There's No Exit From Bad Objects:

A Psychoanalytic Look At Sartre's No Exit


Michael Russell

California State University, Fullerton


            One of the virtues of philosophy is its commitment to providing reasoned argument for claims made. A nice thing about literature is that it considerably relieves one of that obligation. So, given the license of the media, a play, Sartre can use his “No Exit”  to simply  tell us: Hell is other people. Hell is eternity in an apartment with a couple of roommates. His characters Garcin, Estelle and Inez are going to be stuck with one another forever. No windows, no mirrors, no eyelids, no light-switch, and no exit. It's catchy, but why should we believe it? The fact is, I don't believe it. Personally I would rather spend an eternity with my counterparts to Inez and Estelle than the few short minutes of being dragged to death behind a truck, as was done recently to a Black man in Texas. Maybe I’m underestimating eternity, but I think Sartre underestimates physical pain. His characters think so too. With Garcin we wonder, “Where are the instruments of torture, the racks, the red-hot pincers?” The sort of hell Sartre describes is surely not the most excruciatingly painful place one might imagine. We know there are kinds of pain that are simply overwhelming, where to suffer means to simply undergo. In a way, there is nothing there that needs to be understood. But this apartment life is everyday suffering, a hell that is routine; evidently it is something which in some way is of our own doing. It is something we should very much wish to understand.

            There is certainly something engaging about Sartre's glib formulation. He does give a philosophical presentation --elsewhere-- for what is delivered here with the latitude afforded by literature. He does give an account of why it is that we can be  known by another consciousness in a way that we can never know  ourselves. If we are familiar with his directly philosophical works we understand the point of there being no mirrors and no escape from being seen by the others. The hell of it is, I want to escape the anxiety of freedom. I want to be the foundation of my own being. I can't do it because I can't coincide with the self I try to see. But you can do it to me; you can see who I am.

That is a subtle sort of hell. Maybe from this vantage point hell is other people, but there are other subtle kinds of hell. Recall that in many societies the most devastating way to punish is banishment.  Our “civilized” form of extreme punishment is solitary confinement.  Of the more everyday forms of suffering, surely loneliness ranks high. People! Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. Why not a play called “No Access,” about the misery of isolation from others? I shall return to this contest between the more subtle forms of hell.

            Because this is to be a short paper, I take the liberty of giving my account of Sartre dogmatically. But there is to be another tributary to this paper--my understanding of object relations theory in psychoanalysis. There, too, I shall take liberties.

As a practicing psychoanalyst I sometimes wish that the rationale for what I do had more of the sort of support that a philosopher would like, and less the sense of the potential for capriciousness found in literature. I can wish, but it's not so. The fact is that I come to a clinical hour having heard a number of “stories” before.  Some are called theories. Sometimes because of these and some times in spite of them, I hope to listen to another person in a special way. I expect to make some contributions of my own.  Hoping to be a good listener, I think I provide a context in which my clients evolve a story of their own. It is in that spirit that I have sought to become acquainted with psychoanalytic theories ---- and there are really quite a lot of these --- sometimes lumped together as “Object Relations Theory.”  As with my exegesis of Sartre, I am giving myself latitude in how I present this composite:  I draw from rather diverse contributors -- Freud, certainly, and, Klein, Winnicott, Kernberg, Mahler, Fairbairn, Lacan, MacDougal, Bollas, et. al.. Pretending for the moment that these diverse theories yield a single “story line,” it goes something like the following.

            As we develop from infants to adults we evolve increasingly complex ways of experiencing the objects of our feelings---persons---not only in our actual encounters but in how, within ourselves, we set up representations of these objects. Thus, object relations theories are about how we relate to the objects of our feelings, both without and within. Starting from an infantile “cauldron” of affect, we seek to rid ourselves of bad feelings, spit  them out, and seek to savor what feels good, take it in. That much is Klein. Over time these globs of affect become the epistemological organizations which constitute experience.  Projecting the bad and introjecting the good, bad and good are split apart. More projecting the bad, more introjecting the good, the experienced objects become increasingly complex and we become more ambiguous as we approach a realization that we love and hate one and the same being. This is what Klein calls the depressive position. Klein is telling a story about what she regards as infantile “phantasy.” According to that story, the infant takes flight from this depressive ambiguity, seeking to again simplify things into black and white, good versus bad. What results are  attitudes or styles of dealing with the “objects,” the people “out  there,” and we spend our lives shifting back and forth between the  black and white splitting which Klein calls “the paranoid/schizoid  position” and the more integrative and ambiguous “depressive  position.” These are ways of dealing with the “objects/people out  there” when our eyes are open, so to speak, and also ways of dealing  with what this theory regards as the “objects/people within,” relationships with “internal objects,” when we shut our eyes , so to  speak, and imagine.

            Stay with me. There are, then, “external” and “internal” object relations. Joyce MacDougal uses the metaphor of a stage within where there are a cast of characters with whom we have various interactions. These characters are distinguished from the “people out there” with whom we also interact. Relationships on the one front will impact the experience of relationships on the other. For  instance, I have been imagining a hostile audience, unreceptive to  this paper, then, fresh from this bad (imagined) experience, I am,  perhaps, too quick to view someone's shifting in his chair as  confirming “out there”  more of the same bad relationship. And should this audience treat my presentation nicely, this good feeling may carry over to what I imagine, in days to come, should I consider presenting this paper again at another conference. Note that my object relationships whether within or without are structured by my understanding of them. While my external object relations are presumably somewhat more “reality based,” there is  no intended implication that they are “objective reality” and that the  internal object relations mere fantasy.

            One more piece of theory. It has been held by some object relations theorists that the motivation for setting up this “internal world” of various objects is that this affords us a measure of control that we otherwise would not have. This was Sigmund Freud’s view of pathological mourning: prolonged grieving is a way of hanging on to what otherwise would be the loss of an object.  This is also part of the reasoning behind the idea of a “super-ego.” On Freud's view, the super-ego is the internalized fantasy of the expectations of others, which, because one has made it ones own, is more under one's own control. It lurks in Anna Freud's view that the baffling repetition by which the abused child later becomes an abuser is because of an “identification with the aggressor.”  To put it in MacDougal's stage metaphor, we have installed caricatures of dangerous parental figures in the theater within the self.

            An interesting variant to the above comes from the work of Fairbairn. He is of the opinion that there is really no need to install good objects within us, since good relationships pose no problem. He thinks, as I understand him, that the only internal objects are bad ones. The reason for maintaining this theater within of bad objects is that it affords us some measure of control. In Fairbairn’s view, bad objects come in basically two varieties (and combinations thereof), the frustrating object and the alluring but evasive object. It is interesting that, to my knowledge, Fairbairn does not much address bad internal objects who/which are the source of severe physical pain. In any case, this portrait of the nature of bad objects yields a pessimistic weltanschauung equal to any gloomy view one believes is to be found in Sartre. In our internal worlds, at least, and however this may color our external relations, we are fascinated by bad objects; and these are the inhabitants within who we feel will frustrate us, intrigue us, evade us, and ultimately leave us. The bottom line is fear of loss. Better bad objects than being alone.

To switch momentarily to a more cognitively-worded formulation:  we form negative hypotheses about the world in order to organize experience and defend against loss. In our imaginations we find ways of verifying these pathological beliefs. Colored with this, we approach relationships in the world around us --partly expecting, and maybe even orchestrating verification of our fears. “I tell you I’m afraid of losing you, and you withdraw. You see! I knew I shouldn’t trust a woman!”

            Inwardly, we are fascinated with our nemesis -- the person just right to be our undoing. This I hereby dub the nemesotic object.  The term combines the idea of a nemesis, a suffix suggestive of psychological pathology, and what the phenomenologist call the noematic correlate of intentionality. This nemesotic object is the stuff that dreams are made of. All too often, it is also the stuff that the external counterparts are made of -- marriages, for example, and, yes, roommates. Should these significant others not initially play their assigned parts, we train them.

            To sum up: from an object relations perspective, we are prone to lousy relationships with those around us because we expect them.  This is based on bad relationships carried on within us. These internal relationships are the result of striking a bargain in which one prefers to have and control a painful relationship than to suffer what is worse, a loss.

            So there, ever so briefly, is object relations theory. If you like, call it a story line. I am sure it can yield the sort of creative listening some call therapy. There is no doubt that it is built on shaky philosophical premises. I am myself not fully convinced that there is  an “inner life,” let alone that it is furnished with “representations” or  inhabited with “objects” with whom I relate. Even so, and granting  that sometimes such ideas just get in the way, sometimes they help  me, as a therapist, to get through an hour.

It dances well with Sartrian theory. Let me quickly summarize a few key features here. Sartre holds that we are dreadfully free, and he thinks we will try to deceive ourselves about this by trying to escape “apprehending” this freedom. The fact is that what we are is never settled, as long as we are alive. This is a consequence of the “intentionality” of consciousness. Consciousness is always “other than” its object, and hence we can never succeed in making an “object” of ourselves. Self-deception consists in a flight from dealing with the anxiety that this occasions. Others present both the occasion and a means for attempting this flight. Maybe I can’t know what I am, but you can. What I am for you can coincide with what I do, while that coincidence with myself is impossible.  My consciousness will always be other than its object, and if the object is myself, I can never catch up. If I can get you to tell me who I am, then at least I will have an identity, I will know who, or what, to be.

            Sartre describes masochism as this form of relying on the consciousness of another. Love, he thinks, is the masochistic effort to coincide with the objectification of the other. Here Sartre echoes Dostoevsky's character in Notes From Underground, who holds that having an “identity,” any identity, would be a blessing.  Alternatively, I can try to strip the other of the capacity to impose an identity on me, by imposing one on him (or her). Sartre tells us that in its extreme form, this is sadism. Sexuality is a species of sadism: it seeks to dictate the experience of the other. Neither love nor sex can solve the riddle. Love is precarious. The other will love me too much or too little. Sexuality fares no better; it was all about controlling the experience of the other, yet it falls into  self-absorption. It seeks to enslave the other, yet is dependent on recognition.

So hell is other people.

            Now we have two story-lines: an object relations view from one side and Sartre's perspective from another. Let's see what happens when we play one story-line against the other. Enter “No Exit.”  In Sartre's story hell is about being seen by the other. Garcin sees Estelle; Estelle sees Inez; and Inez sees Garcin and Estelle.  All know they are seen by the others. From an object relations perspective for each character hell consists of the other two characters. This is because each links up with representations the others characters carry within -- that is what makes them hell-appropriate. Garcin and Inez are just right for Estelle's kind of hell; Garcin and Estelle are just right for Inez's -- etc. Even points that pose difficulty for these theories add to the appreciation of the story-line. For instance, note that it is one thing to say that Inez represents something for Garcin, and another to say that Garcin is relating to a representation. Difficulties multiply (beyond necessity?) if we add that all this are a spin-off from relationships within. So it goes.

Garcin wants to be seen (thought of, regarded) in a certain way.  He wishes he might be thought of as a man of high principle. He was a pacifist before the war broke out. He had planned to refuse to fight. He wanted to show himself to be someone with the  courage of his convictions. The fact is, he took flight, was caught, and shot as a deserting coward. He wishes he might be though of as a hero who rescued from the gutter a woman he later made his wife. In truth, however, he humiliated her by parading his infidelities under her nose. So it goes.

            Now he seeks his salvation from Estelle's look: if only she will see him as someone other than a coward. Alternatively, if only she will declare that he indeed is a coward. Then, at least, something will be settled. And Estelle is perfectly willing to give him the words he wants, but it is clear that her words are empty. She is equally ready to declare that she has neither illusion about nor interest in his being a coward. She is not interested in how Garcin wants to be seen; what she wants is for Garcin to look at her. Garcin has found in his public world the dilemma he may be presumed to have established within himself. Estelle is frustrating; she is elusive.  Garcin is seeking to control the external counterpart to what Fairbairn calls a “bad object” and what I called the “nemesotic object.” He will train her to become his nemesis.

            Estelle killed her baby. Her lover blew his brains out. She hopes she’s pretty! If only she had a mirror, perhaps she could assess her beauty for herself. But there are no mirrors in her hell, only other people. So, Estelle determines that Inez will be her mirror. But what Inez sees when she looks at Estelle is not a pretty picture.  Inez sees is that Estelle has a cruel mouth. Inez sees that Estelle has a pimple on her chin. Estelle is damned by Inez' look. Unlike the others, Estelle has eyelids. In his technical works Sartre maintains that we are subjectively unable to simultaneously be looked at by the other and do the looking; in the play this idea is captured by Estelle's being the only one with eyelids: her interpersonal style emphasizes being the one who others look at.  Yet Estelle has a dilemma: she wants to be looked at, but not when she cannot control what the other will see. Estelle will have sex with Garcin, but she will not redeem him. Garcin will have sex with Estelle, but he does not value her nor will he give her the sort of objectification she requires. Inez would gladly have sex with Estelle but there is no reciprocity. Garcin initially seems sexually drawn to Inez, but the feeling is not mutual.

Inez is a bitch. She is cold and cut off. Inez does the looking but it’s hard to see her. Back on earth she had been so calculatingly indifferent to Florence, her lover, that Florence turned on the gas before she came to bed. So much for Inez and Florence's stay on earth! Inez needs to be seen as the one who does the looking, and she can't have it both ways. So, when her earthly apartment is sublet and there is another couple in her bed -- her bed! -- it torments her that they not only don't grasp that it's hers, but they  don't even know they are being watched. Inez fares better with her capacity to inhibit lovemaking between Estelle and Garcin; but Inez will be in an eternal state of precariousness, because she requires that her seeing, in turn, be seen.

            It does not take long for each character to acquaint the others with the parts they are to play. They are all perfectly suited for one another -- perfect like hell.

A deal could be added to this sketch of the story-line of the play, and how it brings Sartre's complex theories to life. What would be gained by bringing in an object relations perspective? Sartre, himself, probably would not like it. He wouldn't have much use for a philosophical commitment to the language of an “inner life.” It is a virtue of his phenomenology of interpersonal relations that he locates subjectivity in the world. Sartre is often misrepresented as a Cartesian; there is really very little trace of Descartes' sort of hidden mental realm. If Sartre invites us to speculate about the other, this will be speculation about how specific acts fit with a larger picture rather than about what may or may not be going on within. On philosophical grounds Sartre would be better off without the help of object relations theory. The play doesn't need any help either. Did Garcin's childhood revolve around some unconscious fear that an overbearing father might deprive him of his masculine identity? Did Estelle get stuck in Mahler’s rapprochement sub-phase of individuation, so that now she desperately needs the mirroring that an un-empathetic mother failed to provide back then? Is Inez' show of coldness a schizoid defense against her fear of harming people she really loves? Are all three characters illustrations of the sort of “false self” that Winnicott thinks we can develop in infancy as a means of trying to anticipate and settle down an anxious mother? Who cares! The story works fine without that sort of help! But now, when I put on my  psychoanalyst's hat, and when I imagine what any of these three  might have said on a couch, as opposed to a stage, I'm convinced  that the object relations story-lines do help. They serve to facilitate the development of collaborative narratives that serve to enlarge a patient’s sense of meaning, to enhance the availability of affect, to challenge pathological beliefs, to highlight opportunities for doing things differently. In short, they make for good therapy. These are pragmatic considerations --- heuristics.

            However, I do want to touch on two philosophical lacunae in Sartre’s theory where the object relations perspective might help. I do not think Sartre adequately explains why the experience of freedom should be anxiety. And I do not think he explains well  enough why the capacity of the other to see me better than I can  see myself should be experienced as a threat. Yes, he says a very great deal about these things. I'm jumping to the bottom line: I’m not convinced. This is related to what I said at the outset of this paper, namely that I am not persuaded that his version of hell is so awful. A psychoanalytic answer to the first problem is that we start off life in a state of a flood of disorganized affect, and that the quest to build and maintain some sense of organization is of paramount importance. In existentialist's parlance, we seek a sense of identity, and practically any sort of identity will do. Secondly, this provision of organization comes from the Other. This is the good-enough mother of Winnicott, who provides just the sort of empathy which enables the bearable disillusionment from infantile omnipotence. This is the mirror that Lacan tells us about--- both the literal mirror and the “mirror” in the form of mother's mimicking of baby's facial gestures. This is the taking in of the other, setting up an internal object world, where we have some control over who does what and with whom. This is the learning who we are in learning a language and in learning how we can identify ourselves as alluring sexual beings. In all these ways the other teaches me who I am. And so, after utter disorganization, and after overwhelming physical pain, the worst thing that can happen is to loose the other. Here's the payoff to orchestrating and enacting pathological relationships and stubbornly verifying pathological beliefs. I don't think it really matters who is elected to be the roommates of Garcin or Inez or Estelle. In practically no time any one of them could manipulate nearly anyone else into acting out their internal scenarios. Better that than the devastating instant realization that the other can leave, can reject me, can die. That specter of loneliness and aloneness is another kind of purgatory.  There is safety in the familiarity of the situation in which Garcin, Estelle and Inez find themselves. Better that than loss. Maybe hell is other people, but losing the other is worse. Each of them, and maybe each of us, gets the best possible hell.