I went through several possibilities about what to write about this week. I originally thought of the French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre’s play, “Huis Clos”, or “No Exit”, for my title. In French “Huis Clos” more or less translates as, “Sealed Chamber” or “Closed Room”.
I considered it because at the moment we are in a kind of existential crisis from which an exit is not clearly in sight. Here in Europe, countries have closed their borders to all but essential transportation. Airlines have stopped flying, schools, parks, businesses and in some cases whole factories have stopped working. Life as we have known it through the second half of the twentieth century and up through the first quarter of the twenty-first century has in so many ways ceased to exist. Finding meaning and purpose is now up to each of us more than we have known in a very long time. So much of what has defined us has disappeared or at least been put on hold. Our work, our community, our freedom of movement, are cryogenically frozen like Hans Solo in one of the early Star Wars movies.
For those of you who have forgotten the story line of Sartre’s, “No Exit” (“Huis Clos”), I’ll give you the Cliff Note of the Cliff Note version. In the play three people are in a room with a locked door. No one knows the other. As they interact they quickly realize they can’t stand each other. They also come to realization that they are dead. They surmise that they are in hell. Even when the door to the room is finally opened they can’t leave because they fear taking responsibility for their actions and their lives. They choose hell over freedom and responsibility.
Now that is heavy stuff, but then no one ever described Sartre or any of the French Existentialists as particularly jocular and fun loving. They had lived through two catastrophic world wars and they were not about to make light of anything. They were hell bent on telling people to wake up and take responsibility for their actions and their lives and not surrender themselves to the so called “ security” of a Huis Clos. To not take responsibility for their existence would lead to once again the rise of demagogues, despots, and false prophets who promise security or greatness in exchange for fealty.
You can’t get much more serious than French Existentialism. You can, however, find the same philosophical sentiments in a catchy song from 1972 by Stealer’s Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You”. I’ll include some of the lyrics here. You can listen to the whole song on YouTube.
Well I don't know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain't right,
I'm so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I'm wondering how I'll get down the stairs,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you
Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you,
And I'm wondering what it is I should do,
It's so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I'm all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you
The song is a fun, bouncy jingle, that made it to number eight in the top 100 charts of 1973. In its somewhat wry, sarcastic humor that marked the 70’s counter-culture, it fit with the ethos of the era, which was to wake up, stop following self serving leaders, and take responsibility for our actions and question the clowns and the jokers who sold us phony wars, economic systems that only benefited the wealthy and “trickled down” crumbs to everyone else, that for profit hospitals gave us better health care, that we should privatize our social security and tie it to the stock market, that expanding medicare would cost too much, that more guns will stop gun violence, and on and on.
We are currently in our own hui clos. Will we use this time of confinement to talk with our friends, our colleagues, our political candidates and our politicians, about learning from this hellish pandemic or will we rush back into the very life style that made us so vulnerable to the economic and social crises we are now experiencing? Will we allow the “clowns” and “jokers” in our society to fool us once again into thinking that everything is fine just the way it has been?
Before I end I want to thank my French Literature instructor, Monsieur Kelsen , who had great passion for the French Existentialists. I didn’t have the life experience at twenty years old to fully grasp what I was reading but his teaching stayed with me through the years.
I want to apologize to real scholars of French Existentialism. I admit I’ve bent the subject a bit to meet my literary needs. I also sincerely apologize to rock and roll purists who are surely appalled at my linking a pop hit to anything as intellectual as Existentialism and Sartre. I also offer apologizes and my thanks to Gene Rafferty and Joe Egan who wrote, “Stuck in the Middle with You”.
Oh, and one last apology to legitimate clowns who make us laugh and lift our spirits.
Let me hear from you. I value your feedback. Please subscribe if you find these screeds interesting. If I have to be stuck, I prefer it to be with you. Be well, stay safe, laugh, cry, love.