A FOOTNOTE TO
PYTHIATISM AND SARTRE’S THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Gustav Flaubert, frustrated romantic proponent of French realism, did not exist therefore behave in the way that his biographer Jean Paul Sartre wanted him to exist; that is, according to Sartre’s universal definition of existence, which is, although Sartre put existence before being, really a mode of being, i.e. being responsible for oneself according to a Marxist psychologist’s desire.
Flaubert, according to Sartre’s psychoanalysis, could not help the way he was not himself, which unbeknown to him was a radical self; he was a phony, a victim of capitalist society. He was subject to a “pithiatic” form of neurosis. He was neurotic, not figuratively speaking, but in the sense of mental illness; he was mentally sickened by a sick i.e. bourgeois society.
Now a neurotic person is an unduly nervous one, a person who is anxious and emotional as the result of some invisible injury. He suffers from a psychic conflict between alternates, neither of which he wants to choose; say, between his ideal self, which others have propped up for him, and his real self, which he consequently despises when he falls short of the ideal. He is trapped between two hard rocks, and, in self-defense, works out an impractical compromise, an absurdity that condemns him to drag his cross around for the rest of his life.
Sartre’s obsessive, multivolume biography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, appears to be a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black ad infinitum. Flaubert was not the social-utopia activist Sartre would have liked him to be, but he was a realistic activist indeed, in the sense that thinking and writing is symbolic activity; and his cynical depiction of bourgeois society in Madame Bovary, cynical because his depiction happened to be true, was just as liberating as Sartre’s self-involved or romantic existentialism, which was essentially a furthering of French Spiritualism or Voluntarism, not to mention Sartre’s own tendency to exhibit moral degeneracy for sake of drawing attention to scandals that everyone is “born in sin,” that is, as an individual necessarily varying from the Good of the Whole, naturally finds fascinating.
Indeed, Sartre, the foremost existentialist of the day, seems to have been suffering from existential pythiatism or neurotic existentialism. What is “existentialism”? The word was coined after the war by a jazz singer in a smoky Paris cellar club when an American reporter asked her what people were doing there. “Existentialism,” was her flippant response to the idiotic question. She said was “just existing,” something that people who hang out in bars are wont to do, especially if shell shocked by world war and downright sick and tired of the ideological neuroses and induced hysteria that led to that war. At least that is the legendary account.
Sartre would deny that he was an ideologue as he endeavored never to repeat himself and in doing so could not help saying the same thing in different ways to avoid platitudes and hackneyed phrases. A man grieving at Sartre’s massive funeral said he did not understand what Sartre had said, but he was obviously a great French philosopher so he was sad at his passing. Sartre’s work, however, is not incomprehensible, and is indeed ideological.
“Ideology,” incidentally, was a French term, coined by the Ideologues, who defined it as the science of ideas, meaning modern scientific thinking, which is as skeptical of being or ontological concepts as any so-called existentialist thought can be. But the term ideology would eventually be misidentified with so-called doctrinaire or rigid thinking. ‘Doctrinaire’ is another French term perverted from its original meaning; the Doctrinaires were more or less pragmatic political moderates. Thomas Jefferson was captivated by the original Ideologues: he supplanted Theology at his university with Ideologie; his friend John Adams was not so enthusiastic about the godless way of thinking, and dubbed the scientific methodology fad “idiotology.”
Intellectuals including Sartre disavowed so-called Existentialism at first, but eventually it behooved them to embrace the term after the press popularized it. The “Personalism” that was much enjoyed by religiously inclined French philosophers was overrun by the existentialist fad; Personalism emphasized the social person over individual existence, and was associated with the social notion of a Supreme Person; i.e. the Word made flesh in Jesus the Christ. A person or human being is an existential incarnation of being.
So what is an existentialist? An existentialist, first of all, thinks he can find his freedom in subjectivity. As a particular individual, he thinks he is solely responsible individual for his own actions including the symbolic action of thinking instead of relying on habitual culture or the rationalized systems of being such as religions with projected gods. There is no Subject of subject, no divine being beyond man to subject him to definition. Only self-consciousness transcends and thus defines self; I claim that I intuit myself, a self that is necessarily prior to thought. I think that I am therefore I am I. You see, I think for myself and therefore I negate everything else, what is not me, by way of distinguishing it from me, and nothing can pin me down because I am not a thing but am an immaterial negating force positing myself. Sartre posited reading and writing as the mode of establishing external evidence of subjective freedom from the bonds of time and space.
Existentialists seek the impossible, for language itself is not at all individual; it is a social tool dependent on and responsive to the will and suggestions of others. And there is no such thing as a singular absent at least one other, and another for comparison’s sake. Naturally the existence of an individual absent a transcendental Supreme Being is contingent on random configuration of circumstances. That is, the existent is accidentally defined instead of intentionally self-defined. An existentialist may attempt to describe the network of existents, necessarily in systematic or logical fashion if we are to understand his exposition, but existentialism is not in itself a systematic way of thinking at all, but rather consists of a collection of anxious and absurd reflections on the human predicament, particularly the predicament of a man’s individuality made most obvious to him by the disturbing fact of death.
Indeed, any sort of systematic existentialist thought put forward by a so-called existentialist would contradict the very premise of existentialism – thus did Sartre strive, at least in theory, never to repeat himself.
Not that Sartre was unaware of the contradictions of philosophical thinking including the fundamental antinomies that cause philosophy to be an unending circular enterprise, a case of the cat chasing its tail until it drops dead. He would readily admit that our attempts to set existentialism or any other ism for that matter in stone are absurd; in fact he was not an “existentialist” as some fool would try to define the term but was simply a philosopher tagged by the term. Whosoever solves the riddle gets to eat the guru and sit on the mat under the tree for the time being….