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  • Jonathan Webber

Hell is other people. This miserable-sounding soundbite, the moment of revelation in Jean-Paul Sartre's shortest play, must be the most quoted line of twentieth-century philosophy. Not even Jacques Derrida's claim that ‘there is nothing beyond the text’, fondly cherished in some regions of academia, has anything like the cultural reach of what is often taken to be the quintessential Sartrean slogan. And the analytic tradition hardly abounds in snappy lines: meaning just ain't in the head, to be is to be the value of a variable, and that's about it. You'll not sell many of those t-shirts. Part of the appeal of Sartre's slogan lies, of course, in the fact that we all regularly annoy each other. We think we can see better ways of doing what only other people have the power to do. Your schemes can clash with mine in ways that prevent me from achieving my goals and living my dreams. People can look down on me. Other people can and do thwart, defeat, constrain, disappoint, irritate, and distort us. When we dwell on all this at the expense of the love, inspiration, fun, co-operation, respect, and decency that characterise much of our social interaction, then we find Sartre's slogan neatly encapsulates our mood. Its wit helps us put the melancholia in perspective as we express it. We get it off our chest.

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1 This reading of Sartre is not uncontroversial. I argue for it in my book The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge, 2009), especially chapters 6–10. I intend this discussion of the slogan and the play in which it appears to offer further support for it.

2 No Exit, in Sartre on Theater, ed. Contat, Michel and Rybalka, Michel (Quartet Books, 1976), p. 199. This is a transcript of a spoken preface Sartre gave to a recording of the play published by the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.

3 See, for example: Cox, Gary, Sartre and Fiction (Continuum, 2009), pp. 133139; Detmer, David, Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity (Open Court, 2008), chapter 4; O'Donohoe, Benedict, Sartre's Theatre: Acts for Life (Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 7288; Solomon, Robert, Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts: Experience and Reflection in Camus and Sartre (Oxford University Press, 2006), chapter 7.

4 No Exit, p. 199.

5 These are the titles of published English translations of the text, though the current Penguin Classics edition retains the French title. The play has been performed under a variety of other titles, but these are usually variations on these two basic themes, such as No Way Out or Behind Closed Doors.

6 Though a version set in the Big Brother house could nicely be entitled On Camera.

7 Solomon points out that the characters might be in purgatory rather than hell, but does not seem to realise that this would make a significant difference to the entire narrative, since he goes on to say that the setting of the play means that ‘nothing can happen and no one can ever do anything, ever again’ (Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts, p. 178). Sartre himself did say that it was the desire to give the three characters equal exposure, ‘to keep them together, as if for eternity’, that gave him the idea to ‘put them in hell and make each of them the others' torturer’ (No Exit, p. 199). But it does not follow from this that the final version of the play embodies that idea, rather than merely employing it as the way some of the characters view their predicament.

8 Huis Clos, pp. 203–4. Translation by Stuart Gilbert. In Sartre, Jean-Paul, Huis Clos and Other Plays (Penguin: 2000).

9 Huis Clos, pp. 192, 194, 195.

10 Huis Clos, pp. 198, 193.

11 Huis Clos, pp. 193, 201. Inez taunts Estelle with the idea of hell on p. 194.

12 Huis Clos, p. 221.

13 I take this to be what Sartre meant when he said that the play portrays the ‘living death’ of a person ‘encrusted in a set of habits and customs’ with which they are unhappy but who ‘do not even try to change them’ and ‘therefore continue in many cases to be the victims of judgments passed on them by other people’ (No Exit, p. 200).

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