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Sartre and Sexuality

Lecturer: Steven Churchill

Originally Taught: Winter School 2011

Jean-Paul Sartre's early existentialism is perhaps most readily associated with his 1938 debut novel, Nausea and his collection 1939 of short stories, The Wall, culminating in the 1943 release of his first philosophical masterpiece Being and Nothingness. These works were widely praised upon their release as clarifying Sartre's view that "existence precedes one's essence", along with his related views regarding radical freedom and responsibility. However, these works were also criticised for their portrayal of sexuality. Some sections of the literary and philosophical establishment suggested that they eschewed romance, closeness and love in the name of a doctrinaire pessimism. Others suggested that Sartre was merely a voyeur, exploiting the literary and philosophical forms to indulge a love of simple crudity or vulgarity. Though the depictions of sexuality from Sartre at this point in his career are generally considered "tame" by present-day standards, they have nonetheless remained the target of criticism and derision. Even scholars who have devoted themselves specifically to studying Sartre's life and works have singled-out his approach to sexuality as a negative aspect of his thought. Contemporary criticism of Sartre in this regard divides into two main categories. Firstly, there are those who argue that Sartre depicts a world that is philosophically androcentric (centred on man and the experiences of men, especially of a sexual nature) and phallocentric (centred on sexual experience involving the penis). Further, these critics argue, Sartre establishes these attitudes as stemming from values that are freely-chosen and therefore beyond critique (indeed, even viewable as laudable) within the terms of his own existentialism. The second branch of criticism accepts that Sartre does not give his ethical or moral assent to androcentrism and/or phallocentrism. Rather, these critics argue, he employs these worldviews as a means of depicting philosophically the "failure of desire" - the failure of "conventional" values centring on love, lust and so on to obtain any "objective" status in the world, beyond their being freely-chosen by individuals. These critics, then, claim to read Sartre "positively" by avoiding accusations of mere voyeurism, but they nevertheless hold that Sartre employs sexuality purely as a philosophical instrument - a kind of erotically-charged "test case" for the radical subjectivity of value in existentialism.

This course seeks to engage with, as well as to respond to, both of these strands of criticism. The first branch of criticism may be responded to initially on the grounds that it ignores the effect of literary censorship (particularly with regard to Nausea) on the presentation of sexuality in Sartre's writings, and the extent to which it precluded Sartre from discussing sexuality in a richer way. Furthermore, the various scenes and quotations cited from Sartre's work in support of accusations of androcentrism/phallocentrism ignore a much broader treatment of sexuality from Sartre, encompassing themes such as the "popular" view of homosexuality (as well as "compulsory" heterosexuality) in 1930's-40's France, sexual symbolism in the culinary domain and daily life more generally, and the impact of mental illness on sexual experiences. The second branch of criticism, accusing Sartre of employing sexual themes purely as a means of addressing the implications of the "failure of desire" for the radical subjectivity of the values often associated with desire, can likewise be understood as narrowing the scope of discussion. It is possible, after all, to hold that the "failure of desire" depicted by Sartre is also designed to demonstrate the extent to which desire is often lived "inauthentically". That is, desire may be constructed by individuals to suit a particular "image", but may then be lived by them as though it were an "innate" aspect of their existence. More than this, though, Sartre also seeks to demonstrate that even when we think we have "seen through" this constructedness, we continue to impart our values all the same. It is only through realising this is so that we can begin to intervene in this construction, and re-construct our sexual Being in authentic way. In this way, the "failure of desire" can be understood as not having been intended as simply a philosophical "end in itself" for Sartre's existentialist purposes, but rather the means to reclaiming a "lived" sexuality.

Course Outline:

* Course Outline
* Aims
* Texts
* Introduction to existentialism
* Introduction to Sartre's life, thought and works
* Why sexuality in Sartre's early writings?
* Why a re-consideration?

Section 1: Nausea
* The relationship between Sartre's existentialism and Nausea
* Sartre's journey to Nausea's publication
* Introduction to some passages from Nausea normally used in support of androcentrism/phallocentrism claims
* Introduction to "failure of desire" critiques
* Problems with each of these approaches
* The Melancholia manuscript - A different perspective on critiques
* Moving beyond "standard" critiques

Section 2: Intimacy
* The relationship between Sartre's existentialism and Intimacy
* Sartre's "reputation for crudity"
* Introduction to some passages from Intimacy normally used in support of androcentrism/phallocentrism claims
* Introduction to "voyeurism" criticism
* Problems with this approach
* Reading Intimacy as a "lived psychosexuality"

Section 2: Being and Nothingness
* The relationship between Sartre's existentialism and Being and Nothingness
* From literature to "phenomenological ontology"
* Introduction to some passages from Being and Nothingness normally used in support of androcentrism/phallocentrism claims
* The "failure of desire" (in ontological form)
* Problems with this approach
* The "redemption" of desire in the Notebooks