Irrational Man

Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay

I just finished “Irrational Man” by William Barrett, with only an hour of appendix to go. I have to say I still don’t understand existentialism more than before even if I’ve finished this book. However, this is not to say the book is not entertaining. There are many quotes that are humorous and uplifting–even the sad quotes are quote enlightening since they point out something that I didn’t pay attention before.

This book is not well organized. I have feeling that it is jumping all over the place even with a clear chronological order of the progress of the existentialist thoughts from Plato to Sartre. I am a little miffed that it doesn’t mention Sartre’s book “Words”, which is the only thing from Sartre that I’ve read and comprehended.

There are so many good quotes, but I only listed a few. It’s an interesting book and you don’t have to buy it as I did. There’s a free ebook from archive.org here.

“The lover wishes to possess the beloved, but the freedom of the beloved (which is his or her human essence) cannot be possessed; hence, the lover tends to reduce the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing it. Love is menaced always by a perpetual oscillation between sadism and masochism: In sadism I reduce the other to a mere lump, to be beaten and manipulated as I choose, while in masochism I offer myself as an object, but in an attempt to entrap the other and undermine his freedom.”

Intellectually, to be sure, Dostoevski, in the Grand Inquisitor, intended as a figure of evil, the totalitarian master of men who gives them bread and peace and relieves them from the anguish of being themselves. Men are sheep, says the Inquisitor, and need to be relieved of the agony of selfhood.

What is more severe than honesty, and particularly an honesty that would tell the sheep they can only live as sheep? Humankind cannot bear very much reality and it is doubtful whether they can even bear the reality of being told so.

The humanity of man consists in the For-itself, the masculine component by which we choose, make projects, and generally commit ourselves to the life of action. The element of masculine protest is strong throughout Sartre’s writings. And the woman is a threat, for the woman is nature and Sartrian man exists in the liberty of his project, which, since it is ultimately unjustified and unjustifiable, in effect sunders him totally from nature.

Modem literature tends to be a literature of “extreme situations”. It shows us man at the end of his tether, cut off from the consolations of all that seems so solid and earthly in the daily round of life—that seems so as long as this round is accepted without question. Naturally enough, this faceless hero is everywhere exposed to Nothingness. When, by chance or fate, we fall into an extreme situation—one, that is, on the far side of what is normal, routine, accepted, traditional, safeguarded—we are threatened by the void. The solidity of the so-called real world evaporates under the pressure of our situation. Our being reveals itself as much more porous, much less substantial than we had thought it—it is like those cryptic human figures in modem sculpture that are full of holes or gaps. Nothingness has, in fact, become one of the chief themes in modem art and literature…

Sartre recounts a conversation he had with an American while visiting in this country. The American insisted that all international problems could be solved if men would just get together and be rational; Sartre disagreed and after a while discussion between them became impossible. “I believe in the existence of evil,” says Sartre, “and he does not.” What the American has not yet become aware of is the shadow that surrounds all human Enlightenment.

10 thoughts on “Irrational Man

  1. Thank you. This has made me want to read the book. I’m not really sure what existentialism is all about either. It seems to be a very personal thing – a bleak, anxious mood where life seems absurd etc. Being, nothingness etc interests me a great deal – but the existential writers make it way too complex and tie themselves in verbal knots.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My view exactly. Somehow they try to make it so complicated for lay person to understand. Why can’t they speak as everybody else? Be simple please. People want to know and want to read, but are often intimidated by their jargon…

      Liked by 1 person

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