Brexistentialism: Britain, the drop out nation in crisis, meets Jean-Paul Sartre

Alone, destination unknown. Chris Devers, CC BY-NC-ND

The greatest philosophical one-liner of the 20th century – or anti-EU theme tune? “Hell is other people” began life as a snappy soundbite in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, a short, harsh, brilliant meditation of a play, written in the midst of World War II. It may actually have been delivered first, in rehearsal, by Sartre’s friend and antagonist Albert Camus. Huis Clos is a difficult title to translate – the norm used to be: “No Exit”, stressing some notion of inescapable interdependence. I guess, in the current fissionary climate, it could be rewritten as “Brexit”, or possibly “Brexistentialism”.

I have to ask the unpleasant question of this nation: are we being xenophobic? I am fairly sure Sartre would reply, in his confrontational way: we are not being anywhere near xenophobic enough. Yet. We are not following the Brexistentialist argument where it leads. We have to understand and assume responsibility for the consequences of our own attitudes.

Shortly after the referendum result, I received a message from a young Danish friend: “So you don’t like us any more”, she said. I replied: “We’re not prejudiced. We don’t like anyone”. I was proposing, in other words, an even-handed hostility, an all-round, egalitarian phobia of the other. But I was probably, in the Sartre view of the world, being prematurely utopian, I admit. I suspect that we are still being overly selective in our resentments and revulsion.

Existentialism is usually thought of as a form of radical individualism. There is no “society” in Sartre. Everyone is Shane or Jack Reacher or Lisbeth Salander. Your closest relationship is with your horse or folding toothbrush or computer. In Being and Nothingness, the longer essay Sartre wrote alongside Huis Clos, he makes clear that the core of the self (not that it has a core) is its nexus with other people.

How do I define myself, sitting in this West Village cafe in New York right now? Like so many philosophical answers, it is obvious and yet far-reaching in its implications. I am not this keyboard that I have under my fingers, I am not this cup of black coffee, I am not this woman in sunglasses who is sitting opposite me. I am defined, in short, by a series of negations.

Staring at the void (and seeing nothing)

Anecdotal allegory: I was once at a conference in Geneva where one of the speakers dropped out through illness. I offered to step in to fill the breach. Thank you, replied my good friend Philippe who was overseeing the conference, “Mais on ne peut pas remplir un trou par un vide”. Loosely translated: “You can’t fill a hole with a void”. Funny how certain lines stick in the mind (this was 25 years ago). But, to come to the point (not that there is a point in the entire universe), this is exactly what Sartre proposes we are doing every second of every day: I am a void which I am attempting to fill up with a series of negations. Popeye, on this basis: “I am what I am and that’s all what I am” – is clearly guilty of “bad faith” or delusion. And even he needs a tin of spinach to fully inflate.

Perhaps it was not so surprising in Occupied France in the 1940s that Sartre would conclude that, in our relations with others, we really only have two fundamental options: sadism and masochism. Or (situation normal) some combination of both. There is no third way. As true today as it was then. Which explains why, all too often in the current debates, we refer back to World War II (say, for example, Cameron being accused of “appeasement”), as if we were all retired Spitfire pilots (the “Few” have multiplied to become the many).

Groucho wasn’t much of a joiner, either. MGM/Ted Allan, CC BY

Of course the theory omits the crucial question of the collective. Sartre resorted to Marx (Karl) for the answer. But Marx (Groucho) had already defined the problem: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me for a member.” Sartre wanted to abolish clubs entirely. He dreamed of a system of evenly distributed particles floating free in the meaningless void. A beautiful concept for sure. Perhaps, ultimately, a form of nostalgia. But, rather like particles in the early universe, we have an irresistible tendency to agglomerate, to clump together. Our particular local clump, or club, can only define itself by opposition to other clubs.

The great French utopian philosopher, Charles Fourier (who provided Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir with the notion of the “pivotal” or significant other) analysed humans in terms of their passions – which he equated with Newtonian gravity, causing us to band together. But the “butterfly” passion also causes us to fly apart and split up.

Freedom’s just another word

We are “condemned to be free” in the sense that all our clubs are strictly provisional (except, in my own case, West Ham United). I am aligning myself with one really quite powerful club even by virtue of writing this article: it is in English, so I am implicitly asserting some measure of competence in English and association with other English speakers.

I try not to get too excited by this sense of belonging, however, because I know that English itself splits into a multiplicity of idiolects. In fact, having in the course of drifting around acquired a fairly strange accent, I no longer know where I belong, geographically or socially.

Neither does anyone else. Unless, of course, they are guilty of bad faith.

We (and I am conscious when I write the word of how fictional, how hypothetical, how mythic it is) have chosen (mythically speaking) the path of “anomie” or singularity, to be governed by no rule. “Romantic anomie” was the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s phrase, in his analysis of the causes of suicide (the first philosophical question, as Camus called it).

Whole countries can have an existential crisis, not just lonely, drifting outsiders. We can be a drop-out too. Driven by a sense of the nausea of existence itself. But equally it will not be too surprising if this drop-out mentality catches on. And “we” just ceases to exist. Maybe it already died. I already feel a certain nostalgia for Brexistentialism.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.