Holden Battles the Summer Doldrums, Post 11 - Being and Nothingness: Part One and The Intuitionist

The introduction of Being and Nothingness was inauspicious. Sartre seemed to wind and coil around the question of being without stating it and explaining its significance. Part One, fortunately, did not follow this pattern.

I am dazzled (although after this reading I question whether I can say “I am” with any confidence) by this first part. Sartre expresses fundamental ontological questions (i.e. [kind of] What does it mean to be?) so skillfully once you get the hang of the unique syntax of ontology (there are many, many versions of “to be,” “is,” “being,” “negations,” “affirmations,” “is nots,” “nothingnesses,” and so on in this syntax.) It is more clear to me what Sartre’s aim and approach are now.

Sartre keeps his aim in sight in every chapter: for example, he makes clear that at a certain point he is considering the question “What does it mean to not be?” Sartre explores, considers, and then realizes that in order to answer this question he must characterize the process of negation. In other words, he needs to determine who says, “Pierre is not here,” how this person apprehends Pierre's absence, and what answers to these questions imply about being (or existence) in general.

Ultimately, the fact that I can notice absences evinces the reliance being has on nothingness, hence the title of Sartre’s book. I could not say what "is" without understanding that something is not that other thing. Pierre is not the waiter at the café; Pierre is not the patron in the red dress sitting alone at the bar; Pierre is not these tables, plates, forks, or knives. Pierre is not here, and I apprehend this fact from the differences between Pierre and all of these other beings. His absence is confirmed by the presence of things that are not Pierre.

So what? This seems if not obvious then overly abstract. Here is where Sartre hooked me. The realization that nothingness is or must be in order to apprehend our realities cuts to the marrow of human experience. To know what one is, one must know what one is not. And how do we humans, fickle and lazy as we are, apprehend this? And why is it that we can apprehend these things?

Sartre offers compelling answers through the last fifty pages of Part One, but I want to shift gears for a moment and consider what it means to blog about philosophy.

Such a 21st-century question! One could say “write about” instead of “blog about,” but I like the particularity of “blog.” It implies a particular audience and purpose. In wrestling with how I should write about this book I troubled myself. Do I write summaries of Sartre’s ideas and arguments? If I do this, then I risk boring my audience since they could, and should, read the book for themselves. I might also grant the illusion that a summary is a sufficient substitute for their own reading and analysis of the text at hand. Besides, all summary is an interpretation, and I do not have a premium interpretation. No, if you want a summary, reevaluate your desires.

I could write a thesis-driven blog that owns its interpretative horizon. But who wants to read an academic paper (by me, no less) in a blog? This doesn’t seem like the time or format for an explanation and interpretation of Sartre’s reading of psychoanalysis. To me a blog is a public reflection on something. Some blogs offer stances, but this blog’s purpose has been to talk about reading in general viz-a-viz my reading. In short, the stance of this blog is that reading makes you more thoughtful and opens up new worlds of ideas as you think about what you read. My blogging is as much for me to process these worlds as it is to introduce and entice others to them.

So then, should I write about my experience and affect while reading Sartre? Does this not risk talking around the engrossing ideas of Being and Nothingness? Or do I risk lapsing into my academic habits, thus falling into those pitfalls I discussed above?

See what I mean when I say I troubled myself?

This is a lucid example of what Sartre means by “anguish.” Sartre differentiates between fear and anguish to make a point about human beings’ specific way of being; here is where he cuts to the marrow of our human realities. He uses the example of walking along a precipice to illustrate the difference between fear and anguish. I fear the possibility of the ground beneath me falling away; I fear someone may shove me over the side; I fear slipping and toppling down to my death. Fear arises from external things, of which I can only understand as beings-in-themselves, or objects whose consciousness I cannot penetrate. I have little or no control over these objects. (Yes, the person shoving me is an object in this instance. Their motives are eternally hidden from me, because they are an alien consciousness to me, but also because I will be dead if they shove me off the side of the cliff, thus I will cease to be a being who can interrogate the being that shoved me.)

Fear is produced by a being-in-itself, something that is ontologically outside of my understanding, but anguish arises from within myself. Along the precipice the possibility that I may throw myself off the edge becomes real. And there is nothing, literally no concrete, tangible thing, that stands between me, myself, and my possible splattering. Thus, anguish affects me through the realization that nothingness affords me a certain degree and type of freedom.

In this sense, my trouble over how to write this blog post is an example of anguish. There is nothing between myself and how I write.

There are influencing factors, surely. I might anticipate what my audience would enjoy. I then lessen or sublimate my anguish by handing the dilemma to an external factor, a being-in-itself, an audience-being if you will. Now that being will determine how I act, and I acquiesce responsibility for my decision. For Sartre, this is one of several strategies I could employ to distract myself from my anguish and the freedom it manifests. However, I’m not sure how I would overcome anguish, or even if Sartre thinks I need to overcome it. I suspect this question drives one of the later parts of the book.

Now, this week I also read The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. It’s about the first elevator inspector who is a black woman. In the world of The Intuitionist elevator repair, manufacture, and inspection are subject to much philosophical and bureaucratic attention. In the beginning, an elevator just approved by our protagonist Lila Mae Watson goes into free fall. It is obviously set up. But who set her up and why? Did the white men who run The Department of Elevator Inspection set her up to sabotage integration efforts? Did the Empiricists (a school of elevator inspectors who insist on looking at every part of vertical devices with their eyeballs) set her up because she is an Intuitionist (an elevator inspector who ‘intuits’ the status of a vertical vehicle)? Did the reigning Guild president orchestrate this to win his re-election? Was it all three of those things? Or was it chance that brought the elevator down? This event sends Lila Mae on an investigation that will take her through her alma mater’s campus, the sacred tomes of Intuitionism, and the underbelly of the nameless (but we know it’s NYC) city she lives in.

I found myself drawing stretched parallels between the Empiricist-Intuitionist debate in the book’s world and the Analytic-Continental debate in our world. (I discussed what this is in a earlier blog post.) I wonder if this inspired Whitehead’s fiction, at least in part. Perhaps I’m just imputing my experience into the pages of the novel. Nonetheless, I thought it was a funny, smart, and worthwhile read. Lila Mae Watson might not seem like your typical hero, but she's one of mine. (And this book is on The Great American Read.)

I'm sorry my thoughts on The Intuitionist are brief. I feel this blog post is as long as it should be, and I have other work to get to. Read it for yourself if you want more! It's, as I said, worthwhile!

This coming week I’ll be reading Being and Nothingness, Part Two and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The latter has gotten much attention lately. I just want to read a book about someone who tries to sleep for an entire year. What causes someone like this anguish? Oh, yes, the nothingness “that haunts being” and confirms their freedom. Or maybe Moshfegh has a different idea… I’ll find out!

Until then, happy reading!