Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is scheduled for release in September. The hardcover edition is available now for preorder from Edinburgh University Press, or in the US from Oxford University Press. You can use the code from the coupon below to get a $33 discount. The softcover edition will come out next year.
There is a contemporary turn taking place in attitudes about nihilism. Previous to the publication of my book Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism in 2003, it was unusual to find scholars arguing that nihilism is anything other than a bad thing. Traditionally, nihilism has been treated as a problem in need of a solution; something to be solved and “overcome.” Laughing at Nothing broke that mold, arguing for a humorous response to nihilism that involves the possibility of “nihilistic progress”: a vain, unending but positive aspiration toward superlative goals. At the time of its publication, Alena Dvorakova, writing in the British Journal of Aesthetics, criticized my position as one that was distinctively American; the implication being that Americans are somehow unique in their superficial optimism. Today, however, as attitudes have changed, it is no longer only superficial Americans who embrace and endorse nihilism. Nihilism has become an increasingly popular philosophy all over the world.
One of the recent British advocates of nihilism is James Tartaglia, whose book Philosophy in a Meaningless Life: A System of Nihilism, Consciousness and Reality, proposes a systematic account of how philosophy itself can be reinvigorated by embracing life’s meaninglessness. Argumentatively sophisticated, quirky, and often times very funny, Tartaglia’s book is a noteworthy addition to the growing body of literature that characterizes nihilism as something that may act as a stimulus to the active and ongoing pursuit of philosophical thought.
Tartaglia contends that the one issue uniting practical and theoretical branches of philosophy is the question of life’s meaning. It is, he writes, “the keystone of philosophy,” (p. 7) giving special ethical weight to issues that would otherwise be of mere speculative interest. This question, however, has come to be seen as something of an embarrassment in contemporary circles – especially in analytic philosophical debates where it has largely been dismissed as unscientific and associated with religion. When it is addressed, it is often treated as a social issue, involving the identification of particular goals or purposes that make particular human lives meaningful, rather than as a philosophical issue, addressing the ultimate purpose of human life in general. In his book, Tartaglia wants to refocus attention on the philosophical aspects of life’s meaning, and in so doing provide an unequivocal answer to the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer, he tells us, is found in nihilism. Life has no ultimate purpose or meaning. But, he insists, this is not such a bad thing.
Tartaglia’s version of nihilism is of a very particular sort. It is related to the ontological condition of enframement. As humans, we live in a world where we must do things and pursue goals, and so we are naturally concerned with determining what sorts of goals and purposes we should pursue in order to make our lives full, valuable and meaningful. The ideals we aspire toward – both individual and social – erect the framework within which any life operates. They mark out the boundaries within which we identify and strive toward the fulfillment of our projects. “Activities can have a purpose within life because of the context provided by the framework,” (p. 48) Tartaglia writes, claiming that meaningfulness itself is, by definition, a function of purposeful, goal directed behavior. You cannot have meaning without some sort of objective that gives context to your activities. If you take away the objective, meaning evaporates.
Nihilism, as Tartaglia conceives it, denies the existence of meaningful final objectives and purposes, and thus it undermines the idea that the projects within human life can themselves be ultimately meaningful in the grand scheme of things. In order for life to be ultimately meaningful, there would have to be some sort of framework of goals toward which all of our worldly life goals are directed and by which they are justified. However, that framework of goals would, in turn need to exist within some sort of larger framework in order for it to be meaningful, and in turn, that larger framework would also have to exist within a greater framework, and so on. It seems to follow, then, that either there is a final contextual framework that itself exists for no meaningful reason, or there is no final meaningful contextual framework at all. In either case, life within the grand scheme of things lacks ultimate purpose, and thus meaning, and there is no final answer to the question of why we pursue our chosen life projects. Reality, when regarded as a whole, ultimately makes no sense and has no justification. It is groundless:
As such, in contemplating the fact of existence, we come to see that the sense we make of our lives must be ultimately groundless, since our actions can hardly have a purpose in the grand scheme of things, if the grand scheme of things has no purpose and is consequently no ‘scheme’ at all. (p. 36)
This is the “truth” of nihilism, according to Tartaglia: “there is nothing that we ever have to do.” (p. 21). This “truth” has over the course of history spawned a variety of “misguided coping strategies” (p. 41) – including religious devotion and existentialism, humanism, relativism and postmodernism – all of which purport to overcome or solve the problem of meaninglessness through various psychological, social or devotional means. However, none of these approaches to life are legitimate according to Tartaglia because as reactions against nihilism they deny what he takes to be a simple fact about reality: human life is ultimately meaningless, and nothing can change that fact. Nihilism, in this way, is not something that can be overcome. It can only be ignored, denied or accepted.
Even if the “truth” of nihilism is accepted, according to Tartaglia, there are no real practical consequences following from it for how we should live our lives. This is why he considers the issue of nihilism, in a practical sense, “boring.” (p. 7) It has no implications other than potentially freeing non-nihilists from their false beliefs and commitments to illusory final aims . The awakened nihilist is free to do whatever he or she pleases, and there are no positive directives or particular rules of conduct that are entailed by its acceptance. Since nihilism was the truth all along, life goes on just as it always did once this truth is understood.
What I have summarized thus far comprises only one aspect of Tartaglia’s argument in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. To me, it is the most interesting part, although it does not occupy the majority of the book’s pages. The bulk of the work consists of another argument, loosely connected to the first, which defends philosophy as a tradition rooted in the question of the meaning of life and issues related to “transcendence.”
In Chapter 5, Tartaglia proposes “The Transcendent Hypothesis,” which he writes “is the key to the book” (p. 11). This hypothesis suggests that a world of time and space (what Tartaglia calls an “objective” world), is transcended when it is dependent upon another world that exists outside of that time and space. And further, if something outside of time and space exists, it cannot be studied by science, since science studies only the “objective” world within time and space.
Conscious experience, according to Tartaglia, transcends the objective world and thus itself is not part of the world of time and space. He makes heavy use of a dream analogy to establish his point. When we dream, our consciousness presents us with an objective world (a dream world) within which our own minds/brains themselves do not exist, but which depends upon our minds/brains for its objective existence. In this way, the dream world exists within consciousness, and thus consciousness transcends the dream world, exceeding the boundaries of dreamed time and space. This same relationship, Tartaglia suggests, may hold for all objective, time and space bound worlds (and not just dreams), and if it does, then this solves traditional metaphysical puzzles like the mind/body problem. If consciousness is always “outside” of the objective world of time and space, then it has no objective place within that world and so it would be spurious to try and explain causal interactions between physical objects and consciousness. Conscious experience would transcend the objective, physical world.
There are good reasons to believe this is true, according to Tartaglia. For one, to be conscious of an objective world, there must be a consciousness that is somehow orientated toward that world, rising above it in order to objectify and experience it. Experience itself, then, must exceed the objective world. Second, whether we are consciously introspecting on ourselves or perceiving things other than ourselves, experience itself is always direct (p. 120) and instantaneous, suggesting that raw, conscious experience is not bound by time or space. However, consciousness, in its operations, always necessarily processes and misrepresents experience in objective terms, since it is locked into the utilization of concepts like time, space and universals. In so doing, it creates an objective “picture of reality,” a representational falsification that “we cannot climb out..but we have no reason to want to.” (p. 121) And we should not want to climb out of our falsified picture of reality, according to Tartaglia because “we have no reason to think that the reality outside [consciousness] is any less meaningless than the reality within [consciousness].” (p. 121)
The general line of thought pursued here is very similar to what Kant argues in The Critique of Pure Reason; and even closer to what Schopenhauer argues in The World as Will and Representation (insofar as Tartaglia emphasizes the misrepresentation of reality as well as its ultimate meaninglessness). However, Tartaglia distances himself from Kant, claiming that whereas Kant “prioritizes the mind,” “the transcendent hypothesis prioritizes the objective world.” (p. 119) What he seems to mean is that for Kant representation is ultimately “mental,” while for Tartaglia, representation “need not be construed as mental.” (p. 119) So, in other words, Tartaglia is not committed to any particular claim about the fundamental nature of transcendent reality. It could be comprised of mind, matter, or something else. We can never know since it always transcends any sort of objective characterization.
Although religious thought attempts (illegitimately, according to Tartaglia) to address the nature of transcendent reality, Philosophy is the only discipline that rationally, systematically and thus legitimately concerns itself with transcendence. Since grand, philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life are perennial human concerns not adequately addressed by either science or religion, Tartaglia comes to the conclusion that philosophy must remain a uniquely important area of study. While it can offer no final answers, has no practical consequences for life, and promises to discover very little about the true nature of reality, humans should continue to use philosophy in order to feed a natural desire to explore the realm of transcendence in the only way possible.
This second aspect of Tartaglia’s argument is pursued over the course of five chapters that involve some very complicated (and sometimes confusing) digressions into analytic debates about the nature of consciousness, time, space, and universals. In the end his conclusions are, by his own admission, “completely lacking in consequence for nihilism,” (p. 121) which is a topic that is only returned to in the Conclusion. For me, this made it feel almost as if I was reading two separate books: one on nihilism and another on transcendence. Indeed, there is a sense in which these two aspects of Tartaglia’s bok clash with one another, for as he himself suggests, the second argument opens up the possibility that there is a transcendent realm of meaning, and if this is possible then “nihilism might not be true.” (p. 179) Tartaglia dismisses this as a mere “idle possibility,” akin to worrying “how long is a piece of string?” (p. 180) or whether Heidegger’s death was faked (p. 171). However, I think this is an evasion on his part. After all, Tartaglia writes in the Introduction that the question of life’s meaning is in fact among the most important of perennial philosophical questions. To conclude that it is possible life really does have meaning, but that such a possibility is not worth exploring, undermines one of the book’s main theses.
Nonetheless, I tend to agree with most of the particular conclusions that Tartaglia reaches in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life, the majority of which are convincingly and carefully reasoned. The complaints that I have are matters of style and emphasis. First of all, as already noted, although there is a loose connection between the two main arguments presented in the book, to me it seems as if the connection between them is too loose. I picked the book up because I thought it was a work on nihilism, but was a bit disappointed by the detour into transcendence and the heavy emphasis on contemporary analytic philosophy. While Tartaglia does engage with some of the classic continental (or as he puts it “post-Nietzschean”) philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre, he doesn’t engage with any of the contemporary continental thinkers who have recently written on the topic of nihilism. I was eager to read more about nihilism, and to see the author engage more deeply with the contemporary scholarship on the subject.
Second, while I agree with Tartaglia that philosophy is a uniquely important discipline, I also feel as if he has overemphasized the boundaries between philosophy, science and religion. His intent is to to draw hard and fast distinctions between these various approaches to understanding, claiming that they are all fundamentally distinct. Religion is superstitious and irrational. Science studies the objective world. Philosophy studies the world of transcendence. But all of this fails to account for the simple fact that there are such things as the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. Philosophy itself, I believe, is most important as a way of thought rather than as a body of knowledge. Philosophy encourages us to raise new questions and speculations, and in so doing, it overlaps with other disciplines, pushing them further and further in their attempts to articulate the Truth. I agree with Tartaglia that there is no final end to the issues that philosophy addresses and that this is not a bad thing since it encourages us to continue using reason to address our orientation toward the world and to take part in a tradition that has produced important art, literature and other cultural artefacts. However I disagree with his claim that philosophy has no effect on religion or on science. We philosophize about both religion and science – as well as art and other topics – in order to develop and hone our understanding of the issues they are concerned with. Without philosophical questioning and speculation, these disciplines would become stagnant.
Finally, while I, like Tartaglia, consider myself to be a nihilist, I am not as confident as he is in the “truth” of nihilism. While he treats nihilism as a mere description of reality, I think of nihilism as something more complicated. It is a philosophical orientation toward the world rather than a final conclusion that is reached through the powers of philosophy itself. Perhaps because he does not engage with the full history of the concept of nihilism, Tartaglia adopts what I think is a rather thin definition of the phenomenon. And while I agree that the issue of human meaning and purpose is an aspect of nihilism, it is not the whole issue. Metaphyisical/ontological nihilism is one kind, but there are also moral, political, epistemological, existential, aesthetic, religious and other forms of nihilism that don’t fit neatly into Tartaglia’s account. Perhaps a more detailed engagement with the history of, and the contemporary commentary on, nihilism (as noted in my first criticism) would help to give more texture and nuance to the first line of the book’s argumentative strategy.
There is a lot more that I could comment on, but that is just an indication of how thought provoking and stimulating a read Philosophy in a Meaningless Life really is. In this book I feel as if I have encountered a kindred spirit with whom I could productively debate the meaning of life for quite some time.
The 91st annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association was once again held in Seattle, Washington this year. I was invited to present a paper, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor, which met as a part of the conference.
My last visit to Seattle was also the first time I had ever been to the city. My wife and I had a great time, so we looked forward to seeing the place once again. Deciding to try something new this time around, instead of flying we travelled the 800 miles by car, with stops in Ashland and Portland. After the conference we drove back to the Bay Area in one day; a test of endurance that proved, due to torrential and blinding rain, to be the biggest challenge of the entire journey.
The quickest route from Marin County to Seattle is to get on Interstate Route 5, point the car north, and hit the accelerator while dodging 18 wheel big rigs and Highway Patrol speed traps. Route 5 through California is straight, long and mostly boring, cutting through farmland and rural towns up until you reach the area around Mt. Shasta, near the California/Oregon border. It is here that the road begins to get more interesting and curvy while the scenery becomes more awe-inspiring. As we climbed in elevation through the Cascades, we were treated to beautiful views of Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, and breathtaking vistas from the mountainous pass into Oregon.
Along the way through this region of California, we began to see signs proclaiming that we had entered the State of Jefferson; a proposed 51st US state. The push to carve this state out from Northern California and Southern Oregon dates all the way back to 1941, but recently there has been a renewed burst of enthusiasm, with the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors voting in 2013 for cessation from California. While much of the motivation behind the creation of Jefferson is rooted in the feeling that this area of California is more conservative – more “red” – than the rest of the state, there is, apparently, also an alternative, punk-inspired energy associated with the movement as well. On a recent visit to Yreka, the proposed capital of Jefferson, a friend of mine discovered a flyer authored by “Jefferson Crew,” a coalition that strives to foster a sense of community among small town punk scenes in the area:
Passing through Jefferson, we entered into Oregon and stopped for the night in Ashland. We had visited this destination many times before; both as a convenient stop while on motorcycle rides and as attendees at the town’s famous Shakespeare Festival. This time around we had dinner with a friend who had recently moved here with his wife and his new family. We had pints and mushroom burgers at the Standing Stone Brewing Company before turning in for the night and then continuing our quest.
A short, 300 mile northward jaunt took us to Portland, where we stayed the night at The Kennedy School, an elementary school, first opened in 1915, that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. The classrooms (complete with chalk boards) have been converted into rooms, the cafeteria into a restaurant, the offices into bars, and the gymnasium into a movie theatre. The school is located in the middle of a suburban area, and serves as a meeting place for locals, conference goers and travelers. Visitors wander the hallways, sipping beer and wine that has been made on the premises, browsing the restored decorations, antique equipment and old photos, or lounging in the soaking pool. That evening, after a salmon dinner, we went to see Rouge One at the movie theater, relaxing in one of the very comfortable couches that serve as audience seating. The seating was so comfortable, in fact, that I fell asleep halfway through the film.
The next day we set out on the final leg of our journey, arriving in Seattle after braving our way through a torrential downpour that made things downright terrifying. Visibility was only a few feet, and I spent much of this part of the drive keeping my eyes on the glowing red tail lights of the car in front of me, hoping that they didn’t drift off of the freeway while we played follow the leader. Happily, as the skies cleared, and as we saw signs for Sleater-Kinney Road, we knew that we were getting close to our destination.
The APA Conference was, once again, held at the Westin Hotel, in downtown Seattle. I’ve written in previous postings about how the character of the APA has changed over the years. It has evolved from an organization that was at one time mostly unwelcoming to non-analytic philosophers into one that now seems enthusiastically to embrace a wide range of continental and non-western perspectives. In addition to the session on humor and philosophy that I participated in, I attended a fascinating panel discussion that addressed Hegel’s response to nihilism, another panel on the positive aspects of negative emotions (like envy and disgust), and a really interesting symposium addressing inconsistencies in the arguments of Socrates as he is depicted in the early Platonic dialogues. Conversation was lively and people were friendly. I had the chance to meet and chat with an advisor of mine who I had not seen in many years, as well as discussing potential book projects with a commissioning editor from Palgrave Macmillan. This felt the way a conference ought to feel. We were able to mix with people of like interests, gaining exposure to new perspectives, and sharing ideas with others. The conference was certainly a success.
On our previous trip, we didn’t explore the downtown sections of Seattle too extensively, but this time we spent more time walking the streets and exploring various neighborhoods. One of the places we visited was Left Bank Books, an anarchist collective that sits on prime real estate, right in the middle of the tourist area at Pike Place Market. I love the fact that this radical, independent bookseller is nestled among overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops, sitting right down the street from the very first Starbucks cafe. It has an amazing selection of literature, ranging from poetry, to philosophy to history to fanzines. While there, I purchased a copy of Beating the Fascists and dropped off a couple of copies of my own book, The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel.
Afterwards, we walked up to Belltown, where I dropped off more copies of the novel at Singles Going Steady, an incredible punk rock record/DVD/memorabilia shop. I spent a while talking with the guy working the counter who, as it turns out, originally comes from my own home of Marin County. We reminisced about old times, sharing memories and swapping opinions about our favorite bands. Afterwards, across the street, my wife and I played videogames and pinball at Shortys, a hipster bar with lots of atmosphere, good pints and friendly staff. We also went shopping at Gr8Gear, an old-time, no nonsense army/navy surplus store where we were attended to by a very friendly Sikh man who helped us find the correct sized hats and pants while also recounting his adventures in the navy. We then wrapped things up by joining a street march and protest that was conveniently winding its way through the streets as we emerged from the store. While the protest was no “battle in Seattle,” it was, I think, an appropriate capstone to our visit.
I’m looking forward to seeing Seattle again. After this second visit, I feel as if I’m more familiar with the lay out of the city and the areas that I would like to return to for further exploration. The place feels friendly, and the culture is agreeable to my tastes. If they could just dial the rainfall back a notch and raise the temperature, I could even imagine living here.
The Existential Files is a fun and lively podcast hosted by doctors Louie Savva and Matthew Smith, two psychologists from the UK who conduct interviews and discuss issues ranging from positive psychology to the existence of God.
The podcasts can be found on iTunes, Sticher, Youtube, Cast Crunch or on The Existential Files website.
For a dose of refreshing despair and futility, you should also check out Louie Savva’s blog, Everything is Pointless.
Mathew Smith’s blog also features lots of interesting tidbits.
I’m a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s books. When I read his work, I feel as if I am being spoken to by someone from my own generation and background, someone who shares my view of the world and who has struggled with some of the same existential issues that still trouble me to this day. Fight Club, in particular, is a book in which I see myself mirrored. The nameless main character’s self-alienation, and his absurd struggle to come to terms with the contradictory impulses welling up within him are so accurately and honestly described that I feel spiritually naked in the book’s presence. Fight Club is a book that leaves almost nothing hidden, and the movie version conceals even less.
This is not to say that all of Palahniuk’s books are equally successful. Sometimes, as in Haunted, his storytelling feels haphazard to me, as if constructed out of bits and pieces that don’t fit organically and that are strung together with too little consideration for logical or thematic consistency. In the case of Haunted, the whole narrative seems like a pretense to collect together a series of short stories, uneven in quality (though the story “Guts” is brilliant!), that would otherwise have had no home. This is an approach that works better in Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories, but only because that book has no pretense toward being anything other than a collection of disparate tales. In this way it is more honest than Haunted.
And now there is Fight Club 2. Assembled out of a series of comics (Fight Club 2: #1- #10), this graphic novel reintroduces the characters from the original story, continuing the saga of the narrator’s struggle with his inner alter-ego, Tyler Durden. While I was hopeful and eager once again to find personal resonance with these characters, in Fight Club 2, there is a jagged, pieced together structure to the storytelling, reminiscent of Haunted, which unfortunately makes the work confusing and just too jumbled and chaotic for my tastes. Add to this Palahniuk’s insertion of himself into the narrative – as a commentator on the cultural mythos of Fight Club – and what results is something so self-consciously postmodern and filled with “in” jokes that it fails to succeed as a stand-alone work of literature. It is, as the UPC code on the back cover indicates, more of a “media tie-in” than an original and serious work of fiction.
In Fight Club 2, the nameless narrator from the first book now has a name: Sebastian. Following his original mental breakdown, Sebastian is now on antipsychotic medication and married to Marla Singer with whom he has had a son. Despite (or because of) his newfound “tranquility,” Sebastian remains self-alienated, angst-ridden and unhappy. His marriage is falling apart, his son is starting to exhibit some of the same anti-social tendencies as his father, and he feels as if he has sacrificed greatness for conformity and domesticity.
One of the clever twists in this story is Marla’s sexual dissatisfaction with Sebastian, which inspires her to replace his anti-psychotic medication with aspirin so that the repressed passion of Tyler Durden can once again make its appearance in the bedroom. The problem is that once unlocked, this passion cannot be safely tucked away again, and so the rest of the story chronicles the chaos and destruction that is unleashed as Tyler Durden takes over Sebastian’s personality. In a side story, Marla imagines herself to be part of some sort of military mission (searching, I think, for Sebastian and/or their son), conducted along with members of a Progeria Syndrome support group. This confusing thread seems intended to demonstrate, as one of the commentators within the story suggests, that Tyler Durden “is some sort of infectious mental virus,” (p. 188) passed from Sebastian to his son and to Marla. At this point in the novel, I started to lose track of the logic of the narrative.
It seems that Palahniuk also lost track, since increasingly as the book comes to an end, he inserts himself into the story, again and again, along with a group of wine drinking women, interrupting the narrative to discuss just what it is that is going on. They debate the direction the story should go, and Palahniuk confronts a mob of fans – passages from the original Fight Club tattooed on their bodies – who are upset with his handling of this sequel. Incongruously, the final chapter of Fight Club 2 – titled Fight Club Ending Redux: The End of the Original Novel, Revisited – departs from everything else that has so far transpired and instead retells the conclusion of the first novel, now depicted in comic book form.
I appreciate that in Fight Club 2 Palahniuk is reflecting on how odd it is to be the author of a story that has now become the source of a modern mythology. Fight Club (both the book and the movie) have grown bigger than the author himself. No doubt, there is a crushing sense of responsibility that goes along with trying to write a sequel to this kind of material, and there has to be a great deal of fear that anything he writes will more than likely disappoint many fans, all of whom have their own expectations of where the narrative should go and what should happen next. In trying to write a sequel to Fight Club, there is no way to please everybody.
And while I appreciate Palahniuk’s attempt to struggle with this fact, the problem for me is that his meditations and reflections in Fight Club 2 are not well integrated into the story itself. As one of the wine drinking women within the book suggests, all of these self-conscious breaks in the narrative are just “too Meta,” (p.89), dragging down the plot and distracting us from becoming immersed in the themes that made the original story so powerfully effective.
I 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)
To 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.
Information on Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now appearing on the Edinburgh University Press website. The publication date of the hardback edition is listed as September 2017.
In the US, Cinematic Nihilism will be distributed by Oxford University Press.
Exposing and illustrating how an ongoing engagement with nihilistic alienation may contribute to, rather than detract from, the value of life, Cinematic Nihilism both challenges and builds upon past scholarship that has scrutinised nihilism in the media, but which has generally over-emphasised its negative and destructive aspects. Through case studies of popular films, including Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, Dawn of the Deadand The Human Centipede, and with chapters on Scotland’s cinematic portrayal as both a site of ‘nihilistic sacrifice’ and as ‘nowhere in particular’, this book presents a necessary corrective, re-emphasising the constructive potential of cinematic nihilism and casting it as a phenomenon that need not be overcome.