Without excuses

January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

The relativity of the world is entirely dependant on the freedom of its inhabitants. That sentence can be inverted to read: the freedom of the sublunary depends on their relativity to the world.

The entire body of Being & Nothingness (1943) makes difficult work of explicating this value. Jean-Paul Sartre complicates therein a passably simple phenomenology which had in fact existed in detailed documentation for well over a century. He is looked upon as the quintessential existentialist not because he birthed the school of thought, nor because he popularised such thinking; it was merely because it was the title he gave himself & lived out maximally. This can only be understood in all its weight by showing how in the stroke of naming oneself, one is performing the existential act. The point is one of self-determination where the act of naming is only the prelude of other actions (including re-namings, even if under the same title).

Much as we saw in the previous post, the act of transcribing creates requisite distances — nothingness, for Sartre, on account of the nothingness that comprises that distance. Of course, in order “to write” oneself, the nothingness must be accepted; & that “written” objective, if pursued truly & wholly, becomes the essence of one’s being. In Sartre’s own words:

Every human reality is a passion in that it projects losing itself so as to found being & by the same stroke to constitute the In-itself which escapes contingency by being its own foundation, the Ens causa sui, which religions call God. Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory & we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion. (Being & Nothingness 615)

Human reality is completely dependant on being forever pursued. “Whatever one may do, one never realizes anything but a limited work, like existence itself which tries to establish itself through that work and which death also limits” (de Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity 158). The finiteness is here critical, it is what ties us inevitably to the particular. It is also what halts us on our way to the infinite, making a contradiction of it. Like many of the works that belong here, Sartre’s is a conscious fragment; at the essay’s end, the reader finds a series of questions, the promise of a future work, & an eventual eventuation of an ethics in place of a conclusion. This story is one of starting over. Allow me to do the same.


The relativity of the world is entirely dependant on the freedom of its inhabitants. For the reason of protecting one’s ability to relate to the world, Sartre ardently defended human freedom. His variety of leftism, although he records (much later) difficulty reconciling with it, can be recognised already in this 1943 work. The idea of properly belonging to a political party was contemptible to him for it allows bad faith to develop all too easily. [Bad faith is the denial of one’s responsibility & a lie to oneself — an alibi in being, for Bakhtin. It is the mind’s attempts at making acceptable a world that cannot be understood. Religion is one of the finest examples of bad faith, but the indoctrination of all world-affirming thought belongs to it.]

In one form or another, it is always freedom that is either being defended or asserted by a party (or a side in war). To forfeit one’s definition of freedom to a particular ideology is to willingly sacrifice it: integrity in a soldier is a difficult thing to achieve — indeed, creating a belief in this integrity is precisely the work of politics.

The end of this is not the end of association with the political. In fact, Sartre seems to be better known today for his various political engagements. It must be kept in mind that these were constantly being evaluated & changed to the effect that it cannot be said that he ever belonged to any one party at any one time. True definition is passivity, & “there is reality only in the action; & more, man is nothing other than his own project & exists only in as far as he carries it out” (Sartre ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ 3). The major reality-creating action is that of pursuing oneself, as per above, for “it is by surpassing the world toward ourselves that we make it appear such as it is. We choose the world, not in its contexture as in-itself but in its meaning, by choosing ourselves” (Being & Nothingness 463).

This begins by choosing oneself free, first, which is to reject bad faith without falling into the assurance of that rejection. It is a constant struggle. “A man engages in his own life, draws his own portrait, there is nothing more” (‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ 4). It is from this point that the second humanism is born. It does not adorn humanity with glory, obsess with success, tower over the elements & animals. It looks at itself & by so doing must acknowledge & subdue the nothingness found there.


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