The Way Out

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play called Huis Clos, No Exit, about three characters trapped in a room for all eternity. The most famous line from the play is “l’enfer, c’est les autres” or “hell is other people”.

Not everyone shares Sartre’s apparently misanthropic sense of the hellishness of society. He was clearly something of an intellectual snob for a start: “I found the human heart empty and insipid everywhere except in books”. But many people are uneasy to varying degrees, which is why the perennial problem of the right relationship between the individual and society never goes away.

Sartre was obsessed with the idea of authenticity, a preoccupation shared both by the psychoanalysts and cultural Marxists of the time. Erich Fromm is the figure who best exemplifies both these approaches, most famously in his book The Fear of Freedom, originally published in 1941, just three years before Sartre’s play was first performed.

Sigmund Freud believed that civilization depended on the ability of individuals to conform, but that this was achieved at the cost of neurosis: “when an instinctual trend undergoes repression, its libidinal elements are turned into symptoms, and its aggressive components into a sense of guilt.” (Civilization and Its Discontents). Freud’s thesis is very much in line with Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s famous dictum that “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains”, except that for Freud the chains are internalised, more akin perhaps to Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”.

The Muggle answer to the problem of Sartrean social discontent is to try your best to fit in. But that solution has already been ruled out by the existential demand for autonomy, freedom and authenticity. Also, conformity may have some merit in a sane society, but what if the society itself is unhinged? As Jiddu Krishnamurti put it, “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”.

Even in a relatively sane and healthy society, the Muggle Way is a satisfactory way out of Sartre’s existential discontent only for those who don’t feel particularly trapped in the first place. For those who feel it keenly, the Muppet Way seems more promising. If we really are in a profoundly sick society, then isn’t the correct response to either pursue socio-political reform, or else overthrow the whole rotten edifice and start again? The revolution versus reform debate simmers away continuously in the minds and hearts of political dissidents and discontents, but the Muppet Way is the way of permanent revolution.

Unfortunately, as the numerous revolutions of the twentieth century volubly attest, this usually simply fulfills the old adage, “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. It seems that the Utopian visions of revolutionary radicals don’t actually pave a way out hell but rather plunge us into a deeper one.

So what about the Diva Way? What about worldly success, fame and fortune? Can enjoying the best society has to offer reduce and even erase our discontent? Will a night at the opera with champagne and caviar do the trick? Apparently not. At least not according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Don’t Envy the Super-Rich, They Are Miserable.

The Victim Way obviously won’t get you out of your existential discontent either. Impotently bemoaning your lot and blaming every man and his dog for it, although providing some psychological relief in the short term, inevitably ends up compounding your discontent. The only real practical utility is to provide more fuel for the Muppet Way.

The Addict Way similarly offers immediate relief with long-term negative consequences. In moments of weakness it may seem that the way out is at the bottom of a bottle, but it never is. And the Demon Way, the way of violence, murder and suicide, is best left well alone, for obvious reasons.

There is no way out of this closed room. There are no doors. Huis Clos.

Except upwards. For this is a room without a roof (Pharrell Williams) and the only way is up (Yazz).