View from Rue Saint-Georges

Willfully Unaware

An existentialist on the mysteries of sexual desire

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | January 17, 2018
Jose Oller/Flickr

So much has been written about the viral account of a young woman’s date with the comedian Aziz Ansari, that I will keep my contribution narrow here. Though it’s a dramatic contemporary instance of the way we live now—and without getting into its connection or lack thereof to the larger #MeToo dynamic—this specific encounter put me in mind of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 existentialist masterpiece, Being and Nothingness. In the section dealing with his central concept of “bad faith,” or “the lie to oneself,” he creates several illustrative scenarios, one of which revolves around a young woman he terms the “coquette”:

Take the example of a woman who has consented to go out with a particular man for the first time. She knows very well the intentions which the man who is speaking to her cherishes regarding her. She knows also that it will be necessary sooner or later for her to make a decision. But she does not want to realize the urgency … she does not want to see possibilities of temporal development which his conduct presents. She restricts this behavior to what is in the present; she does not wish to read in the phrases which he addresses to her anything other than their explicit meaning. … [S]he does not quite know what she wants. She is profoundly aware of the desire which she inspires, but the desire cruel and naked would humiliate and horrify her. Yet she would find no charm in a respect which would be only respect. … [The emphasis is mine.]

But then suppose he takes her hand. This act of her companion risks changing the situation by calling for an immediate decision. To leave the hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charm. The aim is to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible.

The lack of obligation to a single course of action is crucial—a necessary, willed ambivalence is what allows her to deny her own awareness of his desire. Sartre’s coquette chooses to interpret her date’s actions as something other than sexual, thus stripping them of anything potentially degrading as well. “We shall say that this woman is in bad faith,” Sartre concludes about the coquette.

Ansari, of course, in making his desire explicit to his date (pseudonymously called “Grace”), attempted to do quite a bit more than merely hold her hand. But Grace’s reasoning throughout—and her otherwise difficult-to-comprehend reluctance to verbalize an unambiguous no and walk away—seems to me another, heightened version of the same fundamental question of bad faith. Grace knows Ansari’s desire for her is at least partially sexual, but she does not want to face the possibility that it may be that and nothing else. As one astute commenter put it online: Grace kept looking for romance only to find a soulless hookup at every turn.

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