No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
One Line Summary
Hell is other people
Okay, technically No Exit is a play, so I’m cheating a bit by considering a book. But it gives a great opportunity to continue exploring the issue of external validation that I talked about yesterday.
No Exit is about three people who have been sent to Hell. Only, it doesn’t look much like the Hell that we imagine from Christianity. There are no angry demons, no pits of fire, no double-horned Satan. Instead, it’s just three people in a room with nothing to do.
It probably doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to realize what’s going to happen. The three people begin to drive each other crazy, culminating with one trying to kill another. Of course, they’re already dead. This leads to the famous realization of the play by one of the characters that “Hell is other people”.
A pretty depressing conclusion. But let’s really breakdown what Sartre was getting at. Did he really want people to go into a cave and abandon all social ties? No, his point is far more subtle than that.
Why it’s Awesome
No Exit is undoubtedly a classic piece of literature. So if you’re looking for something highly artistic and entertaining, this is a great book. But remember that this is a self-development blog. I’m interested in these books not primarily for their artistic value, but for their ability to convey practical information.
No Exit has that. Sartre’s punchline that “Hell is other people” points to a very real truth about how we interact with each other. It’s not that people are bad or evil. It’s that other people often hold the power over how we view ourselves.
Let me explain. When we are infants, you are essentially a ball of nothing. You have no real beliefs about the world. No opinions about yourself. No formal identity at all. Almost entirely without ego.
But this does not last. Soon you have a name and family which you identify as “yours”. You start to learn about the world and make opinions that you identify as “your” opinions. You develop likes and dislikes, get a job and everything else that we consider a normal part of growing up. Congratulations, you’ve development a full identity.
But there’s something interesting about this identity. Notice, that at one point you did not have this identity at all. At some point, you were so young and clueless you probably didn’t even think of yourself as a human being on planet earth, which is something you take as obvious now. So what does that mean? It means this identity is inherently false.
Try and follow this. It’s easy to skip over the simplicity of what I’m trying to say. If “you” existed at one point without this identity structure, then is this identity at the deepest level really “you”? If you say “yes”, I’d ask you to keep questioning. Who were you then before you developed this identity? Not you? Does that make sense?
Kind of freaky. Idea that any external identity we develop is inherently false has massive consequences. Because even if you can see what I’m saying, that isn’t going to stop you from believing in your identity. And that’s because an identity, or ego, is like a life of its own. It wants to survive, and it will do anything to continually reinforce its own existence.
Why does it need to reinforce its own existence? Because it’s false. If you know something is true, you don’t need to tell yourself over and over again that it’s true. You just know it’s true. It’s only when something feels like a lie that we continually seek to reinforce its validity.
This is where the idea that “Hell is other people” ties in. Because your identity needs external reinforcement in order for you to still believe it, other people hold tremendous power over you. It could be as simple as someone calling you a name you don’t like. It could be an obsession with physical appearance so that others find you attractive. It could be an unhealthy love for status and achievement so that others will give you respect. Whatever. The false needs a mirror.
In doing research for this review, I found that Sartre expanded heavily on this idea in other writings. In a book called Being and Nothingness, which I may read and review in the future, refers to it as “the Look”. Essentially, he argues that when someone is aware of another person, you automatically become self-conscious and are influenced by their world view.
This may sound obvious or insignificant. But really try and grasp the consequences of this. So much of our lives are wrapped up in this desire for external reinforcement of our identity. It goes so far that you could argue it’s our only real source of stress in our lives. Even fear of death comes from this, as I wrote about in my last review.
What’s the solution? That’s for other reviews. Consider this an intervention if you have never heard of these ideas before. But the short answer is that the solution is consciousness / Enlightenment work.
Why Does It Suck
I really had to do some digging to feel like I got an understanding of what Sartre was trying to say. And that’s fine. But there is something to be said for simplicity. I’ve read other authors who have expressed the same ideas with far more clarity.
The Wrap Up
No Exit is a fantastic short play by one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Even though I first read this as a kid, I can remember feeling like I really finished something significant. Only I couldn’t say why until now. I’m in awe of Sartre’s mind, and I eagerly look forward to reading more from him in the future.