The Perks of Being a Wallflower
literature contains an endless array of examples of Sartre’s notion of bad faith. Understanding these examples of bad faith in modern literature is important to understanding its philosophical place. It is in literature that the common man truly grapples with philosophical problems and ideals. We see this catholic layman takes to task the twisted tales of Augustan’s Confessions not the highly technical and even abstract works of Aristotle. In Sartre’s own words, “Literature is everything or nothing… a novelist cannot deal with the slightest concrete detail of life without becoming involved with everything” (Sartre, 1961, p. 12). When the novelist takes up the pen all the issues surrounding him take to the page with him. Sartre goes on to explain that no writer can hope to truly portray any concrete part of human existence without inadvertently dealing with all the others in some way. Bad faith is a topic to be seen and dealt with in a wide spectrum of modern literature, for this paper in particular, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
Bad faith is an ordinary French expression which was turned into a key concept of existentialism by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre described bad faith as a self deception which has at its goal the avoidance of one’s own freedom. Some critics, like Robert J. Yanal, reduce bad faith to the simple paradox of self deception. This ignores the critical transcendent nature of bad faith. In the aforementioned novel two examples of bad faith can be drawn out. These two examples will bring to light bad faith’s place in modern literature and in the modern world. Viewed in the context of existential literature bad faith is shown only to exist in the presentence of transcendence, a transcendence that is captured in the essence of the existential novel.
“We must start with the bourgeois world. There is no other starting point. In this sense Existentialism is a bourgeois ideology, certainly. But this is only the starting point” (Sartre, 1961, p. 16). Existentialism above all else is the philosophy of the street. So why begin with the middle class? Because they control the means to produce everything even literature. It is in such a world that literature, according to Sartre, does not change people. Its effects are not long lasting enough and do not bring individuals to action. It is for literature, through its description of the world, to bring context and meaning to individual experiences. Literature makes subjective the experiences of the other in the form of a narrative. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower we are confronted with the life of a young man named Charlie. Charlie witnesses bad faith and experiences it. These experiences allows Charlie to view the other as an object and allows Charlie to feel the shame of being viewed himself as an object. Before we confront what bad faith is and how it is portrayed in the novel let us begin first with the transcendent nature of existential literature.
After World War II existentialism first found realization in the novels and plays of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Marcel and others. These where far more accessible and more widely read by the general public (Michelman, 2008, 143). A piece of literature can be said to be existential in nature when it expresses and ‘idea or content associated with existentialism, such as bad faith and alienation. In this story the reader is the other (Michelman, 2008, 143).’ The novel takes the form of a series of journal entries passed on to the reader as anonymous letters. This form is very similar to Sartre’s Nausea and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The novel in question here has little to do with the characteristic existence of objects which abounds in works like Nausea and focuses on transcendence.
The reader is the chosen recipient not because they know Charlie, know any of his friends, or hold any position in his physical life, but simply because there name is over heard in a conversation. Charlie understands only that the reader is a good person. The reader has no opportunity to view Charlie as an en-sai. To the reader Charlie is, in an unconventional way, the pure abstracted transcendent conciseness of another (por-sai). Charlie is characterized in the novel by Sartre’s chief example of transcendences, shame (Sartre, 1956, p.198). Sartre describes shame as ‘non-positional self-consciousness, consciousness (of) itself as shame or what the Germans call Erlebnis. This is consciousness as it is lived before any sort of conceptualization, the opposite of Erfahrung. Sartre gives example:
I have made an awkward or vulgar gesture. This gesture clings to me; I neither judge it or blame it. I simply live it. I realize it in the mode of for-itself. But suddenly I raise my head. Somebody was there and has seen me. Suddenly I realize the vulgarity of my gesture, and I am ashamed (Sartre, 1956, p. 197).
Sartre proclaims that no man can be vulgar alone. There is no internal base for evaluating vulgarity. Shame manifests itself as a physical emotion which we feel immediately upon discovering the other. Charlie feels shame as he describes everything from masturbation to thoughts of suicide. When he confronts and describes a shameful act he often follows with a series of apologetic remarks often leaving the reader with no real explanation of his actions. Sartre agrees with Husserl in stating that conciseness is conciseness of something (Sartre, 1956, p.lx). Although by the beginning of Sartre’s chapter on bad faith he has taken this conception several steps forward. Now he can, through identifying the human capability of negation, that “Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being.” Charlie knows he can annihilate himself not only physically but consciously. In comprehending his classmate’s suicide he realizes the absurdity of his own existence.
Charlie is in the beginning a sequester. After confronting the suicide of a classmate he finds himself with no friends and consumed by the constant floating fever that is consciousness. It is a consciousness very much like the one described by Sartre. Charlie is constantly gobbling up new experiences. He is constantly consumed by Sartre’s ideal of negation. A missing classmate, a room where he used to watch TV with his aunt, a mix tape abandoned by his sister are all examples of the sorts of absences which Charlie is found to be penetrating and becoming a part of. As Charlie makes new friends and expands his range of experiences he deals with his emotions by writing. Sartre was at one time fascinated by the “sequestered life” before coming to realize it as myth. “There is a common myth-it was very common in my youth-about the writer or the poet who locks himself up and just writes and writes because he can't help himself. It's his nature to be a writer and that's all there is to it (Sartre, 1961, p.16).” If Sartre found this myth to be untrue then Charlie proves it to be untrue. The moment Charlie begins to write all the experiences of his life begin to flood in. Even when he talks about writing a book report he confesses to interpreting the literature he reads in terms of his own experiences. Through his own literature and other Charlie transcends his own being. He begins to realize the absurdity of his existence. He is at the end a being which questions itself, a Dazien.
Examples of Bad Faith
Sartre gives the example of the French waiter. We need only examine George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London to realize why a French waiter would seek out deception as a form of avoiding his own freedom.
The waiter’s outlook is quite different. He too is proud in a way of his skill, but his skill is chiefly in being servile. His work gives him the mentality, not of a workman, but of a snob. He lives perpetually in sight of rich people, stands at their tables, listens to their conversation, sucks up to them with smiles and discreet little jokes.
The waiter according to Sartre only plays at being a waiter. He fancies himself as more than just a waiter, as a great writer in training or simply imagines himself as a man of greater class than he is. As Sartre points out all of the waiter’s movements are too precise and overly exaggerated. He is too eager to take the customer’s order. He, as Orwell pointed out, is not a workman as the waiter only plays at being a waiter. He cannot be a waiter as a en-sai is what it is (i.e. a rock is a rock). Instead all of the facticity of being a waiter refers to the transcendent other, the society which acts to turn his consciousness into an en-sai. His desire to be more than a waiter in this way manifests as an act of bad faith.
Charlie becomes a prime example of Sartre’s notion of bad faith. Charlie is a pour-sai (for-it-self) which realizes himself as an en-sai (in-itself) when confronted by the other. In each of his journal entries Charlie gains this same level of transcendence through the reader. Charlie is constantly attempting to explain or account for his feelings, actions, and ideas to the reader. Through this transcendence Charlie attempts to authenticate himself. In the end he only becomes transformed into an en-sai by the reader. No one can be in state of bad faith on his own. The transcendent nature of existential literature is essential to bad faith’s place within.
Bad faith is found not only in the structure of the novel but also in the narrative itself. Sartre provides us with a narrative of his own, that of a young woman under the courtship of a new boyfriend. While dating she disarms all of his comments of their sensual meanings. In an act of transcendence his approaches become ‘sincere and respectful as the table is round or square’ (Sartre, 1956, p.55). When he acts on his desires by taking her hand or brushing the hair from her face she is forced to confront the facticity of his desire for her. Instead she reduces the acts of her companion to the mode of the in-itself, to a simple en-sai. She is a being who has at the heart of its essence nothingness. This ability allows her to negate her facticity through transcendence and perpetuate a state of bad faith.
Charlie’s sister is in a state of bad faith. She finds herself perused by a young man at school. She views him with distain tossing the mix tapes he makes for her in the trash or handing them off to Charlie. In this way she reduces his desires to objects of distain. She continues to see him but often belittles and betrayers his affections keeping him constantly at arm’s length. All this lead to the point where she was forced to confront his advances head on:
“You see. Even Charlie stood up to his bully. You see.” And this guy got really red-faced. And he looked at me. Then, he looked at her. And he wound up and hit her hard across the face. I mean hard. I just froze because I couldn’t believe he did it. It was not like him at all to hit anybody. He was the boy that made mix tapes with themes and hand-colored covers until he hit my sister and stopped crying (Chbosky, 1999, p.11).
She now begins a sexual affair with the brown haired boy. But she remains in a state of bad faith in convincing herself that she is loved. That she is respected by him. She is clearly aware now that she is nothing more than an object of sexual desire. She chooses instead to remain in a state of bad faith.
Charlie lives in his own state of bad faith. Throughout the novel Charlie is constantly trying to reconcile to lose of his great aunt. He remembers spending time with her. He remembers her life story. He grieves at her graveside. We find Charlie constantly excusing his aunt for her melancholy or derailed state of affairs. It becomes clear that Charlie is trying to account for something more then all of that. In the end we discover the Charlie was sexually abused by his aunt. Was this memory repressed? We must be cautious of excusing Charlie’s consciousness of its role based on such a Freudian phrase. Sartre explains:
Psychoanalysis substitutes for the notion of bad faith, the idea of a lie without a liar; it allows me to understand how it is possible for me to be lied to without lying to myself since it places me in the same relation to myself that the other is in respect to me… (Sartre, 1956, p. 51)
The relation of the ‘id’ and the ‘ego’ still demands a censor or barrier between two distinct consciousnesses within the individual. Such a barrier itself still contains the capability to be in a state of bad faith. More interesting in the wide spectrum of literature is the question of whether repressed memories, or ‘dissociative amnesia’, has any legitimate existence as a disorder. A group of leading psychologist in 2006 challenged the existence of ‘dissociative amnesia’ by challenging the general public to provide any example within literature of dissociative amnesia prior to 1800’s and the development of Freudian psychology (Pope, 2006, p.1). No examples where produced. While not definitive, when viewed alongside Sartre’s assertions we are left to question the existence of such a psychological condition.
What we must recognize here is that bad faith is above all else more than simple self-deception. Critics such as Robert J. Yanal seem to ignore the part played by transcendence. Yanal wishes to reduce bad faith to a simple paradox where an individual accepts a false belief rather than a simultaneously held true belief (Yanal, 2007, p.109). In a length series examples Yanal explores all sort of theoretical self deceptions, none of which seem to consider the importance played by transcendence. The negation of lying does ‘not bear on the consciousness itself; it aims only at the transcendent’ (Sartre, 1956, p.48). The facticity of the individual’s actual self rests on the transcendent.
Charlie transcends is actuality through the reader. He has found himself in a foreign world left to question his own right to exist. He struggles to understand the paradoxical emotions of not only his sister but many others around him. He feels all the classical effects of being reduced to and en-sai through the transcendent power of the reader. This is proper since in the end Charlie is not real. He has no conscious existence or material existence to which he could even constitute an en-sai outside of the readers own consciousness. In this way Charlie is acceptable to the read in a way that most individuals in bad faith are not typically acceptable to us. He is idealized. The contingent nature of his existence allows for a idealized example of bad faith. Someone in complete position of the truth and at the same moment completely self deceived into believe that he is something he is not. Charlie wants to be normal instead he’s a victim of sexual abuse and he carries this scare under the thin veil of bad faith. It is in this way that The Perks of Being a Wallflower as well as Sartre’s and many other writers us literature to provide us with is idealized examples of complex human states such as bad faith.
We are left thought to wonder whiter or not such a state can actually be found in the real world. How many of us can proclaim having been in a state of bad faith? How many psychiatrists identify bad faith in their case studies? And if it did exist how many of us would even be willing to admit of its existence? No one can maintain a state of bad faith alone. An individual requires the presence of the other. Sartre’s ontology allows to posses the individual in bad faith as an en-sai. This leave us with a great difficulty, that of accessing the conciseness of the other. We cannot examine the other’s conciseness anymore then we can examine the conciseness of a fictional character. We are left in the dark. We are left once more battling to escape the time old tendency of French philosophy, solipsism. Hopefully Sartre and Husserl are correct. If phenomenon acts as an index to the actual essences of things then perhaps the idealized notions of bad faith found throughout literature will have some bases in reality. For the time being we will be left to accept literature as one of the best ways for us to examine the complex nature of bad faith.
Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956). Being and Nothingness. Kensington: Citadel Press.
Stephen, Michelman (2008). Historical Dictionay of Existentialism. Lanham, Marland: Scarecrow Press.
Pope, Harrison G. (2006).Is dissociative amnesia a culture-bound syndrome?. Psycholgical Medicine. 10, 1-9.
Ruppert, Peter (1977).The Aesthetic Solution in Nausea and Malte Laurids Brigge. Comparative Literature. 29, 17-34.
Yanal, Robert J. (2007). Self deception and the Experience of Fiction. The Author. 20, 108-121.