sartre

An Existential Pilgrimage

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Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

The lives of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have been romanticised for years. I’m guilty of an obsession in a couple that challenged conventions to the point of polygamy governed by a contentious moral philosophy that denied actual right and wrong.

Despite judgement, the 20th century existentialists continue to swoon students and literature buffs to the Parisienne district of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. But it’s not just geeks attracted to the cafés where Sartre and Co. would mingle.

In fact, the overwhelming majority are the exact bourgeois type that Sartre was attempting to overthrow. Perhaps it’s rather ironic for the bourgeoisie to take responsibility for Sartre turning in his grave, but it’s really not surprising as capitalism prevails.

Cafe Flore

Sartre wrote a large part of Being and Nothingness at Café de Flore

Once the haunt of French intellectuals, Café de FloreLes Deux Magots and other local coffee houses are now the high priced stopovers on any Parisienne tourist map. But why get so worked up?

As a philosophy major or a Sartrean sympathiser, I suppose I wanted a different experience: An existential pilgrimage that was supposed to introduce me to the sights and hosts of my literary icons. Although, I was naive to think that I could have somehow captured the spirit of Sartre by visiting a cafe.

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The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece, The Second Sex is considered a feminist’s bible, but what can we make of Sartre’s legacy in the 21st century? “You are aware that no one likes him anymore” said a friend of mine living in Paris.

Without becoming defensive, I made an attempt to only promote his philosophy of freedom as a profound influence and reminder that we are not bound by society and its obligations to dictate how we lead our lives. We always have a choice. It is the moments whereby we believe that we don’t have an option, Sartre would argue, is acting in bad faith.

This notion of bad faith is still reminiscent in modernity, although some would argue that existentialism is no longer relevant. Baroness Mary Warnock told Nigel Warburton that existentialism is a “totally forgotten little sub-branch of philosophy that nobody thinks about at all anymore.”

Cafe De La Mairie was my final attempt to embrace any existential energy that may have been loitering opposite the stunning Church of Saint-Sulpice.

I sat down by the window and ordered the omelette champingnons with a black coffee. The humble decor looked as if it hadn’t changed since Albert Camus and Sartre met here for the last time in 1951, shortly before their famous falling out.

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Cafe De La Mairie feat. Ferrari

Considering the rich history, the aged furnishings and the veteran staff, this had to be my one opportunity to feed my psyche with some sort of temporal, yet inspirational experience. But, unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t necessarily a problem with obnoxious clientele, but rather obnoxious forms of transport; the brand new Ferrari across the street. I couldn’t help but think what Sartre and Camus might have said if they spotted a 1951 Ferrari 212 out the window of Cafe De La Mairie. Then, suddenly Sartre’s “idiotic” approach to money came to mind.

“I know it makes me look like a big shot to pull out a fat bundle. I remember a hotel on the Côte d’Azur where we often went, Simone de Beauvoir and I. One day the substitute for the manageress complained to Simone de Beauvoir that I had brought out too much money to pay her.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Although, Sartre had a particular way with money that was the complete opposite to an obnoxious consumer of Ferraris. He never had the desire to buy his own apartment, his furniture was modest, his clothes were – as he admits – “almost always the same” and he was a very generous tipper at the cafés he would frequent.

“The waiters in the café appreciate the fact that I give them big tips, and repay me in kindness. My idea is that if a man lives off tips, I want to give him as much as I can, because I think that if the livelihood of a man is my responsibility, then he must live well.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Perhaps reading Sartre is the only way to absorb any type of Sartrean spirit. It certainly isn’t in the streets of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. Marketed as the stomping grounds – exploiting the seeds – of existentialists, they are out of sight and out of mind.

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Shakespeare and Company: Books in English

As much as one tries, it’s impossible to channel the French intellectuals. It is here where we must return to the written word for encouragement. The pilgrimage came to fruition at the popular Shakespeare and Company bookstore where I collected an early copy of Sartre’s Nausea. Yes, I too have succumbed to consumption.

Let’s let Sartre have the last word on cafés:

“Things are bad! Things are very bad: I’ve got it, that filthy thing, the Nausea. And this time it’s new: it caught me in a café. Until now cafés were my only refuge because they are full of people and well lighted: from now on I shan’t have even that; when I am run to earth in my room, I shall no longer know where to go.”
– Sartre (Nausea, 1938)

 

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Terminology: Anxiety and Despair with Patrick Stokes

 

Patrick Stokes

Do you ever get that feeling in your stomach when you walk across a bridge and something tells you to throw yourself off? If these odd urges of suicide are the result of your freedom, are they all that bad? Or does this create a deep anxiety which you prefer not to think about?

In 1844, Søren Kierkegaard wrote that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. 102 years on, Jean-Paul Sartre said that existence precedes essence (whatever). These philosophers poured their lives into thinking and writing about how we live our lives. Today, some people are content with living the traditional bourgeois fashion, but does this predetermined life lead to despair?

This is part deux of my conversation with Patrick Stokes on A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard (and existentialism). Patrick is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an author of two books on Kierkegaard. So, what’s the connection between freedom, anxiety, necessity and despair?

The Philotoric: The existentialists use words like anxiety, anguish, despair, nausea etc. Are any of these terms interchangeable?

Patrick Stokes: No, they’re not. But Kierkegaard does use anxiety (or angest), which becomes angst in Heidegger, and then again in Sartre.

The Philotoric: Ok. Let’s start with anxiety…

PS: Anxiety for both Kierkegaard and Sartre is fear that doesn’t have an object. It’s basically the feeling of freedom. The way in which we respond to the fact that what we do is not determined. For Kierkegaard, it’s religiously qualified because its got to do with the possibility of sin. Sin arises with Adam when he realises for the first time that he could eat the apple. Adam goes from a dim possibility of the possibility of sin – to the realisation that he is going to sin – to the realisation that he has sinned. Anxiety is there in all those stages. Kierkegaard calls it a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy. In other words, you can be simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by something. Now, think about Sartre when he talks about the experience of vertigo: the fear is that I might be blown off a cliff – Anxiety is the realisation that I could throw myself off that cliff and nothing is stopping me from doing that. It’s that response to the horror of freedom – that’s anxiety.

The Philotoric: And despair…

PS: Kierkegaard’s despair is a complicated psychological relation. It is either not wanting to be yourself, or wanting to be yourself in a despairing way. If you imagine a man who says I will be Caesar, or nothing (or insert whatever modern aspiration you like) – and he fails to become Caesar. He then becomes intolerable to himself because he still exists and he is not Caesar. Or alternatively, you could be in despair because you became Caesar – because you want to be essentially Caesar.

The Philotoric: But I want to be Caesar. Why am I in despair?

PS: In becoming Caesar you think that is all you are. In saying that I am essentially Caesar, you are saying I am nothing more than Caesar.

The Philotoric: Does this then map into Sartre’s idea of bad faith?

PS: For Sartre, bad faith is the idea of wanting to be yourself in one of the three modes of being that defines you. The waiter in Sartre’s example reduces himself to what he is for others. The woman flirting reduces herself to a mere body. They reduce themselves to a facticity and not their freedom. Likewise for Kierkegaard, you can inhabit social roles in such a way that you act as if that defines who you are and you are nothing more than that – that person doesn’t have a self. He or she doesn’t understand that they are more than just the clothes they wear. And it’s similar with Sartre – A person in bad faith denies that they are more than just one of those modes of their being.

Existential Comics

Jean-Paul Sartre executing radical freedom. An excerpt from Existential Comics’ World Cup Philosophy: Germany vs France. Click through to see the final result.

The Philotoric: Can you expand on the self for Kierkegaard?

PS: Just remember that these are under pseudonyms. Although, Anti-Climacus and Vigilius Haufniensis are probably the closest pseudonyms to Søren Kierkegaard – these works were nearly published under his own name. So for Anti-Climacus, this model of the self is a theory of oppositions – finite and infinite, freedom and necessity, temporal and eternal, psychical and mental, etc. Where despair comes in (and this is very Sartrean) is that you identify with one of these in whole to the exclusion of the other. So you might live life entirely determined by social norms and bourgeois codes around you, never believe that you have any further possibilities and in doing so, that’s despair. On the other hand, if you do whatever you want and act to your imagination, you are also denying your facticity – you’re denying your reality. Living as if you are completely determined or completely free, you are in both cases living what Sartre calls bad faith, or in what Kierkegaard calls despair.

The Philotoric: Do we actually need to think about these ideas as problems today?

PS: I do. I think a lot of the things that Kierkegaard described never stopped being legitimate human problems. But he was talking to a society who thought you can do a bit of philosophy and you’re done with that question. Kierkegaard was trying to get them to slow down  These are problems that remain problems your entire life. These aren’t just intellectual problems that you can knock off in an afternoon and then move on to the next problem. These are the existential problems that remain existential problems – they are yours just in so that you are a finite human being and you’re stuck with them.

 

Follow Patrick Stokes on Twitter and keep up with his articles at The Conversation.

Also see his New Philosopher magazine articles online.

And thanks to Existential Comics for the Jean-Paul Sartre ‘radical freedom’ excerpt.

A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard with Patrick Stokes

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BuzzFeed have featured Friedrich Nietzsche as trending hipster material. So was it his luscious moustache that did it, or the existential literature that draws such wide attention?

A Danish theologian by the name of Søren Kierkegaard is often referred to as the father of existentialism. But what is existentialism and how do we interpret this religious writer who lived 200 years ago?

Patrick Stokes is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an author of two books on Kierkegaard. In a traditional existential fashion, Patrick and I met at a café to discuss Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

The Philotoric: What is existentialism?

Patrick Stokes: Existentialism is a first-person here and now perspective of the world. It is very difficult to say that anyone is an existentialist, except for [Jean-Paul] Sartre for about 15 years or so, but no one owns up to the label. I don’t think that [Søren] Kierkegaard is really an existentialist but I think he does belong to that genealogy of existential thinkers.

The Philotoric: Who was Søren Kierkegaard?

PS: A very strange man who no one knew what to do with. Kierkegaard had a theology degree but spent most of it doing philosophy. He never had a job in a university. He never got married. He got engaged, but broke it off. He spent his whole life living off his father’s income, self-publishing his work. And he died at exactly the right moment, just as he was about to run out of money.

The Philotoric: If we could only read one book by Kierkegaard, what should it be?

PS: It is hard to do that with Kierkegaard because his whole argument is spread over several books. It depends on who that reader is. If it is a philosopher, I would say Concluding Unscientific Postscript [to Philosophical Fragments]. For a writer, I would say Prefaces. If that person wants to learn about the human condition, I would say the Upbuilding Discourses.

The Philotoric: Does Kierkegaard often get misinterpreted with quotes like life is meaningless?

PS: Yes, it is not really Kierkegaard, it is a character. In fact, I know an academic who has been working on Kierkegaard for years who actually came across him in exactly the right way. He picked up Either/Or not knowing anything about it and really appreciated the ‘life is meaningless/we are all going to die’ stuff. Then he got to volume two and said, ‘what the hell, I don’t want to get married.’ It is exactly the way that Kierkegaard wanted you to come across it.

The Philotoric: So Kierkegaard wants to provoke his readers?

PS: Yes, to throw it back on you as the individual concrete reader who is working out how to live their life. He is trying to engage the reader on an existential level. If he just tells you how it is, it does not engage you. But as he does this indirectly, it engages you existentially and makes you think how it relates to your life.