Feb 9, 2017

Existential Freedom in Sartre's The Flies

Last month, I took part in an online discussion - hosted on the Noetic platform - about a classic Existentialist play by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Flies.  I was particularly happy after rereading the work several years back to have a similar experience to that in returning to a number of other Existentialist works that I originally read some years back, and now revisit with a perspective altered by time, maturation, and further study.  Sometimes works that I remember turn out not to possess the excellences I originally attributed to them.  In this case, however, the opposite is true.  I didn't appreciate The Flies as much when I first encountered it to the extent that I do in the present.

One of the central themes of the work - one running through pretty much every work in Sartre's corpus - is that of human freedom. As I'll explain in more detail below, Sartre maintained that freedom is both at the essence of what it is to be a human being, and emerges from and engages with the concrete situations or conditions of one's existence.  In this play, however, precisely because of the historical situation - the Nazi occupation of France - in which it was written and then presented to the public, there is a further resonance to the situations and choices of the characters, particularly those of Orestes and Electra on the one hand, and Zeus, Aegistheus, and Clytemnestra on the other.  


Historical Context of "The Flies" 

In 1940, France was defeated militarily, despite possessing the Maginot line of fortresses, and a relative advantage overall in weapons on the front with Germany.  The Nazi regime's blitzkrieg tactics gave them the advantage needed to break through, rout, and encircle the forces of the Third Republic.  As a side note - for those who want to understand how this actually occurred - there is a classic study by William Shirer (better known for his Rise of the Third Reich), called the Fall of the Third Republic, which details the lead-up to war, the failure of the 1930s alliance system, the missed military opportunities, and the political factionalization, gridlock, and breakdown in France that rendered the Nazi victory possible.

Paris was solidly within the part of France occupied by the German Wehrmacht.  To the south and east, a nominally independent, but essentially satellite regime of Vichy France was established, governed by Marshal Petain.  Sartre writes The Flies, and the play is put on in the Parisian Théâtre de la Cité, during the height of the German occupation, in 1943, making it past the censors to deliver a thinly veiled message.  Or perhaps better put, to issue a challenge.  In 1947Sartre himself frames this in terms of the remorse or repentance (remords) that the entire town of Argos is caught up within, analogous to the feeling that has its grips upon many of his fellow French after their defeat.
After our defeat in 1940 all too many Frenchmen gave way to discouragement or yielded to remorse.  I wrote The Flies and tried to show that remorse was not an attitude Frenchmen should choose after our military collapse.  Our past no longer existed. It had slipped between our fingers before we had some time to grasp it, and hold it up yo our gaze in order to understand it.  But the future - even though and enemy was occupying France - was new.  We had a grasp on it; we were at liberty to make it a future of the defeated or a future of free men who refuse to believe that a defeat was the end of everything which makes a man want to live his life as a man. (Sartre on Theater, p. 191)
He amplifies upon this a year later:
From 1941 to 1943 many people were extremely anxious for the French to plunge into repentance.  The Nazis primarily, and Petain too, and likewise his press.  The French had to be convinced, and had to convince themselves, that we had been madmen, that we had sunk to the lowest depths of degradation, the the Popular Front had lost us the war, that our leaders had been derelict in their duty, and so on.  What was the purpose of this campaign?  Certainly not to make Frenchmen better, to make different men of them.  No, the aim was to plunge us into such a state of repentance, of shame, that we would be incapable of putting up any resistance.  . . In writing this play I was trying by my own unaided effort, feeble though it might be, to do what I could to root out this sickness of repentance and shame.
This is one of the initial goals for the play, and repentence shows up very clearly as a key theme. Another central theme is the problematic situation Orestes finds himself placed within, in which he will ultimately choose to act.

Order, Freedom, and Power

Aegistheus - the present ruler of Argos, who killed Agamemnon and married Clytemnestra - and Zeus - the divine ruler of the universe - become embroiled in a very revealing exchange.  Aegistheus has already told Clytemnestra that he is bone-weary of playing his part in a pretense of remorse, caught up in a fabricated narrative that has maintained order within the city for the last fifteen years.  After she leaves, Zeus appears, warns Aegistheus of the threat that Orestes poses.  The king responds by telling Zeus of his own weariness, and suggesting that Zeus is playing favorites, attempting to keep Orestes from getting caught up within the ongoing cycle of violence, conflict, and guilt.

At this point, the two of them turn to the key issue - a freedom that human beings possess, but are often kept unaware of, and thus don't employ - to the benefit of social order, the continued reign of the powerful, and the gods strangely hungry for human remorse, shame, and guilt.
ZEUS: You may hate me, but we are akin; I made you in my image. A king is a god on earth,
glorious and terrifying as a god.
AEGISTHEUS: You, terrifying?
ZEUS: Look at me. [A long silence.] I told you you were made in my image. Each keeps order; you in Argos, I in heaven and on earth—and you and I harbor the same dark secret in our hearts.
AEGISTHEUS: I have no secret.
ZEUS: You have. The same as mine. The bane of gods and kings. The bitterness of knowing men are free. Yes, Aegistheus they are free. But your subjects do not know it, and you do
AEGISTHEUS: Why, yes. If they knew it, they'd send my palace up in flames. For fifteen years I've been playing a part to mask their power from them.
ZEUS: So you see we are alike
AEGISTHEUS: Alike? A god likening himself to me—what freak of irony is this? Since I came to the throne, all I said, all my acts, have been aimed at building up an image of myself. I wish each of my subjects to keep that image in the fore-ground of his mind, and to feel, even when alone, that my eyes are on him, severely judging his most private thoughts. But I have been trapped in my own net. I have come to see myself only as they see me. I peer into the dark pit of their souls, and there, deep down, I see the image that I have built up. I shudder, but I cannot take my eyes off it. Almighty Zeus, who am I? Am I anything more than the dread that others have of me?
ZEUS. And I—who do you think I am? [Points to the statue.] I, too, have my image, and do you suppose it doesn't fill me with confusion? For a hundred thousand years I have been dancing a slow, dark ritual dance before men's eyes. Their eyes are so intent on me that they forget to look into them-selves. If I forgot myself for a single moment, if I let their eyes turn away—
Notice that, as Sartre has these two portray themselves - in conversation with each other, and thereby speaking to his audience - the powers of the world, both of the cosmic order and of the social order are dependent upon human beings not realizing that freedom is at the very root of their nature, or that freedom is an ever-present possibility for their existence.  The powerful do know that secret, however, and that means that on the one hand they can never rest entirely secure in their dominance, and on the other that what ensures the stability their reign possesses is the disuse of what is most distinctively human - resulting in an existence for the powerful that is in some sense deadening, boring, tiring.  Aegistheus trapped himself - and the entire community of Argos - in that sort of sterile dynamic through the fictional day of the dead, and the ongoing affects of guilt, fear, and repentance it involves.

As the conversation continues, there are two more important points, where Aegistheus and Zeus each tell the other what to do, and then in turn explain why that counsel cannot be followed.
ZEUS Aegistheus, my creature and my mortal brother, in the name of this good order that we serve, both you and I, I as you—nay, I command you—to lay hands on Orestes and his sister.
AEGISTHEUS: Are they so dangerous?
ZEUS: Orestes knows that the is free.
AEGISTHEUS [eagerly]: He krows he's free? Then, to lay hands on him, to put him in irons, is not enough. A free man in a city, acts like a plague-spot.. He will infect my whole kingdom and bring my work to) nothing. Almighty Zeus, why stay your hand? Why not fell him with a thunderbolt?
ZEUS [slowly]: Fell him with a thunderbolt? [A pause. Then, in a muffled voice] Aegistheus, the gods have another secret.
AEGISTHEUS: Yes?
ZEUS: Once freedom lights its beacon in a man's heart, the go are powerless against him. It's a matter between man an man, and it is for other men, and for them only, to left him go his gait, or to throttle him
Human freedom, when it is authentically exercised - and there's many ways in might not be - necessarily introduces an instability, an unpredictability, a rupture within the existing order.  The higher power, the divine, is revealed as impotent when faced with genuine human freedom.  The earthly representative, political power can act against the free person, imposing coercion, punishment, threats, even death.

But this may not be enough.  Freedom has the potential for being infectious - Sartre is not an optimist who thinks that the example of freedom spreads freedom automatically, spontaneously, organically among those who witness it! - a potential that by its very nature limits the agencies of order.

Sartreian Freedom In The Flies

Clearly, in this play, Orestes is intended to be the central figure representing the full exercise of freedom - which from a Sartreian perspective is not simply a neutral  capacity which we have, which then we can decide to use or not to use, but rather is something that exists in its very use and exercise - but all of the characters actually are free.  Most of them have some sort of story to tell about how they feel trapped in a situation beyond their own control, or by their past actions and the ensuing remorse, or the exercise of power on them, or the religious establishment and its demands, or. . . .   But all of them are free - though not all in the same ways, since freedom is determinate.

The character who presents herself as in some sense the most free early on is Orestes' sister, Electra, who rebells as best she can not only against their mother, Clytemnestra and her murderous step-father, Aegistheus, but also against the entire city, the religious establishment, and Zeus himself.  She tells Orestes that, while forced into a friendless condition of servitude, she finds ways to resist and waits for her - and her father's - vindicator to arrive.  And yet, after the deed of vengeance is done - or rather, even halfway through it - she has already lost her resolve.  In effect, although she chooses along with her brother a meaningful path to take, she also chooses not to see it all the way through.  Instead of casting off the remorse, in the end, she takes it on in a way that she never had the entire time that it was being pushed on her.  This is an exercise of freedom, certainly, but it is also a determinate way to abandon that human freedom in the process.

Oreses returns to Argos expressing a yearning for roots, for having a background, a past of experiences that would place him within a context in which presumably he would know who and what he was.  He wants to belong.  He also doesn't measure up to his sister's imagination that he will be a man with "crime and  tragedy in his blood, as I have—the bad blood of the house of Atreus. . . .a big, strong man, a born fighter, with bloodshot eyes like our father's, always smoldering with rage. . . . doomed; tangled up in his destiny".  When he reveals himself, she does say that she loves him as her brother, but in her view a gulf exists between them.  He has lived free of the entanglements that doom their house and city.  She cannot go away with him, as he suggests, and pushes him away.

Admitting that he is "a mere shadow of a man; of all the ghosts haunting this town today, none is ghostlier than I," he comes to a crucial point where he must decide.  He wavers, unable to decide, and then appeals to Zeus for aid and guidance:
O Zeus, our Lord and King of Heaven, not often have I called on  you for help, and you have shown me little favor; yet this you know: that I have always tried to  act aright. But now I am weary and my mind is dark; I can no longer distinguish right from wrong. I need a guide to point my way.
And as it happens, the god gives a sign, one whose interpretation is clear.  Leave Argos behind, enjoy the life you have, grow into maturity elsewhere.  Do not willingly step into the violent cycle of reprisal, crime, and guilt.  And Orestes, fully understanding this, chooses otherwise.
ORESTES [staring at the stone]: So that is the Right Thing. To live at peace—always at perfect peace. I see. Always to say "Excuse me," and "Thank you." That's what's wanted, eh? [He stares at the stone in silence for some moments.] The Right Thing. Their Right Thing. [Another silence.] Electra!
ELECTRA: Hurry up and go. Don't disappoint your fatherly old friend, who has bent down from Olympus to enlighten you [She stops abruptly, a look of wonder on her face.] But —but what's come over you?
ORESTES [slowly, in a tone he has not used till now]: There is another way.
. . . . . .  .
ORESTES: I say there is another path—my path. Can't you see It starts here and leads down to the city. I must go down—do you understand?—I must go down into the depths, among you. For you are living, all of you, at the bottom of a pit. [He goes up to ELECTRA.] You are my sister, Electra, and that city is my city. My sister. [He takes her arm.]
ELECTRA: Don't touch me. You're hurting me, frightening me—and I'm not yours.
ORESTES: I know. Not yet. I'm still too—too light. I must take a burden on my shoulders, a load of guilt so heavy as to drag me down, right down into the abyss of Argos.
He chooses - that is, he employs his freedom - in such a way as to free himself, and thereby substantially commit his freedom, on a second level.  By rejecting the path set out for him, the moral criteria that would guide his choice, provided to him in the situation by Zeus, he embraces his freedom in a characteristically Sartreian manner.  Notice that this is not a simple refusal, sticking it to the powers that be, since in the process, Orestes undertakes a fateful project - that of assuming and somehow transforming the guilt, the remorse, the violence and blood that has plagued Argos after the claying of his father (and it wasn't exactly a violence- and guilt-free family or town before that, if you know the fuller story!)

Orestes thus represents - even embodies - the sort of genuine freedom that Sartre was so focused on understanding and articulating in his works.  It is not an example that is meant to apply to everyone, to be transferred unthinkingly to whatever situation you like.  Freedom, concrete and authentic freedom, surges up and is employed in determinate situations, according to Sartre. At the other extreme, however, although we are to resist universalizing Orestes' own choice, this does not mean that there is nothing universal in that situation.  If that were the case, then Sartre's own explicitly discussed motivations for writing and producing that play in 1943 would be meaningless, and we would not be able to envision any real meaning it might contain for our own contemporary situation.

Sometimes a free person is fortunate enough to be able to decide important, even fundamental matters, within a situation in which - at least as it appears to that person - everything is clear. The option or commitment that is good comes without entanglements in the bad or the ugly, and it contrasts starkly enough against these to render the choice seemingly an easy one.  More often, this isn't the case, and we still do have to choose. Sometimes, the options we are faced with strike us as equally - or perhaps we're not even able to make such a comparison - problematic, demanding, or even horrendous.  That is the type of situation Orestes chooses to embrace, and lives through (abandoned by his sister) all the way to the point of his defiant address to the mob of Argos, threatening to tear him apart.  He claims his kingship over them, and then abandons them to their own freedom, effectively gifting it - or at least the realization of their free condition - to them.
I shall not sit on my victim's throne or take the scepter in my blood-stained
hands. A god offered it to me, and I said no. I wish to be a king without a kingdom, without subjects. Farewell, my people. Try to reshape your lives. All here is new, all must begin anew. And for me, too, a I new life is beginning. A strange life. . .