(21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980)
I have included a general presentation of Sartre's existentialism here because it is necessary to an understanding of the ‘existential-dialectical' synthesis which informs the present work.
"scandal". It is a constant source of threat and alarm. The fact that the man who caught his fellow man at the keyhole will label him an eavesdropper contains the essence of the whole relationship between one human being and another - the essence of conflict. The freedom of another person is the most fatal obstacle to my freedom to do as I wish. The look of the Other is, Sartre says, the death of my possibilities.
"While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me... Descriptions of concrete behaviour must be seen within the perspective of conflict."
Being and Nothingness , pt.iii, ch.1
In the behaviour of love, this conflict is at its most fierce and most hopeless:
"The man who wants to be loved does not really desire the enslavement of the beloved. He is not bent on becoming the object of a devotion that flows forth automatically... The total enslavement of the beloved kills the love of the lover. If the beloved is transformed into an automaton the lover finds himself alone. Thus the lover demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess a freedom as freedom . But he demands that this freedom should be no longer free."
Within this hopeless struggle, Sartre argues that there are three possible patterns of behaviour - a lover may become a sadist, and seek to appropriate the other completely and by violence; or they may become a masochist, and consent to being nothing but a thing, simply an object for the consciousness of the other; or they may adopt indifference, simply evading the conflict altogether.
We can now consider Sartre's view of human action. Action, as opposed to mere happening, entails a motive. It is only because we perceive the world from the standpoint of potential agents, and can project ourselves forward into a future that does not yet exist, that we can act at all. A mere state of affairs cannot be a motive in
itself; only the awareness of a state of affairs as something to be changed can motivate an action. A person may regard poverty or illness as an inevitable part of their life, without ever thinking of a future without it. But in so far as they are a conscious human being, a being-for-themselves, set at a distance from the world, they are nevertheless capable of description and negation, and of imagining a life without poverty or illness. This gives them a motive for action. We must consciously project ourselves into the future and away from the past if we are to act at all. Nothing will count as action which is not so motivated, and therefore it follows that no
human action, properly so called, can arise out of or be caused by the past. "In fact as soon as we attribute to consciousness this negative power with respect to the world and itself, as soon as nihilisation (of the past, to consider it as non-being) forms an integral part of positing an end, we must recognise that the indispensable fundamental condition of all action is the freedom of the agent."
The view that persons are caused to act by their visions of the future rather than by any features of the past, is anti- Freudian. Sartre maintains the pure Existentialist principle that we are what we choose to make ourselves, we have no essences, no Human Nature, and no character that we did not confer upon ourselves. To believe that our characters are either given us from birth or formed inevitably by the events and circumstances of our early childhood is just as much to fall in to Bad Faith as was Genet's acceptance of the role of thief assigned him by his foster parents. Bad Faith protects us from our responsibilities: nothing has formed our character except our own free choice. A person's character and actions arise out of the way in which, perceiving the world, they evaluate it. One's evaluations are entirely one's own - no one can force me to value something high or low. I cannot choose who my parents
are. I cannot choose my physical limitations - these and other objective constraints are termed by Sartre, "the coefficient of adversity which is presented... to my enterprises." What I can choose is my reaction to my facticity. Sartre will concede no
more to determinism - an Existentialist psychoanalysis would seek to explain what it was that a person had chosen for themselves in the future, rather than to explain the present in terms of the past.
All of our values are chosen. There is no question at all of discovering absolute values in the world: there are no such things. If a person says something is good or bad, they are choosing it as a goal; he is not describing a property it has. All moral philosophers, in asserting absolute values, whether it is human happiness or something else, succumb to the " Spirit of Seriousness ", which is another form of Bad Faith. To suppose that values are somehow given is just to fall into the kind of refusal to face his freedom which afflicts the respectable bourgeois whose duties seem all laid out for them. A moral agent must realise that they themselves are the source of all values.
Synthesis : Dialectical Reason and Existentialism
Sartre's output was prolific, including novels, plays, and literary theory, as well as philosophical works not mentioned here. For present purposes it is reasonable to take Being and Nothingness , as representing his early work; and correspondingly three works - Saint Genet, Search for a Method , and Critique of Dialectical Reason , as expressing his later development. The following commentary on the later work is a summary of the views contained in Reason and Violence - A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy, 1950-1960 , by R.D. Laing and D.G. Cooper (1964), to which I am particularly indebted. We discover an increasingly explicit and systematic concern with the relation between the individual person and the groups, institutions, and class to which he belongs.
"Here we have a most ambitious theoretical venture – no less than a totalisation , as Sartre puts it, of the whole of existing socio-historical knowledge. Here is a systematic theory that aims to comprehend the whole range from individual phantasy, interpersonal relations, socio-technical systems, to inter-group relations. Sartre aims to be systematic, without pretending to present a closed and finished system; this totalisation in progress perpetually abdicates any pretensions or intentions to finished totality.
Introduction, ibid .
"The dialectic for Sartre is a method both for working up to the experience of the concrete, and for developing a conceptual scheme adequate to such experience. But this experiential conceptual strategy is not all. If knowing is a necessary interplay between percept and concept, each feeding the other, there is still the question of that which is perceived and conceived.
"In Sartre's view, there is one realm of being where dialectical principles are constitutive of the nature of the known itself. This is the realm of human history. As for the processes of the non-human world, the world of natural science, the dialectic can furnish regulative but not constitutive principles. Thus, in the realm of the human, Sartre uses dialectic to characterize both the relation between the knower and the known, and the nature of the known. ...he remarks that social facts are things to the extent that things are social facts."
We recall (continue Laing and Cooper) that Kant's table of categories consists of four groups of three. The third in each group is arrived at by the synthesis of the first and the second. Kant's concept of synthesis is at least germinally dialectical in the in the Hegel-Marx-Sartre sense. Kant's first group is particularly pertinent to Sartre's present work. The synthesis of plurality and unity is a totality - a multiplicity-in-unity or a unified multiplicity. But, for Sartre, there are no final totalities in history. There are only totalisations-detotalisations-retotalisations. Sartre uses the term totalisation both for the act of totalising the field of the given, and for the field that is totalised. These objects or subjects totalised or totalising, multiplicities synthetically unified by the others, or by the individuals who themselves comprise them, provide the key to the understanding of history.
A totalisation, somehow dissociated from the act that constitutes it, established as a finished entity once and for all, would be a totality. But Hegel and Marx have shown that the very condition of change, of history, is that each totalisation is subject to detotalisation.
Hegel proceeds in the Phenomenology of Mind to show that many facets of reality can be unified in a consistent view of the world, in terms of which particular events, experiences, actions, find their place and can be construed accordingly. However, another synthesis, equally self-consistent, equally systematic, and seemingly all-embracing, can be found, in the light of which the same happenings or the same situation can be construed in ways that completely contradict the former. Each particular perspective, each particular point of view, is the centre of a world, but not a different world. Each point of view is an absolute, and at the same time absolutely relative: collisions between points of view occasion endless instability; collusions are efforts at some measure of stabilization. (This paragraph appeared in the earlier discussion of Hegel.)
By the act of perceiving a number (of people) as one, a group begins to formed. This act of rudimentary group-synthesis brackets, as it were, a number of human beings together. I bracket you and him together - I both perceive you and him, and I think of you and him together as You or Them. "You" or "Them" is a new social entity, a social gestalt, that I have constituted as such for me by making one social whole out of two singular individuals. One and one make one.
But this new total, this fusion of unity and totality, is not an easy operation to describe. Sartre explores the nature of these human totalisations phenomenologically: and this now is the same as to say dialectically. He explores non-analogically. A totalisation is an act; it changes the agent, the acted-upon, and
their relation. And this dialectic can only be studied dialectically. Sartre contends that the categories of what he calls analytic and positive reason fail us here, and that it is only in and through a form of reason adequate to the reality before us that we can think it, to use 'think' transitively. That is, to think is a type of praxis, the object of thought a type of deed.... (Italics added)
To think non-dialectically upon any aspect of the range of human history, in Sartre's view, is necessarily to falsify our percepts to fit our concepts, to distort our concrete experience by reifications, extrapolations, abstractions, persistently false analogies, to knead it to a form with which analytic-positive reason can cope. We try to constitute human reality into a form that does violence to its own nature.
Sartre regards analytic reason as a reflection of the way European society was structured for a time. That time has passed but its reflection persists, and is blending now into contemporary forms. But no possible transformation of analytic-positive reason (and it can excel in "sophistication") can give us understanding of our present forms of alienation, of which it is itself an exemplar. It has no way whereby it can conceive of the social meaning of nothing and negation, and no means of thinking the changing movement of history. It may then make a virtue of its own impotence; or lapse into a totalistic determinist historicism, or its antipode, a hyperempiricism.
A key concept is Hegel's aufheben ; Sartre's term is depasser (see below), which may mean roughly 'overtaken'... A totalisation holds the field. It is challenged by another totalisation. The first totalisation loses its absolute validity, conserves a relative validity, and becomes absorbed into the second, if the second is sufficiently encompassing. Thus it is negated as an absolute, conserved as a relative, and subsumed in the later synthesis. And this synthesis will in turn be subsumed in another, and so on.
A point of view, a synthesis, a totalisation, in being depassed in this threefold way, becomes a historical moment (italics added).
Laing and Cooper remark that they use a variety of terms for the rich inflections of the principle threefold connotations of aufhaben and depasser . The French word is enviably ordinary and urbane. It can be used for one car passing another and leaving it behind. Laing and Cooper use variants such as to negate, annul, to conserve, to transcend, and also coined indepassable.
We "constitute" ourselves and others into social collectivities by acts of totalisation. Sartre's view is that such collectivities are real and actual. They exist in so far as we (whoever 'we' are) have constituted 'them' (whoever 'they' are - they may be us) - and they exist in so far as, and only in so faras, we continue to constitute them - or, as Sartre sometimes puts it, in so far as we invent them.
Efforts to articulate this often short-circuit the issue by analogical thinking - the group as Leviathan, as a supra-individual, as a whole to parts, as an organism, as a mechanism. No generalised answer can be given - a detailed analysis in the case of each type of totalisation is required. Since Sartre's effort is to achieve the concrete, perceptually and conceptually, in following his spiral dialectic movement of synthesis upon synthesis, we may pass many social theorists going hard in the opposite direction. In the light of Sartre's own totalisations of the perceptions and conceptions of collectivities, one can locate the type and degree of abstraction and reification employed in the various theories and the violence done to the human reality in its concrete full being.
One can develop theories that are outgrowths from different levels of abstraction and extrapolation of the full concreteness of the human. One can have a theory of mind unrelated to the body, a theory of behaviour unrelated to experience, a theory of the individual unrelated to society, a theory of society unrelated to the individual, a theory of persons or society unrelated to the material world.
The various theories of sociology, anthropology, and psychoanalysis are more or less partial realisations of some moment or moments of the dialectic. Since they are not grasped by dialectical reason they are blown up into total theories, and inevitably run into contradictions which their authors try to deal with by ad hoc hypothesis, or simply ignore.
In Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason , the thought is perpetually altering its perspective: one moment it studies its object, the next it reflexively thinks itself, inventing itself as it examines itself (italics added). Unless one begins to live this totalising venture himself, the reader may despair. In any case one is likely to experience a sort of vertigo.
If, despite the guidance and orientation provided in Questions of Method , the reader has difficulty in orientating himself and what he reads in relation to the tradition of other philosophers, neither is it easy to rely on Sartre's earlier writings for his bearings. To use one of Sartre's favourite expressions, these works are now depassed. Being-for-itself and being-in-itself, the fundamental categories of Being and Nothingness are absorbed into praxis and process. In fact, the For-itself is mentioned only once, almost dismissively, in a footnote in the Critique . This may seem disconcerting but it is not a rejection by Sartre of his philosophical past. The key positions of the earlier work are conserved in the later, but conserved through a
dialectical transformation as one moment in the later synthesis.
Fortunately, Saint Genet , in so far as it states a philosophical position, may be regarded as transitional from the earlier philosophy to the later. In this work we still find the categories of Being and Nothingness , such as good and bad faith. But, together with biographical analysis in terms of these categories, we discover an increasingly explicit and systematic concern with the relation between the individual person and the groups, institutions and class to which they belong. Throughout this study the negative relation of existential analysis both to psycho-analysis and to Marxist explanation is exemplified concretely but not with full rigour, which clearly required a special work.
Such wide-ranging activity on the part of a philosopher must seem to lack any point of contact with the Anglo-Saxon scene, and its dominant tradition from Russell and Wittgenstein to the organised professional philosophers of linguistic analysis. From a
Sartrean view, to point out the ambiguities of language is one thing: the wish to eliminate them is another. There may be good reasons why a piece of colloquial language or a philosophical proposition is ambiguous. The ambiguity may be the result of a mystified and mystifying attitude of mind, but, on the other hand, it may very appropriately mirror an ambiguous fact.
It could even be that the human reality in which we live is ambiguous in its essence, and that this is the reality for philosophers too. Sartre seems to demonstrate this, not only in the works we consider here, but in all his philosophical works, his novels, and his theatre. Ambiguous facts are evident when we view a person from various perspectives and with various conceptual frameworks. Psychologically the statement "I hate you!" may mean what it seems to say, but at the same time, when understood within the total context of a relationship, it may equally mean "I love you". Moreover, the words uttered may express simultaneous feelings of love and hatred. Socially and politically, the realisation "I am bourgeois" may signify my further imprisonment of myself in a class role which is lived as part of my essence or nature, but it may also signify liberation by unveiling fresh possibilities of changing this aspect of what I am. Ontologically, I am a being related to myself in an ambiguous way. There is a sense in which my identity must be recognised; there is also a sense that I am not what I am : I am a being such that my being is in question to itself.
Language has developed with limits imposed by the degree of self-consciousness which man has attained. The analytic-instrumental approach to the world and to oneself entails a language which expresses the results of the analytic process, but the language then expresses an analytically reduced reality. Existing languages are all imperfectly adapted to the expression of some aspects of reality. By what law do we subjugate ourselves and our philosophical vision to such languages, or to logically perfected versions of them in which each "atomic proposition" "reflects" each "atomic fact"? Sartre recognises that the prose writer, at the moment of his success, having arrived at meanings which outstrip the language, meanings that are in a sense secreted between the lines of his pages, cannot do more than reveal what he cannot say. All great prose is a special kind of failure, and this is inherent in the writing of philosophy which is not trivial.
In the first year of life, experience, or rather our limited inferences about it from our adult objectifying perspective, is given no verbal expression. Phantastic worlds of primitive greed, envy, and cannibalistic destruction precede the first distinguishable words. These phantasies persist through all subsequent experiential totalisations, conserved in their primitive violence through all the stages of self-depassement of the self. The pre-verbal experience of the first year of life forms a pre-reflective continuum with the paralinguistic experience of the older child and adult. Psychoanalysis (like sociology) is an "auxiliary discipline" which must find its place within the totalising scheme. Like sociology, it provides vital mediations which have been lacking from conventional Marxist analysis. It does not conflict with Marxism since it has no theoretical basis, but is simply an extremely good technique for investigating a vital sector of human reality. Above all it is an illumination of the present acts and experience of a person in terms of the way he has lived his family experience. If a certain type of psychoanalytic thinking would reduce the complex realities of behaviour and experience to such "pseudo-irreducibles" as, say, an innate proportion of life and death instinct, then existential criticism must set it on the
correct course and help it to discover the intelligible choice of self, the fundamental project of becoming a certain sort of personal being. If we see personal life in Sartre's terms as "constituted-constituting", as a synthetic unity of what we make of what we are made of , of moulding ourselves out of how we have been moulded, we must conclude that psychoanalytic theory in its weaker aspects ignores the active constituting, making, moulding moment of personal unity, thereby reducing the person to a resultant of instinctual vector-abstractions which leave no place for intentionality in each life. The person disappears. Sartre, on the other hand, traces the life of the person to its own ultimate issues, which are to be found only in personal life itself. This ultimate "original project", or original choice of self, provides the intelligible basis of all the acts and experiences of the person. The reductive biologism prevalent in psychoanalytic thinking explains all, and it explains nothing. It
explains all in the sense that, within the framework of a psycho-organismal dualism, biochemical and neuro-physiological techniques, and carefully delineated instinctive units of behaviour, will account "correlatively" for every possible "psychic drive" that can be thought up. It explains nothing, in so far as the person has evaporated. It is only through the discovery of a freedom, a choice of self functioning in the face of all determinations, conditions, or fatedness, that we can obtain the comprehension of the person.
Sartre affirms and strongly supports the view that Marxism is the only possible philosophy for our age. Examining the fundamental epistemological positions of Marxism and specific types of concrete ‘analysis of the situation', made by Marxist or would-be Marxist writers, he achieves both a radical critique and a radical confirmation of Marxism. He shows how Marxism has undergone certain deformations into mechanistic and idealistic thinking and how it has suffered a methodological sclerosis. His desire is to restore to Marxism its original vital impulse. Conservative bureaucracy in the Stalin era ruined and finally paralysed this impulse, and even in post-Stalinist socialist societies Marxism appeared rarely to be allowed to come alive, to be lived in its pristine reality as "disillusionment".
The Marxists' comparative neglect of Sartre is remarkable, but not surprising. In the same year as the Critique was published, a work was published in Moscow containing all the old Stalinist denunciatory clichés, about existentialism for instance, with no indication that the authors had read existential philosophy. It is probable that Marxist thought will only continue its development when Marxists take on a radical re-examination of their basic philosophical positions on the lines indicated by Sartre. This is necessary, since dialectical thought by its very definition not only must grasp its object but must reflectively grasp itself.
In Reason and Violence , Laing and Cooper proceed from the above introduction to a separate discussion of the three works, Questions of Method ; Saint Genet ; Critique of Dialectical Reason . For our present purpose we will focus on the first two of these.
Questions of Method:
Marxism and Existentialism
A philosophy is first of all a certain way that an ascendant class becomes conscious of itself. In the earliest phase of capitalism the bourgeoisie of merchants, jurists, and bankers glimpsed something of itself in Cartesianism, while a century later, in the primitive phase of industrialisation, the bourgeoisie of manufacturers, engineers, and scientists discovered itself in the Kantian image of universal man. In order to be truly
philosophical, this mirror must present itself as the totalisation of contemporary knowledge. It must systematically develop itself in terms of certain directive schemata which translate into the realm of philosophical discourse the attitudes and techniques of the rising class, and in so doing it must unify all specific branches of knowledge. While it is alive, it is never passive or inert but, born of a social movement, it is itself movement and bites into the future. This concrete totalisation is at the same time the abstract project to pursue unification to its ultimate limits. All philosophy is practical, even that which appears to be most purely contemplative. A philosophy remains effective only so long as the praxis which produced it remains alive – the praxis which maintains it and which it in turn illuminates. (“ Praxis " - Marx uses this term to describe man's forming and grasping of himself and nature by producing objects, as the bridge between the "idealism" and "materialism" of his predecessors. Sartre emphasises the free aspect of praxis: starting from a given need or danger, it invents its own law, in the absolute unity of its project, as mediation between the objectivity already given, and the objectification that remains to be produced.)
In our present historical situation an "anti-Marxist" argument is nothing more than a pre-Marxist idea, the pretended depassing of Marxism is at the worst only a return to pre-Marxism or at the best a rediscovery of an idea already contained in the supposedly depassed philosophy.
If the movement of philosophy ceases, either it is dead and is to be discarded, or it is in a state of crises. If the latter, the philosophical crises is the particular expression of a social crises, and its immobility is conditioned by the contradictions which tear asunder the society. It is the very movement of history, the conflict on all levels of human activity, which alone will free captive thought and allow it to reach its full development. In this precise sense Marxist philosophy is in a state of crises.
Those who come after the great philosophical moments of creation (in the past four centuries, these are three: Descartes and Locke; Kant and Hegel; Marx) and who give a practical function to the theories, these relative beings Sartre calls ideologists . When he speaks of existentialism he understands it as an ideology, a parasitic system which exists on the margins of Knowing, which at first opposed itself to Knowing but now attempts to integrate itself in it.
The most extensive philosophical totalisation was made by Hegel.
"For Hegel the Signifying (at a certain moment of history) is the movement of Spirit (...that is to say, as absolute subject)... for Kierkegaard man is the Signifying, he produces the significations himself and no signification comes to him from outside..." Q uestions , p.18
Hegel is right in so far as he does not concern himself with fixed and impoverished paradoxes which refer finally to an empty subjectivity - he fixes in his concepts the truly concrete, and the enriching mediation between Knowing and Being is always present. On the other hand, Kierkegaard is right in so far as pain, need and suffering are brute human realities which cannot be depassed or changed by knowing alone.
Kierkegaard's "existence" is the work of evolving our inner life - resistances overcome, temporary failures, precarious victories - this work being directly opposed to intellectual knowledge. Kierkegaard established the incommensurability of the Real and Knowing. Thus when, as at present, there is a contradiction between the forces and relations of production, it is necessary to live this contradiction in one's flesh, blood and bones, to live this conflict with one's feelings. In short to work oneself or work through oneself ( se travailler ).
At one and the same time Marx is right as opposed to Hegel and to Kierkegaard. Like Hegel, he is concerned with the concrete person in his objective reality; like Kierkegaard he affirms the specificity of human existence. Under these conditions existentialism, as an idealist protest against idealism, was indeed eclipsed.
Another existentialism has developed on the margin of Marxism and not against it, and it is this existentialism which Sartre proclaims and with which we are concerned. As a student, Sartre read Capital and The German Ideology and says he understood everything and nothing at all. The universities lacked a Hegelian tradition, and it was permitted to study Marxism only so far as to be able to refute it. Sartre outlines his progression to Marxism, and asks - why has existentialism preserved its autonomy?
Historical materialism provides the only valid interpretation of history and at the same time existentialism remains the only concrete approach to reality. Having liquidated all our bourgeois categories of thought and transformed our ideas, Marxism abruptly leaves us in the lurch, unable to satisfy our need to comprehend the world from the particular situation in which we are placed. It can teach us nothing new because it is arrested. Present-day Marxists deal not with living totalities, as did Marx, but are guilty of the fetishisation of their own, purely formal, fixed entities. Living Marxism is heuristic: in relation to its concrete research, its principles and its antecedent knowledge appear as regulators ; living totalities define themselves in the course of his exposition.
Existentialism and Marxism have the same object. But Marxism has absorbed the human into the idea while existentialism searches for humanity everywhere they are , at work, in the street, in themselves. The human is not unknowable but is unknown . It is amazing that history in our age is made without reflective knowledge - as has always been the case. The very essence of Marxism, its power and its richness, was that this should no longer be the case; but it has ceased to live with history and it has attempted through bureaucratic conservatism to reduce change to identity.
Marxism is young, almost in its infancy. It remains the indepassable philosophy of our time because the circumstances which gave rise to it are not depassed. Existentialism, like Marxism, approaches experience to discover concrete syntheses. These syntheses can only be conceived in the interior of a moving, dialectical
totalisation which is history, or - from the strictly cultural point of view which we are taking here - the world-of-becoming of philosophy. Truth becomes. It is and will be becoming. It is a totalisation which ceaselessly totalises itself. Particular facts signify nothing, are neither true nor false except in so far as they are related by the mediation of different partial totalities to the mediation in progress. The only valid theory of knowledge today is one which is founded on that
principle of microphysics which asserts that the experimenter is part of the experimental system.
Questions of Method:
The Problem of Mediations and Auxiliary Disciplines
If we accept the primacy of existence over consciousness and the definition of materialism which Marx gives in Capital - "The mode of production of material life in general dominates the development of social, political and intellectual life" - why are
we not simply Marxists?
It is because we regard Marxist principles as directives , as indications of tasks and problems, not as concrete truths. They do not at this stage constitute knowledge - everything remains to be done, we still have to find a method and constitute a science.
The misapplication of these directive principles to a situation gives a spurious a priori knowledge which does not draw its concepts from experience. Marxists feel they would be wasting their time if they were to try to comprehend bourgeois thought in its
originality . To think, for most Marxists, is to pretend to totalise. For example, Lukacs, the influential Hungarian philosopher, claims that French existentialism is a petite bourgeois reaction to Nazi occupation - in fact, Being and Nothingness resulted from
researches undertaken by Sartre in 1933 and he had resolved its method and conclusion prior to the Occupation.
However, it is a Marxist, Henri Lefebvre, who gives us a method for integrating history and sociology in the perspective of dialectical materialism which Sartre finds irreproachable. In Perspectives de sociologie rurale , Lefebvre notes that in studying, for example, the reality of a peasantry there is first of all a horizontal complexity which concerns a human group with its agricultural productive techniques, its relation to these techniques and the social structure they determine which in turn conditions the group. The group depends on collectivities on the national and international scale, and so on. Then there is a vertical complexity which is historical, the coexistence in the rural world of formations of different age and duration. These two complexities act and react on each other. To study such a situation preserving its full complexity Lefebvre delineates a method with three moments. First : a phase of phenomenological description - observation informed by experience and by a general theory. Second : an analytico-regressive moment – a regression backwards into the history of the object to define and date its earlier stages. Third : a synthetic-progressive moment which is still historico-genetic but moves from past to present in an attempt to rediscover the present, as elucidated and reconstituted in the light of the complete phenomenological analytico-synthetic regressive-progressive procedure.
Sartre holds this method to be valid for all domains of anthropology (in the wider continental sense of a general theory of the human condition) and applies it also to individuals and relations between individuals .
If we wish to understand, say, Valery, an intellectual coming from the concrete historical group of the French petite bourgeoisie at the end of last century, Marxism would substitute for this well-defined group the idea of its material conditions and relations to other groups and internal contradictions - we return thus to economic categories, and see oscillations of the social attitude of the petite bourgeoisie in terms of its simultaneous threat from capitalist concentration on the one hand and popular revenge on the other. This skeleton of universality is quite true on its level of abstraction . But we are concerned with Valery, a particular man . At a certain point the abstract schematisation ceases and the Marxist judges his work finished. As for Valery, he has evaporated.
Every petit-bourgeois intellectual is not Valery, and this sums up the heuristic deficiency of contemporary Marxism. What is lacking is a hierarchy of mediations which is necessary to grasp the process by which a person and his product are produced in the interior of a given class and society at a given historical moment. In writing of Valery and his idealism, the Marxist finds in both only what he himself put there. This leads to eliminating the particular by defining it as the simple effect of chance. Engels says, if Napoleon had not existed another would have been there to fill his place. Existentialism, on the other hand, insists on discovering mediations in order to grasp the concrete singular individual.
Marxists show the novelist Flaubert's realism in a reciprocal relation with the social and political evolution of the petite bourgeoisie of the Second Empire. But they do not show the genesis of this reciprocity, nor why Flaubert preferred literature above all, nor why he wrote his particular books rather than those of his peers. Marxism leaves this to other disciplines which lack fundamental principles - it has nothing to say about the all important phrase: " to belong to the bourgeoisie ". Children are not born at the age when they earn their first wages or exploit their first worker. It was not rent from property or the intellectual nature of his work that made Flaubert bourgeois, but the fact that he was born into a family which was already bourgeois. He accepted the roles and gestures imposed upon him at a time when he could not comprehend their meaning. But, like all families, that of Flaubert was a particular family, and it was in the face of the particular contradictions of this family that Flaubert served his apprenticeship as a bourgeois.
Today only psychoanalysis allows us to study the process whereby a child, groping in the dark, tries at first to play the role which is imposed on him by his parents. Psychoanalysis lacks principles and a theoretical basis and it is quite fitting that, in Jung, and in certain work of Freud, it resorts to a perfectly inoffensive mythology. In fact, psychoanalysis is a method preoccupied above all with establishing the manner in which a child lives his family relations in the interior of a given society. It discovers the particular family as mediation between the universal class and the individual (italics added) . The family is constituted in and through the general movement of history and in the depth and opacity of each particular childhood it is lived as an absolute. The illnesses of the person take on their true meaning when they are seen as the concrete translation of the alienation of humanity. Existentialism assisted by psychoanalysis can today only study those situations where humans have lost themselves since infancy, for in a society founded on exploitation there are no other situations.
Each of us lives our first years in a state of wandering and groping, and here the interiorisation of exteriority is an irreducible fact. Psychoanalysis, in the interior of a dialectical totalisation, meets, on the one hand, objective structures, material conditions, and, on the other, the action of our indepassable childhood on our adult life. It is henceforth impossible to relate Flaubert's great novel Madame Bovary directly to the political-social structures. The work must be related to a present reality lived by Flaubert throughout his childhood.
The Marxist view that the social actions of a person are conditioned by the general interests of his class is by no means incompatible with the idea of conditioning of present action by infantile experience. Our irrational actions spring from our blindness in infancy - from the prolonged madness of early life. But, Sartre asks, what is this indepassable childhood if not a particular mode of living the general interests of the environment?
Sartre considers sociology, which he sees as tending to masked idealism, fetishising totalities-already-made instead of seeing the real movement of history. Sociology opposes itself to Marxism by affirming the radical autonomy of its object in three respects - ontological autonomy : the group becomes a substantial unity, even and especially if one defines its existence by its simple functioning; methodological autonomy : the substitution of actual, completed totalities for dialectical movement. A science based on structural laws concerned with function, or functional relations between the parts of a whole, can study what Lefebvre calls horizontal complexity. It cannot study the history of the individual or that of the group; reciprocal autonomy : i.e., between the experimenter and the experimental group : the sociologist is either
not situated or if they are they take precautions to desituate themselves. In fact, the sociologist and their "object" form a couple in which each is interpreted by the other and of which the relation itself must be deciphered as a moment of history.
It is not a question of adding another method to Marxism. The very development of dialectical philosophy should produce, in a single act of synthesis, a totalisation both horizontal and vertical. From the day when Marxist research will take the human dimension (i.e. the existential project) as the foundation of anthropological Knowledge, existentialism will no longer have a raison d'etre . Absorbed and conserved, that is depassed, by the totalising movement of philosophy, it will cease to be a totalising enquiry and become the foundation of all enquiry.
Questions of Method:
The Progressive-Regressive Method
Humans make their history on the basis of real anterior conditions (acquired character, distortions imposed by the mode of work and life, alienation, etc.), but it is they, humans, who make history and not their anterior conditions. The real effects of people's actions often escape them. The proletariat as historical subject does not realise at all clearly its unity and become fully conscious of its historical role. But if my history escapes me this does not mean that I do not make my history. It "escapes me" because the others also make history.
The Project -
Humanity is characterised above all else by the depassement of a situation, because they are able to do or undo what has been done to them, even if they never recognise themselves in their objectification. We find this depassement at the root of what is human, and first of all we find it in need - e.g. among the Marquesans this is what links the structural fact of the scarcity of women with the institution of polyandry. The most rudimentary conduct must be determined at one and the same time in relation to real, present factors which condition it and in relation to a certain future object to which it attempts to give birth. This is what we call the project .
In relation to the given, praxis is negativity, but it always involves the negation of a negation; in relation to the object at which we aim, it is positivity, but this positivity opens onto the non-existent, that which is not yet. The project is both negation and realisation: it retains and unveils the depassed which it has negated in its very movement of depassement.
Knowledge is thus a moment of praxis, even the most rudimentary praxis, but this knowledge has nothing to do with absolute Knowing. This knowledge is defined by the nature of the reality that is refused in the name of the reality which is yet to be produced. It is perfectly true, then, that humanity is a product of its product; the structures of society created by human labour define for each one of us an objective point of departure. This is perpetually depassed by the person in their praxis, but the depassement is only conceivable as the relation of an existent to their possibilities - if material conditions make them too fatigued they cannot join in trade union activity. The field of their possibilities is that goal towards which a person moves in depassing their objective situation; it is in turn strictly dependent on social and historical reality. To say what a person is is to say at the same time that which they can be , and conversely. As well as positively defining possibilities, every person is defined negatively by that collection of possibilities which are impossible for him, that is, by a future which is more or less closed. Positively and negatively, individual possibility is nothing more than the interiorisation and enrichment of a social possibility.
Sartre says he cannot consider here the true dialectic of the subjective and the objective. It would be necessary to show the conjoint necessity of the "interiorisation of the exterior" and the "exteriorisation of the interior". Praxis, in effect, is the passage from the objective through interiorisation to the objective. The project, as subjective depassement of objectivity towards objectivity, is stretched between the objective conditions of the environment and the objective structures of the field of possibilities. It represents in itself the moving unity of subjectivity and objectivity, these cardinal moments of activity. The subjective appears as a necessary moment of the objective process, the objective as a necessary moment of the subjectivity. Pure subjectivity extricates itself from despair by objectification; only the project as a mediation between two moments of objectivity can account for history, that is, for human creativity.
Sartre undertakes to formulate the problem of the dialectical temporality of history and to point out its difficulties. Marxism uses an arrested dialectic which operates the totalisation of human activity within an infinitely divisible homogenous continuum that is nothing more or less than the time of Cartesian rationalism. It is just this sort of temporality which is produced by the capitalist economy as the meaning of production, monetary circulation, credit, and so on. But dialectical determination of real temporality (which concerns the true relation of men to their past and to their future) is different. The dialectic as a movement of reality dissolves away if time is not dialectical - that is to say if one refuses the future as such to a certain action. Neither men nor their activities are in time - men create time, as a concrete characteristic of history, on the basis of their original temporalisation.
We have three choices -
(i) We can reduce all to identity, in which case dialectical materialism is transformed into mechanical materialism.
(ii) We can make the dialectic a celestial law which imposes itself upon the universe, a metaphysical force which generates the historical process from within itself, as in Hegel's idealism.
(iii) We can credit the individual man with the capacity to depass his situation by work and action.
Only the latter enables us to ground the movement of totalisation in reality. We must search for the dialectic in the relations between man and nature, in the "conditions of departure", and in the relations between man and man. It is there that it has its source as the resultant of the meeting-point of projects.
In the Questions , Sartre limits himself to the following observations:
Firstly, the given which we depass every instant that we live, by the simple fact that we live it, is not reducible to the material conditions of our existence. We depass also our infancy and childhood . In childhood we dimly apprehended our class and social conditioning through our experience of the family group: as children we make a more or less blind attempt to depass this. The experience coupled with our effort to snatch ourselves away from it finally ended in inscribing itself upon us as a character . It is on this level that we learn the gestures of a bourgeois or a socialist and the contradictory roles which compress us and tear us apart. On this level also are the traces of early revolts and attempted depassments of suffocating reality, and the various twists and deviations which result from this. But to depass these things is also to preserve them - we think with these early deviations, we act with the learned gestures from which we wish to turn away. In projecting ourselves towards our possibilities to escape the contradiction of our existence, we unveil these contradictions, they are revealed by our very actions, even if the actions are richer than them and lead us to a social world in which new contradictions lead us to new forms of conduct. The realisation of a possibility leads us to the production of an object or an event in the social world, and it is thus that our objectification and early contradictions reflected there bear witness to our alienation.
Contemporary Marxists forget that the person who is alienated, mystified, and so on, remains none the less a person. Marx does not mean that we have been transformed into things, but that we are men condemned to live humanly the condition of material things.
We must remember also that we live our childhood as our future . Our gestures and roles are taught and learned in the perspective of that-which-is-to-come. They are inseparable from the project that transforms them. Depassed and yet retained, they constitute what Sartre calls the internal colouration of the project . That is to say subjectively its taste or flavour, and objectively its style, is nothing other than the depassment of our early deviations - this depassment being not an instantaneous movement but a protracted labour. Each moment of this labour is at once a depassement, and the pure and simple subsisting of these early deviations on a given level of integration.
For this reason, a person's life unrolls as spirals. It repeatedly passes the same points, but on different levels of integration and complexity . (Italics added)
To take an example: Flaubert as a child felt frustrated by his older brother in gaining his fathers affection. His brother Achille resembled the father, and in order to please the father the young Flaubert would have to imitate Achille - which he refused to do in resentment and sulkiness. The same situation was repeated at university - where Achille nine years earlier had obtained top marks, in order to please the professor of medicine who had himself been a brilliant student. Flaubert again would have had to repeat all his brothers acts and in an unformulated way he refused to do this. He resisted success and would become only a good enough student - which was a dishonour in the Flaubert family. His family problem was so serious for Flaubert that it dominated his relations with his fellow-students. If he felt humiliated by his fellow-students successes this was only because they confirmed the superiority of Achille. The third moment again is an enrichment and rearrangement of the original situation - here Flaubert decided that, to be sure of being different from Achille he would be inferior to him. He detested his future career as proof of his inferiority and had hysterical crises. This movement from early childhood to hysterical crises was not simple repetition but perpetual depassment of the given which finally led to Flaubert's literary engagement. We have been dealing all the time here with the past as depassed, but at the same time with the past as depassing - that is to say, as future . Our roles are always future structures. They are tasks to be carried out, traps to be avoided, and so on.
Complexes, style of life, and the revealing of the past as depassing, constitute one and the same reality. It is the project as orientated life, as the affirmation of man by action. But at the same time, it is a fog of unlocatable irrationality lying between our reciprocally reflecting early memories and rational adult choices. Sartre says that it is necessary to state the perspective when he talks of irrationality: he means irrationality for us and not irrationality in itself.
Secondly, observing that Flaubert said of his great novel, "Madame Bovary, it is I"; noting from biographical accounts his dependence, obedience, his "relative being", in fact all the characteristics that we are accustomed to call feminine ; yet not homosexual, and his letters to Louise Colet revealing him to be a narcissist and a masturbator - Sartre goes on to ask, who must Flaubert have been that, in his field of possibilities, he should have had the possibility of portraying himself as a woman ?
As well as biographical analyses we must also recognise in what sense his work, as objectification of the person, is in effect more complete, more total, than his life. The work becomes both hypothesis and research method to illuminate the life history: it interrogates concrete episodes in the life history and retains them as answers to its questions. These regressive questions provide us with the means to examine his family group, its class characteristics and individual peculiarities, as a reality lived and overcome by the child. Information is acquired both from objective sources and from Flaubert's subjective judgments.
These regressive facts show the traces of a dialectical movement, not the movement itself. It is only at this point that we are able to use the progressive method. What we have to discover is the enriching movement of totalisation which delivers each moment from its antecedent moment, the movement that passes from the early obscurities lived by the child to his final objectification of himself in the world. This in fact is the project by which Flaubert, in order to escape from the petit bourgeoisie, threaded his way through the various fields of possibilities towards the alienated objectification of himself as the author of Madame Bovary and as this petit bourgeois whom he refused to be. Flaubert's choice was not an abstract choice to write, but to
write in a certain manner and so manifest himself in the world in a particular way. His project is the singular signification he gave to literature as the negation of his original condition and as the objective solution of his contradictions. We have a series of signifying traces from the material and social conditioning to the work, and we must discover the tension between one objectification and the other. We have to re-create a movement which must realise the transversal unity of all of the heterogeneous structures.
Sartre goes on to define the methodological approach of existentialism as a regressive-progressive and analytico-synthetic method.
Jean Genet - bastard, vagabond, pederast, thief, outcast, dramatist, poet - is the subject of the most extended application of these ideas to a life-history. In his book Saint Genet , Comedien et Martyr , Sartre seeks to show that only through a consideration of the dialectic of freedom acting under given material conditions can the concrete reality of a man's life be grasped. He shows a particular freedom at grips with destiny, at first apparently crushed and suffocated by fatedness, later eroding this fatedness piece by piece. Genet's genius is not a God- or gene-given gift, but an issue invented by Genet alone, in particular moments of despair. He seeks to rediscover the choice which Genet makes of himself and the meaning of the
world, to become a writer, and to show how the unique specificity of this choice pervades even the interstices of the formal character of Genet's style, the structure of his images, and the particularity of his taste. He aims, in a word, to retrace in rigorous detail "the story of liberation".
Genet was born in 1910 and abandoned by his mother to the Assistance Publique. He was "illegitimate", and never knew his parents. He was adopted by a peasant family in the Morvan and at the age of 10, having been caught stealing from them on various occasions, he was sent to the reformatory at Mettray. Later as a vagabond and thief he wandered through Europe, spending some time in the prisons of various countries. While in prison in 1942, he wrote his first book, Notre-Dame des Fleurs , followed during the next five years by novels, plays, and poems. In 1948, after ten convictions for theft in France, he escaped life imprisonment when pardoned by the President of the Republic, who had been petitioned by a number of eminent writers and artists, including Cocteau, Picasso, and Sartre himself. In ten years of writing, in Sartre's view, Genet achieved something of the equivalent of a psychoanalytic cure. Each of his books represents a crisis of katharsis, each is a psychodrama, each reproduces the themes of its predecessors, each makes him a little more master of the demon which possesses him. We now turn to Sartre's account of Genet's childhood.
During his first years in the country, in the Morvan, Genet lived in what Sartre calls "a sweet confusion with the world". His existence was scattered amongst nature. Caressed by the wild grass and the water, he was in a state of innocence. He grew up piously, a gentle and respectful child, smaller and weaker than his playmates, but more intelligent. The curé felt he had a religious nature, but Genet was already the victim of a cruel mystification. This myth of childhood innocence, the state of original grace, in which he was submerged, rings false, and could not be sustained. With no real mother of his own, with no heritage, he belonged to no one, and no one and nothing belonged to him. His mere existence disturbed the social order. An administrative apparatus was interposed between Genet and the human race; his later affinities tended to be for other such institutions - the reformatory and the prison.
Genet's later experiences of rejection by society are found in a germinal form in his feeling of rejection by his own mother and by his adoptive family. In his phantasies as a child, the woman tore him from herself, a living, bleeding part of herself, and threw him out of and beyond the world. He had been cursed forever.
Sartre shows how Genet is "faulty" not only from the perspective of being, but also from that of having. The child Genet played two favourite solitary games - that of
being a saint (to compensate for his insufficiency of being) and that of being a thief (to compensate for his inability to have).
He was always alone, he had no experience of the omniscient, omnipotent mother who knows her child inside out, even to the extent of hearing his secret interior voice. No family ceremony occurred to consecrate the union of his identity for himself with his identity for others. Genet lived in a state of inner concubinage with himself, made a cult of himself. Then he elected God to be the witness of his inner life. God filled the role of the absent mother - he became a saint for want of being a son.
He knew he did not entirely belong to his adoptive parents, and could be reclaimed by the administration. Nothing could belong to him, material possession was forbidden him. Genet's other game was to steal from his adoptive parents and neighbours. The owner is one who has, and uses, possessions, without having to say "Thank you". Genet therefore took the possessions of others in secret to use them in solitude, in a groping attempt to establish a relation to things, a relation which was otherwise forbidden.
Genet resorted to this double compensatory activity because he could not destroy the very system of values that refused him a place in the world. His thefts and dreams of saintliness were not opposed to the peasant morality, but in fact were consequences of it. He had been instructed in a morality designed to justify and sanctify the ownership of private property, and it was this morality which condemned him.
His state of sweet confusion with nature would be interrupted by moments of theft, or by an ecstasy, and this sufficed to maintain his internal equilibrium, unaware that he
was forging a destiny for himself. Then occurred his "original crises", a prototypical mode of Genet's experience of himself for-others at a stage of his childhood. Genet repeatedly refers to experiences - real or imaginary or both - as when he writes that the "melodious child" was killed in him by "a vertiginous word". This murder may have been the result of one verbal blow, or of repeated "traumata" of a similar kind. Sartre describes: one day, when ten years old, Genet was playing in the kitchen. In a sudden spasm of anguish he felt his aloneness and his hand entered an open drawer. Genet "came to himself" under the look of another person who had entered
the room. Until that moment he had lacked identity. All at once he became a certain Jean Genet. He was blinded and deafened. He was an alarm bell which kept ringing. The whole village would know "who is Jean Genet". Then a voice announced his identity - "You are a thief!"
His action, until now the unreflective functioning of his subjectivity, suddenly became transformed into the objective, as he experienced himself as an object for the other. "The thief" was a monstrous principle which had been residing unperceived within him, and which was now disclosed as his Truth, as his eternal essence. Had he been sixteen or seventeen, Genet might have rebelled against the judgment and challenged the values of his elders, but he was a timid, religious child. The "honest people" penetrated to the depths of his heart and left a permanent residue of "otherness". He became his own gaoler. Even the most innocent-seeming desire he entertained became the desire of a thief, and therefore guilt-ridden.
Sartre describes how the "good people" effected this metamorphoses of the child for social, utilitarian reasons, because of their need for a scapegoat. For the good people, goodness is equated with being, with that which already is, and evil with that which calls being into question, with negation, nonbeing, otherness. The "good man" perpetually denies the negative moment of his actions . (Italics added) He affirms without denying the contrary of that which he affirms. His permitted actions are to maintain, to conserve, to restore, to renew: categories of repetition as opposed to change. But the spirit, as Hegel says, is unrest, and this unrest inspires the good man with horror. He then cuts off from his freedom its negative moment and projects it outside himself. In this the good man becomes himself the most abstract negation, the negation of his own negation (italics added).
The wicked man is an invention of the good man, the incarnation of his otherness to what he is, his own negative moment . All evil, for Sartre, is projection. The honest people are able to hate in Genet that part of themselves which they have denied and projected into him. As an analogy, Sartre describes the industry which used to flourish in Bohemia in which such honest people took little children, split their lips, compressed their skulls, and imprisoned them day and night in boxes to prevent growth. They thus produced monsters which they were able to profitably exhibit. Similarly, but by more subtle means, people transformed Genet into a monster for reasons of social utility.
As a child Genet had no defences available against this technique practiced against him by the adults who surrounded him, and sacrificed his intimate feelings of intuitive certainty about himself to the principle of authority of the adults. His being an object for the others had priority over his being a subject for himself, and he experienced himself as being, in the depths of himself, a being other than himself.
Sartre sets out to retrace the steps of Genet's self-alienation, the process by which he becomes a stranger to himself because of the progressive interiorisation of the sentence passed on him by the adults. Had he been brought up in an industrial area, rather than a narrow and rigid French village community, he would have heard the very right to private possessions being contested, and discovered that one is also what one makes and does . (Sartre gives a detailed analysis of the dialectical interaction of town and country.) Madness and suicide are barred by Genet's will, his "optimism", that is, "the very orientation of his freedom". Genet clutches desperately to his life in the unreasoning belief that he will "come out on the other side", that his extreme situation will have some issue . In fact, since he did not choose suicide, it became necessary that his original situation have an issue, despite the evidence. Poetry was this issue.
Having given an objective account of Genet's early decision to be that which his crime made him, Sartre goes on to examine the decision as it was for Genet as the subjective moment of his consciousness in its intentional structure. We encounter, Sartre says, an insurmountable contradiction. What can I decide to be if I already am what I am: if I am "locked up in my being"? The word "being" for Genet assumes an active, positive value, and in the phrase "I decided to be what the crime had made of me", to be is to throw oneself into one's being in order to coincide with it. The ambiguity of Genet's project is the ambiguity of our condition. We are the beings whose being is perpetually in question: the meaning of our being is to be in question in our being. Prior to his decision to be what his crime had made of him, namely a thief, Genet's being had not been in question for himself since he had been pure subject and pure object. It was a being in-itself and for-others, and not a being-for-itself. By his decision to be what others had made him, Genet effected a forceful conjunction between pure willing ( pour-soi , subjectivity), and a substance ( en-soi , objectivity). Faced with a choice between existing a pure subjectivity or a pure objectivity - an apparently insoluble contradiction - Genet saved himself from madness and suicide by a heroic act of cheating.
Sartre describes the correspondingly incompatible systems of values which Genet uses simultaneously to think the world, e.g.:
Categories of Being Categories of Doing
Object Subject, consciousness
Himself as another Himself
Fatedness Liberty, will
Loved one Lover
Male principle Female principle
Genet has rendered these categories incompatible and then has conferred upon them a false unity by a further sleight of hand. The dialectic of the perpetual interweaving of Genet's categories renders unintelligible any attempt to study this pseudo-totality in terms of its own false syncretic togetherness. Sartre's method, therefore, is to proceed with partial analyses of the two sets of categories, and later, by a study of their reciprocal interaction, to reconstitute the concrete totality of Genet's private synthesis.
Sartre employs this analytic-synthetic method in relation to Genet's sexuality in this way. Genet, Sartre writes, is a raped child . The first act of rape was the look of the Other in his original crises. This look surprised and penetrated him and transformed him into an object forever. Sartre insists that he is not saying that Genet's original crisis was like a rape. It was a rape.
The events we experience occur simultaneously on all levels of our life, and on each level are expressed in a different language. A physical violation can become a condemnation on the level of moral awareness, and conversely, a condemnation can be experienced as a violation on the level of bodily awareness. In both cases the person is objectified, and if he experiences this objectification as shame in his heart, he experiences it in his body as a sexual act to which he has been subjected.
The child thief was surprised from behind. Genet experiences himself as objectified through his back and his buttocks. It is typical of the homosexual experience of the penis, Sartre writes, that Proust did not call the penis a sword or scythe like the village lads, but a grappling-iron (to be gripped and handled). Whereas the male experiences an erection as an aggressive stiffening of a muscle, for Genet it is the blossoming of a flower. Nothing is decided in advance, it is the total choice which a person makes of himself which gives its meaning to this intimate experience of the body. One man experiences his transcendence in his penis, another his passivity. The male seeks the love of a woman by his potency, his courage and aggression, as a force without features, as a pure power of doing and taking. Such a man seeks a reflection of his infinite liberty in the eyes of the submitting woman. Genet does nothing, acts only in order to be. One is not born a homosexual, Sartre argues, but one may become one according to the accidents of one's history and one's reactions to these accidents. Homosexuality is not biologically determined, neither is it the passive and determined result of complexes. It is an outcome discovered and invented by a child at a critical moment, a moment of suffocation.
The sexual act for Genet is a ceremony of submission. But the act is always an act of rape, a repetition of the crises which transformed Genet into a thief. In both he is nailed down by the look of cruel strong men. But in this case the crises is sought after and provoked and, in Sartre's view, has a kathartic value similar to that of the psychoanalytic process.
Sartre discusses the function of masturbation in Genet's life:
"All the prisoners indulge in masturbation, but usually it is for want of something better. They would prefer the most decrepit prostitute to this solitary luxury. In short, they make ‘good use' of the Imaginary. They are honest onanists...”
An onanist by choice, Genet prefers his own caresses because the enjoyment received coincides with the enjoyment given, the passive moment coincides with the moment of greatest activity: he is at the same time this consciousness which coagulates and this hand which becomes agitated and churns. Being, existence; faith, works; masochistic inertia and sadistic ferocity; petrification and freedom: in the moment of pleasure the two contradictory components of Genet coincide, he is the criminal who rapes and the saint who allows herself to be raped... A pure demonic act, masturbation sustains in the heart of consciousness an appearance of appearance: masturbation is the derealisation of the world and of the masturbator himself. In a single movement the masturbator captures the world in order to dissolve it and to insert the order of the unreal into the universe. Genet has extracted pleasure from his nothingness: solitude, impotence, the unreal, evil have produced, without recourse to being, an event in the world."
Saint Genet , p.341-2.
We see here in Genet's use of masturbation an expression of his way of resolving into a false unity the contradictions he himself invents. This project lies at the base of all Genet's thought and actions. The childhood attributions of his nature concealed an injunction which he experienced as a prohibition against any "natural", spontaneous thought or feeling. Every spontaneous desire encounters a reflective consciousness which forbids its gratification. "The ambiguous structures, these false unities where the two terms of a contradiction chase after each other in an infernal rondo, these I call tourniquets."
This mode of operation of his consciousness is experienced by Genet in a stupor of perplexity. Sometimes he would ask himself if he was dreaming and reality would have the aftertaste of a nightmare. But his stupor is above all reflective. Sartre asks us to imagine the strange taste which this consciousness has of itself. "Who am I?" "Why am I alone to suffer so much?" "What have I done to be here?" "Who puts me to these trials?" To all these questions there is only one reply: Genet himself is the reply. He finds the answer in finding himself.
At times he would fall into a state of wonder so profound that he felt himself to be losing consciousness. At the reformatory at Mettray in the dining-room he would sit with his fork poised in the air, his eyes staring vaguely, forgetting to eat. The authorities had him examined by a psychiatrist, but, Sartre says, these "stupors" were a proof of his sanity. Genet finds the world too full of meaning. The stupor is a mode of "contact with" and comprehension of reality, but reality comprehended in the mode of his estrangement from it.
Genet's tourniquets , the reflective techniques by which Genet deals with the paradoxes of his existence, are based on a type of anti-logic. A rapid oscillation from one position to its contradiction produces a semblance of identity, a false unity, which may be immediately followed by a further contradiction, which is similarly dealt with. The false unity, since it is impossible, is only a limit, or term of movement, a movement which cannot be a progression, since progress entails a synthesis of antithetical terms. The movement of Genet's thoughts is circular : he refers himself to two opposed systems of values and refuses to choose either.