Sunday, September 6, 2009

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Walker Percy, it’s strange to say, was brought to his strengths as a Catholic novelist by Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps the 20th century’s most famous atheist. Confined to a sanitorium by tuberculosis, he made it his project to read through the literary and philosophical existentialists. After he was brought to theism by Kierkegaard, he came across Sartre, whom he loved. As biographer Jay Tolson explains, “Percy’s enthusiasm for Sartre may seem strange. After all, Sartre’s militant atheism could not have been more different from Percy’s convinced fideism. But Percy found the difference a tonic and a challenge” (238). He may have needed Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel to help him bring Sartre’s ideas into a Christian context, but Sartre is clearly a much bigger influence on him than most of his Kierkegaard-happy critics notice.

I didn’t notice it either until I started reading through Being and Nothingness with Nathan Gilmour. The whims of my reading list for my comprehensive exams have dictated that I read Percy’s Lancelot while still in the middle of Being and Nothingness, and the two books play off each other in ways I never noticed before. I’ve written about Lancelot before on this blog without really understanding what Lance’s quest for sin is really about; Sartre explains most everything.

This is, at its bottom, a novel about freedom and responsibility, about one’s relationship to one’s past self and about the lies one tells oneself in order to live comfortably in the present. In his old life, Lancelot was marked by bad faith. He instructs Percival to “Imagine a man sitting in Feliciana Parish for twenty years practicing law (yes! “practicing”), playing at being a “moderate” or “liberal” whatever that is, all under the illusion that he was living his life and was not even aware that he was not.” It’s a sham; it’s pretending to be something he’s not; it’s attempting to force oneself into an objective role.

That’s the essence of bad faith for Sartre. In the most famous section of Being and Nothingness, he gives the example of the waiter who
applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café.
The problem with bad faith is that it is an attempt to treat oneself both as subject and object, as both being-for-itself and being-in-itself. This formulation is impossible for Sartre. His problem with God, in fact, is that He would need to be both being-for-itself and being-in-itself, an impossibility. So any act of bad faith—of self-deception as regards one’s freedom—is an attempt to be God.

The solution, one might imagine, is to be authentically oneself. Not so fast, says Sartre, and offers us another example. He gives us a closeted homosexual and his friend, who gets annoyed at his bad faith and demands “that the guilty one recognize himself as guilty, that the homosexual declare frankly—whether humbly or boastfully matters little—‘I am a paederast.’” The friend, too, is in bad faith, since he “demands of the guilty one that he constitute himself as a thing, precisely in order no longer to treat him as a thing.”

Attempts at “authentic” living are, in other words, yet another type of bad faith. Sartre acknowledges that to end the state of bad faith, one needs a “self-recovery we shall call authenticity” but immediately says that “the description of [it] has no place here.” To my knowledge he never presents such a solution. His view of the world becomes cynical—we’re all trapped in self-deceit (including, it seems, Sartre himself), and there’s no way out. Percy might present such a way, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

As the waiter plays at being a waiter, of course, Lance plays at being a liberal lawyer—he fits himself neatly into the role and does all the things he is expected to do in that role without questioning them. He’s broken out of this habit by his discovery of his wife’s infidelity; when he discovers that his daughter does not belong to him, he also discovers “my freedom. I can’t tell you why, but the second followed directly upon the first.” The reader knows the reason, however: It’s that his bad faith has been revealed to be a sham, and Lancelot realizes that he’s able to do anything he wishes.

The end result, however, is that he ends up literally imprisoned. I will direct you to my post about Karl Jaspers, Emerson, and Milton, where I finally solve the problem of religious existentialism once and for all. (Note my irony, please.) We see it again here. Lance improbably likes his imprisonment; he is “glad to be here.” Sartre would no doubt define this as a further manifestation of bad faith, but Percy has other ideas. The prison (or more probably the mental institution) is a submission to a higher power, and furthermore, it is voluntary; he says that “Yesterday I simply got up, went to my door, opened it, and went out in the hall.” Thus, his suspension of freedom is largely self-enforced.

And that, Percy seems to be saying, is what breaks us out of bad faith—it’s what allows us to move from potential freedom (which is, after all, the way most of us live—we’re free but we don’t really acknowledge it) to submission to a higher authority to genuine or actualized freedom, which is why Lancelot ends the novel out in the beautiful countryside of Virginia. But he needed to submit himself to the mental institution in order to do so.

If this schema sounds familiar, it’s because it basically conforms to Kierkegaard’s spheres of existence. The aesthete is free, although he acts for all the world as though he is not. The ethicist voluntarily submits himself to an ethical system. The religious personality is given true freedom once he takes the leap away from that ethical system. For Percy, as for Kierkegaard, the whole thing revolves around God; we see this when he reproduces the lyrics to Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”:
Freedom’s just another word, Lord, for nothing left to lose
Nothing ain’t worth nothing, Lord, but it’s free
Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee
Fans of Kristofferson will immediately notice that Percy adds two Lords to the lyrics, suggesting an added religious dimension to the song’s exploration of freedom. If freedom is indeed just another word for nothing left to lose, then Lance receives his freedom by having his illusions shattered. His illusions were all he had to cling to.

The novel’s violence becomes clear now. Man’s humanity is bound up in his ability to do the wrong thing, i.e., his freedom. To put this in Sartrean terms, man, confronted with vertigo on the edge of the cliff, absolutely must be able to jump. This is why the modern world’s elimination of sin bothers Lance so much—if man cannot sin, if he cannot do something truly terrible, he is not a human being. So in order to become a human being again, to truly break out of his bad faith, he must kill the movie director and accidentally/on purpose set fire to his old life. It is in this way that he is confined to the mental institution that will eventually bring him genuine freedom.

1 comment:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Alright now, where are you, philosophy professor from Behtel U? You were talking big about responding to the post. Where are you?

(By the way, I'm the Nathan Gilmour mentioned in the post, in cast you want to plug my blog some time.)