An Exit? (thoughts on “No Exit”)

A few of weeks ago, I promised Agnes I’d read “No Exit”. It really was a fascinating play, and it’s been ages since I wrote an essay, so I wrote this.

I’m working from the English translation here:

There’s an absurd amount going on in this play. While there is a certain amount of repetition, you could write an entire essay on some of the individual lines. So I’ve limited myself to my original interest in it, which is the question of self-observation and the possibility of happiness. Agnes quoted “Hell is other people” (albeit in french). I think this is incorrect, and not in a facile “other people are nice” way, but in a genuine rejection of Sartre’s analysis of human existence.

I did attempt to read other analysis of the play, but found that any serious discussion that the internet might have is buried under a hundred google pages of “exam cheat” stuff. So sadly the only outside influence I have to call on is first-year uni stock answers. Apologies if I’m just retreading old ground here.

A theme that comes up again and again in the play is that of reflection. We are simply observers, and the self is something external to that observer, something we can only observe by reflection. In a sense that self is a part of the external world.

Sartre examines each of the ways we might reflect on our selves. Firstly, literal reflection – the room contains no mirrors. For Estelle, this is a tragedy (“When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist.”), moreso because she can no longer disguise her physical self with lipstick.

Inez does not seem so bothered by the lack of mirrors. She notes that mirrors revealed to her that torturers are frightened of their victims (as she is a torturer), but in the end she does not need mirrors, as she is “always conscious of myself–in my mind. Painfully conscious.” This self-consciousness is the second type of reflection.

The third reflection examined is reflection through the mind of another. This reflection is the key to the play, as the greatest torture hell can produce is revealed to be the reflection of our self through another person’s mind.

This form of reflection is the worst, because we cannot control it. As Estelle says “You scare me rather. My reflection in the glass never did that; of course, I knew it so well. Like something I had tamed … I’m going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become.”

I think we can take this series of reflections a step further. Estelle’s problem isn’t really what Garcin thinks of her, but what she thinks he might think of her. If Garcin hated her openly, her ego would compensate quickly with rationalisations – what a fool he is and so on. It is fairly easy for most of us to bear the criticism of others, but it is incredibly difficult to bear the criticism of one’s own mind, so hard to bear that we project these criticisms onto other people. She says “heaven knows”, but the really illuminating fact would be to know exactly what she fears “it will become”, because that will be her greatest criticism of her own self, the one so piercing and true and painful that it cannot be felt as a purely internal judgement. Hence I contend that the only emotionally problematic type of third reflection is really the second reflection in disguise.

When Garcin says “Hell is other people”, he surely means that he cannot cope with the third reflection – that left to his own devices, he could master the second reflection and be at peace. Sadly for him, his real concern isn’t that the others may see him as a coward, but rather that he may see himself as a coward. Hell, for Garcin, is really his own fear about the nature of his self.

There is a remarkably straightforward route out of this. As I remarked at the beginning, we are in a sense merely observers, and the self is a part of the world external to the observer. The self is not a static object with a single nature, instead our emotions and (as Garcin would have it) “real reasons” are obscure, contradictory and messy. We should see that our ‘self’ is an external thing, not to be controlled, and abandon any attempt to impose a consistent narrative on this chaos. Garcin is neither “a coward” nor a brave man, “he” is nothing but a mirror, residing within a body that has presumably done many things, both cowardly and brave.

That is not to say that our actions have no consequences. Our selves reflect strongly the emotional states we observe in others – far more strongly than most of us realise, as we clam up to avoid the pain of the second reflection disguised as the third. When we can accept our selves as they are, we can also accept the third reflections we experience in their true depth and beauty. At that point, our own selves become rather less interesting – and our own condition less worrying!

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