this is one level where it might make some sense to reduce a little complexity.
Well anyway, that is not too far off the track with Sartre, because the Marxism that he is developing in an unorthodox one within this period. Later on in his life, as the sixties subsides – and by the way, in France, the government could not have come back to power without the help of the communist party, so whenever you heard the word “communist”, don’t get too excited, if a revolution really starts and there are a few communists left, they will join with the republicans to make sure everybody goes back to work, I mean, don’t worry about it. I mean, that form of the world has passed away. Sartre’s style of thinking about it has become, as it were, a little bit dated. We are trying to make some of it live again, but many elements of it are quite dated, I mean this is obvious now to nearly everyone.
The last point that I want to make about Sartre, I think, is about his own life. And in a way it’s one I want to make about him, although I could also make it about Herbert Marcuse who I was lucky enough to meet, but since I consider that to be too “chummy”, I’ll make the point about Sartre’s life. If one looks at the troubled history of the 20th Century, Sartre, perhaps as much as any other intellectual, attempted maintain his fragile human dignity first in the face of the indignities of being in an occupied country, in a struggle with Fascists where some of your former friends or collaborators and others are – in bad faith – doing nothing, and that experience deeply marks the young Sartre. No doubt that is where we get many of the existential motifs of Nausea and bad faith and nothingness.
I mean, these are the concepts of a bleak and dark period and certainly Europe during the Second World War is such a period. Sartre manages to live through that and reform himself, as it were, into a human capable of contact with other human beings. Even after those horrible and hideous experiences, he is able to reform himself and to start another project. Again, one that is headed for a dubious end, although I don’t think even the most conservative person would compare the end of the Third Reich with the end of the sixties, I don’t think William Bennett would go that far, or even George Will… I mean, the sixties were out of control, but not like that, okay. I mean, at least, I was there, and I don’t think it was that bad, okay.
Sartre, as I say, was able to reform himself and to make of himself, as it were, a new project, to redirect his life. The reason this I think this is exemplary for the 20th Century is as the century has progressed, the need to be able to do that – to have some flexibility in the way we view the world in the face of catastrophe and rapid change is extremely important. It’s extremely important to be able to do this. Sartre was able to do it. If in the end he ended up a somewhat too orthodox communist, and if in the end the communist world fell – and according to our contemporary stories this is all what happened – it did not somehow make of his life a failure. It made of his life an interesting adventure – a voyage, as it were – through one of the most significant parts of the 20th Century.
One of the reasons I wanted to discuss him early in these series of lectures is because his voyage prepares the way and shows some of the missteps as well as some of the steps that will be taken further later by thinkers that we will discuss as we continue through the course. And I guess if I wanted to leave you with a moral to be drawn from that, it’s that Sartre does have an important point for our topic about The Self Under Siege, and that’s that the degree of siege can range extremely deep, wide, and in the case of Fascism across a span of horror that is almost unbelievable, but we have not somehow escaped that in the late 20th Century.
I mean, when we look at the average diet in the average copy of the average women’s magazine, the number of calories that women are expected to eat today are less than the average diet of the average prisoner at Treblinka, then we haven’t really advanced as far as we may think, and it may be that Sartre’s project of freedom is not as outdated as we think, and if the sixties have come back into fashion – in fashion – it might be worthwhile for the other elements of the sixties to come back into fashion. I mean, after all, many people today say they are bored with watching television, and in the sixties people at least had an opportunity to get on it, one of those was Sartre, who by the way did an interview for Playboy, just in case you were wondering. You know you are a famous philosopher when you do an interview with Playboy that tells about your life story.
I will mention a few of his books if you are interested, because I think that they are very good, and I think that the literary ones are very nice. “Nausea”, which is his young man’s book, ah, a very short book called “The Words”, by Sartre that has been translated, and then rather than try to read his long Marxist works, look for “Search for a Method”, which is the book that I brought in, and read it, because he makes a point in Search for a Method that I want to leave you with… I think it’s time to leave you with some point here… makes a point in his book Search for a Method that we need to remember, and that’s that modernity, both in the sense of capitalism; being a part of modernity, and its criticism; Marxism are in their infancy. This is very important to remember.
In other words, we look at these things as structures that have become already become old, outdated, thrown away, and I have been talking that way myself. On the other hand, as structures of ideas, these things are barely in their infancy. By that I mean that, in human terms they haven’t been around that long. I mean the first trade union is only a little over a hundred years old, and it was the trade union movement that created Marxism, not the reverse, although frequently the propaganda we hear in our own country makes it sound like it was the reverse. It was actually working people that created Socialism, not Socialism creating them. You know, this seems to me to be an odd way to think, anyway.
So… Sartre gave his life for that project and in the course of it produced these powerful works… and for anyone who wants to pursue it even further let me mention “Critique of Dialectical Reason“, I only want to mention it – Critique of Dialectical Reason – because I don’t want you to read it [crowd laughter]… and here is why. For long and complicated reasons that I won’t engage here, I think it’s wrong, but that’s not why. It’s too damn long and life is too short. It’s too long and life is too short. We are here having a lecture about The Self Under Siege. We are in a culture where people spend time… huge amounts of time running hither and thither to buy, you know, shorts for the kids for school to go up and down stairmasters and so on, we haven’t got time for these four or five thousand pages. So, I mean, one function that people who at least used to be intellectuals, like me, can perform is to say about certain books “Don’t worry about it! You don’t have time for it!” Then of course if you are irritated by me that will make you read it, and if not, you don’t have to. But certainly you could look at “The Words”; that’s his autobiography, you can learn a lot about Sartre from that.
I didn’t really want to talk about his work, I wanted to talk about him as a human being, because in his case, trying to be an existentialist, and trying to be a revolutionary was his way of seeking his selfhood under siege. For him, and this is, I think, his highest glory – the best thing about him – for him philosophy was not just an academic exercise of thinking, but the way he tried to construct a life worth living, a self worth talking about as a kind of destiny, and I am in no position to say he didn’t do a decent job at it. [applause].