In the next section of The Age of Defeat, Wilson deals with what he calls, “the fallacy of insignificance.”1 Continuing in his examination of “the problem of the hero,”2 he begins to discuss Existentialism, for, he says, “its concepts provide the tools with which the whole problem can be dissected.”3
Now, the problem of the hero is that heroism has vanished from Western literature and culture. As we saw earlier, in America we have an other-directedness that extends so far outside ourselves that we seek significance in “extraordinary” people, who we refer to as geniuses. And this doesn’t necessarily entail intellectual prowess. An athlete, a rapper who creates the catchiest rhymes, or the shallowest Hollywood celebrity can qualify as an American genius. In fact, you don’t really hear much about American literary geniuses anymore. That role is now filled, in addition to the aforementioned, by fictional superheroes, athletes, and movie stars. This suffices for the das Man of American culture. It is more akin to a genius for the masses, those into whom they can project all their unconscious self-loathing.
Wilson claims that
Sartre’s existentialism could be called a philosophy of inner-direction. Its aim is to emphasise man’s freedom and to explain the workings of that freedom.4
Sartre believes in a special kind of freedom, however. There are no divine laws to obey, since Sartre denies there is a God. He has looked within himself and found total meaninglessness, which he refers to as nausea. It is an inner-directed, nihilistic freedom, of which Sartre believes is “authentic existence.” This is opposed to one who looks outside himself, which, to Sartre, is the grossest form of “inauthentic existence.”
According to Wilson, Sartre’s psychology, which he calls his “existential psychoanalysis,” is “his major contribution to contemporary thought,”5 Sartre’s major premise is that other people are the primary impediment to intense subjectivity. Wilson briefly describes Sartre’s play, Huis Clos, which translates as “No Exit.” The primary theme is “Hell is other people.”
The play is the story of three people who wake up in hell, which turns out to be a large drawing room. There are no torments. But the three people seem to have been carefully chosen to get on one another’s nerves. They are condemned to spend eternity in each other’s company, never sleeping, never even being allowed to close their eyes. It is torture by triviality and boredom. Hell is an eternity of triviality. (There are echoes of Shaw’s hell here.) One of the three is a man who enjoys meditation, but he will never be allowed to meditate, for he is in the company of a beautiful woman, who craves his attention, and a lesbian who is jealous of him. No general conclusions are stated, but they are clearly implied: man’s greatest moments are moments of intense ‘subjectivity’, self-certainty, concentration. His greatest enemy is pointlessness, lack of purpose. Other people are the main problem. (‘Increasingly, other people are the problem’, David Riesman wrote of the other-directed character.) A man who is robbed of his subjectivity has nothing left.6
This strikes me as odd, since Sartre was such an ardent proponent of Marxism until, of course, the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956. Up until this time, however, Socialism/Communism was akin to his second love. What I’m suggesting here is that, for a socialist, other people are one’s salvation, not their damnation.
Sartre’s statement, “Man knows his consciousness as a nothingness,” is also very curious. Wilson interprets this as meaning, “A man is very seldom aware of himself as a person; what he is mainly aware of, when he thinks of himself, is what other people think of him.”7
I have never liked Sartre’s work. What little I’ve read of him brings on dismal and depressive thoughts, something which I wrestle with, anyway. I don’t need that sort of reinforcement from dead philosophers. Wilson calls him “the dramatist of ‘insignificance.'”8 Sartre has no cure for the experiences of nothingness and insignificance. He speaks of “commitment, of the “need to choose, and, finally, of the working-class movement”9 as if they were remedies, but these ultimately fail the test.
Sartre was considered a popular lecturer in his day, mainly, because he roused his audiences to assert their freedom by “choosing,” but the fervor never endured.
It is reported that his audiences left the hall fired with determination to alter their lives, but that the enthusiasm never lasted long because Sartre had omitted to tell them what to ‘choose’, and they too had no idea. This pinpoints the weakness of Sartre’s existentialism.10
Wilson, Colin. The Age of Defeat. Aristeia, Kindle ed., London, 2018
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