Book Report: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre (1957)

I first read this book as an impressionable freshman in college, in one of those “I could be in Biology class, or I could be in the vast college library” moments. So when I saw a paperback copy at a book fair and had already paid for the bag, of course I picked it up again. Because let’s face it, like many Existential works, it’s thin and it’s deep.

I can see now (because I paid a little more attention to the copyright page and I’ve picked up a little more insight into Existentialism in the intervening 16 years) that this book is not a standalone work nor a mere collection of essays, but a union of a basic defense of Existentialism and freedom from Existentialism and a couple of shorter topical sections from Being and Nothingness.

Frankly, I find it odd that the thing is entitled Existentialism and Human Emotions, as I’m not really sure where the emotions come in. True, the first portion deals with the essential emotional descriptions of Existentialism as anguish, forlorness, and despair, and how these starting points for Existentialism don’t necessarily mean that Existentialism leads to a bleak person even if the starting point is bleak.

I can see how this book hooked me into Existentialism as I completed my first passes through the Ayn Rand canon. The definition of freedom and the concept of man continually inventing himself within the context of his available choices appealed to me. I think Sartre gets a little screwy when he starts saying that when you choose your action, you choose for all of mankind, and that the subjective experience really triumphs over objective reality. I agree with Ayn Rand that there’s a subjective consciousness perceiving an objective reality, and hence that some things do exceed outside of the subjective, and some of those things can include ethics and whatnot.

I didn’t care much for the second part from the book, which comes from Being and Nothingness. I’ve tried once or twice to read Sartre’s master work, but I think it’s a bit self-consciously and maybe even purposefully dense. It’s hard for me to get into the prose, much less to keep the relationship between the prose and relationships straight. Much of the excerpted that appears in this book deals with psychoanalysis, so I didn’t get too much into it, but I could tell that the difference between psychoanalysis and Existentialist psychoanalysis is the Existentialist rejection of the unknowable unconsciousness.

So there you have it; this gateway to Existentialism is half good and half Being and Nothingness, but worth a little time if you’re looking for something short ‘n’ deep to read.

Books mentioned in this review: