Why Sartre today?

SARTRE

This graphic novel about Sartre’s life is being published in the US by NBM, in a pessimistic era and in a global political context that, in short, can be described as worrying and freedom-destroying. “The story of a life is the story of a failure”. Sartre was amused by his own irony in writing that we are constantly running after that which makes us incoherent, dissatisfied, incomplete beings: desire.

 

However Sartre and his existentialism were not pessimistic. It was important to me to show his full personality in this graphic novel. His entire life was crossed by desires; as incoherent and misunderstood as they might be by his contemporaries as well as the reader of today. These days I appreciate more his partner Simone de Beauvoir and her work as a feminist, but at that time I wanted to continue to develop my thoughts and writings on him.

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In 2011 at 23 years old, I graduated in Contemporary Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the school where Sartre also studied. This field of study “Contemporary Philosophy” inncludes philosophy which followed the great revolutions in thinking by Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, to today. My thesis I defended was on Sartre’s attraction to psychoanalysis. This attraction is a story of love and hate; as a thinker of his time, Sartre wanted to go deeper into the Freud-Marxist legacy. He was extremely interested in one of the most important revolutions in the XIXth century. He was excited and afraid of the idea that the human psyche comes with a dark zone called “the unconscious”, and we finally acquired the tools to explore it, like a new language or a forgotten Atlantis.

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Sartre was deeply attracted by this perspective, only it was impossible for him to admit that this unconscious is ruling us, deciding things for us, driving us with dreams and Freudian slips. I wanted to look at the reason why. Sartre actually strongly believed that human beings are ALWAYS free and that they only decide for themselves, alone. This counteraction between the two concepts of unconscious and freedom haunted him his whole life. He never underwent psychoanalysis himself but instead wrote several books about artists and writers to vicariously experience the analysis process. These writings he poetically called “existential psychoanalysis”. He published texts and essays about Baudelaire (Baudelaire), Jean Genet (Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr), Tintoretto (The Sequestered of Venice), Gustave Flaubert (The Family Idiot)… and himself (The Words).

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We could criticize him for being so stubborn to the point of writing an unreadable 3000 pages on Flaubert to “psychoanalyze” him and therefore completely avoid the main concept of psychoanalysis. Ironically, he came to the same conclusion as Freud; a psychoanalysis is endless (even if not useless). Maybe he pursued the question of the unconsciousness not out of intellectual curiosity but fear. Sartre was approaching death at the time of the writing of this colossal book and was using many destructive drugs. It was also the time when he missed the ’68 revolution in Paris and was accused by the youth of being a bourgeois writer; an intellectual who stayed in his comfy office writing on lofty issues while the streets were on fire.

 

As he was emphatically defending freedom he did indeed forget his privileged social milieu (born in the tony Saint-Germain-des-Prés, he received the best education possible). How then, could he dare to say that violence can be justified, if its noble aim is to defend freedom? Or that a slave somehow always has a choice, even if the only one way of escaping is in thought?

 

This graphic novel definitely does not solve these complex philosophical-political problems. My aim was to make them visible by showing the man behind these strong ideas and inconsistencies. “The little man” as his “amour nécessaire”, Simone de Beauvoir, called him affectionately. He was a stubborn man who loved life and people. An Epicurean who loved to travel and party. A radical artist who only used drugs for philosophy and not for literature, as literature had to stay “pure”.

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While criticizing him, we could also give him credit where credit is due. As a young writer, I admit that I was charmed by his obsession for freedom, his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir and their many famous friends. In Sartre, I wanted to show the sexy and sometimes dirty back-stages, distilling anecdotes that are least well-known about him and Simone de Beauvoir. Also to show that it is not completely hopeless to cling to the defense of all kinds of freedoms, even at a time when the world seems to draw the outlines of an existential prison.

See the new Sartre book and stay tuned for artist Anais Depommier’s tour starting next week!

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It’s Only Science!

It’s now less than two months to go before my book Science: a Discovery in Comics will be in stores! To whet your appetites, here’s a bit of a proto-science-comic I made for newspaper Trouw in 2009, for its philosophy section. Philosophy of Science has always been my interest, and here I had the opportunity to comment on the annoying habit of using scientific arguments to diminish the wondrous diversity of reality:

The kind of science I’m commenting on in this comic is actually science working in the old, “mechanical” paradigm – in modern science we see a shift towards a more holistic paradigm nowadays. If you want to know more about that, please read my book – you can already order it at Amazon!

How To Pick Those Pivotal Philosophers?

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

In May 2009 Kees Korenhof of Publishing House Meinema asked me to make a comic book about philosophy, and I had boldly agreed to have it finished in time for the Spring 2010, which meant a deadline in October. I had to sit down and produce.

I started out by drawing two introductory chapters to define the area. What Is Thinking? And what makes Thinking in humans so special, compared with the consciousness process in (other) animals? Along the way, I introduced myself, or rather my cartoon character, my husband Yiri and our two cats.

But then it was time to dive into solid philosophical history. Where to begin? Well, fortunately it was very obvious: Western philosophy starts with that illustrious trio Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

If you would offer me a chance to meet one of these three, I would definitely pick Socrates. He lived in very turbulent times, went to war on several occasions, and was not afraid to speak his mind, even against the leaders of his own city-state. They didn’t thank him for that: he was sentenced for spoiling the younger generation and disregarding the gods, and was offered a choice: banishment or death by poison. It certainly speaks for his character that he chose the latter: he was not a man to be dismissed.

That was all in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., in a land far away… which philosopher is next? The Roman Empire sure had some great thinkers, but not great enough to equal the influence of the Ancient Greek in the development of Western thought. Actually, we had to wait about 800 years before the next candidate emerged: Augustine.

By that time, Christianity was gaining power rapidly in Western Europe and Augustine was an enthusiastic convert – after he led a life of liberal licentiousness, which makes him one of the more interesting Christian philosophers, I think. He was smitten by the works of Plato.

After Augustine, Western philosophy had to wait another 800 years for an influential spokesman (Eastern philosophy, in the meantime, was benefitting big time from the young and fresh religion of Islam, which made the Arabic lands prosper and blossom in culture and science, compared to which the Westerners were mere boorish peasants). This spokesman was Thomas Aquinas, and he loved his Aristotle. Especially the idea of the Power of Human Reason, which elevated Man from a mere victim of Fate (and Faith) to a God-chosen Pinnacle of Creation.

And that’s how we emerged from the Dark Ages, philosophically: with the idea that Man surely had to be something special, being created with such awesome faculties of Understanding and Reasoning. What philosopher could top that?

I found it challenging to pinpoint the next pivotal philosophers and eventually stayed close to home, which in my case is The Netherlands, and the following three all had a strong connection with this country:

Desiderius Erasmus, René Descartes and Benedictus de Spinoza. Two of them born in the “low countries”, one of them lived here most of his adult life. They also had a strong connection with their Aristotelian heritage: all their philosophies were about Human Reason and what it can and cannot do.

Of these three I like Spinoza best. He was born in Amsterdam, the city where I live, and although history puts us 400 years apart, the times he lived in are not that radically different from now. In his day, Amsterdam was harboring, as it does now, many different nationalities and religions. It was a center of tolerance and culture. But with the country in a war and an economic recession, this tolerance eroded. Spinoza called for freedom of speech, a pamphlet he had to ironically publish anonymously.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

It’s not all that different from current times. We’re in an economic recession again, minorities are being scape-goated and freedom of speech is being squelched by politicians who want it just for themselves. If Spinoza were alive today, his message would be the same. And he would probably be under fire for it, like Socrates was in his times.

Yes, the occupation of philosopher is not for the faint-hearted! You thought philosophers were dusty old men, smoking pipes and staring meaningfully out of the window of their aristocratic study-rooms, pondering ideas that have nothing to do with real life…? Think again!

You want some excitement in your life? Want to express your individuality and live life to the max? Forget bungee-jumping, become a philosopher!

There are more philosophers in the book, of course, we’ve just reached the somewhat modern age. But I’ll talk about them later, because I took a whole different turn there…

Stay tuned!

Philosophical Qualifications

I don’t have a degree in Philosophy, and frankly, I don’t think you need one to be a “lover of wisdom” – which is the exact translation of the word “philosopher”.

I do have a degree in Theology from the University of Amsterdam. It was something of a genetic necessity: both my parents were ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church, and my maternal grandfather was a Professor of Theology at the University of Leiden. Thinking and talking about Life, the Universe and Everything was something that I was literally born into. Fortunately, my parents were not the “Shut Up and Read Your Bible” -type of reverends, but more the “What A Miracle Our Daughter Has A Mind Of Her Own”-kind of educators. They always seemed delighted by my creative and intellectual achievements, however wacky or outrageous – well, I was their first child, so I had a lot of credit.

My parents always encouraged me and my two brothers to ask questions and develop our own views. They were actually very surprised when I chose to study Theology, since I never showed any inclination towards ascending the pulpit. I chose Theology because it is a very diverse study, including languages, sociology, phenomenology, dogmatics, history and philosophy. The faculty of Amsterdam was a very liberal one, accommodating Christians and atheists alike.

So, what I’m trying to say is: any environment that allows a person to be curious and to learn about their own specific existential questions, can qualify as a school for philosophy. Hopefully, my comic will inspire people both inside and outside of educational systems to find their “love of wisdom”!

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

How did my Philosophy Comic come about?

It all started way back in 2007…

I had the good fortune to be making occasional comics for newspaper NRC.Next, with a special assignment: I visited theater shows and made reviews in comic form. I loved the format, and wanted to extend it to other areas.

In April 2007 a philosopher from the North of Holland did a stunt: he spent a week in a huge casket, just like the Greek philosopher Diogenes in the fourth century B.C. I went up and visited him, and drew a comic report about it.

Philosopher in casket

Unfortunately, NRC.Next wouldn’t print it, since they didn’t really have a corner for philosophy. So I went to newspaper Trouw, which not only printed the comic, but gave me my own monthly spot in the paper, which I was free to fill with comic reports on philosophical and spiritual matters.

Since then, I have produced about forty comic reports on a wide range of subjects: I Ching, a convention about Happiness, the Reality of Lord of the Rings, Hallucinogenics, Buddhism, Near Death Experiences, Freemasonry, a Phone Line to God, Freud, the Crusades and Virtual Reality. (some have them have been translated and can be read here). All of the trips I made to special events were huge fun and gave me more than enough to draw about – except one.

In 2009 I attended a talk about Spinoza which was so dull, vague and unfocused that I could see no way to make the experience into a useful comic. So I did something more general: I made a comic about the life and thoughts of Spinoza.

Spinoza
The original Spinoza comic as it appeared in Dutch in newspaper Trouw

It was a great success! I received lots of fanmail about it from people with an interest in philosophy, who thought my comic did not only represent Spinoza very well, but did so in a very fun and accessible way.

A few months later I got a call from publisher Kees Korenhof from Uitgeverij Meinema (specializing in philosophical books). He asked me if I would like to make a comic book about philosophy, in the same vein as the comic reports. My husband and I looked at each other and said: Of course! It was the middle of the crisis, there weren’t many assignments coming my way but we managed financially, so we could easily devote ourselves to making a whole comic book, something that has been a dream of mine anyway.

It was a gamble for the publisher, since Meinema had never published comics and aims at a very specific audience. The first imprint had a cautious number, to see how the book would do. Thanks to a big interview in the newspaper, the first print was sold out in a week, even before the official book presentation. By now, the book has seen three prints, an online workbook and several positive reviews.

Curious yet?

Well, hold on until September, then get your own copy of ‘Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics’ and see what all the (my) fuss is about!

By the way, part of the Spinoza comic made it into the book – the only piece that has actually been published before, everything else is completely new material.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

Who Am I and What Am I Thinking?

Do you remember the first thought you ever had?

Well, that depends on what you consider a thought.

I imagine that, as a baby, even in the womb, I must have felt all kinds of sensations that registered somewhere in my tiny brain as observations, like “I’m cold”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m tired”.

Are those thoughts?

In my comic, I drew my own theory of types of thoughts.

We have observations, and then start building upon those by connecting them, and then we derive conclusions.

And that process, the switching between Observing, Connecting and Concluding, is what we call Thinking.

I think.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

 

One of my earliest recollections about my own thinking process was from when I was about five years old. Like many children, I liked cute, small animals. It bothered me that I could not pick up and cuddle the small sparrows in our garden. Oh, how I wished that one of them would come to me and be my friend!

So I made something up.

I told my teacher and parents that I had rescued a small baby-bird that had fallen out of a tree, and that I had restored it to health and then its mother came to pick it up. They both happily flapped their wings at me in thanks as they flew away.

My parents and teacher just smiled and said: “Oh, that’s nice.” At first I thought I had fooled them with a lie. But it gradually dawned on me that they knew full well that what I told them never happened, yet they seemed to enjoy listening to what I had to say.

And so I found out about another type of thinking: the story-telling thought.

Or: imagination.

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics

Welcome Stan Mack and Margreet de Heer

Quick post to welcome two new artists to our blog:

Stan Mack, formerly of the Village Voice, who’ll be talking about his upcoming:

 

 

 

 

 

 

of which you can see more right here… This is being solicited at comics stores now…

 

 

 

 

 

and Margreet whose charming, concise and clear presentations of the baffling (for most of us) will win you over. This month, we ‘re also soliciting through comics stores this from her:

 

 

 

 

see more here (our site) and here (her site). Should this work, we’ll have more ‘discoveries in comics’ from her. Go ahead, ask them impossible quiz questions on Philosophy and History.