I was feeling quite out of love with philosophy towards the end of this term. Then I walked into a tutorial on Sartre which made me realise that my subject and my actual life do sometimes make contact. The topic was Sartre’s account of our interaction with other people, known within his system as our being-for-others. It’s pretty pessimistic. In brief, Sartre believes that we experience the attention of the Other, known metaphorically as “the gaze”, in a threatening way; it makes us aware of ourselves as an object. In being seen by the Other, we also feel their freedom, and thus their ability to oppress our own. Alone, we are a “locus of possibilities”, with others we are constrained by their capacity to objectify us.
So what does this mean for relationships with other people? Sartre views these, as his theory would suggest, as being antagonistic. Love is largely doomed to failure, because it is always subject to a clash of freedoms. Sex can’t be ultimately satisfying because of a similar objectification; Sartre gives the example in Being and Nothingness of jiggling flesh – and shows how this can remind us uncomfortably of the other, or ourselves, as object. Any form of sadism or masochism also fails. The masochist’s desire to become an object fails because, in doing so, he utilizes the other as object, imposing his freedom on them. The sadist’s desire to possess the freedom of his partner fails, because the other, being dominated, becomes objectified. Oppression, frustration and dissatisfaction are the norm. There are of course plenty of arguments against Sartre. Critics have varying points to make, but they all seem to agree on one thing – Sartre’s pessimism. A friend of mine once remarked that Sartre sounded a bit like a petulant teenager at times; insistently, and probably unnecessarily, gloomy.
What actually interested me in that tutorial I mentioned was not exactly Sartre’s account itself, but rather the general reaction to it. People pulled horrified faces. They suggested Sartre was some kind of major pervert (Simone de Beauvoir was regarded as pretty suspect too), not to mention completely wrong. There were various defences mounted, but pretty much everyone found his views too pessimistic, and agreed that they fail to consider all the ways in which humans relate to each other. I’m not saying these points weren’t valid; they were. But what really interested me was that nobody said how much Sartre’s view reminded them of a dysfunctional relationship. I did, and nobody really wanted to take me on. They agreed, but tended to put forward literary examples. Thinking of Charles’ mad kidnap of Hartley in the name of love in The Sea, The Sea, I agreed that literature could give examples of Sartrean relationships, or at least Sartrean moments within a relationship. But it bothered me, although I could understand it, the fact that nobody wanted to admit to even having witnessed a really dysfunctional relationship, let alone having been in one. Perhaps I’m just shameless.
I think Sartre’s ideas are gold when you come to consider some of the less conventional sexual situations people get themselves into. His ideas remind me pretty neatly of relationships I have both been in and witnessed, and I’m sure (I hope) that my experiences and attitude are not unique.
In particular, Sartre’s pessimism about human relationships does highlight aspects of sex that people don’t necessarily want to broadcast. Yet these are very probably as common as typical “lovemaking”. Personal examples probably aren’t the way to go here, so I’ll spare you and be general. Sex can come very close to conflict; often one partner assumes dominance, and sometimes this dominance, and I’m talking about consensual sex here, comes with an edge of violence. Accompanying this, for the dominated partner, could be a sudden sense of the lover, the other, as a threat. Then take the “jiggling” example – it is quite possible to imagine, perhaps more so in certain positions, opening your eyes during sex, and suddenly seeing the other person as flesh, as object. Imagine, during, a little background disgust or fear. The sudden realisation that you would really be much happier alone. A realisation not only of a lack of unity, but also a sense of the impossibility of it. And I’m not talking about bad sex here. A really good orgasm can still leave you cold. All these are what I would see as examples of the existence of that tension which Sartre locates in our relationships with others. A kind of incessant imperfection. Very interesting, most obvious in dysfunctional relationships, and recognisable not only in literature, but also in life. In my life, at least, and I suspect, in those of others.