Anguish, Absurdity, Death (Tate Modern, strictly by ticket only, sold out).
Monday evenings, Tate Modern, Level 7 East Room, 18.45 – 20.15 Followed by drinks in Members’ Room, Level 6, 20.15-20.50.
Week 1. Monday June 11th. Level 5 ‘Setting the Scene’, Turbine Hall ‘For the Love of God’
Week 2. Monday June 18th. Level 3 Damien Hirst, rooms 1-10
Week 3. Monday 25th June. Level 3 West, ‘Poetry and Dream’
Week 4. Monday 2nd July. Edvard Munch,
Week 5. Monday 9th July. Edvard Munch
Notes from Session 4
For this session we focussed on human relations, and in particular love and desire, as described by Jean-Paul Sartre. The point of the discussion was to provide an angle on some of Edvard Munch's paintings - a way of exploring the implied human relations between depicted lovers, and also the painter/viewer.
In Being and Nothingness Sartre gives a somewhat bleak description of the nature of human relationships. Although Sartre's existentialism begins from the subjective viewpoint, Sartre is no solipsist - his example of the voyeur looking through a keyhole being transfigured into awareness of himself as a 'looked at look' is intended to demonstrate to us how much through emotions such as shame we are committed to awareness of the existence of others as centres of their own consciousness and corresponding freedom.
Relationships involve a struggle between conscious beings each presenting themselves to the other in a way that they hope will make them attractive, but constantly at risk either of turning the Other into something less than a free individual, or else, in Bad Faith, of becoming fixed as a self for the Other, in a kind of assimilation into the other person, which ultimately is a form of masochism (in death we become prey to the other - perhaps we should say that in love we constantly risk becoming prey to the lover)...or else sadism (when we seek to curb the other's freedom).
According to Sartre, the lover wants his or her facticity to be necessary not contingent: we are thrown into a meaningless existence by chance and there is much about us that we did not choose, yet there is a widespread desire to be more than an absurd empty consciousness that we fill through our commitments. For Sartre the lover wants to take on the role of God according to the Ontological Argument (the argument for the existence of God that makes God's existence necessary - by definition): for the one who loves us, each of us wants the contingent aspects of what we are to seem as if they had to be so - no other individual could take our place. Described in this way, this is a hopeless wish - given that, at least according to Sartre, our existence is in no way necessary.
Sexual desire, for Sartre, is not simply an animal instinct, but is desire for engagement with animated flesh, bodies as conscious. Something as apparently straightforward as a caress, for Sartre, takes us straight to metaphysical reflection and awareness of our own facticity.
Disentangling Sartre's dense account of love and desire in the section 'Concrete Relations with Others' in Being and Nothingness (both terrifyingly abstract and at times disconcertingly concrete) is no easy task - perhaps ultimately it is confused and contradictory. For more straightforward analysis of sexual desire (influenced in both cases by Sartre), try Thomas Nagel's 'Sexual Perversion' in his book Mortal Questions (but remember that 'perversion' isn't a term of moral condemnation for Nagel here) and Roger Scruton's book Sexual Desire (at times idiosyncratic, occasionally moralistic, but nevertheless a serious attempt to make sense of our lived experience in this area - his appendix 'The First Person' gives a clear critique of some of the assumptions of phenomenology, and he summarises and discusses what he calls the 'paradox of lust' - Sartre's view that we both want to engage sexually with flesh incarnated with freedom, yet at the same time want to possess and fix the lover - on pp120-125).
In the gallery we looked at some of the works in Room 2 of Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye exhibition at Tate Modern - paintings which in their implied reading of human relationships and desire resonated with the Sartrean themes we had been discussing.