TO BE STUPID AND SELFISH AND HEALTHY
From On Pythiatism and The Family Idiot
By David Arthur Walters
To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless. Gustave Flaubert
Jean Paul Sartre was so obsessed with the famed author of Madame Bovary that he was possessed to psychoanalyze him over the last ten years of his writing career in an uncompleted, five-volume treatise, The Family Idiot . Yet Gustave Flaubert was not the idiot or hysterical neurotic Sartre supposed him to be. Sartre’s criticism has all the faults of psychoanalysis at a great distance; that is, of analyzing an analysand whom one is not personally acquainted with, and basing that analysis on the diagnoses of less than a handful of patients by other analysts, neither the analysts nor their patients being personally known.
Sartre was of course intimate with the works of Sigmund Freud and appreciated his insights although he felt the master’s logic of the psyche was inadequate to the analysis of human existence. He alleges Flaubert’s ‘neurosis’ in The Family Idiot and alludes to the Oedipus Complex in respect to Flaubert’s father, Achille-Cleophas Flaubert, whom Gustave naturally adored, and who loved him in return until he became a “silly” little play-actor at eight years of age, when his dad’s affection was allegedly replaced by ridicule. Sartre naturally cast Flaubert’s mother, who loved him always as far as her son was concerned, in her mythical role in the oedipal love triangle. We note that Flaubert’s father died in 1846, when Flaubert was twenty-four, the same year his beloved sister Caroline died while giving birth to his niece, whom he raised while living with his mother, who, in turn, died in Flaubert’s fiftieth year.
Sartre thought the frustrated little playwright was fated by familial circumstances to live an imaginary life in bad faith, as a passive writer who painstakingly tries to obliterate himself from the world drama in order to be objectively realistic, instead of a player taking a subjectively active part on the world stage. Flaubert had withdrawn from life to paint himself out of the pictures he drew; he would be less than a fly on the wall, merely a camera obscura or pure, transparent consciousness if not nothing transcendent. It is as if he had so much faith in nothing that he believed in nothingness instead of being. That would certainly be bad faith in Sartre’s book, Being and Nothingness. Belief or false faith in non-existence would constitute Existentialism’s cardinal sin: blasphemy! Blasphemy would be to take the name of the Not that produces existential self-consciousness in vain. The faith would be bad because it was not blind; it was not really faith because it required belief: The mere effort of believing is evidence not of faith but of its lack. Knowledge is the perfection of belief, and one can know nothing of nothing. Having bad faith is worse than lying because liars know the truth, but here the truth simply cannot be known.
Bad faith is not simply assuming the role of a waiter, where both actor and audience know that a role is being played. There is indeed present a sort of deception intended for the imaginative benefit of the audience, but there is no lie because the deception is understood and can be disposed of instantaneously. When the waiter is perhaps a bit too eager to please, the insincerity is not appreciated because the illusion fails. If the waiter’s Method had self-deceived him via auto-suggestion that he was actually a waiter to the exclusion of his other roles, we might say he was living in bad faith, that he was even a madman if not neurotic.
A notice is posted that a rabbi is giving a course, “How to be a Jew in the modern world.” We understand the predicament and sympathize with the man who wants to maintain his old-time religion while somehow fitting into modern society, yet we detect some insincerity and duplicity in the effort inasmuch as he want to put on an act, to pretend to be something he is not and somehow become that through acting. We suppose he might be living in bad faith, according to our interpretation of Sartre, if he believes he is what he believes, that he is a microcosm of the Supreme Being, a Jew to the exclusion of being a human being, of being just a man. But what is a man or a woman? Beings as defined by roles, not existents-in-themselves. What is a human being but a being or concept? Being is not something existing concretely in a situation; that can only be said of the existent. And what is this existence of Sartre’s before being but a concept that boils down to nothing? What a man really is: that is beyond the grasp of duplicitous Freudian psychoanalysis, as Sartre noted. We must return to philosophy, the queen of the sciences, in hopes that she may reveal the most beautiful of all figures. Shall we find one of our figures reflected in her mirror, or shall we discover that not only our masks but even our I’s are fictions, and that Nothing, and only Nothing, is perfect? Blasphemy!
Sartre’s Flaubert, a victim of circumstantial suggestion and auto-suggestion, was purportedly living in the clutches of a figurative sort of conversion hysteria; namely, pithiatism. In the first paragraph of Chapter Eight, ‘The Imaginary Child,’ Sartre alludes to the characteristic of pithiatism, a sort of hysteria determined by suggestion, in respect to his favorite family idiot:
“This is Gustave as he has been constituted. Of course, any determination imprinted in an existing being is surpassed by the way he lives. In the child Flaubert, passive activity and gliding are his way living this constituted passivity; resentment is his way of living the situation assigned to him in the Flaubert family. In other words, the structures of this family are internalized as attitudes and re-externalized as actions by which the child makes himself into what others made him. Conversely, we shall find in him no behavior, as complex and elaborate as it might seem, that is not originally the surpassing of an internalized determination.”
In other words, according to Sartre, Gustave’s being was not wholly defined by circumstances; he would have no self of his own as a victim of circumstances, devoid of existential independence and freedom; he would be in effect a zombie or a machine unconscious of his own existence; if someone were to act like a machine we would naturally deem him psychotic not neurotic.
Naturally every human being by necessity introjects his social identity from others and projects what he has learned; still, the individual, by virtue of its independent will to exist forever without impedance if it could, is bound to put up some resistance to the imposition of conformity, as we can see in every squalling child, and will invariably get away with what he can get away with while accepting influences that serves his purpose; thus he becomes his own person; a person being, to some extent, a unique composite of individual existence and social being. Indeed, every particular is a coincidence of universal qualities, no two coincidences being identical; hence the individual is somewhat unique.
As far as Sartre—he had been a member of the French Resistance during the war—was concerned, Flaubert did not actively affirm his existential self in the world. He just did not want to make the effort and thus in part be defined by its resistance thereto; he had what we might call a weak will—at one juncture he reflected that he was cowardly in his youth. He did not seem to know who he really was because he had not looked within; he had not conducted a painful regressive analysis of his self; instead, he avoided himself, using his literary art to paint himself out of the picture. Now French Existentialism, with its struggle for freedom through individual responsibility, hails back to the introspective discovery of the self as will; that is, to French Voluntarism, for which Maine De Biran was an introspective pioneer. Biran confessed that, “Even from infancy I remember that I marveled at the sense of my existence. I was already led by instinct to look within myself in order to know how it was possible that I could be alive and be myself.”
Sartre, although mentioning Flaubert’s resentment here as his chosen way of living, does give young Flaubert a will of his own in his choice of style; negation or resistance to external influence constitutes the will of the individual, made manifest to us in his behavioral style. This would leave Flaubert morally culpable for his way of life. The pithiatic hysteric is a liar who believes in the lie; but this belief represses an otherwise nagging doubt to the so-called unconscious sector of the psyche; the forgetting of the doubt is imaginary; the belief is make-believe or bad faith inasmuch as it is not blind faith. It is a commanding hysterical performance of the kind that has made fools out of many psychoanalysts.
Sartre’s Flaubert was a paralytic writer whose acting career had been thwarted by his father, and was self-blinded to his own existence and suitable self. That is, his neurosis prevented from being himself, a comic actor instead of the serious writer he wound up being. Again and again, Sartre affords Flaubert’s father the brunt of the blame, for it was his unappreciative father, whose affection he craved, who constituted the little comic as a self-contemptible family idiot who would isolate himself, withdrawing himself from his prospective audience to entertain them from afar, passively, in writing, instead of actively or directly, in person.
To Be Continued