52. And it Got to Come Out


“Let that boy boogie-woogie because it’s in him
and it got to come out.”1
John Lee Hooker

This will be the last post in this series…

About thirty years ago I heard a rumour that John Lee Hooker played along to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. At the time and still to this day this rumour captures my imagination. To be so in tune with one’s music that your heart beats in perfect time, whilst you play the guitar and sing, wow! Maybe, just maybe, it’s true, although I haven’t ever found any kind of mention, let alone proof, of this legendary event taking place. Whether it’s true or not, is in some ways beside the point because the fact of the matter is that one could believe such a thing of John Lee Hooker due to his immense musical integrity and depth of feeling. There are many thousands of other musicians where such an improbable rumour would never even stand a chance of sticking. When he played, people listened. The hypnotic groove that he was able to conjure out of thin air held everyone spellbound as if it welled up and was released from his very core. There is something very physical and yet entrancing about blues he played.


The ideas that Nietzsche stirred regarding becoming and exemplars, in the last post, could find their cultural incarnation in many individuals. In music one could easily look to Frederick Hibbert, better known as Toots (and the Maytals), Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie to name a few, if the criteria were musical achievement and genre defining hero/heroine status. There is a difference between them and John Lee Hooker, however. Yes, he achieved the same level of musical impact as the others and was undoubtedly in their league, but he did something more. John Lee Hooker, at all times, was his own person with a distinct style that remained instantly recognisable as he explored the full spectrum of darkly distilled acoustic country blues right through to the rocked up boogies with Canned Heat. And, it’s in this constancy, with its unique style of vocal delivery and guitar playing, that we find Hooker the artist. He had honed his craft to the point of mastery. In any given situation he was always John Lee Hooker the musician, but also John Lee Hooker the person. The two were inseparable. Unlike so many who find their voice and have to stay within the bounds of a limited number of songs, always performed identically, Hooker’s style was not two-dimensional, he could adapt, evolve, go with the flow and create the flow. This meant that at every required time, John Lee Hooker the musician would perform, but also John Lee Hooker the person was present to enjoy and push the uniqueness of that occasion. And, by being present as a real person, rather than just a musical personae acting out the role of performer, he was always, in Nietzsche’s phrase, becoming. And, that my friends, means that John Lee Hooker is also an excellent exemplar. To keep moving, to keep playing, to keep developing, to keep challenging and attempting new ideas whilst retaining one’s inner core is why John Lee Hooker is an exemplary figure because by doing all of that he was always in a state of becoming.


Now, completely ashamedly, I’m going to refer throughout the rest of this post to Charles Shaar Murray’s epic biography of John Lee Hooker, Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, because it gives the best insights available outside of listening directly to the music, which is obviously the ideal thing that one could possibly do. Early on, Murray sets forth a cornerstone of his thinking:

“The story of John Lee Hooker’s life is, essentially, the story of his resistance to any and all attempts to change him, to dilute an intrinsic sense of self which has successfully withstood all pressures, including those of institutionalized racism, family, church and the music business.”2

As Murray swiftly points out, the resistance was essentially passive due to Hooker’s character being “polite, deferential, quiet-spoken and accommodating.”3 Confrontation, aggression or manipulation, were never attitudes adopted by Hooker. He was internally strong enough and sure of himself to leave aside such tactics of engagement. Instead, a policy of self-determination that focused upon his abilities and conduct, rather than casting a steely eye at the behaviour of others, was always his approach. The company of others was always something to be enjoyed and was never regarded as grist to a mill of misanthropy and bitterness. Hooker was life affirming. Negativity, fear, suspicion, anger and regrets were left to others to occupy themselves with. While there was breath in his lungs and movement in his hands, Hooker was going to sing, play and live life to the full.


As Murray writes:

“His gift to us is not so much his music – monumental though that music is – but the sensibility that created that music, a sensibility which gives us the ultimate gift: a new way to see ourselves, and to experience ourselves. A new way to understand and, finally, to live with ourselves.”4

Born in 1917, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of ten children to Minnie Hooker and the Reverend William Hooker, John Lee grow up on the family farm, around one hundred acres large. Electricity and the telephone hadn’t arrived and life revolved around, farm, church and school. At church, as the son of a part-time preacher, John Lee had to sing from the age of nine or ten. A guitar entered his life around that time, due to the kindness of Tony Hollins who gave the young John Lee the instrument whilst courting took place of Alice, Hooker’s older sister. The Reverend Hooker took an instant dislike to his son’s guitar and only allowed him to keep it if it were never brought into the family home: “You can’t bring the Devil in this house.”5


From that moment, the young John Lee would practise and play his guitar in the woods, even when he was meant to be at school. For him, as Murray records, a choice had to be made between gaining a good education and staying in Mississippi with the prospect of being a farmer or becoming a musician. Illiteracy was chosen and the rest is history. The journey to that history, however, would be a constant affirmation of the choice to be a musician and continual hard work:

“I know I had the music. I know I had the talent. I know I was good. I knew it, but I knew I had to work up to find someone to open that door for me to come in.”6

A few years after getting his guitar, John Lee’s mother left her husband for Will Moore, a local share-cropper and guitar player. Whereas all his siblings chose to stay with their father, John Lee went with his mother, to be with the guitar playing Will Moore. This decision, at fourteen, meant that John Lee was living with a fellow musician who played alongside the blues greats, such as Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, whenever they visited Mississippi. Will Moore gave John Lee two very important gifts, a new guitar and he taught his stepson the boogie. Both were vital, but the latter was defining, as Hooker recounts:


“He is my roots because he is the man that caused me who I am today. I understudied under him, Will Moore. He made me what I am with his style. He give it to me, like you got a piece of bread and I ain’t got none, and he said, “Here’s a piece of my bread.” He gave me a piece of his music. What I’m doin’ today, that’s him.”7

Will Moore was John Lee Hooker’s musical exemplar, he showed him his way of playing the blues, and some fifteen or so years later, in 1948, he gave John Lee his first hit. Boogie Chillen was a colossal statement of intent that defied the traditional arrangement of most blues songs at the time. The eight or twelve bar blues chord progression was shunned for a pared down dedication to pure rhythm, which drives, like my legendary heartbeat rumour, from the start right through until the end. As Murray writes, “Its galvanic, hypnotic boogie groove was pure unreconstructed Will Moore.”8


Hooker acknowledged this debt completely:

“I got that from my stepdad… That was his tune, that was his beat. I never thought I would make nothin’ out of it, and he didn’t either. But I come out with it and it just happened.”9

Coming out with that tune after practising and honing his craft for over half his life, by the age of thirty-one, meant that John Lee Hooker knew exactly who he was, what he would sing about and how he would play right at the start of his public career. And, having studied and perfected his sound and style, for longer than most PhDs, before getting their first foot on the career ladder, meant he knew exactly what worked for him. Trials and errors, dead-ends and dry patches would have all been worked through in the preceding fifteen years. Confidence, stability and a solid foundation were all set by the time of that first break-through hit, Boogie Chillen. The next fifty years, in some ways could be said to be a footnote to where Hooker had got to musically by 1948.


Before moving on to discuss the merit or not in my footnote theory, there is a lyrical component to Boogie Chillen, which must be highlighted. The words, as with nearly all Hooker’s songs, are sparse, evocative, non-rhyming and biographical:

“One night I was layin’ down,
I heard mama, papa talkin’.
I heard papa tell mama
‘Let that boy boogie-woogie
Because it’s in him
And it got to come out’.
And I felt so good.
Went on boogyin’ just the same…
Boogie, chillen!”10

Unlike his actual father, who thought about guitar music as the Devil’s music, Hooker’s stepfather is forever inscribed into John Lee Hooker’s canon as being understanding of John Lee’s compulsion to play the boogie: “… it’s in him and it got to come out.” With its beguiling honesty, simplicity and accuracy this little statement, contained within Boogie Chiilen, is obviously how Hooker felt about himself and it is also the immortalised bearer of a debt back to Will Moore, but it is something else, too. It is the announcement, by one who knows, that we all have possibilities inside of us. Possibilities, which if fed, nourished and worked at can ‘come out’ and produce something unique, beautiful and exemplary.


The innocence of John Lee Hooker’s illiteracy and lyrical content is cast into a sharp relief of wisdom that few literate musicians, poets, and writers ever achieve. Maybe, it’s this self-understanding that drove Hooker and gave him the inner strength and confidence to perpetually allow himself the freedom to create anew every time he played any of his songs?

If everything beyond 1948 could be said to be a footnote, as far as John Lee Hooker’s music is concerned, what can never be reduced to such a status is the way he approached making that music. Aside from learning from Will Moore, Hooker cultivated his individual approach to the blues in an irrepressible fashion. Always shunning uniformity or copying others, Hooker walked his own road.

In 1959, Bill Grauer, of the Riverside label in New York, wanted to record Hooker playing an acoustic set of Leadbelly numbers. Hooker, it quickly transpired, had barely heard of Leadbelly, which to some might speak of a lack of respect for musical ‘forefather’, however, it speaks volumes in another direction. Rather than devote himself to studying the life and music of others forerunners, Hooker understood that his strength was not in the musical mimicry and recreation of past heroes, but rather in emulating their attitudes. As we saw in the last post from Nietzsche: “‘One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”11 Consequently, the Riverside album is John Lee playing acoustic versions of his own songs, not Leadbelly’s.


Back in 1947 or 1948, depending on which archive or oral history is adhered to, although it really doesn’t matter, John Lee Hooker began recording his first sessions. Bernard Besman had just established his label, Sensation, after the Second World War and was endeavouring to gain commercial success by recording artists and selling records. Before World War II, Besman had been in the music industry, making records, booking bands and was also from a musical family with a decent piano playing ability that paid his college fees. Jazz was Besman’s comfort zone, but keen to reap financial rewards where he could, he started to diversify with urbane blues musicians who rigidly followed the chord progressions of traditional blues arrangements. Hooker’s approach was not like this at all, as Murray notes:

“Hooker’s music, by contrast, played by rules so utterly different from the rhythm-and-blues norm that Besman didn’t recognize them as rules at all.”12

Sometimes ten, sometimes eleven, or even thirteen bar blues were delivered by Hooker depending on how he felt at the moment of playing: an issue, of course, for anyone accompanying him. For Besman this was a problem. Here was a talented musician, but one who refused to play by the rules, in this case the twelve bar blues rules. Hooker didn’t stop there, though, with his particular kind of anarchy.


Murray continues:

“For Hooker, no ‘song’ was ever actually completed, finished, engraved into marble, rendered definitive. Rather, it was different each time it was performed. Each piece was a platform for improvisation, a loose framework of lyrical and instrumental motifs into which he poured the emotions of the moment. Ask him to perform the same song a year later, a month later, a week later, a night later, an hour later, or even five minutes later, and the piece would have changed sometimes beyond recognition.”13

For Besman this was another problem, but fortunately he trusted the prospect of success and put out Hooker’s songs to the public. For us, though, there is a fantastic lesson. Hooker obviously prioritised the feelings of the song and tapped into the spirit of the tune each time he performed it rather than trotting it out ‘just one more time’. The lesson being, can we ever get ourselves to a pitch of ability and confidence, on any subject that we would like to excel at, to just let go and improvise right there and then? The risks are high, but the rewards equally so. When discussing this further and describing what he sees as Hooker’s shamanic-like qualities, Murray perceptively states:


“Such music creates joy and transcendence for some and unparalleled fear and loathing in others because it’s an utter affront to the basic tenets of Western rationalism: in others, it disengages the body from the mind and the intelligence from the intellect. It stops you thinking, and starts you feeling. It creates an irrational ecstasy.”14

Much can be said in this vein, however, I’m conscious that we need to finish our thoughts and more tightly bind to becoming.

In May 1970, at the age of fifty-three, Hooker teamed up with Canned Heat to deliver “the best”15 album of his early career, Hooker ‘n’ Heat. (The Healer, recorded in 1989 when well into his seventies, was actually the beginning of his financial success). A double album resulted of seventeen songs: six were solos of Hooker’s, a further six were ‘duets’ with Alan Wilson accompanying on a different instrument for each song, and the remaining five brought out the other members of Canned Heat to join with John Lee and Alan.


The album sees Hooker at the pinnacle of his ability and strength, with the Canned Heat crew accompanying to perfection, under the genius hand of Alan Wilson. The songs flow from depth and intensity to unrestrained energetic vitality, that thankfully everyone understood should not be contained within the standard three minute format. The resulting Peavine and Boogie Chillen No. 2 are five and eleven and a half minutes long respectively. In each, the groove is struck and mined with vigor, imagination and dedication. Hooker, with those half his age, delivered something completely unique in his career, but absolutely authentic. Musically, a pinnacle, but personally a testament to an attitude carved out across the whole fifty years of performing and recording that never shirked from giving absolutely everything to the moment and to the music being created in that moment.

A true exemplary figure. Thank you, Mr John Lee Hooker and thank you, dear readers.



  1. Hooker, J. L., Boogie Chillen.
  2. Murray, C. S., Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, 21.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 24-25.
  5. Ibid., 37.
  6. Ibid., 40.
  7. Ibid., 45.
  8. Ibid., 46.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Hooker, J. L., Boogie Chillen.
  11. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations, 136, and reproduced in Conant. J., Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 208.
  12. Murray, C. S., Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, 153.
  13. Ibid., 153-154.
  14. Ibid., 473.
  15. Ibid., 488.

51. Becoming


“Becoming who you are
is not something one is ever finished doing.”1

James Conant

It is not with sadness that we should begin this penultimate post, but with unbridled joy because, as we say a fond Adieu to Sartre, we can enthusiastically declare Guten Morgen, with a smile on our faces, to an old friend with whom we shall now converse. Friedrich Nietzsche will provide not just blazing insights and face-slapping provocation, but the perfect flag for us to merrily thrust into the mountain we have climbed since we began our journey, oh, so many moons ago. He will also ensure that we will continue mountaineering because, as we he will soon demonstrate, our travels should never end.


So, let us begin.

All the way through our posts the idea has been to elucidate thinking that can help us to be more ethical and to that task I think, arguably, we can also align Nietzsche, if we begin by looking at his work through the lens of moral perfectionism, as suggested by Thomas Hurka. Although, let me just state that Hurka, in my opinion misunderstands Nietzsche, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s see what Thomas has to say. In Perfectionism, Hurka examines the possibility of such a concept and in doing so defines two categories needed to comprehend this theory:

“I use ‘perfectionism’ (or ‘narrow perfectionism’) to refer to a moral theory based on human nature, and ‘broad perfectionism’ for the more inclusive view that values some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.”2

Hurka then goes on to state more explicitly that “to develop the best or most defensible perfectionism, we need, most fundamentally, the best concept of human nature.”3 Straight away, then, we can see that in order for a theory to be perfectionist it must give an account of human nature and this, I propose, is one of Nietzsche’s aims within On the Genealogy of Morality. In the first chapter of the preface he introduced and closed it’s lament with “We are unknown to ourselves… we are not ‘knowers’ when it comes to ourselves.”4


This, I take to be the point of departure for Nietzsche, to try and address the issue of ‘self-knowledge, or ‘human nature’, to place it within Hurka’s ‘narrow perfectionist’ framework.

However, in order to verify my claim for a pursuit of human nature within On the Genealogy of Morality, we must examine its methodology. Nietzsche quite clearly was not trying to trace human nature back to a starting point in a Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Michel Foucault confirms this in his examination of On the Genealogy of Morality, with reference to history: “only a metaphysician would seek its soul in the distant ideality of the origin.”5 Thus we have to ask ourselves ‘how is Nietzsche utilising human nature?’ A pointer is given by Foucault, because he reveals that Nietzsche focuses on how human nature has ‘descended’ to it’s current position through a genealogical analysis, which, as he puts it,

“Identifies the accidents, the minute derivations – or conversely, the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us.”6


My claim as regards Nietzsche’s project, then, is that his study of human nature is directly related to his study of the genealogy of morality in as much as the latter becomes the former, because tracing the twists and turns of morality also traces the ‘progress’, or decline, of our nature. However, I believe that it would be quite wrong to view Nietzsche as just a ‘narrow perfectionist’ and just a genealogist. Instead, the task should shift to Hurka’s other prong and the examination of Nietzsche in terms of ‘broad perfectionism’: a “development of capacities or some achievement of excellence”.

Sticking with On the Genealogy of Morality, David Owen can help as he rather neatly unpacks Nietzsche’s text into three key questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. How have we become what we are?
  3. Given what we are, what can we become?

Owen’s third question is where the standard, or simplistic, interpretation of Nietzsche arises, in that he is seen to  value “some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.” However, this ‘standard interpretation’ is not always one that shows Nietzsche in a positive light. John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, as pointed out by James Conant, has fears concerning that type of perfectionism because “it will ask the claims of justice to take a back seat to the claims of excellence.”7


Conant, after reading Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, comes to Nietzsche’s aid and retaliates against Rawls by introducing a new analysis of a passage from Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer as Educator. Rawls, Conant claims, significantly misinterprets the meaning of the passage due to a mistake in the translation. From this mistake, Rawls and his followers, such as Hurka, understand Nietzsche’s ‘model’ to have a teleological structure – “one which seeks to maximise those states of affairs which it deems desirable and evaluates moral principles primarily according to the degree to which they maximise optimally.”8 Or, to put it another way, let’s value those who demonstrate excellence more than those who don’t. This teleological and pernicious structure which, as we shall see, later Conant refutes leads Hurka into the position of accusing Nietzsche of “an excessively anti-egalitarian nature: ‘Nietzsche equates the aggregate excellence in a society with the excellence of its few best members, and wants social policy to maximise that’.”9

This misinterpretation, of course, symptomatically resonates with the manufactured misuse by Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister who caused severe problems after his death. However, the current misinterpretation stems from a passage in in the sixth section of Schopenhauer as Educator, where Nietzsche wrote:

“Mitunter ist es schwerer, eine Sache zuzugeben als sie einzusehen; und so gerade mag es den meisten ergehen, wenn sie den Satz uberlegen: ‘die Menschheit soll fortwahrend daran arbeiten, eizelne grosse Menschen zu erzeugen – und dies und nichts andre is ihre Aufgabe.’ … Denn die Frage lautet doch so: wie erhalt dein, des eilzenen Leben den hochsten Wert, die tiefste Bedeutung? … Gewiss nur dadurch, dass du zum Vorteile der seltensten und wertvollsten Exemplare lebst.”10 (Italics mine)


Which R. J. Hollingdale, in 1983, translated as the following:

“Sometimes it is harder to accede to a thing than it is to see its truth; and that is how most people may feel when they reflect on the proposition: ‘Mankind must work continually to produce individual great human beings – this and nothing else is the task.’ … For the question is this: how can your life, the individual life, retain the highest value, the deepest significance? …. Only by your living for the good of the rarest and most valuable specimens.11 (Italics mine)

Conant makes clear that this “is the only textual support adduced by [Rawls] for the claim that Nietzsche adheres to ‘the strong version of perfectionism.’”12 The ‘strong version of perfectionism’ is the teleological, or pernicious one. So, if Conant were to provide a close analysis of this passage and find a way to refute the claim of a teleological structure to Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism then Rawl’s objection and Hurka’s subsequent accusation of anti-egalitarianism could be dismissed as invalid. Conant does just this by analysing the word ‘Exemplare,’ which was translated by R. J. Hollingdale as ‘specimen’. By employing Kant’s ‘theory of genius’ from the Critique of Judgement (to find out how you’ll have to read Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of “Schopenhauer as Educator”), Conant lends weight to his preferred translation of ‘Exemplare’ to ‘exemplar’ and by so doing brings the focus of the passage to a purely individual basis:

“It becomes clear, that you, the reader, are asked to ask yourself a question. The question you should ask yourself is: how can your life, the individual life, attain the highest value and the deepest significance? That’s a question Nietzsche says you must ask yourself in solitude; and if you pursue it, you will find that your answer to that question will force upon you the notion of an exemplar.”13

Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.
Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.

So if we are to follow Conant, Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism now takes a new turn, in that it is not teleological, and consequentially pernicious, but rather it is individual, courtesy of a focus upon exemplarity. Conant next answers the obvious question of what, for Nietzsche, was an exemplar, by referring to Schopenhauer as Educator:

“I sensed that in him, Schopenhauer, I had discovered that educator and philosopher I had sought for so long… I strove… to see through the book and to imagine the living man…who promised to make his heirs only those who would and could be more than merely his readers.”14

By examining this quote we can see that Nietzsche was not interested hero-worship, instead there is a requirement to be more than merely a reader. This point is given as a personal example, but in Thus Spoke Zarathustra it is made universal: “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”15 So, it seems that an exemplar requires emulation, but not copying.

Socrates taught Plato who then taught Aristotle
Socrates taught Plato who then taught Aristotle

In Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator, Richard Schacht suggests “that in and by means of Zarathustra and Zarathustra, Nietzsche sought to provide posterity with something capable of performing the kind of ‘educating’ function he had discussed in [Schopenhauer as Educator], and considered Schopenhauer to have performed for him.”16 Such an ‘educating’ function is what Conant determined as ‘exemplariness’, or a way of showing how to attain our higher selves, which links Thus Spoke Zarathustra to On the Genealogy of Morality. Plus, If we take him at his word in Ecce Homo, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality are the ‘reasons why’ or denying parts of his work, whereas Thus Spoke Zarathustra was ‘how to’ or affirmative part.

Let’s regroup a little.

Courtesy of Hurka and Foucault we have seen that On the Genealogy of Morality tracks the descent of humans in terms of what they value. Conant then pulls Nietzsche from the brink of mistranslation and appropriation by revealing the concept of the exemplar and its individual application, as opposed to any socially teleological formation. Finally, Schacht helps position Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the literary manifestation of an exemplar. The point of all the proceeding, though, to be clear, is that we as individuals could, and therefore should, do better.


Conant, in referring back to Schopenhauer as Educator, however, doesn’t rest on his laurels because he recognises that there is more work to be done around such statements as the following:

“Let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: Be yourself! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring is not you yourself.”17

Conant realises that Nietzsche was not trying to distinguish between two selves: one that you are at the moment, and your ‘true’ self. Instead, what Nietzsche was hammering towards was something more along the lines of personal evolution:

“Becoming who you are is not something one is ever finished doing.”18

Thinking in this manner and drawing threads together leads Conant to the realisation that one can outgrow a particular exemplar and move on to another. This he suggests is what Nietzsche did in practice:

“Schopenhauer is a teacher of whom [Nietzsche] may boast because he is a teacher the author has outgrown… Emerson is an example that as the texture of [Schopenhauer as Educator] serves to reveal, continues to function as one of the author’s current exemplars.”19

Arthur Schopenhauer and Ralph Waldo Emerson
Arthur Schopenhauer and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Accepting that this is brilliant work by Conant, and also Nietzsche(!), there is, however, an unruly sticky patch to overcome. Whilst fully appreciating the point that one is a ‘work in progress’ as such and never becomes one’s self in a finite or teleological sense, and that we are in a constant state of becoming: outgrowing exemplars, and moving on to new ones; I believe that if we adopt this position of exemplarity there is a problem. The problem starts as we begin to search in order to attach our “heart to some great man,”20 as Nietzsche suggests.

As Conant explains, “your ‘higher self’, according to Nietzsche, comes into view only through your confrontation with what you trust and admire in an exemplary other.”21 Thus, we achieve our ‘higher self’ by attaching our heart, and placing our trust and admiration in the exemplar. Boiling down further, all three of these conditions for action come from our seeing particular qualities in the exemplar, and this is where I see the problem. Our seeing governs our trust, admiration, and potential for attaching our heart, and this can only be based on knowledge gained by ourselves, either directly or indirectly (for example, from others). Can this knowledge ever be sufficient for us to act and attach our hearts without regret that we might have missed a ‘truer’ potential exemplar? Or, stuck between a choice of two or more potential exemplars, assuming that we have done everything possible to ‘trade off’ differences and attributes and still not been able to come to a decision, how do we choose?


David Owen sees the potential for a moral dilemma in the latter situation but then advocates ‘moral luck’ as having to come into play, and suggests that as long as we do, indeed, act then we are on Nietzsche’s path to the higher self.22

However, does the fundamental problem not remain? That our basis for following Nietzsche’s moral perfectionist model is flawed because we have an uncertain foundation upon which to act: our knowledge alone. If we accept my reasoning that, ultimately, this is what attaching our hearts to reduces down to, then surely this is not sufficient? The door is left open to doubt and constant questioning of the chosen or potential exemplar.

To close the door, we need to take a step back and consider what I believe was Nietzsche’s original underlying master plan for On the Genealogy of Morality: to make us question those we feel drawn to, and not to accept as given the current or standard modes of practice for moral thinking. In this way, the actual fulfilment of having an exemplar is no longer necessary. It is not in the fulfilment of attaining an exemplar, but rather in the process of entertaining the idea of potential exemplars, and their inherent flaws, that leads us to a position of real ethical thinking.


Weighing up whether someone else could be our exemplar is quite possibly the best way of getting ourselves to think about ethics and working out just what is important in our lives and how we should lead them.

In writing this post, I am deeply indebted to one of my exemplars, Professor John Lippitt.


  1. Conant. J., Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 234.
  2. Hurka., T., Perfectionism, 4.
  3. Ibid., 9.
  4. Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morality, 3-4.
  5. Foucault, M. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ included in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by Donald .F. Bouchard, 145.
  6. Ibid., 146.
  7. Conant. J., Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 186.
  8. Ibid., 189.
  9. Ibid, 189-190, including a quote from Thomas Hurka in ‘Perfectionism’ in the Encyclopaedia of Ethics, Edited by L. C. Becker and C. B. Becker, 948.
  10. Ibid., 191.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 188.
  13. Ibid., 195.
  14. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations, 136, and reproduced in Conant. J., Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 208.
  15. Nietzsche. F., Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 103.
  16. Schacht, R. ‘Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator’, included  in Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, edited by P. R. Sedgwick, 223-224.
  17. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations, 127 and reproduced in Conant. J., Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 197.
  18. Conant. J., Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 234.
  19. Ibid., 233.
  20. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations, 163.
  21. Conant. J., Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 202-203.
  22. David Owen’s remarks are paraphrased and based upon questions raised after his paper on ‘Genealogy and Ethical Confidence’ given at Wall Hall, University of Hertfordshire on the 5th of November 1998.

50. O’Keeffe the Artist


“I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”1
Georgia O’Keeffe

Sartre’s invention of himself as a philosopher who based his thoughts and actions upon a belief in freedom rather than his philosophical training, in phenomenology and ontology, is a perfect example of his own idea that we are free to invent ourselves. To see ourselves as projects, to be able to sow, shape and steer according to our own ambitions, rather than dutifully following someone else’s indoctrination, is daunting, but also liberating and empowering. The endeavour of self is one that should be as unique as each and every one of us. To conform to a mould of prescribed behaviour and pattern for living betrays the infinite capacity that each of us has within our genetic code, abilities and potential interests. Why shouldn’t you enter a marathon, start a dog-grooming business, become an expert in survival techniques, or research particle physics? The beauty of being part of the human race is the infinite capacity for achievement, creativity and determination. All of which can give example to others, to contra the many regimes throughout history, and the present, that prevent such example by their desire for power and their insistence upon uniform thinking, dress, and activity from their comrades, civilians or congregation. To blast through, and embrace freedom, as put forth by Sartre, is liberating, but also essential if we as fully functioning members of society are not to contribute to the stagnation of that society.

Let us not forget that the ability to question, think freely and think for oneself as opposed to thinking what one is told is also ensconced in Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”2


More than this, though, should be the case.

Normally, one would argue that where there is a right, there, de facto, needs to be a duty held by someone or some organisation to uphold that that right. However, my thought on this, if we follow Sartre, is that then rather than seeing that we have a right to the freedom of opinion and expression and that someone else has the duty to protect it, we should see that we have the duty to achieve our freedom of opinion and expression and not to allow ourselves to become sheep in the hands of ‘shepherds’ who would dictate the acceptable opinions and forms expression. To think for ourselves, so the argument goes, is ethically essential. But, maybe I’m digressing too much into the area of the general and should be more specific?


In Some Memories of Drawings, first published in 1974, Doris Bry, a friend, dealer and curator of Georgia O’Keeffe’s, set the artist the task of recalling her break-through moment some fifty years previously:

“The first seven drawings are from a group that I made in 1915-16 when I had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language – charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolour, pastel and oil. The use of my materials wasn’t a problem for me. But what to say with them? I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”3

As a statement of artistic integrity, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. For us, though, there is an added bonus because O’Keeffe saw herself as a project, a project that had to be developed outside of the received and prescribed practice for how one should be an artist.

Violette de Mazia and Georgia O'Keeffe looking at Cezanne's The Card Players
Violette de Mazia and Georgia O’Keeffe looking at Cezanne’s The Card Players

Born in 1887, from Irish, Dutch and Hungarian stock that had found its way Midwest to farm in Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe was the second of seven children. Being the first daughter of five girls, she was the classic Victorian trailblazer for her female siblings. Led by a strong and determined mother who wanted all her children to be educated, piano, violin and drawing instruction was given to all the girls from a relatively early age; Georgia was eleven when the drawing classes were introduced. Ida Totto O’Keeffe also encouraged all her children to know their own minds and, as Roxana Robinson’s definitive biography, Georgia O’Keeffe, records, at the age of fourteen Ida’s eldest daughter announced: “I’m going to be an artist.”4 From then onwards, O’Keeffe continued education in art, first at the Sacred Heart convent school in Madison, where her parents paid the additional annual fee of twenty dollars for her “instruction in art,”5 then at the “big public high school”6 in Milwaukee, where at the age of fifteen she was “decidedly disparaging about the art teacher: a gaunt maiden lady, with an over-eager manner, who wore an anxious spray of violets on her hat.”7


In 1903, when Georgia was sixteen, the whole family moved one thousand miles back east to Williamsburg, Virginia, to try and escape the family curse of early death by tuberculosis. Georgia and the three elder sisters were enrolled at the Chatham Episcopal Institute and, although accustomed to rules set by her mother and the convent, Georgia found herself rebelling against Chatham’s charter for appropriate behaviour. She spoke differently, “I knew door was door. I knew it wasn’t doe,”8 and she dressed differently as noted by classmate, Christine McRae Cocke:

“She wore a tan coat suit, short, severe, and loose, into this room filled with girls with small waists and tight-fitting dresses bedecked with ruffles and bows.”9


McRae Cocke offers another interesting insight that highlights O’Keeffe’s sense of self and confidence:

“Nearly every girl in that study hall planned just how she was going to dress Georgia up, but her plans came to naught, for this strong-minded girl knew what suited her, and would not be changed.”10

At Chatham, despite the potential for otherwise, O’Keeffe flourished. As Robinson writes, she divided her time between studying the piano, violin and art, and even became the art editor of the yearbook in 1904. Her sense of purpose, articulated a few years earlier, was still fierce and present, as another friend, Anita Pollitzer records in an unpublished biography of O’Keeffe:

“I’m going to live a different life from the rest of you girls… I am going to give up everything for my art.”11


Her sense of purpose, enrolled her into the Art Institute of Chicago, where, even though finding herself “a very junior member of a large, illustrious group, in a formal, intimidating atmosphere… she was fifth in her class in December, seventh in January, and in February she was first.”12 In 1907, at the age of 20, O’Keeffe next went to study at the Art Students League in New York City, under William Merritt Chase, where Robinson notes individuality was encouraged as well as that the students “must make the world take them seriously.”13 Robinson draws out a particularly important realisation for O’Keeffe at this time, when she acquiesced and posed for an older student. The realisation being that by posing, and effectively being someone else’s “pet,”14 she wasn’t painting. Another point of self-understanding also occurred; when she went dancing she couldn’t paint for three days afterwards. Combined together, these discoveries concerning the effective use of time crystallised within her: “she could, dance, pose and be petted, or she could paint.”15 And, as Robinson continues, “the choice was not a difficult one. From then on, the essential question was always about painting.”16

The next few years did provide challenges, however, and after a period of being a commercial artist, to try and help her family financially, and even becoming despondent and ‘giving-up’ art altogether for a few months, O’Keeffe found resolve and entered Columbia’s Teachers College in 1914. This was the year after the all important Armory Show that had sent shockwaves across New York City with the highly visible new works of European modernism; works from artists that O’Keeffe had already admired at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery ‘291’.

291 Gallery
291 Gallery

Immersing herself in the world of art O’Keeffe read Wassily Kandinsky’s 1912 work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and honed her abilities to a “virtuoso”17 pitch in terms of technique, although, as Robinson remarks, content “had not yet declared itself in her work.”18 At the end of 1915, this was to change as she cut herself off from distractions and stayed in her room at Columbia over the Christmas holiday to begin “the laborious task of attempting to work purely from her own consciousness, seeking to eliminate everything from her work except herself.”19 These sessions produced the “Special”20 series recalled by O’Keeffe in the Doris Bry publication.

These works were wrapped in a bundle and sent to Chatham chum Anita Pollitzer who, at the time, was O’Keeffe’s artistic confidante. Pollitzer then did something unexpected. She showed O’Keeffe’s new works to Stieglitz at his ‘291’ gallery. His response, Pollitzer writes to O’Keeffe was as follows:

“They’re the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while… I wouldn’t mind showing them in one of these rooms one bit.”21

Special No.12 by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1916.
Special No.12 by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1916.

Later on Stieglitz wrote in his own hand to O’Keeffe:

“What am I to say? It is impossible to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings… I do want to tell you that they gave me much joy. They were a real surprise and above all I felt that they were a genuine expression of yourself.”22

The start of their relationship and life together (which only ended with his death) and her career as an artist began at this time. She also went to a small town called Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas to teach, but became enraptured by the wide open spaces: “Anita you have never seen SKY – it is wonderful.”23 Despite being buoyed up by her environment, and the feedback from Stieglitz and others, however, she managed to keep her feet firmly on the ground:

“I’ve never thought of myself as having a great gift… It isn’t just talent. You have to have someone else. You have to have a kind of nerve. It’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work.”24


On 3rd April, 1917, Stieglitz presented Gallery 291’s last exhibition before it closed due to the building on Fifth Avenue being scheduled for demolition, but it was the first solo exhibition by a woman: Recent work by Georgia O’Keeffe. The following year, as put forward by Robinson, “Happily and deliberately, Georgia cast in her lot with an impecunious and impetuous older man.”25 She had fallen in love with Stieglitz and moved in with him, when she was thirty and he was fifty-three. She was an emerging artist and he was the man who had legitimised photography as an art-form, promoted the careers of several household names across all forms of visual art, was published, a patron, a collector and well-respected champion of modern art. Consequently, it would have been all so easy to succumb to Stieglitz’s artistic authority and will. However, to her testament, O’Keeffe very much held own in their relationship and in her professional aspirations. She was her own person and her own artist. She and cared about her work and she, not anyone else, directed how it should be carried out and developed. How other people thought about her work was always secondary and to a great extent to be avoided wherever and whenever possible, no matter who they were:

“By now O’Keeffe was beyond intimidation or advice, even from so eminent a personage as Alfred Stieglitz. In a spirit of peaceful coexistence, she painted what she needed to paint and let people say about it what they needed to say. ‘If I stop to think of what others – authorities – would say… I’d not be able to do anything’.”26


Robinson continues:

“Distancing herself from critics and the public was a process that would become crucial for O’Keeffe, one increasingly integral to her character.”27

To become a project for oneself means not being the project/s that others, individually or collectively want us to be. This is Sartrean because it recognises the freedom we have to make ourselves ourselves and not to succumb meekly to what others try and make us. O’Keeffe wanted to be an artist and she knew that meant that only she could, and should, determine how to shape herself as an artist. The lessons learned throughout her formative years and the art-school training in Chicago and New Year had equipped her with the tools of her craft, but it was up to her to find her art and the artist within her. Being someone else’s project, puppet or pet was by now a dead-end and anathema to her. To be an artist meant that she alone could control the choices that needed to be made. Robinson, throughout her biography, explicitly understands this vital aspect to O’Keeffe:

“The artist must pursue a solitary and revisionist vision, maintaining her own interior silence. Once she listens to the voice of the public, the artist has lost her own.”28


For O’Keeffe, this sense of self-preservation and focus, so as not to become subsumed into the whims of others meant taking choices outside of societies norms, such as deciding to keep her surname when she and Stieglitz finally married in 1924, when she was thirty-seven. Her name was synonymous, of course, with her art, but to become Mrs Stiglitz, with everything that entailed from a feminist perspective, as to being placed immediately in a secondary role, was not at all how O’Keeffe regarded herself. Let alone the professional sleight and damage that could be wrought by changing her name just as she was becoming established in the art-world and to also be forever ‘Alfred Stieglitz’s wife’ rather than ‘Georgia O’Keeffe, artist’. Being one’s own project sometimes means making difficult choices and O’Keeffe knew this all to well. It also means that one has to be self-reliant in finding one’s own way. O’Keeffe displayed an almost intuitive awareness to this and demonstrated great integrity and understanding by actively shying away from bestowing advice to her sisters Catherine and Ida when they came to her with their own ambitions of following her footsteps and becoming artists; encouragement, yes, but direction, no. As far as O’Keeffe was concerned each artist, whether her, one of her sisters, or anyone else, has to find their own path and not be led astray by the ‘advice’ of others, no matter how well-intentioned. Perhaps the greatest way that O’Keeffe demonstrated her adherence to seriously taking such responsibility for herself in order to become the artist she wanted to be was in allowing herself to follow her desire and passion for the landscapes she discovered in Texas and then New Mexico.


From the 1920s onwards she periodically left the ‘city’ to immerse and nourish herself in the spaces that spoke to her. Not once in their time together did Alfred ever join her in these ever increasing sojourns that would keep them apart for months on end. Her love and need for the horizon, red earth and vast skies of the desert fed her artistic creativity and allowed her to fulfil her vision in a manner that never could have happened in New York City or by being part of a wider movement:

“She never became a member of other groups that formed around her: Precisionists, Regionalists, or Surrealists. Stieglitz always worked with groups and liked the idea of communal effort, but O’Keeffe felt that her work was a private endeavour. ‘Stieglitz liked the idea of a group,’ she said ‘I didn’t’.”29

O’Keeffe, the artist, was the project and quite obviously history has recorded the success that followed. As Robinson recognises, to become that artist though meant O’Keeffe had to be incredibly single-minded at times and walk a lonely path:

“In the subtle and continual conflict between work and the world, again and again Georgia chose work… Georgia took pleasure in her friends, enjoyed their company, and acknowledged some of the demands of society. Work, however, was an imperative. Solitude was the constant, society the deviation.”30



  1. O’Keeffe, G., Some Memories of Drawings, 1.
  2. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html
  3. O’Keeffe, G., Some Memories of Drawings, 1.
  4. Robinson, R., Georgia O’Keeffe, 30.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 32.
  7. Ibid., 32-33.
  8. Ibid., 42.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 46.
  12. Ibid., 51-52.
  13. Ibid., 59.
  14. Ibid., 61.
  15. Ibid., 62.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 108.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 127.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 129.
  22. Ibid., 131-132.
  23. Ibid., 161.
  24. Ibid., 166.
  25. Ibid., 220.
  26. Ibid., 223-224.
  27. Ibid., 242.
  28. Ibid., 256.
  29. Ibid., 369.
  30. Ibid., 447.

49. Project ‘I’


“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.”1
David A. Jopling

This is going to be our last outing with Sartre, plus we are approaching the end of our journey altogether. There will be just one final philosopher to briefly, all too briefly, consider before our ethical thirst has possibly been quenched.

At the start of our foray into Sartre’s thinking we learned how consciousness is based upon ontological precepts, and also that there is a difficulty in trying to get to ethics from ontology. We then grappled, in post 41, with the veil of nothingness and got directed, by the Parisian, to freedom, which, if we recall, was his special chosen term to describe the “buffer of nothingness”2 that appears when an object is held in question. He could have chosen contemplation, consideration or inspection, however freedom, evidently, was his goal and our first real clue regarding his ethical agenda. The clue being that the pathway from nothingness doesn’t solely, logically or even necessarily lead to freedom. Rather, Sartre seemed to pre-empt freedom and we, taking him on faith, followed him in the hope of being rewarded. The temporary reward in post 43 was to see, fleetingly, Sartre gesture towards freedom as an attitude of mind that one needs to adopt. However, maybe so as not to allow any questions as to quite why that is the case, he immediately plunged into a description of anguish, swiftly followed by bad faith and responsibility.


Anguish is an appropriate response when trying to accept that one’s freedom is based upon existence preceding essence, because there is a leap into the unknown and one has every right to feel scared. To be in bad faith, on the other hand, and believe that one has a pre-given essence or destiny is to be a coward or worse. There is a beautiful simplicity to Sartre’s internal logic within these thoughts as long as we allow him this space and don’t caught up in the lack of foundation. It’s true that ultimately, Sartre’s thinking rests thinly upon the rocks of his conviction regarding freedom as opposed to sound philosophical reasoning as performed in the good ol’ days of yore (which, as we all know, yielded to their own fallacies upon close inspection). However, if we allow him his head, from the moment of bringing forth freedom as an attitude of mind, Sartre starts to wind a very convincing and coherent set of lines around ethics. To place responsibility for our actions squarely upon our own shoulders is a bold and innovative stance, just as stating that the opposite positions of quietism, excuse making or fulfilling destiny are despicable. There is great power in his persuasion and it is hard to argue against without looking weak and coward-like.

Sartre’s next play is to revisit consciousness and give it another dimension within his thinking. This time, it becomes the plateau from where the decision to be responsible arrives. Consciousness precedes responsibility in Sartre’s world and, indeed, it governs so as to make us responsible. Of course, logic gets damned once more by Sartre because, consciousness doesn’t necessarily bring forth responsibility although, in an ideal world, it should. Casting logic aside, then, Sartre continues shaping the more positive side of his thinking and, when addressing the problem of existential identity, realises something quite wonderful. If we regard ourselves as possessing freedom then we are free to invent ourselves.


It seems that by forsaking his once cherished ontological and foundational precepts, Sartre cuts himself free to float loftily upwards where a greater perspective can be gained. Nothingness to freedom, and consciousness to responsibility, might not be necessarily so: it seems one can never go easily from ontology to ethics. However, there is a clearer view up here in Sartre’s balloon, than arguably can be seen from scrabbling around in ontology’s debris and dust.


So, let us continue onwards to our final Sartrean destination.

It seems that we are condemned to invent ourselves: there is nothing else we can do. However, as we have mentioned previously, we have to take moral responsibility for this ‘invention’ because there no blame can be apportioned elsewhere, if we are completely free to choose our invention.

Taking this further, by choosing a role, or inventing ourselves, we actually choose a project to undertake, and it’s this last piece of Sartre’s thinking that we now need to explore. David A. Jopling has the following to say about undertaking a project of our self:

“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves. The multifarious actions, desires, beliefs, and experiences our lives comprise must, in Sartre’s words, ‘derive their meaning from an original projection’ that we make of ourselves.”3


Digging deeper into the process and mechanics of how such a projection occurs, Jopling continues:

“The project is actively constructed, and not given or fixed. The numerous antecedent conditions that are ordinarily constructed as having a causal influence in the formation of our identity (such as genetic, environmental, and social factors) affect us not for what they are in themselves, but for what we make of them insofar as we project ourselves beyond them, confer meaning upon them, and construct from them a signifying situation.”4

That said, though by Jopling, these acts of invention, or projection, must be understood as ones that can at any time be rejected, or surpassed, by the ‘freely choosing’ being-for-itself. Such rejection or surpassing might well lead, of course, to anguish as we can not say whether our future self will at a later date reject or comply with such a decision. However, the point stands that just as once we had a project to direct all our energy towards being a palaeontologist when aged nine, the day might come when that project is set aside in favour of being, let’s say, a Lego designer.

Image courtesy of lego.tomleech.com
Image courtesy of lego.tomleech.com

Each of us, then, can be considered in some ways as an ongoing project, not fixed or determined but ever evolving and extending into the future.

At the risk of repeating what we have already seen in post 39, but for a different purpose, I want to look again at the limits of Sartre’s philosophical starting place, which he himself set out:

“Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives.”5

En route, we can acknowledge that Sartre’s ontological bind shows why Levinas started from scratch and not ontology or phenomenology, however let’s remember that Sartre also stated, in Being and Nothingness, that ontology “allows us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”6 Now, the reason for this re-fresh is the addition that Christina Howells brings to the table. Howells thinks that by peeking at ethics through ontology’s door Sartre is leading himself, and us, to a place where freedom acts like a value7. This is because Sartre’s whole philosophy, one could argue, steers towards the announcement of freedom as being the critical component of our lives. The game is given away, though, not by Howells in the first instance, but by Jean-Paul himself. In Existentialism and Humanism he actually declares, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake,”8 and by doing so declares that freedom is a value.


Now, hold on to your hats, because there is a deeper impact than one might at first suspect. From this honesty in Being and Nothingness, regarding his belief that ontology itself cannot form ethical precepts, I believe that the declaration in Existentialism and Humanism, of freedom being willed for freedom’s sake, represents a significant shift. The shift is that ontology has been abandoned to something more important and that something is what Sartre has developed from his thinking around freedom. In some ways the statement in Existentialism and Humanism casts off the shackles of his previous thinking and plonks freedom before his audience with defiance in his heart. He knows the move he is making is philosophically unjustified, but takes the spirited leap from ontology to morality anyway. And this is, ultimately, where we see Sartre taking his own medicine, as I will now explain.

Throughout Being and Nothingness, Sartre was trying to demonstrate his adherence to the current vogue of philosophical protocol as executed ‘on the continent’ as opposed to in America or Britain. Phenomenology and ontology were assiduously studied, advanced and pushed to their limits. The difficulty for Sartre was that he wanted to get beyond their limits, to ethics, but was shackled by the very discipline he sought to uphold. In his eyes his project was to be a philosopher in the grand continental tradition. However, this project he came to realise could not get him where he wanted. So, presumably cogitating upon his thoughts regarding freedom and bad faith, he stared, anguish ridden, at his life’s work and chose, with his ideas of freedom foremost in his mind, to begin afresh and start a new project for himself. The new Sartre project turned away from ‘Sartre – The Grand Philosopher’ and towards ‘Sartre – The Existential Freedom Fighter’, where freedom was to be at the heart of all his thinking and his actions. To authentically believe in freedom and that ‘man’ should invent ‘himself’ was for Sartre absolutely something he couldn’t just theorize, he had to embody it. So, that is what he did. He leapt from ontology with all its comfort, security and both feet planted firmly on the ground, to the giddy swirling currents of airborne existential freedom, with no parachute attached.


The leap of faith to freedom, with all its multi-faceted dimensions and internal coherence, is nonetheless still a leap. However, it is also a testament to Sartre’s belief in himself that he had discovered something valuable and intrinsically more worthwhile than following traditional agendas. To write and conceptualise is one thing, but to take your own medicine and in this case tear up the rulebook because you have discovered something you believe is better, is the stuff of great anguish. Sartre could easily have knuckled under and kept on plodding and poking around ontology and phenomenology and given himself a very easy life studying and tutoring the continental philosophical canon as it had come to be. To reject the ease and comfort and embark upon an untested new project with only one’s self-belief to keep one warm at night shows great courage and integrity. Now, hats off to Jean-Paul!


Another way of looking at this shift is suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue. MacIntyre reasons that a morality based on ‘what man is like,’ or an ontology as we understand it, needs a metaphysical bridge to get from that ontology to the morality. The metaphysical element needs to be a form of teleology according to MacIntyre. Interestingly, Sartre also recognised this from the get-go at the very start of his Notebooks for an Ethics:

“So long as one believes in God [as a form of teleology] one has the right to do the good in order to be moral. Morality becomes a certain mode of ontological being, even something metaphysical in that we have to attain it.”9

So, the problem for Sartre, it could be argued, was to find a replacement metaphysical teleology for that of God, or another way to base morality other than upon ‘what man is like.’ Personally, I think he did this in his conceptualization of what freedom meant because as he said in Existentialism and Humanism, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. This is not a replacement metaphysical teleology but it is another way to base morality. Plus, as is suggested by the title of the lecture, it is not reliant upon metaphysics and therefore becomes a form of Humanism. Sartre did waver, though. Anthony Manser spots the wavering in Sartre’s monumental study Saint Genet where he wrote: “I am… deeply convinced that morality as such [non­ Christian/religious] is both impossible and necessary.”10 If we can forego his wavering in Saint Genet, what we find in Existentialism and Humanism is a handcrafted piece of thinking that starts philosophy afresh and builds a whole approach for how to live that one doesn’t find anywhere else in the traditional canon. Of course, there are resonances and slight borrowings from previous thinkers. However, the system that Sartre builds with all its varying components is unique, just like a Louise Nevelson work. Plus, it is a form of Humanist thinking.

Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982
Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982

Where traditional philosophies crack under the burden of bridging from ontology to morality via the required invocation of a metaphysical element and as a consequence bring forth a conception of God, Sartre resists. Better yet, Sartre invents. And what he invents is that we are each the controllers of our own selves, because we are free. Sartre rejects metaphysical notions of God, religion and the afterlife and he brings his ideas squarely into our day-to-day lives. There is no need for metaphysics in any of its forms because he gives freedom its own space and stature by stating, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. So, freedom does becomes a value to uphold in its own right, in Sartre’s hands.

By the introduction of freedom in this manner, Sartre cleared the decks and swept out the turgid thinking of centuries, of not only philosophy, but also religion. In turn, this clearing brought forth the idea that each of us should become our own project. And, as Jopling states: “We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.” Out of all the activities, pursuits, service and projects we can concoct and submit ourselves to, Sartre stands proud and declares that one project above all others should be prioritised and that I call “Project ‘I’”. It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s everybody’s. We each have our own Project ‘I’ and we are each free to cast ourselves into the future.


Hence we near the completion of our Sartrean sojourn. He has given us a thorough, and incredibly complex, explanation of what he means by ‘man is free’. However, should we believe we have freedom, responsibility, ourselves as projects and take arms against bad faith? Or, should we argue that Sartre’s ethics is commits some sort of fallacy and is thereby unfounded and ultimately redundant? Personally, as I hope to have made clear, I feel there is much to learn from Sartre. However, maybe, if my argument has not been strong enough to convince you and you still hold that he was misguided in trying to derive ethics from ontological principles, the following can be said. One mustn’t forget that myths, sci-fi and fantasy provide examples of how to live if we suspend disbelief as to their originating premises. And, whilst they might not be held in high esteem when compared to the exalted heights of traditional philosophical thinking, they do emit, sometimes incredibly powerfully, tangible examples of how we should live and how we can be ethical. Not all learning about ethics comes solely from the font of the preserved tradition. I think Sartre’s didn’t and I certainly think yours shouldn’t.


  1. Jopling, D. A., ‘Sartre’s Moral Psychology’ reproduced in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, edited by Christina Howells, 111.
  2. Caws, P., Sartre, 70.
  3. Jopling, D. A., ‘Sartre’s Moral Psychology’ reproduced in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, edited by Christina Howells, 111.
  4. Ibid., 113.
  5. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 625.
  6. Ibid. 625-626.
  7. See Howells, C., Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, 25.
  8. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 51.
  9. Sartre, J-P., Notebooks For An Ethics, 3.
  10. Manser, A., Sartre: A Philosophic Study, 138.

48. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists


“Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.”

We left the last post with freedom, responsibility and authenticity in our minds. We also had Sartre walking around the edge of ethics rather than leading step-by-step from a secure foundation through to a logical conclusion. So, in keeping with this spirit, and also the one that guides this series of posts, it makes sense to look for our cultural mirror in a work that has always been at the furthest edge of the canon but, by being there, has helped give shape and definition to that canon. The edge position occupied by The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is most readily understood due to the overtly political nature of its text. However, underneath there is also philosophical nature given form by one of the main protagonists, Frank Owen, who exemplifies in his words and deeds much of what Sartre shows us concerning responsibility and authenticity.


Robert Tressell’s novel begins with twenty-five “carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers”1 working to renovate the new home of a local dignity in the fictional southern town of Mugsborough. The story is set at the turn of the twentieth century and is based very much upon Tressell’s own experiences. Frank Owen is quickly picked out amongst the throng when a discussion emerges concerning “fissical policy”2 and politics. Owen immediately confronts, and seemingly sets himself above, his colleagues:

“Does the fact that you never ‘trouble your heads about politics’ prevent you from voting at election times?”3

We learn, as the text progresses, that Owen in contradistinction has taken the time and is very well apprised of politics. Tressell sides with Owen and writes a damning account of the other workers’ ignorance and how their minds are brainwashed by the media. Sociologically, Tressell’s account is remarkable in his concise assessment as it is also, apparently, timeless:

“None of them really understood the subject: not one of them had ever devoted fifteen consecutive minutes to the earnest investigation of it. The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous numbers of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners… The country was in a hell of a state, poverty, hunger and misery in a hundred forms had already invaded thousands of homes and stood upon the thresholds of thousands more. How came these things to be? It was the bloody foreigner!”4


This is Owen’s base layer, to which he decides to tackle and find some way to correct. Discussions ensue throughout the work on the house in the break-times, no talking being allowed during work except when relevant to the job in hand. The first topic of conversation is the cause of poverty, to which the others ascribe all manner of red herrings. Over-population, drink, laziness, machinery, women, education, and early marriages were all trotted out causing Owen to reflect “Were they all hopelessly stupid? Had their intelligence never developed beyond the childhood stage? Or was he himself mad?”5 Taking a different route, Owen decides to define his understanding of poverty:

“What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”6

The response to this list of outrageous requirements reveals one of Tressell’s fundamental tenets: the blind acceptance of a social hierarchy by those near or at the bottom:

“Everybody laughed. It was ridiculous. The idea of the likes of them wanting or having such things.”7


Owen’s response is to try and show his fellow workers that they should see themselves as equal to their ‘betters’: “We do our full share of the work, therefore we should have a full share of the things that are made by work.”8 Silence ensues as the others try to grapple with this novel idea and Owen takes the opportunity to push their minds further:

“As things are now, instead of enjoying the advantages of civilisation we are really worse off than slaves, for if we were slaves our owners in their own interest would see to it that we always had food…”9

At which point, he gets cut short. However, maybe there’s advantage in that for us to also interject and remind ourselves that Owen was right. Before the advent of the Welfare State, unions that had to be listened to and various pieces of legislation designed to protect individuals, life was incredibly perilous for most employees. The threat of being laid off and without an income to provide for food, clothing, warmth and shelter loomed around every corner, especially when work was of a piecemeal nature. And, it was to this status quo, which his peers all seemed to sign up to without question, that Owen applies himself throughout the book as he tries to teach them that life could be otherwise if only they could allow themselves to think differently. In his quest, though, Owen finds his views are shot down and thwarted by all those around and he expresses frustration to Nora, his wife:

“And yet, all their lives they have supported and defended the system that robbed them, and have resisted and ridiculed every proposal to alter it. It’s wrong to feel sorry for such people; they deserve to suffer.”10


Worse than this, though, Owen thinks about putting his small family, including his young son, Frankie, out of their own particular misery when he reads in the newspaper of a “Terrible Domestic Tragedy”11 committed by a man, whose home was devoid of furniture, food or any sign of hope, who took the lives of each member of his family before taking his own.

Owen, however, holds the dark thoughts about his fellow sufferers and his own personal condition at bay and at times seems to keep going just to spite and argue with his colleagues. When Bob Crass states, “Machinery is the real cause of poverty,”12 Owen, one feels, is almost compelled to point out his wrongheadedness:

“Machinery is undoubtedly the cause of unemployment, but it’s not the cause of poverty: that’s another matter altogether… Poverty consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, those people are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery, which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance, is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me that there must be something the matter with your minds.”13


As the day-to-day drudgery of their work continues, Owen stance shifts and he takes less of a confrontational position that begins to show in his choice of pronouns. ‘We’ and ‘us’ replace ‘they’ and ‘your’ as he aligns himself with his peers rather than distancing himself from them. Talking to Will Easton, whilst they are both in the same room painting, an ‘illegal’ undertaking in their foreman’s eyes, Owen asks:

“Do you think it’s right for us to tamely make up our minds to live for the rest of our lives under such conditions…?”14

Easton’s reply misses the point as he believes that “trade hasn’t always been as bad as it is now.”15 Going further off-track, Easton recalls when they could work fourteen and sixteen hours a day, as if that would solve their problems. Owen, rather than adopting his previous ‘take no prisoners’ approach, tries to open Easton’s mind:

“But don’t you think it’s worth while trying to find out whether it’s possible to so arrange things that we be able to live like civilised human beings without being alternately worked to death or starved?”16


At this moment Owen, as well as moving beyond confrontation, starts to see his fellow workers as people who could conceivably change their thinking if encouraged and shown how. And with this new vision from Owen, perhaps we can start to see a glimmer of responsibility for those he worked with coming to the fore?

Steadily, Owen begins a process of attempting to talk to his colleagues during their breaks, in a way that they can understand. He is heckled and argued with along the way, but continues the next day if shouted down on the previous. Progress is made apparent by Tressell, when we witness Easton talking with Joe Philpot and Fred Harlow:

“’There’s no doubt Owen knows ‘is work,’ remarked Easton, although ‘e is a bit orf is onion about Socialism.’
‘I don’t know so much about that, mate,’ returned Philpot. ‘I agree with a lot that ‘e ses. I’ve often thought the same things meself, but I can’t talk like ‘im, cause I ain’t got no ‘ead for it.’
‘I agree with some of it too,’ said Harlow with a laugh, ‘but all the same ‘e does say some bloody silly things, you must admit.’”17


Two steps forward, one step back? A little while later, after Owen shows them what he he’s named the ‘Great Money Trick’, Harlow starts to show signs of understanding:

“I begin to think that a great deal of what Owen says is true. But for my part I can’t see ‘ow it’s ever goin’ to be altered.”18

Owen’s views and opinions are slowly showing signs of taking root in some of his peers, whilst others still cast aspersions. He is even nicknamed the ‘Professor’, by a few and rises to the occasion by jocularly taking to the ‘pulpit’, a small pair of steps arranged by Philpot:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, it is with some degree of hesitation that I venture to address myself to such a large, distinguished, fashionable and intelligent looking audience as that which I have the honour of seeing before me on the present occasion.”19

His good humour is rewarded by the laughter of those gathered in the room sitting on upturned pails, planks stretched across step-ladders lying on their sides, and other jerry-rigged temporary seating. Crass, who has been biding his time over the past few days, however unleashes the contents of a cutting from the Obscurer newspaper which he believes delivers a hammer blow to Owen’s ideas about Socialism. Owen doesn’t flinch and declares: “That isn’t an argument against Socialism – it’s an argument against the hypocrites who pretend to be Christians”20 and flings it back to Crass and some of the others whom he knows practice just such hypocrisy. As an open atheist, in a time when such free-thinking pretty made you an outcast, this was potentially a danger play to make. However, Owen doesn’t fall foul and is allowed to hold forth further due to the inability of Crass to pit his wits much further than reading out the newspaper cutting.


Where Owen takes his ‘congregation’ or lecture next, I believe, shines a Sartrean light. Whether the theme of hypocrisy was playing on Tressell’s mind or whether he just wanted to go where his narrative was flowing, we shall never know. He died from pulmonary tuberculosis as soon as the manuscript was completed in 1911, at the tragically early age of forty. Owen’s words, in the text, however, give insight into the undercurrent of his thinking, if we substitute ‘I’, or ‘Owen’, when he uses “The Socialist” or “he”:

“The Socialist… pleads for the changing of the system. He advocates Co-operation instead of Competition: but how can he co-operate with people who insist on competing with him? No individual can practise co-operation by himself! Socialism can only be practised by the Community – that is the meaning of the word.”21

Hastings 1911, image courtesy of Glyn Hughes' The Hundred Books
Hastings 1911, image courtesy of Glyn Hughes’ The Hundred Books

Owen, if I read Tressell’s work correctly, has discovered that if he truly believes in Socialism then he must find a way to co-operate with others, even if, frustratingly, their first instinct is to reject his ideas. This is the demoralising path that he must tread if he is sincere in his belief in Socialism. And, such sincerity, of course, is only a theoretical stand-in for Sartre’s reworking of authenticity. To be a Socialist on one’s own is not to practice Socialism. So, with the arrival of this self-evident truth comes Owen’s entry into authenticity. Maybe because of this realisation that he needs others to understand in order for Socialism to attempt any kind of potential, he applies himself with more vigour to the task of explaining the cause of poverty to his audience and creates what Tressell, quite blandly, called The Oblong. Essentially, a chart to show pictorially how the products of labour get shared out amongst different sectors of society, The Oblong gives an anchor for the others to grapple intellectually with as Owen tries to educate them as to how the nation’s wealth is created and into whose pockets most of that wealth gets distributed:

“They were compelled to do a little thinking on their own account, and it was a process to which they were unaccustomed… Several men had risen from their seats and were attentively studying the diagrams Owen had drawn on the wall; and nearly all the others were making the same mental effort.”22


Owen hadn’t quite achieved a eureka moment, though, because as Tressell makes clear, “they were trying to think of something to say in defence of those who robbed them of the fruits of their toil.”23 Resistance brought forth no tenable opposition, however.

What happens next in the novel, for Owen, is a series of more personal involvements with his colleagues. He lends pamphlets and books on Socialism to those who ask, he buys and distributes pamphlets, and even got attacked by an angry mob during the election season. Throughout, he is dogged by doubt and depressive thoughts, but his actions continue to display the authenticity he has found. Two of his actions stand out, right at the last in the novel, which demonstrate how Sartrean responsibility had also come to pass within Owen’s outlook and life.


Since the separation of Easton from his wife, Ruth, Owen and Nora have had Ruth and her child living with them. This state of affairs has unsettled Easton and he wants her back. However, at the start he thinks it should be on his terms. Owen “unable to control his resentment of the other’s manner”24 steps up and seizes responsibility for his fellow worker and tells him what’s what:

“As far as I understand it, you had a good wife and you ill-treated her… The responsibility for what has happened is mainly yours, but apparently you wish to pose now as being very generous and to ‘forgive her’ – you’re ‘willing’ to take her back; but it seems to me that it would be more fitting that you should ask her to forgive you.”25


To give Easton his due, he listened to Owen and acted accordingly. Owen’s next conquest and display of responsibility occurs when he finds the undernourished and poorly developed fifteen year-old apprentice, Bert White, hard at work without any fire to warm him in an out-building at Rushton’s firm. Owen countering Bert’s protests, that he has been told not to burn any of the waste wood because it is needed elsewhere, throws some timber into the fireplace and lights it. Owen then seeks out Rushton to reprimand him regarding his ill treatment of the young lad. Telling Rushton that he’ll have him prosecuted if he ever makes Bert work without a fire in winter again, Owen stands up to be counted and allows his words and actions to take another stance of responsibility. Rushton, just as Easton before him, knuckles under and acquiesces, but only after giving Owen a sleepless night of terror as he dreads the prospect of being laid off for insolence.

Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.



  1. Tressell, R., The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 9.
  2. Ibid., 14.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 15.
  5. Ibid., 19.
  6. Ibid., 22.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 23.
  9. Ibid., 23-24.
  10. Ibid., 81.
  11. Ibid., 84.
  12. Ibid., 97.
  13. Ibid., 97-98.
  14. Ibid., 127.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 178.
  18. Ibid., 220.
  19. Ibid., 267.
  20. Ibid., 270.
  21. Ibid., 270-271.
  22. Ibid., 287.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 582.
  25. Ibid., 583.

47. Responsibility


“Am I here and engaged, or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?”

To live as humans within our world and accept responsibility for our actions, I believe, was the implicit and deep ethical driving force of Being and Nothingness. And, perhaps controversially, I think it was delivered by Sartre’s insistence that we should accept our given ‘ontological freedom’. The controversy arises because, as we have seen previously, Sartre makes a very good case for an ontological foundation for freedom, however, as we have also seen, this doesn’t mean we can proceed directly to formulate any real kind of ethics. Or, does it?

As far as Sartre was concerned, the decisions taken by those who avoid accepting their freedom and act in bad faith are conscious decisions. The decision making process is one that is a conscious one. One either acts in good faith by understanding and accepting one’s freedom or one chooses to override one’s freedom and say ‘I have no choice’ which then results in an act of bad faith. The important part being that a decision is made and that a consciousness takes that decision. Now, if a consciousness is involved one can therefore attribute a moral compass, because those possessed of consciousness are also possessed of the ability to understand that their actions can be moral or immoral. Therefore, as far as Sartre was concerned, bad faith must ultimately be viewed as immoral. When people understand themselves as compelled to act in certain ways by forces outside of their control, they act in bad faith and, as such, it can be said that they act immorally.


Now, this is interesting because it adds a second dimension to bad faith. The first we have seen already. To recapitulate, when one acts in bad faith one attempts to deny one’s freedom and become some sort of quasi being-in-itself that does not have control over its own destiny. One’s humanity is stripped away. The second dimension attempts to strip away one’s responsibility. When someone believes themselves to be compelled to act in a certain way, they both renounce their freedom and their responsibility for their actions. This is because responsibility is present whether we like it or not due to the very fact that we have consciousness. The game is given away because we choose to act in bad faith. Believing and choosing belie consciousness, which entails responsibility. You simply can’t believe and choose without understanding responsibility. There is no escape. Someone acting in bad faith would always be brought to account by Sartre.

So, even when, following Heidegger, I see myself as ‘thrown’ into the world without consultation, I cannot but accept freedom as my birth-rite and have its ethical twin, responsibility, to attend to and escort me through life. I am not, after all, a mere rock or leaf at the mercy of causation. I am a being-for-itself, I am conscious, I am free, and finally I am accountable and without excuse. Consequently, for Sartre then, the conviction with which he put forward freedom is one at the same time that brings forth ethics, because freedom is, in his eyes, entwined completely with responsibility. To accept that one is free is to accept that one is responsible and, for Sartre, this is also to accept that one is human.


Before moving on, I want us to pause and reflect once more upon the positioning of freedom that Sartre presented. By stating that freedom is an ontological given for being-for-itself he could have, in some ways, concluded his argument, packed up his type-writer, and delivered the manuscript of Being and Nothingness to his publisher in the knowledge that he had given the world of philosophy an interesting phenomenological text to read alongside Heidegger’s Being and Time, and then reclined in the nearest armchair to smoke a congratulatory cigar. Sartre, though, I believe didn’t want to stop at the world of philosophy. Instead, Sartre wanted to pursue the impossible and find ethics from ontology and give something to the whole world. Now, as we have seen there have been many problems of logical consistency that have, if we are to be fair, hampered the presentation of his ideas. Probably, as a consequence, it must also be acknowledged that Sartre’s thoughts within philosophical circles have not been universally accepted; indeed it might be more correct to state that they have been more thoroughly ignored than diligently read. That said though, it is Sartre’s wider ambition that I have always been fascinated by and it is that ambition to search for ethics that has guided our current investigation and brought us to the brink of understanding Sartre’s ethical relevance.

So, reflective pause over, let’s get back to consciousness because it seems that Sartre is backing this horse as a front runner. The reason for such favouring, by Sartre, is that even though freedom is an ontological given it is also, he has decided, something affected by consciousness. However, the introduction of consciousness into the flow of how one gets from freedom to ethics is not without its problems.


As we have seen previously in the examples of bad faith, from both psychological determinism and albeit a mis-representation of psychoanalysis, of which we can construe these are but two, Sartre obviously realised that consciousness plays a major role in the acceptance or not of one’s freedom. In both examples it was the decision of consciousness to reject freedom and act in bad faith; even in the psychoanalytic example because the individual’s consciousness chooses to believe that they have a motivating unconscious force guiding their actions which they can not necessarily control. Conversely then, the opposite must surely apply and I can consciously decide to accept my freedom and act in ‘good faith.’ And, as we are starting to understand, the role of consciousness within Sartre’s thinking must not be overlooked. Acting in ‘good faith’ is a decision, taken by consciousness that actively chooses to embrace the freedom contained within each of us. The importance of my applying such a direct spotlight is that, according to Sartre, our actions come after consciousness: the decision to be responsible comes after our consciousness. This is no small footnote regarding Sartrean thinking but rather a somewhat overlooked major cornerstone to his thought that has massive implications when placed in contrast to his contemporary Levinas who believed the opposite and stated that responsibility comes before consciousness. So, this could be a problem. Who is right? Sartre or Levinas?

Well, let’s not start nailing our trousers to one or the other’s masts just yet. Sartre has another problem. One also has to make a ‘leap of faith’ to overcome a different inherent philosophical chestnut when starting out towards ethics from ontological precepts: The question of identity.


The question of identity becomes an issue because just who is it that accepts responsibility for my actions when I am free to change my identity if, according to Sartre, I have no pre-determined essence? The consciousness which I possess as a being-for-itself gives me freedom, but at the same time prevents me from having an essence from which I could gain an identity. Christina Howells highlights this dilemma:

“Consciousness is entirely spontaneous, caused neither by the world nor by its own past. It is defined in radical opposition to the being of things which is solid, self-identical, subject to the laws of causality.”1

The difficulty that Sartre set himself, then, is that one can’t get to, or possess, an identity if one has consciousness. If I were to have identity then I would lose my freedom and consciousness and I would be, in effect, dead. The only way for me to have both freedom and identity would be for me to be God: an impossibility for Sartre and, let’s be honest, rightly so.


There is a solution that Sartre provides to this problem, however, and it goes something like this: The free person has to choose how to act and decide what they should do and what they should not do. Whatever they decide, though, they have to take responsibility for their actions and face up to the moral implications of those actions. But how can they if they have no identity? For Sartre, and here comes the solution, it is precisely because ‘man’ has no identity and has nothing at his heart that he is free to choose how he acts, and in doing so he will invent himself.

Now, let’s go carefully here, because it seems that Sartre might be philosophically lifting himself up by his bootstraps or he might just have resolved that which at first glance appeared unresolvable. ‘Man’, and we have to recognise that Sartre was unfortunately bereft of certain fundamental feminist principles, by having no fixed identity can be free to act as ‘he’ wishes. Or, to put it another way, the fact that I don’t have an identity actually acts to reinforce my freedom. So, I have freedom, but no identity. Plus, as we know, I also have consciousness. In order to be a Sartrean citizen I have to relinquish any ideas I might have regarding my identity, remember existence precedes essence. And, if one thinks about it, this is actually congruent with Sartrean logic because freedom means no fixed identity. Today I’m a primary school teacher in Bristol, tomorrow I might be a train driver in Aviemore, Scotland. Who knows what will happen? Freedom is limitless. Perhaps, though, I can think further than Aviemore and trains?


The encapsulation Sartre gave to this overcoming of the problem of identity was “You are free to choose, that is to say, invent.”2 So, it seems that as well as being condemned to be free, we are also condemned to invent ourselves; there is nothing else we can do.

However, and this takes us back to our first discussion point, we have to take moral responsibility for any ‘invention’ we apply to ourselves, and we cannot apportion blame to anyone else for our actions, because we are completely free to choose our invention. The invention of ourselves comes from our freedom not from what someone else dictates we should be.

And this is where Sartre attacks that first problem head on (as to whether responsibility comes after consciousness, as opposed to Levinas who believes the ordering of the two is reversed). Towards the end of Being and Nothingness, all right let’s state it, on page 553, Sartre writes:

“We are taking the word ‘responsibility’ in its ordinary sense as ‘consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object’.”3

Our consciousness, then, gives us no wriggle whatsoever in terms of it being ‘me’ who has performed the action of eating all the chocolate mousse in the fridge. Even if I try to blame it on Peter for egging me on, really it was my choice to actually eat all the mousse. I am the incontestable author of the great chocolate mousse theft and, importantly, I am conscious as to my responsibility. I alone must take the rap for this heinous crime.


All of which means, as a freely choosing being-for-itself however I invent myself, I have to take responsibility for my actions, even the ones in the past when I was a primary school teacher in Bristol (as I said at the time, I’m really sorry that Kevin the gerbil jumped out of my hands during show and tell and was never to be seen again). There can be no running away from moral responsibility as far as Sartre was concerned, even if we have no logically provable identity.

Maybe that’s the key here to the Levinas – Sartre debate as to which comes first: responsibility or consciousness. Both Levinas and Sartre would fall foul of any logically provable test applied to their thinking on responsibility and consciousness (see post 25 for Levinas). For Sartre, the foul occurs due to there being no actual, logical provable, guarantee that having consciousness means one will bear the burden of their responsibility. Someone might just shrug and state I don’t care, which would make them ammoral, according to Sartre. And, for a different person to shy away and ooze out of the door to evade being caught with their spoon in the chocolate mousse would make that person ethically immoral, as far as Sartre was concerned. This is because they know they are doing something wrong but, yet, still they go ahead and do it. And, if they proceed to blame Peter, upon capture or declare that they had to eat the chocolate mousse to save the planet from evils of chocolate and that really their actions are entirely necessary to save the rest of the human race, then they are going to be called ‘coward’ or ‘scum’ by Sartre because they are acting in bad faith. However, whatever Sartrean name calling might be applied, the logical point still stands that having consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean that one has responsibility.


Sartre’s logical side-step at this point, however, is to state that freedom implies a kind of moral imperative, which of course is predicated upon a desire in the individual to actually be good in the first place. Those who shrug, shy away and evade in their acts of bad faith aren’t really his audience. Instead, Sartre is trying to appeal to those who want to be good. So the penultimate play that Sartre makes before setting out his thoughts on how each one of us are our own ongoing project, is to rework a favourite Kierkegaardian theme: authenticity. Reliance on any kind of religious faith and also being true to oneself are dismissed, of course, in favour of always acting in good faith.

The much discussed bad faith has it’s mirror in good faith or being authentic. In his Sartre: A Philosophic Study, Anthony Manser discusses Sartre’s notion of authenticity by referring to Sartre’s own work, Anti-Semite and Jew, from which Manser quotes:

“Authenticity, it is obvious, consists in having a lucid and truthful awareness of the situation, in bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands, in taking it upon oneself with pride or humility, sometimes with horror and hatred.”4


Manser continues to examine criticisms of Sartre’s notion of authenticity. However, instead of parroting Manser I want to try and get a little further under the skin and look at authenticity afresh. “Bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands” surely means sticking with the situation or problem and not running away from it or trying to shove someone else in to act as scapegoat or protagonist when actually it is ‘I’ who must see the thing through. But it is also realising that my own freedom has brought me to this position. I have chosen to be in the situation that I now find myself and therefore I should act in good faith by being fully present and engaged and accepting of whatever comes, whether it is “pride or humility” or the more terrifying “horror and hatred.” If one stops to pause or reflect on the number of occasions one has been in a meeting, at a party, chatting to one’s partner, or walking one’s child to school and asks the simple question ‘Am I here and engaged or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?’ then the difference between being authentic and being in bad faith should be brought into relief and easy to understand. For Sartre, at every instance, he would state that we have chosen to be where we are and that we should accept and affirm that choice by being authentic in that situation.

Possibly, there is a confrontation with Heidegger’s notion that we are thrown into the world, with Sartre taking a more affirmative stance in stating that we choose to be here. However, the Sartrean point that I want to stay with, though, is that all the way through he is fighting to get to this sense of responsibility. Sometimes, even he knows the precise logic of his argument is flawed and sometimes others have applied criticisms which if taken on there on act to disable Sartre’s particular argument at that moment. However, even agreeing that there are flaws, I’m still left with the insights, thoughts and ideas, we have seen, which even if they talk on the edges of ethics as opposed to neatly leading step by step to ethics are still sharp, meaningful and powerful. The thoughts, the glimpses, that Sartre shows, I think, do start to add up to something unique and important for everyone, not just philosophers, to understand. Plus, the yearning he has to demonstrate ethics and responsibility are palpable and present, and this can only add to his body of work. So, foundational, step-by-step, logically precise pathways be damned. I know there is wisdom to be found in Sartre’s walking and talking that circles around the edges of ethics, even with its name calling. So, as wait for our last Sartrean episode, I would like you to raise your glasses and cheer: For freedom, for responsibility and for authenticity!



  1. Howells, C., Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, 16.
  2. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 38.
  3. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 553.
  4. Manser, A., Sartre: A Philosophic Study, 155.


46. The Name of the Rose


“I have been the hand of God.”1
Jorge of Burgos in The Name of the Rose

As we saw in the last post, ‘bad faith’ amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions. It is also a pathway actively chosen by the person themselves; they are ultimately responsible for the adoption of their pathway. The freedom that each of us has means that we are free to choose how to act or not act, thus we bear the full responsibility of our actions or inactions. To pretend that we aren’t free or to hide from our freedom is also an act of bad faith. Even if we claim to have been directed in our course by someone else, for example, an authority we have yielded under, then we are still in bad faith. This is because we have chosen to attach ourselves to that authority’s yoke. Indeed, anyone who hides behind authorities or deterministic excuses Sartre calls ‘cowards’ and those who believe that their existence is necessary he calls ‘scum’. It seems the Sartrean principles of “existence precedes essence”2 and ‘freedom’ are not to be easily challenged and name-calling might well ensue.

In 1980, Umberto Eco published his debut novel, The Name of the Rose. An extra-ordinary achievement of scholarship, narration and plot that pushed the literary bar several notches skywards. The tale of William of Baskerville’s seven days at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy with his novice, Adso of Melk, transcends and refuses easy classification. ‘Historical Novel’, clips the wings rather of Eco’s work. However, we must place appreciation to one side. Ours is a different approach. The variety of medieval religious sects, the theological disputes, the visual time-capsule Eco reveals, alongside the gruesome deaths and the detective work of William of Baskerville must all go unacknowledged, as well as the sub-plots of Adso’s sexual awakening, the complexity of the Library as Labyrinth and even the science and philosophy of Roger Bacon.


Instead, our focus must be on Sartrean bad faith, because it is present in spades within The Name of the Rose. The book is set in a monastery and therefore, according to Sartrean logic every monk – which the novel mainly features as opposed to lay people such as peasants and militia – would automatically fulfil Sartre’s criteria for bad faith of the ‘coward’ type. There could be great scope for disagreement here due to certain monks in the story not conforming to type at all. Remigio of Varagine and Salvatore of Montferrat don’t really appear as religiously orthodox in their thinking and let’s be honest neither does William of Baskerville. In the main though, even if some of them are only giving cursory lip service, the cast is replete with monks who all worship their Benedictine or Franciscan model of Christianity with all the usual trappings, and more. So, Sartrean bad faith is par for the course amongst the characters of Eco’s monastery. Individual freedom has long been forsaken and the authority of the word, or Holy Father, or the Abbott of the monastery has replaced the slot in their minds where a sense of Sartrean freedom should be resplendent. As a specific example of bad faith, throughout the text the several references are made to “the people of God” being divided “into shepherds (namely, the clerics), dogs (that is, warriors), and sheep (the populace)”3 and this understanding acts almost like a framework for the monks to bolster their own sense of importance in society. Although, one rarely sees any shepherding of the people take place in Eco’s text, which one assumes is historically accurate and the case!


In the knowledge that the accusation of anachronistic thinking could be levied at my door, I concur and do not want to charge the general run of the monks any further with Sartrean name-calling. I do want to hurl a little verbiage in one direction, however, because it is rather interesting and also coincidentally it is the one upon which the axis of the plot develops, which can act as a frisson of spice to our exploration.

Arriving in November, with “three fingers”4 of snow on the ground, Adso and his master, William of Baskerville, are greeted at a mountainous Italian abbey, home to sixty monks. The year is 1327 and the abbott and William exchange religious flattery and pleasantries: “It is a great joy for me to set foot in Your Magnificence’s monastery, whose fame has travelled beyond these mountains.”5 Very quickly, though, pleasantries are somewhat abandoned and the rift between respective theologies is exposed; such as when the abbot asks of William, really stating that he disagrees: “Why do you insist on speaking of criminal acts without referring to their diabolical cause?”6 William is cast by Eco as an outsider who submits only to his own way of thinking rather than blindly following doctrine in the manner the Benedictine abbot has been taught and preaches. However, mutual respect overcomes differences and the abbot shares with William the story of the very recent mysterious death of Adelmo of Otranto at the abbey and even asks for William’s help in investigating what he suspects is a crime.


On the first day William and Adso do the rounds and meet with the various key players in Eco’s tightly bound plot that matures its detective narrative slowly. The key figure of Jorge of Burgos is encountered and described as the second eldest of the monks in the abbey, blind and also the receiver of many confessions from the other monks. Jorge also makes an impact on William due to his passionate aversion to laughter, which he savagely defends when he and William converse:

“’But when Saint Lawrence was placed on the gridiron,’ William whispered with a saintly air, ‘at a certain point he invited his executioners to turn him over, saying that that side was already cooked…’
‘Which proves that laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body,’ Jorge replied with a snarl.”7

With the advent of the second day, there is a second death. Venantius of Salvemec is found upturned in a great jar containing pigs blood.


Unlike Adelmo’s fall from a great height, Venantius’ death very clearly indicates foul play by a third party. The abbot wastes no time and pleads with William:

“Brother William, as you see, something is afoot in this abbey, something that demands all your wisdom. But I beseech you: act quickly!”8

So, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion the game has been declared ‘afoot’ and William can begin his investigations in earnest. Benno of Uppsala, a student of rhetoric, is ‘interviewed’ and acts for Eco to present vital clues:

“Venantius, who knows … who knew Greek very well, said that Aristotle had dedicated the second book of Poetics specifically to laughter, and that if a philosopher of such greatness had devoted a whole book to laughter, then laughter must be important… Jorge asked him contemptuously whether by any chance he had read this book of Aristotle; and Venantius said that no one could have read it, because it has never been found and is perhaps lost forever…. Then Jorge said that if it had not been found, this was because it had never been written.”9


William and Jorge continue their discussion/argument about laughter and its place within a religious world view, with a stalemate outcome that provides context for Jorge’s thoughts: “Jesting about laughter, you draw me into idle debate. But you know that Christ did not laugh”.10 We also learn that Adelmo confessed his sins to Jorge. He apparently submitted to Berengar’s carnal desire for him, which led to feelings of shame, his confession and then ultimately his death as he hurled himself from the highest point in the abbey. William begins to suspect Jorge’s hand behind the deaths of the two monks, but questions how a blind old man “can kill another man in the fullness of his strength”.11

Eco systematically pours complication and context into William’s path as we learn about various breeds of heretics and start to understand the labyrinth that is the abbey’s library and Adso has his first, and possibly last (if we believe him as narrator), sexual encounter. The coming of the Anti-Christ/Apocalypse is also causing great concern among the ranks as the eldest, Alinardo recounts “the book of the apostle.”12 Later we discover this is John and the book of Revelations, where seven trumpets will sound across seven days to act as the heralds of doom:


“With the first trumpet came hail, with the second a third part of the sea became blood; and you found one body in hail [Adelmo died in a storm], the other in blood… The third trumpet warns that a burning star will fall in the third part of rivers and fountains of waters.”13

We also learn that Berengar has gone missing. And, sufficiently taken with this trumpet ‘guidance’, William has his own revelation and reasons that a “diabolical or sick mind could have been inspired by Adelmo’s death to arrange the other two in a symbolic way.”14 From this supposition, he realises that the only place in the abbey where a monk could drown is in the baths. And so he dully finds the body of the no longer missing Berengar, drowned at bottom of one of the bathtubs.


With Severinus, the herbalist, William examined the bodies of the dead and noted that Venantius and Berengar both had black fingers tips on their right hands and a blackened tongue. Poison is swiftly considered as the cause of death and that, William states, “would suggest a malignant mind brooding for a long time in darkness over a murderous plan.”15

As well as being intellectually entranced by possibility of “a diabolical or sick mind” following Alinardo’s seven trumpets prophecy, William is also certain that one of the books in the Library is playing a part in the whole sinister affair. First seen on Venantius’ desk, a book written in Greek has vanished along with William’s glasses when he was examining the Greek translators desk for clues but got disturbed by the spying presence of another in the dead of night. Getting drawn away from the desk to unsuccessfully chase and discover whom the other person was, William returned only to find the book and glasses gone. Doubly dashed, he concludes that the book has a significant role to play in the recent deaths.


On the fifth day, Severinus tells William that he has found “a strange book”16 in his infirmary, which he believes was left or placed there by Berengar on the night he died. Just as Adso and William receive this information they “realized that, silent as was custom, Jorge had appeared as if by magic”17 at their side. Unfortunately, before they can get to the infirmary to look at the “strange book”, Severinus was murdered, smashed on the head by a large metal “armillary sphere,”18 used in astronomical science. Suspicions as to Jorge’s role flair in William and Adso’s minds, “but Jorge couldn’t have killed a strong man like Severinus, and with such violence.”19 Jorge’s age and blindness rule him out of the deed itself. However, William realises that the fourth trumpet of John the apostle refers to stars and he and Adso start to speculate regarding the fifth trumpet. The location of the book, though, which William starts to realise is forbidden, also needs to be unearthed.

In the meantime, the abbot entrusts a sermon to Jorge regarding the four deaths at the abbey. Jorge, however, takes to the pulpit with his own stance and delivers a verbal thrashing of his junior monks whilst setting out his views on the deaths and upon the purpose of the abbey:

“Madmen and presumptuous fools that you are! He who has killed will bear before God the burden of his guilt, but only because he agreed to become the vehicle of the decrees of God. Just as it was necessary for someone to betray Jesus in order for the mystery of redemption to be accomplished… Thus someone has sinned in these days, bringing death and ruination, but I say to you that this ruination was, if he not desired, at least permitted by God for the humbling of our pride.”20


The murderer in Jorge’s mind serves a divine purpose and because of this we can easily start to see Jorge’s bad faith bubbling up to the surface. Jorge, however, doesn’t let his bad faith stop there:

“The work of our order and in particular the work of this monastery, a part – indeed, the substance – is study, and the preservation of knowledge. Preservation of, I say, not search for, because the property of knowledge, as a divine thing, is that it is complete and has been defined since the beginning, in the perfection of the Word which expresses itself to itself. Preservation, I say, and not search… There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”21

As well as being the thesis of the Dark Ages, with William’s character symbolising a proto-Renaissance antithesis, Jorge’s statements set down his core beliefs for the purpose of the monastery and his religious brethren as far as he sees it. And, let’s not forgot that Eco has layered symbolism in making Jorge blind. Nothing new shall be seen by Jorge and nothing new is desired by him or is within the scope of his earthly purpose as given from on high by the Word of God and set down by the apostles.


The monks in the abbey have their place and their purpose. Almost nothing could be better as an example of bad faith.

The sixth day brings the fifth death. Malachi collapses, gasps his last and dies at Matins in front of the whole monastery. On examination, William notices, “the pads of the first three fingers of the right hand were darkened.”22 The seventh day brings the inevitable showdown between William and Jorge. In the middle of the library’s labyrinth, the Finis Africae is the final secret room, whose entrance Adso and William must crack. Inside they discover Jorge: “Happy night, venerable Jorge. Were you waiting for us?”23 William asks. In their ensuing dialogue, William and Jorge, realising that they are both at the end of the chase, share the final explanations of what occurred at the abbey in true detective story fashion. Jorge has the book that William has been seeking and even agrees to let the Franciscan look at it: “‘Read it, leaf through it, William,’ Jorge said. ‘You have won.’”24 The text is the second book of the Poetics of Aristotle, “the book everyone has believed lost or never written.”25 Wisely William wears gloves as he reads it because he correctly surmises that years ago, before he was blind, Jorge poisoned the pages of the book so when anyone licks their fingers to turn the page they ingest the poison and die.


As the tense discussion ensues William coaxes Jorge onwards to state his motivation by asking, “Why did you want to shield this book more than so many others?”26 Jorge’s answers:

“Because it was by the Philosopher [Aristotle]. Every book by that man has destroyed a part of learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries… Every word of the Philosopher, by whom now even saints and prophets swear, has overturned the image of the world. But he had not succeeded in overturning the image of God. If this book were to become an object for open interpretation, we would have crossed the last boundary… here [Jorge points to the book] the function of laughter is reversed, it is elevated to art, the doors of the world of the learned are opened to it, it becomes the object of philosophy and of perfidious theology.”27

Jorge further explained the extent of the power he believed resided in the words of the second book of the Poetics: “This book could strike the Luciferine spark that would set a new fire to the whole world, and laughter would be defined as the new art, unknown even to Prometheus, for cancelling fear.”28 Essentially, the text would act as an antidote to the power that the church held over the masses and this was something that Jorge felt he could never allow to be released into the world at any cost. To further clear his own conscious, though, as to those who died, Jorge stated: “I have killed no one. Each died according to his destiny because of his sins.”29 However, more than that and in absolute bad faith he stated “I was only an instrument”30 and later “I have been the hand of God.”31 And with such statements, Jorge shows that he moves further than his fellow monks who display bad faith of the nature that hides behind the will of authorities, because his type of bad faith is the version Sartre allocated specifically to those who believe their existence necessary and we all know what he called them!



  1. Eco, U., The Name of The Rose, 512.
  2. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 28.
  3. Eco, U., The Name of The Rose, 156.
  4. Ibid., 23.
  5. Ibid., 27.
  6. Ibid., 33.
  7. Ibid., 103-104.
  8. Ibid., 112.
  9. Ibid., 120.
  10. Ibid., 143.
  11. Ibid., 151.
  12. Ibid., 273.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 273-274.
  15. Ibid., 284.
  16. Ibid., 372.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., 382.
  19. Ibid., 386.
  20. Ibid., 425.
  21. Ibid., 426.
  22. Ibid., 443.
  23. Ibid., 495.
  24. Ibid., 499.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., 506.
  27. Ibid., 506-507.
  28. Ibid., 508.
  29. Ibid., 504.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., 512.

45. Bad Faith


“Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, – I shall call scum.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

One of the critical issues for Sartre in his philosophy is whether each of us can actually stay with the anguish that appears in the face of freedom or, instead, we find ourselves fleeing and ducking behind the sofa trying to pretend it isn’t there.

Flights from anguish, for Sartre, amount to what he called acts of ‘bad faith’. So, if a student, using Gregory McCulloch’s favoured example of a typical British university scholar, decides to view their life as being psychologically determined because their parents have instilled in them certain values that prioritise education, then according to Sartre they are acting in bad faith. This is because they do not accept their freedom and they try to hide from it in the manner of one who is guilty. By endeavouring to flee from the anguish induced by their freedom, the student, according to Sartre, attempts to fill the void of nothingness, which is present within each of us. Following the logic through, any such attempt to fill the void of nothingness in such a manner denies our very capacity for being human and effectively renders the individual in question as mere being-in-itself. The student following their parents’ directive consequently becomes a puppet or, to be more precise, hides from freedom by adopting the role of puppet.


Essentially Sartre, in structuring his philosophical system in the way that he had, was shoring it up and protecting freedom from attack. By presenting those who wished to ignore his findings as somehow deficient, by categorising them as being-in-itself, he armed himself with a quite offensive and antagonistic form of philosophy. A by-product, or perhaps strategically designed outcome, was that he ensured his philosophy had to be listened to and engaged with. So, it could be argued, a theme of quite aggressive manoeuvring began to be developed as Sartre built-up his confidence at the same time as effectively identifying his enemies.

One, of course, has to remember the situation in which Sartre was writing and developing his ideas for Being and Nothingness, in that France was under fascist occupation with World War II providing the very visceral backdrop to Sartre’s daily life and thoughts. Great things regarding humanity and its choices were at stake. Sartre himself served in the French army as a meteorologist and was captured by German troops and imprisoned for nine months in 1940-41. Upon his release in April 1941, due to poor health (his eye-sight, he argued, affected his balance), Sartre co-founded Socialisme et Liberté, an underground group with Simone de Beauvoir and other like-minded and active philosophers who want to resist the German occupation of France and the Vichy regime. The group disbanded shortly after emerging due to Sartre becoming disillusioned with those such as André Malraux and André Gide who, for whatever reason, couldn’t commit to joining Socialisme et Liberté. It was at this juncture that Sartre turned from direct action to focus ardently upon writing – possibly a much better use of his talents.


Maybe the disappointment of the two Andrés indecisiveness spurred Sartre’s mind regarding the philosophy contained within Being and Nothingness, because one cannot help thinking that his argumentation concerning freedom and anguish seems to relate to direct personal experience on his part, so strong is his insistence. Whether this is the case though is beyond our scope. What isn’t is Sartre’s very clear upholding of freedom which comes through in spades when one takes even of a cursory look at his more journalistic output towards the end of World War II. The belief in freedom in the midst of oppression positively shouts and declares its intent. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, in December 1944, Sartre asserts the following:

“Never were we freer than under German occupation… The more the Nazi venom crept into our thoughts the more each precise thought became a conquest… Indeed the cruelty of the enemy pushed us to the extremes… all those of us (and what Frenchman was not at one time or another in this position?) who, knowing something important to the Resistance, have asked ourselves in anguish, ‘If they torture me, can I hold on?’ Thus indeed was the question of liberty brought to the very edge of the profoundest comprehension that man can have of himself.”2


Clearly, the role that Sartre saw played out in the heart of every “Frenchman” during the occupation was one that was guided by the power of personal freedom for each to play their part in the Resistance. And, not as a puppet but as an active citizen knowing full well the possible perils of such action. The psychological determinism of fascist occupation in its brainwashing and very real physical threats were intended to crush the spirit and create obedience. When the threat of torture is present, against a backdrop of brainwashing, psychological determinism should be in full swing. So thought the Nazis. But as Sartre and history tells, this ‘ain’t necessarily so’. The choice to withhold information from the German occupiers goes against their deterministic setup but occurred time and time again, as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen asserted their freedom and resisted.


This is Sartre’s point and also why he felt so strongly in regard to freedom and why he continually made the case for us to be aware of its presence. For him, freedom was the ultimate means of knowing and distinguishing that we are human: we always have freedom. To deny freedom, of course, is to set against Sartre and he will place all deniers in the realm of non-human as Beings-in-themselves as opposed to Beings-for-themselves. To, perhaps, make such a distinction easier for those who might not have drunk at the fountain of knowledge that is Being and Nothingness, Sartre made things a littler simpler by announcing that those who tried to deny freedom were acting with ‘bad faith’.

Quite early on in Being and Nothingness, when his thoughts revolved around notions of consciousness, Sartre outlined bad faith as follows: “one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth.”3 The issue being that such “hiding” or “presenting” is done to oneself, within one’s own consciousness: “Bad faith… implies in essence the unity of a single consciousness.”4 This was a point of clarification that Sartre wanted to make within a discussion regarding the presence of others. Because from this point he could then get to a summary position, with the correct groundwork in place, to effectively make the claim that it is within one’s consciousness that ownership lies and the responsibility for choosing to act in bad faith. Or, as Sartre stated, “one does not undergo his bad faith; one is not infected with it; it is not a state. But consciousness affects itself with bad faith.”5


Such an issue of ownership becomes particularly important within our thinking over the next few pages, because Sartre, almost from this point on, makes his ethical play and starts to frame his thinking around responsibility and decisions as a matter of personal choices within a framework of seeing oneself as a project. Consequently, regarding the decision to act in bad faith, Sartre states “there must be an original intention and project of bad faith,”6 which for him, as well as taking place within the closed and isolated environment of one’s consciousness and not being predicated upon any external influence or condition, leads to the conclusion that “a person can live in bad faith,.. which implies a constant and particular style of life.”7 Such a decision to act in bad faith becomes, therefore, both an internal conscious event, with no primary external cause, and also a behaviour pattern that one accepts and conditions one’s life by. To give an example of leading one’s life in bad faith, Sartre probed what happens, from his point of view, when someone undergoes psychoanalysis.

Immersed within his thoughts concerning the internal conscious process of bad faith, Sartre provided an illustration of what takes place when a lie is told. A lie requires a liar and also a victim of the lie in order to take place. Such positioning, as we can infer from the proceeding section, maps for Sartre quite neatly within the unity of one consciousness when that person acts in bad faith: The lie is both initiated by and concealed from the same person. Within the context of psychoanalysis though, a disruption to this neatness takes places. This disruption occurs because the unity of the individual’s consciousness is broken and split into two making it unclear that the person acting in bad faith is both instigator and victim. In fact for Sartre, psychoanalysis is guiltier of more than merely mudding the waters of clarity, because it provides in his eyes what amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions, which, as we are beginning to comprehend, is the central pivot upon which bad faith revolves.


Psychoanalysis, therefore for Sartre or, more correctly, entering into a belief system whereby one understands there to be an unconscious that is separate from one’s consciousness, is in itself an example of bad faith because one renounces ownership for oneself and abdicates responsibility for one’s actions by accepting the fundamental premise that there is a force motivating us that one cannot necessarily exert control over. To Sartre this fundamental premise is a lie. Thus, across five pages of tense, but ultimately unsatisfactory argument, we see Sartre state “Freud has cut the psychic whole into two. I am the ego but I am not the id,”8 and then declare that “the explanation by means of the unconsciousness, due to the fact that it breaks the psychic unity, cannot account for the facts which at first sight it appeared to explain.”9 Consequently, by working through his criticism of psychoanalysis Sartre came to confirm his position that if anyone adopts psychoanalysis in this manner then, absolutely, they could be accused of acting in bad faith.

A critical difficulty arises in accepting Sartre’s conclusion, however, because Sartre, all the way through his argument, unfortunately presented Freudian psychoanalysis in a two-dimensional way that simplified Freud’s work. Indeed, the simplification actually determines that bad faith will be the end result if the ‘psyche’ is seen to be cleaved in two in the manner that Sartre represented the psychoanalytic division of consciousness from the unconscious. Clearly, with such a ‘straw-man’ argument one feels obliged to take issue with Sartre even as one understands his concept of bad faith perhaps more fully courtesy of this mis-representation of psychoanalysis. However, even though criticism can be levied at his argument our interest, as it always must, lies in the potential ethical insight that Sartre offers and not in criticising his faux approximate understanding of psychoanalysis. The over-arching ethical point that Sartre quite clearly laid out, although it is implicit due to his insistence on engaging in an almost self-righteous but ultimately redundant critique of psychoanalysis, is that there is an issue of conscious responsibility to be considered for us as humans engaging with, and performing actions in, the world. Precisely what Sartre means by responsibility will be covered in a future post.


For the moment, let us return to Sartre’s passion: freedom. In his 29 October 1945 lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, as his opening remarks suggest, “to offer a defence of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it,”10  reworks his ideas on freedom. However, within the twenty-three page guided tour of his philosophy, given within two months of World War II finally being over, “existence precedes essence”11 initially takes centre stage. A phrase which means, as we know from post 41, that we have no preordained purpose and it is up to us to create our own essence. Such staging, in his lecture, then allows Sartre to position freedom:

“For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom.”12

If we can accept that Sartre, being of his time, chose the signifier “man” to represent “human”, it becomes apparent that for Sartre one of the consequences of his neatly set out philosophy is that even “human nature”, that commonly used justification for personal and social mores and ills, is given no truck and kicked off the playing field of acceptability.


Sartrean freedom allows no ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’; it is resolute, uncompromising and completely pure in its conception. Indicative, as his positioning of freedom is, in terms of his passion and sense of rightness, Sartre turns his attention to his other passion: resistance. Throughout the text of Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre refers time and again, with examples, to the situation that he and his fellow French citizens found themselves under German occupation.

In a possibly politically over-reaching section regarding the hopes he has for “the Russian revolution,”13 Sartre shows a deep understanding of how freedom runs deeper than political cause:

“Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be.”14

The acknowledgment that individual freedom of others means that his voice per se might well be ignored is testament to his understanding that the idea he had of freedom is stronger than his own voice that gave birth to it. Swiftly, following this understanding, Sartre starts to sharpen his claws and shows with extra-ordinary philosophic power precisely what he thinks of those who don’t accept their personal freedom. Starting relatively mildly he sharpens his blades and sets out his stall:


“Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and others may be so cowardly or slack as to let them do so… Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then [en]act my commitment… Quietism is the attitude of people who say, ‘let others do what I cannot do.’ The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action.”15

Sartre’s philosophy is, therefore, one of action and not acting simply won’t do. That, he makes clear, is “cowardly.”16 Obviously, the recent history in France focused his mind and one cannot help thinking that the indecisiveness of the two Andrés was possibly what he had in mind. Sartre didn’t stop sharpening his knives at this point, though, he had more to say, enact and attack.

Referring back to freedom and essentially the avoidance of it through acts of bad faith, Sartre outlined, alongside his thoughts regarding the adoption of quietism, two extremely cutting encapsulations:

“In the name of that will to freedom which is implied in freedom itself, I can form judgements upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, – I shall call scum.”17


When studying philosophy one doesn’t readily come across such forthright judgements. However, as I hope to have possibly made clear in the discussion so far, Sartre was incredibly committed to his philosophy and that it should be a philosophy of action. Standing by quietly, denying responsibility, giving up due to excuses, or proclaiming one’s presence as necessary (as if put on earth by God to do his/her will) are positions to be fought against. For him, each of these positions came under the bracket of ‘bad faith’ and as such they run completely counter to how he thought life should be lead. And, he obviously was not going to be accused of being hypocritical due to being shy of letting everyone know just that. In Existence is a Humanism, Sartre made it very clear just what he thought of those in ‘bad faith’, even if paradoxically he never actually used the term itself in that text.


  1. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 52.
  2. Sartre, J-P., The Atlantic Monthly, December 1944, 39.
  3. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 49.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 50.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 54.
  10. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 23.
  11. Ibid., 28.
  12. Ibid., 34.
  13. Ibid., 40.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 40-41.
  16. Ibid., 43.
  17. Ibid., 52.

44. American History X


“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”1
Dr. Bob Sweeney in American History X

Are we free or psychologically determined? Can we act according to our own thoughts or will we act according to a causal pathway or narrative that we have accepted as true?

Each of us, if we are honest, probably tell ourselves stories as to why we believe the things we do and act the way we do. We develop linear thoughts that take us from our experiences, as we see them, through to assertions about life and how we should live. Nothing wrong in that most would say. There is, arguably, however a falsity here because, effectively, we are moving from a statement to a judgement, from a fact to a theory, from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. There is no real causal link in this chain, as those steeped in the analytic philosophical tradition would argue. One simply can’t move from ontology to moral theory.

But maybe I’m wrong because the experience is subjective and not actually objective or of an ontological nature at all. And here is the crux. For those who do assert their judgements based on their experiences there is, for them, a powerful sense that they are in possession of a truth, whether ontologically sound or factual correct it doesn’t really matter. It is just the truth as far as they are concerned. The problem is, though, that ‘as far as they are concerned’ is not very far at all. In fact it’s only really as far as they could see last week. And this is Sartre’s point. If we only recite and repeat the same stories to ourselves, then we are pretty much self-determining or self-narrowing and consequently chucking away our freedom. Breaking free from the stories we tell ourselves is immensely difficult of course if we have grown up in a dogmatic and claustrophobic environment.


One such environment is played out within American History X, the directorial debut from Tony Kaye, with screenplay by David McKenna, and starring Edward Norton alongside Beverly D’Angelo, Stacey Keach and Elliott Gould amongst many others.

Following the death of his racist father at the hands of black drug dealers, whilst on call as a fire-fighter, Derek Vinyard, played by Norton, appears to give in to repressed racist views in an emotional tirade when filmed by the local media after receiving news of his father’s death. The hard-working scholar evaporates at that instance and Vinyard allows his repressed side to come fully to the surface.

Egged on by Cameron Alexander, the neighbourhood White Supremacist leader of lost and angry young men, Vinyard becomes every inch the stereotypical shaven-headed, swastika-tattooed, neo-Nazi thug of nightmares. The only difference between him and his ‘Disciples of Christ’ cohort being that he is equipped with intelligence and becomes the leader or figure-head of the ‘D.O.C.’, with Alexander yanking the puppet strings.


With the murder of his father by a group of drug dealers, of whom the defining characteristic we are given is that they were black, Vinyard, one could argue, starts spiralling into racism foregoing the scholarly avenues that he was embarking on and hearing the echoes of his fathers words in Alexander’s grooming speeches of manipulation. The premise of psychological determinism and the pathway chosen by Vinyard are clearly set out for the viewer. The ingredients of Vinyard’s life result in an all too familiar, if extreme, final product. The story that Vinyard can tell himself is actually narrated by his younger brother, Danny, in the guise of an assignment, called American History X, given as an ultimatum by his black head teacher, Dr Bob Sweeney, who wants Danny to avoid following in his brother’s footsteps.

Told in a series of flashbacks, the story, as told by Danny unfolds in a series of tense and heightened scenes. Tony Kaye’s direction uses black and white film stock to show when Vinyard Snr. is consumed by White Supremacist conviction and juxtaposes this with colour when showing contemporary events and the family as it was before their father’s murder. The TV ‘interview’ where Vinyard unleashes is in colour because he has not become the skinhead fascist bully-boy at that point.


One of the flashbacks shows, in absolute graphic detail, the ‘heights’ that Vinyard reaches as he shoots one member of a black gang attempting to steal his father’s truck and executes another whom he has already injured. Without dwelling on the pure gruesomeness of the execution, we see Vinyard at his horrific neo-Nazi summit. However, just as the raw and self-righteous evil courses through his veins, as Danny watches in despair, the police arrive in a squad car to arrest him. The film’s iconographic imagery comes from this scene as an incensed Vinyard strides from brutality to sheer horror with eyes shining, as if in religious-like ecstasy. The conviction within him is palpable and screams through the stark night as we watch witness-like his unstoppable reeking of carnage.

Having reached the summit, the only way is down, right? Danny’s story continues as Derek begins a three-year prison sentence. Why only three years is not really made clear. We are only informed that Danny didn’t testified against him and left to surmise that the Los Angeles judicial system must have decided not to throw the book at him. In any case, the plot moves to the beginning of his incarceration and we soon find him grouping like-with-like. The ‘whites’ appear to accept him as one of theirs whilst they adopt the stereotypical posturing, snarling and sneering towards the ‘brothers’ and the ‘Hispanics’.


After a year, though, Danny relates that “things got complicated”2 for Derek. The ardent zeal of imprisoned Vinyard, still filled to the brim with White Supremacist ideology, can’t fathom why Mitch, one of his group of ‘whites’ (a term I have ascribed for convenience and not given in the film), seems to fraternize and “do favours”3 for the other groups concerning prison drugs. When Vinyard tries to discuss this apparent unconscionable attitude from Mitch he gets told “chill out on the preaching… we getting tired of it.”4 The final straw for Vinyard was the realisation that Mitch “was taking it from the Mexicans and dealing it out to his own people.”5 The symptom belied the cause for Vinyard because it dawned on him that Mitch didn’t believe in anything and neither did the rest of the ‘whites’.

Finding his peers lack of belief and conviction in ideology repugnant, Vinyard makes a point of separating himself off from them by deliberately ignoring them and sitting by himself in the canteen at lunch and playing basketball with Lamont, his laundry-duty co-worker, a ‘brother’. In prison gang culture, we are led to believe these are unpardonable sins. Vinyard consequently receives his punishment from the ‘whites’. He is raped in the showers and hospitalised afterwards.


At this juncture, Dr Bob Sweeney, Vinyard’s ex head teacher and Danny’s current one, arrives at the prison ostensibly to talk about Danny and give Derek some books. On his arrival Vinyard, lying on a hospital gurney with six stitches in him, breaks down and weeps in front of Sweeney. The mighty has fallen.

Sweeney confronts Vinyard on his anger and beliefs, and then proceeds to tell him about his own anger when he was younger:

“I know about this place. I know about the place you are in. There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happening to my people. Blame everybody. Blame white people. Blame Society. Blame God. I didn’t get no answers, ‘cos I was asking the wrong question. You have to ask the right questions.”6

Vinyard, giving complete attention asks “Like what?”7 and Sweeney delivers the film’s pay-off: “Has anything you’ve done made you life better?”8 Vinyard shakes his head in moment of honesty and asks Sweeney to help him.


This is the crucial moment in the film because Sweeney says he’ll agree to help, but only on the condition that Vinyard doesn’t run away and leave his family once he is released from prison, in four months time. Instead Sweeney wants Vinyard to make sure that Danny doesn’t fall into the same trap as he Vinyard fell into.

Wrapped up in this tight jail scene, is the precise focus of Sartre’s thoughts on freedom. Sweeney, by intervening, in the manner that he did, demonstrates to Vinyard that he personally identifies with the root of Vinyard’s anger, but more than this that he, too, had to ask himself the question ‘Has anything I’ve done made my life better?’ By identifying in this way Sweeney shows Vinyard that he has reached rock bottom and, obviously, Vinyard has the visceral reality of being not only in prison to confirm that but also that he has been raped as well. Things really couldn’t get much worse for Vinyard. Sweeney’s message, then, acts to present an objectivity to Vinyard who, consumed by anger since his father’s murder, has only processed life through a warped subjective lens that he thought was the ‘true’ path of his life. By confronting Vinyard, Sweeney manages to push down Vinyard’s subjective defences, courtesy of mirroring them with his own past version, in order to present a brutal but needed home truth to Vinyard.

Accepting the truth of Sweeney’s question and the obvious answer that nothing he has done has made his life better, Vinyard’s immediate intention is to flee from his family in order to prevent them further pain by his presence. Now, the risk at stake here is whether Vinyard would just run away to continue taking all his subjective anger and beliefs with him in order to act them out in a new environment. Possibly, conscious of this risk but also more aware that running away from the problem never solves anything, Sweeney places his condition on Vinyard based on the hold he has on him regarding Vinyard’s request of help. Sweeney’s condition, ostensibly, is for Vinyard to stay and help his brother. However, by requesting this, Sweeney knows that Vinyard would have to face his family, his friends, his past and his future and heal the wounds he has caused rather than running away.


It’s a big gamble on Sweeney’s part because staying with the problem and not running away is hard. It would be far easier for Vinyard to pay lip service to Sweeney rather than actually acceding to his condition and seeing it through.

The Sartrean moment, though, comes when Vinyard realises the choice he faces and that Sweeney is right. He also realises that it is an extra hard choice because he has to get through the last four months of prison alive and then go back home to face the people whose lives he has so effectively poisoned. There is a huge challenge on both fronts.

Surviving prison becomes a practical matter when the ‘whites’ hate you and won’t protect you if the other groups want to enact their boredom or rage upon you bodily. Fortunately, for Vinyard it appears that Lamont has put in a word or two to the ‘brothers’ to leave him alone. Sweeney also helps by sending books for Vinyard to read, which enable Vinyard to become to all intents and purposes a “ghost”9 for those last four months. He even grows his hair and covers up his tattoos by wearing the prison uniform as it is intended rather than stripped to the waist in machismo bravado.


Practical survival out of the way, the test of whether Vinyard can accept that he alone is the author of his life and that he has the freedom to reject his past self and establish a new one, comes once he is released. The real choice of taking the first train out of Los Angeles must still be there, however, Vinyard stays true to Sweeney’s condition and returns to the bosom of his family.

Breaking Sweeney’s condition would be relatively simple and non-consequential to Vinyard, however leaving Danny to become infected with White Supremacist values at the hands of Alexander and others is possibly more of a dilemma. Equally, though, one does get the sense from the film that Vinyard genuinely wants to change and reject his former life. To do this, of course, means that he has to absolutely believe that he is free to do this. The test of this freedom of choice comes via confrontation with the key players in his life, those with whom in his past he colluded as he lived and breathed racist ideology.

Seth Ryan, Vinyard’s close and extremely obnoxious family friend is the first to greet him outside the family. Cameron Alexander and Stacey, Vinyard’s girlfriend, are quickly re-introduced on the night of Vinyard’s release as he attempts to inform them both that he no longer wants anything to do with neo-Nazism. The news is not received at all well. Vinyard ends up punching Alexander, then having Seth pull a gun on him, with Stacey urging Seth to kill Vinyard, after they find Alexander in bloody heap.


Vinyard manages to grab the gun from Seth and make his retreat out of the clutches of around fifty Disciples of Christ members having a ‘welcome back’ party in his honour at Alexander’s club.

The choice of slotting back into his shaven headed life is one that must have been alluring to Vinyard, rather than finding himself in the predictable position of alienation from those he once ran with. The freedom attained in prison, from Sweeney’s intervention, stays with Vinyard and he continues to try and get on with his new life and ‘saving’ Danny.

Right at the end of the film, Danny, in an all so typical nihilistic moment of gangland brutality, gets shot and killed in the school’s restroom by another sixteen year-old, a black youth with unfinished business on his mind from when Danny intervened on his bullying of a nerdy white kid. The film ends with Derek running past Sweeney to go into the restroom to hold his dead brother’s body in waves of understandable emotion.


Now, the film ends here.

However, the film might well have ended differently. Another scene was shot, but never made it to the final edit. The extra scene was of Vinyard in front of a mirror, in the family bathroom, shaving his head. The imagery being that he would once again turn to neo-Nazism. Personally, I’m glad that this scene never got included because it would have dramatically changed the driving force of the narrative, from one that showed how someone can escape from deterministic forces by embracing freedom, to one where they can’t actually escape. So, in the final cut Sartre wins out. However, embracing one’s freedom is certainly not for the faint-hearted.


  1. American History X, directed by Tony Kaye, 1998.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

43. Freedom


“Man is condemned to be free.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

Having observed previously how Sartre introduced the idea of freedom into his philosophy, we could be ready to move on. However, maybe sensing that he didn’t quite nail the argument for freedom logically, as we saw earlier, Sartre stopped, tapped his fingers, scratched his head and reintroduced freedom from a different angle, the temporal.

As always, Sartre starts from a phenomenological position and uses his old chum consciousness as his point of entry. Consequently, it is of no real surprise to see him re-examining the conscious processes that occurs when Pierre was a ‘no show’ at the café. For Sartre, the realisation that Pierre was absent entailed a ‘negation’ of the causal chain of events, because within his consciousness of walking into the room and looking around there is no determined factor that introduces thoughts of Pierre. It is only when Sartre negates his present causally produced train of consciousness that he introduces thoughts of Pierre. For Sartre, this process of negation was his active instigation of a “break with being,”2 which, as we have seen before, was due to the coming forth of nothingness.


It appears that so far Sartre has purely retraced familiar steps regarding possibilities and has just got to the fun part of nothingness. However, embedded within his re-examination of how his consciousness conjures Pierre’s absence, Sartre begins to alter our focus as he starts to develop his ideas on temporality.

By looking at what occurs when one’s consciousness moves through a period of time, essentially to be able to state that there is a temporal difference between a thought in the past and a thought in the present, Sartre peered into the potential causal cleavage that can occur between these two episodes. And, by doing so, he discovered something he found intoxicating: “Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play by secreting his own nothingness.”3 So, Sartre once again discovered freedom in the process that Peter Caws describes as a “buffer of nothingness”4 separating one’s consciousness from something else. This time though, rather than the separation being created between, for example, my consciousness and the physical entities surrounding me, the separation is created between my present consciousness and my past consciousness. Sartre, consequently, has created an internal schism, as well as the external one we examined previously. The consciousness that one had in the past is complete and it is now in the present as an existent, a thing, a being-in-itself, and viewed as such it is separate from the consciousness of the present, which is being-for-itself. One’s old thoughts are finite much like a book, such as Dickens’ Great Expectations. However brilliant Dickens’ tale of Pip, Magwitch, Estella, Miss Havisham, Joe, Orlick and Herbert Pocket might be, those characters will never deviate from the plot or new ones be introduced. Dickens’ characters and plot are set in stone much as our past thoughts. Our present thoughts, though, ah, now that’s completely different. The sky’s the limit.


The separation from one’s past consciousness by the coming forth of nothingness is of great boon to Sartre because it allows him to declare the presence of freedom. A declaration based on the premise that if one is separated from one’s past consciousness then one does not have to meekly follow the causal chain of events and submit to what is invariably construed as a set of pre-determined limits placed upon one’s possible thoughts. Instead, by severing oneself from one’s past consciousness one can become imbued with the full force of freedom because one is able to think anew without constraint.

Gregory McCulloch demonstrates how complete Sartre’s thinking was on this issue of freedom by extending Jean-Paul’s reasoning into thoughts regarding one’s future consciousness: “As far as my future is concerned, that is just a range of possibilities among which I alone can decide.”5 Consequently, McCulloch summarises “My past does not force me on, my future does not draw me forward. I am separated from both in a void of freedom.”6


Indeed, Sartre has created a “void of freedom” if we are separated from our past, our future and also, if we remember, those physical entities surrounding us. Freedom, as we can rapidly understand was absolutely pivotal to Sartre. In her treatise, Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Christina Howells encapsulates the role Sartre gave to freedom with her opening statement: “As philosopher, dramatist, novelist, critic and moralist Sartre’s major preoccupation was, throughout his life, always the same – freedom, its implications and its obstacles.” 7

If we allow Sartre his intoxication with freedom, it is essential for us to understand what he meant by freedom. Anthony Manser, in Sartre: A Philosophic Study, simplifies things enormously by stating the following: “to talk of someone as free is only to say that nothing determines his actions.”8 Sartre’s lust for freedom becomes palpable in this encapsulation because we can see how neatly he has removed and eradicated all determining factors that once appeared to hold us in their grip. Whether they are religious, social convention, or even psychological, all determining forces evaporate under the new all giving power that is freedom, as provided for by Sartre. Any given action that we might perform is undertaken on the basis that there is no prior cause attributable and that we are entirely free to perform that action. As with some moments of discovery, a darker side may also appear and, to his credit, Sartre does not shy away from staring at his ‘invention’. Perhaps, somewhat similarly to Robert Oppenheimer, who poignantly confessed to Harry S. Truman “Mr President, I feel I have blood on my hands,”9 Sartre wanted to look deeply at the potential cost of his discovery. So, when reflecting later in Being and Nothingness upon the philosophical journey he had undergone, Sartre wrote of freedom in the following terms:

“I am condemned to be free. This means that no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free.”10


Famously or infamously, depending on your perspective, the initial focus upon himself as the subject condemned became universalised in Existentialism and Humanism, where Sartre declared “man is condemned to be free.”11

Through this ‘dark’ acknowledgement of the power of freedom, I find that in some ways Sartre is, perhaps quite subtly, trying to persuade us of the validity to his argument in his use of the emotive term “condemned” when describing what he finds at the heart of the human condition. However, the emotive leverage of the assertion that “man is condemned to be free” is more often than not usurped by those possibly more politically minded. The phrase, as drafted by Sartre, appears to ignore any consideration towards those suffering under regimes of political oppression. The issue being, how can any such person be deemed to be free?

The criticism is a valid one of course, but also interestingly one that Sartre had considered within Being and Nothingness. As well as pushing the limitations of how far freedom’s reach could stretch, Sartre did also acknowledge that it cannot be infinite and that is bound by physicality. Thus, alongside freedom comes what he called its “reverse side,” a strange term given the title “facticity.”12 This is the concrete background of factual information upon which freedom is made manifest by an individual. For example, my ‘facticity’ has among its components that I was born in England, am the height I am, and have two children. For Sartre though, as we shall observe, there is an immense desire to not bow down and give up too easily before these factual elements in our lives: “The decisive argument which is employed by common sense against freedom consists in reminding us of our impotence.”13 The explanation he gave for such ‘impotence’ was a self-imposed resistance to change: “Far from being able to modify our situation at our whim, we seem to be unable to change ourselves.”14


Consequently, for Sartre, the cause of such impotence and inability to change is built, more often than not, upon the notion of an over-reaching sense of “facticity”. And, Sartre illustrated such fallacious thinking through his graphic portrait of factually based resistances:

“I am not ‘free’ either to escape the lot of my class, of my nation, of my family, or even to build up my own power or my fortune or to conquer my most insignificant appetites or habits. I am a born worker, a Frenchman, an hereditary syphilitic, or a tubercular.”15

Essentially, the nub of Sartre’s argument rests here within his positioning of limits, because it is a matter of where the limits come from: a pathetic attitude of self-imposed conditions that hinder all prospect of success or a positive life embracing attitude based upon a deep conviction that one is free. So, it is very apparent that within the text of Being & Nothingness that Sartre wanted to make a ‘meta-level’ claim for freedom which solely regarded the attitude of the individual to their situation and not their surrounding reality.


As ever though, just when one is getting comfortable, Sartre darts ahead and throws something seemingly incongruous at our feet. This time he plucks something from psychology.

According to this new development, anguish is the awareness and realisation that one is free: “it is in anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom.”16 Placing anguish within an ontological framework, Sartre adjusts its position slightly to demonstrate its relationship to freedom:

“Anguish is the mode of being of freedom as consciousness of being; it is in anguish that freedom is, in it’s being, in question for itself.”17


Let’s make that a tad easier on the mind, and remove the ontological-speak.

Anguish is the ‘mode’ that one enters into when one has the conscious realisation of one’s freedom: it is the reaction to the magnitude of one’s ultimate self-responsibility. For some, and this is how Sartre’s logic unfolds, the enormity of their freedom is greatly troubling and a constant source of personal concern, because the acceptance of freedom also means the loss of any invoked strength-giving superior authority in the form of a deity, religion, or political system. Such a loss, if seen in this manner, can obviously give rise to anguish because the weak and the pathetic, an implicit and unavoidable judgement when following Sartre’s argument, have their various crutches removed and are left to their own ill-prepared devices. Although, it must be stated that also implicit within Sartre’s argument is the assumed acknowledgment that those who attempt to embrace their freedom, even though they might flail and stumble without their crutches on the plateau of anguish, are courageous for at least endeavouring to lead themselves rather than meekly follow someone else’s teachings or cite a catalogue of insurmountable obstacles preventing their freedom: situations for which Sartre holds particular contempt as we shall soon discover.

However, returning to anguish, per se, Sartre took it upon himself to clarify a possible point of confusion, and at the same time offer a powerful insight into the potential working of the human mind, when he compared anguish to the meaning of fear within a non-medical reconstruction of the term vertigo.


Vertigo, to some, is the fear of falling from a great height, which can be classified as a reaction to something external to oneself. In Sartre’s hands though, vertigo appears in a much more menacing form: “Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.”18 Tapping deeper into the insightful vein he had unearthed, Sartre further explained the distinction between fear and anguish in regard to the relationships they have with freedom:

“A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation.”19

In some ways, therefore, one could argue that fear is the response to one’s life possibly being overridden; whereas anguish is the response to the realisation that one is ultimately in charge of one’s life and in all likelihood woefully underprepared. The latter, of course, being especially the case where philosophies of religion or political dogma have been the dominant paradigms. Consequently, if freedom is the ‘natural state’ of humans then anguish is its darker twin that lurks at every turn and gives meaning to the well-worn and much overused phrase existential angst.


Pausing momentarily, the following should really be borne in mind. By conceding that Sartre can bring his philosophy of freedom to the table, a positioning indebted to our ‘non-logic’ obsessed spirit of philosophical charity which allows ideas to be presented despite their awkward formation and starting point, we now find ourselves approaching the glimpse of ethics we seek. This is because leading on from his thoughts on anguish we shall observe the counterpoint he introduces under the guise of ‘bad faith’ which helps to establish the axis line of movement between the acceptance of freedom and its disavowal. The axis line being of course the horizon of responsibility along which one plays out one’s ethical life. Sensing that our goal is nearly present we must keep to our path however and not run too far ahead, because to appreciate the glimpse that Sartre promises we must understand the journey taken and consciously make every step rather than rushing and stumbling blind and confused toward our target. So, picking up from where we left off, we can see that anguish is a troubled emotion and one that in all reality is not easily embraced. Indeed, several of Sartre’s commentators have described in a variety of ways the ‘flight from anguish’ of those struggling with the demanding and ferocious bravery required by Sartre.

Howells writes that “Much of L’Etre et le Néant is concerned with a description of the ways in which men try to hide their freedom from themselves,”20 and McCulloch talks of “evasion” and “self-deception” when explaining that “we are always subject to anguish, but typically pretend not to notice.”21 Covering quite a few paragraphs to illustrate such self-deception, McCulloch, gives a particular piercing reflection to the so-called educated classes:

“Universities, British ones anyway, are hardly angst-ridden existentialist hotbeds. Rather, Sartre would say, they tend to be complacent and disingenuous sources of psychological determinism and similar evasive doctrines.”22


Leaving the distaste, but taking the point concerning psychological determinism, Joseph Catalano also reflects on this predominant method of anguish evasion from Sartre’s perspective. Quite neatly, Catalano summarises psychological determinism, whereby we “consider that our intentions are in fact determined by a causal series – that our seemingly free acts are really determined by environment and history.”23 For Sartre of course, as Catalano makes evident, such consideration effectively renders “ourselves as an in-itself, one of the fixed beings among many in the world.”24 The idea being that we are merely rudderless vessels floating on a sea of swirling activity caused by other entities: our existence being purely to be buffeted.


Placing to one side such lifeless implications, Catalano examines Sartre’s thoughts on the problem of psychological determinism a little deeper and sees that the situation twists upon one’s perspective:

“Psychological determinism does not itself attempt to deny the original intuition (experience) that we are free… Rather, it offers an argument that this original intuition of freedom is deceptive, since it claims that we are actually determined in our decisions.”25

The point being that psychological determinism, as Catalano states, “attacks freedom not on the level of experience, but on the level of logic, by presenting to consciousness a purely possible hypothesis.”26 So, rather than seeing ourselves as beings freely choosing how to act, we understand ourselves and our actions to be determined by a causal chain of events that we become subject to and immersed within, without any hope of the freedom Sartre described. However, by presenting such an alternative hypothesis, or perspective on one’s situation, ironically a card is dealt in Sartre’s favour because he is logically at liberty to state that it is freedom that allows one to consider adopting an alternative attitude or hypothesis towards a given situation, even one strangely that debates whether we are free or psychologically determined.

Ah, irony. Some say it was invented by Socrates: another darting thinker. And still others say that if you make an anagram out of “Socrates” and “ironic” you virtually get “Sartre is iconic”. I say, let’s take a break before I let my own freedom run away with its self.



  1. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 34.
  2. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 27.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. Caws, P., Sartre, 70.
  5. McCulloch, G., Using Sartre: An Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes, 42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Howells, C., Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, 1.
  8. Manser, A., Sartre: A Philosophic Study, 117.
  9. Robert Oppenheimer to Harry S. Truman when they met in 1946.
  10. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 439.
  11. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 34.
  12. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 481.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 29.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Howells, C., Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, 16.
  21. McCulloch, G., Using Sartre: An Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes, 52.
  22. Ibid., 53.
  23. Catalano, J. S., A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, 74.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.

42. Nausea


“When you are living, nothing happens.”1
Antoine Roquentin in Nausea

The concept of nothingness, if one is allowed to call it a concept, is an ethereal notion that seems to slip, shimmer and slide from our grasp as we direct our focus upon it. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre introduces it through a description of looking for Pierre in a café where they have agreed to meet. Nothingness arises, though, because Pierre is not there:

“To be sure, Pierre’s absence supposes an original relation between me and this café; there is an infinity of people who are without any relation with this café for want of a real expectation which establishes their absence. But, to be exact, I myself expected to see Pierre, and my expectation has caused the absence of Pierre to happen as a real event concerning this café. It is an objective fact at present that I have discovered this absence… by contrast judgements which I can make subsequently to amuse myself, such as, ‘Wellington is not in this café, Paul Valéry is no longer here, etc.’ – these have a purely abstract meaning…”2

Wellington and coffee.fw

As we saw in the last post Catalano, gives other possible examples of nothingness occurring, such as when the person you are walking with suddenly isn’t there or when the horse you considered having a bet on, but didn’t, wins their race. I also suggested that when making decisions as to what to type next in an essay one also opens oneself up to nothingness.

The issue at stake is not absence per se, but rather that our very consciousness is not set or programmed to think in a certain way when presented with any given situation. Our consciousness is infinite in terms of how it can respond, reflect or cogitate upon the environment that we find ourselves in. And, perhaps one of the best literary examples of this facet of consciousness getting an airing is Sartre’s own work, Nausea.


Published in 1938, but written between 1932 and 1936, Sartre’s novel Nausea predates Being and Nothingness, which was published in 1943 and written in the early 1940s, and so can be thought of, arguably, as a literary pre-cursor to Sartre’s great tomb. Many of the philosophical themes in Being and Nothingness are given an initial outing in Nausea, however it is in Sartre’s treatment of his protagonist’s consciousness that we find our current interest.

The story is given a sense of truth with the opening “Editor’s Note”3 as Sartre’s situates his work within a tradition of writing that has the narrative prefaced, such as with the letters Dracula or Frankenstein:

“These notebooks were found among Antoine Roquentin’s papers. We are publishing them without alteration.”4

Old papers.fw

Immediately, then, one is guided to believe that the events that follow are real and not a work of fiction. This device helps Sartre to position what happens in the text as being grounded in reality as opposed to being something more like a fairy tale. “Once upon a time…” is replaced with a series of ‘facts’.

The next seed that Sartre sows concerns the reliability of the narrator. In most cases this seed blossoms to reveal the unreliability of said narrator. Sartre’s twist, however, is to unsettle us by having Roquentin question his own reliability and even sanity.

“The odd thing is that I am not at all prepared to consider myself insane, and indeed I can see quite clearly that I am not… Perhaps it was a slight attack of insanity after all.”5

Uncertainty and intrigue catered for, Sartre can proceed and give a bit more context to our character: “I for my part live alone, entirely alone. I never speak to anybody, I receive nothing, I give nothing.”6 It appears, then, that dialogue isn’t going to occupy much of the 250 pages. Within a few more pages the main theme, Roquentin’s nausea, arrives:

“Now I see; I remember better what I felt the other day on the sea-shore when I was holding that pebble. It was a sort of sweet disgust. How unpleasant it was! And it came from the pebble, I’m sure of that, it passed from the pebble into my hands. Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly it: a sort of nausea in the hands.”7

Stone in hand.fw

Other episodes swiftly follow. In a café, the face of Madeline, the waitress, induces an ‘attack’:

“Then the Nausea [Roquentin has officially named it now] seized me, I dropped on to the bench, I no longer even knew where I was; I saw the colours slowly spinning around me, I wanted to vomit. And there it is: since then, the Nausea hasn’t left me, it holds me in its grip.”8

In an almost pre-cognition moment, Roquentin makes a significant throwaway comment: “When you are living, nothing happens.”9 The full meaning of this comment, though, is left unexplained as we read further. Indeed, it is only by dwelling with the text that one can start to grasp at the hidden meaning. So as not to complicate things further by being oblique myself I will presume to interpret. ‘Living’, in this instance, means getting on with one’s daily life and habits. The normality of ‘living’ that we each create for ourselves or have thrust upon us is in some sense a lie. Work, meals, relaxation, reading newspapers are all activities that we layer over our existence. And, it is that existence that Roquentin is beginning to experience in his attacks of nausea. The existence that lies behind our stories, facts and understanding of the world starts coming out from beneath the glib self-assurance we each adopt in order to function ‘normally’ in the world. The cracks are showing for Roquentin and he begins to believe he is accessing real the existence of objects and people that surround us and that we profess to have calm dispassionate knowledge of.


After the nausea connected with Madeline’s face, Roquentin fixates on other faces and begins to push aside humanity and empathy in his gaze:

“On the opposite pavement, a gentleman who is holding his wife by the arm has just whispered a few words in her ear and has started smiling. She promptly and carefully wipes all expression from her cream-coloured face and takes a few steps blindly.”10

“Doctor Rogé has finished his calvados. His great body relaxes and his eyelids droop heavily. For the first time I see his face without the eyes: you might take it for a cardboard mask.”11

“Once a woman’s face took shape on a level with my shoulder.” 12

“I was not alone. A woman with a waxy complexion was sitting opposite me and her hands were moving all the time.”13

“I saw the fellow in the blue cape sitting in the same place; he had a huge pale face between two ears which were scarlet with cold.”14

There is slight dysfunctional and intermittent dialogue interspersed between these snapshots, however Roquentin’s detachment from his fellow citizens is very apparent as he regards them really as objects.

People as objects.fw

Just as in Being and Nothingness, a duality is demarcated which, in Nausea, is encapsulated by those ‘objects’ Roquentin comes into contact with and the ‘I’ of Roquentin. In his philosophy, Sartre formulates the latter as ‘Being-For-Itself’. So, switching to himself, after observing the others, who are cast effectively as objects or ‘Beings-In-Themselves’, Roquentin states:

“… I had always realized that: I hadn’t any right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe.”15

His random popping up of out of the blue, strikes Roquentin as a significant realisation and, indeed, Sartre obviously thinks deeper on this in his later philosophy where he declares, “existence precedes essence.”16 The philosophic driving force being to nullify the claims of those suffering from religious preconceptions that their life has a purpose and that their divine creator has given them an essence. For now, though, we need to focus on Roquentin.

When thinking about the history he is writing on the obscure Marquis de Rollebon, a fictional character invented by Sartre who supposedly lived through the French Revolution, Roquentin develops the theme of his existence:

“Monsieur de Rollebon was my partner: he needed me in order to be and I needed him in order not to feel my being.”17

Marquis de Rollobon.fw

When working on his project, Roquentin recognises that as well as bringing Monsieur de Rollebon to life he distracts himself away from his own being, his existence. The activities of researching and writing preoccupy him and give him the ‘normality’ of a standard existence. However, the focus that Roquentin sees the relationship with is one where only one of them can be said to ‘exist’:

“I no longer noticed that I existed, I no longer existed in myself, but in him; it was for him that I ate, for him that I breathed… I was only a means of making him live.”18

A turning point comes when Roquentin states “The great Rollebon affair has come to an end”19 and by deciding to stop his work on Monsieur de Rollebon he forces an internal crisis: “he was my raison d’être, he freed me from myself. What am I going to do now?”20 Without his work on Monsieur de Rollebon, Roquentin is pushed back on himself with no distractions. Without Monsieur de Rollebon there is no hiding place whereby Roquentin can convince himself that he is ‘normal’, just chugging along with the rest of humanity. Instead, Roquentin is exposed. At first this exposure, or realisation, is a relief to be relished, “I exist. It’s sweet, so sweet, so slow. And light.”21 To no longer hide in the same shadows us the rest of us, but to see oneself and the world all around as existing comes to Roquentin as if an epiphany.


A change occurs however when Roquentin observes his own hand and starts to see it as crab-like and begins to realise that his new found awareness of existence doesn’t appear to have an off-switch:

“I exist. I think I exist. Oh how long and serpentine this feeling of existing is – and I unwind it, slowly… If only I could prevent myself from thinking!”22

Descartes cogito seems to swirl like a spell around Roquentin and cast him deeper into turmoil, which Sartre executes majestically by having his antihero go on a rampaging tour de force of babbling. However, just before the onset of incoherence, Roquentin announces the following to himself:

“I exist by what I think… and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. At this very moment – this is terrible – if I exist, it is because I hate existing. It is I, it is I who pull myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: hatred and disgust for existence are just so many ways of making me exist, of thrusting me into existence.”23

Given as a diary, Nausea relates day-by-day Roquentin’s experiences and, rather beautifully, after the babbling rampage, Sartre writes “Nothing. Existed.”24 as the sole entry for the next day, Tuesday. Those two words, written as two separate sentences show that Roquentin was still caught up entirely in the serpent of existence and that “nothing” else of note occurred.


I have to add that Sartre cannot have formulated his philosophic ideas on nothingness at this stage because the use of “nothingness to which I aspire”25 runs contrary to his later ideas on nothingness. In Nausea, nothingness pertains to Roquentin desiring to be ‘normal’ with the blankness of living an everyday life, such as he observes in others. As we can read, though, he is thwarted in this desire by the very act of thinking so that he is unable to arrest the swirl of existence around him.

On Wednesday the internal activity has quietened down and Roquentin is able to substitute something for Monsieur de Rollebon to fill his ‘life’. He has arranged to see his ex-girlfriend, Anny, in Paris: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”26

But how does all this relate to nothingness?

Starting with Roquentin’s ‘attacks’ of nausea, we find ourselves observing a person within their environment displaying what Peter Caws, in the previous post described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”27 Roquentin, whilst under the influence of those ‘attacks’ is not engaging in the real world in a ‘normal’ manner and, as Sartre understood, he had placed himself “out of circuit.”28 Roquentin’s nausea, as such, then becomes a display or an example of nothingness, just like Sartre’s fixation upon the absence of Pierre or Catalano’s unplaced bet on the winning horse.

Winning Horse.fw

Nausea is a manifestation of nothingness and it helps to highlight the infinite nature of one’s consciousness in how that consciousness might actually interact with objects and people in the world. We do not absorb, ponder or engage with the world according to set programs. This being the point Sartre develops as regards freedom, something we shall explore later.

Getting back to Nausea, though, nothingness is given a twist when Roquentin starts to see behind the veil of ‘normality’ and into the pit of existence because Sartre takes down the “buffer of nothingness” and somehow presses pause on Roquentin’s consciousness or, arguably, over excites it and temporarily at least breaks it. The ‘protection’ of Roquentin’s consciousness is disabled and he loses the inherent power within consciousness to process the world in its own way according to its rules, which might vary of course but are usually always there. The protection being nothingness and without it Roquentin is thrown into mental disorder and we are left watching him babble until nothingness returns because his consciousness has found a way to process the world again: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”


There are, I’m sure, psychological depths to be plumbed in a character such as Roquentin, however our task is to stick with the philosophical and perhaps give one further example of nothingness contained within Nausea: Anny.

Anny’s nothingness example is wrapped up in the way she used to process the world, such as when she was with Roquentin. As she reveals to him, it was all based around her childhood fascination with the choice of pictures used to illustrate Michelet’s encyclopaedic History of France. For Anny, the limited amount of illustrations meant that each one, depicting scenes from history, had to be specially selected over other possibilities and this meant that they were very rare and precious. The fascination in pictures then turned into a desire to emulate the preciousness of the scenes but in real life, which gave rise to her yearning for “perfect moments.”29 Her way of processing life, her nothingness, was to always be on the look-out for the possibility of creating a “perfect moment” which gave rise to her pressing need to transform any environment she was in with objects d’arte that could help set the scene. The problem in her relationship with Roquentin was that she never told him at the time about her desire to create “perfect moments” and what they meant to her.

American Gothic.fw

Interestingly, Sartre parallels Roquentin’s overload, where the loss of nothingness caused him to stare into the abyss of existence. For Anny, her loss of nothingness comes when she gives up on seeking “perfect moments”: “I live surrounded by dead passions.”30 Her renunciation effectively means that she is set just to exist from now on and she encapsulates this in the phrase “I am outliving myself.”31 Hope for Anny is dashed onto the floor like a smashed vase and she is destined to float from one place to another:

“’I travel,’ she goes on in a gloomy voice; ‘I’ve just come back from Sweden. I stopped in Berlin for a week. There’s a fellow who’s keeping me…’”32

Roquentin’s life almost appears positively rosy in comparison, especially when Sartre ends Nausea by having him think about writing a novel that would be “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.”33 Nausea perhaps?

Writing Novel.fw

Perhaps nothingness always finds a way to come back, even when it gets lost, overloaded or broken? Maybe Simone will also write a book. Did I say Simone? I suppose I meant Anny, just like I suppose I meant Roquentin rather than Sartre.


  1. Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 61.
  2. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 10.
  3. Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 8.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 10.
  6. Ibid., 16.
  7. Ibid., 22.
  8. Ibid., 33.
  9. Ibid., 61.
  10. Ibid., 69.
  11. Ibid., 103.
  12. Ibid., 105.
  13. Ibid., 106.
  14. Ibid., 114.
  15. Ibid., 124.
  16. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 28.
  17. Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 142-143.
  18. Ibid., 143.
  19. Ibid., 142.
  20. Ibid., 143
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 145.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 149.
  25. Ibid., 145.
  26. Ibid., 150.
  27. Caws, P., Sartre, 70.
  28. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 24.
  29. See Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 204-205.
  30. Ibid., 207.
  31. Ibid., 206.
  32. Ibid., 216.
  33. Ibid., 252.

41. Nothingness


“The eternal questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” arise… regarding one’s identity, to reveal the Sartrean ‘non-answer’ that there is a gaping void at the centre of every one of us, filled only with the presence of nothingness.”

So, let us remember that when we left Sartre in the previous-to-previous post he had just announced that the ‘appeal to infinity’ found within the philosophies of Spinoza and Hegel, to aid our understanding of consciousness, wouldn’t serve. Instead, Sartre introduced ‘Nothingness’ to get round the problem of the ‘appeal to infinity’ having an inherently reducible quality that acted counter to its purpose and caught infinity within the finiteness of a set phrase. The veil of ‘Nothingness’, consequently, lies before us to intellectually grapple with and apply our minds.

Rather enigmatically, Sartre stated “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”1 In some ways, it would be right to leave any inspection of this uniquely Sartrean term at this poetic statement. For us, however, there must be a deepening of our understanding of nothingness if we are to chase and catch the ‘glimpse’ of ethics that Sartre has enticed us with. Some commentators, such as Joseph S. Catalano have tried to bite off component elements from Sartre’s thoughts to deliver examples of where and how nothingness takes place. Others such as Arthur C. Danto, resist the urge to simplify in this manner and want to retain the complexity of Sartre’s thinking on nothingness because, as Danto states, “We are dealing with a piece of ambitious metaphysical architecture, not just a list of what there is.”2 However, almost counter-intuitively, I want to follow Catalano’s thoughts for the time being because I believe that in finding fault we might be able to find our own thoughts when exploring the challenge that nothingness presents. Consequently, I want to begin with one of Catalano’s ‘bite-sized’ chunks and examine a re-working he gives to one of Sartre’s well-known vignettes, that of Pierre’s absence from the café.

Les Deux Magots.fw

Rather than directly using the absence, Catalano simplifies the notion and makes it more universal: “while walking with someone in a crowd, I suddenly turn and perceive that the person is not there.”3 To Catalano this is a clear example of nothingness becoming manifest and appearing from the feeling of absence. Similarly, Catalano demonstrates how nothingness comes about from the feeling of regret when he describes the feeling one undergoes when the horse that one had previously resisted the urge to place a bet on actually wins the race. Further into his commentary, Catalano attempts to “anticipate Sartre’s discussion” to “consider the main characteristics”4 of nothingness and duly progresses his task by delivering his understanding of nothingness in what appears as a series of logical premises. Now, these are quite dry and lacking a certain poetic style contrary to Sartre, however, they are a useful attempt and do actually provide, if nothing more, a context from which to develop our own thoughts on nothingness.

Firstly, Catalano states: “There are two fundamental regions in which concrete nothingness is to be found: the world and the human reality.”5 Secondly, he writes “The human reality’s concrete nothingness is its consciousness.”6 These are relatively straight-forward statements with no real cause for concern even though, peculiarly, Catalano appears to be trying to ground nothingness with a physical attribute, concrete, which is possibly more than just strange and maybe indicative that there is a confusion present within his understanding of nothingness. However, with the next premise Catalano, I believe, demonstrates actual confusion because he takes Sartre into the realm of circular reasoning by stating “Consciousness, or awareness, is a concrete nothingness because consciousness is not perfectly one with itself or its ‘object’.”7 The problem of circularity comes about because Catalano places the dependency of nothingness upon the non-identity of consciousness within its bodily form. Whereas I believe Sartre was trying to understand the dependency the other way, i.e., the issue of non-identity comes about because of the presence of nothingness. Both Catalano and I cannot be right in this instance because that would give rise to circular reasoning whereby object A is dependent upon object B which in turn is dependent on object A.

Chicken and Egg.fw

Catalano’s statement therefore cannot be accepted as logically conditioned, but rather should be read as a presentation of properties for consideration when thinking about nothingness.

Where I think Catalano starts to get his exposition and understanding back on track however, is when he attempts to describe the ethereal or non-physical dimension that nothingness has by writing “concrete nothingness cannot be pictured”8 and alluding that it can only be approached. He also correctly, but somewhat stiltedly, surmises that nothingness becomes manifest when consciousness questions itself as to its own identity: an addictive and paradoxical line of thought that opens up possibilities, but contains no definitive answer.

Consciousness questions itself.fw

The eternal questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” arise out of this line of thought regarding one’s identity, to reveal the Sartrean ‘non-answer’ that there is a gaping void at the centre of every one of us, filled only with the presence of nothingness. The important realisation that Sartre gestured towards with his thoughts on nothingness, and that Catalano at times inadvertently is helping to present, is that if we challenge ourselves with a little bit of persistence and stamina, ultimately the questions “Who am I?” or What am I?” do lead to nothingness. This is because, for Sartre, there is no majestic grand being or deity with a purpose for us. Plus, if we probe questions of identity hard enough in this knowledge then nothingness will stride in, alongside the varying concocted possibilities of what our essence could be that briefly emanate within our thoughts and then evaporate when the heat of our determined focus questions their truth.

For example, the possibility of answering “Who am I?’ with the reply “I am a Christian” is, for Sartre, absolutely not a given or pre-determined reply but one that has been chosen and therefore without truth as to being an essence in the way that it is declared. The declarative Christian in another mindset could easily have answered “I am a Muslim” or “I am a musician”. All answers are choices and there are no factual statements as to one’s essence, because there is no essence. The point being that, by the act of asking of a question which has different possibilities and actually admitting that we don’t know the answer, we bring forth nothingness; an impossibility for something with an essence.

Universl Mind.fw

Remember that, for Sartre, “existence precedes essence”9 as far as a being-for-itself is concerned, such as I regard myself.

The Sartrean matter at stake here is that when consciousness actually kick-starts itself into operation, and breaks free of any prescribed routes of thinking placed within it from dogmatic ideologies, and allows varying possibilities in terms of ideas, thoughts, and especially one’s own identity to occur, nothingness sweeps into play. And, such nothingness swirls around, emptying our consciousness of any predilections towards becoming a brute being-in-itself. For Sartre, nothingness can be seen as that which separates being-for-itself from being-in-itself. Indeed, I would almost go as far to say that when a dogmatic ideology has taken hold of one’s consciousness to the extent that one ‘knows’ all the answers to all the questions that one allows oneself to entertain, then there is a preclusion of nothingness, courtesy of the elimination of possibilities, which renders one a being-in-itself and one effectively becomes brute matter. Obviously, if the boldness of my statement is considered consistent within Sartrean thought then the position of the ‘know-it-all’ is something to be avoided at all costs, because it crystallises into brute matter that which should be beyond mere rock, table or glass and removes the very thing that makes one human: the ability for our consciousness to allow possibilities, which in turn is the well-spring of nothingness.

Human Brain.fw

Although, as Danto is quick to make clear we have to be careful because “nothingness is not an entity,” instead, he explains, “it is a kind of shadow which we cast rather than an antecedent vacuity that we discover.”10 Nothingness only becomes manifest by virtue of an operational consciousness, it is not ‘out there’ as an ontological presence with associated determining attributes. One cannot measure nothingness, or point towards it, or buy some.

As if in agreement with Danto, at this juncture, Sartre’s thinking shifts and there appears to be a decision made because there is a quite unexpected turn in his approach. The strictly phenomenological enquiry into the makeup of nothingness, it seems, is found to be insufficient to his philosophical needs. After stating “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world”11 (which we could modernise to ‘humans are the beings though whom nothingness comes to the world’) and continuing with a phenomenological examination of nothingness per se. Sartre, instead, shifted his attention towards the implications of nothingness. The shift occurs, of course, within the guise of an ontological framework. However, where it leads is a place that feels at times as if Sartre has tricked us by a sleight of hand, or rather drugged us so that we awaken disorientated in a completely new environment; not necessarily unpleasant, but most certainly different to what we would have expected.


Sartre’s seemingly ontological gambit then, after his summary statement, “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world”, was to ask “What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingness may come to being?”12 Perhaps, because Sartre ladled so thickly the touchstone of ontology, the word being, he sought to persuade his readers of his continuing ontological rigour? Within a very short distance of text, though, he seems to depart quite dramatically from ontology into a wholly other form of enquiry. That being noted, let us reserve judgement and follow his line of thought, even with a suspicions eye-brow raised as to his ontological credentials, because I believe that from this point onwards Sartre becomes at his most interesting and our goal, the glimpse of ethics, is dangled tantalizingly before our eyes.

Following his thoughts, with their acknowledged ontological smokescreen, from asking what must ‘man’ be if through him nothingness becomes manifest brought Sartre to an investigation of what it means for ‘man’ as a being to question being; which as we know is the setting for nothingness. For Sartre, this meaning took a unique shape. If, for example, I am the cipher for Sartrean exegesis, then when I question being by putting forward varying possibilities conjured from my consciousness on the subject of where to direct this paragraph, I at that moment hold up “a particular existent”13 (a chunk of being) to view it “as a totality,”14 as if I had pressed the pause button on my existence and everything else around to arrest life’s natural ‘cause and effect’ chain of events, whilst I reflect, as a demigod, before proceeding with my typing. Obviously, my typing is only an example of an action, I could indulge the inner superhero complex within each of us and examine the possibilities of becoming a masked vigilante crusading on behalf of a helpless community threatened by a terrifying crime epidemic and a corrupt legal system; possibilities come in many forms.

Masked vigilante.fw

However, as Sartre wrote, to place “a particular existent… out of circuit” in whatever manner is also to place oneself “out of circuit”15 as well. A situation Sartre poetically depicted as that where one has effectively “retired beyond a nothingness.”16 Such a retirement, Peter Caws described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”17 The intentionality of our consciousness, toward an object of being that we hold in question, consequently creates a ‘buffer’ of nothingness around us that separates us for that moment from the overwhelming dominance and physicality of the world in which we live. It is at this moment that I believe Sartre departed from ontology because he summarised and interpreted this sequence of events as freedom.

We should do well to note here that Sartre didn’t decide to choose contemplation, consideration, inspection or a myriad of other possible choices to describe the “buffer of nothingness” when an object is held in question. Instead, he chose freedom and, as we shall see, that choice was in all likelihood governed by a desire to steer in freedom’s direction rather than necessarily blindly moving step-by-step through a series of philosophical arguments. And, it is in that particular choosing of freedom as opposed to anything else that I believe Sartre gives a glimpse of what we are looking for. It is a fleeting did-I-just-see-that glimpse out of the corner of our eye, such as a cat darting past unexpectedly, where really we seem to sense more than see what has just occurred. Acknowledging, though, that our glimpse so far purely indicates an intention to pursue freedom we should note it and continue on.

Cat darting.fw

The pedigree which Sartre gave to this announcement of freedom comes not from a logical progression of his own thought, which as we have seen contained no hint of freedom within its relatively insular exploration of being and nothingness. Instead, Sartre looked to predecessors for the granting of credibility to his claim for freedom. Descartes, for example, was drawn upon, as if Sartre were merely strolling down well known and obvious pathways to his philosophic ancestor:

“Descartes following the stoics has given a name to this possibility which human reality has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it – it is freedom.”18


Realising perhaps the tenuousness of his link, Sartre later elaborated:

“What first appears evident is that human reality can detach itself from the world – in questioning, in systematic doubt, in sceptical doubt… This was seen by Descartes, who is establishing doubt on freedom when he claims for us the possibility of suspending our judgements.”19

Taken from what appears to be the philosophy of Descartes’ fourth ‘Meditation’, where discussion on ‘freedom of choice’ is contrasted to other ‘faculties’ such as memory or imagination and peppered by such phrases as “we act so that we are unconscious that any outside force constrains us in doing so,”20 Sartre was quite blatantly appealing to Descartes’ presumed philosophical authority to persuade us of his claim that freedom arises, and is created by nothingness, due to our separation from the daily physical grind of cause and effect.

Freedom from cause and effect.fw

The fallacy Sartre committed was that he argued by appealing to an authority, where the implicit justification for his argument, or conclusion regarding freedom, is given by our acceptance that Descartes’ philosophy on the subject of freedom was the ‘truth.’ However, recognising that such a justification might be weak, Sartre continued to appeal to other authorities such as Hegel, and then even Heidegger, Husserl and Brentano under such statements as “it is one of the trends of contemporary philosophy to see in human consciousness a sort escape from the self.”21 By so doing, Sartre appears to be effectively resorting to a line of persuasion that his thoughts follow a trend rather than being philosophically constructed. This is not really how one should argue if one wants to maintain philosophical rigour.

However, I am a great believer that just because someone argues incorrectly it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is necessarily erroneous. So, perhaps I am being too harsh on Sartre by highlighting the fallacy in his thinking. Especially given that I am actually greatly interested in where his thinking leads and genuinely desire to discover the glimpse of ethics he tempts us with. However, I do also believe that in examining the fallacy and being hyper-critical we can also discover why his project offers only a glimpse of ethics from within its dense and overgrown forest and doesn’t continue by striding purposefully into the open pasture of ethics.

Overgrown Forest.fw

My supposition is that Sartre was trapped within the bounds of his own system, a system built upon ontological and phenomenological principles which clasped him tightly to its framework preventing the escape he appeared to cherish. So, it is in some ways inevitable that he, at certain moments, argued fallaciously to catch the glimpse he desired. I also believe there was nothing wrong with where he was attempting to get to but only from where he started. Too many babies get thrown out with bathwater and we should not fail Sartre, with his apparent intention to reach ethics, by dismissing his thoughts on the grounds of logical fallacy. Instead, charity and benevolence should be our manner of conduct because we are after all interested in ethics and not just proving points of logical consistency. Consequently, we should return to Sartre’s thoughts and give him his head in asking “What is human freedom if through it nothingness comes into the world?”22 Lead on, darting Jean-Paul, we trust your intentions.


  1. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 21.
  2. Danto, A. C., Sartre, 39.
  3. Catalano. J. S., A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, 51.
  4. Ibid., 63.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 64.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 28.
  10. Danto, A. C., Sartre, 56.
  11. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 24.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Caws, P., Sartre, 70.
  18. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 24-25.
  19. Ibid., 25.
  20. Descartes, R., A Discourse on Method, Meditations and Principles, 115.
  21. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 25.
  22. Ibid.

40. The Third Man


“Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”1
Harry Lime in The Third Man

Two-thirds of the way into The Third Man, Orson Welles makes his screen entrance as the very much alive, but presumed dead, Harry Lime and with Graham Greene’s blessing adds a powerful cultural summation to his character’s amoral outlook on life.

“In Italy, for thirty years, under the Borgia’s they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”2

Harry Lime.fw

Immediately prior, a tight, tense scene is played out between Orson Welles’ character, Harry Lime, and Joseph Cotton’s, Holly (or Rollo in Greene’s text) Martins on the surreal Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park in the Russian zone amidst a war raged Vienna in 1949. Carol Reed, the Director, and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, deliver the backdrop of height to add the required visuals to Greene’s packed and threatening dialogue between Martins and Lime as they size each other up after Martins’ has discovered the faked death of Lime and that his old friend is a Penicillin racketeer effectively preying on the lives of the innocent. The possibility of Martins exposing his fake death, whilst he hides in the Russian zone continuing to run his black market activity, motivates Lime as he attempts to turn Martins into his collaborator. Martins, though, wants to accuse Lime of what he increasingly understands is a pattern of shoddy, self-interested behaviour coursing through the history of their friendship; Lime’s relationship with Anna Schmidt, whom Martins believes has been left to fend for herself; and the hospital wards filled with Lime’s “victims”. Lime, though, tries to play on the friendship they once had.

“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving – forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays.”3

Ferris Wheel Ants.fw

Martins, who earns his living by writing Westerns, throws Lime’s words back, “A lot of good money will do you when you’re in jail”. To which Lime responds with a caustic statement of fact, delivered with a challengingly raised eyebrow and knowing smile, displaying that he is more than a match for Martins’ argument, “There’s no proof against me, besides you.”4

The dialogue continues with Martins taking swipes at Lime and Lime showing that he has the upper hand, courtesy of a gun, whilst trying to ingratiate his friend of old by sharing his new world vision with him.

“Holly. What fools we are talking to each other this way. As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me. You’re just a little mixed up about things in general. Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans and so have I.”5

Harry and Holly.fw

Lime’s stance is obviously at odds with Martins, due to the latter witnessing for himself the children’s hospital, courtesy of Major Calloway wanting Martins to see the extent of diluted penicillin. Martins, with a sense of melancholy, tries a different tack in the face of Lime’s apparent casting aside of humanity: “You used to believe in God.” To which Lime replies:

“Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and mercy and all that, but the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here poor devils.”6

Then with a particularly malevolent half-opened eye, Lime asks, “What do you believe in?”7 only to follow with an instruction regarding the treatment of Anna if Martins is ever able to get her out of the mess that she is in with the Russian police investigating her papers.

Alida Valli.fw

These five minutes of electrifying dialogue from Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, light up the film to give a sense of urgency to the remaining twenty, which build into a Western-esque showdown in the sewers of Vienna. The motif is acted out though the gun slinging ‘sheriff’, Calloway, shooting but only wounding ‘his man’ after Lime shoots his ‘deputy’, Sergeant Paine. There is also a non-verbal exchange of looks between Lime and Martins that culminates in Lime nodding in resignation for Martins to end his life. His time has come, he is wounded, trapped and knows that his fate will be capital punishment for the shooting of Sergeant Paine, let alone his other nefarious deeds. A shot is fired and we see Martins walking back along the sewer out of Robert Krasker’s atmospheric and beautifully lit sewer mist. This time Harry Lime is, indeed, dead.

In the text, Greene writes a slightly different ending, which has Martins recounting the scene between Lime and him afterwards to Calloway. Martins follows the wounded Lime who, incidentally, had been shot by Martins not Calloway and finds his old friend whimpering on an iron staircase leading up to street level. Lime is too hurt to move and can only say “Bloody fool”8 when Martins bends down to hear him. It’s plain to Martins that Lime will not live: “Then he began to whimper again. I couldn’t bear it any more and I put a bullet through him.”9 Calloway remarks, “We’ll forget that bit”10 and Martins responds “I never shall.”11 The difference is subtle and in the text Greene seems to have Martins putting Lime out of his misery like killing a wounded animal. Indeed, Greene even alludes to this by having Martins reference that Lime’s “Bloody fool” last gasp might have been intended as a final swipe at the writer of cattle-rustlers “who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.”12 The difference being that in Greene’s text Martins is given some volition of his own to respond to Lime whereas in the film, Carol Reed has Orson Welles nod towards Martins to shoot him as if it is Lime’s choice not Martins. In the film the control rests with Lime whereas in the novella, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Harry shot.fw

Placing the Western and text versus film references aside, the ethically interesting element in The Third Man is in Lime’s behaviour and thoughts. The short and reaching attempt at profundity given in response to Martins question as to whether he still believes in God, reveals an internal processing by Lime as to how he justifies his abhorrent actions regarding Penicillin racketeering. Alongside the statement he made about “suckers and the mugs” there is a coherent narrative that he has constructed to enable him to sleep at night. He has built a belief system, which one presumes all con men do in regard to “suckers and the mugs”, in that everyone is free to take advantage of the other and that it is a battle of wits that will win in the end, with the victor being the non-sucker or non-mug. The premise being that they each have the freedom to act in whatever way they see fit and that society’s rules don’t apply. Lime takes such thinking to a new level.

The carnage wrought in Vienna by WWII, with the resultant chaos of zones policed by four different countries, each with their own rules and systems, and an interlinking sewer network that allows easy passage from one to the other, albeit illegally, appears to be the perfect set-up for a black market to thrive.

Sewer entrance.fw

Lime, presumably, witnesses this state of affairs emerging and, being a wheeler and dealer of old, works out how to maximise his advantage. The problem being that he is edged ever onwards by the circumstances and his own greed to make choices that he then has to live with. Faking one’s own death and then continuing to live and run one’s black market business in the same city is not a usual occurrence. The reason for faking the death being that the British police, in particular, in the guise of Calloway, played by Trevor Howard, were ‘on to him’ so that Lime could effectively feel Calloway’s men breathing down his neck and their hands posed to ‘collar’ him around every street corner. The choices Lime had must have considered were to hand himself over, fake his own death, leave the city, or stop all activity. The allure of making ‘easy’ money must have prevented him from leaving or stopping, likewise giving up and owning up would not have sat well within his mind-set. A mind-set that would have rationalised that everyone else is on the ‘make’ so why shouldn’t he, especially if the money was easy to make. This train of thinking, though, has a major obstacle to overcome. People are getting sick and dying due to his ‘trade activities’. Now, Lime isn’t stupid and knows that he can’t simply shrug off such consequences. Instead, he has to rationalise, as he always would have done.

As we have seen, to Lime the lives of his fellow Viennese citizens become reducible to ‘dots’ when seen from far away and endless suffering when regarded close up, which leads him to state “the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here poor devils”, when confronted by Martins. Interestingly in this scene, there is a slight difference in the novella text by Greene, as opposed to the film scrip. In the text, Lime has the line “I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do” in-between “Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that” and “The dead are happier dead…”13

Holly and Harry.fw

Such thinking demonstrates a belief system that has sought to work through the implications of his actions. However, to take the line that one isn’t hurting their souls when one is in fact bringing about their death is belief system that dictators, serial killers, ancient crusaders, past generals and modern jihadists take. The ‘righteous’ beliefs of anyone should never involve the justification of murder, collateral damage, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, a give-me-enough-men attitude or blithely thinking that their souls will be fine. Other people’s lives are not for anyone else to decide upon. To think otherwise is to be ethically bankrupt, a position that Lime has found himself in and that Calloway wants to imprison him for, whilst Martins is coming to terms with it and Anna is possibly ignoring it.

There is a Sartrean issue here, because it could be argued that Lime accepts his situation as being “condemned to be free”14 and pursues “existence precedes essence.”15 He does this by creating his own essence rather than letting anyone else, or doctrine, impose an alternative essence upon him. Lime, it could be argued, can be seen as the perfect existential antihero, a moral nihilist operating in an amoral environment.

The sewer.fw

This is how Lime could be seen and if we take that line of thinking he then acts to highlight the Sartrean issue that freedom doesn’t necessitate ethics.

As we saw in the last post, freedom, that hard fought for treasure, pursued by Sartre through the quagmires of ontology and phenomenology, has no natural or logical partner in ethics. That one might be free does not mean that one might be ethical. Lime’s behaviour epitomises one who seems to embrace everything about Sartrean thought regarding being condemned to be free, so therefore act accordingly and do whatever you want. And, if we push Sartrean thought a little further, in Lime’s case, we can see that Lime could be the ultimate Sartean antihero. By adopting a belief system, Lime ensures that he can come into the bracket of Being-for-itself because he is positively proving that his consciousness is infinite rather than finite. The sheer infinity of what we might be able to believe in demonstrates our status as Beings-for-themselves as opposed to the brute Being-in-itself which has no consciousness and is thereby finite.


Lime, then, scores pretty highly on the Sartrean model of antihero-ness. The problem is, of course, that by being infinite and free, in a way that Harry Lime appeared to think and behave, ethics becomes lost. And, contrary to simplistic readings of Sartre this is a problem to Sartre. There just is no way on earth that Sartre would have been happy and content with the epitome of his philosophy culminating in a character like Harry Lime. The truth of the matter, though, is that many people have assimilated Sartre’s thoughts in this manner and have been content themselves to arrest their thinking on Sartre at this point of moral nihilism. The difficulty is in finding a way beyond Sartre and his exemplar Harry Lime to catch a glimpse of the promise of ethics that Sartre suggested would be the focus of his work after Being and Nothingness.

The glimpse.fw


  1. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, 119.
  2. Orson Welles attributed addition to Graham Greene’s film script for Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man.
  3. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, 119.
  4. Additions to Graham Greene’s film script for Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man.
  5. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, with slight additions for the film script,121.
  6. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, with slight additions and amends for the film script,121.
  7. Addition to Graham Greene’s film script for Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man.
  8. Greene, G., ‘The Third Man’ included in The Third Man and Other Stories, 132.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 121.
  14. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 34.
  15. Ibid.

39. Sartre’s Ethics?


“… to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous statement that “man is condemned to be free”2 is predicated upon his insistence that “existence precedes essence,”3 which means freedom arrives instantaneously.

In turn, Emmanuel Levinas’ freedom related position is that responsibility is antecedent to freedom,4 which differs considerably by awarding freedom second place.

Therefore, Levinas, at first sight, surely locks horns with Sartre’s existential situating of freedom?

The question is one of precedence. What comes first, freedom or responsibility? Presumably only one of these philosophers can be right, because at first glance there doesn’t appear to be a natural synthesis to these contrasting viewpoints. Whether it is freedom that comes first, or responsibility that gains ‘poll-position’, there is definite worth in trying to understand why this contrast arose between these two philosophers plying their trade in the same city at the same time. Maybe we’ll find a winner? Or, better yet, maybe we’ll find something more worthwhile.


Sartre’s stance, of course, was a reaction to philosophies such as Christianity’s that prescribe pre-destined ‘journeys,’ which effectively place individuals in a sub-ordinate roles as chattels to the service of a higher or greater good, society, or Being. Such paradigms, where one’s essence and hence life was thought to be programmed from birth, Sartre found intolerable and fundamentally flawed. Instead, he argued from an ontological position, which begun with a conception of being that included a clear presentation of subject-hood, and culminated in the assertion that individuals arrive before any role that they might have: existence precedes essence.

Now, there are two ways to engage with Sartre: The simplistic scampering over the neighbouring fields of ontology, phenomenology, consciousness and nothingness to get to the lush fields of freedom, bad faith, responsibility and ethics or the way we are going to do it. So, roll up your sleeves, stick on your wellies, we’re going to get muddy!


It’s going to be difficult, messy, but also thrilling, rewarding and satisfying, because just like gorge walking one needs to let go and submit to the flow of the gorge/philosophy otherwise you might get sucked into the abyss. I’m playing partly, but there is a serious side here because Sartre is not normally known for his contribution to ethics and I greatly believe that he has much to say if one can follow his, at times, torrential and whirlwind-like thought progressions.

The philosophic extraction of Sartre’s thinking is clearly allied to, and borrows from, the writings of Husserl and Heidegger: two pioneers who carved out new territories in the post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophical landscape. Indeed, because Sartre constructed his own system somewhat over the foundations of other such thinkers, the confidence he had in building on solid ground would have been fairly safe to assume. However, whilst building, with his predecessors’ phenomenological and ontological principles, Sartre arguably, also desired to breathe an air less turgid and had ambitions to soar beyond the realm of their rather dense but hard-wearing theories.


Consequently, when working with Heidegger’s intense ontological study of being, Sartre radically positioned ‘freedom’ as his chosen priority in the flourish of ontological irony that is his epiphany, ‘existence precedes essence.’ Ironic because, even though he followed the same ontological priorities that Heidegger set down, he came to realise that freedom comes before matters of ontology, essence or being, where humans are concerned. By daring to make such a bold development within the construct of ontology, Sartre additionally enabled himself to present, to those that would listen, the key that could unlock the mental chains of oppression caused by centuries of dogmatic and pernicious thinking: An oppression which enabled those who were ethically and socially corrupt to grind and wear down their fellow brethren. By proclaiming that “man is condemned to be free,” and breathing the resulting heady air that he now found himself inhaling, Sartre would have believed that he was giving humanity a realisation of enormous benefit. As far as he was concerned, as a consequence of his work, each one of us could be in a position to embrace our freedom and liberate ourselves from any chains of oppression. The bounds of dogmatic tyranny, whether imposed by others or oneself, could now be broken by Sartre’s revelation.

Breaking chains.fw

For Sartre though, the colossal and triumphant declaring of one’s freedom was never to be the end goal of his thinking. Leading humanity out of the dark ages of manipulation and vice into a more promising new dawn was only part of the task. Empowering individuals to realise their freedom and take hold of it with both hands was not enough for Sartre. He understood that each individual, in their state of realisation as regards their freedom, should also attain the next stage in the Sartrean self-improvement course: ethics.

When one reaches and attains the level of freedom one should then progress to the next stage in order to prevent anarchy and atrocity from taking place. Giving individuals their freedom was not enough for Sartre because he knew he also had to give them the tempering qualities of responsibility and ethics, because we live in communities rather than in isolation. Having complete autonomy to act out one’s desires, when embracing one’s freedom, on an island with no other inhabitants is one thing, but doing so in a housing estate on the outskirts of a city centre is a completely different matter. Consequently, Sartre realised that we have to embrace others as well as our freedom. However, his challenge was to demonstrate why that should naturally be the case from the philosophical principles he had already laid down, and this challenge, if I am to be brutally honest, was unfortunately never achieved within the oeuvre that Sartre left. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that even though the challenge of presenting a clearly articulated route-map from ontological founding principles to ethics eluded Sartre, the demand of the task never did and it was always one that Sartre felt the presence of as unfinished business.

Unfinished business.fw

The latent ethical driving force that I find in Sartre, I realise is founded, some might say, thinly within Sartre’s own works. However, because my interest lies in the ethical, my reading of Sartre deliberately extends to the piecing together of fragments which I believe form a frustrated aspiration on his part to find an ethical goal and end-point to his thinking. The weight and authority for this being given in such items as his promise, right at the last of Being and Nothingness, that he will write on ethics in a “future work” and indeed “devote”5 that text to ethics, and of course his unfinished writings on ethics, published posthumously by his adopted daughter, Arlette Elkaim-Sartre, in a planned pact upon his passing.

Revealingly though, within such items as his non-delivered promise and unfinished notes, as well as evidence of a philosopher deeply concerned with ethics there also evidence of one who had thought himself into a cul-de-sac, from which the preceding foundations and premises of his thoughts would not let him escape to reach for the ambition of an ethical telos. Sartre’s own, and somewhat borrowed, philosophical pathways had led him away from ethics to his eternal consternation.


David Pellauer, in his ‘Translator’s Introduction’ to the English version of Notebooks for an Ethics attributes the nub of Sartre’s difficulty to his formulation of consciousness within ontologically based principles:

“Consciousness as for-itself, where the for-itself is ontologically independent of being-for-others, is an ontological fact at the most fundamental level of human existence.”6

Or, to explain it another way, within Sartre’s ontological system, consciousness arises without the need for anyone else. Consciousness, as described by Sartre, could surface in a vacuum or on an island; other people aren’t required for its presence to manifest. Consequently, under such a system, as Pellauer observes, “There are others, other for-itselves, but they are not necessary for the existence of my consciousness as for-itself.”7

So, Sartre, rather frustratingly, gives us freedom, but he can’t give us each other.

Freedom but not others.fw

Pellauer neatly sums up this Sartrean ontological cul-de-sac: “while oppression can be overcome, alienation cannot.”8

Under Sartre’s ontologically rooted thinking one is given the power to liberate oneself, but also destined to be forever alienated from one’s fellows without ethics. This is due to there being an effective ‘glass ceiling’ to ontologically based philosophy where ethics cannot be reached. There simply is no provision for the necessity of others within ontology, which in turn ultimately means that others do not matter. This is not a good starting point for ethics!

Sartre, of course, understood the limitations of ontology and when writing Being and Nothingness he demonstrated this awareness:

“Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives.”9

Indeed, this matter is well known within philosophy and is sometimes referred to as trying to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ However, even though Sartre understood the limitations of ontology he was still enchanted by its power and revealed this quite openly in Being and Nothingness when he stated that ontology “does, however, allow us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”10


The task for us, therefore, becomes to re-examine Sartrean ontology to try and catch this “glimpse” of ethics and to understand quite where Sartre got to in regard to our relationships with one another and perhaps, just as importantly, ourselves.

Sartre’s ontological starting point actually began with phenomenology. Following Husserl’s work, Sartrean phenomenology, as was traditional within the phenomenological discipline, rejected the dualism of past philosophies that found their basis in a ‘real’ world hidden behind a world of appearances. For all those studying phenomenology, the so-called ‘world of appearances’ was where their interest lay and their focus conducted. The perceived object or perceptual experience was all that mattered to their philosophy; anything else was forever bracketed and excluded from their study. Consequently, Sartre set about his task by examining perceived objects and perceptual experiences and came to the conclusion that he had to turn inward and perform a thorough inspection of his own conscious processes to understand the perceptions he experienced.


The subject of Sartre’s enquiry started to shift at this point and peel away from phenomenology, because he had become fascinated by what phenomenology had led to: consciousness. Such was his fascination, that Sartre essentially developed an initial founding premise for his new approach to philosophy: “The first procedure of a philosophy ought to be to expel things from consciousness and re-establish its true connection with the world.”11 Consciousness, or to make it clear within Sartrean thought, one’s own consciousness, was Sartre’s starting position. A position that gave him so much but also, as we know, eventually led to a hampering of his ethical ambitions.

In contrast to a psychological approach, which could have tended towards a more intimate study of the internal workings of one’s consciousness, Sartre’s new phenomenological framework focused on the matter of separating what was one’s consciousness and what was not: The distinction of ‘that which is conscious’ and ‘that which is not conscious’ had arrived within Sartre’s philosophy. However, Sartre doesn’t leave this distinction within a discussion solely fixated upon consciousness. For him, this distinction also takes on an ontological bearing.

Man and apple alt.fw

In some ways this was entirely predictable given that Sartre’s acknowledged starting point was a phenomenological rejection of what Nietzsche called “the illusion of worlds behind-the-scene.”12 The hint being, from the first, that Sartre’s desire was to philosophically understand what there was in the world that he inhabited and that this, however one comes to it, is fundamentally the discipline of ontology. Consequently, within Being and Nothingness, Sartre wore his colours on his sleeve and gave his introduction the title ‘The Pursuit of Being’, which, by such heavy referencing to the word ‘Being’, was an open declaration of serious ontological intent. In retrospect therefore, it is of no real surprise that Sartre cast the results of his separation of ‘what is conscious’ from ‘what is not conscious’ in terms directly representative of his ontological leaning and utilised the magic touchstone and ontological signifier that is the word ‘Being’.

So, almost predictively, within the sixth component of ‘The Pursuit of Being’ sub-titled ‘Being-In-Itself’, Sartre formulated his ontological separation of a phenomenological derived understanding of consciousness:

“Since the being of consciousness is radically different, its meaning will necessitate a particular elucidation,.. being-for-itself (l’être-pour-soi)… which is opposed to the being-in-itself (l’être-en-soi) of the phenomenon.”13

Being for itself and being in itself.fw

The particular elucidation Sartre gave to his description for the “being of consciousness” finds its definition therefore grounded whole-heartedly within an ontological setting as the signifier “being-for-itself.” Such grounding though, goes beyond the level of signification because, for Sartre, the real understanding and ontological relevance of being-for-itself only occurs when it is juxtaposed to its phenomenological other: being-in-itself. To that end Being and Nothingness in some ways becomes an exposition based on that juxtaposition, with the content and relationship of being-for-itself and being-in-itself encompassing the remainder of his text.

To begin the process of understanding their relationship, Sartre, in ‘Part Two’ of Being and Nothingness, opened ‘Chapter One: Immediate Structures of the For-Itself’ utilising the strictly logical understanding for the concept for identity, where ‘A’ equals ‘A’. So, when he examined Being-in-itself he stated: “being is what it is” and went on to explain, “in the in-itself there is not a particle of being which is not wholly within itself.”14 For Sartre, the identity of Being-in-itself is completely self-contained, there is nothing else going on: “of this table I can say only that it is purely and simply this table.”15


The cleverly worked juxtaposition that Sartre wanted us to understand, of course, is that one cannot state the same about a conscious process: “I can not limit myself to saying that my belief is belief; my belief is the consciousness (of) belief.”16 Unlike the table, one’s belief cannot be limited and is more than a mere thing defined as ‘belief’ because it is formed from consciousness and not from physical brute matter. The difference being that consciousness has latent within it the power of the infinite, whereas physical objects are wholly finite.

Interestingly, there is a peculiarly Sartrean problem with the simplicity of my description. Sartre, after following the thoughts of Spinoza and Hegel, rejected their “appeal to infinity,”17 which explained the difference of consciousness from brute matter. Instead, he determined that any such “appeal to infinity” acts counter to its intention and actually fixes or reduces the “being of consciousness to that of the in-itself.”18 In place of infinity therefore Sartre placed his own concept, if we can call it that for the moment: “Nothingness.”19

I warned that Sartre is an intellectual whirlwind at times.


The simplest way to express his dissatisfaction with the “appeal to infinity”, popular in Spinoza and Hegel, is that by using a phrase such as “appeal to infinity” one actually removes the required capacity of infinity because it has effectively been contained and tamed to fit neatly within such a phrase. The idea being that infinity by its nature should not be able to be contained because of its inherent quality of being infinite and not finite. Setting a phrase to something places that something within the confines of the finite and removes possibilities of infinity. Consequently, Sartre opts out of the problem of reduction by introducing “Nothingness”. Now, quite what he does with “nothingness” we shall have to wait and see.


Possibly no “glimpses” of ethics as yet, but patience my friends, patience.


  1. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 625.
  2. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 34.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. See Levinas, E., Otherwise Than Being, 122.
  5. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 628.
  6. Pellauer, D., ‘Translator’s Introduction’ included in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Notebooks For An Ethics, xvii.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 625.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, xxvii.
  12. Ibid., xxii.
  13. Ibid., xxxix.
  14. Ibid., 74.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 76.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 78.

38. The Death of Ivan Ilyich


“What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life?”1
Ivan Ilyich in The Death of Ivan Ilyich

In the last post we saw how disruptive we, as individuals, can be to the possibility of ethics arising. If we follow a course of action throughout life, or even just for a few seconds, that can’t see past our own agenda then we effectively place ourselves behind a mirror where no one can affect us. Sometimes, it could be argued, this might be necessary to protect ourselves from threats. However, what we can all agree on is that such locking ourselves away is certainly not ethical and that we take the road of the solitary individual who cannot or will not take other people’s needs or lives into account, let alone their hopes, dreams or aspirations. An exemplary display of such isolating behaviour is found in Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Written in 1882 when Tolstoy was fifty-four, and had literary success firmly in his grasp with such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is striking in its plot construction and concision. As Anthony Briggs comments “The title of the tale announces its ending,”2 which means that we are not going to be treated to a thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting to see if the protagonist can survive. We know that Ivan Ilyich Golovin is going to die no matter what and this puts sharply the authorial energy, and readers’ focus, onto how rather than if that death will come. The denouement declaration is matched by a shift in gears from the epic novelist to the writer of “relentless compression”3 according to Briggs, as Tolstoys pares down his prose to present a tight and urgent parable of the mis-spent life and inevitable death of a member of the Russian bourgeoisie.

19th Century Russian Noble

The tale is also a literary masterpiece in the uncomfortably close observation of someone facing death. Tolstoy doesn’t spare the reader as he delves into the torment of Ivan Ilyich, who realises before the halfway point of the seventy page story that he is going to die. As Briggs states “there is no doubt about the devastating power of this harrowing narrative. Its literary quality, founded on grim descriptive realism and remarkable psychological insight, stands beyond dispute.”4 Ours, though, is a different focus.

From the outset we are met with ‘solitary’ characters who each pursue life solely with their own ends in mind and everyone else is a means to those ends. Ivan Ilyich’s friends and colleagues at the law court building, where he was a “Member of the Court of Justice”5 read of his passing in the local Gazette and we are told instantly who will succeed Ivan Ilyich’s position and the subsequent chain reaction that will shuffle the colleagues into new roles. As Tolstoy wrote:

“So, the first thought that occurred to each of the assembled gentleman on hearing the news of his death was how this death might affect his own prospects, and those of their acquaintances, for transfer or promotion.”6


Plus, if we think about it, the supposed friends/colleagues found about about Ivan Ilyich’s death not through each other or from the Ivan Ilyich’s family but from the faceless organ of an impersonal newspaper. This is not the way most of us hear news of someone we cherish. Tolstoy mines the vein of self-interest further:

“’I must apply to have my brother-in-law transferred from Kaluga’, thought Pyotr Ivanovich. ‘My wife will be delighted. She wont be able to tell me I never do anything for her people’.”7

Ivan Ilyich’s demise can therefore be put to good use for Pyotr Ivanovich and his equally self-invested wife. Well, isn’t that just dandy for them. Nothing like having one’s first thought being how might I profit for someone else’s misery, suffering or death.


To ensure that we don’t feel that these are somehow minor characters, in their own little universe looking in at the main events from a detached perspective, Tolstoy announces that Pyotr Ivanovich was one of Ivan Ilyich’s closest and oldest friends; law school buddies no less. Tolstoy then gives Pyotr Ivanovich centre stage by delivering him to Ivan Ilyich’s house and widow, after he filled his belly with dinner, to give his condolences.

When approaching the room where the body was laid for people to pay their last respects, Pyotr Ivanovich was at a loss as to what to do or what was expected of him in this situation. He had an ace up his sleeve though: “The only thing he was certain of was that in this situation you couldn’t go wrong if you made the sign of the cross.”8


His respectability intact Pyotr Ivanovich continued into the room but was startled by the face of his friend and colleague because it seemed that “the expression contained a reproach, or at least a reminder, to the living.”9 Tolstoy draws this incident out to show both the humanity of Pyotr Ivanovich and also the swift determination to cover it up nervously:

“The reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least he felt it didn’t apply to him personally. But an unpleasant feeling came over him, and he crossed himself again, hurriedly – too hurriedly, he thought, the haste was almost indecent – before turning and heading for the door.”10

Human feelings in the face of death are suppressed with the respectable tropes of orthodox religion that prevent any undignified behaviour. A friend, waiting in the next room, who exuded self-control and a marked air of being unperturbed by the whole affair, further assists Pyotr Ivanovich:

“One glance at his mischievous, immaculately elegant figure and Pyotr Ivanovich felt restored. He could see that Schwartz was above all this, and would be impervious to anything that might have been depressing.”11


Lucky old Pyotr Ivanovich, eh? We wouldn’t want him to let his guard down and actually allow a real emotion to overwhelm him would we? Fortunately, for Pyotr Ivanovich, Schwartz further supports him as they very briefly arrange to play whist at Ivan Ilyich’s other ‘close’ friend’s house later that night. Whist is the group’s collective and respectable entertainment that befits their position in society as they see it.

At this point, Ivan Ilyich’s widow, Praskoya Fyodorovna, makes her first appearance to converse in private with Pyotr Ivanovich. She and he make a play of grieving under Tolstoy’s deft and precise hand that shows the hypocrisy of each through their words, actions and Pyotr Ivanovich’s thoughts. She relates, “He screamed for three solid days without stopping for breathe. It was unbearable. I don’t know how I got through it.”12 To which we see his self-involved response which appears to ignore any possible sympathy for his friend and colleague:

“’… Just think, it could happen to me any time, now,’ he thought, and he felt that momentary pang of fear. But immediately he was saved, without knowing how, by the old familiar idea that this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, not him, and it could not and would not happen to him, and that kind of thinking would not happen to him, and that kind of thinking would put him in a gloomy mood, for which there was no need, as Schwartz’s face had clearly demonstrated.”13

Praskoya Fyodorovna then proceeds to the real business of grilling Pyotr Ivanovich for his knowledge of how to use the death of her husband to get money out of the Treasury. His lack of knowledge, however, allows her to dispense with him and for him to escape her company. He has finished being useful to her and he desires the front door and his game of whist.


But what of Ivan Ilyich himself? Was he any better than this coven of respectable parasites?

The middle son of a Privy Councillor in Petersberg after working in various ministries, Ivan Ilyich emulated his father, but not as successfully as his older brother. Magistrates’ courts in a few towns found themselves occupied by his presence for a time until his early death at forty-five following a fall from a step-ladder and injuring his side on a window-frame knob. Throughout his mature years he became fixated on demonstrating that he had achieved the trappings of success and lived with Praskoya Fyodorovna and their two children in their perfect homes that were actually devoid of any warmth, affection or love save from their son Vladimir Ivanich – Vasya – who still retained his childish innocence.

The slow decline of Ivan Ilyich’s health over a period of months is duly catalogued by Tolstoy, with the interactions of family members becoming more and more distant, grating and painful to all as they all try to ignore Ivan Ilyich’s terminal status. Bleakly, though, Ivan Ilyich has started staring into the abyss and morosely feeling sorry for himself: “Ivan Ilyich could see that he was dying, and he was in constant despair.”14 A parade of doctors attends to monitor, assess, discuss ‘blind-gut’ and ‘floating kidney’ symptoms whilst Praskoya Fyodorovna steadfastly sticks to her developed mantra “He just won’t do as he’s told!”15


By the mid-point of doctors’ visits, though, Ivan Ilyich has changed. His annoyance with his wife has turned to hatred, but most of all he settled upon a single focus for his frustration, pain and distress:

“Ivan Ilyich’s worst torment was the lying – the lie, which was somehow maintained by them all, that he wasn’t dying, he was only ill, and all he had to do was keep calm and follow doctor’s orders and then something good would emerge. Whereas he knew that, whatever was done to him, nothing would emerge but more agony, suffering and death.”16


Finally, Ivan Ilyich begins to gain a humane perspective on his situation. He is dying, but the others around him, and even he himself at times, are acting in denial of this unpleasant truth.

“He could see that the awful, terrible act of his dying had been reduced by those around him to the level of an unpleasant incident, something rather indecent (as if they were dealing with someone who had come into the drawing-room and let off a bad smell), and this was done by exploiting the very sense of ‘decency’ that he had been observing all his life.”17

The ‘decencies’ of social parties with their close circle of friends, once they had “shrugged off and discarded all the shabby friends and relatives who flocked around,”18 the routine of work where “the trick was to eliminate the element of crude everyday life that always disrupts the smooth flow of official business,”19 and the success of life that enabled him to buy an apartment with “spacious, high-ceilinged reception rooms with their old-fashioned décor, the gracefully appointed and comfortable study, the rooms for his wife and daughter, the classroom for his son.”20 All of it had become cast into shadow. The realisation that his life had been spent in a mind-set of superficial and self-serving activities, that he positively encouraged and instilled in those around him, was becoming apparent as the others continued to uphold these ‘virtues’ of decency and respectability. Tolstoy has brought Ivan Ilyich’s life to the point of tragic realisation as the dying man realises the full extent of what he has brought upon himself in his hour of need, the cultivation of denial, disinterest and detachment in the behaviour of others towards him combined with the hammer-blow thought that “Maybe I didn’t live as I should have done?”21


The hammer, however, only managed a glancing blow. When “wanting to weep, wanting to be cuddled and have tears shed over him,”22 a colleague, Shebek, appears in his room:

“And, instead of weeping and getting some tenderness, Ivan Ilyich puts on a solemn and serious face, looks thoughtful and from sheer habit not only comments on the significance of a decision handed down by the Court of Cassation, but goes on to defend it strongly.”23

The lack of ethical behaviour in all the characters in the Death of Ivan Ilyich is palpable throughout, save for Vasya and Gerasim. Also, the bulk of the family and friends exhibit none of the manifestations to allow for otherness, which Silvia Benso ascribes such as touch, attention, tenderness or a sense of festival. They are all caught up in their selves too much to allow anyone else to impact in the slightest. Even loved ones, let alone friends are held at arms length at all times. To let down one’s guard and genuinely open up to meet with another person in the world of Ivan Ilyich is to run the gauntlet of social disgrace and risk being banished from sight just as Ivan Ilyich banished so many in his working life when all he believed he was making judgement upon were “petitions” or “enquiries” of “official business,”24 not actual people’s lives. The scope for human interaction beyond “official business” is squashed harder than a persistent fly buzzing around a champion fly-swat Louisiana grandmother rocking gently on her porch with over a thousand ‘kills to her name.

Fly Swat.fw

Ethics and otherness do not fit into the tightly wound ‘decent’ society of Ivan Ilyich. A situation that only becomes apparent to Ivan Ilyich when he is sliding down death’s skewer to oblivion. The only person to ease his pain in the last few days of his life is the “peasant servant”25 Gerasim who has made it clear to Ivan Ilyich that he knows he is gravely ill and that he wants to try and make Ivan Ilyich as comfortable as he can: “It’d be different if you weren’t ill, but with things the way they are why shouldn’t I help you out?”26 And it is whilst looking at Gerasim’s sleeping face at the foot of his bed, in the middle of the night, that the hammer-blow thought comes again this time though to an Ivan Ilyich who can accept it rather than running from it:

“’What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life, my conscious life?’
It occurred to him that what had once seemed a total impossibility – that he had not lived his life as he should have done – might actually be true… His career, the ordering of his life, his family, the things that preoccupied people in society and at work – all of this might have been wrong. He made an attempt at defending these things for himself. And suddenly he sensed the feebleness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.”27

Nothing left to defend.fw

Possibly Gerasim’s innocence acted as a catalyst to Ivan Ilyich’s acceptance although this, of course and as it should be, is unverifiable. However, from this epiphany the descent into death proper came rapidly. Communion, at the instance of Praskoya Fyodorovna, was followed by a terse embittered “Yes” to her question “You really do feel better, don’t you?”28 Then came three unbroken days and nights of screaming torment, which only came to a halt when Vasya caught his flailing father’s arm, kissed his hand and burst into tears. Ivan Ilyich managed to express brokenly that he was sorry to Vasya and Praskoya Fyodorovna, although “Forgive me” came out as “For goodness…”29 Clarity then gripped him in its light and he realised that he must “set them free, and free himself from all this suffering.”30 The last gasps came and then death.

Ivan Ilyich the perfect example of the ‘solitary’ individual who at every turn blocked the Levinasian face of the other and all but nearly died by the hand he thrust into the world without touch, tenderness or attention. Only at the brink of death, once death is absolutely certain, did Tolstoy allow his tragically blighted eponymous anti-hero some compassion, and to realise it was compassion, from those two saving graces, Gerasim and Vasya, in this tale of torment and example of how not to live.



  1. Tolstoy, L., ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ included in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, 213.
  2. Briggs, A., ‘Introduction’ included in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, xix.
  3. Ibid., xxiii.
  4. Ibid., xxii.
  5. Tolstoy, L., ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ included in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, 157.
  6. Ibid., 158.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid,. 159.
  9. Ibid., 160.
  10. Ibid., 160-161.
  11. Ibid., 161.
  12. Ibid., 163.
  13. Ibid., 164.
  14. Ibid., 193.
  15. Ibid., 204.
  16. Ibid., 199.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., 181.
  19. Ibid., 179.
  20. Ibid., 176.
  21. Ibid., 210.
  22. Ibid., 200.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 179.
  25. Ibid., 196.
  26. Ibid., 199.
  27. Ibid., 213.
  28. Ibid., 215.
  29. Ibid., 216.
  30. Ibid., 217.

37. We Have To Do Some Work!


“Only when the mirror is broken from both sides do ethics and otherness rush forward to greet each other.”

Let us reflect for a moment on Silvia Benso’s work, but in conjunction with Levinas’.

I think it’s safe to say that Benso offers a sympathetic postulation of Levinas’ thoughts on the il y a. However, instead of images of night, insomnia, and the persecution of existence, a lighter side is developed that articulates a wakefulness filled with potential, where things become animated, vibrant, and present to us. Her innovations of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival can be seen as paths into this lighter, and more positive side to the il y a. Just as Derrida realised that Levinas couldn’t resist the ‘expectation of an expectation’, which ultimately determined the neutrality of the il y a into the form of an other as human and took him away from Blanchot, then so too does Benso have an ‘expectation of an expectation.’ But this time we are taken back towards Blanchot, albeit a lighter and more joyful version.

Benso’s expectation is that otherness does not have to be solely determined in one form: the human. By addressing and identifying the alterity (otherness) within things, as we have seen in post 33, as well as implicitly considering Levinas’ work on human ethics as descriptive rather than prescriptive, Benso actually aids the maintenance of neutrality that Blanchot sought for the il y a, which we observed in post 23. In no way, however, is Benso’s shift one that rejects Levinas’ work. The multiplicity of the otherness given by Benso’s work is still grounded in the potential for an ethical relation, a relation that is first made manifest by Levinas. So Levinas, as far as ethics are concerned, remains king of the hill and the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Or, does he?


Simon Critchley takes a friendly but critical look at Levinas and asks, “Why should the discovery of alterity necessitate ethics?”1 Going deeper into the vein of his criticism Critchley sets forth a concern that pulls at the fabric of Levinas’ logic:

“I can see why there has to be a radical alterity in the relation to the other and at the heart of the subject in order to avoid philosophies of totality, but to play devil’s advocate, I do not see why such alterity then receives the predicate ‘goodness’. Why does radical otherness have to be determined as good or evil in an absolute metaphysical sense? Could one – and this is the question motivating critique – accept Levinas’s quasi-phenomenological description of radical alterity whilst suspending or bracketing out their ethico – metaphysical consequences?”2

Levinas is up against the ropes here. Has Critchley just delivered a knockout punch that has the potential to cripple Levinas’ entire philosophy? If we are to help second Levinas, steady his nerves, and focus his concentration we need to do some work ourselves.


The answer to Critchley’s questions, whilst comprehending that there might be no apparent reason for a connection between alterity and ethics, ultimately rests in whether we can state that where there is alterity there is also ethics. This is our task, because referring back to Critchley; it does appear that Levinas is trying “to smuggle a metaphysical presupposition into a quasi-phenomenological description.”3

Fortunately, we have Benso in our corner. By looking at Benso’s work as well as Levinas’ it should be evident that a synthesis can be said to exist between the thing/face and the subject that conditions the manifestation of alterity. Let me explain. Alterity arises from the il y a as described by Levinas and Blanchot in terms of night etc. But it can also arise from touch, attention, tenderness, and festival where the subject (me or you) is shown to be positively at work and involved, in such a way as to present ourselves as receptive to alterity, rather than just overwhelmed by it. In making ourselves receptive to alterity, we relinquish our totalising vision and ontological rationale. Now this is important, because it is in this relinquishing that we discover the arrival of alterity and ethics in unison. The synthesis of thing/face with us occurs, yes, because of the alterity of the thing/face, however it also requires our openness in the manner Benso outlined with touch, attention, tenderness and festival. Without our openness there is no alterity. Another term for openness, of course, is ethical, and that is the Benso-Levinas ‘killer-blow’ to Critchley’s devil’s advocate position.

killer blow.fw

Another way to think about the Benso-Levinas pairing is that when we regard something, or someone, as merely an object we dismiss both any possible alterity and, at the same moment any possible ethical relation. The dead-eyed stare of the cold, calculating political candidate allows no room for otherness or ethics when they assess our worth in terms of ‘voter potential’. To the candidate our existence is rendered purely as an object. Our individual personality, thoughts, hopes, dreams and aspirations are all ignored or used as they further their own ends with our being. We become voter 345929 rather than anything approximating to the full complexity of the person we know ourselves to be: our alterity is obliterated by their totalizing gaze just as surely as any possible ethical behaviour emanating from them. In their objectifying/totalising of us alterity and ethics are equally eviscerated. Conversely, when something, or someone, can be said to have alterity we should realise that an ethical relation also exists at that moment. All of which, I hope to have made clear, means that we can state when there is otherness there is also ethics. The two come hand in hand, but let us not forget that it took Benso’s work to help Levinas out of this sticky position and us to see the coupling of otherness and ethics.

Hand in Hand.fw

In some ways we could pause here and reflect solely on what we have understood so far. However, as you can probably guess from the text flowing onwards this is not going to be the case. Instead, I want to spend a bit of time trying to understand why Levinas stuck to his guns and manoeuvred himself so dangerously into Critchley’s friendly but almost game ending critique.

What we have to remember is that Levinas’ philosophy was predicated upon a hard-nosed version of individual responsibility. In fact it could be argued that the necessity of having responsibility as ‘first philosophy’ seemed to guide Levinas’ thoughts through the realisation of the il y a directly into the face of another human. So what was going on then for Levinas? Why, in Derrida’s phrase, did he have ‘expectation of an expectation’ – the drive to give the il y a an anthropocentric base?

To answer this we have to understand what Levinas lived through. If one gives even the least cursory glance at his biography it becomes obvious that his defining moment was World War II. He was a Lithuanian Jewish philosopher living in France, conscripted to military service, who became a prisoner of war upon the German invasion of France. In addition, his family in Lithuania were also killed in the Holocaust. Consequently, it is no great leap to imagine that Levinas was very probably motivated by both personal and professional desperation to realign humanity.

Europe union.fw

The answer lay in replacing the guilty philosophy of ontology which led to the atrocities of war and genocide, for Levinas, with a purer form of philosophy. And, any such new philosophy had to be capable of yielding an unquestionable presence that could pump the blood back into the collapsed and distended arteries of horrified and mutilated nations. Consequently, only an ethics of responsibility for the other, prior to all other philosophies, could provide such a transfusion for Levinas. Hence the ‘expectation of an expectation’ became the one true ‘life source’, and effectively eliminated all other contenders for alterity and determined the Other as human because, the path to the human other necessitated no deviation or distraction to ensure that the ultimate objective was met: a sound philosophy that would not lead us again into the collapse of humanity and to genocide.

Quite whether this objective had been met, taken for granted, or forgotten by the time that Benso enters the scene is beyond the current task of our research. However, what is certain is that Benso’s work broadens Levinas’ objective to encompass a wider range of alterity so that otherness can be discovered outside the human face. Moreover, at the same time, her work continues Levinas’ marriage of ethics and otherness by revealing their unification in all the latter’s forms (such as touch, attention, tenderness and festival). Such unification only becomes evident, and Critchley’s reservations as to Levinas’ ‘smuggling’ answered, after Benso’s work introduces such other forms, because only then can we see how the subject’s questioning of the mode of being of things impacts upon the presence of otherness in the first place. This is not to dismiss Levinas’ work on the face as erroneous, in that he insisted that the face and hence responsibility came from outside of the subject, but to recognise that this was the exemplary but not necessarily definitive model, and that the subject can have a role in the manifestation of alterity.

Sad Girl and Monkey.fw

Again, this is important because strict Levinasian scholars would possibly seek to argue here and insist that one of the key tenets of Levinas’ philosophy has been ruptured. Personally, I like to see Benso’s work complementing Levinas and helping him out of such sticky corners as laid on by the likes of Critchley and possibly others. However, the strict scholars would probably like to say that the whole drive of Levinas’ thoughts is based upon otherness presenting itself to the subject no matter whether the subject is open to such otherness or not. Such strictness of course gives Levinas power in one sense in that a subject can never avoid responsibility for the other by claiming to be unaware or not noticing the otherness of the other. In another sense, though, as Critchley makes clear, it feels somewhat as if Levinas has conjured ethics from a “quasi-phenomenological description of radical alterity”. The first sense, we can see now, had to be present for Levinas because he wanted to shore up any possibility of a future holocaust where people ignore their own humanity by treating others as objects and ultimately killing them. So, on his own against such as critiques as Critchley’s, Levinas can be found wanting in terms of philosophical rigour. However, as we can see Benso steps in to aid him in his hour of need. Maybe, though, we need to reflect on her assistance further to see a little deeper into how she rescued Levinas from Crtichley’s critique?

To look that bit deeper we need to view the matter from a different perspective. The problem, which I believe, Benso ultimately helps Levinas to overcome can perhaps be held more firmly in our grasp when we bring back F. Mai Owens ‘solitary’ individual in a state of self-absorption, within their mirror-lined globe, as first seen in post 25. Can it be conceived, even within Levinas’ strict system, that a human face can be presented to this ‘solitary’ individual and that, because of the way that individual questions the mode of being of things, a Levinasian ‘face’ might not actually appear? Instead an object could appear which has eyes, a nose, rouged checks and a red lipstick smile.

Manniquin face.fw

At this point, it should be noted that the force which Levinas wished to bestow upon the notion of the ‘face,’ as that before which we encounter an unavoidable responsibility, is not diminished by the example of the ‘solitary’ individual because the Levinasian ‘face’ has as yet not appeared. And, the reason it has not appeared is because the ‘solitary’ individual objectified what they saw and effectively blocked the Levinasian ‘face’. A Levinasian ‘face’ within that encounter does not yet exist; instead, an object does and will continue to do so until something shifts in the questioning of the mode of being of things within the subject, the individual themselves.

Woman's face.fw

In addition, before any such ‘shift’, the ‘solitary’ individual as well as blindly passing by otherness also blindly passes by ethics. If one is locked in one’s own ‘mirror-lined’ world then one cannot be said to be ethical, if by being ethical we take action to be based on needs that aren’t one’s own.

Only when the mirror is broken from both sides do ethics and otherness rush forward to greet each other.


Effectively, then, by introducing ways in which the subject can be open, by breaking the mirror from the subject’s side through touch, tenderness, attention and festival, Benso’s work demonstrates not only the unity of otherness and ethics, but also the difficulty in realistically separating the action of the subject from the ‘face’ of the other when moments of otherness and ethics can be said to be made manifest. The manifestation appears to require both the subject and the ‘face,’ contrary to Levinas and an indecisive Heidegger on this issue. Through relinquishing the totalising gaze – the mirror lined perspective – and by adopting the open approaches touch, tenderness, attention and festival we become ethical. In our openness, as described by Benso, we become ethical.

So, rather than possibly undermining Levinas, a possible accusation from the strict Levinasian scholars, Benso, I believe, strengthens his project by giving a strong ethical stance through the addition of touch, tenderness, attention and festival and taking his thoughts past the limits of their original ‘humanitarian’ or anthropocentric objective towards a more encompassing vision. Of course, it can be said that within Existence and Existents, when Levinas first discovered alterity, he did seem to have a broader view of alterity. However, as we know, in his later texts he narrowed his field of vision in order to reveal a purely ‘humanitarian’ ethics. One point being, that such ‘narrowing’ overshadowed other potential questions or options for alterity within Existence and Existents: alterity within abstract art being one such option, as we saw in post 31. The second point being that his postulation of ethics needed beefing up by Benso to avoid being flattened entirely by the likes of Critchley’s sound devil’s advocate critique.

Devils advocate.fw

Well, maybe we should stop here for the moment. After all we have boxed with Critchley, thought about philosophy’s impact on the Holocaust, examined Benso’s strengthening of Levinasian thought and not even paused to look at any art! So, it’s fair to say that we have done some work. However, the real point is that we need to do more work with each other, a la Benso’s ideas, in order to not block the ‘face’ of the other person in revealing their otherness and our ethical responsibility. So, work on, people, work on!

At work mulitiples x 15 colour.fw


  1. Critchley, S., Very Little… Almost Nothing, 82.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 81.

36. Harris or Hemingway?


“Festivals also suspend that everyday, non-festive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”1
Silvia Benso

In her dazzling polemic Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, Jay Griffiths bemoans a palpable shift in modern culture away from festivals and towards more banal, isolated and staged consumptions of time away from work.

“People today take nuclear-holidays, one family, a couple, at the most a small group of friends, who go away for a special time-off, a playtime of their own. In one way, these holidays replace festival-time in being non-work happy-days, but there is a crucial difference. Traditional festivals meant a whole village or community taking time off together, furthering a sense of community.”2

A Village Fair by Pieter Brueghel the younger c.1616 - 1635
A Village Fair by Pieter Brueghel the younger c.1616 – 1635

Just as we saw with Silvia Benso’s thoughts in the last post, another threat to festivals are those events that “become ceremonies, parades, masquerades at the service of regimes,”3 which Griffiths gives illustration through the medium of the Great British royal ceremony, such as seen in the annual Queen’s Opening of Parliament:

“But this ain’t no festival; no one’s drunk for starters. This is pageantry, the enemy of carnival-time and festival. Festival wants people’s participation; pageantry wants the people’s partition.”4

Griffiths also adroitly brings in that third member of the UK’s power triumvirate, Religion, to be held accountable alongside the Government and Monarchy:

“Festivals are ahistoric, pageantry keeps its history alive and the historicist Christian church sticks like glue to pageantry – each reflects the other, hierarchical, male-dominated and anti-erotic.”5


So, if festivals aren’t holidays or pageants, what else besides a lack of male-dominance and prudishness are they in Griffiths’ eyes? Or as she puts it, “How could you characterize festival-time?”6 Obviously, she has the answers:

“First, they are almost always tied to nature’s time. Second, they have an ahistoric quality, not tied to specific events in a recorded past. Third, they transform work-time to play and have a quality of reversal, turning the tables on ordinary social relations, or expected behaviour. Fourth, they are characterised by an earthy vulgarity, deeply sexual in their traditions and symbols. And lastly, they emphasize a community of people and a locality of land.”7

Before segueing into natural literary fits for Griffiths’ list of festival qualities, we should also remember Gadamer’s thoughts in that festivals provide a space for “true participation” and “being outside oneself” to allow for “the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”8 And, to be thoroughly comprehensive Benso’s thoughts should also be recalled:

“Festivals also suspend that everyday, non-festive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”9

Ticker tape

Armed with a burgeoning list of festival attributes we can now descend into the merry-making worlds of Harris and Hemingway.

The Sun Also Rises, or Fiesta, was written by Ernest Hemingway in 1924 and in it’s sparse narrative style it ushers in a new era of writing. The Iceberg Theory, attributed to Hemingway, sees his work as only presenting what is on the surface. No unnecessary context, description or interpretation is given which creates both a terse, hard, and always-to-the-point focus to the prose but also a distance between the characters and the reader. Although we know clearly and bluntly what happens in a Hemingway novel we are never given an inside track on the thoughts of the protagonists or secondary characters.


From the off we are made a vicarious consort to Jake Barnes and his hedonistic journalistic life amongst a claustrophobic circle of decadent, lost and empty friends. The sense of disillusionment following the First World War pervades the narrative as we witness scene after scene of ostensible sociability fuelled by alcohol and dissatisfaction, with minimal expression given by Hemingway save to keep the action and dialogue flowing. A brief hiatus appears at the beginning of chapter five where Hemingway breaks slightly from the modernist furrow, that allows no unnecessary description, to present a momentary break in the clouds as Barnes walks out in the morning to do as the Parisians do and breakfast in a café with a coffee and brioche. The style is still scant though in its approach:

“There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work. I got on a S bus and rode down to the Madeleine, standing on the back platform. From the Madeleine I walked along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Opéra, and up to my office. I passed the man with the jumping frogs and the man with the boxer toys.”10

Coffee Croissant.fw

Hiatus aside, the plot steadfastly traces a few weeks of Barnes’ life and follows him as he travels across the border into Spain and to Pamplona for the annual running of the bulls and festival of San Fermin with two friends, Robert Cohn and Bill Gorten. At Pamplona they are joined by the thirty-four year old Lady Brett Ashley and her companion, Mike Campbell. All stay at the Hotel Montoya for the duration of the seven-day long festival. At the hotel the owner, minimalistically referred to as ‘Montoya’, meets his old client Barnes and they exchange views as to which of Barnes friends are aficionados of bull-fights. Hemingway allows himself space for clarificatory exposition:

“Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with aficion stayed there. The commercial bull-fighters stayed once, perhaps, and then did not come back.”11

The play Hemingway makes at this point is to distinguish between those bull-fighters and spectators who authentically immerse themselves in the activity at hand and those who cynically partake of it to make a living – it’s work – or those who regard it as a mere spectacle with no difference in attitude as when they regard a pageant. In the story, Barnes and his friends, Bill Gorten and Brett Ashley, get swept up in the passion and authentic spirit of the festival, whereas Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell become consumed with jealousy and obsession for their love of Brett. The love triangle becomes complex though as we are increasingly made aware of Barnes’ love for Brett as well, although both she and he agree that they can never be due to a war injury to Barnes that has rendered him impotent. Both resign themselves, however, to what cannot be unlike Campbell and Cohn. Not stopping at a quadrangle, Hemingway ramps up the earthy and erotic nature of the story, if one follows Griffiths fourth festival time requirement, because Brett begins a liaison with the much admired, for his bull-fighting skill and good looks, Pedro Romano, the nineteen year old matador.


Throughout their whole time at the festival the circle of friends seem to drink their way from breakfast onwards throughout the course of each day in a dissolute attempt at Bacchanalian revelry that sees them joining together in joyous community with the other festival participants at times and at others observes their pathetic and wretched torturing of themselves and each other.

“The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”12

Hemingway’s bitter expression of his characters exploits during the festival bites hard at Gertrude Stein’s encapsulation of the ‘lost generation’ and is wrought with pathos on their collective human condition. However his, albeit slight, descriptions of Barnes et al during the fiesta do exemplify Griffiths’ thoughts on festival time with Lady Brett Ashley’s fling with a young matador upsetting her traditional norms of repressed social behaviour to the nth degree.

1920s woman.fw

As well, the overall experience of a timeless festival embedded in the land and community comes over in wafts of dust, fifes, drums, and flowing wine, with the locals rallying to give their all across the seven days. The circle of friends, of course, are desperate to authentically partake and absorb themselves into this culture as a means to escape the rootless nihilism of their own existences. Benso’s suspension of the everyday and Gadamer’s self-forgetting to be “wholly with something else” are giving dramatic form in the frantic abandonment of the friends as they hurl themselves into situations beyond the everyday and beyond themselves so that, presumably, they might feel something rather than the numb futility of their own lives.

So, although Hemingway presents certain key attributes of festival as espoused by Gadamer, Benso and Griffiths, one might sense that I’m not wholly convinced as to the beneficial utility of Fiesta in drawing out the positives. With fingers crossed let’s look at Joanne Harris’ equally successful novel, Chocolat.


It is quite easy to regard the whole of Chocolat as a rich and always scented festival-like immersion. Unlike Hemingway, Harris delights in description and conjuring the reader’s senses to leave them salivating whilst also moving the plot forward and providing the inner workings of two narrators. The charismatic, gentle, culinary-gifted and psychological-insightful Vianne Rocher vies with the guilty, repressed, self-serving and embittered Father Reynaud. In both, though, Harris cannot contain her delight in mouth-watering descriptions that take the reader deep into an exotic fairy-tale toned festival of sensuous images of food:

“I like these people. I like their small and introverted concerns. I can read their eyes, their mouths, so easily: this one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet-smiling one the soft-centred apricot hearts; this girl with the windblown hair will love the mendicants; this brisk, cheery woman the chocolate brazils.”13

“The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the light powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee-stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisu, a smoky, burnt flavour which enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. There is a silver jug of the stuff on the counter, from which a vapour rises. I recall that I have not breakfasted this morning.”14

Silver jug with steam.fw

Harris plays on her twin protagonists with alternating narration and rivalry building as the events unfold towards the climatic “Grand Festival Du Chocolat”15 on Easter Sunday, staged by Vianne, as far as Father Reynaud believes, in direct opposition to the values of the church. The puritanical church is set against the pagan seductions of gluttony and a battle ensues to win the hearts and minds of the two hundred villagers of Lansquenet. A few of Reynaud’s more loyal, or sycophantic, parishioners such as Caroline Clairmont even distribute flyers to every household declaring boldly “CHURCH, not CHOCOLATE, is the TRUE MESSAGE of EASTER!”16

Against this plot-line, Harris weaves a more intricate story that shows a variety of characters exemplifying a version of Gadamerian self-forgetfulness that allows for “the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.” Armande Voizin’s overly mothered and closeted grandson, Luc Clairmont, breaks free of Caroline’s debilitating and emotionally twisted shackles to meet in secret with the ‘problematic’ Armande and gets to know her in her last few weeks of life. Josephine Muscat finds the courage to leave her abusive husband, the charmless café owner Serge Muscat, to live and work temporarily with Vianne but more importantly to regain her inner confidence.

Amidst the catalogue of character developments is, perhaps, the most pertinent example of being “wholly with” someone else: the relationship between Armande and Vianne. Without speaking directly each recognises themselves in the other and knows that the other is identically different from everyone else just as they are. Their difference unites the two as they reject the ‘civilising’ norms of the church under Reynaud’s guiding hand. However, as the story develops their lives are drawn tighter together with the real festival occurring not at the Easter Sunday chocolate festival but rather two days earlier at Armande’s eighty-first birthday meal.


Harris’ portrayal of the two women at the celebratory party weaves a vignette of decadent sensuality, abandonment and sensitivity:

“Armande, in high spirits, supplies much of the conversation. I hear Luc’s low, pleasant accents, talking about some book he has read. Caro’s voice sharpens a little – I suspect Armande has poured herself another glass of St. Raphaël”17

After a brief interlude recalling her mother’s views on her delight in all things culinary, Vianne turns her focus on her own presence as the master-chef and equal participant of the party:

“I catch Caro watching Armande with a look of disapproval. I eat a little. Steeped in the scents of the cooking food for most of the day I feel lightheaded this evening, keyed-up and unusually sensitive, so that when Josephine’s hand brushes against my leg during the meal I start and almost cry out. The Chablis is cool and tart, and I drink more of it than I should.”18


Griffiths distinction between sober pageantry and the festive over-quenching of thirsts with alcohol has been resolved by Harris with both Armande and Vianne enjoying this particular aspect of the birthday bash. However, more than this, in Vianne’s noting of her light-headedness and being “unusually sensitive” we get signals from Harris that this scene is very different from previous ones. Vianne, for all her sensuous enjoyment of life, has up until this moment been in cool, calm, control of her emotions and physicality. With Armande’s carousing setting the tone, Vianne finds herself letting go as well as she starts to become in Gadamer’s words “wholly with something else”:

“Colours begin to seem brighter, sounds take on a cut-glass crispness… The glasses and silverware glitter in the light of the lanterns hanging from the trellis above our heads. The night smells of flowers and the river.”19


The freely flowing Chablis and the spirit of Armande influences all the guests and makes the party a wonderful occasion, with even Caroline becoming slightly drunk, but for Vianne it is more than just a party. There is a suspension of the everyday as described by Benso and an “opening up of a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”20 The night of Armande’s eight-first birthday is lining up for Vianne to become a unique moment that stands outside of everything we have witnessed in the first few weeks. To seal the festive deal, Harris brings in Griffiths’ earthiness, community and “locality of land”21 by having Michel Roux, one of Reynaud’s ostracised travellers make love with Vianne in the garden of Armande when everyone else has wandered back to their homes or fallen asleep:

“For the moment, the simple wonder; at myself lying naked in the grass, at the silent man beside me, at the immensity above and the immensity within. We lay for a long time,…”22

To show that the scene is a unique episode in Vianne’s time at Lansquenet, Harris writes a closure sentence at the end: “When I awoke, Roux was gone, and the wind had changed again.”23 The plot gets driven forward in the next chapter. However, the night of Armande’s birthday is definitely the example of festival, in the midst of a festive novel, because not only are Benso’s Gadamer’s and Griffiths’ thoughts on festival reflected in the evocative thirteen pages, but also we can see Vianne allows herself to be open to the alterity of the other people within this chapter to experience new things that she has before closed herself off from.


Possibly, I have made my own choice a little too transparent as to whether Harris or Hemingway present the better illustration of festival. However, I don’t feel too bad about this because as Benso makes clear in the next post there is much work to be done and now is not the time for misunderstandings.


  1. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 191.
  2. Griffiths, J., Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, 80.
  3. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 196.
  4. Griffiths, J., Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, 81.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, 72.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Gadamer, H-G., Truth and Method, 124-126.
  9. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 191.
  10. Hemingway, E., Fiesta, 19.
  11. Ibid., 101.
  12. Ibid., 118-119.
  13. Harris, J., Chocolat, 61.
  14. Ibid., 154.
  15. Ibid., 153.
  16. Ibid., 294.
  17. Ibid., 336-337.
  18. Ibid., 338.
  19. Ibid., 339.
  20. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 191.
  21. Griffiths, J., Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, 72.
  22. Harris, J., Chocolat, 346.
  23. Ibid.

35. Festival


The exemplarity of human ethics lies not in its being the prescriptive origin, but the descriptive model of ethics.”1
Silvia Benso

In the last but one post, we had a gander at Silvia Benso’s work on touch, attention and tenderness when thinking about ethical encounters and there was the promise of more of such thinking in the form of festivals. However, before we resume our ‘gandering’ with Benso I want us to ‘goose’ with Gadamer. Accepting that I have quite possibly overstretched the early 1900s idiom for looking, in my uses and abuses of ‘gander’, let us proceed, or waddle, undaunted.

When re-considering play in The Relevance of the Beautiful, Gadamer isolated the change within the spectator, from onlooker to participant, to draw out his new aesthetic perspective:

“We need only think of the theory of epic theatre in Brecht, who specifically fought against our being absorbed in a theatrical dream-world… He deliberately destroyed scenic realism, the normal requirements of characterization, in short, the identity of everything usually expected of a play.”2

The Classic Stage Company's staging of Bertolt Brecht's “Galileo.” Credit Sara Krulwich - The New York Times
The Classic Stage Company’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Galileo’. Credit Sara Krulwich – The New York Times

The spectator can no longer sit back and allow the play to unfold before them and escape from themselves throughout its duration, instead they are forced to look at themselves as well as the play and in effect participate with the art that they are with. They are present just as much as the art they see. Because of the connection, of spectator to work, Gadamer believed that “it is quite wrong to think that the unity of the work implies that the work is closed off from the person who turns to it or is affected by it.”3 The mediating construct of this participation and connection, of course, is the concept of play, which applies itself to every form of art:

“All art of whatever kind, whether the art of substantial tradition with which we are familiar or the contemporary art that is unfamiliar because it has no tradition, always demands constructive activity on our part.”4


To elaborate his idea and ensure that it had no possible connection to aesthetic consciousness Gadamer delved back into ancient history and recalled the Greek concept of theoria and articulated the particular meaning of theoros as “someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival.”5 As he explained, this person “has no other distinction or function than to be there.”6 The theoros is not there to interpret, record, or understand, but solely to participate and experience what is before them:

Theoria is a true participation, not as something active but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees.” 7

As if to complete the separation from aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer wrote the following:

“Being present has the character of being outside oneself… In fact, being outside oneself is the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”8

Mardi Gras.fw

The subjective prioritisation of aesthetic consciousness (which, if we remember, was Kant’s position as given by Gadamer and discussed in post eleven) is replaced, not by an annihilation of the self but by an opening of the self to possibilities beyond one’s limits. This occurs by allowing the other to fully present themselves without one’s self-consciousness or consciousness manipulating the potential possibilities of experience. Gadamer described this using the term “self-forgetfulness”, whereby being a spectator means to give “oneself in self-forgetfulness to what one is watching… it arises from devoting one’s full attention to the matter at hand, and this is the spectator’s own positive accomplishment.”9 If we dwell on this statement for a moment it is possible to see the full sense of Gadamer’s meaning because giving one’s full attention to something should actually mean forgetting one’s self. One’s pre-occupations, regrets, desires, insecurities and presumptions should be cast from the forefront of one’s mind when attending as a spectator. Perhaps an easy example is provided by the phrase ‘lost in the music’ whereby we allow ourselves to be taken on a journey. This never happens when cynicism, interpretation, blunt ignorance, or lack of openness acts as our guide.

Lost in Music.fw

There is a striking point to be made here regarding cynicism. In the throes of a party or festival how many times has your enjoyment of the proceedings been interrupted by the ‘witty comment’ of a friend who has your ear at a vital moment to remark upon the ‘obvious agenda’ behind a certain person’s behaviour/dress-sense/participation. At those moments one has the sense of being brought crashing back to reality and joy being killed. The reason being that the cynic has just slammed the door of openness that you were innocently holding open to imbibe the view. Cynics, witty commentators and killjoys never leave the comfort of their own misanthropy and internal musings to experience real life. Life’s rich pageant is purely something to be witnessed from behind their reinforced glass observation pane. My suggestion in order to actually live, therefore, is for you to slip from their side and dare to step into the refreshing breeze of life with the spirit of Gadamer’s self-forgetfulness to keep you aloft. Cut the cynical mooring ropes that bind you to the misery of cynical existence and drift into the wonderment of engaging, participation and living. It won’t always be pleasant, however it will be authentic – a subject for a future time when we travel with Jean-Paul Sartre. For now though, back to Gadamer.

Gadamer’s next point in The Relevance of the Beautiful is again a re-thinking of a concept in Truth and Method. Rather than approaching the idea of festival from the framework of theoros and self-forgetting, Gadamer focused on the inclusive aspect of the spectator:

“If there is one thing that pertains to all festival experiences then it is surely the fact that they allow no separation between one person and another. A festival is an experience of community and represents community in its most perfect form.”10


The self-forgetting of theoros through experience now becomes a self-forgetting through community. A connection is brought about, through the festival, of one with another so that a genuine experience is lived through where one feels, rather than thinks, the connectedness of those around them. Gadamer related this concept back to art when he wrote:

“I am thinking of the national Museum in Athens, where it seems that every ten years they rescue some miraculous new bronze from the depths of the Aegean and set it up again. On entering the room for the first time, one is overcome by an all-embracing festive quiet and one senses how everyone is gathered together before what they encounter. The celebration of a festival is, in technical terms, an intentional activity… It is not simply the fact that we are in the same place, but rather the intention that unites us and prevents us as individuals from falling into private conversations and private, subjective experiences.”11

 NAMA_Poséidon and crowd.fw

Such an experience is a community experience of art, but Gadamer also brought it back to a personal experience of art:

“It is characteristic of festive celebration that it is meaningful only for those actually taking part. As such, it represents a unique kind of presence that must be fully appreciated.”12

Whether it is to twist Gadamer’s words at this juncture, or merely to play out the two lines of his thought, I believe that we can see in his work a distillation point where one can achieve a sense of community with the art work itself. The “unique kind of presence” or ‘community’ could also be felt with the work and is not necessarily tied to the attendance of other people. We can be open to the unique presence of an artwork, as we can be open to the unique presence of the other, could we not?

Perhaps, at this point, though, we need Benso rather than Gadamer. As we saw in a previous post, with her synthesis of Levinas and Heidegger that aimed to bring about a ‘love of things’, Benso has much that can be offered on the matter.

Knuckles 2.fw

In The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, Benso tries to give context and provide a known example of where an ethical encounter of tenderness can take place. To that end she investigates what it is to be in a festival.

As a starting point, time is taken as a medium to present the difference between the festival and the everyday. In the latter, Benso states, time is ‘unidimesional’ because it has a “unilinear directionality corresponding to the advancement of progress in its different variations (reason, the Idea, the victory of the proletarians), thus instituting the modality of time as continuity.”13 So, according to Benso, ‘everyday’ time is linked directly to the idea of progress, rationality, and by association totalisation. Just as vision totalises by assimilating into understanding, so to does time by providing a framework for that assimilation to happen: we progress and understand through time. The resonances with knowledge gaining as opposed to wisdom seeking start to make themselves felt in Benso’s descriptions of everyday time.


In contrast, festival time, Benso reflects, operates by calendars and exhibits “the notion of an interrupted temporality, in which each moment presents the possibility of multiple, innumerable, and therefore immemorial inscriptions the trace of which is, nevertheless, maintained in the citation of the date.”14 By celebrating a particular calendar day, for example Christmas day, other previous Christmas days and future ones all become present on that day outside of linear time, in a rich and satisfying blend of memories, current events, and aspirations. The “discontinuous and nonhomogeneous”15 aspect to festival time interrupts and gives respite from the constant pressure and flow of everyday time and existence. The necessity of a pause comes into play when we experience a festival and at these moments the pressure of linear time gets re-directed around us so we can step outside of ourselves and begin to really look at our world:

Festival Time.fw

“It is [festivals] interruptive character that renders them the most appropriate situation through which the ethics of things can be fulfilled. In their being a suspension of the banality of the everydayness, festivals also suspend that everyday, nonfestive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”16

However, a danger that Benso recognises comes from potential similarity between the festival attitude and a “Kierkegaardian aesthetic individual,”17 because the two appear to culminate in the same end: Gratification and the search for pleasure. The difference is that the latter is interested in the “exploitation of objects” for “their own enjoyment,”18 whilst the former expresses “a love for things which maintains them in the separateness of their alterity.”19 (Let us remember that the term ‘alterity’ can roughly be translated as ‘otherness’.) In addition, she writes, “it is only where alterities are allowed to reveal themselves and flourish that festivity can be found.”20 Things, therefore, cannot be regarded as objects if alterity, or otherness, is to be preserved, and festivity, by providing a suitable environment, assists in this preservation. Kierkegaard’s aesthetic individual is consequently warded off by Benso’s appreciation of a ‘Levin-egger’ fusion that can allow for a space whereby otherness can be present in things. That space, of course, is a festive space.

Festive Space.fw

Another danger, considered by Benso, was the potential for festivals to metamorphose into the products of necessity, and become a means to an end:

“When festivals search for a foundation of their own origin within themselves, they betray their own character of response to the call of the events and become ceremonies, parades, masquerades at the service of regimes. That is, festivals lose their ethical component and turn into political ideologies, mythological creations of an ontological rationality rather than responses of an ethical subjectivity, exaltation of the orgy of feelings rather than celebration of the modesty of alterity.”21

A festival is not a ceremony designed to achieve a certain end, it is not meant to serve a higher purpose or give a required result; it is purely a celebration and nothing more. The celebration of a festival allows a unique separateness to occur where neither the subject nor the thing subsumes the other into its world and, further, it is where the conditions for an ethical meeting between the two can be potentially obtained.

Subject and Object.fw

Hence, by preserving alterity within a festival, as it was when Benso investigated touch, attention and tenderness, we find an environment that can be added to a catalogue of ethically conducive requirements. So that with the negation of a totalising vision by touch, the humility of attention, the ‘way of being’ of tenderness, and the environment of festival we can become equipped to encounter a thing ethically.

Benso’s synthesis of Heidegger and Levinas, with her introduction of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival, shows how a love of things can be possible, and that Levinas’ categorical statement that “things have no face,”22 potentially, can be overcome without the integrity of his work being destroyed. The “face” of things is given by the possibility of the ethical encounter and is made realisable by Benso’s working with Levinasian and Heideggerian ideas rather than against them. However, all her technical innovations and persuasiveness find themselves overshadowed by the very simple belief that was stated in the prelude to her synthesis: “The exemplarity of human ethics lies not in its being the prescriptive origin, but the descriptive model of ethics.”23 That this belief was shown to be worthy is a credit to Benso’s work and it enables her to state justly:

“The ethical authority of the Other…, should not obliterate another form of alterity, which is different from the otherness of the other person, and whose presence is less apparent, less evident, less loud: the alterity of what Levinas’s ethics neglects, things.”24

Respect for things.fw

In reference to our second reading of Levinas and art (see post thirty-one), we can now see how the environment or abstract art – each being a ‘thing’ – can be encountered ethically. At the same time, we can also realise that their alterity might not have the enormity of a human other, as Levinas described, but nevertheless they do have an alterity that we can relate to, participate in, and ultimately treat ethically.


  1. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 139.
  2. Gadamer, H-G., ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, 24.
  3. Ibid., 25.
  4. Ibid., 37.
  5. Gadamer, H-G., Truth and Method, 124.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 124-5.
  8. Ibid., 125-6.
  9. Ibid., 126.
  10. Gadamer, H-G., ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, 39.
  11. Ibid., 40.
  12. Ibid., 49.
  13. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 185.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 186.
  16. Ibid., 191.
  17. Ibid., 192.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 196.
  22. Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity, 140.
  23. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 139.
  24. Ibid.

34. Rothko and Sensitive Observers


“When a crowd of people looks at a painting, I think of blasphemy… I believe that a painting can only communicate directly to a rare individual who happens to be in tune with it and the artist.”1
Mark Rothko

On Sunday, June 13, 1943 in The New York Times, under the title ‘Globalism’ Pops Into View, Edward Alden Jewell allowed Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko space to respond to his previous weeks criticism of their works, The Rape of Persephone and The Syrian Bull, about which Jewell had expressed “befuddlement.”2 The artists wrote:

“We refuse to defend them not because we cannot… No possible set of notes can explain our paintings. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker.”3

Such an extreme denial of any attempt to criticise, or explain, their work appears at first glance to apply far more to Rothko’s later classic works than to The Syrian Bull and its contemporaries.

The Rape of Persephone by Adolph Gottlieb, 1943
The Rape of Persephone by Adolph Gottlieb, 1943
The Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko, 1943
The Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko, 1943

By his classic works I mean the paintings in his later career, such as No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 or No. 14 1960.

No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 by Mark Rothko, 1954
No. 203 (Red, Orange, Tan and Purple) 1954 by Mark Rothko, 1954
No. 14 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960
No. 14 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960

So, let us cast forward from 1943 into Rothko’s prime years.

On October 27, 1958, Rothko, according to Dore Ashton and James E. B. Breslin, gave his last public statement. Speaking without notes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, his lecture ranged across many issues to do with his work, such as: self-expression; Nietzsche; communication; artistic ‘ingredients’; Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling; his work as a façade; and human values. It is within this last issue that we can find an initial topic for reflection courtesy of Breslin’s retrieval of a transcription from this lecture:

“I belong to a generation that was preoccupied with the human figure and I studied it. It was with utmost reluctance that I found that it did not meet my needs. Whoever used it mutilated it. No one could paint the figure as it was and feel that he could produce something that could express the world. I refuse to mutilate and had to find another way of expression. I used mythology for a while substituting various creatures who were able to make intense gestures without embarrassment. I began to use morphological forms in order to paint gestures that I could not make people do. But this was unsatisfactory.”4

Slow Swirl at the edge of the sea by Mark Rothko, 1945
Slow Swirl at the edge of the sea by Mark Rothko, 1945

Rothko concluded his lecture, before questions, by stating that his current paintings were “involved with the scale of human feelings, the human drama, as much of it as I can express.”5 Quite evidently, then, Rothko gave the version of his artistic progress as one that throughout all of its manifestations was preoccupied with the ‘human.’ Whilst being a succinct overview from the man himself, we are still left with many questions about his progression: What was ‘unsatisfactory’ about his morphological forms? How did he get to his last format, his classic works? What was it about this last format that made Rothko believe it was the best way he could express the “scale of human feelings”? This final question is, for us, the most relevant because it is concerned purely with Rothko’s mature, or classic, work.

The change to the last format, arguably, started to ferment in 1949 when Rothko began to simplify his work into multiforms, such as No. 20, 1949.

No. 20 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949
No. 20 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949

In this transition year he also published a statement in Tiger’s Eye, a quarterly journal run by Ruth and John Stephen, in which he outlined what he saw as a painter’s teleology – their goal:

“The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.”6

No. 4 / No. 32 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949
No. 4 / No. 32 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949

Ashton describes this statement in conjunction with the actual works themselves as a “purging”7 of allegories, in order to facilitate what Breslin calls a more “immediate communication”8 between work and viewer. Anna C. Chave reworks Rothko’s statement to try and give a more exact description:

“As he developed the format of his classic pictures, Rothko stopped formulating arrangements of cryptograms that look as if they could or ought to be deciphered (perhaps yielding messages from history or memory) but which frustrated efforts at doing so. He became determined not to mystify viewers with such obfuscatory ghosts of ideas but to paint something clear instead.”9

Untitled 1953-54 by Mark Rothko, 1953-54
Untitled 1953-54 by Mark Rothko, 1953-54

So, whilst realising the danger of comparing two artists and categorising them as following the same course, we can see a similarity between Pollock and Rothko, because Rothko’s elimination of ‘obstacles’ resembles Pollock’s removal of imagery, object, and form. There is also another affinity between the two, this time in terms of how their works were critically received. Pollock’s work, if we remember, was devoid of any impermeable, or otherwise, inner core of meaning and as such necessitated a radical re-evaluation of criticism that gave rise to such innovative descriptions as David Novros’ ‘total resolution’ (see post 32). With Rothko, a similar gauntlet was thrown down, and Stephen Polcari in Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience rose to the challenge by providing three descriptions of Rothko’s mature work, with the latter two pursuing more radical lines of critique. The first, however dealt purely with what a ‘Rothko’ visually presents:

“Rothko’s mature paintings consist of several parallel rectangles, often similar in value but different in hue and width, extended to the edges of the canvas. The shapes lack distinctive textural effect, seeming to be veils of thin color applied with sponges, rags, and cloths as well as brushes. Line has been eliminated altogether.”10

Untitled (Lavender and Green) 1952 by Mark Rothko, 1952
Untitled (Lavender and Green) 1952 by Mark Rothko, 1952

Such a description, whilst being visually accurate, remains merely a description and, as such, has little value beyond stating the obvious. With his second attempt, though, Polcari identifies an aspect of Rothko’s own agenda for his art: “The challenge facing Rothko in the 1950s was to transform his ideas into new pictorial form and into immediate emotional experience.”11 Finally, within Polcari’s last description real value begins to be added as he situates Rothko within his contemporary intellectual climate:

“The existentialism and emotionalism in cultural circles of the late 1940s and early 1950s undoubtedly also played a role in Rothko’s new directness of expression…. It was part of a major shift toward involvement in the individual life as opposed to the deep concern with cultures and civilizations that had characterized intellectual life in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s American culture turned from an emphasis on grand historical questions to a more Kierkegaardian concern with the individual’s own struggles for life and preservation of integrity.”12

No. 12 1951 by Mark Rothko, 1951
No. 12 1951 by Mark Rothko, 1951

With such a shift towards the problems facing an individual, as opposed to dealing with wider social issues, Polcari coolly highlights Rothko’s concern with what it is to be a human. With his second description, focusing on the ‘emotional experience’ and the last concerning itself with the individual’s life, Polcari helps to sway criticism away from such misunderstandings endured by Rothko at the hands of some of his contemporaries. Margaret Breuning in Art Digest decided that Rothko’s apparent lack of compositional expertise in his 1949 Betty Parson’s exhibit warranted admonishment: “The unfortunate aspect of the whole showing is that these paintings contain no suggestions of form or design.”13 In 1955 Emily Genauer of The Herald Times remarked upon Rothko’s one-man show at Sidney Janis’: “Rothko’s pictures get bigger and bigger and say less and less.”14 Instead, Polcari, writing some twenty years after Rothko’s suicide in 1970, appears to be addressing some of these critical wrongs and assisting a new line of criticism which focuses not on how or what is painted on the canvas, but rather on what the artist was trying to express and how that was to be imparted. The distinction that Polcari brings to bear on Rothko’s work can be viewed as that which revolves around experience as opposed to interpretation.

No. 14 1963 by Mark Rothko, 1963
No. 14 1963 by Mark Rothko, 1963

By removing the “obstacles” and also refraining from naming his works, Rothko created paintings that enable viewers to approach his art, according to Chave, in the spirit of “a pure and unique experience, for which [they] should not be prepared.”15 Such ‘non-preparation’ by Rothko was an implicit rejection of any criticism by art historians or critics. Indeed, Chave succinctly links these two aspects: “Like many abstract artists, [Rothko] tried not only to eradicate narrative or text in his art but, by the same stroke, to render superfluous the interpretative texts of critics.”16 Interestingly, Nicholas Serota, in his Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, touches on this theme when he argues that museums of modern art have become less like “curatorial interpretation[s] of history” or extensions of the classroom, to be more like arena’s for experiential contemplation of a particular artist within a space that has been controlled more by “the maker than the curator.”17 The importance of the experience of Rothko’s work, however, goes beyond curatorial concepts.

No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961
No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

Polcari’s second description which suggested the importance of “immediate emotional experience” contains a vast amount of potential discussion within its simple annunciation. Irving Sandler opens our exploration into this area of interiority by recognising the essential quality of the viewer to Rothko’s work:

“Rothko allows the viewer a certain freedom of response by his self-effacement and reticence. Hence his canvases are protean to the degree that they invite the viewer to complete their tragic message; his monologue turns into a dialogue.”18

The reaction of the viewer was always foremost in Rothko’s mind whilst painting. Indeed Breslin, in his biography of the artist, cites numerous occasions where Rothko would invite friends to preview his latest work and then watch them for the slightest indication of any kind of response to the work. Such viewings became notoriously trying encounters for all concerned. Rothko would be anxious as to the reaction to his work, whilst the viewer would be nervous as to the possibility of giving what the artist considered an inappropriate response. Even so, such was the importance of the viewer to Rothko that in correspondence to Katherine Kuh in 1954 he wrote:

“If I must place my trust somewhere, I would invest it in the psyche of sensitive observers who are free of the conventions of understanding.”19

Tan and Black on Red 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957
Tan and Black on Red 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957

This statement Ashton juxtaposes to a comment Rothko made to William Seitz in 1950 where he had expressed “that writing on art should never be comparative, historical, or analytical, but should record direct responses ‘in terms of human need’.”20 The intimacy of the viewer’s response, then, was evidently Rothko’s desire, which is beyond mere technical appreciation and must be conducted within certain parameters that allow for such an intimacy to occur. Indeed, Breslin recalls Rothko remarking the following:

“When a crowd of people looks at a painting, I think of blasphemy… I believe that a painting can only communicate directly to a rare individual who happens to be in tune with it and the artist.”21

Such an experience Arthur Danto rightly states “cannot be an ordinary experience, like that of witnessing a scaffolding against the sky or a spectacular sunset on the night flight to Iceland.”22

No. 20 (Deep Red and Black) (Brown, Black on Maroon) 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957
No. 20 (Deep Red and Black) (Brown, Black on Maroon) 1957 by Mark Rothko, 1957

The experiences are emotional, Polcari asserts, but what emotions did Rothko believe he initiated? Such, a question presents difficulties because as David Anfam reminds us Rothko deliberately cultivated an air of mystery around his work:

“Some artists want to tell all like at a confessional. I as a craftsman prefer to tell little. My pictures are indeed façades (as they have been called) … I do this only through shrewdness. There is more power in telling little than in telling all. Two things that painting is involved with: the uniqueness and clarity of the image and how much does one have to tell.”23

Blue, Orange, Red 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961
Blue, Orange, Red 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

Rothko’s elusiveness as to his painting was always undermined however by his statements, until the summer of 1950 when he was asked to write statements for two art journals. Finally, after making his turn towards his classic format, Rothko realised the necessity of integrity and as a consequence remarked to Barnett Newman:

“I have nothing to say in words which I would stand for. I am heartily ashamed of the things I have written in the past. This self-statement business has become a fad this season.”24

Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue) 1953 by Mark Rothko, 1953.
Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue) 1953 by Mark Rothko, 1953.

Such an assertive declaration of intent was subsequently only overridden by his lecture at the Pratt Institute in 1958, and by memoirs of his friends with whom he conversed or corresponded. Breslin gives colour and adds weight through his illustration of this particular dilemma for Rothko.

“For Rothko, talking publicly about his art involved not just the issue of translating a visual into a verbal expression, or even the issue of explaining a visual expression that was abstract and vacant. The real issue was that Rothko’s paintings pull us back into a state of consciousness that is preverbal; they communicate through silence. Yet he wanted so intensely for them to communicate on these terms that it was hard not to discuss them, help them along in an alien world, anxiously control their reception.”25

Rather ironically, then, Rothko found himself utilising the very thing, language, which he was trying to claim was inadequate. Such an irony, of course, was known to Rothko due to his retraction of public statement making in 1950 combined with the one exception to this retraction, the 1958 Pratt Institute lecture, where he expounded upon Kierkegaard’s rendition of Abraham’s dilemma and declared “silence is so accurate.”26

833 Untitled 1970 by Mark Rothko, 1970
833 Untitled 1970 by Mark Rothko, 1970

The issue of silence, whether it is a method of ‘communication’ or ‘so accurate,’ has to be handled carefully. Silence is enigmatic. It creates a metaphysical interlude, akin to religious awe, whereby words fail in the presence of that deemed to be more highly evolved or out of the ordinary. At these moments, a gap occurs within the pattern of day-to-day life. Menial thought stops and critical interpretation is cast adrift whilst the silent air is filled with what is regarded as a metaphysical presence. The presence is only felt because of the silence.

One immediately thinks of Levinas and Blanchot and their thoughts regarding the il y a, that haunting impersonal space that has Being but without beings: existence without existents. However, I want to recall the thoughts of Silvia Benso, which we saw in the last post, where she identified touch, attention and tenderness as actions that can help bring about an ethical encounter, because I think that silence can be added.

Rothko’s realisation that silence is the aspect with which to approach his classic works, because in silence a form of non-verbal communication can be created, doesn’t have to be restricted to his works. Silence, in the sense that Rothko understands it, conjures thoughts of respect as well, as previously stated, religious awe which result in enabling the viewer to adopt an attitude of hiatus from their normal life. To be able to pause, to dwell, reflect and absorb in silence when in front of a classic work of Rothko’s, such as Orange, Red, Yellow 1961, is a transferable attitude just as much as touch, attention and tenderness. All four are approaches that can be embraced by those wishing to connect with something or someone outside of themselves.

Orange, Red, Yellow 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961
Orange, Red, Yellow 1961 by Mark Rothko, 1961

The big question, of course, is can we adopt such attitudes. A question around which we have been circling through all the posts so far and around which we shall continue to do so with Sartre wading in on the action, but only after we have one more look at Silvia Benso. So, hover my beautiful ethical butterflies, hover.


  1. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 290.
  2. Jewell, E. A., ‘Globalism’ Pops Into View, in The New York Times, 13th June 1943, 9.
  3. Gottlieb, A. and Rothko, M. quoted by Edward Alden Jewell, ‘Globalism’ Pops Into View, in The New York Times, 13th June 1943, 9.
  4. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 394-395.
  5. Ibid., 395.
  6. Rothko, M., Tiger’s Eye statement reprinted in Waldman, D., Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 85.
  7. Ashton, D., About Rothko, 100.
  8. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 247.
  9. Chave, A. C., Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, 110
  10. Polcari, S., Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, 140.
  11. Ibid., 144.
  12. Ibid., 145.
  13. Breuning, M., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 247.
  14. Genauer, E., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 355.
  15. Chave, A. C., Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, 35. (Chave herself quotes this from an apparently anonymous author, writing for Time, in an article titled ‘A Certain Spell’, 3rd March, 1961, 75).
  16. Ibid.
  17. Serota, N., Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, 10.
  18. Sandler, I. The Triumph of American Painting: A history of Abstract Expressionism, 183.
  19. Rothko, M., quoted by Dore Ashton in About Rothko, 163.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 290.
  22. Danto, A. C., The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, 338-339.
  23. Rothko, M., quoted by David Anfam in Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, 75.
  24. Rothko, M., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 241.
  25. Breslin, J. E. B., Mark Rothko: A Biography, 307.
  26. Rothko, M., quoted by James E. B. Breslin in Mark Rothko: A Biography, 392.

33. Touch, Attention & Tenderness


“Whereas force, power, and strength impose, and weakness succumbs, tenderness welcomes… tenderness is not a quietism serving nihilism, but rather an affirmation of life, in its very power of differentiation.”1
Silvia Benso

So, let’s recap.

In the last post we saw that Pollock single-handedly dispensed with the services of art critics, due to his classic work replacing their words with a confrontation that can only be attained in person. Such a confrontation delivers, as Levinas might have said, a “social relationship”2 between the work of art and the person standing before it. In addition, a “social relationship” means that the spectator can no longer be a subject but rather something more like a friend.

As with a lot of the posts that have gone before, we are circling above a terrain, examining it from fresh perspectives rather than laying out a straight line of tarmac that slices through it. The philosophy I’m interested in seeks not to drive via the shortest route from A to B, dismissing the scenery as it goes in order to get there first and be proclaimed the victor. Instead, the philosophy that I’m interested in seeks to stop, breathe, and take in the environment that surrounds the topic under discussion and then move on to a different viewing point upon the same issue. Hopefully then a three-dimensional picture, or understanding, will take place. It won’t be the simplest to explain. However, perhaps more like a novel that one gently allows to seep into one’s thoughts, the perspectives start to work together to push softly at one’s thoughts and ideas to maybe realign them. Or, possibly better yet, to send ripples through what Willard Van Orman Quine described as our ‘web of belief’ so that after we have concluded the thorough examination our ideas, our ‘web of belief’, will be altered and maybe, just maybe, that will be for the better.

Web of Belief.fw

The process I’m describing, of course, is a type of wisdom and clearly my terrain analogy contrasts such exercises in wisdom-seeking to those of knowledge-seeking. Knowledge gaining is an acquisition, much like the winning of a trophy, whereas wisdom gaining is more like the physical growth of a child into a teenager. Wisdom alters and changes who you are. Trophies aren’t you. Plus, trophies can get broken, lost or forgotten about.

Broken Trophy.fw

So, remembering Pollock’s statement “it confronts you”3 and this leading to Levinasian thoughts upon social relationships, with the spectator becoming more like a friend. We would be wise (reference intended) to recall Silvia Benso’s views in the post prior to the one on Pollock, before moving on.

In her attempt to push Levinas and Heidegger towards each other, to generate a ‘love of things’, Silvia Benso tentatively nudges them as follows:

“So that the appeal may be heard, a questioning of the mode of being of things is required which lets them be as things.”4

Briefly, this means that although there is a Heideggerian priority regarding things, there is still an ethical encounter, with its requirement for ‘a Levinasian subject’ to do some work in allowing the thing to be as a thing. This is because an ethical encounter cannot occur in conjunction with a totalising vision, because that vision will obliterate any ethical possibility.

Totalising gaze.fw

Moving on, then, with our previous perspectives in mind we are left with Benso’s words, wondering how we are to let things “be as things” and also how we might actually enter into a “social relationship” with them. I’m delighted to say that Benso does not leave us hanging.

Benso attempts such “a questioning of the mode of being of things” by employing new mediums of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival. We shall have to wait for ideas on festival until a later post, however her thoughts on touch, attention and tenderness most certainly won’t leave us facedown on the keyboard with boredom.


For her own beginning, Benso went back to the Heidegger of Being and Time and his own influence:

“The Greeks had an appropriate term for ‘Things’: πράγματα [pragmata] – that is to say, that which one has to do with in one’s concernful dealings (πραξις [praxis]).”5

Benso’s interpretation of Heidegger’s reading of “The Greeks” is that touch is the “privileged mode of coming into a relation with things” and that “when it comes to the possibility of entering an ethical relation with things, touch retains a primacy unparalleled by any other sensory organ.”6 Although acknowledging Heidegger’s subsequent reflections on touch as ambiguous, Benso continues to explore this mode of being of things, by turning directly to a Greek source:

“What is most puzzling to Aristotle, and hence most remarkable about touch, is the fact that touch alone, among all other senses, perceives by immediate contact. Whereas all the other senses necessitate a medium… direct proximity happens not through vision, smelling, or hearing, but only through touch.”7


The “immediate contact” and “direct proximity” given by touch are instructive to Benso, because there is no intermediary:

“The presence of a mediator amounts to the presence of a third perspective from which the relation between the I and the other can be overviewed from a common standpoint, and therefore bridged and totalized in the commonality of an encompassing embrace… Where mediation is present, the other of the Other disappears.”8

I understand Benso’s new combination of Levinas with Aristotle as providing a focus for when we touch something, because in that touch we experience it directly as it is and not as we expect to experience it. Such an experience is pure, unsullied, and can’t be interfered with or manipulated by the filter of our memories or desires. The totalising gaze of our eyes casting their sweeping, judgemental, glare upon the world is removed and discarded when we touch the thing we are looking upon, because our consciousness can’t apply any preconceived layers of interpretation to that touch. The touch is instant, raw and precise and, crucially for Benso, unmediated. They are no lies or deceptions we can tell ourselves about the experience of touching something. The touch just is as it is. As such, we get direct contact with the absolute otherness of the thing we are touching. The sensation of touch is not something that we can concoct and conjure as if it came from within our own mind. This means that, as far as Benso is concerned, alterity is preserved by touch. Which is in contrast to vision where, because mediation is involved, alterity can be dissolved. The raking eye destroys the otherness of the other whilst the caress of a touch allows that otherness to just simply be. Heidegger would surely have approved.


Possibly to gain Levinas’ hypothetical approval, Benso introduces another facet to touch: the focussed property of encountering “its intentional objects always one at a time, in their individuality and particularity and never in the abstractness of their universality.”9 Such “individuality” when touching ensures that the person touching is focused on the thing itself and does not amalgamate several objects into a blurred, easily dismissed mess or into an abstract conception based upon a universal idea of the thing in question. The thing being touched retains its presence as it is through touch, when vision, for example, might threaten to overwrite that presence in any number of ways. Again alterity is kept intact because, as we experience one thing at a time, we have to be focused upon that one thing. If we were looking at it our gaze could drift off it onto something else or we could start to zoom in on a particular physical quality about the thing rather than leaving the thing in its wholeness and otherness.

Touch, then, according to Benso, provides for a connection between the subject and the thing that maintains the alterity of the latter by avoiding any possible mediation or universalization. The problem of a totalising vision is hence overcome, but this doesn’t mean that we now automatically have an ethical encounter with the thing just because we touch it rather than look at it. Touch, for Benso, was just the beginning.

Touch is the begining.fw

Having shown one way in which the “mode of being of things” may be questioned, outside of the totalising gaze of vision, Benso introduces another non-totalising approach to things, but this time concerning the attitude, rather than the physicality, of the subject.

For Benso, attention “becomes an essential component of the human side of the ethics of things.”10 For her, attention is rooted in ad-tending, the moving toward; the concentrating upon an object which at the same time is active and also passive:

“Tenaciously and persistently, attention tends toward something. And yet, in such a fervor of activity, attention can be successful, can avoid falling into invasiveness only if it lets itself be directed by that toward which it tends.”11


What I think Benso means here is that a form of passivity is required that can guide the activity of attention to ensure we attend with both patience and humility. This is of course in stark contrast to the totalising vision that blinds the objects of its enquiry so that no shadow can remain under its blazing light. Benso is quick to assert, though, that such passive attention does not mean that “servility.”12 Instead, there is

“the dignity of a deference that wishes to welcome and assert differences and otherness… What is deferred in this movement of humility is, primarily the power of a will that wants to modify, rather than being modified by things.”13

This is great and should not be easily passed over. What is deferred is the will that wants to modify. That is a fantastic way of articulating how we should be in our attention. The enemy that was, for Levinas, the totalising vision is now, for Benso, the will that wants to modify. Hark, yea Nietzscheans, place to one side your hammers and your wills. Rise up you Zen Masters who can sit and breathe next to an object without feeling the need to dominate it, own it or crush it. One needs to be humble before things if an ethical encounter is to occur. One also needs to be secure in oneself if any kind of modification is to arise in oneself via that encounter. An insecure bullish assertion “of a will that wants to modify” will never achieve an ethical encounter or, by relation, a modification in themselves, because nothing can penetrate the hard outer crust of such a wilful subject. Even if on the inside there is a curious infant yearning for comfort.

Inner Child.fw

The pendulum of active and passive, though, must not swing too far toward the passive because the danger of “servility”, as Benso prompts, is equally present. If one is servile then it will not be a modification that takes place but rather an infatuation with overtones of obsequiousness and pandering that reduce the subject to the mental equivalent of one of Elvis’ ‘Yes-men’; at best a mirror and at worst an narcissist’s enabler.

Again, as with the illustration of ‘touch’, alterity is preserved in the thing when attention is given to it. However, it is vital that with such attention the subject is considered in terms of its activity and passivity so that a balance can be sought. If such a balance is achieved then alterity will remain because the subject will not become “extinguished” by “disappear[ing] into the things it encounters,”14 and nor will the object be driven over remorselessly by the subject-cum-juggernaut. Otherness is only to be found in that delicate middle ground betwixt vapidity and juggernauts.


Benso continues her pursuit of attention by turning to tenderness, as “attentive touch”15 which she reveals is inspired by, and indebted to, Levinas’ use of the concept in connection to the feminine in Totality and Infinity.16 Taking the theme of balance between activity and passivity further she writes:

“Whereas force, power, and strength impose, and weakness succumbs, tenderness welcomes… tenderness is not a quietism serving nihilism, but rather an affirmation of life, in its very power of differentiation.”17

Tenderness is the welcome that waits “for the other to make the first move,” and then “caresses by a light touch.”18 It is also “a way of being”, “a metaphysical horizon”, “a sentiment but not a psychological feeling” and is “aroused by the appeal of things.”19 Because of these “feminine”20 qualities tenderness makes for an ethical encounter when placed in direct proximity with a thing. Tenderness becomes an attitude, through which a new mode of being can arise, that could otherwise turn everything to stone in its Medusa-like stare.

Medusa alt.fw

Benso thoughts on tenderness consequently aim towards “a way of being” that deals solely in the here and now:

“Analogous to attention, tenderness is always tending to the particular thing which inspires it with the movement of its presencing. Therefore, tenderness is always in the present, occupied by the temporality of the instant in which it unfolds itself.” 21

Tenderness gives a direct, and instant, connection to a thing that allows for a two-way encounter, an ethical encounter, to take place.


To try and give context and provide a known example of where an ethical encounter of tenderness can take place Benso next turns her attention towards what it is to be in a festival. But that, my tender and patient friends, will have to wait until another time. Actually, a very different time, as will become clear…

But in the meanwhile, as Otis said, why not ‘Try a little tenderness’?


  1. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, xxxvii.
  2. Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, 85.
  3. Pollock. J., quoted in Berton Roueché, ‘Unframed Space’ included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, 19.
  4. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 66.
  5. Heidegger, M., Being and Time, 96-97.
  6. Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, 159.
  7. Ibid., 160-161.
  8. Ibid., 161.
  9. Ibid., 162.
  10. Ibid., 164.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 165.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 166.
  15. Ibid.
  16. See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.
  17. Ibid., xxxvii.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 166-167.
  20. See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.
  21. Ibid., 169.