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Theatrical Sartre

Act Two

Imagine that I am a man who eats his dinner daily and that I am in a restaurant, gazing at the menu. If I ask for something not on the carte, chances are I won’t get it, but I’ve no grounds for complaint since I could have gone to La Bête Noire where the bête à laine is always superb, as are each of the other bêtes; however I wanted the fine view of the square one has from Café cul de Sac, and all the girls. I feel the weight of custom, too: not to order soup as a side dish or begin with pie. Some of the entrees are too expensive for me; the chateaubriand is for two; I hate tongue; the last time I was here the stew gave off a pale gray taste like Auschwitz smoke, an experience I’d just as soon not repeat; a newspaper review has described the culotte de boeuf as a gourmet’s delight. All of these factors, in varying degrees, limit and condition my choices. I can decide to impress the waiter, pamper my ulcer, defy my childhood training, overcome my horror of beets, ignore religious taboos, or honor my vow to remain a vegetarian until my first poem is published.

Or I can choose as the kind of man I wish to become would choose, for no matter how loose or straitened my circumstances, there is always an alternative for my future self to select, so when I indicate to the waiter that I shall have escargots and salad with perhaps a half carafe of quiet white, I am arranging my meal as a part of a project (a series of acts with a unifying aim), as a dancer might diet or a weight lifter gorge on meat.

Since the act of ordering is itself a mere snip from a lengthy trajectory, it cannot possibly be the simple sum of my present limitations and my past conditioning, as the bourgeois would prefer to describe it, because my act would then be deprived of both freedom and purpose, and I should be relieved of any responsibility for it. But I do not fly south as blindly as the birds; I choose to be a person of a certain sort: saint or sinner, ruler or servant, philosopher or fool. I can justify my diet on the grounds that I want to be a dancer, but the final self I desire to be is simply chosen—I am free—and there is no rational way to justify picking one long-term project rather than another.

As for myself, well, I’m in training to be the ultimate gentleman, a man of supreme refinement like white sugar, and so I order escargots. I am engaged and mealtimes are a part of my situation; that is, all my surrounding circumstances are seen and weighed and evaluated in the light of my long-range plans. Not for me is life a meaningless scatter. The café gives me another opportunity to discriminate further among garlic butters. It is my projects which bring values into existence. They make my perceptions particular, and it is my particular perceptions which make me. Some projects are plainly less encompassing than others, hence the great advantage in choosing to be a novelist or philosopher: nothing now falls outside my situation.

I am the self I will be, in the mode of not being it,” Sartre explains, rather badly, in Being and Nothingness.11 The paradox of purpose to which he refers is best exemplified by Aristotle’s famous teleological proof for the existence of God. God is that condition of complete actuality or self-absorbed thought toward which the material world is continuously straining, but of course if this is so, as the proof claims, then God’s existence lies ahead, around some bend in Becoming, and all we have presently to consider divine are small as droplets, though one day they’ll be parts of a sacred sea: here or there the whistle of pure thought through a soul, this or that Russell-like mind brooding on the structures of argument and looking for interstices in demonstrations. “The decisive conduct will emanate from a self which I am not yet.”

Although modern biologists have washed purpose out of nature the way we scrub down walls, they have never denied what Aristotle had so carefully observed and documented: that among plants, animals, and men (if not among things), there were very predictable patterns of growth and development: that each growing season carrots pushed themselves like pegs into the ground, onions layered, the dogwood fought its way through the raining air; that flowers did not bloom before bursting into bud and then sow their petals like seeds, sometimes on sand, sometimes on snow, or the maples burn with colors hitherto unseen, and then, having lost their leaves, commence to grow; that human infants became men and women of much the same color and configuration as their parents on a rather regular basis, though with generally discouraging results.

Aristotle tried to explain these interesting but he thought innocuous phenomena by supposing that living things could be more than merely described (which is all Sartre seems ready to allow is possible for persons); they could be defined. There was a discoverable list of interrelated characteristics which earned any individual its place in a species, and Aristotle quite reasonably believed that some of these characteristics were developmental, so that the essence of a human infant included not only the baby it was but the adult it would become.

In a sentence with considerable Germanic presumption, Sartre tells us how he wants that relationship (of present to future self) understood:

Thus the self which I am depends on the self which I am not yet to the exact extent that the self which I am not yet does not depend on the self which I am. [Being and Nothingness]

To display the relation in other words: I shall love you only if you do not love me…an odd but not unheard of arrangement, one which exists so long as it is not symmetrical. But that is odd indeed, because the relationship constitutes and sustains itself. Fatherhood is asymmetrical too, but I am not the father of my children precisely to the extent that they are not a parent of mine.

My table in the restaurant seats me in the center of a real situation because the entire meal is eaten in a context of significant action, action which will in part alter the world and move me closer to the fulfillment of my project—the realization of a value. Sartre sometimes writes as if one’s project involved the wholesale rejection of the present, but this is clearly not so. One sometimes acts to slow change, or to employ the present the way one uses a library, reaffirming values while bringing about others.

In all this my essence is hardly my enemy, although Sartre acts as if essence were some dark blot on the family past which ought to be kept secret. In fact, Aristotle’s definition of man limits his behavior about as much as a mesh fence around the solar system, and the ends ascribed to any class are so general I should never think to mention them if someone were to question me, for the purposes of my species are rarely mine. I do not exist to breed, but from the point of view of biology what else am I fit for?

Camus’s Caligula chooses to be a tyrant, Macbeth chooses to become a murderer and usurper, I choose to become a connoisseur. In effect, to choose one’s destiny is to choose not to be free, even if Sartre would dislike this formulation. It is either to create a character and then to insist on acting within it (that’s the way I am and the way I intend to remain), or it is to set in motion causes whose consequences increasingly compress the future into a narrow channel, as one who robs or kidnaps quickly finds the rituals of chase and capture, courts and confinement, close around him like fingers in a fist.

To choose a destiny, however, as Sartre insists, is not to obtain one, because I must continuously will my future. I can have them clear the snails away and bring me franks and beans. You must call yourself a saint again tomorrow and suffer another nail. The intellectual’s position is both easier and more perilous than most because writing effects little (Sartre sometimes says),12 and is normally accompanied by fewer risks, while crimes and coups can box you in. At the same time, a blow struck today may require another be struck tomorrow. The violent man will always find public support for his conception of himself. But opinions do nothing but implant in others the expectation that their owner will continue to cherish them like children. In short, every free act imperils its own base by creating conditions that encourage its repetition, a trap which Sartre has so far managed to avoid. Yet if I am to carry out my project, what else can I do? The existentialist wants to will himself…no…the existentialist wills to want to will himself: choose to be such and such a sort”; but he hates it when others say of him: “Oh, he’s such and such a sort”; because he knows it is his will which daily denies the flesh, and my will which impels me from escargots to Dobosch Torte, whereas others see him as a fearful neurotic and myself as a gluttonous gourmet, a slave to the snobbery of my stomach.

Aristotle had argued that virtue ought to be a habit; that honesty was second nature to the honest man (who thus has, after all, a created essence), but Sartre prefers the Christian position: that virtue consists of a continuous self-conscious triumph over temptation; and it would appear that in order to prove that the temptation is there, it is periodically necessary to succumb to it. How will les autres know I’m free, if my behavior is consistent?

There is no such thing as an isolated freedom—any circumstance will contain the intersection of my projects with others—and the new religious theater of the folk which Sartre speaks about will give us agons—conflicts of right in the form of reenacted clashes of passion; because only by means of passion can we portray the whole man. In 1944 Sartre was saying that “anyone performing an act is convinced that he has a right to perform it.” In 1960 he is making this claim about the passions: “passion is a way of finding oneself in the right, of referring to a whole social world of claims and values to justify the fact that one wishes to keep, take, destroy, or construct something.” I happen to agree with Sartre that feelings are cognitions (though frequently faulty) and that values are fundamental ingredients of them, but Sartre draws a thick line between feelings and passions and rolls with characteristic unconcern over an entire series of faulty implications like a train over a bad track.

  1. 11

    What Sartre explains rather badly, Arthur Danto explains rather well. His contribution to the Modern Masters Series makes more sense of Sartre than is perhaps there. There are no doubt other Sartres, cloudier, more eclectic, but Professor Danto’s Sartre is legitimate and in my judgment preferable to the real one. If all we perceive are aspects of existence, then the aspects presented in Jean-Paul sartre (Viking Press, 1975) add up to a philosopher of some importance.

  2. 12

    After the war, we felt once more that books, articles, etc. could be of use. In fact they were of no use whatever. Then we came to feel—or at least I did—that books conceived and written without any specific relation to the immediate situation could be of long-term use. And these turned out to be just as useless, for the purpose of acting on people…” (“The Purposes of Writing” in Existentialism and Marxism). This was said in 1959. Notice how short Sartre’s long-term is. Already over. Unlike Stendhal, he does not regard his works as lottery tickets and count only on being reprinted in the next century.

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