In ‘No Exit’ – what is considered to be his best play – Sartre wrote the line ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres‘ which is commonly translated as hell is other people.
I was reminded of this last night hearing AC Grayling introduce Zizek, who had written in the Guardian that the worst job he had ever had was teaching: ‘I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.’
He is being facetious, but the problem of dealing with other people is central to all of his writing: violence, psychotherapy, communism – all of these key themes are issues of how we relate to ‘the other’, and that’s obviously the thrust of my book ‘Other‘ too.
Sartre’s view was that we need ‘the other’ in order to verify our own existence. He also believed that our self consciousness had a masochistic desire to be limited – that we were afraid of the ‘abyss of person’ at our core – and that the reflective consciousness of the other provides this limitation. This is what Sartre means by ‘hell is other people’: we need other people in order to verify our existence, but the act of doing this is limiting to us. Thus we are trapped in some kind of hell: unable to fulfil our potential because of the limits of others, but unable to be at all without them.
We can read Zizek’s quip in this light: without an audience his thinking is neutered as he can’t disseminate it; with the audience he can’t fulfil his thinking as most of them are not at his level.
One might might reflect on Jesus’ mindset in light of this. Did being a perfect person leave him frustrated and angry at having to deal with ‘mere mortals’? Perhaps Jesus’ time in hell was no more than having to live with a bunch of irritable, unreliable, stubborn and ignorant disciples.
As a teacher myself I can strongly empathise with this view. My profession is inherently about communicating with people less knowledgable than you are, and this can become irritating. It requires a great deal of patience.
But clearly I wouldn’t be carrying on doing it if I thought that ‘other people’ meant hell… So what route out of Sartre’s dark world can we find? Is it possible to be fulfilled while dealing with ‘the other’ too? I’ll try to cover that in the next post…