Existentialism From Dostoevsky To Sartre
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Existentialism From Dostoevsky To Sartre

Walter Kaufmann

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Existentialism From Dostoevsky To Sartre

Walter Kaufmann

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What is Existentialism? It is perhaps the most misunderstood of modern philosophic positions—misunderstood by reason of its broad popularity and general unfamiliarity with its origins, representatives, and principles.Existential thinking does not originate with Jean Paul Sartre. It has prior religious, literary, and philosophic origins. In its narrowest formulation it is a metaphysical doctrine, arguing as it does that any definition of man's essence must follow, not precede, an estimation of his existence. In Heidegger, it affords a view of Being in its totality; in Kierkegaard an approach to that inwardness indispensable to authentic religious experience; for Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Rilke the existential situation bears the stamp of modern man's alienation, uprootedness, and absurdity; to Sartre it has vast ethical and political implications.Walter Kaufmann, author of Nietzsche, is eminently qualified to present and interpret the insights of existentialism as they occur and are deepened by the major thinkers who express them.In every case complete selections or entire works have been employed: The Wall, Existentialism, and the complete chapter on "Self-Deception" from L'être et le Néant by Sartre; two lectures from Jaspers' book Reason and Existenz; original translations of On My Philosophy by Jaspers and The Way Back into the Ground of Metaphysics by Heidegger. There is, as well, material from Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Camus.

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[Preface: Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris in 1905. His short story “The Wall” is one of the classics of existentialism. It is reprinted unabridged. A brief analysis—of the following selections, too—is offered in Chapter One.
“Self-Deception” is an important chapter of Sartre’s major philosophic work, L’être et le néant. It is also offered unabridged, in the translation of Hazel Barnes; but I have changed her translation of mauvaise foi, which she renders “bad faith.” “Self-deception” seems much more accurate to me, and this is also how Philip Mairet has translated the same phrase in the final selection. The price I have had to pay for this change—and I think it was amply worth it—is that the contrast between “self-deception” and “good faith” is a bit less neat, and that the title of section III, “The ‘Faith’ of Self Deception,” no longer sounds like a play on words. That may be just as well, for Sartre’s thought here does not all depend on the words. He himself is, of course, quite aware of this and soon speaks of “belief” (croyance) instead of “faith” (foi). In view of the many paradoxes he offers, it may be well to call attention to this passage, toward the end of section II: “there is a sincerity which bears on the past and which does not concern us here....Here our concern is only with the sincerity which aims at itself in present immanence.”
The “Portrait of the Anti-Semite” represents a slightly abridged version of the first part of Réflexions sur la question Juive.
Existentialism is a Humanism is Mairet’s translation of Sartre’s famous lecture, L’existentialisme est un humanisme (1946), unabridged. It has been published in England as Existentialism and Humanism, in the United States as Existentialism, and in Germany with the title 1st der Existenzialismus ein Humanismus? It has been widely mistaken for the definitive statement of existentialism, but is a brilliant lecture which bears the stamp of the moment. According to Genesis and Kierkegaard, it was not an angel that “commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son”; more important, Jaspers is not a professed Catholic; and the definition of existentialism and many of the arguments invite criticism. Plainly, this is not the alpha and omega of existentialism, but it is eminently thought-provoking, and you can almost hear Sartre talk.]

1. The Wall

They pushed us into a big white room and I began to blink because the light hurt my eyes. Then I saw a table and four men behind the table, civilians, looking over the papers. They had bunched another group of prisoners in the back and we had to cross the whole room to join them. There were several I knew and some others who must have been foreigners. The two in front of me were blond with round skulls; they looked alike. I supposed they were French. The smaller one kept hitching up his pants; nerves.
It lasted about three hours; I was dizzy and my head was empty; but the room was well heated and I found that pleasant enough: for the past 24 hours we hadn’t stopped shivering. The guards brought the prisoners up to the table, one after the other. The four men asked each one his name and occupation. Most of the time they didn’t go any further—or they would simply ask a question here and there: “Did you have anything to do with the sabotage of munitions?” Or “Where were you the morning of the 9th and what were you doing?” They didn’t listen to the answers or at least didn’t seem to. They were quiet for a moment and then looking straight in front of them began to write. They asked Tom if it were true he was in the International Brigade; Tom couldn’t tell them otherwise because of the papers they found in his coat. They didn’t ask Juan anything but they wrote for a long time after he told them his name.
“My brother Jose is the anarchist,” Juan said, “you know he isn’t here anymore. I don’t belong to any party, I never had anything to do with politics.”
They didn’t answer. Juan went on, “I haven’t done anything. I don’t want to pay for somebody else.”
His lips trembled. A guard shut him up and took him away. It was my turn.
“Your name is Pablo Ibbieta?”
The man looked at the papers and asked me, “Where’s Ramon Gris?”
“I don’t know.”
“You hid him in your house from the 6th to the 19th.”
They wrote for a minute and then the guards took me out. In the corridor Tom and Juan were waiting between two guards. We started walking. Tom asked one of the guards, “So?”
“So what?” the guard said.
“Was that the cross-examination or the sentence?”
“Sentence,” the guard said.
“What are they going to do with us?”
The guard answered dryly, “Sentence will be read in your cell.”
As a matter of fact, our cell was one of the hospital cellars. It was terrifically cold there because of the drafts. We shivered all night and it wasn’t much better during the day. I had spent the previous five days in a cell in a monastery, a sort of hole in the wall that must have dated from the middle ages: since there were a lot of prisoners and not much room, they locked us up anywhere. I didn’t miss my cell; I hadn’t suffered too much from the cold but I was alone; after a long time it gets irritating. In the cellar I had company. Juan hardly ever spoke: he was afraid and he was too young to have anything to say. But Tom was a good talker and he knew Spanish well.
There was a bench in the cellar and four mats. When they took us back we sat and waited in silence. After a long moment, Tom said, “We’re screwed.”
“I think so too,” I said, “but I don’t think they’ll do anything to the kid.”
“They don’t have a thing against him,” said Tom. “He’s the brother of a militiaman and that’s all.”
I looked at Juan: he didn’t seem to hear. Tom went on, “You know what they do in Saragossa? They lay the men down on the road and run over them with trucks. A Moroccan deserter told us that. They said it was to save ammunition.”
“It doesn’t save gas,” I said.
I was annoyed at Tom: he shouldn’t have said that.
“Then there’s officers walking along the road,” he went on, “supervising it all. They stick their hands in their pockets and smoke cigarettes. You think they finish off the guys? Hell no. They let them scream. Sometimes for an hour. The Moroccan said he damned near puked the first time.”
“I don’t believe they’ll do that here,” I said. “Unless they’re really short on ammunition.”
Day was coming in through four airholes and a round opening they had made in the ceiling on the left, and you could see the sky through it. Through this hole, usually closed by a trap, they unloaded coal into the cellar. Just below the hole there was a big pile of coal dust; it had been used to heat the hospital, but since the beginning of the war the patients were evacuated and the coal stayed there, unused; sometimes it even got rained on because they had forgotten to close the trap.
Tom began to shiver. “Good Jesus Christ, I’m cold,” he said. “Here it goes again.”
He got up and began to do exercises. At each movement his shirt opened on his chest, white and hairy. He lay on his back, raised his legs in the air and bicycled. I saw his great rump trembling. Tom was husky but he had too much fat. I thought how rifle bullets or the sharp points of bayonets would soon be sunk into this mass of tender flesh as in a lump of butter. It wouldn’t have made me feel like that if he’d been thin.
I wasn’t exactly cold, but I couldn’t feel my arms and shoulders anymore. Sometimes I had the impression I was missing something and began to look around for my coat and then suddenly remembered they hadn’t given me a coat. It was rather uncomfortable. They took our clothes and gave them to their soldiers leaving us only our shirts—and those canvas pants that hospital patients wear in the middle of summer. After a while Tom got up and sat next to me, breathing heavily.
“Good Christ, no. But I’m out of wind.”
Around eight o’clock in the evening a major came in with two falangistas. He had a sheet of paper in his hand. He asked the guard, “What are the names of those three?”
“Steinbock, Ibbieta and Mirbal,” the guard said.
The major put on his eyeglasses and scanned the list: “Steinbock...Steinbock...Oh yes...You are sentenced to death. You will be shot tomorrow morning.” He went on looking. “The other two as well.”
“That’s not possible,” Juan said. “Not me.”
The major looked at him amazed. “What’s your name?” “Juan Mirbal,” he said.
“Well, your name is there,” said the major. “You’re sentenced.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Juan said.
The major shrugged his shoulders and turned to Tom and me.
“You’re Basque?”
“Nobody is Basque.”
He looked annoyed. “They told me there were three Basques. I’m not going to waste my time running after them. Then naturally you don’t want a priest?”
We didn’t even answer.
He said, “A Belgian doctor is coming shortly. He is authorized to spend the night with you.” He made a military salute and left.
“What did I tell you,” Tom said. “We get it.”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s a rotten deal for the kid.”
I said that to be decent but I didn’t like the kid. His face was too thin and fear and suffering had disfigured it, twisting all his features. Three days before he was a smart sort of kid, not too bad; but now he looked like an old fairy and I thought how he’d never be young again, even if they were to let him go. It wouldn’t have been too hard to have a little pity for him but pity disgusts me, or rather it horrifies me. He hadn’t said anything more but he had turned grey; his face and hands were both grey. He sat down again and looked at the ground with round eyes. Tom was good hearted, he wanted to take his arm, but the kid tore himself away violently and made a face.
“Let him alone,” I said in a low voice, “you can see he’s going to blubber.”
Tom obeyed regretfully; he would have liked to comfort the kid, it would have passed his time and he wouldn’t have been tempted to think about himself. But it annoyed me: I’d never thought about death because I never had any reason to, but now the reason was here and there was nothing to do but think about it.
Tom began to talk. “So you think you’ve knocked guys off, do you?” he asked me. I didn’t answer. He began explaining to me that he had knocked off six since the beginning of August; he didn’t realize the situation and I could tell he didn’t want to realize it. I hadn’t quite realized it myself, I wondered if it hurt much, I thought of bullets, I imagined their burning hail through my body. All that was beside the real question; but I was calm: we had all night to understand. After a while Tom stopped talking and I watched him out of the corner of my eye; I saw he too had turned grey and he looked rotten; I told myself “Now it starts.” It was almost dark, a dim glow filtered through the airholes and the pile of coal and made a big stain beneath the spot of sky; I could already see a star through the hole in the ceiling: the night would be pure and icy.
The door opened and two guards came in, followed by a blonde man in a tan uniform. He saluted us. “I am the doctor,” he said. “I have authorization to help you in these trying hours.”
He had an agreeable and distinguished voice. I said, “What do you want here?”
“I am at your disposal. I shall do all I can to make your last moments less difficult.”
“What did you come here for? There are others, the hospital’s full of them.”
“I was sent here,” he answered with a vague look. “Ah! Would you like to smoke?” he added hurriedly, “I have cigarettes and even cigars.”
He offered us English cigarettes and puros, but we refused. I looked him in the eyes and he seemed irritated. I said to him, “You aren’t here on an errand of mercy. Besides, I know you. I saw you with the fascists in the barracks yard the day I was arrested.”
I was going to continue, but something surprising suddenly happened to me; the presence of this doctor no longer interested me. Generally when I’m on somebody I don’t let go. But the desire to talk left me completely; I shrugged and turned my eyes away. A little later I raised my head; he was watching me curiously. The guards were sitting on a mat. Pedro, the tall thin one, was twiddling his thumbs, the other shook his head from time to time to keep from falling asleep.
“Do you want a light?” Pedro suddenly asked the doctor. The other nodded “Yes”: I think he was about as smart as a log, but he surely wasn’t bad. Looking in his cold blue eyes it seemed to me that his only sin was lack of imagination. Pedro went out and came back with an oil lamp which he set on the corner of the bench. It gave a bad light but it was better than nothing: they had left us in the dark the night before. For a long time I watched the circle of light the lamp made on the ceiling. I was fascinated. Then suddenly I woke up, the circle of light disappeared and I felt myself crushed under an enormous weight. It was not the thought of death, or fear; it was nameless. My cheeks burned and my head ached.
I shook myself and looked at my two friends. Tom had hidden his face in his hands. I could only see the fat white nape of his neck. Little Juan was the worst, his mouth was open and his nostrils trembled. The doctor went to him and put his hand on his shoulder to comfort him: but his eyes stayed cold. Then I saw the Belgian’s hand drop stealthily along Juan’s arm, down to the wrist. Juan paid no attention. The Belgian took his wrist between three fingers, distractedly, the same time drawing back a little and turning his back to me. But I leaned backward and saw him take a watch from his pocket and look at it for a moment, never letting go of the wrist. After a minute he let the hand fall inert and went and leaned his back against the wall, then, as if he suddenly remembered something very important which had to be jotted down on the spot, he took a notebook from his pocket and wrote a few lines. “Bastard,” I thought angrily, “let him come and take my pulse. I’ll shove my fist in his rotten face.”
He didn’t come but I felt him watching me. I raised my head and returned his look. Impersonally, he said to me, “Doesn’t it seem cold to you here?” He looked cold, he was blue.
“I’m not cold,” I told him.
He never took his hard eyes off me. Suddenly I understood and my hands went to my face: I was drenched in sweat. In this cellar, in the midst of winter, in the midst of drafts, I was sweating. I ran my hands through my hair, gummed together with perspiration; at the same time I saw my shirt was damp and sticking to my skin: I had been dripping for an hour and hadn’t felt it. But that swine of a Belgian hadn’t missed a thing; he had seen the drops rolling down my cheeks and thought: this is the manifestation of an almost pathological state of terror; and he had felt normal and proud of being alive because he was cold. I wanted to stand up and smash his face but no sooner had I made the slightest gesture than my rage and shame were wiped out; I fell back on the bench with indifference.
I satisfied myself by rubbing my neck with my handkerchief because now I felt the sweat dropping from my hair onto my neck and it was unpleasant. I soon gave up rubbing, it was useless; my handkerchief was already soaked and I was still sweating. My buttocks were sweating too and my damp trousers were glued to the bench.
Suddenly Juan spoke. “You’re a doctor?”
“Yes,” the Belgian said.
“Does it hurt...very long?”
“Huh? When...? Oh, no,” the Belgian said paternally. “Not at all. It’s over quickly.” He acted as though he were calming a cash customer.
“But I...they told me...sometimes they have to fire twice.”
“Sometimes,” the Belgian said, nodding. “It may happen that the first volley reaches no vital organs.”
“Then they have to reload their rifles and aim all over again?” He thought for a moment and then added hoarsely, “That takes time!”
He had a terrible fear of suffering, it was all he thought about: it was his age. I never thought much about it and it wasn’t fear of suffering that made me sweat.
I got up and walked to the pile of coal dust. Tom jumped up and threw me a hateful look: I had annoyed him because my shoes squeaked. I wondered if my face looked as frightened as his: I saw he was sweating too. The sky was superb, no light filtered into the dark corner and I had only to raise my head to see the Big Dipper. But it wasn’t like it had been: the night before I could see a great piece of sky from my monastery cell and each hour of the day brought me a different memory. Morning, when the sky was a hard, light blue, I thought of beaches on the Atlantic; at noon I saw the sun and I remembered a bar in Seville where I drank manzanilla and ate olives and anchovies; afternoons I was in the shade and I thought of the deep shadow which spreads over half a bull-ring leaving the other half shimmering in sunlight; it was really hard to see the whole world reflected in the sky like that. But now I could watch the sky as much as I pleased, it no longer evoked anything in me. I liked that better. I came back and sat near Tom. A long moment passed.
Tom began speaking in a low voice. He had to talk, without that he wouldn’t have been able to recognize himself in his own mind. I thought he was talking to me but he wasn’t looking at me. He was undoubtedly afraid to see me as I was, grey and sweating: we were alike and worse than mirrors of each other. He watched the Belgian, the living.
“Do you understand?” he said. “I don’t understand.” I began to speak in a low voice too. I watched the Belgian. “Why? What’s the matter?”
“Something is going to happen to us that I can’t understand.”
There was a strange smell about Tom. It seemed to me I was more sensitive than usual to odors. I grinned. “You’ll understand in a while.”
“It isn’t clear,” he said obstinately. “I want to be brave but first I have to know...Listen, they’re going to take us into the courtyard. Good. They’re going to stand up in front of us. How many?”
“I don’t know. Five or eight. Not more.”
“All right. There’ll be eight. Someone’ll holler ‘aim!’ and I’ll see eight rifles looking at me. I’ll think how I’d like to get inside the wall, I’ll push against it with my back...with every ounce of strength I have, but t...

Table des matières

  1. Title page
  5. ONE-Kaufmann: Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre
  7. THREE-Kierkegaard: ON HIMSELF