Engaging Existentialism with Sartre

People tend not to give their ideological opposition fair representation in arguments.  I remember a VERY Methodist professor at Duke Divinity School that would rail against Calvinism on a weekly basis.   I’m not sure most of the students in his class knew what Calvinists really were, but that didn’t stop him from explaining why they were wrong.  To all listening, the primary characteristics of a Calvinist appeared to be intellectual cruelty and absurdity.  Had any of us ever met a real Calvinist after his class, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have recognized them, much less have been able to meaningfully debate them.  And why?  Because we didn’t actually know what they stood for.  We didn’t know what they believed in their words.  We only knew them through a lousy argument about how dumb they were.

It’s so important to actually know what people we disagree with actually believe.  More than that, I think it’s important to hear it in their own words.  Even a bad idea can contain a shocking amount of beauty. And what better school of philosophy for a pastor to explore than existentialism?  It tends to be seen as the most popular anti-Christian ideology in pop culture. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. Existentialist dogmas tend to be about as far as you can possibly get to Christian ones. There are almost no commonalities to build upon in dialogues with one another. It’s easy to hold them up as the thing that we ought not to be, but how often do we really sit down and listen to them? Sure we don’t agree. We know that. But how can we offer a meaningful and fair critique unless we really know what it is that they believe?

I stumbled across At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell a few weeks ago, and what an absolute treat it’s been.  It’s a history of modern existentialism, but the way she presents everything is so engaging.  She takes extra care to talk not just about ideas, but people.  Who were these thinkers?  Why did they believe what they believed?  What were their weird little eccentricities?  It’s so much easier to remember people and what they stood for when they’re such vivid characters in your mind. That being said, the challenge of the book is that it throws a LOT of people at you relatively quickly, which lowers your odds of fully remembering anyone.  So, I’m taking my time with it. I’m reading some primary sources from people that seem like they’re worth remembering.

I’m starting with Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, Nausea, which I found by starting with his cornerstone work Being and Nothingness, realizing that it seemed really unpleasant, and googling “easiest fun book to read by Jean-Paul Sartre.”  I mean, the guy was a novelist and a philosopher, so leaning more on the novelist side to enjoy his stuff feels intuitive.  I’m still working through it, but there can be no doubt that Sartre can write beautifully.  For example, take his description of a conversion experience. He recognizes that things his life have shifted and he’s pondering why that is when he stumbles onto an answer:

I think I’m the one who has changed: that’s the simplest solution.  Also, the most unpleasant.  But I must finally realize that I am subject to these sudden transformations.  The thing is that I rarely think; a crowd of small metamorphoses accumulate in me without my noticing it, and then one fine day, a veritable revolution takes place. 

Nausea, Sartre, p. 4- 5 (New Directions, 2013)

Strangely, I can relate to that conversion experience more than I can most Christian ones.  There’s this pressure to have a clear, obvious moment where you have a divine experience that brings you to faith.  I don’t doubt that some people have the privilege of these sorts of experiences, but many do not, ESPECIALLY not in their early days of faith.  I’ve sometimes felt obligated to carve out a grander narrative so people aren’t disappointed.  I have a hard time keeping my own conversion myths straight when I do dabble with them. Little details never seem to line up from one telling to the next. One time, it was all because I was asking questions. The next, it’s because I loved my mother. The time after that, it becomes a sort of rediscovery of my childhood faith. Which is true? All of them, I suppose. And none of them. The true story is hard to pin down. Conversion was transformation little by little until… I’m not even sure!  I don’t know the moment when I officially moved from one to the other.  I could throw some options out there, but the simple truth is that a great deal of moments went into the creation of a “veritable revolution” in my life.

***Sidenote: Why do Christian conversion stories so often feature encounters with the divine? Is it to establish that God is real? That we have a relationship with him? Probably. Relationship with God over theory about God. But I didn’t get any good divine experiences until a ways down the line, so I maintain a little less grand conversion stories are totally valid.***

Back to Sartre! Another major theme he’s exploring is adventure.  What makes an adventure?  Can one really have an adventure?  That’s what he’s sought out all his life, to be a man of adventure, and he’s had many travels and experiences that might qualify as such, but he wonders, are they actually legitimate adventures?  Or can they only really be adventures in hindsight?  For example, when he traveled around the world, almost any exotic location started to seem like just one more plot of land in a matter of weeks.  The newness would wear off and the adventure would just turn out to be a continuation of regular life.  Similarly, he remembers a time that he was robbed and fought off the mugger.  What a daring tale!  But was it an adventure?  How could it have been?  He didn’t even know it was going to happen when he set out that morning.  You ought to set out to have adventures, not just declare something to be so after the fact.  But there’s the problem: when he sets off to have an adventure, he ends up just living regular life, and when he recalls adventures, he rarely knew he was about to have one.  One morning after a dreadfully long passage detailing every tiny bit of a relatively boring evening that he was reveling in, he writes:

What disgusts me is having been so sublime last evening.  When I was twenty I used to get drunk and then explain that I was a fellow in the style of Descartes.  I knew I was inflating myself with heroism, but I let myself go, it had pleased me.  After that, the next morning I felt as sick as if I had awakened in a bed full of vomit.  I never vomit when I’m drunk but that would really be better.  Yesterday I didn’t even have the excuse of drunkenness.  I got excited like an imbecile.

Nausea, Sartre, p. 94

Who among us hasn’t had an evening where we felt like a grand adventure was unfolding?  Where we feel like a big hero. In those moments, time is passing in such a way that things feel incredibly meaningful! But when we look back… we just went out to eat with a friend. How ridiculous! What a perfect insight into people. I imagine this sort of thinking will blossom into a greater emphasis on our perception of events, rather than the events themselves. I’m eager to see what I’ll think when I get there, but in the meantime, I’ll be darned if he didn’t write it beautifully.

A fun start to Sartre. Even if I don’t subscribe to his philosophy, he writes beautifully and there’s a lot of insight to be enjoyed. More to come!