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Political microcosm: Sartre and Heidegger

I’m going to use Sartre and Heidegger as a microcosm to describe how the left-right divide works. It’s not really necessary to understand their philosophies for my purposes but I will provide a brief summary, else very little will make sense.

Heidegger: we live in a hum-drum “they” world where we act out certain roles—the role of, for example, “waiter”—and yet, at certain points, we are confronted with our finitude before death (for example, after a beer or two we step out into the street and a friend pulls us back because a bus we hadn’t noticed is barrelling down the road towards us); at such points, our broad “floaty” consciousness is resolved, like a polarised photograph, into stark relief—we become aware as to our finitude before death, become aware that our choices have a certain valence (gravity).

To exit the “they” world is to live orientated towards death, towards our finitude—and this amounts to a poetic existence that involves a coherent relation between landscape, language, and an on-going historical organic entity that is synonymous but not identical with “the nation”; and it is our participation in the “national song” that gives our life authenticity.

Heidegger was ultimately a Catholic man who wanted to resurrect God at a time when the concept had been shot to pieces. His God is the “God of Being” which is to say Heidegger asked “what is this ‘to be’ that is presumed in the copula ‘is’ that connects our sentences?”. He pointed out that philosophers, right back to Aristotle and before, have always just assumed “isness”—and then went on to speak about “a being” out there, that being being, in the end, the Christian God. Heidegger switched register to “Being”, to “isness”, and then asked “what is this ‘isness’?”—and noted that we become aware as to its existence when confronted by life or death situations. In this, he found “the God of Being” that could be reverenced just like the old Christian God but was not amenable to the old critiques as regards that God.

Sartre: we live in an inauthentic “they” world where we act out certain roles—the waiter in the cafe becomes a “thing” in the eyes of the observer. The wonderful sensation where consciousness is undefined or free-floating—as in when you walk down the street in a reverie—is interrupted when a man calls out, “Hey you, you’re that waiter!”. You are transformed from indeterminate consciousness that has infinite possibilities and freedom into a category “the waiter”, “the lover”, “the dad”—even to say “I love you so much!” destroys human freedom because it objectifies your freedom and turns it into “a thing”. You are no longer free-floating possibilities, but rather “the waiter”—hence “hell is other people”, since other people will “thingify” you (even as you kiss your lover’s hand it is no longer the undetermined freedom of your lover you kiss but “the hand”—dead and inert).

We become aware as to our freedom, in this existential sense, when we confront nothingness (hence Sartre’s Being and Nothingness). You stare into a blank spot on the cafe floor, perhaps slightly high on mescaline, or you watch the bubbles roil away in your pint glass—there is nothing after death but nothing is itself unimaginable. As with Heidegger, you are constrained by death—you become aware as to your freedom when you are aware that you will die, hence Sartre said he never felt as free as during the German Occupation when his modest efforts for the Resistance put him under risk of a death sentence.

Man’s only project can be to self-create from his undetermined consciousness, to make himself and remake himself—to make a commitment even though it is absurd to make a commitment, since all comes to nothing in the end (Sartre assumes existence precedes essence—i.e. there is no God). We must escape “categorisation” by other people at all costs and become an entirely self-created entity—even though our choices are absurd, they can at least be authentic and avoid “categorisation”.

This is roughly the divide. It relates to the left-right divide so: Sartre’s philosophy is entirely derivative from Heidegger—it copies and inverts Heidegger’s thought. Sartre takes the feminine position—the copy cat, copy cat sitting on the door mat; he cannot originate but he can copy and invert—and that is, in a sense, quintessential evil, for evil cannot create but can only copy and invert (hence the left, in any respect, is just a poor copy of the original).

So Sartre has Being and Nothingness whereas Heidegger offers us Being and Time. Nothingness: it’s about despair, anguish, angst—as with all socialists, Sartre is a radical individualist; his philosophy atomises man, so that before death he is compelled to self-create (like a narcissistic woman) again and again—in such a way, he may escape the “they” world, a world abominated not because it conceals the gravity of death and the weight it gives our decisions (Heidegger) but because “it’s a total drag man, and makes me feel bad when you categorise me as a ‘waiter’”. As is typical for the left, Sartre struggles to escape what is objective—you are a son, a waiter, an Englishman. Collectivity can only be found in a non-coerced rational project that slaves the atoms together—Marxism, for Sartre.

Sartre developed his thought when he studied Heidegger in Germany in the 1930s—a fact he was later reticent about when he became the darling of the left, having honed his philosophical skills in Hitler’s Germany and derived his thought from the most notable philosopher to support National Socialism. The theme is universal: the left takes the authentic product and copies it and as it copies it everything nutritive is removed and is replaced by solipsism and atomised self-involvement (narcissistic self-importance)—it attacks what is objective and cries out for a nihilistic self-indulgence of whims carried out in such a way that all the atoms are equal.

Heidegger can hardly be described as an “optimistic” philosopher but he envisions a community that is oriented towards death, takes its decisions in light of their finitude before death (i.e. with gravity), and transcends death because an authentic relationship to reality is found in an organic community that is united by a poeticised relation to life—it’s life as a song-round, perhaps ultimately tragic because it ends in nothing and yet it is a substantial and coherent life that has temporal continuity (the seasons, life on the farms, the songs sung in student fraternities). Sartre offers instead a vision where the individual escapes the “they” world of mass commercial civilisation through vicarious indulgence in various self-authorised “projects” that are ultimately pointless and absurd and only extend to the life of the participant.

I’m not a fan of St. Augustine, but he once defined sin as being essentially “the idea that man is self-created and self-sustaining”—if this be sin, then Sartre was a sinner; and that’s because his whole philosophy is the idea that man’s authenticity is found in his self-created projects—which narcissistically must be unlike no other person’s projects. Heidegger, by contrast, sees our existential freedom as given substance through participation in that which is wider than the individual but is not the same as mass techno-commercial civilisation—ultimately, that will be a religious position, for religion is the collective activity outside techno-commerce.

You get the point: the left copies and inverts what is authentic—it’s the province of women or feminised men like Sartre, it’s the province of the ugly (Heidegger was no looker—but was infinitely more handsome than Sartre). In the difference between these two philosophies you have the whole left-right divide—even down to the similar titles Being and Time and Being and Nothingness. To apply the heuristic elsewhere: look at how the “NAFO Fella” meme parasites (copies & inverts) the “Pepe the Frog” meme—once you see this pattern, it’s everywhere.


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