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A review of Sartre's "Being or Nothingness" A review of Sartre's "Being or Nothingness"
by Joseph Gatt
2020-10-08 08:38:11
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If you've read Jean-Paul Sartre's Being or Nothingness cover to cover, you have all my respect.

Some books are so loaded that you can't read them in one sitting. I read the 3,000 page Talmud (more like 6,000 pages because of all the content each page has) in 9 months, pausing frequently to read other stuff. Same goes for the 4,000 page Zohar, which I read over the span of 4 months.

sart01_400The Bible I read in one sitting the first time. Second time I did the “one book a day” challenge where I read one book of the Tanakh per day over the span of 40 days (occasionally reading two books a day).

But Being or Nothingness, which is about 2,000 pages long, I felt I had to finish the book ASAP, otherwise I would never finish it. Not the kind of book I would read intermittently, because if I read it intermittently, I'd end up ditching the book.

Spoiler alert. If you don't want me to spoil the book, read a copy first, then come back and read this review.

The awesomeness of Sartre resides in first looking at the world from a purely physical standpoint. Money is paper, green (or blue) sheets of paper. Human beings are flesh and blood and skin and hair. So you have all these physical things on Earth and beyond.

Then, how do you attribute all these values, characteristics, connections, emotions, and even definitions to all these physical objects.

And how do you come up with concepts and definitions of things that don't even exist in the physical world (like “jealousy” or “speed” or “confusion” and all that).

So my reaction to that was that indeed autistic children tend to see the world as a succession of physical objects, and tend to be incapable of attributing value, emotions, connections, or defining those physical objects.

Then physical objects can be moved around, replaced, can disappear, can appear, in several forms. Human beings are born every day, or I could buy a pack of cigarettes and place it in my pocket.

Then you have religions like Buddhism which argue that you should view the world as a succession of physical objects and should not attach any emotion or connection to them, and you should interiorize all your emotions and be “one” with your body.

Now there's so much more to this 2,000 page book.

My reaction to the book. Many reactions.

First off, I wouldn't recommend the book to college students. Or to grad students. But I would recommend the book to someone who has had a few years of research (or reflecting) under their belt.

That is I get the feeling that you can't understand the book properly if you haven't done research first hand, or done a lot of reflecting about life. Otherwise the book will just be confusing.

Now Sartre does discuss how in society we tend to attribute all kinds of value and definitions to objects that are in essence purely physical, and he takes his smoking habit as an example. Sartre discusses quite a bit how despite trying to quit smoking by viewing cigarettes merely as a physical object with no emotional or value characteristic, he still can't go a day without smokes. He goes as far as saying that his life would be meaningless without those cigarettes.

But the book would be a great read in post-COVID-19 times. During confinement, we reflected a great deal about all those physical objects that we took for granted, that in the end are nothing more than physical objects in essence.

I loved the book. But it gave me occasional headaches, because the book kept making me reflect. Most books I read are easy. This one was hard.

Criticism of the book? I would think the book was published as a first draft or something. I mean, there are parts that I felt needed some editing.

First off, there were passages where Sartre was discussing futile things (a lot of unnecessary passages about cigarettes and other topics) and I feel that surely the book could have lost 500 pages if it was properly edited. I get the feeling Sartre was trying to add a few hundred grams to his book.

Second off, I disagree when Sartre assumes most physical objects are placed randomly in the universe.

This is one debate I could have had with Sartre. Sartre may believe that his meeting and (very strange) relationship with Simone de Beauvoir was pure randomness, but I would believe that those two souls were searching for each other before they found each other.

That is unlike Sartre who tends to agree that all physical objects are where they are by complete accident, I would be of the school of thought where physical objects have souls and that souls tend to search for each other, but don't always find each other, because of barriers placed by other souls and physical objects.

Now I could discuss the book for hours, but I'd rather move on.

Final criticism of the book: too elitist when it comes to prose and contents. I mean a lot of people admire Sartre because rumor has it he said brilliant stuff. He did say brilliant stuff. But again, I think even Ph.D. students would have trouble with the book. I would say 5 to 10 years doing academic research and you'll find the book helpful. Otherwise, you'll probably drop out before page 10.

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