Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Birth Of Sartre's Philosophy

A haircut can have significant philosophical consequences. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist thinker, had a particularly traumatic tonsorial experience when he was only seven. Up to that point everybody referred to him as “the angel.” His mother had carefully cultivated a luxuriant halo of golden locks. Then one fine day his grandfather took it into his head that young Sartre was starting to look like a girl, so he waited till his mother had gone out, then he took him to the barbershop. Little Sartre could hardly wait to show off his new look to his mother. But when she walked through the door, she took one look at him before running up the stairs and flinging herself on the bed, sobbing hysterically. In an inverted fairy-tale, the young Sartre had morphed from an angel into a “toad”. It was now, for the first time, that Sartre realized that he was “ugly as sin.” The fact of his ugliness became a barely suppressed leitmotif of his writing. He wore it like a badge of honor. The novelist Michel Houellebecq says somewhere that, when he met Sartre, he thought he was “practically disabled.” It is fair comment. He certainly considered his ugliness to count as a kind of disability. Maybe ugliness is indispensable to philosophy. Sartre seems to be suggesting that thinking — serious, sustained questioning — arises out of, or perhaps with, a consciousness of one’s own ugliness

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