Two actors are rehearsing their lines for the play "The Goldfish Bowl" in a park. The play is based on a dialogue between two famous French philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Blanchot. The play has two acts and four scenes. The actors are visualising different theatre stages where the play is performed. The actors are improvising.

Act I, Scene I: Existentialism and How to Act

Miriam (reading the lines for Jean-Paul Sartre): I believe in existence, nothing but a man’s choice to make himself who he is.

Julian (reading the lines for Maurice Blanchot): I believe in the right not to choose. In my refusal to choose, I fulfil my right not to choose and my duty not to consent to any choice. Does my refusal not make me who I am, does it deprive me of existence?

Miriam: You are still making a choice, even when you refuse to choose. You are making the choice not to choose. Your choice not to choose makes you responsible for who you are, fulfilling, as you call it, your duty not to consent to any choice, but to the choice of not choosing. In this way, in your choice not to choose, you assume responsibility for your existence. Therefore, you are not deprived of existence; only you are deceiving yourself!

Julian: Are you saying that I am suffering from bad faith? In your view, I exist because of my choice not to choose.

Miriam: What if everyone acted the same way? Would this make the choice not to choose arbitrary? Would the world descend into anarchy?

Julian: I am opposed to existence that is directed at action towards the conquest of the world. You know, the Hegelian-Marxist view that I should encounter the world in pursuit of the goals of my realising mind and my productive will.

M: I applaud your position, Maurice. By your choice not to choose, you affirm your values of not consenting to a choice, which, in any case, cannot be an evil choice for us, the existentialists; I mean that not making a choice cannot be evil. Remember, though, that in choosing yourself in your refusal to choose, you still construct universality. Therefore your choice is not arbitrary. There is also a contradiction in your declaration to be bound to uphold certain values: for example not to consent to any choice; while you state that you are bound by this value of yours. In this case, an existentialist like myself would say that you are acting in bad faith.

J: And what if I choose to act in bad faith?

M: As long as you are consistent, then it is in good faith you are acting!

J: And what if the situations where I find myself constantly change? Isn’t this something that your existentialism accounts for?

M: Situations constantly change, but man remains the same, facing the same moral dilemmas. Take the example of a young man being called to become a soldier in a war for defending his country. Consider also that he already lost several members of his family to this war and that his mother is deeply hurt by the war casualties that plagued her family. The young man has a choice between joining the army forces and remaining by his mother’s side. Whatever the young man’s choice is, it is still an actualization of his values. This is a universal problem.

J: Are you defending a sort of absolutism? I mean, is there an absolute and true choice to be made?

M: I believe in absolutism, without dismissing the relativity, for example of the cultural environment, which I produce with my choices. I am as absolute and universal, even in my historical and temporal localisation. That is why I argue that by making a choice, whatever is the choice, the young man makes a choice for all humanity.

J: To trace a common ground between us, let’s say we both agree that existence is subjective. But my subjectivity is intimate, yours speaks on behalf of all humanity.

M: My universal subjectivity is not imposing. I do not wish to impose my conception of man on humanity. Only I am conscious that it is I who decides what is good rather than bad. That’s why I keep saying that we are abandoned: we decide who we are to be. There are no guidelines, there is no grand scheme or design.

J: Are you referring to the old theological values?

M: I am certainly not referring to the secular morality of replacing God with values; I also do not believe in a priori values. For me, it is rather the reverse: I actualise my values through my choices.

Act I, Scene II: Politics

Julian (reading the lines for Maurice Blanchot): Back to how to act. What if my choices are futile pursuits? For example, I know you support collectivisation. But what if collectivisation never becomes a reality?

Miriam (reading the lines for Jean-Paul Sartre): I do not know whether collectivisation will become a reality. But I know that I will act in such a way as to make collectivisation a reality.

J: Does this attitude make your existence authentic?

M: I would be very cautious to assert any claims to authenticity. I would say instead that things will be as men choose them to be. Humanity’s Truth will be what men choose this truth to be.

J: So, you are claiming that truth is invented!

M: I am only claiming that what counts is invention in the name of freedom.

J: And I am concerned about the impersonal generality of the admirable language, which speaks impartially for all, in its assertion to establish a relation with truth; a truth that is beyond the person and time.

M: Principles that are too abstract do not succeed in defining action.

J: If I may use a metaphor, this is what happens in fascination. Take the example of the indeterminate “They”, the neutral, impersonal presence, and the immense faceless “Someone”.

M: Existence precedes essence. To respond to your metaphor, I say that man is not an object of God’s creation, man is a project of subjective existence. Because existence precedes essence, for the existentialists, man is responsible of himself and simultaneously responsible for all.

J: I say that, in fascination, they do not see what they see.

M: You may be right. Can you give me another example?

J: Take the example of the stranger. The stranger has to disrupt society to remain himself, to be responsible for his existence as a stranger.

M: If I am responsible, I am responsible for all, also for the stranger.

J: The stranger is the other, towards whom I am responsible, but not because he is the other. There is no fascination towards the other, who supposedly demands my responsibility; there is only movement towards otherness.

M: The I for the he?

J: The I to the he.

Act II, Scene I: The Artistic Object

Miriam (reading the lines for Jean-Paul Sartre): For me, as an existentialist, moral choice is like constructing a work of art. But my morality is not aesthetic. It’s just that I consider art and morality to share creation and invention in common.

Julien (reading the lines for Maurice Blanchot): Speaking of art, in my view, art originates from the intimation of absolute error. But error helps us.

M: Art aside, in matters of judgment, judgment is logical; it is not based on value. Certain choices are based on error and others on truth.

J: When I think about error, I think of someone living in exile. Someone exiled from reality falls into the errors of confusion. His reality is approximations of the imaginary.

M: Do you mean that, in his reality, objects exist as long as they are thought? Is this a sort of invention?

J: It is not invention, which guides consciousness to escape what is present and to deliver us to representation. But the world of representations is illusionary, it is the double of objects.

M: I will add that for an object to be imaged, to be driven out of the world of things, it needs first to be constituted in the world of things.

J: Do you think that the object needs to be posited perceptually?

M: Perception is a type of consciousness, which posits the object as existing.

J: Actually, I think it is the other way round. The object, especially an artistic one, is an object of contemplation, but an effective one. It is a realised action, in the same way as you describe your values; it belongs to the world.

M: An object is also an object of contemplation. Take the cube. The cube is a concept, but a concrete one. Then think about material objects with cubic forms: a box, a rug, even a table, which is a cube with voids. Do we grasp the forms of these material things?

J: Do you mean whether we grasp them in their specificity, in their peculiarity: as this box, this rug, this table?

M: We only grasp them in their density, depth, their relations of perspective, and their matter.

J: Yet we grasp the reality of their forms, which expands reality in all its forms.

M: And precisely to the extent of their thingness, they are irrealities. Take a cubist painting, for example, one that depicts a box, a rug and a table. The painting is not a real object. I also use the word ‘depict’ to point at the painting’s function as an analogon for an ensemble of a new box, a new rug and a new table: those I will never see. While the real object, whether the real box, rug or table, no longer functions analogically. And when I contemplate the painting, I am certainly not adopting a realising approach.

J: On the other hand, I think that art is real. The artwork is realised in the world and, in turn, contributes to the world’s realisation. But art is not active. When it compares itself to action, commonly understood as immediate and pressing, it falls short.

M: Art is not active, because it is irreal!

J: And what if you take my viewpoint and consider art to be real?

M: Then we are not talking about art. Are we talking about literature? Perhaps, at this point, we can at least agree that aesthetic activity is humanistic.

J: Is it humanistic in your view of existentialist humanism?

M: Let me put it this way. Existentialism sees man as always in the making, it never recognises man as an end. Existentialism supports the view that man is always outside of himself, and, to be realised, man projects himself beyond himself. In relation to this transcendence, which is man himself and not a transcendent divine creature, man grasps objects, also aesthetic ones. Existentialism is a humanism, because, for the existentialist, the only world, which exists, is the human one; and that is the world of human subjectivity.

J: I think we agreed on the subjectivity of existence. But your transcendentalism confuses me!

M: I explained that my transcendentalism is not theistic. I remind you that man makes himself, through his choices, not the choices of an external legislator, divine or whatever. But man exists in pursuing transcendent aims, either in the form of liberation, or a special achievement. That is how man realises himself as fully human.

J: Explain to me your view of liberation. Do you understand liberation from oppression, or liberation as a universal value?

M: I see no difference between the two. Think of the prisoner, justly or unjustly imprisoned. His existential condition is defined by the condition of imprisonment. However, at the same time, his liberation is also an option that may be open to himself. Therefore, for him, liberation is freedom from oppression, but also a universal value, as liberty, to be actualised in his liberation from imprisonment.

Act II, Scene II: The Writer

Julian (reading the lines for Maurice Blanchot): Freedom from oppression is not the same as freedom as such, or the philosopher’s metaphysical freedom. Think of the writer. His freedom from the world’s oppressions is a sort of transcendence, as you described it, to the world of literature. He has been withdrawn from the reality of the world and speaks of the impossibility of escaping his exile. Is he free?

Miriam (reading the lines for Jean-Paul Sartre): He is still condemned to be free. What you call the writer’s exile, in my existentialist interpretation, is the writer’s pursuit of transcendent goals, which involves his liberation.

J: Then the writer’s work is the work of freedom.

M: The question to be asked is whether the reader is also free.

J: It is the work that is free of the reader. However overwhelmed the reader is by the work, the work is free of the reader, in a relationship, which establishes the profoundness of reading.

M: I would argue instead that the word is a particular moment of action. It has no meaning outside of this moment. The reader is only captured in that moment, while the word remains free. The reader’s freedom is what the writer appeals to.

J: The word and the work’s freedom, however, maintain their distance from the reader.

M: The writer’s end is not pure contemplation. If a distance is assumed between the reader and the work, it is certainly not of the contemplative kind. The writer aims to reveal man to other men, so that they assume responsibility towards his writing and towards what his writing reveals about the world. He works towards change.

J: Does the reader then need to intimate the work?

M: The writer’s work is out of reach, but its substance lies in the reader’s subjectivity. The reader can start a dialogue with the work. The reader can ask the writer why he chose to speak of this rather than that. He can also ask him why he chose to speak of this rather than that in a specific way. Here comes the question of the value of the prose.

J: Writing is not prose!

M: Prose is discursive, it is the quintessential art of discourse. Words are designations for objects. Words are not objects themselves, selected by the writer to please or displease the reader, but to correctly indicate a thing or a notion. But their results do not seem objective to us. More precisely, prose is an attitude of mind. Writing, on the other hand, is an enterprise.

J: Is it an enterprise of ideas? Going back to your analogon, if a novel is a copy of something, say a society, it is a prisoner of the things it describes. It does not strive to prove anything, it is in collusion with the world. Think of the art of propaganda.

M: Propaganda imposes its own conception of the world. It is not concerned with correct indications of things or notions; nor is it, of course, concerned with change.

J: Let’s agree then that there is no literary art that does not aim to assert or prove a truth. But fiction is not to do with honesty. Could this be the reason why literature is contemptuous of the philosophical novel?

M: I think we both agree that the philosophical novel, in comparison to the traditional novel, is a work of good faith.

J: Is this why you use novelistic fiction to answer philosophical questions? My question also concerns your problem of prose.

M: Novelistic fiction, or the philosophical novel, is a work of art, and so a new event, which cannot be explained by prior information.

J: I also see language and fiction offering themselves as means of discovery, not as means of expressing what has been discovered.

M: In my view, this gives the reader enormous freedom. The reader’s feelings are never dominated by the artwork. There is no external reality to condition the reader’s feelings. Therefore they are generous, because they have their origin and their end in freedom. Reading becomes an exercise in generosity.

J: But to whom does the writer speak? Who is the reader?

M: It’s been unarguable that the writer writes for the universal reader. Writing is addressed to all men. But this is a completely abstract dream. For example, I am not writing for the figure of the eternal paternalistic God, or for a figure of the Enlightenment. Likewise, nobody was in doubt that the writers of the German resistance were writing for us.

J: You are referring here, if I am right, to the problem of the historicity of writing.

M: The writer writes for the public, which is also the other. However, fraternising must be possible for writing to communicate. Simply put, I am writing for my contemporaries, but also my brothers.

J: What concerns me with claims to historicity is writing becoming a memorial: nothing, but a memorable way to become one with history, to enter peoples’ memory, to dominate time.

M: You are making allusions to the notion of the ‘milieu’; that the milieu produces the writer, which is not the case at all, I think.

J: This is a different concern of mine, which has to do with the judgment of the work’s value with respect to culture, or whether it advances knowledge, which adds to the human or national treasury. I agree with you on this. Whatever side of history the work is granted, good or bad, it is not necessarily granted posteriority. The work does not endure, it is.

M: The work is existence.

J: The work is communication. And the reader is yet to come.


Primary Readings

Blanchot, Maurice, The Space of Literature, trans. by A. Smock, Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Originally published as L’Espace Littéraire, © Éditions Gallimard, 1955.

Blanchot, Maurice, “The Novels of Sartre”. In M. Blanchot, The Work of Fire, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 191-207. Originally published as La Part du Feu, © Éditions Gallimard, 1949.

Sartre, Jean Paul, The Wall: (Intimacy) and Other Stories, trans. L. Alexander, New York: New Directions Publishing, 1948. Originally published as Le Mur, © Éditions Gallimard, 1939.

Sartre, Jean Paul, What is Literature? trans. by B. Frechtman, New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.

Sartre, Jean Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, trans. by C. Macomber, J. Kulka (ed.), New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2007. Originally published as L’ Existentialisme est un Humanisme, in Collections Pensées, Editions Nagel, 1946.

Sartre, Jean Paul, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, London, New York: Routledge, 2015. Originally published as L’ Imaginaire: Psychologie Phenomenologique de l’ Imagination, © Éditions Gallimard, 1940.

Additional Readings

Searle, John, “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse”. In Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 58-75.