“Hell is other people”.
At university, when the stress of summatives, who kissed who, and being away from home are high, this can certainly seem the case. Consider the 5PM Friday tutorial: there is that professor who seems oblivious of the time and keeps on talking. There is that one boy taking incessant notes that distracts you from your own train of thought. You can’t help but to be uncharitable: ’What is he achieving by writing down every single word?’ There is that one girl who is so obviously on Facebook and texting, that you wonder why she even bothered to show up. Your mind attempts to stay with the subject matter at hand but continuously slips away to your post-tutorial plans at the pub. The tiny room in Elvet Riverside is suddenly surprisingly claustrophobic. You think of yourself as a kind person, but judgement and frustration start to seep through your perceptions of everyone around you. “Hell is other people”.
But “Hell is other people”, as Sartre intended at the end of his iconic play ‘Huis Clos’, didn’t strictly mean that people are annoying, as true as that often may seem. Rather, he meant that when we define ourselves, we constantly take in the gaze of others to gauge our self-perception. In this way, we can never behave authentically or have true freedom. To translate the original French (“L’enfer, c’est les autres) into “Hell is other people” sacrifices some of the original meaning — many propose “Hell is the Other” as a better translation, because it further evokes the original meaning: that being constantly confronted with those who challenge your own subjectivity is ‘Hell’.
Imagine how this applies to the same tutorial situation: the girl on Facebook makes you self-conscious about your own social life. The boy taking incessant notes increases your insecurity about your own intellectual prowess: should I be taking that many notes? Am I missing important information? The droning professor reminds you all too much of job application deadlines: could this man be a mirror of my own future? Does he think I am stupid? You find him a capturer — stealing time on a Friday better spent drinking or gossiping — but also crave his approval when you answer a question. This is the ‘Hell’ Sartre means in ‘Huis Clos’: when your conceptions of your selfhood are sacrificed by the presence of others.
I used to think the Greek conception of Hell was the most cruel: being locked inside your own mind forever, having to constantly pick over the things you’ve done wrong. I always imagined I’d go insane almost immediately. But in ‘Huis Clos’, Sartre puts forth compelling evidence to suggest the opposite: Hell is the constant gaze of others that compromises your own decisions and subjectivity. Eternity in your own head will eventually allow you to come to peace with your life and rationalise or control all of your decisions. You will end up deciding which bad decisions to take responsibility for, and which to chalk up to bad circumstances and influences. Being locked in a room with others is a far worse fate as Sartre counters, you are less likely to be honest with yourself. You will be stuck in a constant fight for your own subjectivity. Reading ‘Huis Clos’ for the first time made me realise I’d rather cross the River Styx and choose Hades any day over the claustrophobic room called Hell Sartre forces his three characters into, for eternity.
‘Huis Clos’ seems especially relevant to me in the age of social media. Think about your Facebook profile: an immaculately curated page of flattering photos, statuses about your achievements, and interactions with friends. Imagine the slight panic you feel when your friend ‘tags’ you in an unflattering photo where you are clearly intoxicated and your hair is a mess. It clashes with the other presentations of your life that your Facebook page projects. Social media allows us to construct a fake ‘self’ — but it’s a performative self, perhaps even an inauthentic self. It’s a self that’s intended for the consumption of others. In this situation, does having control over our page make us the subject? Or does the fact it’s constantly assessed by others and implicitly asking for their approval make us the object? Can we ever escape the gaze of the Other in uniquely modern situations like this? These are all questions ‘Huis Clos’ forces a contemporary audience to confront.
Considering these questions brings a feeling that Sartre most likened to nausea: a constant uneasiness that impedes everything one does. It’s a philosopher’s term for what many chalk up to existential angst. This weekend, Durham’s independent art collective THORN is performing ‘Huis Clos’ (more information on which can be found on their Facebook page) and, interestingly, has decided to set the play in a doctor’s waiting room. This goes against the dignified French drawing room Sartre originally set the play in. But thinking it through, the decision perfectly fits the mood of the play. The three characters in ‘Huis Clos’ all come to terms with an existential prognosis of ‘nausea’ as they spend their time together in Hell. The audience experiences this with them: it holds a mirror up to how we live our lives and present ourselves to others. If done effectively, it should make you feel a little queasy too.