She Came to Stay

shecametostayI have mixed feeling about Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay. I suspect that if I had no previous interest in existentialist philosophy, I would not have put the effort into finishing this 400 page book. It is a story about the relationship between three main protagonists – Francoise, Pierre and Xaviere – and their failed attempt to form a happy “threesome,” in which they try to allow their mutual romantic attractions to flourish alongside their friendship. I found much of the narrative tedious, with characters so foreign to my own experiences that at many points I became confused, unable even to understand their motivations.

The characters in Beauvoir’s story live lives of urban boredom and decadence. Francoise is writing a novel, but most of her time is spent in bars, cafes and restaurants, where, night after night, she smokes, drinks, dances and socializes with a circle of friends and acquaintances. Pierre is part of an acting troupe. He splits his time between rehearsing for his latest play, drinking and going to parties. Xaviere is a young woman from Rouen, a small town outside of Paris, who Francoise and Pierre take under their wings, exposing her to Parisian urban life, encouraging her to become an actress while also competing for her attention and affection. The drama that develops between these characters is reportedly similar to the situation in real-life that threatened to drive a wedge between Beauvoir and Sartre when, in pursuit of their own free and open relationships, jealousies erupted between them. As a biographical detail, this last point is more interesting to me than is the actual novel itself, which drags along, really going nowhere in terms of the action. The characters sit around, drink, smoke, dance and talk. Hostility recurrently erupts, is smoothed over, and then erupts again. In terms of the content of the story itself, then, I found the book monotonous and strange. I kept wondering, “Why are these people bothering with this?” Their “threesome” seemed to me more like an annoyance than anything titillating or exciting.

But since I do have an interest in existentialism, and since I am a fan of Beauvoir’s other philosophical works (such as The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity), I was motivated to look past the superficial dullness of this novel’s story in order to try and understand its deeper, philosophical intent. And that intent is there, scattered in clues throughout the novel’s pages. What I think Beauvoir was attempting to do with She Came to Stay was to illustrate the various ways that people fall into “bad faith,” the primary “sin” that existentialist philosophy counsels us to avoid.

All human consciousnesses are free according to Beauvoir. We live our lives pursuing our own chosen projects while also having to negotiate and contend with people around us who also pursue their own freely chosen goals and projects. According to existentialists, human beings are “thrown” into a world populated by others, and while we cannot avoid living among other people, we can choose how it is that we will comport ourselves toward them.  In the course of life, human beings choose to enter into partnerships with one another, sometimes encouraging each other in their freedom and working together to help one another fulfill goals. When people consciously and enthusiastically embrace one another’s freedom, they act “authentically.” However, there are also times when people pursue goals that come into conflict with the goals of others. It is then that we often find the eruption of hostility, and one of the common responses to this is to fall into a state of “bad faith.” In bad faith, we become resentful against the forces around us that keep us from doing what we want, and so we lash out, coming to treat others and ourselves as if we are not at all free, but as if we are objects capable of being manipulated like any other non conscious “thing” in the world. Bad faith can offer a kind of psychological comfort, since it makes us feel as if we are not responsible for our own mistakes and failures, but it is “bad” precisely because it is a lie, according to Beauvoir. Whenever I think of myself as a mere “thing,” capable of being manipulated by others, or when I think of others as mere “things,” to be manipulated by myself, I falsify the reality of what it means of be a human.

In She Came to Stay, all three main characters seem to illustrate differing manifestations of bad faith. The story is told from the perspective of Francoise, whose bad faith is a reaction to her own boredom with empty routine and her increasing awareness of mortality. She realizes that her Parisian lifestyle is a pointless tedium; her most pressing decisions consisting of which restaurants to eat in, and what sort of liquor to drink.  “There was nothing but an accumulation of meaningless moments, nothing but a chaotic seething of flesh and thought, with death looming at the end.” (p. 130) Because of this awareness, Francoise uses Xaviere, a pretty young country girl, to distract herself from the ugly truth, hoping that the young woman will inject new excitement and vitality into her life. She wants to initiate Xaviere into the bohemian world of Parisian artists, acting as a mentor and (it seems) romantic companion.  Instead of grabbing hold of her own existence by herself and making the decision to change its course altogether, Francoise drags another human being into her tedious world in order to spice things up.

Francoise tells Xaviere, in beginning pages of the story, “as long as you stay in Rouen you will never do anything,” (p. 33) suggesting that the young woman’s destiny lies in where she lives, not in the choices she makes. Consequently, Francoise encourages Xaviere to move to Paris, where she will be supported by Francoise and Pierre, who treat her as raw material with the potential to become a hedonistic bohemian,  just like themselves. Xaviere will live in the same hotel as Francoise, she will go dancing at the same clubs, eat the same food, drink the same liquor, and become an actor. She will be a possession; an ornament that others will admire. And Francoise and Pierre will be admired as well for their efforts to save this uncultured country girl from backwardness. In all of this, Xaviere is treated as a mere thing rather than as a full, free human being. When she starts to assert her own will, and threatens to compromise the relationship between Pierre and Francoise, Francoise panics, and begins to see the young woman as a threat rather than as her personal pet.

Pierre is complicit in Francoise’s project, and together they conspire in their plans to mold Xaviere into a flesh and blood embodiment of their shared ideal. However, Pierre’s interest in Xaviere becomes increasingly jealous as he starts to cultivate a romantic interest in her. Neither Pierre nor Francoise are all that concerned with one another’s sexual interest in Xaviere, but what is troubling is Pierre’s growing obsession with her, his desire to possess her and keep her from other men, such as her boyfriend Gerbert. Outraged when he discovers Xavier and Gerbert having sex (which he observes like a peeping tom by peering at them through a keyhole), Pierre finds himself swept up by covetous desires and emotions that threaten to drive a wedge between himself and Francoise and to destroy the “threesome” they share with Xavier.

Pierre’s bad faith is rooted in a self centered desire for those around him to tolerate his own whims and fancies while denying his effects on others. Throughout the story his irrational jealously for Xaviere bubbles up as hostility, which he then projects onto Xaviere herself. Speaking to Francoise, he says, “We wanted to build a real trio, a well-balanced life for three, in which no one was sacrificed. Perhaps it was taking a risk, but at least it was worth trying! But if Xaviere wants to behave like a jealous little bitch, and you have to be the unfortunate victim, while I play the gallant lover, it becomes nothing but a dirty business.” (p. 295) But it is Pierre who is the jealous one, and he is anything but “gallant.”  He is more like a child who can’t understand the confusion that he and Francoise must be causing this young woman – a virgin – whose affections are courted from all sides. He desires her precisely because she is young, vital, naive and unpredictable, but at the same time he derides and insults her for acting like a naive and unpredictable young woman. Pierre insists that Xaviere must be free, but he nonetheless wants to possess her, and thus to curtail and control her freedom. All the while, he assures Francoise that it is she, and not Xaviere, that is really special to him. In Pierre, thus, we find a tangled knot of bad faith that derives from his denial of the inconsistencies in his various projects. Simultaneously he want to have a “threesome” in which no one is sacrificed, he wants to retain a special relationship with Francoise, and he wants to possess Xaviere. But these three projects cannot coexist, and for Pierre to act as if they possibly could is to lie to himself.

Xaviere is, in her own way, the most annoying character in the novel. She pouts, mopes and throws tantrums. She is jealous, at various points, of both Francoise and Pierre. She is frivolous and unreliable. But then again, she is just a young, naive and unexperienced girl, so what are we to expect? One wonders, as the novel progresses, why it is that Francoise and Pierre spend so much energy thinking about her, talking about her and trying to control her. The answer, as stated above, is that she is a distraction, helping them forget their own boredom, fear of growing old and despair over the passage of time.  On an existential level, their attraction to Xaviere has to with her relationship to temporality. To Xaviere, time means nothing. She lives in the now, reacting to the feelings that pop up in her, moment by moment. While this is what makes her attractive to Francoise and Pierre, it also what makes her unpredictable and unreliable. She believes that no one should make plans or practice and hone their skills, as if to do so would undermine the vital spontaneity of the moment. This represents a contrary form of bad faith to that found in Pierre and Franciose. According to existentialists, humans are, in their essence, temporal beings, and while reflection on the past or the future may at times cause us anguish, the unwillingness to recognize the role of temporality in our lives is delusional. One cannot plan or pursue projects without stepping out of the present, learning from past mistakes and resolving to act in accordance with future goals. Xaviere mistakes lack of discipline and spontaneity for authenticity, not recognizing that to authentically commit to a life project, one has to take hold of life and steer it in the direction that one has freely chosen. Without this sort of longer term perspective, one’s life becomes a series of fits and stops with no overarching shape, purpose or direction. Life becomes chaotic, tedious and meaningless.

The sorts of bad faith illustrated by Beauvoir in She Came to Stay, then, might be divided into two sorts. On the one hand the characters of Francoise and Pierre are exemplars of a kind of bad faith that stems from the attempt to flee from an overly attuned awareness of temporality. Boredom and fear of growing old are their motivations. On the other hand, the character of Xaviere is an exemplar of a kind of bad faith stemming from a complete ignorance of temporality. Because of her youth and inexperience, she is not even aware of the power that time exercises over human choice.

It is interesting that there are two key points in the narrative when Francoise appears to really become confident, self assured and happy in her own powers. The first is when she sleeps with Xaviere’s boyfriend, Gerbert. The other is when she takes steps to kill Xaviere. Together, these two acts seem symbolic of her complete domination of the young woman that she previously claimed as her protege; the complete reduction of Xaviere into a thing-in-itself. In the first instance, Francoise proclaims to herself, while gazing in a mirror, “I’ve won.” (p. 375) In the second instance, after turning the gas on in Xaviere’s bedroom, Francoise thinks to herself, “I have done it of my own free will.” The novel closes with the assertion, “She had chosen herself.” (p. 404)

beauvoirTo live authentically, and to avoid bad faith, a person must grab hold of his or her situation. But in doing so, it must also be recognized that the human situation is one in which we are thrown among others to whom we have responsibilities. Humans are free, and because of this, as we make our way through life pursuing our own projects and goals, we are destined to run into resistance. When this happens it is our responsibility to honor the freedom in ourselves and others and to avoid lapsing into resentful ways of thought. If we fail to do so, then we will find ourselves surrounded by enemies instead of neighbors, and life will become a hostile struggle for control rather than a stimulating adventure of “being-with-others” in a world freely chosen and enthusiastically shared. The characters in She Came to Stay have not learned this lesson, and perhaps that is why all of them are so petty, hateful, jealous and unlikable.

Existentialism

existentialismIt is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.

British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]

The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.

Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10)  By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.

The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.

This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project.  Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and  thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.

9780806501956The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.

This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.

The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda.  In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.

Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through  treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.

Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition –  as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.

My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation?  If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.

20120617-154833A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.

As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.

The Philosophy of the Joker

The Philosophy of The Joker – Wisecrack Edition

Written by Tom Head and directed by Jared Bauer, this well researched and very nicely made short video addresses existential and nihilistic issues related to the Joker, a character from the Batman comics and movies. Alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer and Jean Baudrillard, there are also references to John Marmysz!

Screen Bodies

jnl_cover_screen[1]Issue #1 of the journal Screen Bodies is now available. My article, “Monstrous Masses: The Human Body as Raw Material,” appears on pages 51-70:

This article investigates the varied reactions of audiences to cinematic depictions of the human body as objectified raw material. The investigation proceeds, first, by explicating an ontological distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself, which in turn allows for a clarification of the processes involved in the objectification of one human being by another. The article then argues that in films where depictions of bodily objectification are pushed to an extreme—such as The Human Centipede, Nymphomaniac, and Videodrome—a potentially positive, empathic potential is unlocked in audiences. Rather than simply resulting in the humiliation of human characters, such films encourage audiences to experience a kind of sympathy for the characters that is related to, but not distinct from, other horrific, humorous, and erotic feelings. The article concludes that the objectification of human bodies in film is both unavoidable and a potentially positive moral exercise.

Disinformation Interview

c1b2f1b7477fccd5e4efb469ff277332Brian Whitney interviewed me for Disinformation.com.

My Interview With a Nihilist Means Nothing, As Does Your Life

It looks like people are already getting all worked up over nothing!

Roads to Freedom

imagesAfter thoroughly enjoying Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, I looked forward to reading the other two books in The Roads to Freedom trilogy: The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep. Unfortunately, neither of these works measured up to the excellence of the first installment in the series. In fact, I initially became so exasperated with The Reprieve that I set it aside for a few months before mustering the energy to once again make an attempt to finish it. It was a slog, but I eventually did make my way through it and Troubled Sleep, not because I found them especially enjoyable but out of a weird feeling that having started the project of reading the trilogy I needed to finish the task. And now it is done.

The Age of Reason really drew me in with the story of Mathieu, a philosophy professor in the midst of an existential crisis. Here was a book that articulated many of my own thoughts and feelings about life, meaninglessness and growing old. In another posting on this blog I detailed what I loved about this book, so here I will just report that I had expected the story of Mathieu to continue in the last two volumes of the trilogy. Unfortunately, Mathieu only makes sporadic appearances in the remaining books as the narrative structure of the story becomes much more fractured and confusing; especially in the second volume, The Reprieve.

DownloadedFileThe Reprieve consists of a kaleidoscope of stories that bleed into one another and that seem intended to convey a sense of collective, anxious nervousness in the days leading up to the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The title refers to the fact that, at the end of the book, war is temporarily averted by the concessions made to Germany. The mood is frantic, and I will admit that the writing style does help to produce this effect in the reader. Unfortunately it is also at the expense of narrative clarity. Each time I felt that I was beginning to gain some orientation toward what was going on in the novel, the scene would change and I was lost once again. The transitions between the various vignettes are abrupt and unpredictable; the characters are too numerous and mush into one another; the action moves from place to place. All of this contributed to my exasperation. The back cover characterizes the book’s style as “stream of consciousness” and as utilizing a “cinema technique of simultaneity,” but to me the writing just seemed undisciplined and jarringly incongruous in comparison to the style in which the other two installments in the trilogy are written.

This is not to say that there is nothing to recommend The Reprieve. There are characters and episodes that are truly effective and that have stayed with me. We get to check in with Mathieu as he goes off to join a French fighting unit, finally making a resolute decision to act in the world and to break out of his bourgeois lifestyle. And there is Gros-Louis, a stupid and pathetic character who bumbles through the story, getting drunk, being beaten up and taken advantage of. He has orders to report to his unit, but since he is illiterate, he can’t read them and must rely on others to direct him in what to do. And there’s young Ivich who is disappointed in her hope for the utter destruction of Paris by the Nazis. Perhaps the most effective scene in the novel is toward the end when her rape is juxtaposed with the negotiations for the Munich Pact, in which Czechoslovakia was handed over to Germany without a fight. The comparison of Ivich’s personal, sexual violation with the collective, political violation of the Czech people really does produce a startling and upsetting effect.

All is frantic, anxious confusion in The Reprieve, with the characters swept up in the political uncertainty of the times leading up to World War II. Sartre, I think, was trying to convey a sense that while the world at that point in history felt out of any one individual’s control, people were still making existential decisions whether they realized it or not. This is reinforced in the scenes featuring Chamberlin, Hitler, Mastny, Daladier and other politicians. While the forces of history seem to be sweeping impersonally over the continent, behind all of this stand flesh-and-blood human beings who are negotiating, planning and scheming. There is nothing necessary or impersonal about the course that history takes. The war, which from the perspective of the people seems to loom like a threatening force of nature, is actually the result of human decision making. History unfolds according to the collective choices that humans make, and we fall into bad faith the moment that we relinquish our own responsibility for the state of the world. In The Reprieve, we meet characters who have yet to fully learn this lesson.

DownloadedFileTroubled Sleep is organized in a more coherent manner than is The Reprieve. Part One focuses on a retreating French unit, of which Mathieu is a member. This unit has failed to repel the Nazi incursion and now simply waits for something to happen. Having been abandoned by their officers, these men are leaderless and in a state of disarray. They are terrified by the advance of the German “Supermen,” and are convinced that there is nothing that they can do to stop their advance. Some of them get drunk, some of them sit around reading books that they have found in the ruins, one of them starts a sexual relationship with a French postal worker. In a way, what they do is not much different from life before the war. In the absence of leaders to issue orders, these men meander about and waste time, waiting to be captured or to die.

Things change when another French unit arrives. This unit is also without officers but is nonetheless ready to resist the advances of the Nazis. Mathieu and some of his comrades join together with this group and resolve to fight back. When the Germans arrive, a clash ensues in which it becomes clear that Mathieu and his fellow soldiers are vastly outnumbered. As the fighting intensifies, Mathieu becomes increasingly worried that he will prove to be a coward.  But as he fires his weapon he gains courage, realizing that the Germans are human, that they are “vulnerable” just as he is; they are not “Supermen.” The French troops are overwhelmed, but they fight on, killing as many Germans as they are able and trying to hold out for just a few more minutes. “This was no more than the beginning of his own death” (p.254). Mathieu dies in battle, firing his gun and realizing that he is free. He has chosen not to be a coward through his actions. At this point in the story, I was reminded of a line from the previous book when Mathieu thinks to himself, “freedom is exile, and I am condemned to be free.  …I am free for nothing” (p. 363). This is Sartre’s message: being conscious of one’s freedom is its own reward. There is nothing but this sort of authentic self-awareness that makes life worth living. In this sense, Mathieu dies a happy man.

Part Two of Troubled Sleep details the lives of a group of French prisoners of war who wait in a camp while the Nazis decide what is to be done with them. In this final installment in the story, I got the sense that the prisoners were their own worst enemies. Sartre depicts them as hostile toward one another, fighting over food and arguing over whether the Germans are really all that bad. They become angry when one of their group successfully escapes the camp, viewing it as some sort of betrayal of their captor’s hospitality! The central character in this segment of the story is Brunet, a communist who busily tries to organize the members of the camp and to collectivize their resources. He meets continued resistance from most of the other prisoners; except for Schnieder, a printer who is helpful to Brunet, but also seemingly skeptical of his political agenda.

Part two of the book meanders on for hundreds of pages until the final scenes when the prisoners are loaded onto a train that they hope is bound for home. The reader, of course, is left with the ominous suspicion that all of these men will be taken to another camp where they will most likely be brutalized and worked to death. The book ends when one of the prisoners is shot to death and his body is left laying by the side of the tracks. The novel’s closing line, “Tomorrow the black birds would come,” refers equally well to the fate of the murdered prisoner’s body as it does to the remaining prisoners on the train. It is also a symbolic intimation of the future unfolding of the World War.

Conceptually, I like what it is that Sartre has attempted with The Roads to Freedom. Beginning with the first book, he has introduced us to a character who, in the midst of an existential crisis, illustrates the deep, spiritual difficultly of individual human choice and descion making. This is existentialism on the personal level. In the second book, we are thrust into a culture in turmoil as it struggles on a collective level with its situation and the threat to its existence. In the third book we are presented with two separate responses to the existential crisis. One the one hand, there is Mathieu who takes hold of his situation and acts in defiance of the Nazis, fighting and dying for nothing other than his own freedom. On the other, there are the prisoners of war who generally comply and submit to their Nazi captors. In their passivity, of course, they are still making a choice: the choice to obey. Unlike Mathieu who uses his fear to become self aware, the prisoners on the train allow fear to use them and to make them immobile and compliant. Both will die, but, Sarte seems to be telling us, at least Mathieu will die with a full realization of his own power and freedom to act in the world. “He fired: he was cleansed, he was all-powerful, he was free” (p. 256). Mathieu represents the individual who acts and is ultimately alone in the world, while the prisoners seem to represent the group, which is comprised of individuals who cannot bring themselves to act resolutely and independently.

In terms of aesthetic quality, The Roads to Freedom fails for me. While the first book was focused and fascinating, the remaining books are unfocused and fragmented. The Reprieve, especially, reads like it was written while Sartre was high on speed. Troubled Sleep, with its two separate parts, reads like two separate stories. I think that the material in these last two books could have been fruitfully edited down and integrated with the material in The Age of Reason in order to produce a single, cohesive story with Mathieu as the focal point.

I have just learned that there is a fourth, unfinished novel in The Roads to Freedom series. It has recently been published in English under the title The Last ChanceIt looks like my work is not yet over…

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014

homepageImage_en_USAfter returning from a month and a half long visit to Scotland at the beginning of the year, I was back on the plane to Glasgow for the 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference, held during the first week of July.

Jet lag hit me hard this time around. I arrived the day before the start of the conference, not anticipating the adverse effect such an abrupt interruption in my normal rhythms would have. I was unable to sleep my first night in Scotland, and as a result I operated in a haze the following day until I was able to slip back to my accommodations out in the suburbs (a subway and a train ride away) to catch up on my sleep that afternoon. Over the course of the week, I struggled with a disrupted sleep cycle that only settled down once the weekend commenced and the talks had come to an end. In the future I’ll try to arrive a few days early to ensure that my old bones can cope with this sort of annoying reality about international travel.

The atmosphere at the Film-Philosophy meeting was different from most US philosophy conferences I have attended. First of all, as might be expected in Europe, the vast majority of presentations were in the Continental tradition, with the ideas of thinkers such as Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre, Nietzsche and Badiou playing the most prominent roles. While I admit that it is precisely with such thinkers that my greatest interests lie, I must also confess that there were points at which I began to sympathize with some of the complaints voiced by my Anglo-American/Analytic friends concerning the obscurity of much Continental thought. At some of the talks I wasn’t sure if the effects of jet lag were interfering with my comprehension, if I was stupid, if the presenters were being unclear, or if the ideas being discussed were just very difficult. There was probably a bit of all four of these things going on, to tell the truth. Nonetheless, it was good to feel like I was being challenged with new and sometimes unfamiliar ideas.

A welcome surprise was how polite the attendees were with one another. Every comment made by audience members was prefaced with thanks and appreciative remarks to the speakers. There were no personal attacks or hostilities at any of the sessions I attended; things which are, unfortunately, not uncommon at many US philosophy conferences. Hostile verbal abuse became so bad at US conferences that at one point there was an official plea from the offices of the American Philosophical Association imploring its members to remain civil and tolerant with one another at meetings! In fact, the first time that I myself ever delivered a paper in the US, I was angrily attacked by a couple of men in the audience who heartily agreed with one another that I was both a racist and a sexist due to my interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Ironically, it was a group of women philosophers who came to my defense during that episode. (A funny side note is that the following year I was on a panel with one of my attackers who did not even remember me!) In any case, there was none of that sort of nonsense at the Film-Philosophy conference, where the atmosphere was quite friendly and welcoming.

One criticism I have concerns a number of the speakers, some of whom should have been more organized and prepared to operate in the time-frame scheduled for them. Most of the panel participants had 20 minutes for the reading of their papers while the various keynote speakers had over an hour to deliver their addresses. It was unfortunate that quite a few of the participants tried to cram too much information into their talks and thus found themselves editing their presentations as they went along. This was complicated by the fact that a lot of them also wanted to show film clips; something that was not always possible within the time constraints. The chairmen and chairwomen of the sessions were pretty good at enforcing time limits; however this resulted in presentations that sometimes ended up a bit fragmented and rushed.

I was part of a panel titled “Globalized Myths of Anywhere and Elsewhere.” Lucy Bolton, from the Queen Mary University of London, was the session chair, and Tiago De Luca, from the University of Liverpool, kicked things off with his paper “Humanity as Allegory in the Multi-Narrative Film.” His presentation analyzed films such as Babel, The Edge of Heaven and Amores Perros, all of which contain multiple, parallel, but only loosely connected narratives. His argument was that this sort of narrative structure reflects current trends in globalization in which people worldwide find their lives intertwined in ways that can lead both to meaningful connection and to a sense of passive fatalism. Andre Fischer, from Stanford University, continued the session with his paper “Mythic Thinking in Werner Herzog’s new grammar of images,” in which he drew on the ideas of Nietzsche to suggest that Herzog’s films express a Dionysian leap into the abyss, and the attempt to create a “grammar of images” that offers a mythic response to our modern malaise. I concluded the session with my paper “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular,” in which I applied Heideggerian insights concerning art to an analysis of movies filmed in Scotland. I argued that there is currently an emerging cinematic countermovement against past Scottish mythologizing that I call “the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.” In this new “myth,” Scotland is used as a setting for dramas that downplay traditional Scottish stereotypes, evoking worlds that could be anywhere at any time.

Our session went well, and afterwards there was an interesting, friendly conversation among the participants and the audience. I had a really good time and met some very interesting people with whom I hope to remain in contact.

A particularly interesting session was conducted later that afternoon by Laura U. Marks, from Simon Fraser University. Her keynote speech, “A World of Flowing, Intensifying Images: Mulla Sadra Meets Cinema Studies,” addressed issues in Islamic philosophy and applied them to film analysis. Marks focused on the idea of the “imaginal realm,” which is developed in the works of the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra. Islam is often thought to be hostile to the use of images and representations, but Marks argued that this is not always the case. In Shi’ite Islam there is a great degree of tolerance for the use of images that are believed (in a Platonic way) to be capable of functioning as conduits for the Truth. In the writings of Mulla Sadra, the concept of the “imaginal realm” – a realm of imagery existing halfway between the illusions of  the senses and the absolute Truths of the eternal Forms – offers a way of thinking about filmic representations that grants them a role in the human aspiration toward ultimate reality. This was fascinating stuff.

DARK-LIGHT-SCREENING_Poster2-160x160I began the last day of the conference by attending a screening of the film Dark Light, at which the filmmaker, Maria O’Connor, was present to discuss her work. The film consists of a 70 minute montage of horse imagery overlayed with an audio track in German, French and Italian. The audio consists of enigmatic utterances referencing thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Badiou, provoking viewers to consider the relationship between humanity and animality. Alongside images of horses being groomed and galluping we hear about Nietzsche’s collapse as he protectively threw his arms around a horse that was being beaten by its owner. There are references to Heidegger’s views on how animals don’t “die,” but simply “expire.” All of this raises questions in the viewers mind: What is the difference between how a human and a horse experiences the world? Are horses aware of death? What sort of spiritual bond exists between horses and humans? I found myself a bit befuddled by the film, and I confessed to O’Connor that I felt “discombobulated” after watching it. She laughed and seemed to be pleased with this reaction. On the first day of the conference she had been on a panel where she made comments about how her film experiments with ideas about the withdrawl of Being, and with ideas about how Being is revealed through the lives of children. As I later reflected on these thoughts it shed some light – even if it was a dark light – on the significance of her work. In any case, I enjoyed the opportunity to see her film and to hear her speak about it.

Over the course of the three day schedule I attended a number of other notable sessions dealing with the ideas of Deleuze, the politics of film, and the nature of remakes. By the time the conference concluded, my jet lag had passed, and once again it was time for me to hop on a plane and head back home to the US, away from the grey, cloudy, wet Glaswegian summer.