Monday, March 23, 2015

Currently Reading: Sartre, Existentialism, and Privilege


In the midst of the amount of reading I have to do for classes, I was able to finish up a book I'd been meaning to read for a while before the semester heated up to boiling:


As you may or may not already be aware (as per my news briefs from last week on literary derivatives and Camus), I really like the existentialists. And though my time with Sartre was slight in the past (I'd only read No Exit, in high school), I was pretty sure I liked him too. Then I read Nausea

It's not so much that I hate Sartre now, or that I thought Nausea was particularly bad—there were a lot of things I really liked throughout the book, actually—but I do very desperately want to hit him very hard on the back of the head. In high school, I suppose, I never picked up on things that were subtly problematic in books, but now that I'm here looking at Sartre again I can't help but ask him desperately to check his privilege. A privilege he is at least somewhat aware of when he says things like

He is going to tell me his troubles: now I remember he said something was wrong, in the library. I am all ears: I am only too glad to feel pity for other people's troubles, that will make a change. I have no troubles, I have money like a capitalist, no boss, no wife, no children; I exist, that's all. And that trouble is so vague, so metaphysical that I am ashamed of it.

But before I get too far into that, a brief overview of the book: One Antoine Roquentin is staying in the small town of Bouville as he writes a history book. While attempting to write it, he is struck by "the nausea," which culminates to be the realization of the reality of the world: the existential moment, more or less. He is a man who was once driven by success who ends up resigned to being driven by his sensations. Nothing here is so much a problem for me except that Antoine is a gigantic misanthrope ("Misanthropy also has its place in the concert: it is only a dissonance necessary to the harmony of the whole.") who, instead of just perceiving, judges all he sees as somewhat "stupid" atop of its insignificance. But I see the problem of privilege arise the most when he expresses his thoughts on freedom:

I am free: there is absolutely no more reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can't imagine any more of them. I am still fairly young, I still have enough strength to start again. But do I have to start again? How much, in the strongest of my terrors, my disgusts, I had counted on Anny to save me I realized only now. My past is dead. The Marquis de Rollebon is dead, Anny came back only to take all hope away. I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street. Alone and free. But this freedom is rather like death.

Freedom, in Sartre's head, is not something that people strive for, it is something we must accept: freedom is the sort of realization one is supposed to get when they realize they are without inhibition, because any and all inhibition is outside of the existential sphere of understanding through sensation. Which is a problem when the person telling you this is a wealthy straight white male who travels the world for fun: this freedom, as described, is attainable by those who don't have responsibilities they must work to meet, and live within the privileged sect of society that isn't held down by forces outside of their control. 

What I see as the problem here is that Sartre's philosophy is an intensely privileged one: you can tell anyone that they are necessarily free so long as they realize it, but if they're hungry this freedom won't permit them to conjure food and drink out of nothing. With this sort of realization, it became very hard for me to read this book without writing it off as a philosophical portrait of a midlife crisis. 

Which imposed a privileged little existential crisis in me, of course. Since I injected Camus into me in high school, existential thought has become, more or less, my default mode. I think there's a lot of beauty in that philosophy, and I wonder whether that beauty if overshadowed by its central players being old white dudes. The way it was formulated by Sartre, Camus, et al, is existentialism sexist (The Stranger and Nausea make a lot of use of the manic pixie dream girl trope; The Plague features a whole of one female character, who is a doting mother that sits quietly waiting for her son to come home), racist (The Stranger's main plot point is the killing of an unnamed Arab; Nausea's got a plot point about a pedophile described as "dark skinned"), or classist (All of these novels focus on upper-to-upper-middle-class people who seem to be afforded the luxury of existential crises by not having to work very hard to stay above water)? 

I don't really know the answers to these questions. Part of me might see how I could be misunderstanding Sartre, but I wonder if that accounts for Nausea's blatant misanthropy. More of me thinks I should read Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex for her thoughts on existential feminism, or Violet Leduc's The Prison of Her Skin. But this doesn't really solve the problems of race and class. The rest of me encourages writers currently dabbling is existentialism to do better. 

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