Sartre’s No Exit as A Rorschach Test. Why don’t they leave when they get the chance? Is it Bad Faith or The Gaze?

Sartre’s No Exit as A Rorschach Test.

Why don’t they leave when they get the chance?

Is it Bad Faith or The Gaze?

Burton Weltman

“Freedom is what we do with what is done to us”

          John-Paul Sartre.

Prologue: Looking for an Honest Man.

Diogenes the Cynic, so the story goes, spent his life searching for an honest man.  So, too, I think, did Jean-Paul Sartre, and his play No Exit is an instance of his search.  The thesis of this essay is twofold: (1) The play is best seen as a dramatization of Sartre’s philosophical concept of “bad faith” rather than, as it is usually interpreted, his concept of “the gaze” or “the look.”  The behavior of the characters is intended to be seen as a function of their dishonesty toward themselves and each other, rather than their scrutiny of each other; and, (2) The play essentially functions as a sort of Rorschach Test of the good faith of its readers and viewers.  People who see the play as a reflection of “the gaze” will likely tolerate “bad faith” in themselves and expect it in others.  And that is the moral and morality of the story.

No Exit or In Camera: What’s in a Name?

“But, my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know.”

            Alan Watts.

No Exit is a one-act play written in 1943 by Jean-Paul Sartre.  First performed in 1944 in Nazi occupied Paris, its title in the original French is Huis Clos.  It portrays the tribulations of three recently deceased people who find themselves together in a small room in what they think is Hell.  They quickly realize that they are completely incompatible as roommates, with each one grating horribly on the other two.  They conclude that the almighty authorities of the universe have condemned them to being psychologically tortured by each other for all eternity.

The play is a dark drama that has been a mainstay of the stage from the mid-1940’s to the present day.  It is widely held to “capture Sartre’s existentialism,” and to dramatize the essentials of existentialist philosophy.[1]  Although reviewers rarely cite Sartre’s philosophical concepts of “the gaze” and “bad faith,” their interpretations almost invariably reflect those concepts because they are deeply embedded in the play.  Most reviewers focus on aspects of the play that reflect “the gaze” as representing the meaning and moral of the drama.  This essay presents an argument to the contrary.

There is very little action in the play.  It consists mainly of the three main characters talking to each other and looking at each other.  Each of the characters, a man and two women, has a long history of sociopathic behavior, the truth of which emerges as the play unfolds.  They all initially claim to be innocent of wrongdoing, but each one wilts under the grilling of the other two, and they all eventually admit to having repeatedly in their lives betrayed and abused those who loved and depended on them.

The man, Garcin, regularly abused his wife, and was executed for betraying his comrades and deserting the army in time of war.  Estelle, one of the women, was a female philanderer, who betrayed her husband, killed her unwanted baby, and effectively drove her lover to suicide.  Inez, the other woman, was a lesbian, who was killed by her abused lover, who also killed herself.

The characters constitute an anti-menage-a-trois.  Inez immediately becomes sexually attracted to Estelle, but Estelle is repelled by lesbianism.  Estelle is sexually attracted to Garcin, but Garcin insists on getting emotional support from her that she is incapable of giving.  Garcin, in turn, looks to Inez for emotional support, but she despises him and won’t give it.  They are committed narcissists, and are unwilling or unable to connect with each other.

Having realized their incompatibility, the characters make ineffective efforts to ignore each other.  But they are goaded and galled by the existence of the others.  So, the three of them emotionally torture each other in a vicious cycle of attraction and repulsion, and conclude that tormenting each other for eternity is their hellish fate.  This is also the conclusion that most interpreters of the play reach.  I don’t agree.

The French title of the play, Huis Clos, has usually been translated into English as No Exit. But the phrase huis clos literally means “closed door” in French, and colloquially means in camera.  In camera refers to a court proceeding that is conducted privately in a judge’s chambers behind closed doors.  Translating the play’s title as No Exit implies that the trial of the three characters is over, the judging has been finally done, and they have been conclusively sentenced to Hell.  In this view, the characters have become what they really are, their essences have been exposed to view, and there are no choices available to them to change their ways and their fates.

Translating the title as In Camera, however, implies that their trial is still ongoing, final judgments have not been rendered, and the characters might still be able to do things that could change their fates. That is, they have been placed in a sort of Purgatory, and are not necessarily permanently ensconced in Hell.  In this view, the action in the play is part of their trial, the authorities are watching and waiting to render a final judgment, and there are still choices the characters could make to change their ways and alter their fates.

The majority translation of the title is No Exit, the minority is In Camera.  Although few commentators on the play make explicit reference to Sartre’s philosophical works, their differences in translating the title of the play, and corresponding differences in interpreting it, can be translated into Sartrean philosophical terms.  Sartre published his major philosophical work Being and Nothingness in 1943, the same year as the play.[2]  In this book, he developed his ideas of “the gaze” and “bad faith” that are represented in the play

The majority view that the title should be No Exit corresponds with a view of the play that emphasizes Sartre’s philosophical concept of “the gaze.”  The minority view that the title should be In Camera corresponds with Sartre’s philosophical concept of “bad faith.”  Proponents of each view can point to elements of the play in support of their positions, and the play does not conclusively back either.

In fact, the play may function as a sort of Rorschach Test of the social inclinations of its audience.  A Rorschach Test is a bunch of images that a person is asked to make sense of.  The sense the person makes of the images is ostensibly an indication of how the person thinks, and what the person is like.  No Exit/In Camera seems to function in this way.  The way a person interprets the play may be an indication of how the person views him/herself and the world.

The primary thesis of this essay is that the play is best titled in English as In Camera, and best seen as a criticism of the three main characters as people who are guilty of “bad faith.”  A secondary thesis is that interpreting the play in terms of “the gaze” could reflect an inclination on the part of interpreters towards tolerating bad faith in others, and possibly themselves.

To See or Not to See, that is the Question: The Gaze and Bad Faith.

“You are not what you are, and you are what you are not”

            John-Paul Sartre.

Sartre’s concept of “the gaze” describes an ontological and psychological process that he claims is characteristic of most elementary interactions between people.  This process can be analyzed into three main components.  First, we live surrounded by other people who are continually trying to foist on us their image of what they think we are.  They take a sample of things we have done, and fashion out of those things a fixed and finished persona which they then use to judge us.  Second, we are continually being watched and judged by other people.  In the face of all that scrutiny, we are inclined to accept and act in accordance with the fixed and finished personas they have crafted for us.  Third, in accepting those fixed and finished images of ourselves, we end up being robbed by others of our freedom to choose who we will be and what we will do in the future.  The net result is that we can end up trapped in our past as it has been interpreted by others.  Ontologically and psychologically, we become their prisoners.[3]

In Sartre’s words, “the gaze” is an attempt by “the Other” to objectify me based on things I have done, and make me conform to his/her conception of me.  The Other tries to make me one-dimensional and predictable, which robs me of choice and a future different than my past.  In turn, I try to do the same to him/her.  “While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself (sic) from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me.”[4]  Existence, in the face of “the gaze,” is a war of each against all, and all against each, with each person trying to assert his/her freedom by psychologically imprisoning the others.  In turn, other people are enemies that one must battle to be free.

In the majority view of No Exit, the most telling line in the play is Garcin’s despairing cry toward the end that “Hell is other people!”  This declaration has become an oft-repeated, iconic Sartrean line, and most critics would seemingly agree with the statement of one commentator that “No dramatist ever summed up a work more succinctly than Jean-Paul Sartre did in that line from No Exit.”[5] Garcin was prompted to this cri de coeur by his frustration at being stuck with two incompatible and incorrigible roommates, their mere presence galling him, especially their continually watching him.  He is in agony at being imprisoned by their scrutiny.    

The plight of which Garcin complains is an example of “the gaze.”  In the play, each of the characters attempts to pin a label on the others, and pin them down so that they can be controlled thereby.  Inez labels Garcin a coward.  Estelle labels Inez a pervert.  Inez labels Estelle a baby killer.  And so on.  In turn, each tries to escape the labeling of the others.  Looking is labeling, which is shaming, which is controlling.

Most commentators on the play seem to accept this situation as the moral of the play and of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy.  They claim that the characters are being seen by the others as they really are, that the characters cannot change who they are, and that the same goes for us in the audience.  Like the characters in the play, “We constantly feel scrutinized by others,” and this scrutiny reveals our essence, something we may have tried to cover up, but can do so no longer.[6]   The three characters in the play have become “finished fully formed souls facing who they are,”[7] and Hell is other people because other people “see us as we really are.”[8]

Or as another critic put it, Hell is “where the accumulated failures of a lifetime are endlessly enacted.”[9]  We are our history, and we are forever bound by the causal chains of past events as those events are seen by others.  Others’ views of us, thereby, become a prison from which we cannot escape, even in death.[10]  At least, that is what the characters claim and complain about.

But their views may not be Sartre’s view.  The three characters are, after all, sociopaths who seem to be continuing their lifelong practice of blaming everyone and everything else, other than themselves, for their problems.  I think the play is better seen as a portrayal of Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” something of which the characters, and maybe many of us, are guilty.

Bad faith is the other side of the ontological coin from “the gaze.”  It, too, can be analyzed into three main components.  First, we tend to want to settle on fixed and finished images of ourselves.  These images may be of own fashioning or the fashioning of others, and may be favorable or even unfavorable.  In any case, we accept them as who we really are.  Second, we try to foist those fixed and finished images of ourselves on others.  We insist that the images represent the real and unchangeable us.  Third, we try to renounce our freedom to choose what we will do and be in the future, and thereby try to avoid responsibility for those choices.  We pretend that we have no choice but to be what we are, and no exit from where we happen to be.

Bad faith is an attempt to escape freedom.  But it is a lie, because ontologically we cannot escape from the fact that we freely choose our fates.  We exercise our freedom of choice even as we choose to renounce that freedom, and try to avoid committing ourselves to a future.  “We can define man only in relation to his commitments,” Sartre claims, and we are continually committing ourselves to one thing and then the next, whether we like it or not.  Commitment cannot be avoided.  “Bad faith is obviously a lie,” Sartre concludes, “because it is a dissimulation of man’s full freedom of commitment.”[11]  In this context, the attempt of the characters in the play to blame their miserable situation on the looks of their roommates or on the almighty authorities, rather than on their own choices, can be seen as an example of bad faith.

The problem of bad faith, but also its solution, arises from the fact of human self-consciousness.   As soon as a person becomes something, the person’s self-consciousness of that fact puts him/her beyond that something.  The person must then choose and commit to be something else.  Bad faith is an effort to deny the ontological reality that you are your future choices, and to avoid having to choose what one will do and become next, by holding permanently onto what one has already done or become.[12] It is an attempt to use the past to avoid having to make present choices toward the future.  But, Sartre counsels, the past is not who we are, but merely the material out of which we construct our future selves.  The future is everything.[13]

Self-consciousness is the source of the problem by making us aware of the fragility of ourselves, but it is also the solution in providing us the means of choosing to commit ourselves to the next thing, and to do it with others, not against them.  In this view, others are not the enemy, we are the enemy when we try to imprison ourselves in ossified self-images.  The only way out of that bind is to work with others.  We cannot escape others, and we would be nothing without them.  It is only through cooperating with them that we can be free.  When we freely commit with others to a common cause, we pull all of us into the future.

In this interpretation of the play as a portrayal of bad faith, the telling line is uttered by Garcin toward the middle of the play, when the characters are considering ways they might cooperate with each other and make their coexistence tolerable.  He says that “A man is what he wills himself to be.”  But Garcin does not follow up on this insight.  He merely talks about committing himself to change, but does not put that talk into practice.

The telling moment in this view of the play comes shortly after, when Garcin beats on the door, demanding to be let out, and the door opens.  He and the women are then faced with the choice of leaving or staying.  After brief consideration, each of them chooses to stay, and they close the door.  They then rationalize their decision along the lines of the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know, but it is clear they are committed to staying where and how they are.  They don’t want to change, and this is their free choice.  This commitment is an instance of ontological cowardice and bad faith in Sartrean terms.

“Bad faith” and “the gaze” are essentially two sides of the same coin.  Both are violations of the Sartrean principle that we are all caught up in a perpetual stream of becoming.  But seeing things in terms of “bad faith” forces you to take responsibility for where and what you are, and for making choices about what and where you will be next.  Seeing things in terms of “the gaze” gives you a way to rationalize doing nothing, and resigning yourself to the status quo.  It can be a cop out, and an instance of bad faith, as I think it is for the characters in this play.  Sartrean existentialism means that we are never a fixed and finished product, and that we are continually having to choose what we become next, whether we and others want to recognize it or not.

Existentialism and the Human Condition: Resignation or Resistance?

“Commitment is an act, not a word.”

            Jean-Paul Sartre.

If No Exit/In Camera was intended by Sartre to be what I have loosely called a sort of Rorschach Test, he does not make it easy to pass the test.  There is a lot of looking and a lot of “the gaze” in the play.  As it opens, all of the three characters are absorbed in watching what is being said about them by people they knew who are still alive on earth.  They complain that they are being defined and defiled by people whom they did not like and who did not like them.  Their past deeds are being used to hang a fixed image on them.  And they cannot do anything about it.  This is an example of “the gaze” in operation.

When these visions fade away, and the characters are cut off from life on earth, they begin watching each other.  The room they are in is small.  It contains three couches and an ugly little statue.  It has no mirrors.  There are no books.  The characters are unable to sleep.  There is nothing to do except think, talk, and look at each other.  With no mirrors and no one else with whom to talk, each can see him/herself only through the eyes and the words of the other two.  Since they are in perpetual conflict with each other, it is not a pretty picture that they each see of themselves.  This is another example of “the gaze” in practice.

From these scenes comes the majority’s interpretation that the play is based on “the gaze,” and that it espouses a misanthropic anti-social individualism.  The majority view accepts the resignation of the characters to their situation at the end of the play as the message of the play.  It is the triumph of “the gaze,” and the last line of the play ostensibly sums it up.  In this line, Garcin declares his and the other characters’ acceptance of an eternity of mutual incrimination and self-incrimination with the sigh “Eh bien, continuons.”  This line is usually translated as “Well, let’s get on with it,” but it literally means “OK, let’s continue” which is, I think, a better translation.  With this line, Garcon declares that the three of them have no choice but to continue what they have been doing, and most commentators agree.  But is that the intended message of the play?  I think not.

I think that “bad faith” trumps “the gaze” as the primary message of the play.  “The look” is what others try to do to me when they recognize my separate existence, and what I try to do to them in return if we are not mutually committed and engaged in a joint enterprise.  Social relations are antagonistic unless we are mutually committed and engaged in a joint enterprise.  Sartre explains that “I will always depend on my comrades-in-arms in the struggle, inasmuch as they are committed, as I am, to a definite common cause.”[14]  Comradeship in a commitment to a common cause can dissipate the effects of “the gaze.”  Failing to join with others, and merely accepting the effects of “the gaze,” is bad faith.

This view of the play is supported by the context of its original production.  Huis Clos was first performed in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.  Sartre had previously been incarcerated by the Germans as a prisoner of war, but had escaped and then joined the underground French Resistance to the Nazis.  Working in the Resistance required intense collaboration with others, and perilous reliance on the courage and good faith of others.  It also required vigilance against Nazi collaborators and bad faith infiltrators.

Even as he was risking his life in the Resistance, Sartre daringly produced writings that could be interpreted as encouraging that resistance.  In this context, Huis Clos can be seen as having been “written in direct response to the intellectual paralysis of German-occupied Paris,” that is the hell on earth that was Nazi rule.  The intent of the play was to encourage people to “embrace honesty and hope,” rather than the cowardice, dishonesty and misanthropy of the three characters.[15]  The play, in this view, implicitly calls for resistance rather than resignation to hellishness.  This includes resistance to “the gaze” with which the Nazis were trying to demoralize and imprison the French, but also “the gaze” with which the French were demoralizing and imprisoning themselves.

Praxis makes Perfect: Existence precedes Essence.

Inez: “They’re waiting.”

Garcin: “They’re watching.”

The majority view of No Exit reflects a very cynical view of social relations, more so than even that of Diogenes the original Cynic.  Diogenes at least continued his search for an honest man.  In the majority view of the play, Sartre has given up.  The play portrays the views of three narcissistic sociopaths, who have betrayed everyone around them, and who seemingly have no significant experience of commitment to anyone.  No choice and no exit could be the mantras of their lives.  In the majority view, the three characters represent us in the audience and their predicament represents ours.  In turn, the majority view is that the characters’ cynical views of the world represent Sartre’s views.

But maybe that isn’t the case.  Maybe the play has a less cynical message.  At several points in the play, the characters claim that the higher authorities seem to be looking down on them.  They rationalize this scrutiny as the authorities’ controlling the characters’ every move, after having planned their punishments down to the smallest details.  This scrutiny from on high becomes a further excuse for the three characters to do nothing to change their ways.  “The Devil made me do it” is essentially their excuse.

But this excuse is essentially a cop-out, and another instance of bad faith.  It seems just as likely that the authorities are watching the three of them to see what the three are doing, and to see if they warrant any further punishment.  It is just as likely that the fates of the three are not sealed, and that their present behavior is being judged by higher authorities, which includes us in the audience.  We, too, are watching them, judging them, and waiting to see if they can take steps to change their ways and their situation.  Like maybe walking out the door when it opens.  I have watched the play many times, and I keep hoping that the characters will someday walk out that open door.

As to the Rorschach Test, those who interpret the play in terms of “the gaze” are, in effect, giving the characters a pass on the characters’ ongoing responsibility for their predicament.  These interpreters are willing to accept the characters’ bad faith rationalizations of their resignation, and their bad faith excuse for continuing to do just what they had always done.  If these interpreters are willing to accept others’ bad faith excuses for inaction, maybe they would also be inclined to rationalize their own unwillingness to take responsibility for their own choices and for joining with others to make a better world?

In this majority view, the play promotes resignation to the fact that the human condition is hell on earth, and in the hereafter.  I don’t buy that view.  I think that view is itself an instance of bad faith thinking, and represents the sort of cynicism that led Diogenes to become a Cynic.  I contend that Huis Clos is a call to arms against bad faith, and that the message of the play is that you are never fixed in who you are or by what you have done.  You can always do something different, because the next opportunity to choose immediately succeeds the last choice.  And the only way to realize your own freedom is through promoting the freedom of others.

June 23, 2017.

[1] Francesca Baretta. “Review ‘No Exit.’” The Oxford Cultural Review. 6/2/16.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

[3] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. pp.252 et seq.

[4] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. p.364.

[5] Lawrence Bommer. “Review of No Exit.”  Chicago Reader. 9/6/90.

[6] Francesca Baretta. “Review ‘No Exit.’” The Oxford Cultural Review. 6/2/16.

[7] Leah Frank.  “Theater Review; ‘No Exit,’ Sartre’s Version of Hell.” The New York Times. 10/22/89.

[8] Leah Frank.  “Theater Review; ‘No Exit,’ Sartre’s Version of Hell.” The New York Times. 10/22/89.

[9] Lawrence Bommer. “Review of No Exit.”  Chicago Reader. 9/6/90.

[10] Robert Hurwitt. “’No Exit’ Review: Welcome to Hotel Sartre.” SFGATE. 4/14/11.   Zachary Stewart. “No Exit.” Theatre Mania. 3/9/14.  Mike Fischer. “Theater Review: Self-absorbed pay the price in ‘No Exit.Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinal. 8/12/16.

[11] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.46, 48.

[12] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. p.66.

[13] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.47.

[14] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.35.

[15] David Rooney. “The Other People Are Back: Do They Ever Leave? Sartre’s ‘No Exit’” The New York Times. 3/12/14.