The keyhole passage

“Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole.”
Jean-Paul Sartre: Being and Nothingness; The Look


An impression of Sartre's 'keyhole' passage.

An impression of Sartre’s ‘keyhole’ passage.

About Brad Frederiksen

Engineer and analyst of electro-mechanical and digital systems by day job. Practitioner and student of life and art (broadly construed). View all posts by Brad Frederiksen

4 responses to “The keyhole passage

  • tipota

    i think i get why i’ve heard satre described as nihilist – ah but his musings are so resonant – argh – it’s as if one could only be moved by dark emotion – i would imagine there might be other brighter motivations for looking through a keyhole – one would first need to imagine a keyhole in the first place:) and what one is attracted toward – freud would have something to say about it i imagine:)

    • Brad

      The dark emotions are seemingly essential to Sartre’s philosophy: shame, embarassment, (pride?). As I understand it, which is admittedly based on incomplete reading, those feelings and emotions are a kind of living proof that we have freedom of choice. While I am looking through the keyhole, Sartre writes later,

      “suddenly I hear a footstep. I shudder as a wave of shame sweeps over me. Somebody has seen me. I straighten up. My eyes run over the deserted corridor. It was a false alarm. I breathe a sigh of relief.”

      So the upshot seems to be that, since I feel vulnerable to the look of the Other, I know that person is a potential threat. If they can harm me, or shame me, I know they are free to do so – therefore I am free also. Even if the other person isn’t a real person, or is just a figment of my imagination, it still follows that I am free to make of my existence whatever I will despite the existential nihilist claim that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Or maybe I am free precisely because there is no intrinsic value or meaning.

      I can imagine being moved by anticipation to look through a keyhole in order to see if the footsteps approaching are those of a dear friend who is due to arrive for our regular get-together.

      I’m not sure what Sartre would say about the freedom of people who no longer feel vulnerable. Probably that it’s improbable:)

      • Brad

        It just struck me that Sartre was probably looking through the keyhole from the outside into a private room. I was imagining looking through from the wrong side!

      • tipota

        looking from the inside out seems quite different than from the outside in, in terms of perception/experience/motivation etc. – from the outside looking in is much more existentially
        neurotic haha really out there

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