Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Stupid Sartre!

"To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless. "
-Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
A few weeks ago the North American Sartre Society Conference was in town at the University of Memphis. One particular lecture I attended entitled "Laughter and Forgetting," Nicolas de Warren of Wellesley College argues that towards the end of Sartre's life, he began to discover something essential about his existence through his writing on Flaubert in The Family Idiot (1971). Flaubert is known for bringing cyncism to an art form and his most famous novel was Madame Bovary.

The Family Idiot
is a psychoanalytic and existential project in which Sartre imagines how Flaubert forged his inner self during his adolesence and later on in his literary career. De Warren argues that Sartre discovers something essential about himself: that he must make himself stupid in order to not be stupid about the stupdity he is renouncing. According to de Warren, The Family Idiot is not simply an attempt to analyze Flaubert's life but also Sartre's own ridiculousness. Through his research, Sartre finds that Flaubert has made himself stupid with the promise of overcoming bad faith - to not be stupid in the mode of being stupid.

De Warren argues that stupidity can be described as reimagined bad faith in that through the dissasociation of truth (transcendence) and evidence (facticity), evidence is nuetralized and an understanding of that situation results in something that can be true despite any evidence or particularity. It was really hard for me to pin down what exactly he was saying here but I think de Warren was getting at ironic bad faith. When we act ironically, we have an understanding that the action we are taking is not actually a reflection of ourselves. The action itself still takes place, but looses it's transcendent meaning as the nature of irony involves a preconception that one's actions are opposed to one's transcendant identity.

De Warren also discussed the tone of stupidity. When we are speaking we give particular sounds meaning (even though the words themselves do not occupy that meaning). The nature of tone "turns materiality into meaning." For example, the phrase "deeply profound" is a nonsensicle one, as depth is implied in profundity. However, the use of the "deeply" makes the phrase more emphatic, changing the statements percieved meaning without changing the statements actual meaning.

In 1964, just before The Family Idiot was published, Sartre was awarded, and subsequently rejected, the Nobel Prize for Literature. De Warren argues that it was a ridiculous move to refuse such an honorable prize and Sartre was well aware of that. De Warren compares the rejection of the nobel prize to the act of graffiti. In both cases, the person is enscribing their subjectivity on an object in order to affirm themselves over that object and also deny it. So stupidity, he argues, is a consequence of our freedom over objects.

De Warren described bad faith as a kind of "vaudville comedy of stupid people." For de Warren, stupidity is the way in which conciousness dupes itself. De Warren's argument makes intuitive sense to me. People often make themselves into the subject of ridicule in order to make other realize their own stupidity. Additionally, it is commonly understood that one ought to be able to laugh at one's self, or at least not take things to seriously. So for Sartre, it was only through being stupid that he could elevate himself above stupidity all together.

I think that de Warren provides a way of looking at some of Sartre's basic consepts in a new light. Howver, I wonder if Sartre would consider bad faith an essential consequence of human freedom. According to existentialism, nothing is essentially anything as any meaning in the world is ascribed. But if we are all destined to act in bad faith and there be stupid, then would that be an essential component of human nature?

(Sorry if the arugement seems disjointed. I wish I had the whole paper, because the guy really only spoke for twenty minutes.)

1 comment:

  1. Some interesting stuff. Linking up transcendence and facticity more explicitly with language than what we've usually discussed in class definitely seems like an important insight , after all one of the most important qualities of existentialism, meaning-making, seems to nicely overlap with language. Language not just in the sense of the sounds and words that come out of my mouth, but certain activities, rules, or forms of life that shape individual behavior and action; for example, democracy, culture, or--more concretely--voting. I'm not sure if I completely buy his exact analysis of bad faith and stupidity wrt Sartre's refusal of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but his main points strike me as solid. Thanks for sharing.

    With regard to your last paragraph, I think it may be a bit too strong to describe it as essential, since--like you said--bad faith seems to be more of a consequence of our freedom than a necessary quality to our freedom.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.