During the two weeks of vacation we had for Touissant I was able to do some writing and reading as well as visiting places in Guadeloupe. This post is coming very late because Touissant was about two months ago, but better late than never. I just finished reading La Náusea by Sartre and loved it! At the same time, I was really disappointed that I hadn’t read something like this earlier! I must say that I don’t think I have taken a single philosophy class and probably the closest class that I’ve taken that even resembles this discipline was Post-Modern Literature (while studying abroad in Ecuador). To tell you the truth, I have no idea what the hell I learned in that course aside from stumbling through some articles by Foucault (Hilary, maybe you can remind me what else we did?)
En fin, while reading the book, (in Spanish, because a Spanish friend from here loaned it to me and my French is most definitely not at the French-novel level yet) I began to realize that there were certain parts of existentialism that were super interesting and that I had thought of before but never really had the words or examples that Sartre was unveiling in this book, which also happens to be his first novel and an epistolary account. I was also struck by the fact that the main character is a 30-year old, single, guy, who has just returned from traveling the world. While trying to write a historical novel, the protagonist realizes the absurdity and the emptiness of life.
I feel like I was kind of in the protagonist’s shoes a few months back, and maybe to some extent, now, as I grapple with, for the lack of a better phrase, the meaning of life, or at least the meaning of my life at this point in time. As Sartre describes the basic tenants of existentialism and the will of humanity to make choices freely, independent of the structures of religion and society I began thinking of the underpinnings of this kind of thinking. As he explains that existence precedes essence I found that, in principle, this made a lot of sense. We create experiences for ourselves that, subsequently, we are able to find the value or essence of what we have done. As he writes, he creates for himself, an experiment in living, of sorts. I am also doing the same here in Guadeloupe. He describes that an action, or what we decide to do with our life is an individual responsibility and it is independent of the rules and other humans around us. By simply committing to an action we are making a decision and leading a life of meaning and authenticity and, in turn, accepting responsibility for our actions.
I had a small debate about something related to La Náusea this past week while at Les Saintes, a small island about 30 minutes away from Basse-Terre by boat. During the first week of vacation for Touissant, or All Saints Day, I spent some time with a family that has two girls—Amethyst and Jade, age three and the twelve respectively. My only real job was to speak English to them, and with the rest of the family I could speak French.
Amethyst and Jade’s grandfather, an avid swimmer, jogger, and historian (he used to be a swim coach and gets up every day and runs or swims for 2 hours or 1 hour respectively), sang praises about Michael Phelps and how great of an athlete he is. I agreed with him and said he was a really good swimmer, very true.
“It takes mental preparedness, grit, and stamina to be an athlete like that,” he said, pointing to his temple. “That’s the most important part of being an athlete,” he ended, smiling rather seriously.
I tried to explain to him that I thought the same but I was under the strong impression that such great athletes needed the monetary backing and a vast amount of resources in order to be such world-renowned figures. I reminded Gilbert (a name that always reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, anyone else with me on that?) that a poor child in the U.S. who didn’t have the means of going to swim-practice every day or even have access to a pool in which to swim, would not have the same outcomes as Mr. Phelps. If I have learned anything in this short life of mine is that resources make all the difference. A resource is a hard term to define because it can involve a person who shows you the ropes or money that helps you realize something. At the heart of the matter however, is that resources to anything necessarily implies privilege–we can talk more about that later : ) I can have all the responsibility and determinism in the world, but if I have no material wealth or social capital to back it up, many of my dreams and aspirations will not come true, no matter how long I work at something.
All this to say that for me, the structures that surround us, at least those of the human race who are less privileged, are more powerful, at times, than our personal mindsets, decisions, or actions. So, returning to the idea of existentialism, it seems as though, in an ideal world, this philosophy would work pretty will. We all have certain decisions to make and we can take actions in order to propel our life forward. At the same time, being that the world is not perfect, and some people are at a disadvantage, it seems as though many of our decisions and actions are based on our life circumstances and our place in a classist, capitalist, racist society, which many times has already predefined our destiny without our knowing it. If I am a poor African American child growing up in East Oakland, can I really rise to the occasion given all the cards stacked against me? I think not. It’s not simply will, but the forces and structures around you, and personally I don’t think human will is a strong enough force to deconstruct the structures of inequality that the unprivileged among us are forced with every day. Unless, of course, there is a group of people that are willing to sacrifice and to help those people around them that are in need.
Although I wrote this as a journal entry a few months back, it definitely brings out the themes that have been present recently in the U.S. around Ferguson and all the injustices that are happening currently with African American arrests and murders and the protests that are happening as a result. From afar, I have been trying to follow as much as the news as possible and it deeply saddens me that the structures of racism that I thought were really becoming less concrete, are really just less visible to the naked eye because they are so embedded into the fabric of this country and it’s messed up justice system. I wish I had a good note to end on, but I’ll just end with a quote that I had up on my desk during my time at my last job with the United Way that I try to remember especially when I’m around people that might not think the same way I do:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King