Hell Is Other People

Picture 21

Sartre in his play “No Exit” describes his unique vision of hell. It’s an ordinary room in Second Empire style, the style that the characters/victims find quite repelling. There are no tortures there apart from one; other people constantly watching and judging you.

Garcin, Estella and Inez have no eyelids, they are forced to stare at each other for eternity, mercilessly judging each other’s crimes, weaknesses and sins, shattering each other’s self-deceptive illusions. The light never goes off and there are no mirrors so the condemned victims can’t see themselves but watch themselves through other people’s eyes. This penetrating gaze of others judges and defines their very Essence. They exist only as part of other people’s narrative.

The absence of mirrors is particularly troubling to Estelle, who without seeing herself in the mirror is not even sure she exists. She’s not conscious of herself:

When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help much.
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So Inez offers her own eyes as a mirror. Estelle looks into Inez’ eyes and doesn’t recognize herself. Inez’ eyes are like a warped mirror showing Estelle as grotesquely small so she can’t see herself properly but Inez assures her that she sees her clearly and will answer all of her questions:
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ESTELLE: Oh, I’m there! But so tiny I can’t see myself properly.

INEZ: But I can. Every inch of you. Now ask me questions. I’ll be as candid as any looking-glass.

But Inez acting as a mirror is far from objective and Estelle knows that, asking herself:

How can I rely upon your taste? Is it the same as my taste?… I’m going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become!

Inez lies to her saying she has a pimple on her face, she mocks her and boasts she has a total power over her. Estelle is at her mercy as she’s not conscious of herself and has to rely on Inez to define herself. Allowing Inez Inez to define her being, she’s under her control. Without her she doesn’t even exist:

You know the way they catch larks—with a mirror? I’m your lark-mirror, my dear, and you can’t escape me. . . . There isn’t any pimple, not a trace of one. So what about it? Suppose the mirror started telling lies? Or suppose I covered my eyes—as he is doing—and refused to look at you, all that loveliness of yours would be wasted on the desert air.
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Other people are like warped mirrors showing a grotesque image of us. This image is far from true and objective, yet by overemphasizing the ugly things, it shatters the illusions we have about ourselves. Only Inez is honest with herself. She is able to admit her guilt to herself and others and take responsibility for it. She knows what she did wrong and why she is in hell. She has no illusions about her own life and she’s the only one who is always conscious of herself. Other sinners, Garcin and Estella, delude and deceive themselves and each other, saying they are innocent. They desperately try to turn their crimes into virtues. Garcin was accused of desertion and shot. He refused to fight because he was a pacifist. Should he be punished for being loyal to his values? When he tries to pose as a brave idealist he hears his friends on earth calling him a coward. Inez also sees his true dark motives and tells him that he is simply a coward:
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Exactly. That’s the question. Was that your real motive? No doubt you argued it out with yourself, you weighed the pros and cons, you found good reasons for what you did. But fear and hatred and all the dirty little instincts one keeps dark— they’re motives too. So carry on, Mr. Garcin, and try to be honest with yourself– for once.
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Estelle’s lover shot himself, because she refused to leave her husband. Is it a sin to be faithful to your husband? She tries to cheat herself that her motives were noble. But Garcin and Inez strip her bare and reveal her cruelty and egotism. She treated men as her playthings and murdered her own child.
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If other people are your mirrors and judges, if you only exist as an object they gaze upon, then you must find at least one person who has a positive opinion about you. It’s the only way to salvation for the person who is not conscious of his/her own being:
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GARCIN: A thousand of them are proclaiming I’m a coward; but what do numbers matter? If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away, that I’m not the sort who runs away, that I’m brave and decent and the rest of it– well, that one person’s faith would save me.
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Garcin is unable to judge himself and take responsibility for his own actions. He doesn’t know whether he’s a coward or a noble man. Someone has to figure that out for him. It can’t be Estelle, who is in love with him so she’s biased and will tell him what she wants to hear. Instead, he turns to Inez, who hates and despises him and is more honest and blunt, hoping to hear the truth from the enemy:
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And you know what wickedness is, and shame, and fear. There were days when you peered into yourself, into the secret places of your heart, and what you saw there made you faint with horror. And then, next day, you didn’t I know what to make of it, you couldn’t interpret the horror you had glimpsed the day before. Yes, you know what evil costs. And when you say I’m a coward, you know from experience what that means.
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Garcin opens his heart, explains his motives and beliefs and justifies himself but Inez’ judgement is cruel. She rejects all of his excuses and explanations, in her eyes he can only see condemnation. The door opens and he has a chance to escape and leave hell forever, yet he chooses to stay and try to convince the Other of his innocence. He can’t bear a thought that she will condemn him in her mind for good without ever pardoning him. Yet he has to live with her irrevocable sentence passed on him, being at her mercy. He is what she thinks he is:
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You’re a coward, Garcin, because I wish it. I wish it—do you hear?—I wish it. And yet, just look at me, see how weak I am, a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you.
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In the end they understand that they are their own torturers, they are brought together to torment each other. There is no exit out of hell:
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GARCIN: This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE.

 

Bird in the Cage

The poem about Atman by Sakshi Gopal

Exquisitely the cage was wrought with pillars carved in jade
And perches made of ivory, all beautifully inlaid.
With semi-precious stones and pearls that glittered in the light
Reflected off the golden floor – a truly royal sight.

She saw it though the door way as she passed by on the street,
Standing in the corner of the shop of antiques.
She went inside and said, “My man, that cage is very nice.
But tell me – where’s it come from? And I want to know the price”.

“The Queen of Sheba owned it once”, the man replied with haste.
“A very rare and fine antique for people who’ve got taste.
A bit of polish here and there will bring it up a treat.
But don’t forget the bird inside – he also needs to eat”.

She took it home that very day and placed it in the hall,
Beside the walnut writing desk that stood against the wall.
It sparkled as the evening sun shone through the open door,
For she’d washed it down and polished it until her arms were sore.

“Feed me, feed me” sang the bird. “Feed me please!” he cried.
But the lady only saw the cage and not the bird inside.

That night when she retired to bed she dreamt of royal cages –
That kind enjoyed by kings and queens and princes through the ages.
She dreamt of Chinese mandarins, of Rajas and of Sheikhs,
But no-one had a cage to match her newly found antique.

And when at last the sun arose she woke up from her sleep,
And though she wasn’t washed or dressed she ran to take a peep.
And stood there in the hallway gazing at her new possession,
But never heard the plaintive call – so great was her obsession.

“Feed me feed me,” sang the bird. “Feed me please!” he cried.
But the lady only saw the cage and not the bird inside.

She thought a party would be nice, in honour of the cage,
So going through her address book she went from page to page,
Inviting all the people whom she wanted to impress
To come for tea on Saturday, in formal evening dress.

She hardly could contain herself while sending out the cards,
For thinking curtains would be nice, she purchased several yards
Of silk brocade to make the cage more beautiful than ever,
And stayed up sewing all night long, so great was her endeavour.

“Feed me, feed me” sang the bird. “Feed me please!” he cried.
But the lady only saw the cage and not the bird inside.

On Thursday night she started making all the preparations
From currant buns to angel cakes in great anticipation
Of all the guests who said they’d come to see the new antique:
The Vicar, Mrs Balderdash and all her social clique.

She cleaned the cage on Friday until it sparkled like a pin,
But never heard the starving bird, who begged for food within.
And so, forgotten for too long, he tumbled from his perch,
Yet managed with his dying breath a final, feeble chirp.

“Feed me, feed me”, called the bird. “Feed me please!” he cried.
And then – without another word – he breathed his last and died.

On Saturday she cleaned the cage and polished it with pride –
Quite unaware the bird was dead and lying there inside,
But by the time the doorbell rang, the smell was growing strong.
She thought “Although I’ve cleaned the cage, there’s something very wrong!”

In twos and threes the guests arrived and gathered in the hall,
Around the antique bird cage where it stood against the wall,
Until an unknown guest arrived without an invitation
His shaven head and flowing robes a source of consternation.

A lady dropped her sandwiches, the vicar spilled his tea,
But then the guest began to speak with utmost gravity –
And one by one they all agreed it really was absurd,
That only one with half a brain could fail to feed the bird.

Shocked at her shortsightedness they asked why she’d never
Thought to give the bird some food, enquiring “Is it clever
To only see the cage and not the bird that lives within?
You’ve killed it with your negligence – it really is a sin.”

“The cage, my dear, is very nice, as anyone can see,
And shouldn’t be neglected by the likes of you and me,
But what a dreadful thing you’ve done, so foolish and absurd,
To think the cage is everything and never feed the bird!”

So great was her embarrassment, she tried to run and hide,
But slipped upon the Persian rug and fell upon her side
Into the antique birdcage which then toppled to the floor
And broke into a thousand pieces – some say even more.

For those who haven’t understood, we’ll leave you with a clue:
The pampered cage is flesh and bone, it’s owner really you
Who think this body all in all, who starve the soul inside,
And risk the chance of human life – misled by foolish pride.

“Feed me, feed me”, sings the bird. “Feed me please!” he cries.
“The passing cage is flesh and bone, but take a look inside!”