Friday, June 8, 2012

No Exit and The Flies by Sartre

The existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Satre, was a man of letters, writing plays, novels, and screenplays, and of course, philosophy. He was a lot of things in his time, including a political activist (Marxist), and a literary critic. Everything I’ve read of his is supremely intelligent and thoroughly thought out, and it all makes me sense that he really has something valuable to say. And these couple plays only encouraged me to read more from Sartre in the future. They are short vignettes expressive of his philosophy of man’s freedom to choose, and the responsibility to act; and in typical Sartre fashion, they are passionate in expression, and challenging to thought-norms. No Exit wasn’t my favorite, but The Flies was amazing.

No Exit was set in a room which signified the hereafter, and served as a rendezvous for 3 people who were assigned this confined space as their punishment for eternity. What follows is basically mind games between the three in which one of them struggles futilely to love themselves, another is doomed to unrequited love, and another questions his previous life’s level of courage and strength of will. The line from the play which best summarizes it: “Hell is—other people!”

The play was alright as a whole and packed some fun surprises in the dialogue, but I mostly liked the discussion surrounding the man who lacked courage. He wanted to believe that his acts in his previous life pointed towards a greater courage in posse that was never actuated. Through this character, Sartre neatly dismisses any myth we might cherish regarding the potential of one’s life apart from action with these brilliant words: “One always dies too soon—or too late. And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are—your life, and nothing else.”

The Flies was amazing as a declaration of defiance against conventional, social penitence as a salve to conscience; and against obeisance paid to any god that might excuse us from taking personal responsibility. The way Sartre seems to possess his hero, Orestes, to stand in the face of Zeus and scream his threat of defection from a weak, anemic divinity who grows fat on the fears and tears of his worshippers is truly inspiring. When threatened with the lifting of God’s finger to destroy him, Orestes smugly replies in full confidence of moral conviction, “Then do so. Lift a finger, lift your whole hand while you are about it.” Smartass…but I loved it.

The play begins with the murder of a king and the subsequent mourning of the city for standing idly by while it happened. The new king falls into self-abasing remorse as well, and initiates superstitious rites that lead the people into lugubrious public grieving and intense psychological pressure to prostrate themselves before God in life-long repentance. Little known to the new king, the old king’s son, Orestes, was smuggled out of the city, and now returns to see if he can save his sister who is now the mistreated slave of the court. Flies, metaphors for the tormenting furies of guilt—“the goddesses of remorse”—swarm through the dispirited city, burdening the life of drudgery that the residents feel condemned to.

Orestes decides to commit himself to rid the city from the oppressive influence of the current king’s reign, and tries to free his sister from the grip that fear has on her.  In the grand finale, he debates Zeus, mocking him in the spirit of Elijah, though he fully acknowledges that Zeus has the power to cause him anguish. But he has no remorse for doing what he felt was right, and he is committed to the furthest repercussions of his decision despite numerous opportunities to ‘take it back’. He would rather suffer under the hands of a tyrant-god than be his friend, and in doing so, he proved his superiority and power of freedom, rather than pay for the happiness of a slave in demonstrations of grief and cowardice.

Also emphasized in this play is Sartre’s well-known philosophy on the personalized nature of experience—the ‘own-able’ situations that people find themselves in. “Whatever happens to you, happens through you, and moreover, whatever happens to you is yours” (from Being and Nothingness).  In claiming one’s situation and making the best out of it, one is claiming themselves, because every person is in part a product of their time and culture, and is therefore ‘co-author’ of their situation by choosing life instead of suicide or desertion of responsibility. In the play, Orestes, the old king’s son, willingly chooses to accept the role of pariah and hunted rebel, even though he knows he will be killed and will possibly lose his sister. He does this because, by owning a situation—any situation—he is coming to form a true identity through connections to the world and memories which endear life to him. He argues with his mentor throughout the story as his mentor tries to help him choose a safe life, a smart life, a wealthy life. He chooses instead a path that is dangerous and unknown, and declares boldly and proudly, “Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path.” He has come to full possession of himself, and feels at home.

And nothing could have prepared me for the exhilaration I felt in reading Orestes cutting Zeus down to size by—get this—sympathizing with him. “You are God, and I am free; each of us is alone, and our anguish is akin.” He stands to his full height in this passage, feels no pity for himself, and takes on the full responsibility of his freedom and anxiety of existence. The ending is tragic-heroic, and is a challenge for us to realize our potential that often lies wheezing beneath the fat idol of religion or convention. Pushing that fat mother off us requires a willingness to hurt a little for love, and necessitates a real conviction of our worth and value in this universe that won’t be easily shaken when others, unable or unwilling to love themselves, tell us we’re worthless.

I especially admired the way the hero stands firm in the face of a ‘bad’ god, whom he doesn’t even feel the need to dismiss as unreal or powerless. Sartre seems to be implying that each of our gods, whatever name they may have, may very well be the highest power in our life, but if he/she isn’t good, then we have the responsibility to ‘out-moral’ him, and launch a resistance against their power. We may not fare well physically, but spiritually we conquer by our refusal to cower before evil. We win.

Sartre has masterfully demonstrated his philosophy in this play, and it is a perfect specimen to share with others to introduce them to Sartre’s thought and application of his theories.