Sartre and the Lobsters




In 1935, a bad trip triggered Jean-Paul Sartre’s deep-rooted fear of sea creatures. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by crabs and lobsters. When the drug wore out, the crustaceans stayed. They followed him around everywhere. Slowly but surely, he grew accustomed — perhaps even attached — to them. Fully aware that his invertebrate companions were figments of his imagination, Sartre began to talk to them. He greeted them good morning after he woke up. And when he gave lectures, he asked if they could be quiet. They were.

After a year, he visited a psychiatrist. Together, they concluded Sartre was scared of being alone. The camaraderie that had been part of his life had begun to crumble, and apparently this had instilled a fear in him he hadn’t been aware of.

But once he’d identified it, his crustacean friends disappeared like snow before the sun. Sartre admitted he missed them.

This bizarre episode in Sartre’s life spurs a less peculiar question: Do the things we fear represent the things we most long for?

I’m not afraid of lobsters and crabs. As a child, I was fascinated by them. During vacations in Greece, I watched them scuttle off into the ocean and crawl along riversides. Much later, I learned that invertebrates have emotions, which made them even more interesting to me. They lack a backbone but do have a heart, or soul, or whatever you want to call the source of our ability to empathise and connect.

Sartre wasn’t aware of this. He claimed his fear was born in childhood, after he had seen a picture that made him terrified of lobsters and other sea creatures. To him, it wasn’t connected to anything but that. But perhaps, in some hallucinatory dimension, Sartre selected these (rather than other) creatures to keep him company for a while because he was ready to tackle his fears. This would make sense if we stick with Sartre’s existentialism — our actions follow from our own choices, and we’re responsible for all of them.

At the subconscious level, Sartre might have picked his worst tangible fear (crustaceans) to represent his worst abstract fear (losing his friends), thus forcing himself to face both.

Gradually, the arthropods showed him they were pretty harmless. At some point they even became his ten-legged friends. For a while, he embraced them. But he never considered them real. At some point, he believed he was having a nervous breakdown. So, while dwelling in their presence, he prepared himself for a bigger task — facing his true fear. And when he finally identified that deeper, more elusive existential anxiety, the hallucination was gone. Just like that.

Gradually, the arthropods showed him they were pretty harmless. At some point they even became his ten-legged friends. 

“The only way out is through” has become somewhat of a truism, but it
does bear truth. Sooner or later, most of us need to face the things …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More



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[Revised entry by Kenny Easwaran, Alan Hájek, Paolo Mancosu, and Graham Oppy on December 8, 2023. Changes to: Main text]...