“Those with closed minds who don’t want to examine their lives in order that they might grow are in everything, but rigor mortis, dead.”
So far when attempting to illustrate Gadamer’s ideas I have provided positive examples of what I believe him to mean. In this post, however, I’m going to do the opposite and provide a negative example. The literary example I have chosen exhibits the exact opposite of openness and it also demonstrates what happens when anticipation of meaning and one’s self-involved anxieties ride rough-shod over our lives. Although, in this case, ‘lives’ is not quite le mot juste.
In 1944, a year after he published his magnum opus Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play titled Huis Clos, which gets translated as either No Exit or In Camera, where In Camera refers to discussions that take place behind closed doors. The play depicts three new arrivals as they begin their stint in Hell. Joseph Garcin, a Rio journalist who ran a pacifist newspaper, arrives first, with the room’s valet, into the second empire inspired decor drawing room. The bourgeois infused room has the bare minimum of furniture, a mantelpiece with a heavy bronze ornament and a paper-knife on top, and three sofas of different colours. The only other items mentioned are the door, a bell-push and the absence of any looking glasses or mirrors.
Inez Serrano is the next to be brought to the room and she quickly displays a tetchy character that is quick to dismiss Garcin’s enquiry as to her name and also his request that they be “extremely courteous to each other” by stating tersely “I’m not polite.”1 She even describes his mouth as grotesque. Estelle Rigault is the last to be brought to the room. She is bundle of opinions regarding the “hideous”2 sofas that clash with her clothes. Inez interrupts Garcin’s attempt to introduce himself to Estelle by stepping in front of him and announcing her name and that she believes Estelle to be “very pretty” and that it is pity that they don’t have “some flowers to welcome”3 Estelle with.
Even at this early stage in the plays development the above vignettes already illustrate some of the difficulties that the three individuals will never surmount. Garcin’s yearning for courtesy sets the tone for his continually frustrated desire that some kind of peace might be achieved in his afterlife. Inez’s instant dislike/disgust with him acts to continually provoke her into chivvying him at every turn. Whilst Estelle, as the vapid love object with her narcissistic obsession, serves as the axis that the other two pivot around as they snip back and forwards in their poisonous triangle. At this stage, though, our awareness of Garcin’s character is missing the vital component that has infected his whole being and now serves to colour completely his whole aspect: the fact that he believes himself to be a coward.
The complexities of each of the characters are brought out in front of the others as the play progresses and as they relate their own personal journeys and reasons as to why they have ended up in Hell as opposed to any other alternative. Interestingly, Sartre never bothers to even mention the obvious alternative. The unveiling only really starts to take shape, though, once Inez has pronounced “each of us will act as torturer of the two others”4 and their collective attempt to bide their time in silence is obliterated by Inez’s three verse burst of a gallows song followed by Estelle’s pent up need to see herself resulting in her asking Garcin for a mirror. Garcin’s need for peace then pops the lid on Pandora’s box when he counters Inez’s resolute assertion that they each know each other already by stating:
“You’re wrong. So long as each of us hasn’t made a clean breast of it – why they’ve damned him or her – we know nothing. Nothing that counts. You, young lady, you shall begin. Why? Tell us why. If you are frank, if we bring our spectres into the open, it may save us from disaster. So – out with it! Why?”5
From that moment, the reasons for their incarceration unfold. Garcin, the deserter, neglected his wife utterly, whilst he obsessed over his pacifism being a cover for his cowardice. Inez’s self professed cruelty caused her cousin to kill himself as she won over his wife, Florence, to become her lover. Estelle killed her illegitimate baby, causing her lover to blow his brains out, so that her appearances and lifestyle could be kept up with her husband. Then with all their secrets revealed Inez, as is her character, caustically turns to Garcin, “Well, Mr Garcin, now you have us in the nude all right. Do you understand things any better for that?”6 Garcin, in his stead timidly responds “Yes, perhaps a little better. And now suppose we start trying to help each other?”7 To which Inez, never to let her character down, spits “I don’t need help”8 and the dye is cast because as she later points out:
“Human feeling. That’s beyond my range. I’m rotten to the core… It’s no use. I’m all dried up. I can’t give and I can’t receive. How could I help you? A dead twig, ready for the burning.”9
Their situation from that moment has attained its plateau from where there will be no change. Each knows the other’s darkest secrets and with Inez’s brutal honesty in the room there can be no hiding for Garcin and his cowardice or relief for Estelle in her desire to see herself. The tortures that each feared can now begin. Even the desperate attempt that Estelle and Garcin make to become lovers fails miserably when Inez reveals Estelle’s complete disinterest in Garcin’s fixation that he needs her faith in him to relieve the burden of his cowardice. If just one person could have faith in him, he might overcome his nightmare, is the line of thinking that he sets up for himself, with Estelle blithely agreeing, when Inez shoots down the love-fest with a spurt of shrill laughter and the damning insight of her manipulative understanding: “But she doesn’t mean a word of what she says. How can you be such a simpleton? ‘Estelle, am I a coward?’ As if she cared a damn either way.”10 Estelle’s response to Garcin then just fuels the ignition Inez holds aloft: “Anyhow, I’d love you just the same, even if you were a coward. Isn’t that enough?”11 Garcin, feeling cornered, erupts “You disgust me, both of you”12 as he walks towards the door in a futile attempt to exit the room.
So, with the torture in full swing we can begin to examine just how Sartre’s play operates as a dark mirror to Gadamer’s thoughts on communication. The start, arguably, takes place with Inez proclaiming that her life was “in perfect order” and that “it tidied itself up nicely of its own accord,”13 just before the failure of their pact to remain forever silent. By stating such, Inez declares her intent to refuse introspection and the possibility of any potential insight coming from within or without: hers is a signed off and published story never to be tampered with or adjusted. Her mandate that her life should have a tied ribbon and wax seal and placed across it bleeds into their afterlife as she attempts to avert Garcin’s urge for them each to tell all about their lives. When he asserts, “I want to know whom I have to deal with”, she reposts “You know already. There’s nothing more to learn.”14
The issue of proclaimed knowledge, Gadamer’s “anticipation of meaning,”15 gushes out further as each of the three characters try to come to terms with what their revelations have put into play. For Inez there is nothing new that anyone can tell her that she didn’t already know: “Yes, I know everything… I assure you I know everything and I can’t feel sorry even for myself… I’m in a trap myself, up to the neck, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”16 Hers is a fate that has been sealed and she alone can see the utter futility of anyone trying to change that fate as far as she is concerned. Her knowledge gives her certainty and closure on her life. For Garcin, though, their shared revelations and knowledge of each give hope “Look at me, we’re naked, naked right through and I can see into your heart… I’m dried up too. But for you I can still feel pity.”17 Estelle, is different and views the sharing of knowledge through the eyes of the others. As always she views herself from without as she is seen or thinks she is seen: “You know too much about me, you know I’m rotten through and through.”18
For each, their own personal understanding of the knowledge they have tried to communicate becomes a fixed insight that they individually possess and yet cannot get across meaningfully, or otherwise, to the others. Their proclaimed knowledge and understanding has become an impenetrable barrier that the others are unable to pierce. Their thoughts have become turgid and stuck. They are each locked within their solitary and disparate cycles of thinking that spin ever onwards in their own spheres never yielding to each other or altering their axis. The eternal churn has begun as they chew ever onwards no longer able to listen as they each bear the invisible mark on their minds stamped ‘Nothing new shall enter here’ or, dare I say, ‘To thine own self be true.’
We have to remember, of course, that Inez, Garcin and Estelle are painted as deceased characters by Sartre and therefore not capable of allowing their dead minds to be flexed and tinkered with by other people (assuming, of course, that we suspend our disbelief regarding Sartre the atheist writing about an afterlife). People who are dead aren’t able to have new experiences or think new thoughts, their brains are frozen forever with the last thought they had as they exhaled their last breath. And however difficult it is for Sartre, as an atheist to get his views across, what he does achieve is a counter position to all that Gadamer was trying to show and that we should encourage in ourselves: an openness of mind towards each other.
Fortunately, we are not dead, but here is the question. If we don’t allow ourselves to be open to each other are we as good as dead? Sticking to our original thoughts when conversing with others is a sign of a strong and resolute mind. However, it can also be the sign of a mind that has ceased to develop and grow. As we know there can be many reasons why an “anticipation of meaning” might override someone else’s viewpoints, such as nervousness, stress, fight or flight symptoms and also sexual, or other, desires. The task for Gadamer is for us to allow something to be said to us and for us to tarry with those words from the other just as he also encourages us to tarry with works of art, because if we listen we might be able to go beyond ourselves and allow ourselves to grow experientially. Growth, of course, cannot take place in a dying or dead mind. The hamster’s wheel of one’s stagnant thoughts does not allow growth as Inez, Estelle and Garcin are forced to come to terms with in their shared doom.
So, by examining the opposite of Gadamer’s recommendation as carefully crafted and depicted by Sartre in his claustrophobic atmosphere of Huis Clos, we can see all too clearly the literal dead-end that we might turn into if arrogance and bloody-mindedness are allowed seats at the table of evolutionary aids to survival. Just as we need to calm our instincts when they are not required we should also acknowledge that our own self-confidence can also be an obstacle to overcome if we are pursuing Gadamer’s lead and heading towards some form of personal growth and widening of our experience and understanding of ourselves. As Socrates stated, when facing his own likely death at the hands of his accusers and jury, the unexamined life is not worth living. An eventuality which, for Socrates, came all to swiftly due to his wisdom being at odds with the majority of the jury whom it seems did not want to examine their lives and were quite content in their little hamster wheels. As Inez shouts at the end of the play “Dead, dead, dead! Knives, poison, ropes – all useless.”19 Those with closed minds who don’t want to examine their lives in order that they might grow are in everything, but rigor mortis, dead.
But let’s not get too despondent because there is still hope for us if we listen to Gadamer and get wise to his wisdom.
- Sartre, J-P., ‘In Camera’ included within In Camera and Other Plays, 187.
- Ibid., 188.
- Ibid., 189.
- Ibid., 195.
- Ibid., 201.
- Ibid., 206.
- Ibid., 207.
- Ibid., 217.
- Ibid., 218.
- Ibid., 190.
- Ibid., 201.
- Gadamer, ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 101.
- Sartre, J-P., ‘In Camera’ included within In Camera and Other Plays, 208.
- Ibid., 209.
- Ibid., 223.