Existentialists in Love

 

I wasn’t intending to write again so soon about the Existentialists, but when Pak asked me in the previous post’s comments why exactly it was that I considered Existentialism such a loveless doctrine, I realised that answering that question would take a little time. Philosophy in general has a fair amount of trouble with love because it stands outside its boundaries of interest. Up until Existentialism (I’m cutting with a blunt sword here – apologies to those with more specialist knowledge) philosophy had generally taken epistemology as its main concern: that’s to say, a careful and detailed consideration of what it is possible for us to know, or the study of truth. Existentialism marked a watershed in philosophical endeavour as its concern was with ontology – with what it is to exist in the world, what it feels like to be. Now you might well say that love is a phenomenon that we both experience with some intensity and whose truth we need to know, but it has always proved so resistant to definition, so subjective and so inconstant, that it has been bypassed for the altogether safer realms of logic, aesthetics and language.

 

Existentialism has any number of reasons why not to believe in love. In Camus’s novel, The Outsider, the main protagonist Meursault upsets his girlfriend, Marie, because he won’t tell her he loves her. He says it’s because he doesn’t understand what it means, and whilst we’re all shaking our heads here, thinking ‘Ha! I’ve heard that one before!’, what Camus is really invoking is that split between language and existence that I spoke about previously. There’s a word called ‘love’ and for Meursault it’s bound up in all kinds of cultural conventions that he’s incapable of buying into. He knows he likes Marie’s company, he enjoys her sexuality, but does this amount to love? He won’t sign on the dotted line of any concept whose tangibility he doubts, and it gets him into a lot of trouble in this particular novel.

 

So there’s a conceptual difficulty with love in Existentialist thought. There’s also an interpersonal difficulty. Sartre espouses a rather bleak view of human relations, arguing that they are all inevitably built on conflict. This is because we seek objective recognition of our self-worth from other people. But the fact that we are all seeking the same thing means that simultaneously we are refusing that recognition to others. The result is a continual, tense stalemate. He believed that if two people did succeed in forming a pact to mutually recognise one another, then a third party would invariably turn up to disturb this balance. This may not sound so unfamiliar to those of you who married and then had children… But essentially Sartre describes a perpetual battle of egos here, and assigns to human beings a fundamental level of aggression colouring all their interpersonal encounters. Love in this model would be a kind of temporary laying down of arms, a periodic agreement to mutually celebrate individual self-worth that is destined eventually to fall apart.

 

Then there’s Simone de Beauvoir, one of the greatest feminists of the 20th century, and Sartre’s life partner. The question of relationships was a far more pressing concern in Beauvoir’s novels than it ever was for Sartre’s and Camus’s lonely protagonists. Beauvoir’s stories all feature women bound like Gulliver in Lilliput to their domestic situations. One classic tale, La Femme rompue (it means ‘the broken woman’ but I’m afraid I don’t know what the official translated title is) concerns Monique, a woman who has devoted herself to the roles of wife and mother for over twenty years, and who has a breakdown on discovering that her husband has been unfaithful for the past 8 of them. The story was first serialised in Elle magazine, and thousands of letters poured in, sympathising with Monique and identifying with her situation. Beauvoir was incensed: she had intended Monique to stand as a warning to all the women out there who failed to recognise the inherent dynamism in life, who forgot that existence is changing all the time, as are the people within it, and who have foolishly attached themselves to culturally-sanctioned roles to the detriment of their own personal development. Beauvoir’s sympathies were all with the faithless husband, who had at least had the gumption to pack his bags and move on. Oh dear. If there’s one thing that really doesn’t make sense to an Existentialist of this era, it’s the thought that love and loyalty might go hand in hand somehow or other.

 

In real life, beyond the spotlit stage of their novels, the three of them practised what they preached. They had appalling reputations in matters of the heart; Beauvoir and Sartre were lifelong partners, but they had an ‘open marriage’ that included countless others. At the time of Camus’s death in 1960 when he was 46, he had a wife, two children and three mistresses. He was pretty lucky to be the victim of a car crash, considering what would have happened to him if they had all found out the truth. It’s probably the case that they each had an inkling of what was afoot – pity his poor wife whose suicidal depressions were certainly caused in part by his philandering. That’s the problem with philosophy – it may be interested in what’s fundamental to life, but it doesn’t get to grips with life’s messy, irrational, emotional reality. Of course it’s always possible that philosophy had nothing to do with these Existentialist’s love lives, and ego and opportunism provided a more plausible motivation. But the absence of love is what makes Existentialism and what breaks it. It may be true at a certain level that we are all alienated from one another, that we must face absolute self-responsibility and the curse of relentless freedom, but love, the love between two adults, and the love that eases a child into the uncertain autonomy of existence, can transform the prison into a palace. And much as I’m not about to start offering definitions of love, it’s possible perhaps to see in the effects of this transformation, the philosophical certainty that love exists and has a profound impact on the world.

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10 thoughts on “Existentialists in Love

  1. Hello Litlove, I’ve been reading your blog for a while and enjoying your thoughts on literature. Although I enjoy reading them for the range of questions they present, it is disappointing that the existentialists were so utterly convinced that relationships were necessarily a barrier to human freedom.

    And what a lovely line – love is a phenomenon whose truth we need to know.

  2. Hello Litlove, I really like what you say about philosophy and private love lives not going hand in hand for the Existentialists. Did you read about Beauvoir’s American lover? She had a mostly intellectual relationship with Sartre, but she developed the emotional/physical relation with another man, who wasn’t so satisfying on the intellectual level. I remember reading one of her novel where she described in fictional terms how bitter she was with Sartre’s flirting and careless attitude (the English title is She came to stay).

  3. Verbivore – welcome! and thank you very much for your comment, which I do appreciate. In some ways the Existentialists got around that particular barrier by having lots and lots of relationships. I was about to write that they weren’t very profound, but that’s not true; the point was that they were not at all conventional, and the straitjacket of convention was something they despised. However, I do agree with you that the compatibility of freedom with loyalty and the longer-term was something that seemed to drop off their radar. Smithereens, I have read that book, and what a fabulous book it was! It’s one I’d dearly like to read again. Is the American called Nelson Algren (or something similar – surname’s not quite right). I’ve never read a full biography of Beauvoir, although I do have one sitting on my shelves that I ought to try.

  4. I am thinking, in existentialism, existence precedes essence. First, the man exists, then he defines who he is by what he does. Love does not have a separate existence. Love can not guide one’s action. So, when an existentialist has a choice between philandering or staying loyal to his wife, he would not think that he should be loyal because of love. He might just as well go out and keep a few mistresses or stay loyal to his wife. Is there where the lovelessness comes from? Am I understanding it correctly?

    I have not read the book The Outsider, but I feel I would sympathize with Meursault. Love is one of those things, when I was a teenager, I felt like I knew everything there is to know about it. Then, things happened, and I realized I did not know as much as I thought I did. Once I tried to understand it more, each answer led to more questions. I think I would be very tentative to use the word “love” too. Maybe I am just thinking too much about it. Thinking too much in abstraction instead of looking at the evidence of love in everyday life.

    Thank you for answering my question with completely new post. 🙂

  5. Pak – thank you for asking such an interesting question! Yes, love is in no way an essence; it’s a feeling, and as such uncertain, fluctuating, and fleeting. It doesn’t seem to be considered as an act that can leave a mark on the world either (or only in a negative way). It enters life and then leaves it, but to live for love or to commit all to love would be acting in ‘mauvaise foi’ – bad faith. It would be pegging your identity onto something ephemeral and dynamic and trying to turn it into something solid and dependable. I think the whole problem with love is that it dissolves when you try to think it in an abstract way. Do read The Outsider, by the way. I just love Camus’s books, and it was one that made a huge impression on me. I’d be so interested to know what you thought about it.

  6. Hallo, litlove. I’ve been reading you blog for awhile now and thought I would comment on this since I just completed a research paper on love from a psychological perspective. The main book I used was A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amini and Lannon. It is a very good book and I highly recommend it. The funny thing is, is that the major precept of their theory is that love is completely necessary to living a full and content life, and the lack of love especially in this day and age is most damaging. They explain the theory better than I do, combining scientific evidence with lyrical prose and poetry quotes. Again, quite a good read and it offers an interesting perspective on the subject of love.

  7. This is quite embarrassing. I have read The Outsider. It was translated under a different title. When you mentioned Meursault and Marie, I did not recognize the names or that part of the story at all. It is like someone says hi to me on the street, and then the next day I realize he is my neighbor or my cousin.

    I am intrigued by Meursault’s seemingly indifference to the social norms in the narrative. He does not react to events the ‘right’ way. He also seems to have no concept of morality. If I remember correctly, he does not feel upset because he has killed someone, he feels unhappy for being put in a jail and losing his freedom.

    I thought the novel was interesting, but I could not understand the character in there. He does seem to be true to himself. I am envious of him for being able to live like that.

    It is similar to when I read the existentialist philosophy. I agree with most of the ideas. They make sense, but at the same I feel something is missing. I don’t know what it is, but it is lacking something. I don’t know if it is love, because right now I can’t conceive it.

    But that is my current impression of existentialism and the novel, they seem to be missing something.

  8. Pak, I think I’m in danger of writing another whole post here in answer to your question! I will post properly on Camus one day, but for now I’ll say that, yes, Meursault is indeed unusual in his society because he is indifferent to their conventions and ideology. He is only really affected by purely physical sensations. He is, quite simply, just existing, without that conceptual language web gripping the world he lives in. When he kills a man because of the heat that day, he refuses to lie according to convention and say that he’s sorry or make a convincing story up to make himself look better. When I read the book I found him repulsive at first, but in his determination to be honest, no matter what the cost, I found a kind of ethical purity in him that I began to admire. When he’s in prison, facing the death sentence, he has an epiphany – which is that he loves life in all its absurdity. It doesn’t need to make sense for it to be valuable to him.

    My difficulty with the Existentialists is that, whilst this attitude may underlie the social conventions that smother us, we can none of us become like Meursault by choice.He just happens to be that way. And so I wonder what to think of a philosophy that is best demonstrated by isolated loners. Keep reading – I think you’re making good progress with the thought!

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