Friday, February 8, 2008

Sartrian Lenten Meditations

Sartre begins for us the season of Lent, at least for us phenomenologists who might find interesting what he has to say. Me? not much of a Sartrian. But insofar as he initiated what is now called "inverted intentionality," he has my vote. Sartre started off this story. And it's appropriate to Lent insofar as we focus less on how we look at our own sinfulness than on how God sees it and reveals - a very Ignatian understanding of sin - sin to us. Ignatius will not allow the exercitant to move beyond Week I until he or she properly feels and experiences the grace of sorrow for sin. This is something that must be revealed, even our own condition. Sin is not a matter of intentional searching, it is a matter of being searched, and found to be what one is in God's sight, and not in one's own.

In Being and Nothingness Sartre has an important chapter on “The Look.” How do I know the body of the other that I see is really a human person and not an organism? The problem of other minds comes along with the problem of an external world. Sartre says we can’t doubt. We can say we doubt, but we can’t, since in every doubt is presumed what we are doubting. What is interesting philosophically about the Look though is how other persons are “given” to us. Sartre says they are given to us when we find ourselves looked at, seen. Not my gaze as in Husserlian phenomenology, not my gaze that bestows meaning, but the other’s gaze directed toward me. Sartre is half Augustinianism, half Hobbesian, one could say. Sartre doesn’t want the other to define him. When I find myself constituted in my existence by the gaze of the other, I have two regular reactions. Either I turn the other into an object to deprive them of the gaze that sees me and judges me, etc., which would be Sadism. Or, with Masochism, I let them be a subject, but only as a puppet of my will. I try to protect myself. I reduce the other to someone over whom I preside. This is a post-Husserlian echo of Hegel’s famous passage on the Master/Slave metaphor. He takes it as a powerful struggle involved in every relationship. I am a sinner, or in Hobbesian terms, I am the one who makes all others peripheral to myself.

Very Augustinian and Lutheran point, sin in not the violation of a rule, but the problem which I am out of which those actions flow, that is what “original sin” is. Even good actions, actions that don’t break the rules, flow from a self that is not good. All actions flowing from this self are actions asserting independence from God and actions which want to subject the other to my own gazing power. Since I want to be the absolute seer, speaker, definer, I want to be God, I want to be the absolute. So, as he says, “man is a useless passion.”

Inverted intentionality doesn't have to be described this way. But only when God is in the picture, when the primary constituting gaze, the primary giver of meaning, is a loving God. Rather than constituting for ourselves those around us, let us be mediums of the compassion of a loving God.

Markel, SJ

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