|Political Violence as Bad Faith in Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others
Wright State University
The Blood of Others begins at the bedside of a mortally wounded Résistance fighter named Hélène Bertrand. We encounter her from the point of view of Jean Blomart, her friend and lover, who recounts the story of their relationship : their first meeting, unhappy romance, bitter breakup, and eventual reunion as fellow fighters for the liberation of occupied France.
The novel invites the reader to interpret Hélène and Jean’s story as one of positive ethical development. On this progressive reading, although both characters are initially mired in bad faith and ethical irresponsibility, they ultimately transform themselves into ethically exemplary figures. Through their participation in violent political resistance against the occupation, they recognize their responsibility to humanity and actualize that responsibility in the form of positive political engagement. I will argue, on the contrary, that Jean and Hélène exhibit a unique form of bad faith that Beauvoir identifies in The Ethics of Ambiguity, a dangerous form of bad faith, distinct from the Sartrean conception, that promotes the indiscriminate use of violence for political ends.
1. Hélène’s egoism as bad faith : freedom without responsibility
The progressive reading of the novel is at least correct in its assessment of Hélène and Jean’s original ethical position. At the beginning of the narrative, their ethical flaws are painfully evident. Hélène makes her earliest appearance as a strong-willed, selfish, and somewhat childish individual whose highest values are « chocolate and beautiful bicycles1 ». She proudly proclaims her utter disinterest in the welfare of others : « We always seek to further our own interests… And I think that we’re quite right… After all, we only have ourselves2. » With the self-deceptive ambivalence that is characteristic of Sartre’s conception of bad faith, Hélène fantasizes that she is completely self-sufficient and self-contained, while simultaneously admitting to herself the falseness of that fantasy. She even tries to imagine, in an early scene, that she is an oyster enclosed in her shell, and regrets only her unfortunate awareness that there is a world outside her shell. « I need no one », she tells herself, « I myself, Hélène, exist ; isn’t that enough3 ? » She ignores the interdependence of her own freedom with the freedom of others, in order to reject any ethical responsibility to others. She is, in effect, denying her facticity, that part of her identity that binds her to the rest of humanity.
Hélène’s professed indifference to others is only partially undermined when she falls in love with Jean. Even her love expresses itself narcissistically—most vividly when, after the German invasion, she directly opposes Jean’s will by using her family connections to obtain a safe military post for him in Paris, far from the front lines. When the Germans enter Paris, Hélène stays in order to work for a German firm, dining in luxury among German officers, while her Jewish friend Yvonne prepares to flee the country, others struggle to find food, and resisters are summarily executed. She even shrugs off the possible victory of fascism in Europe with a casual : « So what? It exists. And after it, something else will come4. »
2. Jean’s quietism as bad faith : freedom without consequence
Hélène’s eventual conversion from egoist to principled martyr for the cause of human freedom is abrupt and, frankly, not altogether convincing, since the ambivalence her character initially displays toward her self-absorbed existence is less evident throughout the rest of the novel. Jean’s ambivalence, in contrast, is always in evidence.
Jean Blomart is a young bourgeois with a guilty conscience. He has abandoned the privileges of his upbringing to become an ordinary laborer in a printing press. He takes an active role in the labor movement, but refuses to join to a political party, believing that party politics would endanger the principal value according to which he has organized his existence : individual freedom. Like Hélène, Jean longs for an illusory kind of freedom : transcendence without facticity, a complete self-sufficiency that does not impinge upon the freedom of others. However, unlike Hélène, he does not use this fantasy as a direct excuse for moral indifference. He fully admits its impossibility : « I cannot blot myself out [m’effacer]. I cannot withdraw into myself. I exist outside myself and everywhere in the world. There is not an inch of my path [un pouce de ma route] which does not trespass on the path of someone else5. » Instead, Jean uses that very impossibility as a justification of inaction. He reasons that if he cannot act as pure, unconditioned freedom—if his every act shapes the lives of others without their consent—then the only way to protect freedom is not to act at all. « My one and only aim », he admits, « is not to dirty my hands6 ». Above all, he has tried to live a life « which owed nothing to anyone and which could not be a source of unhappiness to anyone7 ».
This quietist stance initially leads Jean to a position of neutrality toward the approaching war, an evasion of decision disguised as a conscientious middle ground. He declares his willingness to sacrifice his own life to stop the spread of fascism, but draws the line at spilling the blood of others: « I could pay with my body, with my blood, but the remainder of mankind was no coin for my use ; what superman’s mind [quelle pensée souveraine] would allow itself to compare them, to count them, to claim that it knew their just measure8 ? » Jean correctly recognizes that the utilitarian calculus that sacrifices the individual to humanity, and the present to the future, necessarily reduces concrete individuals to something less than human in order to accomplish its end. But his alternative of inaction is, like Hélène’s fantasy of self-sufficient freedom, a self-deception : he, too, denies his facticity. His very existence impinges upon the other’s world. He does not avoid impacting the lives of others by not acting. He only avoids acknowledging his role in shaping their destiny, allowing himself to deny responsibility for consequences he has passively helped realize. By denying the necessary impact of his own facticity upon others, Jean pretends, in bad faith, that he can choose and act for himself alone, and that others must do the same.
3. The paradox of action : freedom against itself
Jean and Hélène both eventually recognize, through their relationship to one another, that they bear an active responsibility for others, initiating a radical transformation in their attitudes toward the war and the question of political violence. They both become committed Résistance members, willingly risking not only their own lives, but also the lives of others. They plan and participate in violent attacks against the occupying forces, knowing that for each Résistance attack, the Germans will execute innocent prisoners in retaliation. If the progressive reading of the novel is correct, this transformation indicates a development from bad faith to authenticity, from the evasion of moral decision to an ethically responsible and engaged existence.
However, while it is true that Jean and Hélène have surmounted one form of bad faith—the denial of ethical responsibility through the illusion of freedom without facticity—they both display another form of bad faith that they have failed to recognize or overcome. This aspect of the novel illustrates a unique conception of bad faith distinct from Sartre’s version, one that is found in Beauvoir’s later essay The Ethics of Ambiguity. While Sartrean bad faith consists in the refusal to fully acknowledge the dual nature of human existence as both transcendence and facticity, Beauvoir’s conception of bad faith focuses, not upon this dual aspect of existence, but upon its profound consequences for ethical action.
The ambiguity of human existence, its tension of wanting to be and being, of future and past, of freedom and facticity, lends to human activity a corresponding ambiguity which Beauvoir calls the paradox of action : « No action can be generated for man without its being immediately generated against man9. » On one level, this simply means that one can act on behalf of others only by acting upon their facticity, as things, since one cannot act directly upon another’s freedom. But this paradox has its basis in a more fundamental paradox in the relation of human action to human existence. By choosing to act, I define my being. However, by actualizing a possibility, I act against my own freedom by attempting to give my being the character of a thing, to establish it as a definite kind of being : as a being-in-itself.10
It may be helpful to turn to the likely source of this idea : Heidegger’s suggestion of a « primordial guilt [ursprüngliches Schuldigsein]11 » in the very nature of human being. Heidegger says that we are always guilty (in a non-moral sense) of nullifying our possibilities by choosing one possibility over another. By actualizing our freedom in one way, we act against our freedom in another ; we take away possibilities from which we were previously free to choose.
This paradox, in turn, affects our ethical actions : by trying to help the other actualize her freedom, we act against her freedom in some respect, for we help her nullify other possibilities through which she might have chosen to actualize her freedom. Ethical action not only always fails in some respect ; it fails precisely in virtue of its success : freedom is actualized through the sacrifice of possibilities.12 This paradox grounds Beauvoir’s unique conception of authenticity, which demands that we recognize a primordial, insurmountable guilt toward the other, because every action on the other’s behalf also involves a degree of sacrifice of the other’s freedom : « Action has to be lived in its truth, that is, in the consciousness of the antinomies which it involves13. »
The paradox of action also clarifies why Beauvoir, unlike Sartre, acknowledges that freedom can vary in degree according to our concrete situation14. She recognizes that our real possibilities—the live options delineated by our concrete situation, as opposed to merely formal possibilities—are integral to freedom, that, as Heidegger says, « Dasein is always essentially its possibility15 ». Consequently, we possess a greater or lesser degree of freedom according to which concrete possibilities for action are offered by our situation.
4. The antinomy of political action : are all means are bad?
Turning now to the issue of political violence, we discover that the paradox of action reappears as a tension between the means and end of political action. Because every action is both for and against human freedom, every means to a political end involves a real sacrifice of human freedom. As Jean declares : « All means are bad16. »
Indeed, it is this recognition that initially leads Jean to adopt a neutral stance toward the war. However, after his conversion to the Résistance, he uses this same fact to justify political violence : « It was an impossible undertaking to value human lives, to compare the weight of a tear with the weight of a drop of blood ; but he no longer set a value, every coin was current, even this one ; the blood of others. The price would never be too high17. » Yet it is precisely this false alternative of unqualified rejection or approval of political violence that betrays Jean’s bad faith. For Beauvuoir, in order for an action to be authentic : « It must not conceal the antinomies between means and end, present and future ; they must be lived in a permanent tension; one must retreat from neither the outrage of violence nor deny it, or, which amounts to the same thing, assume it lightly18. »
Jean instead uses the inevitable failure of ethical action as a justification for completely ignoring the tension between means and end. He declares : « We must only be concerned with [nous ne devons nous soucier que] the end we have to achieve and do everything necessary to obtain it… One must act for what one wants, the rest is no concern of ours19. » While he is correct that every ethical act fails—that « whatever one did, one was always guilty20 »—he falsely concludes that we do not need to worry about our methods. Beauvoir concludes, on the contrary, that because every ethical act truly opposes, to some degree, its intended end, we must be more vigilant in constantly questioning whether the means do, indeed, promote that end : « What distinguishes the tyrant from the man of good will is that the first rests in the certainty of his aims, whereas the second keeps asking himself [se demande dans une interrogation incessante] : Am I really working for the liberation of men? Isn’t this end contested by the sacrifices through which I aim at it? In setting up its ends, freedom must put them in parentheses, confront them at each moment with that absolute end which it itself constitutes, and contest, in its own name, the means it uses to win itself21. »
It is just such a constant self-interrogation on the relation of political means and end that Jean exhibits throughout the majority of the novel, which begins and ends with Jean wondering if he is guilty of Hélène’s murder, if his sacrifice of the blood of others is proportionate to his end. Nevertheless, in the novel’s final moments, he overcomes his uncertainty and accepts political violence unconditionally. As he prepares to leave Hélène’s bedside to begin a new Résistance mission, he tells himself that he accepts his « crimes », that they will be fully justified if his cause succeeds, and that « there is no other way22 ».
5. Beauvoir on bad faith and authenticity, freedom and sacrifice
Importantly, it is Hélène’s influence that leads Jean to his final position of bad faith23. She persuades him that he is not guilty of her death, by insisting upon her freedom—she chose the actions that led to her death. This argument is questionable, however. For, as Jean asks, did she truly understand what she was choosing? Her situation may not have allowed her to fully disclose her possibilities ; she may not (against the Sartrean view) have been entirely free in her choice. If Beauvoir is correct that freedom is never absolute, then Hélène may be denying the degree to which her facticity intervenes in the concrete realization of her freedom.
Indeed, in the story’s conclusion, Jean realizes that even if Hélène’s death was free, he is still responsible for the lives of those who will be executed in retaliation for his actions. Hélène has denied, not only her own facticity, but also that of the involuntary martyrs to her cause, as though their abstract freedom of choice absolved Jean of responsibility for using their deaths as a political means. Consequently, she displays a unique form of bad faith related to Beauvoir’s conception of authenticity : she fails to recognize that her actions truly sacrifice the freedom of others, nullifying the very possibilities that constitute concrete freedom.
Hélène also tries to persuade Jean of his innocence by denying the transcendence of others. He should not feel remorseful, she says, because he is merely an innocent instrument to her end : « You were just a stone. Stones are necessary to make roads, otherwise how could one choose a way for oneself24 ? » Jean accepts this, deciding that he is no guiltier than the piece of steel that wounded her : « It did not kill you ; it was not I who kill you25. » The bad faith in this line of reasoning is evident. Hélène denies the transcendence of the individuals she uses to achieve her end, and Jean avoids recognizing his responsibility by reducing himself to pure, blameless facticity. In doing so, they reject the tension of means and end in political violence as merely apparent. The victims are merely things ; nothing of real value has been sacrificed ; there is no real crime, guilt, or loss. As Beauvoir says : « Reduced to pure facticity, congealed in his immanence, cut off from his future, deprived of his transcendence and of the world which that transcendence discloses, a man no longer appears as anything more than a thing among things which can be subtracted from the collectivity of other things without its leaving upon the earth any trace of its absence26. »
While this attitude appears to exemplify the Sartrean conception of bad faith, in fact, Hélène and Jean are in a form of bad faith that only Beauvoir’s philosophy has fully identified. Because Beauvoir recognizes that every action directly harms the other’s freedom, she is able to acknowledge that the relative sacrifice of freedom in political action is nevertheless a real sacrifice that cannot be taken lightly.
If, on the contrary, freedom consists, as Sartre suggests, simply in the ability to choose from whichever possibilities are presented by one’s situation, then the paradox of action is trivial : nothing of real value is sacrificed. For an action against human facticity does not directly harm the individual as transcendence ; it affects that aspect of the individual that was never free to begin with. Likewise, the limitation of an individual’s possibilities, the imposition of a situation that constrains action, is not a direct violation of freedom, since Sartre believes that consciousness remains unassailably free in any situation. Even taking the other’s life does not clearly qualify as a serious or irreparable ethical loss. For if « there is no reality but in action » and if « man exists only to the extent that he realizes himself27 », then the sacrifice of an individual’s future is a potential, rather than actual, loss.
It is only by recognizing the paradox of action as an actual and direct harm to an individual’s freedom, that we can fully appreciate the sacrifice involved in ethical action. And it is only through such an appreciation that we can understand Beauvoir’s insistence upon « a perpetual contestation of the means by the end and of the end by the means28 ». Because the harm to freedom is actual, not potential, the sacrifice cannot be absolved or cancelled out, even by successful attainment of the end. Only because the harm to freedom is actual, not potential, is it always possible for the ethical subject to « ruin, by the means which he employs, the end he is aiming at29 ». Consequently, Beauvoir’s ethics explains, in a way Sartre cannot, why we must never on principle decide the question of political violence, but rather legitimate or condemn violence only in the concrete situation, and why we must permanently challenge our decisions with the recognition of the insurmountably ambiguous ethical status of every action.
Because Beauvoir takes the refusal to assign a definite ethical value to action as her starting point, her philosophy departs dramatically from Sartrean existentialism. Like Beauvoir, Sartre provides methodological criteria for distinguishing bad faith and authenticity : authentic choice is made consistently with recognition of the dual aspect of human existence as transcendence and facticity, with recognition of responsibility for humankind, and on behalf of actions consistent with values to which one has freely committed.
However, Sartrean authenticity does not require the ethical subject to indefinitely maintain the ambiguous ethical status of the action beyond the moment of ethical decision, nor to endlessly revive the question of the action’s actual utility to one’s chosen end. His methodological criteria are designed to overcome ambiguity to whatever degree possible : to help us choose consistently with full recognition of what we choose for and against. Beauvoir’s methodology, in contrast, insists that ambiguity is never overcome. Consequently, the morality of an action can never depend directly upon its designation as good or bad in relation to the subject’s ends.
In this way, Beauvoir recognizes it is precisely the goodness of the well-considered action that seduces us away from the recognition of insurmountable ambiguity of every ethical action. The relatively « good » cases of political violence are dangerous precisely because they are good, encouraging us not only to see them as good without qualification, ignoring the real sacrifice they require, but also, more dangerously, tempting us to treat every case as equally unambiguous.
It is, consequently, Jean and Hélène’s good conscience at the novel’s end that condemns them. By considering their actions to be unambiguously ethical, to be actions that will certainly serve the greater good of humanity, they become vulnerable to future actions that do not, in fact, serve that end. This denial of the insurmountably ambiguous ethical status of every action is the distinctive form of bad faith that Beauvoir has identified, and that Jean, Hélène, and, possibly, Sartrean existentialism, have failed to escape.
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