Monday, August 13, 2007
Hell. The four lettered word that trembles in the throats of men and children alike; the images of suffering, flame pits and blood, the smell of burning flesh, the shrieking of those who have fallen from grace. For centuries man has sought out ways to cleanse his soul, to repent for his sins and possibly secure his passage into paradise, all evoked by the fear of eternal damnation and pain. The early 20th century philosopher and existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre saw life as an endless realm of suffering and a complete void of nothingness. His pessimistic ideals of life followed through to his beliefs on death, as death for him was a final nothingness. If death was a final nothingness, Sartre's view of hell was really a final statement on life. Jean-Paul Sartre's depiction of hell in the play No Exit reflects his belief on humanity and society.
No Exit's hell is embodied in a single room, decorated in Second Empire style furnishings. The surroundings seem more comforting than the traditional conception of hell, as the ones illustrated in Dante's inferno or even the bible. However, from an existentialist's point of view, the setting in itself is rather hellish, as its lavishness is overwhelmingly superficial and superficiality is rejected in existentialist belief. As existentialists believe that human life is lived in suffering, sin, guilt and anxiety, anything superficial is a foolish and naive way of denying despair. In a sense, Sartre's hell exists for him not in the supernatural world, but in reality. Therefore his hell is just a contained example of real life.
In order to be rejected from heaven and sent to hell, one must sin. Common in all religions, sin exists almost as a written law. For Christians it exists in the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins. For Buddhists, it is the crimes against karma. Sartre, however, does not address what prerequisites his hell contains. By conventional standards, it seems that his characters rightfully deserve to be placed in hell. While Estelle's hands were tarnished with the murder of her own baby, both Garcin and Inez are indirectly responsible for the death of those close to them. For Sartre, all three characters are pathetic examples of humankind. Believing that human beings can never hope to understand why they are here, Sartre, like many existentialists, believes that each individual must choose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certainty of death and the ultimate meaninglessness of one's life. Nonetheless, Estelle, Garcin and Inez all exist with no real purpose and therefore are damned to suffer not only in their life, but their afterlife. Garcin may have been the closest to following a goal, but his act of fleeing from revolution and his cowardly death shows that he has no real passion. Estelle is the most superficial of the group, the one with least conviction. She simply uses people to her pleasure and herself as the object of their desire. Inez sees herself as a "damned bitch" and believes that she is in fact damned and belongs in hell. She goes on to explain how she has caused the death of her lover's husband, and her own cousin, and how she does not regret a thing at all. She is insensitive, cruel and merely lives her life to cause people harm. All three character's lives are rather cold and empty, filling them with no real drive or passion for life, damning their to eternal suffering by Sartre's standards.
When the character of Garcin remarks that, "Hell is other people" Sartre is simply having Garcin restate Sartre's own view on humanity and human relationships. Sartre believes that the fate of humankind is to torment and be tormented by others with whom we live. Then how is hell for Sartre any different than his reality? He believes that "every system of values rests on exploitation and oppression". Sartre's hell is merely a system of exploitation as Inez observes it as, "an economy of manpower". Hell is the same as society, where it exploits those who exist in it and fill their lives with suffering and meaninglessness.
Jean-Paul Sartre was known to be pessimistic, and doubled his despair by being existentialist. Could this man really find joy in life? Either way his philosophies would dive into the dreadful, and his outlook on life would be cloudy and dark. To him life was hell. Is it possible that he felt no need to justify how an afterlife operated due to the already insufferable system established on earth? Hell was just a worse suffering, an extension of the human condition; it embodied every aspect of reality and contained no supernatural demons or punishments. Maybe for Sartre there was no salvation, as humans were doomed to suffer in life, they would surely suffer after life. Sartre's No Exit serves not only as a radical view of hell and the afterlife, but also as an observation of human nature and life.