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  • Feminine Substance in Being and Nothingness
  • Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi

In the seeming exhaustiveness of Being and Nothingness, (1966) Sartre anxiously but incompletely expressed approach and recoil from the feminine as Other. While he described the phenomenology of love in terms of engagement with the free subjectivity of the beloved, he addressed the (masculine) subject’s relation to female embodiment as the movement of the for-itself’s encounter with the facticity, in which one attempts aggressively to appropriate the autonomy of the Other, then, in recoil, one flies from the obscenely intimate entanglements of other-being. In this essay, I will examine the unstable relation of the for-itself (man) to the in-itself (woman as an objective structure) in the brief, but suggestive chapter, “Quality as a Revelation of Being,” in the section preceding the conclusion of Being and Nothingness. 1

In this chapter, Sartre attempted to anatomize the existential symbolism of things by locating his discussion in two qualities of being: the externality of facticity and the subjectively infused situation. Within this framework, he established another binary field within which he laid out his meandering fretwork of world-in-situation. He divided being along the archaic cleft between the feminine as the continuous, and the masculine as the discontinuous, separate, and apart. Given the importance of his anxiety concerning the annihilation of the for-itself’s composure by too-intimate contact with facticity, the potentiality of the engulfment of the masculine self by a yielding, plastic femininity must be construed as a permanent danger. For Sartre, desire describes the experience of the body-in-situation, “. . . [is] a passion by which I am engaged in the world and in danger in the world” (505). The danger in the case of feminine being is the experience of “being swallowed up in the body” (505).

Although Sartre declared that he would pursue a psychoanalysis of “presexual structures,” in order to examine the way [End Page 133] the subject appropriates the world in the “manner in which being springs forth from [an object’s] surface,” the text gives evidence to an intensely sexualized rumination about the intricate adjustments of ascendancy between the sexes in the arena of ordinary presence (768). While at this point in his book, he has already elaborated the notion of desire at great length in the section on being-for-others, one cannot help but be piqued by an argument in which the for-itself at the axis of his phenomenology is masculine, and is revolted by feminine embodiment.

Sartre considered his ontological analytic to be closer to the truth in having the boldness to address erotic verities, in contrast to Heidegger, who “. . . does not make the slightest allusion to it (sex) in his existential analytic, with the result that his Dasein appears to us as asexual” (498). Thus, Sartre declared that “. . . the for-itself is sexual in its very upsurge in the face of the Other, and that through it, sexuality comes into the world” (527). Following this assertion, he conceded that not all relations to the Other can be reduced to the sexual, yet it is nevertheless fundamental. By a variety of strategies, Sartre repeatedly disregarded the acknowledged subjectivity of the Other as a phenomenological incarnation, and instead, plotted the female role as a species of conniving, disreputable facticity, as the slimy and the hole. He asked, “To what fundamental project of myself am I referred if I want to explain this love of an ambiguous, sucking-in-itself?” (783) In such a formulation, he disclosed his uneasiness by casting the Other as obscenely feminine, a slimy devouring hole irremediably fixed as an ontological category.

His thoughts about the female Other as an unsettling structure of ontology are presented in the context of an anti-empirical, existential psychoanalytic. For Sartre, the notion of feeling as self-originated mood is unacceptable. Emotion corresponds to an actual structure in the world; it is an “objective transcending relation” (770). This does not imply that the feeling-experience confirms, or is the conventional response to the objective features of one’s situation. He wants neither a documentary catalogue of psychic symbolism, something akin to Freud’s lists of correspondences...

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pp. 133-144
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