In Jean-Paul Sartre’s drama No Exit, the character Garcin exclaims towards the end of the play:
So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is — other people!
The context of the play makes this statement almost a denouement, a recapitulation, as three characters stuck in the same place grow in hatred of one another, but as much of themselves to begin with. In the wider context of Nazi-occupied France, the concept of hell on earth becomes plausible but unnecessary as a background to the play and its theme, a sort of redundancy. The notion that hell is other people can stand on its own, let alone as a projection of life on earth with society, culture, and power being what it already is.
Is this statement absolute and universal? We know it is not. Friendship and honesty exists as counterparts to enmity and deception. But what the play is getting at is that self-deception is as much a hell as deceiving other people, being as it were the original sin, the original hatred.
Love of self has always sounded like a self-deception because it is a false counterpart to the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Who can love the self that is a mere product of environment, socialization, culture? If that is all that we are, a series of miscalculations brought about from listening to others and to our popular culture, then, yes, hell is other people, because hell is society writ large. And hell is ourselves.
Everyone tries to shape themselves by what they think they like and what they think they do well. But if it turns out that this is based on the society of the moment and can disappear at the whim of that same contrived culture, we are bound to hate ourselves for “giving in” and hating others for “taking us in.”
How can we shape the self so that it does not depend on others, so that the self does not become a hell? We cannot escape socialization in childhood, nor the many influences of growing, maturing, and making our way in the world. But in a way we must be, like the characters in No Exit, “dead.” Not alive and torturing ourselves and others, not even dead and gone to hell to torture ourselves and others — but “dead” to society and culture, to the desires that stoke hatred, desire, delusion, self-deception, what Sartre calls “bad faith.”
That other people constitute hell is not self-evident. It means realizing that we gain nothing by intersecting with the mass of people and the products of society and culture. That realization is difficult enough, for it is what the average person will consider depressing, pessimistic, anti-social, a standard more difficult than loving your neighbor, whatever they may think that means. It is the first stage of solitude, of becoming what Nietzsche called a wanderer and a solitary.
But only in disengagement can the true self emerge, or even have a chance to do so. Nothing good can come out of abdicating the self to the world, for at a whim the world will drop what amused you and substitute something else to torture you. Then, up close, trapped like the characters of Sartre’s play, we will find hell.
Having identified the self as it really is — outside of the contrivances of people and culture — we can begin to strengthen that self, strengthening it to the point of being able to use it only for what is solitary and wise. And in our daily lives, even intersecting with others, we will then know what we are to do, and we can do it well. This “right doing” will give our lives meaning, a meaning that does not intersect with hell, but grazes it tangentially. It will then be at that point that Shunryn Suzuki describes:
When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes.