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  • Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts: Experience and Reflection in Camus and Sartre
  • Thomas R. Flynn
Robert C. Solomon . Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts: Experience and Reflection in Camus and Sartre. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. ii + 241. Cloth, $35.00.

This study in existentialist thought is a collection of essays, some previously published, in defense of the thesis that existentialist thought, at least in these works, is the articulation of our pre-reflective experience that yields an immediacy and a richness often sacrificed when one turns to abstract reflection—as Solomon believes Sartre does in Being and Nothingness in contrast to his novel, Nausea. Camus is presented as less bivalent in this regard, which may be why he is considered less the philosopher and more the novelist (193).

Solomon insists that both Sartre and Camus draw a crucial distinction between lived experience and reflection in accord with the particular kind of "phenomenology" employed by each. His reading of each text focuses on extreme experiences that are "often dark, perverse, bordering on the obscure and pathological" (4). Still, he assures us, "Camus and Sartre exemplified a weird but palpable love of life. It shines clearly through even their most dreary political and moralistic prose" (5). [End Page 179]

Both authors are awarded equal consideration, works of each being allotted four of eight chapters: Camus's The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, and The Fall, and Sartre's The Emotions, Nausea, Being and Nothingness, and No Exit. Given the scope of his thesis, the selection is fair and apt. He includes close critical analyses of "translucent" consciousness and bad faith in Being and Nothingness, noting that, for Sartre, "reflections [on experience] were more fascinating than the experiences themselves" (4). Again, this would explain why Sartre has been taken more seriously by philosophers than Camus, despite the latter's rehabilitation in recent years—a rehabilitation owed chiefly, I suspect, to Camus's more moderate political stance.

Solomon applies the experience/reflection distinction deftly in his close reading of these six texts. He contrasts the passive and profoundly non-reflective Meurseult in the first two thirds of The Stranger with the reflective agent who emerges toward the end of the novel. Similarly, Roquentin in Nausea is considered the protagonist of a "theory-free book." in contrast with Being and Nothingness, which Solomon characterizes as "theory-obsessed" (67).

This core dyad serves to reveal new insights into well-studied texts and contributes to the originality of Solomon's reading. For example, he discovers a confusion of reflection with self-consciousness that occurs not only in Sartre but in "a great many phenomenologists" (107). He plausibly observes that we can be reflective without being self-conscious (as when we are thinking about a problem), and self-conscious without being reflective (as in the experience of embarrassment or pride). He considers Sartre's notion of the pre-reflective Cogito an unsatisfactory attempt at synthesizing these two concepts. Appealing to his earlier studies on the passions and the emotions, Solomon argues that "every emotion, as part of its essential structure, involves consciousness of oneself" (107). This is but one of several instances where Solomon uses a refined notion of reflection to reconsider commonly accepted existentialist theses and concepts.

Another of Solomon's "revisionist" readings of these texts is his interpretation of Sartrean "bad faith" with the help of "intentionality" understood as "action." Admitting that "it is the self as the agent in bad faith and of bad faith that raises the biggest problems for Sartre" (141), he insists that Sartre's position is incoherent because it defends two conceptions of self-consciousness as equally primordial: namely, one that denotes unmediated awareness of self implicit in every explicit awareness of an object, and the other, a self mediated by our awareness of other subjects (142). While I admit that this is a significant objection, and one that calls for the kind of nuanced analysis that Sartre's dichotomous thinking typically overlooks, I wonder if the sharpness of the dichotomy that Solomon finally resists might be removed by appeal to degrees of implicit or peripheral awareness. In any case, Solomon has brought to our attention...


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pp. 179-180
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