Sartre and Mailer: More
Bad Jazz Music and Drunken Diatribes
1 December 1997
"An overload of choices descends on the brain of any ambitious man engaged in giving a contentious portrait of himself. The real woe is that one is forced to examine oneself existentially, perceive oneself in the act of perceiving (but worse, far worseóthrough the act of perceiving, perceive a Self who may manage to represent the separate warring selves by a Style). It is necessary to voyage through the fluorescent underground of the mind, that arena of self-consciousness where Sartre grappled with the pour-soi [for-itself] and the en-soi [in-itself]; intellections consuming flesh, consciousness the negation, yes, the very consumption of being. One is digesting one's own gut in such an endeavor."
I feel at ease in allowing myself to quote
from an indirect inheritor of the literary message Jean-Paul Sartre
provided the world community. Although Sartre's writings and
thought, paradoxically and interestingly enough, were both sympathetically
for and pridefully critical of the "Establishment," (the bourgeoisie intellectual
and political structure of post-war France and Europe) it is the same paradox
that plagues Mailer as a acceptor and criticizer of the post-war American
Establishment. In accepting and rejecting the given normative rules
of behavior, in bending, re-examing, and replacing the boundaries of the
social and psychological (for Sartre, transcendental) realms of be-ing, Mailer
begins on a projection of his self, a constituting of the self through his
artistic, authentic, creative production of his project. The permutations
that are involved in such a project, take time to manifest themselves within
the mind, and the path is riddled with this extreme "overload of choices"
that a projecting self is confronted with.
Biographically speaking, Mailer achieved enormous fame at the tender young age of twenty-five when The Naked and the Dead was published and he was immediately trust into the limelight of the stylistically fake and cliched institutional literary world of das Man, as Heidegger would call itóthe "them" that one perceives oneself with and against always. After that point, as Mailer recalls, his "I" would be judged according to his public and immediate actions. If Mailer left a party early because he was tired, that would indicate that he was displeased with the party, and hence the people present. His self is only seen as reflective of public implications, the institutional demands of the "literary elite." But at the same time, upon receiving the National Book Award for Armies of the Night, Mailer instantly critiqued the entire tradition and reality of the award and award-giving process itself, by happily and graciously accepting the award. But in his acceptance speech (those unnecessary, boring events with a hundred old white guys that look like William Styron) he referred to Sartre's own refusal to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature because he wished to be known by the bourgeoisie as "Jean-Paul Sartre, not Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner." This anecdote leads Mailer into a critique of Sartre's decision based upon the above paradox of being with "them" as well as being against "them," the two sides of being a public figure. As Mailer continues, Sartre's decision would not have changed the bourgeoisie elements in French society, as they had already been speaking about and with him as Jean-Paul Sartre, "perverted existentialist." The refusal only intensified the public image that Sartre had already projected forward from his mind, spewing forth in words and spilling onto the page. His impression is fixed in the public imagination already, be it bourgeoisie or not. The same with Mailer, as he continued (and a note should be added that he was rather inebriated from a previous dinner with friends) in saying that his acceptance of the award would not change his self-projection into the public as Norman Mailer, misogynist-tough-guy-writer.
Acceptance of awards becomes a gauge by which the "them" can measure their productions of culture, society, and institutions. If Mailer can be recognized, his 'self' portrayed as being a reflector of the American intellectual zeitgeist, then the Establishment can be happy that it is doing what it is unconsciously structured to doógauge the development of the public intellectual mentality. This pulse in the collective heart of be-ing where an eternity is spent reflecting and describing, understanding and not, remembering and discovering, arguing and presenting, be-ing and not be-ing, put forth through the media of self projection and re-presentation. But this heart itself is under scrutiny by the inhabitor of its body. Self-critique and reflection are undermining the 'real' world where we are all actors on a stage, projecting forth to the audience of the world. They clap but they also cry, and yell, and scream forth in agony, in terror at what has become the 'real,' all the while recreating that stage and the entire production itself, continuously and instantly. How comic and ironic that annual awards honor the plasticity of society, the popularity of collective taste, mass hypnosis under the guise of objective validity, tested and true. Yet even this critique is self-referential and circular in its drama, poised to continue as it has since the birth of philosophical reflection of the self. It seems, though, human motives will conform with or against the condition that the self is already always in, from the beginning of its existence; that existence entails, as Sartre says, consciousness to be conscious of itself, or more specifically that "all consciousness is consciousness of something". In a sense, the inception of the awards, its presentation, and its re-presentation over time, solidifies the power of the 'elite' within the public consciousness thus rationalizing the choice. It is good choice, it is the 'real' choice, it is what the 'authorities' say about the reality of the public weltanschauung. But a residual reaction of this presentation is that it reminds the public consciousness that a year from a now a new choice will be available, allowing one to discard the past facticity of some rationale and to renew one's belief in the established system confirming the truth and reality of the time.
Sartre emphatically believed that the old
philosophical reflection upon the self as essence preceding existence was
defunct and that one had to be an existing entity before one could create
its essence, projecting forth the reality it produces for-itself within the
over arching choices inherent in existential freedom. It is evident
that Sartre appropriated this idea from Kant's unity of apperception whereby
one must be a whole entity, or consciousness to be able to proceed forth and
categorize one's worldview. One must instantly, prereflectively, be
able to understand that one has the ability to reflect because one is here-in-the-worldóan
existant constantly and instantly remaking and reprojecting the self within
the manifold of contingencies that is provided for by the freedom 'to be.'
Or as Mailer so efficently and directly puts it, pure production in the
negation of oneself, the act of "digesting oneís own gut." As
all good builders and architects know, one must first clear away the detritus
of the past before one can build anew towards the future, all the while
still remembering what was once there, thus reacting unconsciously to it
in the creative process of inventing the future at the present time
(the circular, three-dimensional structure of non-linear, existential time--a
kind of Hegelian aufgehoben).
The condition of the construction is what is important here because the self will always react accordingly to the choices presented by the immense freedom-in-existing. Simultaneously, that freedom is at once taken away from the self, grabbed from one's hands and dictated in its use and value by the outside, by the "them." The freedom to choose now is given a value, both socially and psychologically and is now connected with large concepts such as morality, ethics, politics, scienceóthe domain of 'experts' and technocrats. The dictation occurs as soon as one 'be's.' One becomes able to organize the world, react to it, understand it, and reflect upon it, within the context of the freedom structure that has been built for us, with our tacit acknowledgement. The structure of "them" becomes the structure of the 'I' and with this transposing of worlds, one becomes an actor on the stage forever to decide if they want to play or not. The only true question, as Camus tells us, is choosing whether we live out this existence or whether we kill our existenceósuicide. But I would rather not dwell here because I have already chosen, continue to choose, and project myself into my freedom to choose 'to be.' That is my choice, and is yours as well if you are reading these words on this screen.
Since the question here is how is existence preceded by essence, let me provide an example to further explicate Sartre's position. Let us take a contemporary example of a concert, itself an interesting phenomena, to show the conditional, existential basis for be-ing. Strictly speaking, these events, these moments as the Germans enjoy calling them, have a specific purpose in a number of different ways. We can go to the beginning. The existent has obviously made specific choices in be-ing, to entertain the idea of projection in becoming the project that the existent isóa musician. The existent then continues on a path of constantly projecting forth this self. The musician can produce music for personal enjoyment, never to be received by the public; the musician can produce music for economic reasons, which would entail an audience that is willing to provide compensation in return for musical performances; the musician can also have political and social goalsóto change a specific situation or to advance a certain strain of musical development, for example jazz, which tends to have both political and social goals as prescribed by its rebellious tradition and long history into the unknowns of the African jungles. The musician can also create for the residual perks that are inherent in the popularization and mass distribution of musicómoney, lifestyle, social status, fameóall the glorifications of the "them." Some musicians enjoy using music to create a subculture or substructure that works against defined boundaries of the normative and regulative superstructure of 'be-ing a musician.' This is where I think true authenticity comes to light as a musician or musical development leads to the hypnosis of the audience. The music is a opiate that allows for a departure from the 'real,' from the actuality of life. When one listens to Handel's Messiah, one cannot help but to be moved in a sublime way, (despite its composition as a reminder of the glory of God!!) in awe of the power to take one's imagination elsewhere, to understand, if for a moment, the difficulty of comprehending what is actually happening, except that it is happening as a phenomena. The electricity of being held in sway with a collective group, to choose to give one's autonomy up to a hypnotic state, almost transcendent (though that word tends to have baggage) and revelatory, the unconcealing of "being there,"(as Heidegger would call it) to be one with the whole and to be one with oneself already there in the moment. This is the power that the musician has or any creative existent or group that pulls one out of the memory of the 'real' world and into a moment of pure self-realization; the past, present, and future briefly suspended through the (a)chromatic rise and fall of sound.
But throughout all of this discussion one must always hold the idea that the existence of the self in the world is a priori, and as Heidegger says, the question of being is already a question one understands because we are in it to be asking the Seinfrage (accordingly, Sartre calls this "a consciousness which takes consciousness as an objectÖto the point that the reflecting consciousness could not exist without the reflected consciousnessÖthus the essential principle of phenomenologyÖis preserved,"). Being-in the question is difficult to unwrap because of the layers of sedimentation that the history of philosophy has placed on top of the question of Being. Being now has so many various meanings that one has essentially forgotten what it means 'to be.' One must peel off the layers, take back the curtains, and respond to the call of the question of being within the context of a primordial mind, where no presumptions are made and no valuations are given.
The essential character of Being then rises
out of the freedom that surrounds the primordial Being in existence, the existent
here and now, and at one time, and in the future. These are conceived
and related to one another automatically without thought, without the moment
of reflection that, at once, takes existing and places it within context
of the inauthentic, superficial, re-presentation of oneself in the 'them.'
The unconscious move to reflect is guided by the situation, by the conditions
of existence as prescribed by 'them' and as evaluated by 'them.' Unfortunately,
as Sartre reminds us, following Heidegger idea of mitsein ('being
with') we live much of our live within the 'them,' almost to the point where
everything is reflected off of 'them' to produce the 'I.'
Mailer himself shot a crude, art-house style film in which a camera follows around a group of people living their everyday lives. The insinuation is will the 'actors' change their actions because there is a camera, the 'gaze' as Sartre calls it, instantly reifying the 'I,' or will the protagonists of the film continue to be as they were without the camera? Mailer concludes that no matter what, the camera is always on, the "them" in constant scrutiny of the "I," and the action always in reflection of the "them," the real camera of self-reflectivity. This was almost forty years ago that Mailer devised this creative experiment on existential consciousness. Today, a twenty-three year old woman named Laura has a digital camera hooked up to her computer which is as well hooked up to the Web, where the entire population of the virtual world can peer into her life. Laura has the cameras rolling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. We see her existing through the self that she has projected through a camera, and we see the rather mundane, absurd world that has presented itself to us as being entertainment. She wakes, takes showers, talks on the phone, plays on the Internet, masturbates, does drugs, has dinner, eats food, washes dishes, sleeps, has sex, lies, cheats, balances her checkbook, etcóthe real absurdity of living in the late Twentieth century on the third planet from a nuclear furnace that is on the outer fringes of a galaxy. The funny thing is that Laura leaves the cameras rolling even when she is not physically there. This is important because in a sense, she is there and not there at the same time, presence within an absence. Her answering machine picks up and we hear her voice. A knock on the doorÖno one's home. It is as if we are watching her watching us watching her. The self-referentiality of reflection par excellence. This is the direction we can now take the existential analysisóa virtuo-existentiality that Sartre himself could only have dreamed of, a consciousness that not only is a true actor on a stage but is self-created both electronically, virtually, and can be stored and retrieved and replayed and relayed at any given moment. Maybe this is the future permutation of the question of Being? Is the nature of consciousness changing towards something wholly different? Unreal and real at the same time?