Hell is Other People?

Last night, I had the pleasure of preparing a TalkBack session on the Stage II production of Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.”

UMD Statesman Photo of No Exit by Sara Hughes

In the past, when I have read this play with undergraduates, some have seized on the zinger in the last minutes of the play, in which a character proclaims that “Hell is Other People.” Those students have oscillated between quiet, poetic types whom I imagined might prefer Walden and stranger types who might prefer a life more Unabomberesque. But in both cases, they miss the point of the play.

Existentialism, for me, was always defined by two texts: Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” and Camus’ “The Fall.” In many ways, those two texts are the engineering and the architecture, the chemistry and the gourmet cookery, the science and the art of existentialism.

In the Humanism essay, Sartre compares humans to a pair of scissors. Scissors are defined by their maker — the criteria for their success or failure in life is in the maker’s plan. Humans, as beings without a maker in that way (although there is an attempt at a Christian existentialism), have no default purpose or plan. We must forge our own way, define our own success and failure.

In “The Fall” however, we are introduced to experiences only hinted at the Humanism essay. The narrator of the novel is attempting to come to grips with the ways that his actions define him, but also the ways his inactions define him. Coming, as it does, in the wake of WWII, in this novel, you can imagine that there are recriminations both for what the narrator has done and what he failed to do, and the costs, in human lives, of both.

“The Fall” works as a novel because the narrator confesses to the reader — it is in our ears and eyes that he is reminded that he bears responsibility for his action and inaction. In drafting “No Exit,” Sartre has basically replaced the conversational dynamic between narrator and reader of “The Fall” with a dynamic we can watch — three people locked in Hell.

Hell is other people only if you have failed to accept responsibility for your actions and inactions. Others are reminders of your responsibility (the duty to respond to another, to call yourself into account). If any one of these three characters had accepted that responsibility, there would be no Hell for them, I think.

One of the reasons I love this play is that it reclaims something important, if you understand it within the larger context of Existentialism. “Personal Responsibility” has become a keyword of the political right, but the ultimate expression of personal responsibility has to be existentialism, which was inflected by encounters with colonialism, fascism, as well as Marxism — and comes through on the other side as a genuinely left-wing movement. Personal responsibility is not incompatible with a liberal social conscience.

The performance is worth a look. The play has been stripped of the simplicity that characterizes most stagings — this is a multimedia event. As such there are elements that don’t work for me but worked exceptionally well for the younger audience. But overall, I found this staging to be one that effectively illustrates the suffering of at least two of the characters (Inez is played with such rage, it is hard to recognize her struggle, sometimes, as a struggle). The implications of the text are underscored, rather than undermined, by this innovative staging.

Hats off to Derik Iverson, as director and Caity Shea Violette as “Inez.” Extra appreciation to to Jared Walz as “Cradeau”and Carla Weideman as “Estelle,” who made me feel their torment. And I hope I never see that Valet again…

…except tonight, after the show, at the TalkBack.  See you there?



about 10 years ago

Look, I am reluctantly pulling rank, but having studied philosophy as an undergraduate, I can say that Sarte was a misogynist, misanthropic totalitatarianist who celebrated the mess that China's communist intellectuals got themselves into int he 1960s.

With the terrible tragedy that occurred yesterday, let us give up romanticized idealized philosophical jokes, and instead devote ourselves to a sane philosophy that will keep semi-automatic weapons out of insane people shooting up kindergardners.

This is a related response, if you read Sartre's ideas on these issues.  They are appalling.

[email protected]

about 10 years ago

I don't know what rank you think you are pulling, Emmadogs, but Sartre was also perhaps the most intelligent critic of the US entry into Vietnam.  Politics and philosophy are not at odds, but they are different activities.  Only Plato believed the philosopher should also be king.

Meanwhile, the list of intellectuals who had misplaced faith in Chinese Communism would fill an encyclopedia.  Dismissing them would leave us impoverished.

I'm sorry if you want error-free philosophers.  Philosophers are like parents -- they are just people, too, capable of mistakes.  

In any case, good parents do not dispose of the baby with the bathwater.


about 10 years ago

Hell really is other people though, for Sartre, in the sense that the looks of others cause us to start a little performance of "me, the roadshow."  Inauthenticity.

[email protected]

about 10 years ago

Xenophon -- you caught me.  I got a little slippery with the Sartre/Camus to recover something a little more optimistic than a straight Sartre reading would yield.


about 10 years ago

Rhetoricguy, I owe you an apology for my snotty posting.  You did not deserve that.  As you can tell, I get bent out of shape re celebrations of Sartre, whose politics I find to be repulsive in their entirety.  Last night, I had just seen the NYT posting of victims' names and ages, and for a mental break switched to PDD, where I unloaded on you.

Thank you for your thoughtful postings on local happenings.

[email protected]

about 10 years ago

Emmadogs, no worries.  

But -- I'll buy you a Martini at Blackwater before Nerd Nite on Wednesday if you read his objections to Vietnam and want to talk about them.  Now, I'll admit that his defense of Vietnamese self-determination was inflected by his hopes for socialism, but still, as a critique of American imperialism and as an analysis of US soldiers' experiences among the Vietnamese, it's invaluable, in my opinion.  

That said, there's a lot of bathwater threaded in Existential thinking (especially because, unnuanced, it sounds a lot like something Ayn Rand would have liked).  I resonate with your critique -- I do.

And I totally get the response to CT.  I co-wrote this like 12 years ago, and I hate, I feel sick that it is still relevant. 


about 10 years ago

I can tell already that you would wipe the floor with me on this, but I just feel there is no defending the European/American lefts' arrogant and ignorant support of the violent, nihilistic, totalitarian actions of the Communists. The intelligentsia who lived through WW 2 in Europe should have particularly known better.  On the other hand, I know about one percent of what a person should know on this topic before rendering an opinion on it.

Thanks for the link to your essay, too.

[email protected]

about 10 years ago

I agree -- but the list of intellectuals with hopes for China was impossibly large, and could include everyone from Sartre to Kristeva.  

So I'm not disagreeing.  I would join you in saying "WTF, you should have been smarter than that."  As smart as you were, for example, when you proclaimed that US intervention in Vietnam was a genocidal effort, in intent (as a war designed to replace Vietnamese culture with a society friendly to Western capitalist/ imperialism) and in practice (by American GIs who, after a certain point, opened fire on anyone who was Vietnamese).

I do the same thing when I read the Futurists and bracket the affection some held for Moussolini, when I read the constitution and bracket the 3/5ths compromise, and when I read TS Eliot and bracket what he did to his wife.  I turn the bracketing off if a student lights up:  "You like Althusserian theories of interpellation, do you?  Now let's talk about the fact that he insists he has no memory of strangling his wife.  Are these separate issues or must we pull them together for a larger account?"  

Emmadogs, you are right to keep your eyes on the larger account.

The Big E

about 10 years ago

I can tell already that you would wipe the floor with me on this, but I just feel there is no defending the European/American lefts' arrogant and ignorant support of the violent, nihilistic, totalitarian actions of the Communists. The intelligentsia who lived through WW 2 in Europe should have particularly known better.

I'm distinctly not a rightwinger, but I'd have to agree that the degree of naivete on the part of some members of the Western left regarding how Communism actually played out is depressing.  

I happened to pick up a copy of Martin Amis's odd Koba the Dread at the Friends of the Library sale a couple summers ago.  It develops that issue in personal and impassioned form.  And while I can't profess myself to be a major Amis enthusiast, his railing on Christopher Hitchens on that point was worth the low, low price of admission.  

The US did a lot of stupid, depressing things in the course of the Cold War, and there are aspects of American society that are stupid and depressing more generally.  But to look to the other side of the Iron Curtain for a better alternative was pretty dumb.


about 10 years ago

I find Martin Amis difficult to get into, but I will give that book a try.


about 10 years ago

The Myth of Sisyphus is the only relevant parable to our times Dave.

Anthony Bennett

about 10 years ago

Not to be a smart guy, but here's Camus, the absurdist: "No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked..."

And here's another vote for The Myth of Sisyphus. A tough read, but a nice place to find some hope.

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