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.


Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas

pageHeaderTitleImage_en_USThe 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference will take place July 2 to July 4 on the campus of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I will be making a presentation on July 3 titled “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular.” Here’s the abstract:

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Doomsday (2008), Perfect Sense (2011), and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand-ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

The conference website can be found at:

Monstrous Masses

(This post is a fragment of a longer essay. I’m still thinking through some of the ideas, so consider this a work in progress!)

DownloadedFileMonstrous Masses: The Human Body as Raw Material

“This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder – naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.


Depictions of the human body as raw material are common in the cinema, being used to provoke a wide variety of disparate responses in audiences. To portray the human body as raw material is to show it as a “thing,” as an object that is subject to the impersonal, natural forces of cause and effect. Purely physical objects may be modified, manipulated, stimulated, torn asunder and sewn back together according to any logic consistent with the laws of physics, and when the human body is depicted in this way, it becomes an object of fascination, disgust, horror, and sometimes even sexual titillation. Portrayals of this kind are reminders of our brute, corporeal nature, which is not governed by intellect or free will, but by the push and pull of physical impact; of violent forces having nothing at all to do with our own personal hopes or desires. Such imagery provokes us to consider the implications of embodiment and to reflect on the latent vulnerabilities as well as the potentialities of flesh and blood. While viewing human bodies in this way, we are pushed to the boundaries of meaning and sense. It is here that nihilism erupts between the absurd reality of brute, physical existence and our yearning for that existence to maintain some sort of moral importance.

In-itself, the human body means nothing. It is a “thing” made up of parts connected one to another, all of which move and function in reaction to stimuli and forces that act from outside of the parts themselves. The arm that lovingly embraces a friend is the same conglomeration of cells, bones, and flesh that may later hatefully strike that same friend in anger. The arm itself cannot be praised or blamed for what it does. It is merely an instrument, a tool, a “thing” that can be utilized for good purposes or bad. Thus, when we observe a human body already being pulled downward by the forces of gravity, we don’t blame the body for its descent. When we see a body ravaged by the growth of cancer, we don’t reprimand it for being diseased. When we see a body in the throes of sexual arousal, we don’t reproach it for the way in which it reacts. These are just the facts of how bodies, once they have been set in motion, respond to the forces of the world.

The ways that we interpret, judge and evaluate the motions of bodies are potentially infinite in number. In horror films, the violent attacks of monsters tearing into the flesh of victims may be responded to with fear, disgust and gruesome curiosity. In action films, audiences respond with wonder and a thrilling sense of exhilaration when bodies fly through the air, bounce off of walls and one another, and then continue to move forward in their pursuits. In pornography, copulating bodies are responded to with feelings of erotic curiosity, or perhaps with disgust, as sexual acts are carried out with mechanical determination. In slapstick comedy, the physical collision of human bodies is played for laughs, as they are thrown this way and that, like any other “thing” subject to the physical laws of cause and effect. And then there are those films where a sense of awe and sublime respect result upon viewing the human body battered, destroyed and betrayed in the name of a religious or cultural cause. In all of these cases, it is the same human flesh, subjected to impact, stimulation, collision and battering, that is displayed for our fascinated attention. Audiences are variously horrified, excited, and amused by such depictions of the human body as raw material.

imagesThe Body as an Object

Over the years, much scholarly attention has been (and continues to be) brought to bear on the objectification of human bodies ­– in particular the bodies of women – in the popular media.[i] This concern with the body and its manner of visual representation is often tied to worries about the destructive effects of objectification, centering on issues related to domination, control and human degradation. Thus, for instance, feminists like Laura Mulvey argue that cinematic depictions of the “image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man” works to reveal and to reinforce structures of patriarchy and phallocentrism in our culture.[ii] Susan Bordo develops a similar point when she argues that in the media, representations of black women’s bodies are often accorded the status of “mere matter, thing-hood,”[iii] thus perpetuating the historical legacy of slavery. On the other side of the gender divide, objectified and idealized media representations of male bodies have also been linked by some researchers to feelings of dissatisfaction and depression in men.[iv]

But the idea that the human body (female or otherwise), when objectified, may become raw material for the actively aggressive gaze of an audience does, in fact, have a long philosophical history that has not always been so disapproving. Aristotle in particular provides a more positive assessment of this sort of dynamic in his classic work Poetics, where he characterizes the laughter in comedy as resulting from the objectification of lowly people who exhibit “a mistake or a deformity not productive of pain to others.”[v] Audiences laugh down at such “ugliness” according to Aristotle precisely because, in their own superiority, audiences feel no sympathy for the lowly characters thus depicted.[vi] Comic figures are objects of amusement; “things” whose misfortunes provoke no sense of painful compassion in viewers. It is this sort of objectification and denigration of others that allows for the enjoyable catharsis involved in laughter, and in fact Aristotle seems convinced that the health and success of any culture must allow for the consistent exercise of this sort of outlet. This is why for him the theatre was such an important part of the social apparatus.

The Marquis de Sade is another example of an author who expresses an approving attitude toward the objectification of human bodies; including his own. In his writings, such as The 120 Days of Sodom, we find catalogues of pornographic imagery intended to arouse and disgust those who read them. This imagery never treats the human victims as anything but objects; raw material for the enjoyment of the abusers. In fact, in the book Juliette, by accepting her role as an object, the main character ultimately becomes powerful, dignified and happy. This is the road to bliss for de Sade. One must lose one’s self and be engulfed by “nature,” which “permits anything” and encourages sexual pleasure through the manipulation and domination of other bodies. In a world in which “God’s existence is an illusion,”[vii] all that remains are bodies in motion, and thus the only realistic path to happiness lies in the affirmation of the body as a “thing” continuous with nature, not separate from it.  Indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir argues, it is precisely because de Sade desires to lose himself in this way that he objectifies others. By making others into “things,” he hopes “to remove himself by becoming an inert object.”[viii] So it is that de Sade frantically seeks to affirm the body as raw material whose value lies in its very meaninglessness.

Despite the insights of Aristotle and de Sade, many contemporary commentators tend to remain suspicious of human objectification, seeing the aggressive gaze of an audience as something belittling and denigrating to the full dignity of human beings. Really, in a dialectical sense, both sides in this debate are correct. There is often pleasure to be had in the dominating gaze that views others as objects, and often when one dominates with a look the subject of the look becomes debased. But neither is this always the case. There can also be a kind of pleasure that results from being looked at and objectified, just as there can be a kind of pain that is generated in one who looks at another human being as an object.  I think what is potentially objectionable about this dynamic is not necessarily the fact that pleasure is sometimes experienced by the one doing the gazing, but that there are times when pleasure is had at the expense of the one who is gazed at. Objectification, while not always disagreeable, may become so when the human body is regarded as nothing but raw material for the pleasure of another. When regarded in this way, it becomes easy to forget that human beings are not merely “things.” It becomes easier, as Bordo points out, to act as if their “moral and emotional sensibilities need not be treated with consideration,”[ix] thus potentially paving the way toward atrocity.[x]

crucify2Being-in-itself vs. Being-for-itself

Ultimately, there is no way to completely avoid making ourselves and others into objects.  In order even to form a consciousness of one’s “self,” a person must solidify, and thus objectify, an identity that acts as a focus of awareness. As a self, I am both one and multiple at the same time. To have a sense of “myself” I must recognize an inner part of “me” as it is mirrored in another inner part of “me.” This implies a self-regarding “turn” involving a break between differing regions of the mind, which we might call the inner observer and the inner observed.[xi] The inner observer, in reflecting, makes the inner observed into an object of reflection. Without such a “turn,” no self-recognition would be possible, and thus there could be no awareness of a distinct and unique “I.” My “self” is, thus, split between an in-itself and a for-itself: a reflected and a reflecting. I am both subject and object. This is Hegel’s point in the Phenomenology of Spirit when he writes, “A self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object’.”[xii] When thinking about ourselves, we become objects of our own thought, in a way analogous to how our own bodies become objects when we gaze into a mirror. In this sense, self-consciousness and self-identity require objectification. Without it, “I” would not even exist as a unique and separate being. “I” would dissolve away into the undifferentiated mass of Being that is the universe. “I” would become nothing at all.

Just as self-reflection requires that we encounter ourselves from a kind of “inner-outside” perspective as objects, when we experience others, we must also encounter them from the outside, as objects that are present to, and yet outside of, our own consciousness. In this encounter, the outer other is analogous to our inner observed self. It is a thing that we reflect upon and thus that is reflected back into us. It is like our body image in the mirror; an object that stands apart and away from us. Unlike the inner self that I take as the object of my self-consciousness, however, this outer other is foreign and strange to me insofar as it is separate from both my inner observer and my inner observed. It is not me in any sense. It is merely an outer object present to my gaze. In this way, it is even more removed from me than is my own body image, which is, after all, still “my” body image. I still retain some understanding of what is going on “inside” that body. The true other, however, is in no way “mine.” It is independent of my will and mysterious insofar as I lack an understanding of it from the inside. I know it purely as an external appearance. It is a mere object to me: a thing-in-itself.

When a mind takes in outer appearances, it sees them as stable and complete entities that are “in-themselves.” Jean-Paul Sartre defines the “in-itself” as that which “is what it is.”  It has no inside. It “has nothing secret; it is solid.”[xiii] The in-itself is purely a thing with no hidden life, no freedom and no capacity to avoid the contingencies of cause and effect. Insofar as we encounter the outer world from our own inner perspective, we are always seeing it as composed of objects; of beings in-themselves. By analogy with our own inner consciousness, however, we may infer that some of the objects “out there” that we interact with may actually have an inner world like our own. When I look in a mirror at my own body and I have a sense that my consciousness resides inside of that reflected mass, so too I may have the sense that there exist objects in my world that possess inner minds like my own, and thus that the world outside of me is populated by other beings-for-themselves; or self-reflective consciousnesses.

Sartre defines a being-for-itself as “being what it is not and not being what it is.”[xiv] Thus, if I regard others in my world as beings-for-themselves, I suppose that they are unstable and unpredictable because they possess inner, secret lives from which I am cut off. They have consciousness and the freedom to make choices. A being-for-itself possesses an inner mind that undergoes transformation and change by initiating projects; it flees away from its current, present state of being in the pursuit of goals. A being-for-itself, in other words, is the kind of freely choosing and aspiring consciousness that incessantly projects away and ahead of itself, moving forward into an uncertain future. It never rests satisfied with what it is, and always pursues what it is not. As such, recalling Bordo’s remarks, it has hidden, inner “moral and emotional sensibilities” that need to be treated with consideration.

While objectification is a seemingly necessary part of the process by which human beings recognize themselves, interact with one another and by which they build their worlds, a troubling issue is apparent. If I always encounter the beings in my world from the outside, then they always appear objectified to me as beings-in-themselves. Likewise, if another being-for-itself is to encounter me, I will become objectified in his or her eyes as a foreign thing; a being-in-itself. Hegel noted this issue and saw it as the initiating confrontation that leads to a “life-and-death struggle”[xv] between human consciousnesses. In confronting one another, two consciousnesses engage in mutual objectification, trying to solidify and fix the essence of the other and to deny its autonomy. We cast the other as a thing that is outside of us, which we contemplate and thus make into an object of our own reflective consciousness. This “trial by death”[xvi] kills the dynamic and lively inner nature of the other, and consequently we must, it seems, always come to treat others as things-in-themselves, since we must always come to know them from the outside and never from the inner perspective of their own conscious awareness.

In the world of cinema, this process is especially pronounced. By its very nature, the cinema is a visual medium, displaying images (usually accompanied by sounds) that are intended to be looked at and reflected upon by audiences. While some of the finest and most moving films are those that attempt to convey the inner emotions and sensibilities of the characters depicted, by virtue of the fact that audiences are spectators who approach films from the “outside,” the objectification of characters seems to be an inevitability. And while it may be the case that the actual human beings who portray characters in film are beings-for-themselves ­— after all, they are always more than just the characters that they play — it does seem that once performances are completed and recorded in a final form, they become fixed and stable, and so pass over into the realm of the in-itself. If this is so, what sense can it possibly make to complain about the “objectification” of women, men or anyone else portrayed in the media? Furthermore, if objectification is a mechanism implicated in the very way that we situate ourselves in the world, why should we even be concerned with overcoming it?

[i] For instance: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” [1975] Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Routledge, 1983); Linda Williams, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993); Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Elizabeth A. Brunner, “Impotence, Nostalgia, and Objectification: Patriarchal Visual Rhetoric to Contain Women.” Visual Culture and Gender, Vol. 8, 2013.

[ii] Mulvey, p. 843.

[iii] Bordo, p. 11.

[iv] Daniel Agliata and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, “The Impact of Media Exposure on Male’s Body Image.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2004, pp. 7-22.

[v] Aristotle, Poetics. 1449a35.

[vi] This is the first mention of what has come to known as the “superiority theory” of laughter. See: John Moreall, Taking Laughter Seriously. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983).

[vii] Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, in Three Complete Novels: Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugenie de Franval. (New York: Grove Press, 1966), p. 210.

[viii] Simone de Beauvoir, “Must We Burn Sade?” The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1980), p. 27.

[ix] Bordo, p. 11.

[x] This is a point made by Hannah Arendt in her classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism where she argues that the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags were made possible by the antecedent “preparation of living corpses.” (p. 447). Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1976.) It is also a main thesis in: Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002).

[xi] This is the inward turn first described by Socrates/Plato in Phaedo, 66a.

[xii] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, A.V. Miller (trans.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. §177.

[xiii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Hazel Barnes (trans.) New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. p. 28

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Hegel, § 187.

[xvi] Ibid.

Birth, School, Work, Death

Existential America_0This is an entertaining podcast about existentialism from the program To the Best of Our Knowledge. It is described on the program’s website as follows:

“After World War Two, existentialism was all the rage in the U.S.A.  College students rebelled by smoking European cigarettes and wearing black clothes and berets.  Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus felt that Americans were too self-confident and superficial to accept this dark, brooding philosophy, but it seems existentialism has deep American roots.  On this hour of To the Best of Our Knowledge, the history of angst in America.  Also, why Nietzche’s philosophy still matters.”

The Age of Reason

Age of ReasonThe Age of Reason is the first in a trilogy of novels written by Jean-Paul Sartre that take place in France around the time of World War II. I have yet to read the second and third novels in the series – The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep – but after finishing this first installment, I am eager to get started on them. Other than Nausea, which is one of my favorite books of all time,  The Age of Reason is the only one of Sartre’s fictional works that I have read. Nonetheless, I have reached the conclusion that Sartre is among the most masterful writers of philosophical fiction. I was absolutely captivated by The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason deals with ideas and issues that are universally important and with which I am increasingly concerned as I move through middle age. The story’s characters exist in an atmosphere filled with the foreboding awareness of human finitude. The Spanish Civil War lurks in the background, and it is clear that a larger European conflict is on the horizon. The main protagonists are young enough to have a future to which they look forward, but they are also old enough to be aware that this future is not endless. They can see the signs of encroaching age in one another’s faces, and just as they are melancholy about the passing of their youth, they are also anxious about the direction of the future. Throughout the novel, our mental gaze is thus drawn both backwards and forwards, encouraging us to contemplate the passage of time and to regard with urgency the task of embracing life and the projects that we have chosen. The lesson that I took away from this book is that we should learn to value the potential of our personal future just as much as we cherish our youthful past.

The story focuses on Mathieu, a philosophy professor in Paris, who is in the midst of an existential crisis. The central theme of the novel concerns his struggles as he tries to understand the significance and purpose of his life while growing older and confronting his own freedom to choose between alternative life paths. As the novel opens, Mathieu finds out that his girlfriend, Marcelle, is pregnant with his child. The rest of the novel is structured around his frantic attempts to raise the money for an abortion.

Mathieu does not even consider the idea that he and Marcelle might keep the child and raise it together; although this is precisely what Marcelle does wish for. While she wants to get married and settle into a conventional middle-class life, Mathieu resists the very thought, considering it bourgeois. When Mathieu visits his brother, Jacques, to ask him for money, Jacques confronts Mathieu with the embarrassing reality that Mathieu cannot see:

“You are trying,” said Jacques, “to evade the fact that you’re a bourgeois and ashamed of it. I myself reverted to bourgeoisie after many aberrations and contracted a marriage of convenience with the party, but you are a bourgeois by taste and temperament, and it’s your temperament that’s pushing you into marriage. For you are married, Mathieu,” said he forcibly.

“First I’ve heard of it,” said Mathieu.

“Oh yes, you are, only you pretend you aren’t because you are possessed by theories. You have fallen into a habit of life with this young woman: you go to see her quietly four days a week and you spend the night with her. That has been going on for seven years, and there’s no adventure left in it; you respect her, you feel obligations towards her, you don’t want to leave her…Will you tell me how that differs from marriage – except for cohabitation?”

Sartre writes that during this exchange Mathieu “was furious with himself.” He was furious because he already knows what his brother says is true. He has fallen into a way of life that is easy and comfortable, all the while denying that this is the type of person he really is. Mathieu does not conceive of himself as a conventional, married family man. He sees himself as a radical philosopher, living outside of conventionality. And yet the very details of his life tell a different story. When his friend, Brunet, urges him to join the Communist Party and to fight against the fascists in Spain, Mathieu is still resistant. He actively choses to avoid a life of adventure and danger, even when the opportunity presents itself, and instead continues to live, de facto, a bourgeois life. He is not who he claims to be; and this is why he is furious with himself.

In the philosophical language of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, Mathieu is in “bad faith.” He denies who he is and does not acknowledge his own complicity in choosing the life that he finds himself living. Like all humans, Mathieu is a “being-for-itself,” which means that he is free to make choices. Unlike animals or rocks, which are “beings-in-themselves,” a being-for-itself has a mind and thus can envision a future and work toward the realization of that future, making it his or her life project. In fact, such a being can do nothing else. Humans are doomed to choose. Even in refusing to make a choice, according to Sartre, we still, nonetheless, make the choice not to choose, and so remain responsible for the course that our lives take. Many people, like Mathieu, would like to deny this fact, but at a deep level, we all recognize it. Though we would like to relieve ourselves of responsibility for how our lives turn out, in fact we have no one to blame except ourselves. We are the only ones responsible for who we have become.

While Mathieu is frantically trying to raise a loan to pay for Marcelle’s abortion, he simultaneously finds himself infatuated with a young student by the name of Ivich. Ivich’s charms are solely related to her youthfulness, and Mathieu’s attraction to her is depicted by Sartre as a distraction from Mathieu’s despair concerning his own age. Ivich hangs out at cafes and clubs, drinks irresponsibly and is sexually flirtatious with both men and women. In Ivich, Mathieu sees a kind of freedom; but it is the kind of freedom inappropriate for a man of his age and social position. In a pivotal scene at a nightclub called “Sumatra,” Mathieu and Ivich bond with one another – temporarily – when, after Ivich drunkenly slashes herself with a knife, Mathieu pins his own hand to a table with the same blade:

He jabbed the knife into his palm and felt almost nothing. When he took his hand away, the knife remained embedded in his flesh, straight up, with its haft in the air.

…He felt benignantly impressive and was a little afraid that he might faint. But a sort of dogged satisfaction and the malice of a silly schoolboy took possession of his mind. It was not only to defy Ivich that he stuck the knife into his hand, it was a challenge to Jacques, and Brunet and Daniel, and to his whole life. “I’m a ghastly kind of fool,” he thought. “Brunet was right in saying that I’m a grown-up child.” But he couldn’t help being pleased.

This knife, sticking straight up and out of his hand, is Mathieu’s “fuck you” to the world; a middle finger rudely challenging public decency and manners. But, as he himself senses, it is a childish, immature gesture. It is the sort of thing that one might expect from Ivich, but not from a middle-aged professor of philosophy. Mathieu is, thus, on the one hand satisfied with his ability to break the mold and to act against his appropriate social role with this self-destructive performance. Yet on the other hand, he is also embarrassed that this is the way he chooses to utilize his freedom. It is silly and ultimately safe, since it requires nothing more than a bandage, whereas the choice to change his way of life would require a complete reassessment of his values and priorities. To truly break free and embrace his maturity, Mathieu must do something more than pin his hand to a table with a knife. He must choose a different life path. His realization of this truth is finally signaled when he loses his sexual fascination with Ivich and she begins to appear awkward and vulnerable to him rather than physically attractive.

The book concludes with Mathieu becoming alienated from everyone. He steals money from Lola, a singer at Sumatra, in order to pay for Marcelle’s abortion, but Marcelle refuses the money and instead decides to marry Daniel, an aging homosexual. It is at this point that Mathieu accepts that he is “alone” and that he is responsible for everything that has happened in his life and that will happen in his life. He cannot blame Marcelle, or Ivich or Brunet or Daniel or anyone else for how things have turned out. With this, Mathieu tells himself, “I have attained the age of reason,” and the novel comes to an end.

Throughout The Age of Reason, there are repeated allusions to Albert Camus, who Sartre had a falling out with before writing this book. One of the cafes that the characters frequent is called camus_350x312“Camus’s.” It is a place where “one always has the feeling that it was four in the morning.”  Mathieu also laments at one point that he has been “not a revolutionary, merely a rebel,” a clearly disapproving reference to Camus’ book, The Rebel. In these instances, Sartre seems to be setting himself against the sort of life that Camus advocated.

While Camus was also an existentialist, his brand of existential thinking was committed to non-violence and he was more critical of political causes than was Sartre. According to Camus, political revolutionaries have to settle on a final interpretation of the world in order to act. In so doing, they justify the killing of other human beings as means to their revolutionary political ends. But, claims Camus, this opens the door to the annihilation of the entire human race, since once a person is able to justify one death, there is nothing that stands in the way of justifying any death. That is why commitment to any revolutionary cause is undesirable; it encourages us to view fellow human beings as means to revolutionary ends, thus paving a slippery-slope that leads to atrocity.

Camus prefers the rebel’s stance to that of the revolutionary. The rebel refuses to settle with one, final interpretation of the world. Instead, he or she struggles with never-ending and on-going interpretation, remaining forever rebellious against the meaningless structure of reality. In his classic essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus likens his preferred way of life to the ancient Greek hero Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a steep hill and have it roll back down for an eternity. There is no ultimate purpose or cause that justifies this absurd state of affairs other than the individual’s willful decision to continue striving in defiance of the gods and of reality. In Sartre’s Age of Reason, one gets the sense that this is precisely the sort of position that has driven Mathieu to despair. He is exhausted with nihilism. He is sick of sitting up until “four in the morning,” arguing and debating endlessly, and getting nowhere. He wants to resolutely choose a life that will accomplish something. He wants to make a revolutionary change.

I identify with the character of Mathieu, but I also tend to have more sympathy with Camus’ take on rebellion than I do with Sartre’s desire for political, revolutionary action. I anticipate that in the remaining two books in Sartre’s trilogy, Mathieu will make some sort of resolute commitment, and that he will become a revolutionary. I, however, would like to see him continue to sit in cafes until four in the morning, philosophizing and struggling with nihilistic despair.