Sartre Mike King

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Sartre - Mike King

But what happens in the park? We have the superficial coincidences with Krishnamurti and Rajneesh: they are undergoing an intense and disorientating shift in their psyches, they reach a climax where they have to rush out of an enclosing space, and they are drawn to a tree in a garden or park. And we remember how the Buddha, Krishanmurti and Rajneesh were enlightened under trees, and how Whitman spoke in completely secular, though profound, terms of the lesson of a tree. Sartre is now in the park under a tree, and the suchness of his surroundings overwhelm him; not with bliss, but with nausea. I have reproduced the section as a whole in order that it can be read unfragmented, for it is a marvellous piece of prose, while the annotations can be seen as a running commentary from the perspective of Pure Consciousness Mysticism: the issues flagged up in them are drawn together later.

5.3 The Annotated Park

Six o'clock in the evening

I can't say that I feel relieved or happy: on the contrary, I feel crushed. Only I have achieved my aim: I know what I wanted to know; I have understood everything that has happened to me since January. The Nausea hasn't left me and I don't believe it will leave me for quite a while; but I am no longer putting up with it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is me.

I was in the municipal park just now. The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground just underneath my bench, I no longer remembered that it was a root. Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface.14 I was sitting, slightly bent, my head bowed, alone in front of that black, knotty mass, which was utterly crude and frightened me. And then I had this revelation.

It took my breath away. Never until these last few days, had I suspected what it meant to 'exist'. I was like the others, like those who walk along the sea-shore in their spring clothes. I used to say like them: 'The sea is green; that white speck up there is a seagull', but I didn't feel that it existed, that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself.15 It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say a couple of words without speaking of it, but finally you can't touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I suppose that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be'.16 Or else I was thinking ... how can I put it? I was thinking appurtenances, I was saying to myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that green formed part of the sea's qualities. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from thinking that they existed: they looked like stage scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance.17 But all that happened on the surface. If anybody had asked me what existence was, I should have replied in good faith that it was nothing, just an empty form which added itself to external things, without changing anything in their nature. And then, all of a sudden, there it was, as clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost its harmless appearance as an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things, that root was steeped in existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass on the lawn, all that had vanished; the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft monstrous masses, in disorder — naked with a frightening, obscene nakedness.18

I took care not to make the slightest movement, but I didn't need to move in order to see, behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp-post of the bandstand, and the Velleda in the middle of a clump of laurel bushes. All those objects ... how can I explain? They embarrassed me;19 I would have liked them to exist less strongly, in a drier way, more abstract way, with more reserve. The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes.20 Green rust covered it half way up; the bark, black and blistered, looked like boiled leather.21 The soft sound of the water in the Masqueret Fountain flowed into my ears and made a nest there, filling them with sighs; my nostrils overflowed with a green, putrid smell. All things, gently, tenderly were letting themselves drift into existence like those weary women who abandon themselves to laughter and say: 'It does you good to laugh', in tearful voices; they were parading themselves in front of one another, they were abjectly admitting to one another the fact of their existence. I realised that there was no half-way house between non-existence and this rapturous abundance.22 If you existed, you had to exist to that extent, to the point of mildew, blisters, obscenity. In another world, circles and melodies kept their pure and rigid lines.23 But existence is a curve. Trees, midnight-blue pillars, the happy bubbling of a fountain, living smells, wisps of heat haze floating in the cold air, a red-haired main digesting on a bench: all these somnolences, all these digestions taken together had a vaguely comic side.24 No: it didn't go as far as that, nothing that exists can be comic; it was like a vague, almost imperceptible analogy with certain vaudeville situations.25 We were a heap of existents inconvenienced, embarrassed by ourselves, we hadn't the slightest reason for being there, any of us, each existent, embarrassed, vaguely ill at ease, felt superfluous in relation to the others.26 Superfluous: that was the only connection I could establish between those trees, those gates, those pebbles. It was in vain that I tried to count the chestnut trees, to situate them in relation to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped from the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, overflowed. I was aware of the arbitrary nature of these relationships, which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the collapse of the human world of measures, of quantities, of bearings; they no longer had any grip on things. Superfluous, the chestnut tree, over there, opposite me, a little to the left. Superfluous, the Velleda.27 ...

And I — weak, languid, obscene, digesting, tossing about dismal thoughts — I too was superfluous.28 Fortunately I didn't feel this, above all I didn't understand it, but I was uneasy because I was afraid of feeling it (even now I'm afraid of that — I'm afraid that it might take me by the back of my head and lift me up like a ground-swell). I dreamed vaguely of killing myself, to destroy at least one of these superfluous existences. But my death itself would have been superfluous. Superfluous, my corpse, my blood on these pebbles, between these plants, in the depths of this charming park.29 And the decomposed flesh would have been superfluous in the earth which would have received it, and my bones, finally, cleaned, stripped, neat and clean as teeth, would also have been superfluous; I was superfluous for all time.

The word Absurdity is now born beneath my pen; a little while ago, in the park, I didn't find it, but then I wasn't looking for it either, I didn't need it: I was thinking without words, about things, with things.30 Absurdity was not an idea in my head, or the sound of a voice, but that long dead snake at my feet, that wooden snake. Snake or claw or root or vulture's talon, it doesn't matter. And without formulating anything clearly, I understood that I had found the key to Existence, the key to my Nausea, to my own life. In fact, all that I was able to grasp afterwards comes down to this fundamental absurdity. Absurdity: another word; I am struggling against words; over there, I touched the thing.31 But here I should like to establish the absolute character of this absurdity. A gesture, an event in the little coloured world of men is never absurd except relatively speaking: in relation to the accompanying circumstances. A madman's ravings, for example, are absurd in relation to the situation in which he finds himself, but not in relation to his madness. But I, a little while ago, experienced the absolute: the absolute or the absurd.32 That root — there was nothing in relation to which it was not absurd. Oh how can I put that in words? Absurd: irreducible; nothing — not even a profound secret aberration of Nature — could explain that. Obviously I didn't know everything, I hadn't seen the seed sprout or the tree grow. But faced with that big rugged paw, neither ignorance nor knowledge had any importance; the world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence.33 A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explicable by the rotation of segment of a straight line around one of its extremities.34 But a circle doesn't exist either. That root, on the other hand, existed in so far that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, repeatedly brought me back to its own existence. It was no use my repeating: 'It is a root' — that didn't work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a suction-pump, to that, to that hard, compact sea-lion skin, to that oily, horny, stubborn look. The function explained nothing; it enabled you to understand in general what a root was, but not that one at all. That root, with its colour, its shape, its frozen movement, was ... beneath all explanation. Each of its qualities escaped from it a little, flowed out of it, half-solidified, almost became a thing; each one was superfluous in the root, and the whole stump now gave me the impression of rolling a little outside itself, denying itself, losing itself in a strange excess. I scraped my heel against that black claw: I should have liked to peel off a little of the bark. For no particular reason, out of defiance, to make the absurd pink of an abrasion appear on the tanned leather: to play with the absurdity of the world. But when I took my foot away, I saw that the bark was still black.

Black? I felt the word subside, empty itself of its meaning with an extraordinary speed. Black? The root was not black, it was not the black there was on that piece of wood — it was ... something else: black, like the circle, did not exist. I looked at the root: was it more than black or almost black? But soon I stopped questioning myself because I had the feeling that I was on familiar ground. Yes, I had already scrutinised, with that same anxiety, unnameable objects, I had already tried — in vain — to think something about them: I had already felt their cold, inert qualities escape, slip between my fingers. Adolphe's braces, the other evening, at the Rendez-vous des Cheminots. They were not purple. I recalled the two indefinable patches on the shirt. And the pebble; that wretched pebble, the origin of this whole business: it was not ... I couldn't remember exactly what it refused to be. But I hadn't forgotten its passive resistance. And the Autodidact's hand; I had taken it and shaken it one day at the library, and then I had had the feeling that it wasn't quite a hand. I had thought of a fat maggot, but it wasn't that either. And the suspicious transparency of a glass of beer in the Café Mably. Suspicious: that's what they were, the sounds, the smells, the tastes. When they shot past under your eyes, like startled hares, and you didn't pay too much attention to them, you could believe them to be simple and reassuring, you could believe that there was real blue in the world, real red, a real smell of almonds or violets. But as soon as you held on to them for a moment, this feeling of comfort and security gave way to a deep uneasiness: colours, tastes smells were never real, never simply themselves and nothing but themselves.35 The simplest, most irreducible quality had a superfluity in itself, in relation to itself, in its heart. That black, there, against my foot, didn't look like black, but rather the confused effort to imagine black by somebody who had never seen black and who wouldn't have known how to stop, who would have imagined an ambiguous creature beyond the colours. It resembled a colour but also ... a bruise or again a secretion, a yoke — and something else, a smell for example, it melted into a smell of wet earth, of warm, moist wood, into a black smell spread like varnish over that sinewy wood, into a taste of sweet, pulped fibre. I didn't see that black in a simple way: sight is an abstract invention, a cleaned-up simplified idea, a human idea. That black, a weak, amorphous presence, far surpassed sight, smell, and taste. But that richness became confusion and finally ceased to be anything at all because it was too much.36

That moment was extraordinary. I was there, motionless and frozen, plunged into a horrible ecstasy. But, in the very heart of that ecstasy, something new had just appeared; I understood the nausea, I possessed it. To tell the truth, I did not formulate my discoveries to myself. But I think that now it would be easy for me to put them into words. The essential thing is contingency. I mean that, by definition, existence is not necessity. To exist is simply to be there; what exists appears, lets itself be encountered, but you can never deduce it. There are people, I believe, who have understood that. Only they have tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a necessary, causal being.37 But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not an illusion, an appearance which can be dissipated; it is absolute, and consequently perfectly gratuitous.38 Everything is gratuitous, that park, this town, and myself. When you realize that, it turns your stomach over and everything starts floating about, as it did the other evening at the Rendez-vous des Cheminots; that is the Nausea; that is what the Bastards — those who live on the Coteau Vert and the others — try to hide from themselves with their idea of rights. But what a poor lie: nobody has any rights; they are entirely gratuitous, like other men, they cannot succeed in not feeling superfluous. And in themselves, secretly, they are superfluous, that is to say amorphous, and vague, sad.

How long did that spell last? I was the root of the chestnut tree.39 Or rather I was all consciousness of its existence. Still detached from it — since I was conscious of it — and yet lost in it, nothing but it. An uneasy consciousness and yet one which let itself hang with all its weight over that piece of inert wood. Time had stopped: a small black pool at my feet; it was impossible for anything to come after that particular moment.40 I should have liked to tear myself away from that atrocious pleasure, but I didn't even imagine that that was possible; I was inside; the black stump did not pass, it stayed there, in my eyes, just as a lump of food sticks in a windpipe. I could neither accept nor reject it. At the cost of what effort did I raise my eyes? And indeed did I actually raise them? Didn't I rather obliterate myself for a moment, to come to life again the next moment with my head thrown back and my eyes turned upwards?41 In fact, I was not aware of a transition. But, all of a sudden, it became impossible for me to think of the existence of the root. It had been wiped out. It was no use my repeating to myself: 'It exists, it is still there, under the bench, against my right foot', it didn't mean anything any more. Existence is not something which allows itself to be thought of from a distance; it has to invade you suddenly, pounce upon you, weigh heavily on your heart like a huge motionless animal — or else there is nothing left at all.

There was nothing left at all, my eyes were empty, and I felt delighted with my deliverance. And then, all of a sudden, something started moving before my eyes, slight, uncertain movements: the wind was shaking the top of the tree.

I wasn't sorry to see something move, it was a change from all those motionless existences which watched me like staring eyes. I said to myself, as I followed the swaying of the branches: 'Movements never quite exist, they are transitions, intermediaries between two existences, unaccented beats.' I got ready to see them come out of nothingness, gradually ripen, blossom: at last I was going to surprise existences in the process of being born.

It took only three seconds to dash all my hopes to the ground. In those hesitant branches which were groping about like blind men, I failed to distinguish any 'transition' to existence. That idea of transition was another invention of man. An idea which was too clear.42 All those tiny agitations cut themselves off, set themselves up on their own. They overflowed the branches and boughs everywhere. They whirled about those dry hands, enveloping them in tiny cyclones. Admittedly a movement was something different from a tree. But it was still an absolute. A thing. My eyes never met anything but repletion. There were swarms of existences at the ends of the branches, existences which constantly renewed themselves and were never born. The existing wind came and settled on the tree like a big fly; and the tree shivered. But the shiver was not a nascent quality, a transition from the potential to the act; it was a thing; a thing-shiver flowed into the tree, took possession of it, shook it, and suddenly abandoned it, going further on to spin around by itself.43 Everything was full, everything was active, there was no unaccented beat, everything, even the most imperceptible movement, was made of existence. And all those existents which were bustling about the tree came from nowhere and were going nowhere.44 All of a sudden they existed and then, all of a sudden, they no longer existed: existence has no memory; it retains nothing of what has disappeared; not even a recollection. Existence everywhere, to infinity, superfluous, always and everywhere; existence — which is never limited by anything but existence.45 I slumped on the bench, daze, stunned by that profusion of beings without origin: blooming, blossomings everywhere, my ears were buzzing with existence, my very flesh was throbbing and opening, abandoning itself to the universal burgeoning, it was repulsive.46 'But why,' I thought, 'why so many existences failed and stubbornly begun again and once more failed — like the clumsy efforts of an insect which had fallen on its back? (I was one of those efforts). That abundance did not give the impression of generosity, far from it.47 It was dismal, sickly, encumbered by itself. Those trees, those big clumsy bodies ... I started laughing because I suddenly thought of the wonderful springtimes described in books, full of crackings, burstings, gigantic blossomings. There were fools who talked to you about willpower and the struggle for life. Hadn't they ever looked at an animal or a tree? That place tree with its scaling bark, that half-rotten oak — they would have wanted me to take them for vigorous youthful forces thrusting towards the sky. And that root? I would probably have had to see its as a greedy claw, tearing the earth, snatching its food from it.48

Impossible to see things that way. Weaknesses, frailties, yes. The trees were floating. Thrusting towards the sky? Collapsing rather: at any moment I expected to see the trunks shrivel like weary pricks, curl up and fall to the ground in a soft, black, crumpled heap. They did not want to exist, only they could not help it; that was the point.49 So they performed all their little functions, quietly, unenthusiastically, the sap rose slowly and reluctantly in the canals, and the roots penetrated slowly into the earth. But at every moment they seemed on the verge of dropping everything and obliterating themselves. Tired and old, they went on existing, unwillingly and ungraciously, simply because they were too weak to die, because death could come to them only from the outside: melodies alone can proudly carry their own death within them like an internal necessity; only they don't exist. Every existent is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance. I leaned back and I closed my eyes. But pictures, promptly informed, sprang forward and filled my closed eyes with existences: existence is a repletion which man can never abandon.

Strange pictures. They represented a host of things. Not real things, other things which looked like them. Wooden objects which looked like chairs, like clogs, other objects which looked like plants. And then two faces: the couple who were lunching near me, the other Sunday, at the Brasserie Vezelize Fat, hot sensual, absurd, with their ears all red. I could see the woman's shoulders and bosom. Existence in the nude. Those two — the idea suddenly horrified me — those two were still existing somewhere in Bouville: somewhere — in the midst of what smells? — that soft bosom was still rubbing up against cool material, nestling in lace, and the woman was still feeling her bosom existing in her blouse, thinking: 'My tits, my lovely fruits', smiling mysteriously, attentive to the blossoming of her breasts which were tickling her and then I cried out and found myself with my eyes wide open.

Did I dream it up, that huge presence? It was there, installed on the park, tumbled into the trees, all soft, gumming everything up, all thick, a jelly. And I was inside with the whole of the park? I was frightened, but above all I was furious, I thought it was so stupid, so out of place, I hated that ignoble jelly. And there was so much of it, so much! It went up as high as the sky, it flowed away everywhere, it filled everything with gelatinous subsidence and I could see it going deeper and deeper, far beyond the limits of the park and the houses and Bouville. I was no longer at Bouville or anywhere, I was floating. I was not surprised, I knew perfectly well that it was the World, the World in all its nakedness which was suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with fury at that huge absurd being.50 You couldn't even wonder where it all came from, or how it was that a world should exist rather than nothing. It didn't make sense, the world was present everywhere, in front, behind. There had been nothing before it. Nothing. there had been no moment at which it might not have existed. It was that which irritated me: naturally there was no reason for it to exist, that flowing larva. But it was not possible for it not to exist. That was unthinkable: in order to imagine nothingness, you had to be there already, right in the world, with your eyes wide open and alive; nothingness was just an idea in my head, and existing idea floating in that immensity: this nothingness hadn't come before existence, it was an existence like any other and one which had appeared after a great many others. I shouted: 'What filth! What filth!'51 and I shook myself to get rid of that sticky dirt, but it held fast and there was so much of it, tons and tons of existence, indefinitely: I was suffocating at the bottom of that huge boredom. Then, all of a sudden, the park emptied as if through a big hole, the world disappeared in the same way it had come, or else I woke up — in any case I could not see it any more; there remained some yellow earth around me, out of which dead branches stuck up into the air.

I got up, I went out. When I got to the gate, I turned round. Then the park smiled at me. I leaned against the gate and I looked at the park for a long time. The smile of the trees, of the clump of laurel bushes, meant something; that was the real secret of existence.52 I remembered that one Sunday, not more than three weeks ago, I had already noticed in things a sort of conspiratorial air. Was it to me that it was addressed? I regretfully felt that I had no means of understanding. No means. Yet it was there, expectant, it resembled a gaze. It was there, on the trunk of the chestnut tree ... it was the chestnut tree.53 You could have sworn that things were thoughts which stopped half way, which forgot themselves, which forgot what they had wanted to think and which stayed like that, swaying to and fro, with a funny little meaning which went beyond them. That little meaning annoyed me: I could not understand it, even if I stayed leaning against the gate for a hundred and seven years; I had learned everything I could know about existence. I left, I came back to the hotel, and there you are, I wrote.

14 Words have disappeared for Sartre. In particular, he sees the importance of the meaning that words give to things in the subsequent ability to use them; this arises from his goal-oriented approach to existence.

15 He never felt before the naked existence of things: he has forgotten his childhood innocence, perhaps lost too early because of his gifts with words and language: now he has been so long trapped by them, that this gratuitous exposure to naked existence makes him sick.

16 Sartre is grappling with one of the profoundest mysteries of being, mysteries that the mystics work at for lifetimes, but with the huge handicap of his cultural obsession with words, and the need to grasp, greedily, at the mysteries, with words. (How appropriate that Sartre's autobiography is called Words.)

17 This is another reminder of Sartre's impoverished world: things are only there as tools for him, ends for his needs, and at best they exist only in that they can offer resistance. He even treats other human beings this way, for example the patronne, who supplies him with sex as casually as with croissants.

18 Sartre's mind is disintegrating, he can no longer hold on to his conceptualised, ordered world, a world where labelling a person 'crackpot' brings the chaos to heel. Existence is naked in front of him, a moment that Zen Buddhists would wait lifetimes for, but, just as the too-eager search for enlightenment closes the door to many, the open door here is not to be stepped through, for the opposite reason: lack of preparation. Sartre reacts with fear and loathing at the 'suchness' of the root of the tree, his mind is almost gone, but his heart cannot open like Whitman or Jefferies to the tree. His heart is not prepared, even though the park is really trying to reach him!

19 The emotional bankruptcy of the West is summarised here, not that one is embarrassed by love, or emotion — these are simply incomprehensible, out of orbit — but embarrassed by the exuberance of a tree or bush, or even the root of a tree. Whitman understood this when he said that most people could only deal with Nature at one or two removes.

20 Existence is implacably placing itself in front of Sartre!

21 Sartre is fighting back: find the imperfections — look at the surface, the detail, compare them to something dead or decaying, and you begin to conquer the vibrancy of a living thing: you kill it — and yourself of course.

22 Rapturous abundance! Sartre is in the middle of a rapturous abundance, but is in a fight to the death to deny it, to find something he can cling to in opposition to it. In some ways this is the funniest piece of prose ever written! (If it weren't so sad.)

23 But there is no other world! The world that Sartre wishes to usher in, or to hold on to kicking and screaming, is the artificial world of concepts, where a circle is pure: it is the locus of a line about a point, where it cannot mildew or blister; or it is the world that Nietzsche also longed for, the world of music where a melody is eternally fixed and reliable, and conjures the same eternal and false emotion.

24 Another line of attack: find reality comic, you can ridicule it then.

25 No, comedy is too good for reality, make it vaudeville, just a cheap relative of comedy.

26 Only Sartre is ill at ease, the rest of existence does not share his goal-oriented approach: an approach that finds no reason for anything because he has suddenly lost all his artificial goals. But Sartre wants the trees and other existents to be like him.

27 Nietzsche would have recognised the cry of superfluous, as Sartre tries each of his remaining weapons on the unruly existents in turn: he counts them, he orders them by height, he arranges them spatially (hoping that a recourse to bearings will return him to geometry, longitude and latitude, and the safe, pristine world of mathematics).

28 Sartre has progressed a step beyond Nietzsche now.

29 It is not that Sartre is immune to the charm of the park, but that to merely enjoy it would diminish him, strip him of his initiatory status in the relationship.

30 Sartre can only talk in terms of the mental processes, but this is perhaps the clearest indication yet that his mind was silenced, and that he had become the objects he saw, heard and smelled. Only afterwards does he find the word absurdity, to fight back at the existential, the surfeit of suchness in the park.

31 Sartre acknowledges the gulf between words and reality, but immediately goes on to try and dominate the past reality with words and concepts.

32 Perhaps this sums up for us the appeal of this whole episode; absolute or absurd. Sartre's complete innocence of the mystical makes this a humorous (for us at least) tug-of-war between these extremes.

33 He sums it up for us nicely.

34 You can almost hear the longing of every frustrated philosopher that ever existed in this section: the horrid and inconvenient ineffability of existence is mourned, as opposed to the wholly graspable and infinitely preservable concept of a circle: it does not even need a refrigerator to keep it pristine.

35 This is a lovely passage, firstly for the image of the startled hares, and secondly because it goes to the heart of his problem: you cannot hold on to things in the way that he wants to do.

36 This could well be a description of a drug-induced state, or, with just a small change of emphasis, on a mystical state. The ingredient that is missing for it to be mystical is a sense of peace: this is how it is, and it is good that this is how it is.

37 i.e. God. But God is dead.

38 I have the impression that much of philosophy is like Sartre's reaction here to the idea that existence or contingency is absolute; it is an emotional reaction, based on the fact that, in this case, he feels bad, but somehow displaced from his feeling into his thinking. One of the characteristics of meditation, or anything that brings you into the present, is that you are going to notice how you feel, and if you feel bad, then the whole of existence is painted with it. Sartre's experience in the park is unusual in that the intellectual type of person can usually get lost in thought, as an escape from feeling, but this mechanism has broken down. If the mechanism happened to be broken in the middle of a good drugs trip for example, then the whole of existence would be painted with happiness. What does the mystic find? Something inbetween, often unfortunately called bliss, but called 'grey' by Suzuki. Sartre calls it gratuitous, pointless, superfluous, because of the way he feels.

39 This is the fundamental mystical experience: I am that. But if you come to it unprepared, or hostile, or unstable, it can be profoundly disorientating.

40 Time had stopped: another classical symptom of the mystic experience, or of some types of drug experience.

41 This is typical of the apparently discontinuous time experienced under the influence of drugs.

42 Sartre, as do many other western intellectuals, can see that his attempts to order the universe are doomed to failure; 'transition', 'circle', 'black' are not sufficient to deal with reality.

43 As far as I can understand existentialism took from phenomenology this idea that there is no hidden essence behind observable objects or existences, so when Sartre finds nothing nascent (etymologically 'being born') in the movement of the trees, no transition from the potential to the actual, this is a philosophical statement with centuries of historical development behind it. Emotionally, it is part of his alienation: the natural world does not warm him, or (as with the mystics) remind him of, or transport him to, the divine. Philosophers seem to use reason to arrive at 'truths' about the world, which they forlornly hope are universal, when perhaps they are simply elaborating upon their personal, emotional state of being.

44 Krishna says 'I hurl you through time and space'. He doesn't mean him personally, but life itself: things manifest themselves from nowhere and return to nowhere, unmanifest themselves. All for free. And with exquisite skill: do you know how to grow a tree? Or make it shake in the wind? Or grow one of your toenails? Douglas Harding often points this out, the extraordinary skill of existence.

45 Sartre wants to limit existence, because he could then be master of it, in control of it. The mystics want exactly the same, but have found a method that works: union with the whole. Not that this gives the sort of mastery or control that Sartre would like, but it is home. Sartre, as he is, will never be at home in the universe.

46 If you left out the last clause — 'it was repulsive' — this sentence could have come from Whitman, Jefferies, or any of thousands of mystics. But it is man's privilege to reject the divine, and Sartre's genius is to do it casually, as if it was a brand of wine he found vulgar.

47 Because Sartre has no generosity (of spirit).

48 The Buddha has a useful saying: 'The uncut hand can handle poison'. This passage is poison, and very few human beings are 'uncut' enough not to be affected by it. If you find it depressing (as I do) then why not read again Whitman's 'Lesson of a Tree' — it is a good antidote.

49 Sartre is suicidal — when he says the trees did not want to exist, that is an externalisation of his own state (though the mystics know no distinction in fact). Sartre was suicidal during some of the periods while he was writing the book, though I know of no actual attempts; this was just his mood. I believe there is a Zen story of a master asking a tired student what he thought of a polo match: the student said 'The horses are tired'; the master then asked what he thought of the goal-posts, 'The goal-posts are tired.' Upon which the student was enlightened — he realised that he was the universe. Not that he was projecting, as the psychoanalysts would say; he was the universe, and the whole universe was tired, because he was tired.

50 This is part mystical vision, part drug-trip, and wholly alienated, and alienating for Sartre.

51 Sartre's uncanny knack strikes again: he is right to be angry that he cannot find the nothingness! If there wasn't any nothingness, then the material world would be filth, and one should shout at it. There is no rest, there is no home in the existent, because it is impermanent, changing, flimsy. The mystics have found the nothingness that backs up the existent, they make their home in the unmanifest, or perhaps the interface between the manifest and the unmanifest. And it is immensely arduous to come to this nothingness, to become the source of all, but it is the only peace. Over and over again this chapter points, by negation, to ultimate reality; it shows how a total loss of one's true identity cripples one. But if one had never seen a leg, one could still dimly understand it by watching the legless, perhaps one can even understand 'leg' better, than if you watched the fully-legged. The human desperately needs nothingness, and if it is not found in its rightful place, then one rightly seeks oblivion elsewhere: in drink, drugs, or suicide. The real nothingness is sweet, silent, and a millionth of an inch behind reality, or a million light-years away if you look in the wrong direction.

52 This is a beautiful end to the chapter: the park smiles at him. Despite his deep, deep depression, Sartre sense dimly that the universe is benign, that one day it will reveal its true meaning to him. Every human soul, no matter how burdened or alienated, eventually thaws: the universe is in no hurry, but waits for you with a smile, like the park, and when you are ready it does a double-flip and becomes you.

53 The tree is restored to its role in this book, as magical!

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