Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why existentialist philosophers have affairs

A couple of blogposts ago, I wrote a piece about existentialist philosophy in the wake of a romantic disappointment. It provoked a range of responses that got me thinking.

Wild women of Melbourne
Quite a few friends felt my pain and responded with expressions of solidarity and support, extending in one case to an offer to organize a possie to ride at dawn… :). These people didn’t seem fully convinced by my philosophical attempts to levitate above the rocky terrain of sexual relations on which I had been wounded (well, seriously scratched), and were touchingly ready to fight back on my behalf, on the ground.

At this earthy level, my friend Ben pointed out that I wasn’t really doing justice to existentialism either: any real French or existentialist philosopher would be having an affair by now. At the time, I didn’t have an answer to that one (so I replied to him obscurely, in French).

Another friend, Galia, took on my philosophical argument directly and questioned the value of the existentialist approach to responsibility. In this situation, she thought it had led me to blame myself for something (another person’s omission) that was clearly not my responsibility, and pointed out that this kind of thing is much more common than you might think. It’s not a problem that’s limited to readers of Sartre.

In these individualistic, consumerist, self-improving and politically apathetic times, there are much greater forces than French philosophy encouraging us to take personal responsibility for things that lie beyond our powers, at least as individuals. Systematic injustice and economic instability are reinforced by the idea that the appropriate response to such experiences is to do some work on ourselves. We are encouraged to see ourselves as the cause of the problem instead of recognizing that what we’re going through is not a unique or isolated experience, but has structural causes that will never be addressed by self-help therapies. The result is that we fail to take collective responsibility for the problems of our society, focusing our attention ever more anxiously and narcissistically upon ourselves.

Usually Galia and I find ourselves in agreement on this topic (which is a theme of Rabbi Michael Lerner's work). I am also concerned about the dominance of the concept of personal responsibility in our culture, and its tendency to drive other, more social and shared forms of responsibility from the dance-floor.

How then could I be so easily seduced by the invitation to tango with existentialist ideas, given that existentialism represents an extreme attempt to take personal responsibility for things that are beyond individual control (ie the whole world)?

The short answer is that it made me feel better. While I was feeling angry with the man who misled me – while I was thinking of him, in the conventional way, as fully responsible and blameworthy for his actions – I felt terrible. If he was a villain, then I was a fool. 

As soon as I started imagining myself as totally responsible for the whole situation, my mood shifted. In one philosophical swoop, I had transformed the man I was having difficulties with into a character in a dream, and myself into the all-powerful dreamer. No anger or blame was required, because there was only one person left in this universe: me. Cogito, ergo sum. I think therefore I am alone. (Descartes left off that last word in the Latin, but it’s implied, when you think about it…) Nice and quiet.

But even then, I did have a niggling doubt about this strategy. Wasn’t it problematic to refuse responsibility to another person in this way – to take away his agency and see him as just a piece of brute facticity, with no meaning beyond the one I chose to bestow upon him, without even asking him for his perspective? This might have made me feel that I was comfortably in control again, but wasn’t this feeling based on an illusion – an illusion that as Galia had pointed out, was closely related to the debilitating one that makes people feel better about socially-caused suffering because they imagine that it’s all about them, and they can overcome it by working on their personalities?

These doubts were reinforced when I did a take-home exam on the psychology of personality and got to the question about pessimistic attribution. This is a fancy expression for one fixed way to respond to events that knock you around. If you are a pessimist, you will assume that the cause of any unhappy event is something internal, that is, intrinsically to do with you. It’s also stable over time, difficult to change, and explains lots of the things that go wrong for you, not just the present problem. In a nutshell, the problem is (always already) you.

An optimist, on the other hand, will assume (regardless of the problem) that the cause is external, fleeting and specific to the situation. Optimists are just as deluded as pessimists, but they tend to get through life much more easily.

Neither are likely to succeed in changing the world for the better, however, because neither of them are willing to investigate cause and effect, or learn to distinguish between the things I cause and should take responsibility for, and what is caused by others, or by a larger group of which I am a small part.

Here’s where we get to my theory on why existentialist philosophers, or at least Sartre, had so many affairs.

Sartre in trouble, after one of his affairs

I think Sartre was a pessimist. That’s why when he turned his attention to responsibility, he came up with a theory that made it global, unrelenting, and entirely internal (completely "mine"). While he was writing about existentialist responsibility, he was also living through the Second World War. He refers to the war as an example of something an existentialist can and must take responsibility for. I think this is his way of protecting himself from the horror and sense of helplessness of this time in Europe, by turning it all into a dream he is willfully dreaming.

Who could blame him? As a therapy for pessimists, it’s not such a bad strategy – it does make you feel better. It seems to transcend ordinary pessimism by pushing it to a hyperbolic extreme. But if the therapy stops here, relief comes at a high price – that of isolation. Other people become mere chimeras in your dream. You can have affairs with images like these, but you can't share meaning or responsibility with them, so it’s unlikely that an existentialist affair will last long.

Does this negative view of the effect of existentialism on interpersonal relations mean that my love affair with existentialism is over already? I'm not so sure. You can't reject someone just for being a pessimist. And I'm optimistic enough to think there might be more to this philosophy than I've given it credit for so far...


genrenaut said...

Sartre's personal life seems an awful model, though as I understand he wasn't so much having 'affairs' as an open relationship with Simone in which they both also had relationships with other people? Was Camus a better example of a philosopher actually living his/her life in a moral way? I get that sense but I don't really know enough to be able to say. From a contemplative perspective, I sometimes think that I'm no longer interested in philosophers whose work doesn't seem to make them behave in more admirable ways, but that rules out most of the field...

This division between whether I myself am personally responsible for my suffering, or whether it is externally and structurally imposed (and whether that means it is outside of my control) seems for me personally to be one of those ongoing niggling questions that you don't come up with a final answer to, but you keep going back to, and which I see differently when I look at it from a perspective as a contemplative, than when I look at it according to my politics and political analysis.

One person who's interested me on this from a psychology/psychotherapy perspective is David Smail: http://www.davidsmail.info/introfra.htm


genrenaut said...
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