Being and Nothingness
He wrote novels and plays and stories that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1964 – thought he refused to accept it; he became a prominent socialist (and later, he said, anarchist) thinker and hung out with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; he was partner to Simone de Beauvoir, a literary, philosophical and political heavyweight in her own right, and – many would argue – smarter and more significant historically than he; and his name became synonymous with existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre was 4’11” of smarts. And Being and Nothingness probably the best-known of his smarty-pants ramblings.
Existence, consciousness, essence, and the individual in relationship with the world. The human condition is disconnect between what our consciousness tells us we can be and what the world around us tells us we are. Religion and philosophy arise out of a yearning to bridge this gap, this something or this nothing that exists between our physical form and our consciousness. Somewhere, we figure, there’s got to be an overarching meaning; somewhere there is a path to completion; somewhere there must be a resolution of this alienated experience. Not somewhere, says Sartre. Nowhere – that is, in the gap itself, in the in-between of what we see and what the world sees, what we imagine and what is, there’s a wide open field of possibility. And while on some level we all know that – hence the experience of alienation – we define and seek to achieve that possibility through the very means that alienate. Something out there that will close the gap? That’s the whole problem – the gap is your interaction with the world, and the world ain’t gonna fix that for you. You’ve gotta do your own work, define your own identity, transcend the limits of materiality. And you’re only gonna do that by recognizing that there is nothing out there besides materiality.
Is there some special inherent quality we need to grasp in a chair, an essence of each thing that is waiting to be discovered? No. There’s not. Get over it, philosophers. There’s no great spiritual answer that’s going to get you through. What will get you through is this – who you are is up to you. Full stop. Work, family, creed and class and colour and all that stuff? That’s your material existence telling you how the rest of the world sees you. But it’s not you. Well, let’s clarify that – it is you if you let it be. But the great joy of existentialism, of nothingness, of recognizing the absurdity of it all is this – you don’t have to let that be all you are. The materiality of the body and the physical world, the fact that there is no great answer out there, that is precisely our freedom. To be, to become, to live.
I’m gonna steal a section here from Philosophy Bro, a blog that does foul-mouthed and overly-gendered but smart and insightful summaries of ideas and thinkers, and is worth visiting regularly:
Acknowledging the existential void, the vast emptiness of the self, is no small task; for some reason when people hear “You are nothing!” They respond with fear, not hope. We all want to be something, but we don’t want to do the work; the temptation to let others do it, or to refuse to do it yourself, is great. Except that no one can actualize your vision better than you, so don’t let them…
We think we want peace and simplicity, which is why we want the safety of being-in-itself, why we tend to paint along the same lines, making small changes and slow improvements. But secretly, we fucking hate peace. We can imagine such greatness, and sometimes we just straight-up get restless. You’re not beholden to anyone! If you’re suddenly unhappy with what you are, why stay that way? We must not be afraid to start anew, to overthrow what we once were to make what we want; we must never be afraid to change. After all, the goddamn future is coming whether you like it or not; sorry, bro, but the void really is empty; stop pretending otherwise and get to work.
Sartre distinguishes objectified consciousness – being-in-itself, defined always by relation to something else – from consciousness itself – being-for-itself, a consciousness that actively and intentionally creates itself and defines itself. It’s easy to get confused; it’s easy to feel trapped, bound, constrained, and to surrender the potential for authentic consciousness to the so-much-easier derived consciousness. But that’s not freedom, and that’s not the universal human striving, the universal human potential. Do the work. Embrace the void. Define and re-define your own identity, your own potential, your own freedom. In doing so, you touch the universal, you make that freedom a real possibility not just for yourself, but for the world.