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At the Existentialist Park
Douglas Groothuis reports an unexpected meeting of minds.
Sartre wrote like a fiend. As a true existentialist, he tried to continually create himself – through incessant writing. Plays, reviews, essays and novels flew from his brain onto thousands of pages. Some of his journal jottings were lost. But among his unpublished papers I found this note from July 1957, titled ‘My Strange Dream’, in which his nocturnal imaginings are dogged by a great Dane. The original MS, marked by coffee rings and a cigarette burn and encrusted in places with an unknown white powder, has since vanished from the archive. Perhaps I dreamed the whole thing? DG
I found myself in a park in Copenhagen. It was not the place I visited, but older, quieter. A hunched figure wearing a dark cape drew toward me with a knowing look. He seemed oddly familiar. Was he giving me a half-smile?
“Greetings, Monsieur Sartre,” he said in perfect French. “Some say we are related – that I am your grandfather!” Since this man was about my age, and looked nothing like my grandfather, I could make no sense of this. It seemed absurd… as all things are, really.
“Sir,” he continued, “You doubtless don’t recognize me because of drawings you have seen that make me look even more debonair and attractive than I really am.”
He was nursing a small, leather-bound tome, so I asked, “What is that book you are so fondly carrying?”
“It is my latest, hot off the press. The Sickness Unto Death.”
“You’re Søren Kierkegaard! Indeed, you do look a tad more homely than your portraits.”
“Thank you, little man with unwashed clothes and a wandering eye.”
JPS: We are even, then!… I have read many of your books, but most are lost in the chaos of my hotel room. Perhaps Simone hid them.
SK: I am flattered to hear that; but I am here to compliment and criticize your work. In short, I want a word with you.
JPS: So, let’s skip the small talk.
SK: Yes. I don’t have that much time. Neither do you.
JPS: True. Our lives are being-unto-death, as Heidegger said.
SK: Oh my. Not Heidegger also. You are trouble enough.
JPS: What is your concern with me?
SK: Many now call me an ‘existentialist’, and you called yourself the same in Existentialism and Human Emotions. Of course, the term was applied to me long after my death. It was coined by Karl Jaspers in the middle of the Twentieth Century.
JPS: How do you know that? Have you become unstuck in time? Or have I?
SK: This metaphysical question need not concern us for the moment – in this moment before The Eternal.
JPS: ‘The Eternal’ sounds theological to me…
SK: Indeed. And that ties in with my dispute with you. But first I shall praise you.
JPS: Please do. I always like that.
SK: In many ways, you, like me, rightly turned philosophy back onto the person, the subjective self.
JPS: Yes. Before the War, Simone and I were drinking apricot cocktails in a Paris café with our friend Raymond Aron. He’d just come back from Berlin, where he had studied Husserl’s ideas. He said “You see, if you were a phenomenologist, you could talk about this cocktail and make a philosophy out of it.” This was just what I had been searching for! I wanted to know what about the cocktail we saw came from the outside world and what came from our heads, our concepts, our perceptions. Our subjectivity, in short. So almost immediately, I ran out and bought a book about Husserl’s phenomenology.
SK: You wrote that our subjectivity was the starting point of existence for us, not some abstract principle. So you defended man as being radically free.
JPS: I do, sir. We should never blame our actions on forces outside of ourselves, such as our upbringing or biological heritage. We are truly free.
SK: I agree, and I taught essentially the same thing.
JPS: Funny that you say ‘essentially’ since I deny that humans even have an essence, a nature apart from what they create. I summed this up as ‘existence precedes essence’.
SK: You were fortunate to find three words to sum up human existence. I could not.
JPS: How about ‘Truth is subjectivity’?
SK: That was a key theme in Concluding Unscientific Postscript; but most people have misinterpreted it to mean that I did not believe in objective facts. I did. I do. I am a Christian. I don’t believe that we can be neutral or passive about truth, however.
JPS: I concur on that.
SK: Since we’re here, let’s get on to your ideas about self and God. I agree that we should not lose the self in a system of abstractions such as Hegel’s. We don’t live our lives as a small part of a huge system, but rather, moment by moment.
JPS: You even said that “the individual is higher than the universal.” I agree that no abstract concept trumps human subjectivity; or, to invoke a fellow Frenchman, “I think therefore I am.”
SK: Yes. But I have little use for Descartes.
JPS: I also did not follow his system, which, after all, required God. But he and I and you all agree that we must not underrate the self and its experiences.
SK: And Hegel’s God is a figment of his overheated imagination and supposedly omnicompetent reason. He gave no place for a reflective self living in the passion of inwardness.
JPS: I said man was a ‘useless passion’ just because there is no God-given meaning or morality, and because we all die. Yet my philosophy is not pessimistic. We must seize all the meaning we can through our authentic choices. Do you not agree?
SK: Yes and no. As I wrote in my journals, I had to find the truth for which I could live and die. But I did not create this truth: I found it and appropriated it passionately. Like you, my vehicle was writing.
JPS: We both wrote as if our lives depended on it.
SK: They did.
JPS: Quite so. But our lives, and our books, were so different. However, we might be tied for the award for ‘Most Depressing Title For A Book’. I wrote one called Nausea, and you wrote The Sickness unto Death. I found life to be a collection of contingent events that had no reference beyond themselves and no intrinsic meaning – hence, Nausea. But you thought that this ‘sickness unto death’ was a despair which humans could somehow overcome. I never saw the point.
SK: It’s a long story. But not as long as Being and Nothingness.
JPS: Nothing is.
SK: Perhaps nothing seems to be longer, except Being and Time.
JPS: Let’s get on with the discussion. You are a bit too clever.
SK: And I love irony… Here is my point: despair is known to all. For example, we experience despair in irresolvable pairs, such as the despair of necessity and the despair of possibility. We want to be free of life’s irksome obligations – things we must do, such as an unpleasant job. But if we are free of them, then we lose ourselves in possibilities. What should I do next? If I have time to read, which book do I read? Of course, choices can be even more serious, especially those involving romance.
JPS: We have different approaches to women. I require many, and get them, thus synthesizing necessity and possibility. You separated from the one woman you loved; though she, apparently, loved you.
SK: Let’s not get too personal, Casanova! Appeal to your promiscuity does not cancel my point. You have nothing to offer the soul in despair. You go so far as to say that man is ‘the desire to be God’ – an innate desire that can never be satisfied by a finite being. If that isn’t despair, I don’t know what is!
JPS: Yes; but despair is unavoidable to one who recognizes his freedom and finitude. We want the stability that our freedom must deny. To be free is to take risks and to strive to attain what we can never become: a self-sufficient, stable, but also ever-changing self.
SK: Yes. we are impossible to ourselves if we are left to ourselves. But there is more. Let me read you one of the good bits from my just-published book:
“Socrates proved the immortality of the soul from the fact that the sickness of the soul (sin) does not consume it as sickness of the body consumes the body. So also we can demonstrate the eternal in man from the fact that despair cannot consume his self, that this precisely is the torment of contradiction in despair. If there were nothing eternal in a man, he could not despair; but if despair could consume his self, there would still be no despair.”
You see, my dear Jean-Paul, the will to be God – or, to use your terms, the inability to synthesize the in-itself and for-itself – is not an inexplicable fact of existence. Freedom is not a mysterious upsurge in a world without God. Rather, freedom is a fragile gift from the Eternal. Despair ought to drive us to God, who alone can overcome it.
JPS: But that is precisely bad faith: you are blaming your despair on God and not taking responsibility for it!
SK: Not at all! God gave me freedom, and I am responsible to myself and to God for how I exercise that freedom, so fraught as it is with uncertainty.
JPS: But as I wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions, God, even if he exists, makes no difference, since we must all chose our own identities over time.
SK: But Sartre, God makes all the difference, since freedom without grounding in God is not freedom unto the good but a vertiginous and valueless randomness, as you yourself seem to recognize. We choose wrongly even when we own up to our radical freedom. Yet before the face of God our freedom can be addressed with integrity.
JPS: I don’t believe in God, since an all-controlling God would take away my freedom.
SK: Your complaint hardly means that God does not exist. Perhaps he does and your understanding of freedom is flawed. Your idea of freedom is merely that of a mysterious upsurge issuing from no forethought and grounded in nothing but itself. But God gives us freedom. God made morally responsible beings. For you, responsibility exists in a void.
JPS: But freedom is real.
SK: Freedom is real, but it cannot be explained by your account. For you, freedom is a creation out of nothing – except that there is no Creator.
JPS: Why think that Being must be fully explicable?
SK: I don’t. That was Hegel’s mistake. Christianity contains paradoxes, such as the God-Man – the idea that the eternal came into time. However, it explains freedom better than your account does. It gives freedom a deeper meaning, since through the struggles of freedom leading to despair the subject can find himself as God’s creature.
JPS: Although you have not convinced me, I wish I had more dialogue of this kind. My circle is bereft of thinking religious people.
SK: Ha! So is mine.
With that, I awoke and wrote down these stimulating thoughts. I should go back to reread more of that funny hunchback’s prose.
© Prof. Douglas Groothuis 2018
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of Philosophy in Seven Sentences (2016).