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.