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November 27, 2005 - Is Dubya Heading for the Existentialist Hall of Fame?

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World's Laziest Journalist

November 28, 2005

By Bob Patterson 


Recently a search for one particular book was undertaken by this columnist.  In the process of inventorying the contents of various piles and boxes of reading material amassed over the years of residency in sunny Southern California, several books relating to the topic of existential philosophy were brought to the foreground. 


After flipping through the various volumes, an idea for a different "take" on the current debate about the origins of the War with Iraq presented itself.


Folks who want yet another version of the basic "Lied-Didn't-Lied-Didn't" vicious circle cycle of analysis can find that elsewhere in plentiful supply.  Once possible way of interpreting the subject would be to postulate the premise that George W. Bush is an outstanding example of existential philosophy in action, and that the lack of appreciation of that point of view by the citizens of Paris is completely baffling. 


If (big "if") the folks who live close to the Champs Elysées think that the President of the US manipulated the decision to go looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq by saying things that were not factual, then they should realize that might indicate he had become an example of "existentialism in action" that was worthy of a brass plaque in the either the Café Le Flore or the Deux Maggots, and if not, a place in the Existentialists Hall of Fame should the awards committee choose to offer him that honor.


Existentialists are big on self-determination.  You can change the world, if you change your mind.  For them, they believe that with a bit of resolve, a person can make a difference by believing in the Will to Power.  For instance, if a governor of a state in the United States decides to impose a regime change on an old family foe and then actually makes it happen, then he is an example of the triumph of the willpower of an individual and thus a potential candidate for the Existentialists Hall of Fame.


[Note:  One of the hallmarks of existentialism is that folks tend to squabble endlessly over the meaning of the word and the inclusion of various thinkers in that particular category.  (Sartre is about the only existentialist who called himself that.)  To avoid a needless debate over the definition of the word we went to the Cambridge dictionary online and found this capsule definition of the word: "The modern system of belief made famous by Jean Paul Sartre in the 1940s in which the world is meaningless and each person is alone and completely responsible for their own actions, by which they make their own character."  We will choose to accept that definition for the purposes of this column.]


To outline our speculation about that way of thinking about the events associated with the events that led to the ousting of Saddam in Iraq, we decided to run some of the best relevant quotes and challenge our readers to agree or disagree with the possibility that the two thoughts are connected.


We offer a selection of items in support of that contention.


We will begin with quotes from Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre selected and introduced by Walter Kaufmann (we used the Meridian Book paperback edition copyrighted 1956).


"The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life – that is the heart of existentialism."  (Page 12)  Surely, Sartre would point out that is particularly apt when listening to the explanations for the use of certain interrogation methods. 


"As layer upon layer of misunderstanding is exposed, the reader feels that something glorious is about to come to view.  Alas, it usually remains about to come to view."  (Page 38) 


In the passage from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, we find: "I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too."  (Page 78.)


Nietzsche wrote: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."  The Geneva accord apparently doesn't cover humane treatment of monsters.


In an excerpt from Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, in a section that Kaufman translated the title of as Self-Deception, we read: "The essence of the lie implies in fact that the liar actually is in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding."  (Page 242)  Later, he adds:  "To prove that I am right would be to recognize that I can be wrong."  (Page 253)


Sartre also gave a famous lecture titled Existentialism is a Humanism, in which he said: " … and, indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all."  (Page 289)  Neither does the search for WMD's.


In Saint Genet, Jean Paul Sartre wrote: "The law of rhetoric (and we know that terror too is a rhetoric) is that one must lie in order to speak the truth." 


Jean Genet wrote in The Thief's Journal: "They are ready to kill or be killed over a card-game in which an opponent – or they themselves – was cheating.  Yet, thanks to such fellows, tragedies are possible."


In his essay, The Minotaur, Albert Camus wrote: "A few right-thinking people tried to introduce the customs of another world into this desert, faithful to the principle that it is impossible to advance art or ideas without grouping together."  [The Shiite just "don't get" democracy, do they?]


Wouldn't existentialists believe that there is a innumerable number of uses for aluminum tubes?  Isn't it up to the purchaser to choose a use for the tubes?  If some aluminum tubes were meant exclusively to be used in the production of nuclear weapons, wouldn't they have serial numbers on them so that they somehow could be monitored?  


Does it take a professor of philosophy teaching at the Sorbonne University to point out that while the Republicans have been accusing the Democrats of not having a plan, the irony is that they have no plan outlining the withdraw of coalition troops from Iraq?


Wouldn't the average French existentialist in the streets prefer to believe that the war in Iraq was started because of some very clever diabolical plan that involved intentionally manufacturing supportive evidence, rather than speculate about the alternative and assert that Bush was not lying?  If a Frenchie believed that Bush wasn't fibbing, then, logically, wouldn't it be necessary to admit that it was a case of being "faked out" and subsequently committing one of the largest military blunders in history?  What intellectual, from any country, wouldn't prefer to see the pre-invasion events as a clever chess like gambit, involving a dash of disingenuous statements, rather than have to admit that it was just a case of monumental stupidity?  Who wants to be known as the father of the biggest "Whoopsie!" of all time?


Does it take a black belt in existentialism to see that the dilemma facing an army inside a country that wants the visitors to leave and assertions that the visiting army won't depart until their presence is no longer resented, might resemble the task described in the myth of Sisyphus?  


How would Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a member of the French underground that fought the occupation of his country by an invading army, assess the Iraq insurgency?


Blaise Pascal is quoted (in Bartlett's) thus: "To ridicule philosophy is really to philosophize."


Before Frank sang about doing it his way, or Miles Davis wrote So What?, Edith Piaf was crooning a song the existentialists could analyze because the singer did what she did and didn't feel bad about it.  So, if the Disk Jockey will play Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, we'll choose to pull the plug and make our exit.   Sing along if you know the words.  The DJ will play the French version and then play the version in English titled No Regrets.  Have a "never explain/never complain" type week.




Copyright (including logo) © 2005 - Robert Patterson

Email the author at worldslaziestjournalist@yahoo.com





Just Above Sunset's editor and publisher passed these comments along:


Miles hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre, actually.  See below.


"So What" -  Miles Davis from the album from "Kind of Blue" (Columbia 469440-2) - recorded 2 March 1959 and 22 April 1959 in New York City


Bass - Paul Chambers

Drums - Jimmy Cobb

Piano - Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly

Saxophone [Alto] - Cannonball Adderley

Saxophone [Tenor] - John Coltrane

Trumpet - Miles Davis


Producer - Teo Macero


Audio clip here.  


Also see Szwed, John. - So What: The Life of Miles Davis - ISBN 0-434-00759-5


See this - In 1949 Miles also made his first trip to France, with a Tadd Dameron quintet that became "the hit of the Paris Jazz Festival, along with Sidney Bechet." Miles hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre, fell in love with both Paris and the actress Juliette Greco (with whom he would have intermittent further involvements over the next few decades), and "even found myself announcing the songs in French."


In these pages see this on Miles Davis in Paris doing the score for Louis Malle's first film, or this quoting this - "In the underground caves of St. Germain-des-Pres, jazz dancing was deemed the highest expression of existentialism. Never has a serious philosopher had such an impact on nightlife. Sartre even wrote a rather beautiful song for the great chanteuse Juliette Greco to sing at the Rose Rouge."


Read this on the two café places - Adam Gopnik's definitive essay.




1. Les Deux Magots - The literary prize - "Le prix des Deux Magots a été fondé en 1933, le jour même où le prix Goncourt était attribué à André Malraux pour son roman La Condition humaine."


2. Café de Flore - "L'existentialisme est à la mode et Juliette Gréco impose son style longiforme ..."


[I've spent a lot of time in both places.  I prefer the Flore.  Walk out of Les Deux Magots, turn right, and two doors down is the Flore, at the corner of narrow, one way Rue Saint Benoit and Boulevard Saint-Germain (four lanes one-way west).  There's a good newsstand between them.  Across the boulevard from the Flore is the Lipp - Hemingway wrote about that place in A Moveable Feast - he was eating sauerkraut (choucroute) there and was put off by a rich lady's mangy little dog at the next table.  The third Thursday of each month at the Flore, upstairs, they have "philo" night  - open discussion in English on deep philosophical stuff.  Two of my friends used to go.  I never did.  AMP]






Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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