Looking for the magic: Sartre on affect

image by Kris Williams
image by Kris Williams

Sartre was rightly fascinated by the power of emotions in human life – as portrayed in his play No Exit. He even wrote a short book on the topic Sketch for a theory of the emotions (originally published in French in 1939), which provides a reasonably clear account of his existential take on affect and its place in human behaviour. After a brief analysis of classical and psychoanalytical theories of emotion (those available to him at the time), he delivers the following version of a definition (pp. 39-40):

We can now conceive what an emotion is. It is a transformation of the world. When the paths before us become too difficult, or when we cannot see our way, we can no longer put up with such an exacting and difficult world. All ways are barred and nevertheless we must act. So then we try to change the world; that is, to live it as though the relations between things and their potentialities were not governed by deterministic processes but by magic. But, be it well understood, this is no playful matter; we are cornered, and we fling ourselves into this new attitude with all the force at our command. Note also that our effort is not conscious of what it is, for then it would be the object of a reflection. It is above all the seizure of new relationships and new demands. To put it simply, since the seizure of one object is impossible, or sets up an unbearable tension, the consciousness seizes or tries to seize it otherwise; that is, tries to transform itself in order to transform the object.

I’ve pointed out before that Sartre remained theoretically in thrall to a version of Cartesianism (see the A butterfly fixed to a cork post), and this dependence is also evident here, Sartre deploying a clear distinction between the affective and ‘effective’ domains. What is intriguing here though is that evidently for Sartre, emotion is a form of magic, but at the same time a kind of magical freedom – which is the way he desires to overcome the (fashionable at the time) notion that emotions were opposed to free will. What is also interesting are the parallels that could be drawn here between emotion as magic and Adorno’s champion in the reason stakes – Mimesis.

I’m not sure that nowadays we would couch a discussion of emotion in the context of debates over free will, which goes to show that context in these matters does matter, just as it does when it comes to the mechanics of emotion itself. But whatever happened to this take on emotions by the time No Exit was staged in 1944? Sartre moved quickly from emotion as magical freedom to a world where hell was other people, a world where no solace could be found in our emotional lives. Emotions became a kind of hellish prison, inescapable and a law unto themselves. What happened to the magic?

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Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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