Hello again, stranger. This is the companion piece to my first, An Absurd Introduction. Its better half if you will; its weirder half if you won’t. The first time ’round I touched on existentialism generally and Albert Camus’ absurdism specifically. I included abrasive quotations from Camus and provided interpretations, ultimately arguing that all this hopelessness wasn’t so bleak. The themes and aims continue here, in Part II. Cue Jean-Paul Sartre.
Who is Sartre? He is (or was, rather) a big fan of Elmer’s glue and of peeling it off his hands after it had solidified. A foodie who could believe it’s not butter. A genius who Excelled in spreadsheets. Of course, I am lying (well, it could/should be true). For a real intro to Sartre and his ideas, the following video is splendid. Watch it.
Sartre provided perhaps the most important existential formulation: “existence precedes essence”. The fact that I exist, precedes and takes precedence over any quality that I might assign to myself (or that others might assign to me). I exist first; I am a sad, sad Arsenal fan second. The tree in the front lawn exists, and that fact precedes its leaflessness, its crookedness, and the way I perceive its bark as gnarly (dude). I gave it those qualities. Even its name (“tree”) was given. Essences are not fixed; in spring the tree may be green, leafy, or an Ent. That existence precedes essence is critical to existentialist thought. You and I are here, we exist, but that’s it. Nothing is preordained. Everything is hauntingly possible and possibly awesome.
That’s the blessing and the curse, I’m afraid. Because nothing is inherent, we are free. Painfully more free than the baldest eagle over the backwardest state. The consequence of our freedom is accountability. Nothing means nothing, or anything, and we are who we choose to be. “Everything happens for a reason” but in the opposite way that your Yogi meant. All things are brought about by decisions made out of freedom, and nothing happens because a mythical goat/G.O.A.T. overlord is pulling the strings. We have no one to blame.
Sartre called the belief of the contrary, that we aren’t so free, that there are limited options or paths, “bad faith“. We lie to ourselves and willingly accept the lives that we are handed because it is easy. Doing, thinking differently is dangerous and intimidating.
Existentialism, too often attacked for a perceived gloominess, dares you to reflect upon your freedom and to take it seriously. Now, I realize there are certain “realities” of the world we inhabit: taxes, aging loved ones, dubstep, those gym shoes that look like feet. I’m not blind to that; I, and Sartre, would simply invite you to reflect. Do you hate your job? There’s probably a robot that can do it for you. What do you want to do and why aren’t you doing it? Find a new essence for your existence. Have you ever been stuck in a relationship, unsure of what you’d do without your (in)significant other and simultaneously unsure how much longer you can stand his or her loud chewing? “I don’t know how to end the relationship,” you cry. Try having fun with it!
be happy while you are living because it is almost impossible to do when you are dead xox pic.twitter.com/0weyYZ8LRM
— Chris SimpsonsArtist (@getbentsaggy) November 30, 2015
Now, just like in my previous piece, I’m going to include some quotations from Sartre’s work that are at first scary or morose and argue their beauty and use.
“Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.”
Although this post is all about Sartre, I feel obliged to recall the words of Camus that I included in my previous piece. On the absurd creator, Camus writes, “He must give the void its colours.” Sure there’s no purpose, sure we’re alone, but neither you nor I have to embrace the way things are or hold back from reinventing ourselves. We choose. I find that much more empowering and inspiring than the idea that we’re all supposed to be collecting gold stars for X or Y.
“In life man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing. No doubt this thought may seem harsh to someone who has not made a success of his life. But on the other hand, it helps people to understand that reality alone counts, and that dreams, expectations and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations.”
This quotation is from a lecture Sartre gave called Existentialism is a Humanism (found here). It takes “we are our choices” one step further by arguing there is nothing else. It doesn’t matter if you want to be a Navy Seal or a Seal impersonator, want is nothing if it is not acted upon. Reflect upon your freedom. Reflect upon the barriers real or imagined to your ambitions. Tear them down. In you there is a pulse and a potential.