What the Hell!! This might be the response of some seeing this phrase for the first time, which was used by Jean Paul Sartre in one of his play ‘No Exit’. But it is interesting to see what it means and how I understand it (I am not a scholar in Sartre to say precisely). If a Christian or Buddhist or a person who values charity sees this phrase, they would be shocked; but probably an understanding of the context can help them.
For Sartre, human freedom and responsibility is really significant. He was an existentialist (not a philosopher in the abstract, but the concrete living conditions are really important and they give meaning to their life). The freedom and responsibility is an an invitation to be the authentic me ( authenticity consists in properly affirming one’s own freedom through clarified reflection and responsible action). But the responsibility is a problem too as I do something I am always worried about the ‘LOOK or GAZE’ of the others. I am worried of their response. Thus it is curtailing my freedom. Thus the other is a hell for me, or in this way prevents me from being authentically me. Cheng Wen puts it in a simple way as ‘We can never escape being influenced by what we think of others’ thinking of ourselves in the social world.’ Many of us are ourselves when we are completely alone, especially in our rooms and which proves this.
When I look at this, it is true that it is not possible to be completely un-influenced or not at all bothered about others and their thinking. Some may say we can be, but I doubt the possibility of it. But we can slowly grow into a stage where we are less and less bothered about other’s perceptions. The Nirvana of Buddhism which includes the cessation of desire could be a stage where other and his thinking is not at all a problem for me.
Another critique may be that if I am authentic why I need to be afraid of others. I feel that none can be completely authentic all the time. Now if that happened too, still that person may look for the approval of a few who matters to him/her.
Sartre is not a pessimist seeing the other as a nuisance, but it is an invitation to me not to make ME based on him/her, but to use my freedom and responsibility to build authentic Me. I see ‘Other is the Hell’ or ‘Hell is the Other’ as helpful for my growth in the following ways
- S/he reminds me of my responsibilities.
- I can’t always be bothered of his/her response, else my life will be hell. (You cant find approval all the time from all the people)
- It also reminds of the community living; we become human with the help of the other; so other is unavoidable.
- Just as I don’t want the other to objectify me, I try not to objectify the other (especially the vulnerable sections of the society).