The FBI had been keeping an eye on Sartre from as early as 1945. Soon after, they began to investigate his contemporary, Albert Camus. On 7th February, 1946, John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, wrote a letter to “Special Agent in Charge” at the New York field office, drawing his attention to one ALBERT CANUS, “reportedly the New York correspondent of Combat [who] has been filing inaccurate reports which are unfavorable to the public interest of this country.” Hoover gave orders “to conduct a preliminary investigation to ascertain his background, activities and affiliations in this country.” One of Hoover’s underlings had the guts to inform the director that “the subject’s true name is ALBERT CAMUS, not ALBERT CANUS” (diplomatically hypothesizing that “Canus” was probably an alias he had cunningly adopted).
The irony that emerges from the FBI files on Camus and Sartre, spanning several decades (and which, still partly redacted, I accessed thanks to the open-sesame of the Freedom of Information Act) is that the G-men, initially so anti-philosophical, find themselves reluctantly philosophizing. They become (in GK Chesterton’s phrase) philosophical policemen.
Hoover needed to know if Existentialism and Absurdism were some kind of front for Communism. To him, everything was potentially a coded re-write of the Communist Manifesto. That was the thing about the Manifesto—it was not manifest: more often it was, as Freud would say, latent. Thus FBI agents were forced to become psychoanalysts and hermeneuts—drawn into what the historian Carlo Ginzburg neatly called the “cynegetic paradigm” (a brotherhood of clue-hunting detectives in which he includes Freud and Sherlock Holmes). Thus we find intelligence agents studying scholarly works and attending lectures.
But the FBI were “philosophical policemen” in a second sense: in tracking Camus and Sartre (surveillance, eavesdropping, wiretapping, theft) they give expression to their own brand of philosophical investigations.
Hoover’s FBI was deeply suspicious of philosophers, especially foreign ones, virtually philosophobic; but this does not stop the organisation from developing its own brand of philosophical thinking in response to Sartre and Camus—the FBI files on being and nothingness.
The FBI did not read Sartre or Camus in the original French. One of the agents, having stolen some notebooks and diaries (“obtained from the personal effects”) in early 1945, complains that this “material [is] all in French” and translators were drafted in. Then the investigation proper could begin.
The FBI emerge from these files as neo-existentialists in the classic early Sartrian mould. They, like the early Archibald Macleish, take the view that people, not just poetry, “should not mean, but be.” They don’t like meaning—they are on the look-out for it, especially secret coded meanings, but they don’t like it. They certainly subscribe to the “hell is other people” school of thought. And Hoover, in particular, would be greatly relieved if only everyone across the whole of the USA was an angst-ridden, anomic, introverted loner. In short, an Outsider. What they fear and object to is meaning, and finally, the plot—or narrative. They are anti-narrativists.
The FBI echo Sartre’s classic modernist critique of narrative, in his novel Nausea. Hoover’s FBI are quintessential existentialists in refuting teleological narrative—they would rather have contingency and chaos than telos. The FBI found Camus fundamentally their kind of guy: the Camus of the Absurd and the Outsider, according to which the individual will never really make sense of the world, nor hook up, in any kind of long term way, with others.
J. Edgar Hoover, always suspicious of Communist propaganda, kept files on Sartre and Camus.
Is there really a good reason to keep on going? I work a minimum wage job, have never been in a relationship, my family life is shit and abusive...honestly, aren't there some people who don't have anything going for them? Why shouldn't I end it?
Okay. I’m going to do something rather unorthodox:
I’m not going to tell you to keep living.
But I’m also not going to tell you to stop living.
I’m not privy to the details of your life and I am not going to blow sunshine up your ass and tell you it’s all gonna be rainbows and unicorns if you just try to smile a little more. I can only tell you what I’ve found based on my own experience. Here, in brief, are the highlights of my philosophy on situations such as yours:
1.) In almost all cases, life can get better with your effort. This means taking steps to get counseling from a psychologist or psychiatrist or social worker, make healthy choices (counseling being one of them!) and fill your life with better humans, avoiding the shittier ones where possible (and it ain’t always possible). You may need to cut some ties. You may need to do things you don’t want to do, like admit to your own mistakes and missteps. But I promise you it can be done. And if you put in a ton of effort and it fails, so what? You tried. Better to attempt to make your life better than just ending it without even trying. Because what’s the fucking point of that?
2.) Every major improvement is the result of many tiny steps. For example, let’s take your general unhappiness. You want to be happy. I’d wager you will at least feel better if you have someone to talk to. I think a counselor is a great option because that person is (hopefully) unbiased. But to get into the counseling session, you’re going to need to do a few things. You’re going to need to get on the computer and Google counselors in your area. You’re gonna need to make some phone calls or emails to find out who provides free or low-cost care (sometimes they will say they have a “sliding scale” fee. That’s what you’re looking for.) You’re gonna need to make the appointments and write down the appointments and remember the appointments and show up to the appointments. See what I mean by “many tiny steps?” It ain’t gonna happen overnight. This may seem overwhelming, but just focus on mapping out the steps to your goal (feeling less shitty). Then take just one of those steps today. Just one. Then if you’re feeling motivated, you can take the next step. Saving your own life takes some planning and it’s the most important thing you can possibly do, so it’s worth putting in some effort.
3.) EVERYTHING LOOKS SHITTY WHEN YOU’RE STANDING INSIDE A GIANT GLASS PRISON SMEARED WITH SHIT — shit job, shit family, shit love life. That’s how depression works. The rest of the world is so obscured that you can’t see the beautiful and amazing things and opportunities just waiting for you right outside. Killing yourself is not the only way out of this prison. There’s a door. There’s a window. There’s a hole in the roof that’s just your size, and there’s a ladder to help you down from the roof to the ground below. And remember that you can always smash your way out. It’s a glass prison — it’s impermanent and ultimately can’t stand up to the force of your desire to lead a better life. It’s going to be tough and it’s going to hurt sometimes, but it’s going to be the best decision you ever made.
4.) We have some agency in that we are able to determine our own path to a certain degree. You can’t choose whether an anvil drops on your head while you are walking down the street. You CAN choose to keep your eyes open, be aware of your surroundings, get enough sleep at night, eat good food, drink water, and stay sober enough to notice this “DO NOT WALK HERE. CONSTRUCTION IN PROGRESS.” sign. To a certain extent, your life is in your own hands. Recognize that you have some power in this situation.
5.) Blood relation is not an obligation. Your family fucking sucks and they treated you like shit. They still do. I assume you’re an adult. This means you get to leave. You get to make your own choices. You get to take care of the kid inside you who couldn’t leave or make his/her own choices. Ask friends for help. Ask your counselor (remember, the psychologist or psychiatrist or social worker you’re going to seek out!) Ask a pastor for help if God is your thing or if you know a decent clergy member. Tell your story. Keep telling it until somebody listens. Keep telling it until you feel better
6.) Do not waste time on either guilt or self-pity. Neither will do you any good. Focus on forward momentum. Guilt and self-pity will only serve to hold you back. I have wasted far too much time on both these things and I would like to save you the time.
8.) I’ve wanted to kill myself and I never went through with it, and thank God for that, because I’ve gotten to experience an amazing life. If God or fate or science or a speeding bus end it all for me tomorrow, I’ll know I had a great adventure on earth. Or maybe I won’t know it, because I’ll be fucking dead, and who can say what happens? Who can say if death is better, or worse, or just a fat load of nothingness? I figure it’s better to deal with the devil I know (this life) than the devil I don’t (the afterlife — if such a thing exists).
9.) If you can do nothing else — just keep breathing for as long as you can. One breath after the other after the other. Put them all together and you’ve got a lifetime.
I hope you keep living. I trust that you will. You wrote to me, after all. You wouldn’t have done that if you didn’t retain some hope and some understanding that life has better things in store for you. I think you ought to stick around to see what those things are. Sometimes they’re shiny and taste like chocolate. It’s worth it.
I wish you good luck. But more than that, I wish you good effort.
And thanks for reminding me of the things I sometimes forget.
I’m going to go call my shrink now.
Author and comedian Sara Benincasa responded to an anonymous question on her blog Friday with this wonderful, funny, compassionate, important answer. I thought it was well-worth posting here as well.
(Benincasa is the author of Agorafabulous!, a memoir about her past struggles with anxiety, panic attacks, and agorophobia)