Friday, February 22, 2008

No Exit and The Respectful Prostitute

I took some time out last night from "Anna Karenina" to read a few plays from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. I found him to be an extremely clever writer who uses dialogue rather effectively. Even without watching the roles played out, it is not difficult to understand the point that Sartre is wishing to express. The existential dilemma of being objectified by others is played out masterfully and culminates in what must be one of his better known quotes, spoken by the character Garcin:

So this is hell. I'd never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the "burning marl." Old wives' tales! There's no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!

The irony is that because no person is an island, we depend upon others to effectively bring us into existence. The only problem is that there is this eternal disconnect between the real and the apparent; the objective and subjective. In a very real way, we are what people make of us. But what is even worse is the ignorance of not truly knowing what others make of us. Quite often this means that we will project our thoughts onto others, believing that they think something about us that never came into their mind in the first place. Even when people give us a compliment, we may not take them at face value, supposing that they are being insincere. In so doing, we distort the image of others and at the same time distort our own image.

The second play I read was the lesser known "The Respectful Prostitute", which is a scathing attack on the culture of racism that pervades America. The theme of the play is wonderfully summed up in the following speech, made by Fred to the prostitute Lizzie:

I'll put you in a beautiful house, with a garden, on the hill across the river. You'll walk in the garden, but I forbid you to go out; I am very jealous. I'll come to see you after dark, three times a week - on Tuesday, Thursday, and for the weekend. You'll have nigger servants, and more money then you ever dreamed of; but you will have to put up with all my whims, and I'll have plenty!

It should be pointed out the Fred likens himself to America some lines back, suggesting that to kill him was to kill America. Lizzie seems to represent the downtrodden and oppressed, who are encouraged to believe in America as the land of the free and the land of opportunity and enterprise even for those who start from humble beginnings. But this promised Edenic garden that Fred speaks of is predicated upon a dark history, in which the affluence of America owes primarily to the exploitation of the African-American population through slavery. But they are not the only slaves. Lizzie herself is living a sham freedom in which she will be a slave within her marriage to a man that she does not even like. It would seem that Sartre is suggested that the price that Americans pay for their economic prosperity is that they are ruled by a corrupt government that restricts their freedom and encourages them to maintain their myopic worldview. Ignorance is bliss, and the empty rhetoric of freedom and liberty serves only to reinforce the status quo where justice, freedom and opportunity is available only to the most privileged, while most Americans have to make to with that enduring, though false perception.

No comments: