The Spirit of Sartre

Article excerpt

Taken as a whole, the work of Jean Paul Sartre is that of a sensitive man with a good heart gradually coming to understand the distinctly social aspect of human reality- that while we appear to ourselves as alone and struggling to make sense of things from within our own isolation, we are actually always powerfully connected in our very being to each other and, through the networks of reciprocity that enable our material and spiritual survival, to everyone on the planet.

Sartre's early work for which he is best remembered in mainstream liberal culture- the period in his thirties and forties that produced the novel Nausea, the philosophical work Being and Nothingness, and the plays The Flies and No Exit, among many, many other writings - were all addressed to "the man alone" struggling to find authentic meaning in a world without God and in a world pervaded by false images and false conceptions of what matters in life. To a young person like me gradually emerging into the radical awareness of the 1960s, this work was thrilling. I was brought up within the image-world of uppermiddle-class New York culture, taught by word and gesture to accept that artificial world of the bourgeoisie as if it conformed to some real "essence," as if the right thing to do in life was to do well in school, dress nicely, acquire my share of wealth by entrepreneurship or inheritance, get married, fit well and admirably into this or that pre-given role, and have a solid obituary. But to use the famous phrase drawn from one of his lectures, Sartre showed that "existence precedes essence"- that all of these preconstructed forms of identity, worth, and value were actually made up, that it was 'had faith" to allow our longing for superficial security to rationalize draping them over ourselves as if they would safely install us in some kind of "reality," that we are free to accept or reject every form of received wisdom and, even more, that we are personally responsible to make these choices and by these choices to give our own stamp to reality and take our own stand for all of humankind about the kind of world we ought to be creating.

As important as these insights were- and as empowering as they were to me as a young man trying to find the strength to choose to align myself with the idealistic aspirations of the movements of the sixties and to take the risk of rejecting the class destiny to which I was bound by the erotic ties of family loyalty and devotion- Sartre himself came to realize that they were skewed and limited by the liberal individualism of his own upbringing; these early insights illuminated the world from within the pathos and solitude and psychospiritual struggles and relative material privilege of the floating or unanchored bourgeois intellectual. Thus his early philosophical understanding of "Relations with Others," as elaborated in Being and Nothingness and in his early plays, reflected the Fear of the Other that he came to see later as the unconscious foundation of "individualism" itself. To the early Sartre, the Other is mainly a threat whose gaze "steals my freedom" by pinning me in an image-for-the-Other that is colored with pride or shame and from which I must recover myself as a free being through a kind of ontological struggle, a struggle captured in the famous concluding line from No Exit: "Hell is other people." In many ways, as radical as Sartre's early ideas were in rejecting the conformity of inauthentic social life and its mores, roles, and hierarchies, they remained quite consistent with the aspect of liberal Western society that defined "man" as a free being inherently separate from and in conflict with the freedom of the Other. This is no doubt one reason that his "existentialism" is today taught in every liberal university while his later conversion to Marxism and social commitment and his brilliant reconciliation of the insights of existentialism with those of Marxism are almost nowhere to be studied and learned. …