Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) – Suicide Cynicism

With his Christmas play Bariona, or the Son of Thunder, composed in 1940 during his time as a prisoner of war, Sartre can be said to have become the author of a drama portraying the ebbing away of humanity. The senior Roman proconsul is making a tour of his region of the empire and arrives in a village in Roman-occupied Palestine where he sets about conducting a census. The census completed the village is found to contain 800 people and he announces that the taxes must, consequently, be raised. The head of the village, Bariona, decides: “We will pay the taxes so that our women will not suffer. But the village will bury itself with its own hands. We will beget no more children. I have spoken.” (Bariona)

This decision of the head of the village to the effect that his community will practice natal continence until its extinction is an allegory of world history. Within the framework of this Christmas play Sartre is exploring the question of whether the presence of (human) freedom – which is necessarily always also the freedom to make others unfree, to enslave, to do evil – is really worth the suffering that must go hand in hand with it. As had, of course, to be expected, Bariona’s command that no further children be conceived or born meets resistance and refusal. To this refusal he replies: “Do you really want to refresh the endless agony of this world through new human beings?”

Bariona does not except himself from his own command: he orders his own pregnant wife to undergo an abortion in terms that prove him to be indeed a representative of a philanthropic antinatalism: “This child that I have wished for so much and that you now bear within you – it is for this child’s own sake that I do not wish him to be born.” Bariona’s wife does not concur and declares herself ready to expose her child to all the sufferings of the world:  

“Even if I were sure that he would betray me, that he would die on the cross like the lowest thieves do and would curse me thereby, even then I would still bring him into the world.” Sarah proves herself, with these words, to be a >Damnator who is prepared to nail her own child to the cross of existence. But her husband replies once again in his capacity as philanthropic antinatalist:

“No one can undergo the sufferings of this child in its place; in suffering, in dying, each being is alone. Even if you knelt at the foot of the cross he was nailed to, he would still be alone with his terror of death. It is for your pleasure, not for his, that you want to bring him into the world. If you love him, take pity on him. Allow him to sleep the peaceful >Sleep of those who are never born.” (…)

Sarah: “I beg you, let a child be born; allow, once again, a chance of better things to come into the world.” […]

Bariona: The die are already cast. Misery, despair and death await this child at the crossroads.” What follows is Bariona’s great antinatalist discourse:  

“Woman, this child that you wish to bear is, as it were, a new edition of the world. Through it, the clouds and the waters and the sun and the houses and all the suffering of human beings will come to exist yet one more time. You will create the world anew; it will form itself like a thick black crust around a single terrified consciousness which will live therein, imprisoned in this crust like a worm. Do you comprehend how massively improper, how monstrously tactless it would be to create new copies of this failed world? To beget a child means to warmly and unconditionally approve Creation; it means to say, to the God who is tormenting us: ‘O Lord, all is good and I thank You for creating this world.’ Do you really wish to sing this hymn? Can you really take responsibility for saying: ‘if this world were to be made all over again, I would wish it to be remade just as it is’? Face the facts, my sweet Sarah, face the facts. Existence is a terrible leprosy that is eating away at us all and our parents are culpable for inflicting it on us (>Parental Guilt). Keep your hands clean of all this, Sarah; act in such a way that you can say, on the day of your death: ‘I am leaving no one behind who will perpetuate human suffering’”.

Although Bariona’s stance appears a fixed and firm one, he does in fact allow himself and his people a sort of postponement of sentence: “He turned to God and said to Him: ‘Give me, before daybreak, some sign; if You do not do so, I shall forbid all my men to have sexual commerce with their women.’ And Bariona does indeed receive his sign. An angel instructs Caiaphas to go to Bariona and say to him: “Peace on earth to all men of good will.” Bariona, however, simply scorns this sign: “O the good will of those soldiers whom one drives out to be massacred and who fight without knowing why! Why does your angel not come here and carry out the task he’s assigned you himself?”  “I will keep a careful record of my own sufferings and those of other human beings. I want to be the witness to the suffering of all and the balance in which this suffering is weighed. I shall gather it and preserve it in me like a blasphemy […] And even if the Eternal One had showed me His face from between the clouds I would still refuse to hear Him – because I am free, and even God is powerless against a free man.”

At this central point in his Christmas play Sartre’s existentialism manifests itself in what is surely the most radical of all its possible forms: a form which goes to the very root of human Being: not only how human beings exist is left to the discretion of these latter but whether human beings are to exist at all. – In other words: not only the individual’s own existence, which this latter can cancel out by suicide, but the existence of all individuals, since these individuals can collectively freely decide to forgo all posterity. Thence Bariola’s formulation, whereby the dignity of Man lies not in hope but rather in despair: “Look your misery directly in the eye because the hope of Man lies in his giving up hope.” For the gospel of Christ Bariona has only mocking contempt: “Say ‘thank you’, always ‘thank you’. ‘Thank you’ for a slap across the face, ‘thank you’ for a kick. Have children so that there are new behinds ready to receive new kicks. (..) Children who will be born, just like ourselves, explicitly to suffer.” Quite palpable here, although it is not explicitly articulated, is a sharp critique of the view that one must be grateful for life since it is a “gift one has received”.  

In the sixth scene of this Christmas play we find Bariona in Bethlehem. He has gone there with the intention of strangling the new-born Saviour in his crib. There he meets Balthasar, who informs him that Christ has a message also for him (Bariona):

“He came to tell you: let your child be born. The child, it is true, will suffer. But this does not concern you. Take no pity on his suffering; you do not have the right to take pity on it. His suffering will be his concern alone and he will do with it exactly what he will, because he will be a free being. Even if he is lame; even if he must go to war and loses there his arms or his legs… You said to me, before, that even God is powerless against a free man, and this is true. But how is it, then, that if, now, a new freedom rises into Heaven like a great iron pillar, you want to try to prevent this? […] You do not have the right to forgo the begetting of children. Because even for the blind, the unemployed, prisoners of war and cripples, joy still exists.”

With shocking failure of nerve, the play undergoes an apparent sudden conversion to pronatalism, the justification for which appears woefully insufficient and is doubtless owed in large part to the extraneous circumstances under which the play came to be composed. As Sartre tells us: “It was a question of agreeing, together with the priests who were also being held in captivity with us, on some subject-matter that could create, on that Christmas Eve, the maximum sense of commonality between Christians and non-Christians. For me, the most important thing about this experience was that it would allow me to go to other prisoners of war and talk with them about the problems we had in common.”

But who were these prisoners? Human beings whose existence had been brought about by the actions of other human beings.  This is the blind spot of Sartre’s existentialism. “Do you really want to refresh the endless agony of this world through new human beings?” Sartre has his Bariona ask. And Sartre’s existentialism replies “yes” to this question, even though in the Christmas play we have examined he casts a very bleak light upon the costs that go hand in hand with this affirmation of existence and with pronatalism in general. Nor is it possible to say that Sartre’s existentialism was ruined, during his captivity, by the priests. He was surely right in saying that there had simply been no question “of the direction of my thought having been altered even for a moment during my captivity.”

In fact, Sartre’s position even in his 1943 “Being and Nothingness” is still that of a “dictator of existence” who insists, almost scornfully, vis-à-vis human beings who have been begotten without having asked to be so that the responsibility for their continued existence, and for the world as a whole, is theirs alone, since they enjoy, after all, at every moment the freedom to quit this life through an act of suicide:

“What follows most essentially from what we have said above is that Man, as a being ‘condemned to be free’, bears the whole weight of the world upon his shoulders; he is responsible both for the world and for himself as a ‘way of being’.” (Being and Nothingness)[1] “If I am called up to fight a war, this war is my war; it is a war according to my image and I deserve it. I deserve it in the first place because I always have the possibility of extracting myself from it, be it by suicide or by desertion.” (Being and Nothingness) This degree of >Suicide Cynicism can hardly be surpassed. The only thing that can be said in Sartre’s defence is that he could not, at that time, have known that in German concentration camps suicide itself was being forbidden to the inmates through maintaining them, by means of highly perfected methods, in such a state that they were too weak to put an end to their own lives.

Sartre, however, states: “From the moment of my emerging into being on, I bear the weight of the world for myself alone, without anything or anyone else being able to lighten this burden for me. But this responsibility is of a very special sort. It will certainly be objected: ‘But I did not ask to be born’, which is simply a naïve way of emphasizing our facticity. I am indeed responsible for everything, except for my responsibility itself because I am not the founder of my own being. Everything is as if I had been compelled to be responsible.” (Being and Nothingness) “In the end, I always bump up solely against my own responsibility; for this reason, I cannot ask: ‘why was I born?’, cannot curse the day of my birth and cannot declare that I did not ask to come into the world.” (Being and Nothingness)

Sartre attempts here to unburden parents of that responsibility and  >Parental Guilt with which, in Kant’s philosophy, they remain at least partially burdened. But his existentialism fails because he closes his eyes to the bionomic hurdle that everyone who becomes tired of living has nonetheless to clear: IT wishes to live even if I MYSELF desire to die!


[1] One might see in Sartre‘s famous formulation that “Man is condemned to be free” his own way of working through the  àKantian Natal Theorem: We never enjoyed the freedom either to accept or reject existence as a free being.

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