I’m still in Wyoming with a bunch of good friends, now one day away from the total eclipse of the sun that we came here to witness together. Last night was another late session of stargazing, boozing, and the kind of unpredictable conversation that boozing under the shine of the Milky Way can produce.
Much earlier in the day NCS contributor Grant Skelton had sent me a link to a song that I had decided to include in today’s SHADES OF BLACK column (which I haven’t even started writing, but will write, I promise — though I might not post it until eclipse day tomorrow). And the name of the band reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in years, and that provoked one of the most interesting conversations under the stars last night.
The name of the band is Hell Is Other People. They’re from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. They have a new album due for release on September 15 named Embrace, and the song that Grant linked me to is the title track. It’s a very good song, which I’ll come to eventually, but it’s the band’s name that spawned our discussion after midnight last night.
As many of you will already know, their name is probably the most famous line written by the influential French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic Jean Paul Sartre. That line appears in the play No Exit, which revolves around three people, two women and a man, all condemned to Hell. They expected an eternity of torture but instead simply find themselves together in a room, the three of them trapped together forever. Rather than flames and physical punishment, they realize, as one of the characters puts it near the end of the play, that “hell is other people”.
The line is subject to more than one interpretation. Perhaps the most obvious one is that the worst misery in life is inflicted upon us by the people around us — by friends and family (who are capable of causing the most pain precisely because they are closest to us) as well as by strangers. But when considered in the context of Sartre’s other philosophical writings, it becomes clear that this isn’t what he meant — or at least it’s not the main thing he meant.
Long essays have been written about the true meaning of the line, and I read some of them yesterday after listening to the song by this Ontario band who took it for their name. But I’ll just attempt a short and very incomplete summing up so I can start working on that SHADES OF BLACK feature:
All of us realize from an early age that we are objects of observation (and judgment) by others, and this realization inhibits our own freedom to find and become who we really are (or would like to become) as individuals. We shape ourselves by what others expect of us, or become miserable when we can’t. We seek approval from others to the point of ceasing to ask whether we approve of ourselves. Our efforts to become our own masters are defeated by the mastery of how we react to the awareness that other eyes are always on us.
Our minds are constantly beset by the way we think other people perceive us based solely (and necessarily) on what they can see and hear of us. Sometimes we become the person we think other people see, even if we don’t like that person very much. We get caught in a loop, our own bad behavior reinforced because we don’t think other people will ever see us any differently. Sometimes we try to change those perceptions in ways that we wouldn’t choose if we could truly just remove our own consciousness from the constant gaze of others. And sometimes we strategically construct false personas of ourselves based on how we think that will advantage us in society, which in itself becomes a source of guilt.
If only we could make our own choices based on the true conviction that the essence of who we are isn’t pre-determined, that there is no such thing as destiny, and that we’re capable of inventing ourselves.
Or, as one person last night put it, “We’re all so fucking insecure… wouldn’t it be great to get to a point where we’re happy enough not to care any more?” Or as another person put it, quoting what someone else had written about Sartre’s line, “Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is power.”
Though I’ll add one contrarian line I also remember someone saying last night, which cracked me up: “Let’s be real — some people are shits, and they’d still be shits if they lived alone on a desert island.”
There’s a lot more to be said about the ideas manifested in Sartre’s single sentence, and you might interpret its meaning differently than what I’ve tried to express here. Anyway, I’m grateful to Hell Is Other People (the band) for giving us something thought-provoking to talk about last night… before we got back to a shitload of less coherent and less serious subjects. If you’d like to chime in with a Comment, please don’t be bashful.
I’m also grateful to the band for this song, “Embrace“. The reverberating astral notes at the beginning signify something unearthly and mystical, but also seems to herald the approach of something ominous — and then everything seems to spontaneously combust without warning in a gale-driven blaze of intense, harrowing guitar noise, blasting drums, and excruciatingly tormented shrieking.
Anguished melody cascades slowly through that maelstrom, sinking its aching chill deeper and deeper into the listener’s mind through repetition even when the rhythm section moves into slower and more deliberate progressions. The experience is mesmerizing, even dreamlike, but haunting and hopeless.