“Hell is other people,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, as he nibbled on his French scone and digested bits of his French scone that he had already eaten. But what exactly did this towering figure of existentialism mean? Can we really accept these words as Sartre’s philosophy not merely on life but on death and the ultimately unknowable as well? In considering this damning phrase, it is important to realize its context as part of the dialogue spoken by a character in a play—clearly it must have been proofread carefully.
But perhaps the great philosopher’s pen merely slipped. Who Are we to say that Sartre didn’t mean “hell isn’t other people”? A philosopher once told me that this theory was implausible as Sartre wrote in the French, but I merely laughed in his face and told him it was pronounced “France.”
I cannot help but wonder what the great existentialist himself would have said. Probably he would have smirked and slyly pretended not to understand my earnest attempt at French, and then we would have conversed at length in another language in which we were both fluent.
Ultimately we humans must do with Sartre what we always do when confronted with genius: place the book quietly back on the shelf and start playing Minesweeper, at which we are secretly adept. Jean-Paul, you shall forever remain a mystery. Hel may be other people, but surely it is particularly those who bathed frequently.