My first approach to studying Existentialism was hampered by the bad luck of having the wrong book fall into my hands. Whatever text it was, it stressed the driest aspects of the philosophy. I remember several paragraphs –or was it pages?—spent discussing the fact that some philosophies propose that Existence precedes Essence, while others posit that Essence precedes Existence. I believe the example of a can-opener was used: does the can-opener exist first, and then discover its destiny, its essence, in opening cans; or does the essential purpose to open cans precede the existence of the – …I think here is where I closed the book.
A naturally plucky fellow, I would re-approach Existentialism intermittently through the years. Camus’ The Myth Of Sisyphus essay I found brilliant and illuminating (does one repeat one’s self when one describes something as both brilliant and illuminating?). I won’t go into it here, but I highly recommend Camus’ essay to everyone. Camus arrives by a completely different route at the same conclusion reached by ancient Eastern religions: that a blissful state occurs when we become at one with our environment. For Camus, this occurs when we are fully absorbed in our work. Pirsig reaches the same conclusion in his Quality Theory Of Reality. I personally believe that much of this felt blissfulness comes from the blessed condition of being able to drop some of our self-awareness for a bit. Self-Consciousness is a bitch. To be always so conscious of so much as we humans are is a curse; it is painful. If we can concentrate –fully and absorbingly concentrate on some task—we can step outside that painful state of consciousness for at least a short time.
The Existentialist novels were probably my next “INs” into Existentialism. Again, it was Camus who said what I needed to hear in order to go deeper into the concepts. His novel, The Plague, demonstrates how different personalities respond to a horrible situation that is almost guaranteed to end badly for everyone.
I should state here that the experience of the defeat and occupation of France by Germany during World War Two is inseparable from the birth of Existentialism. Both Camus and Sartre are French (Camus being French Algerian, while Sartre drips Paris from every pore). The people of France were faced with a deep psychological conundrum after defeat: what is the appropriate philosophy of dealing with the Nazi occupation? What criteria do we use to judge whether it is better to collaborate, resist, flee, or outright attack the conquerors? I think something similar may have spurred to great thoughts the ancient Jewish philosophers during their people’s Babylonian Captivity.
I also read Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Stranger, but they did not affect me as much.
The next big Existentialist event in my life came when I read about Sartre’s philosophy of “mauvaise foi”, or “bad faith.” Basically, we act in Bad Faith when we act in ways untrue to our Selves.
One example of Bad Faith is when we hide our true motivations from ourselves by pushing them away from our awareness—holding them down beneath the waters of our consciousness.
Or, Bad Faith can be putting on a performance in front of others that is not one’s real Self: Sartre gives the example of a waiter who is “acting” like he’s a waiter—adopting the mannerisms, poses, speech, et cetera appropriate for the role of “waiter.”
When I first came across Sartre’s concept of Bad Faith –of subconscious or semi-conscious or intermittently conscious dishonesty with one’s own Self— it immediately made a big impression on me. I remember vividly one example Sartre gives: a woman is out on a date; the entire evening, she continues to fool herself that she is not deciding to spend the night with her date, and yet at every step toward that very outcome, she acquiesces: she allows the man to touch her hand, she partakes of another glass of wine, she agrees to for a nightcap at his place, et cetera— all the while never admitting to herself that she is moving toward sleeping with him. Thus, she is acting in “Bad Faith;” she is lying to her own Self. Most importantly, she is pushing away the responsibility for the choice she is making. She may even wake-up the next day and say to herself something sickeningly irresponsible such as, “How did that happen?” or “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
[By the way, boys, you may find your outings with the opposite sex go smoother if you keep in mind the fact that it is not uncommon for a woman to be more comfortable taking small steps of unremarked-upon direction than giant and obvious leaps toward intimacy. Each step toward a night to remember should be as subtle and as natural as slow gravity… Just a word to the wise.]
This week, while listening to Professor Robert C. Solomon’s lecture, No Excuses: Existentialism And The Meaning Of Life (taught through “The Great Courses” audio disc learning program), yet another component of Existentialism has finally penetrated my thick skull: Sartre’s exploration and elucidation of just how important The Other is for a human being. Somehow, I had entirely missed this aspect of his philosophy before.
It is no secret that what people think of us is important to us. This much I already knew. But what Sartre succeeded in doing was making me see just how vital the opinions of others are to our experience and evaluation of our Selves. We depend upon the judgments of others for a sense of our own identity. We look to others to tell us who we are.
I had already noticed a certain phenomenon related to this: I saw that even those people who make it most obvious that they reject the norms of society and, indeed, flaunt their individuality— even these rejecters will dress and act and talk in a way that meets with the approval of their fellow rejecters. Even if the subgroup of rejecters is just two people, there must be someone else there approving of us, feeding us our identity.
Acceptance appears to be an almost biological need. Either we will change our behavior and appearance to find acceptance from our group, or we will change groups to find acceptance for our behavior and appearance. It would be pathological in fact (considering the universality of the human need for acceptance) for a person NOT to need acceptance from at least one other person—usually a group of people. I bet suicides most often occur when the suicider feels in a state of being Non-Accepted, Non-Approved—or at least fears that he or she will soon fall out of the Accepted state with his or her adopted group (for instance, some secret shame is coming to light). Suicides most likely therefore occur between Accepted states: between falling out of grace with one group and being adopted into another group. If this is true, then one of the most important messages to get to suicide-risks is that the terrible feeling of falling between the cracks of Approving groups is natural and TEMPORARY.
I’m having trouble expressing here just how deeply runs this craven reliance on the opinions of The Other. It approaches a “Hive Mind” situation. We exist, socially, in a constant state of exchanging identity judgments. It is like an invisible, nutritional fluid we are chewing up and regurgitating for exchange with others via imperceptible little ant-mouths in our chests.
Notice in your daily life just how consumed you are—how consumed we all are– with judging, and being judged by, our fellow humans. It is compulsive and, while we are in society, almost incessant.
So important to our Identity is the opinion of The Other, that we expend an incredible amount of thought, speech, and action trying to manipulate the views of others concerning ourselves, endeavoring to receive the judgment from them that we crave. We are constantly defending our actions and explaining ourselves. Here, we attempt to appear more friendly or intelligent or heroic; there, we try to seem less selfish or stupid or cowardly. It is because the opinions of The Other so consume us –so burn us with worry and rage, frustration and fear– that Sartre stated his famous dictum: “Hell is other people.”