As has been explored, society has a profound effect on the reality of an individual. From this it is now useful to examine the magnitude of this effect. The magnitude indeed varies from individual to individual depending on how closely that individual’s reality conforms to the power structure of the society. That is, the strength of social influence on an individual corresponds to the degree that the individual’s reality affirms the social power construct. The higher the affirmation, the lower the magnitude of the effect. The lower the affirmation, the higher the magnitude of the effect. In this way, certain collectives of individuals’ realities are validated while others are not.
The protagonist of Jean Paul-Sartre’s Nausea, Antoine Roquentin, admires a historical figure during a museum visit. Roquentin observes that this historical figure, Jean Pacǒme, created a successful existence for himself as a merchant. Pacǒme did so, according to Roquentin, by creating his own meaning in a world without meaning.
“His extraordinary success (today the Pacǒmes are the richest family in Bouville) could have surprised him. He never told himself he was happy, and while he was enjoying himself he must have done so with moderation… He had never looked any further into himself: he was a leader.” (Sartre 85)
In a sense, Pacǒme becomes the author of his own life. This is what Roquentin admires, that Pacǒme creates his own reality. This is life’s task presented in Nausea by Sartre: Create your own meaning or be left with the meaninglessness of existence. This theme is at the core of existentialism.
To create one’s own meaning against a meaningless existence one needs to exercise one’s will. From here the existential concept of “the will” is created. This can be seen from Arthur Schopenhauer’s “will to live” or Friedrich Nietzsche’s “will to power.” From these concepts the belief arises that all people are responsible for their own success by willing their desire into existence, essentially manifesting their own reality into being. There are two factors which are largely underrepresented from this existentialist paradigm. The first factor being to what degree is one capable of manifesting one’s reality. What is important is not so much that the capability is higher or lower depending on the individual, but rather that for certain individuals the capability is virtually nonexistent. The second factor being that the manifestation of certain individuals’ reality nullifies the capability of certain other individual’s capability to do the same. In this way the first and second factors are related in a telling way about the existentialist paradigm. Their relationship demonstrates the sociological dependency of the paradigm.
In Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf proposes that if William Shakespeare had a sister of equal writing capability it would not be possible for her to obtain the same level of success as her brother because of the social restrictions that were in place toward women.
Let me imagine… what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister… his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. …before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager… guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting—no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? (Woolf 46-48)
Woolf is referring to the barriers that women had which men did not. A woman with the capacity to create as much meaning as a man with the same talent could not due to sociological restrictions which handicapped the woman’s capacity. Woolf uses the metaphor, a room of one’s own, to demonstrate that one’s ability to actualize one’s individual reality can be handicapped and even prevented by restrictions outside the individual’s control. The existential “will” concept is not sufficient enough to manifest individual meaning. The individual must also have “a room of one’s own”, the conditions necessary for that will to be utilized. With enough social conditioning, even the strongest exercise of one’s will cannot escape the influence of the social reality.
The sociological power structure does not only influence the reality of individuals but also the ideas of that society, no matter how profound these ideas are. Existentialism, a profound movement within philosophy that focuses on the actualization of the reality of the individual, has been redirected by the social elite to justify the maintenance of the dominant power structure. If we return to Antoine Roquentin’s admiration of Jean Pacǒme’s self-authorship of individual reality, it is important to consider how Pacǒme’s individual reality maintains the dominant power structure of his society. In what ways has Pacǒme’s merchant trade contributed to the socioeconomic success of his society’s elite class? If Pacǒme’s business took away from the business of the elite, how likely would Pacǒme be able to author his own reality? If Shakespeare had a sister with equal literary talent, does the reality of that sister which threaten the dominance of the elite explain why she would have a harder time actualizing her reality than that of Shakespeare himself? It is presumed that each individual has equal responsibility for the realization of their own reality but when the probability between individuals toward self-actualization is vastly varied by socioeconomic conditions then the truth behind that presumption must be critically analyzed. Otherwise, the society as a whole could be operating under a false reality without its individuals being aware of the reality’s falsehood.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Nausea. New York: New Directions Books, 2007
Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc., 1989