TK/B/B: Why Sartre was insufficiently cynical

Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. [He swings round abruptly.] What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. [Laughs.] So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is–other people!

No Exit, of course.

The standard naive interpretation of this passage is that, well, our interactions with other people are necessarily hellish — broken, twisted, deeply tainted. Sartre has renounced this interpretation.

…“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. … But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us. (From the Imago playbill)

However, Sartre was wrong to do so. For it is precisely our radical dependence on others that ensures that our actual interactions with them will be hellish. As I’ve said before, in a state of civilization we depend on others for all our needs from the basics like food and shelter to the “higher” (though equally artifacts of brute biology, the desire for companionship like the desire for food simply and meaninglessly selected for by its propensity to facilitate the survival of the hulk that carries our genes) needs of “love” and recognition and esteem, as well as, as Sartre pointed out, identification and judgment and distinction from the rest of the universe and recognition in the Fichtean sense. Each of us is dependent; each is reduced to the position of crawling, begging, sniveling suppliant for tokens from others.* And this is a dependence that naturally breeds resentment and fear and anger and bitterness when these needs are denied (or the opposite extreme, a slave morality that surrenders to these denials and denies that we deserve having our needs met**), as they always are, for others are resentful and bitter and fearful and angry too, and so they lash out at us, and they respond out of their pain as we respond out of ours. It starts in childhood, as small cruelties (or large cruelties) inflicted by our parents, by our teachers, and our peers fuck up our psyches, and then those effects are magnified by our responses to them, and others’ responses to our responses, and so on and so on in an endless vicious circle of viciousness. Kant was, that far, mistaken to say that our radical evil is wholly self-generated: we do have original sin in that we are born with drives that, in combination with the drives with which others are born, cause us to treat others like shit and be treated like shit in turn. It’s remarkably like one of those bad game theoretic equilibria: somehow we all got stuck in the all defect equilibrium, and even though there’s an all cooperate equilibrium available too (maybe… maybe… I am increasingly skeptical), we can’t get there from here. Perhaps we got there because someone fucked up, or perhaps we got there because the positive probability of someone fucking up makes the expected payoff from playing cooperate smaller, but, either way, there we are. And that is why “hell is other people” should be given the “naive” interpretation. Because the dependence on others that that passage was meant to express is precisely what brings it about that our relations with others are invariably (well, not perhaps invariably, for there are rare and transient exceptions when the facts about the world needed to satisfy, for now, the ever-increasing demands of the drives in our genes and brains correspond sufficiently well with the facts needed to temporarily satisfy the drives of others) hellish.

The argument with Clevinger had begun a few minutes earlier when Yossarian had been unable to find a machine gun. It was a busy night. The bar was busy, the crap table was busy, the ping-pong table was busy. The people Yossarian wanted to machine-gun were busy at the bar singing sentimental old favorites that nobody else ever tired of. Instead of machine-gunning them, he brought his heel down hard on the ping-pong ball that came rolling toward him off the paddle of one of the two officers playing.


* This, incidentally, is part of what is wrong with market capitalism, and why I think there’s a strong and gripping intuition bethind Philippe van Parijs’s “real libertarian” minimum basic income: to bring about slightly less objectionable domination in the world by ensuring that at least we need not whimperingly submit to others for our food and shelter and health care, that in at least some respects we need not bow down.

** Even as they are unavoidable. As Nietzsche pointed out a hundred years ago (per one of my favorite bloggers), there is no place for agency to stand apart from the drives that it would modify: drive-modifying agency is just a product of still more drives.

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