I have been reconnecting with my younger existentialist self. Joe and I attended a week of lectures put on by theUniversity of Melbourne’s School of Continental Philosophy from July 16 to 20, entitled A Show About Nothingness: Episodes From Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and ….

The two presenters, Dr Robert Boncardo and Steven Churchill were terrific. Robert presented Part 1 and Steven Part 2 each day during the two hour session. There were around twenty participants who were quite diverse: young and old, men and women. It was incredibly stimulating and I thoroughly recommend attending any future program.

In fact the whole class encouraged them to develop up other courses covering other aspects of Sartre’s work because as was pointed out in the last lecture, which looked at what came after Being and Nothingness, there is a virtual continent of work that could be explored. I would be particularly interested in one on Sartre and Camus which Steven told me he’d been thinking about.

The titles of the Lectures, which they call Episodes in the promotional material, give a feel for what we discussed – or perhaps you had to be there!

Episode 1, Part 1: Nausea, Roquentin and the Tree Root: Being-In-Itself

Episode 1, Part 2: A Broken-Down Car, A Cafe, Euclidean Geometry: Being-For-Itself

Episode 2, Part 1: The Woman, the Waiter, the Homosexual: Bad Faith

Episode 2, Part 2: The Mountain Climber and the Gambler: Time and Anxiety

Episode 3, Part 1: The Man in the Park, the Voyeur at the Keyhole, the Resistance Fighters: The Look

Episode 3, Part 2: Visiting the Doctor, Participating in an Experiment, Torturing, Loving: The Body

Episode 4, Part 1: The Mountain Climber (Reprise), Skiing, Riding a Bike: The Situation

Episode 4, Part 2: The War: Freedom and Responsibility

Episode 5, Part 1: Flaubert, Rowing and Giving up Smoking: Existential Psychoanalysis

Episode 5, Part 2: Being and Nothingness: The Sequels

We were given extracts from the book to read before each session, mostly examples of the concepts that we were discussing, and there were interesting powerpoint presentations throughout including lots of great pictures that also helped explain these very complicated ideas. We were able to access written lecture notes for all but the final session, as well as recordings of at least half of each session. So I’ve been able to continue immersing myself in these deeply philosophical questions ever since we finished the actual lectures.

I pulled out my old copy of Being and Nothingness to do the class reading. Here is my battered copy. The pink tabs mark the extracts we read for class. Robert was working off a later version of the same translation which runs to 800 pages while mine goes to around 600 so it was a bit tricky finding the right page. There has only ever been one translation into English which was done in 1958 by Hazel Barnes of the University of Colarado although a second one is in the works and likely to be published next year. My copy was a reprint from 1972.

It’s heavily underlined in bits; I was very taken with our relationship with others and with bad faith and with freedom. I was, of course, already a feminist. I took umbrage with the translator’s use of the feminine pronoun throughout the description of the caress (one of the examples which we covered in detail during the course) and changed them all back to the masculine!

However my Introduction is quite bare. This is what Robert took us through on the first day. I’ve since read it and can affirm it’s very dense! Thereafter we went to parts of the book that focussed on what Robert called the major landmarks in Sartre’s philosophical ideas. Both Robert and Steven assured us that after the Introduction the chapters are all very readable. I’m going to test that proposition over the next little while.

During the week we were attending the lectures I re-read Nausea which was quoted extensively on the first day. I recalled not liking it very much the first time around and couldn’t find my old copy, testament to that fact perhaps. So I bought a new one. It’s still a pretty grim read as the protagonist, Roquentin gradually removes himself from all of the usual trappings of a man in the world. But this time around I understood the philosophical ideas behind it which made the story make more sense. It’s all about discovering what it means to exist, what it means to be contingent; that is to have no meaning. What it means to be free. Sartre refutes Descarte’s famous dictum I think therefore I am. He says the correct formulation is I am.

I was impressed they had a copy of this very old book, written in 1938, first published in English in 1949, in the Readings pop up shop in Carlton. In a second hand bookshop looking for books by Sartre – I’m keen to find his biographies, in particular the one of Baudelaire – I was told by the owner that she always buy anything by him because they always sell. This despite there being no obvious campaign to bring him back into the public eye as feminists have done for de Beauvoir. I asked Steven whether Sartre was as much in fashion now as when I was at Uni, in the 1970′s. His view is that whilst there may be fewer people now studying him those that are understand his philosophy better. So perhaps there’s more of a focus on the serious philosophy – the Being-In-Itself and Being-For-Itself – as much as his ideas about freedom and bad faith that was in vogue in my time.

After Nausea I started re-reading the Trilogy, Roads To Freedom which I loved way back then. And I’m really enjoying it once more. It hasn’t aged a bit. The philosophical ideas here are much more transparent. All about freedom and bad faith. I’m only midway through the first volume, The Age of Reason, so I’ve got lots more pleasure in store. And I’m looking forward to re-reading Sartre’s autobiography Words, which I remember, maybe wrongly, as somewhat sad. And then there’s all Simone’s autobiographies and finally Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, which I bought ages ago but felt I needed to update my existentialist credentials before reading. Which I’ve now done. So much to read!!!

All the while I am going to continue to plough through Being And Nothingness, assisted by the lecture notes; and a newly purchased book of essays co-edited by Steven, Jean-Paul Sartre Key Concepts that takes an in depth look at all of Sartre’s philosophical ideas.

So I need to keep what I learned on the course front and centre. It’s handy having the lecture notes. But I also loved this, seemingly off the cuff, summary, given by Robert in our final session. I’ve transcribed this from the recording.

Summary of What We Have Learned
The basic structure of consciousness is as follows. Consciousness is divided against itself. It’s dual; it’s both consciousness of a transcendent object, consciousness of something that it is not, the disclosure of the being, the being-in-itself. And at the same time it is conscious of itself being conscious of that transcendent object or being. Insofar as consciousness is not identical to itself, its separated from itself by nothingness, a nothingness that comes from within, its own nothingness. It negates itself.

This fundamental non self-identity is really the condition of the possibility for anything; for the disclosure of the world, and for the existence of consciousness itself in its specific mode of existence. Insofar as consciousness is divided against itself and not an identity, one of its fundamental projects is to become identical to itself.

Consciousness sees that division as a failure; for example regarding the experience of sadness; for Sartre sadness is always consciousness of sadness. There is that minimal duality; its not just sadness; there’s a spectator looking at the sadness itself and that spectator is you, is consciousness. Within this division of sadness is the idea that there is a fuller sadness; a sadness that wouldn’t have to be a spectacle to itself giving rise to a suspicion that it’s all for show. It could become sadness in itself, a fulness, a self-identity.

There is a constant projection beyond consciousness as a divided being – as though that divided being is an accident – to one that could become a fulness, a self identity. What that means is that consciousness is ever tending out from itself; out into the world towards projects trying to become a full being. Insofar as consciousness is distended across time and space, a world comes into being. The categories of possibilities emerge from the fact that consciousness is thinking of itself as a relation to a totality that it is not yet but that which it will become. This is demonstrated in the example of a crescent moon. In terms of being-in-itself, without a human perspective, without consciousness, a crescent moon is not even a crescent moon because a crescent moon is defined against a full moon. There is a full totality (a full moon) that it has fallen short of. Only consciousness can reveal, or disclose the world in that way because that’s its mode of being; always looking for a totality that is not yet.

The conception of bad faith flows from this view of consciousness as this divided being. One is something. One has a past and a history and a body, and relations to others. But consciousness is always tending out beyond that. In relation to time, consciousness is always orienting to a future, to a non-being that consciousness is not yet. Consciousness can play off its ability to be either just what it is, or to identify with what it is not. Sartre says consciousness is a being such that it is what it is not, and is not what it is. Bad faith is the circumstantial, momentary highlighting of one side of that equation – either facticity or transcendence – and disavowing the other one, oscillating between the two to get out of some difficult circumstance. Sartre’s argument against Freud is that insofar as consciousness is the self divided against itself it, is it possible for us to be beings who can disavow things, try to ignore things or dissimulate the kinds of being we are. All with a view to hallucinating what we think we are but what we’re not. Bad faith.

The encounter with the other is a key point of departure for Sartre, who controversially insists that the other is not something that constitutes consciousness in its very being. We can’t say there is only a self insofar as the self is mediated through the other, with the other recognising me as a subjective being. This would be a Hegelian model. Sartre says you already have an acquaintance with yourself prior to, or at least without, the necessary mediation through some other. An apposite metaphor is the other is like a foreign plant that sprouts up in the garden that you have been attending to which is yourself. It is the encounter with the other that is essential – not the idea that the other is already a part of us.

This very specific conception of the other automatically leads to a form of alienation, a sense of conflict with the other. The basic mode of being for us with others oscillates between the two extremes of masochism and sadism. The other turns us into an object; so the very first thing it does is to betray the nature of our being as we experience our being ourselves. That’s because we are not an object to ourselves. We are this non self-identity stretched out across time and space. The other betrays our being. The other turns us into something else, at the same time, insofar as they are cut off from us, we don’t know quite what they are thinking. This makes us troubled by the other. For Sartre, the other is a problem, fundamentally a problem. All the positives aspects of our relationships with with others – as carers, as confidantes, as comrades, as people who can help us understand the world – all of those aspects of our relationship to the other are subsequent to an original division, an original conflict. These positive aspects of relations with the other are cultural achievements that occur despite this original relationship.

Masochism is the idea we are freely accepting ourselves solely as the object that the other constitutes us as a way to get around the fact that we are contingent. If the other makes you into an object you get the illusion for a time that you are not contingent; that you are constituted necessarily. You are effectively turning the other into your creator. The other side of that, when that attempt fails as it mostly does, the opposite perspective is sadism. Whereby the freedom of the other, the fact that you don’t quite know what they are constituting you as, as an object or setting traps for you, makes them a troubling presence. In order to overcome this problem you try to turn them into an object and try to get them to freely assent to giving up their facticity at the same time as you are pure freedom. There is a midway between these two extremes in Sartre’s example of the caress. This represents a mutual surrender to both of ones own, and the other’s, facticity. A beautiful way to describe the midway between those two points (masochism and sadism).

Sartre brings all of these aspects together in the the situation. The main argument here is freedom is not something that manifests in some situations as opposed to others. There is only the situation as a meaningful set of circumstances for you with projects, limits to those projects, goals you want to reach and obstacles that get in your way. But there is only a meaningful situation insofar as there is freedom. The world is disclosed to us as meaningful insofar as we are going beyond it already; towards a future goal, a non-being, that doesn’t yet exist that makes the world make sense. The mountain is given as there to be climbed or to be painted on my canvas. That means the world as it appears to me is always a world that is given meaning by the light that is shed onto it by the future project that I am currently pursuing. The idea of a future project, that non-being up ahead in front of us, gives rise to the question: where does the non-being come from? It comes from a being that is its own nothingness and to be a nothingness is to not be bound up by causality that exists in the world,. Therefore it is to be free. That’s the relationship between the situation and freedom.

Each of us has a very individual approach to our own situation. When making decisions the significance that certain kinds of forks in the road have to us can be traced back to decisions that we have made about our being. The cost to two different individuals who fall down by the side of the road as they make their way up the mountain is different. For an individual who has an alienated sense of his body, a sense of his body as a handicap, particularly as to physical exertion, falling down by the road is fine, because it confirms aspects of his project. For another person for whose body is the vehicle for him to get mastery over himself and over nature, falling down would cost much more.

Tracing that explanatory thread back, takes you back to fundamental decisions you have already made. Most of the time these key decisions about how you are going to orient yourself to yourself, to your contingency, are taken in the absolute obscurity and frantic ignorance of childhood. They include decisions about how you are going to relate to others; whether you are going to be in conflict with them or whether you are going to try to use them in an instrumental way to ground you. There is always a choice to make. There is no mechanical way that you have to respond to the upsurge of the other. There are different strategies you can use in responding to these problems. And what you are as a personality, as a person is some sort of congealed sense of the typical responses you have made to them.

And that’s where Being And Nothingness ends!!!

I’m looking forward to continuing to explore these fundamental questions about our Being-In-Itself, our Being-For-Others, our Being-In-The-World; what it all means!


2 Responses to Being and Nothingness

  1. Joe Burke says:

    A great overview Jenny. A wonderful week of philosophising with two accomplished guides. Very stimulating and provoking.

  2. [...] especially until after the course on Being And Nothingness I did last year. See my blog on that here. Sarah writes so clearly about all of the philosophical ideas encompassed in the word existential. [...]

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