Even more misunderstood than Karl Marx’s take on Proudhon’s ‘Property is theft’ polemic, Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ has come to represent a sort of shorthand for misanthropy, a convenient way of expressing contempt for the human race. The phrase is often used to denounce the ‘great unwashed’ and their simple pleasures, pleasures that somehow restrict the development of more cultured and sophisticated pursuits. Other people, with their hellish ways, are the problem.
This common and accepted usage of Sartre’s words, taken from his 1944 play No Exit, illustrates just how far the phrase has travelled, and how much of Sartre’s original meaning has been forgotten in the intervening years:
In the play, three people, Garcin, Inez and Estelle, have been sent to hell for various crimes. Their time in hell is spent mulling over their time on earth, and how they were being judged posthumously by those that knew them. Even in death, they still cared about their reputation in life. Death itself brought no release from the gaze of others, no escape from the judgements of those whose opinions they cared about. The shame and guilt were incurable, magnified under the strain of sharing hell with others who suffered from the same fate. This is what Garcin means when he says ‘Hell is – other people!’
Sartre’s play had nothing to do with hatred of the human race. Instead, his play was a brilliant counterpoint to certain strands of contemporary thought that put forward the isolated individual as a descriptive and/or normative account of modern life in the age of enlightenment and capitalist industry. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, for example, reflected a dream in which modern humans could and should transcend what he considered the squalor of recognition and the desire for respect, reputation and status. Caring what other people thought of you was classic Untermensch, a sign of weakness that threatened to obscure the quest for personal freedom in a fog of envy, resentment and fear.
In contrast, Sartre’s play suggested that the reality of existence meant there is no exit from other people, no respite from the need for acknowledgement. Life is unavoidably about reputation, honour and pride; about the need for approval; the desire to be respected, liked and loved; and about the need to be recognised as someone of worth.
It is this world, Garcin’s world, which provides the emotional landscape for Dirty Looks, a landscape that is much broader and more expansive than people give credit for. I look forward to exploring this landscape in detail, and hope you join me in this quest.