“Hell is other people.”
This famous quote comes from an existentialist play, Huis Clos (No Exit), written by the French writer-philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in 1944.
On first glance, one tends to think of this quote as hateful towards all people, advocating for a life of solitude and isolation. However, it is one of the most misunderstood quotes of philosophy. Once situated within the play and in parallel with Sartre’s philosophies, it reveals a layered understanding of human existence.
Sartre is best known for his theories about human existence, especially his theory about the burden of human free will and the existentialism that comes with the understanding that each individual is responsible for their choices – not fate, not God, not other people. He also spoke, albeit less extensively, about the “gaze” of the “other” and how human beings tend to become more aware of themselves and their being once they think someone is watching.
An example Sartre gives to contextualise this theory is that of a walker in a park, explained brilliantly by Sarah Bakewell in her book At the Existentialist Cafe. He asks his readers to imagine they are walking in a park, alone. When alone, they are looking at the park and its various properties – perhaps enjoying the view of the flowers, or cursing the broken pathway. They have control and power over this universe within the park; the park, and the various properties of it, are objects within this universe.
When another person enters the park and starts walking, however, the awareness of the other person looking at you shifts the perspective. This consciousness about the other person causes the realisation that you are now an object in someone else’s world: something to see, to think about, and to make judgements about.
This gives the Other the power to label you as something certain, or as Bakewell puts it, “a certain kind of object”. In a way, then, this takes away one’s freedom and control over who they are, because they now exist in somebody else’s universe as an object. They don’t have the power to control what the Other thinks of them. With this in mind, they might try to change their behaviour according to what they want the Other to see. Now, each choice they make factors in the speculative opinion of the Other.
While reading about this theory, my mind instantly wandered to the convoluted realm of social media. Not only are we constantly aware and conscious about the gaze of the Other on social media, but our entire presence on these applications stem from the idea of “being looked at”. In the digital world, we are viewing ourselves through the Other’s gaze, and here the Other becomes a many-headed monster, constituting everyone who might possibly see our posts and stories.
Given the addictive nature of these applications, we end up fixating on this disproportionate idea of ourselves. What becomes of our “self” in these scenarios, and of our control over our own bodies and minds? Our decisions regarding our self-representation are excessively influenced by this invisible gaze. We look at our own Instagram stories hundreds of times, each time thinking of what a certain person must have thought about us when they saw it. We have second thoughts about the material we post, because we fear being misunderstood or mislabelled as something we would not want to identify with. We archive or delete the posts that do not get the kind of response that would ascertain people’s positive view of us.
It is no surprise then, that in Huis Clos, three people enter Hell after their death, which happens to be a room with no exit. They are trapped in the room with each other, and each person forms judgemental opinions of the other. They wish to escape the room, as they wish to escape the judgemental gaze of the others. But they cannot – because that is what Hell is – it is the inability to escape other people and their judgemental gaze. Sartre had clarified that he meant to say that after death, what others think of you becomes permanently fixed. It strips people completely of their autonomy and self-determination.
And in our lives online as well as offline, that is what we constantly try to run away from.
Vara Raturi is a final year student of Literature and Philosophy at Sophia College for Women, a theatre & film actor, and a cultural & political writer. She can be found here.
Featured image: Prateek Katyal/Unsplash