To truly and genuinely live authentically is a goal that many strive for, despite pre-given narratives that society places based on gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Although many try, the human behavioral phenomenon of bad faith gets in the way, not allowing individuals to truly experience living a genuinely authentic life.
Jean-Paul Sartre gives the notion of bad faith very simply: the denial of our innate freedom. He believes that a person can imagine the possibilities that they are given in a certain situation, but are always inclined to react in certain ways due to bad faith. He states that bad faith is “in essence the unity of a single consciousness” (150), meaning that the process of lying to oneself consists of only the lie and not the truth. This is contrary to the double consciousness that exists when one lies to another. Sartre’s ideas of bad faith and authenticity are seen in Zadie Smith’s novel, “NW”. In, “NW”, characters struggle to a greater or lesser degree with pre-given narratives that are placed on them by societal determinism.
According to Jean-Paul Sartre, bad faith is, “self-negation” and instead of directing it outward, one “turns its toward itself” (148). This is due to humans beings, under societal pressure, adopting false values and disowning their innate freedom. As a result, acting inauthentically, and therefore, living in bad faith. To Sartre, bad faith is the ultimate enemy against genuine authenticity. However; both are, ironically, choices humans make.
Sartrean authenticity is simply told as, “Existence preced[ing] essence” (Sartre), which means that humans live life prior to being defined as an individual. In other words, choices made in life are what define the being. With this idea, Sartre proposes that humans are to take full responsibility for all life choices, accept the outcomes, and decisively move on, all while not being affected by implied judgement from others.
To give an example, Sartre cites a cafe waiter, whose gestures and conversation are almost theatrical. As his voice is full of eagerness to please customers, his movements are rigid and strategic, “quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid” (167). With these movements, Sartre concludes that rather being oneself, the person is, “playing at being a waiter in a cafe” (167). Essentially, through the waiter’s exaggerated behavior, Sartre describes this person acting as a waiter to be an object in the world, an automaton whose entire essence is to be a waiter. Because he is so exaggeratingly playing a role as a waiter, the person is aware that he is not simply just a waiter, and as a result, consciously deceiving himself and living in bad faith.
To further clarify, Sartre gives another example of bad faith living and inauthenticity that involves a young adult woman on a date. The woman already is aware of the intentions that the man has as for how the date will unfold and, “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 concerns herself only with what is respectful and discreet in the attitude of her companion” (160). On this date, the young woman seems to be ignoring the very apparent and forward sexual implications of her date’s comments toward her physical appearance. However; instead of rejecting the comments, she strips the comment of its sexual background and accepts them as comments that are not directed at her body, but rather directed to her as a human consciousness. As the date continues, the man takes her hand in which her reaction is to let it simply rest, “neither consenting nor resisting — a thing” (162), reducing the actions of her date to merely exist as they are, nothing more or less. This is seen as the woman being in bad faith, “using various procedures in order to maintain herself in bad faith”, as she continues to reduce her date’s actions to actions only with no implications, thus delaying the moment when she has to make a decision whether to acknowledge and reject her date’s actions, or consent to them. Her actions show that humans are conscious of their bad faith, as they use it in order to deny their freedom.
Sartre suggests that by acting in bad faith, both the waiter and the woman are denying their own innate freedom, but by actively using this freedom itself to recognize that. They know and are very aware that they are free, but refuse to acknowledge it. Bad faith can be paradoxical in this regard, that when a person is acting in bad faith, they are actively denying their own freedom, however; still having to rely on it to perform the denial of said freedom.
Sartre’s ideas of bad faith and authenticity are seen in Zadie Smith’s novel, “NW”. In “NW”, characters struggle to a greater or lesser degree with pre-given narratives that are placed on them by societal determinism. The character Keisha, who later changes her name to Natalie Blake as an attempt to find her true self, heavily takes a fall into bad faith living. In the novel, it is apparent that Natalie is quite the opposite of the Sartrean idea that “man makes himself”, as she is a character who identifies with the perceptions laid upon her.
For example, Marcia Blake, Natalie’s mother, repeatedly tells the story of Natalie saving Leah’s life saying, “You dragged her up. You were the only one who saw she was in trouble” (202), repeating the word “you” to emphasize that Natalie did in fact do that, attempting to convince Natalie of the story. In addition to emphasizing the word “you”, Marcia also utilizes the word “only” to single Natalie out, describing and emphasizing her as Leah’s savior. Although Natalie is being told that she did all of these incredible acts, she is aware that it could not be entirely true and, “could be considered suspicious” (202). As a result of her being aware of the lie, not questioning it, yet still playing the part is an attitude of bad faith as she refuses to define herself in her own way and would rather accept the perception that others have of her.
As the novel continues, it is apparent that Natalie is only able to view herself as the intelligent girl those around her perceive her to be. Around the young and impressionable age of ten she “beg[ins] to exist for other people” (208). This life decision that Natalie makes is one Sartre would suggest is bad faith which he states “has in appearance the structure of falsehood”(150), as it is seen that Natalie is living for others she is not being true to herself.
However, being as aware as she is, Natalie thinks to herself, “[I]sn’t it possible that what others mist[ake] for intelligence might in fact be only a sort of mutation of will” (208). This thought process again supports the idea that Natalie is aware of the false perceptions others have of her, ye continues to play along, further shifting her attitude toward living in bad faith. As we learn at the end of this passage, she no longer challenges people’s judgements of her, but rather “beg[ins] to exist for other people” (208).
Because of this, she begins to accept that she has, “no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone” (246), losing her own individuality and succumbing to what society views her as. This identity acception demonstrates how Natalie gave the consciousness perception that others had of her power, she allowed it to dominate the way she behaved and carried herself. Because of this, she no longer had her own “self”, an identity that was uniquely her.
As a result, Natalie’s non-self identities were a reminder to her as failures to form her own self-curated identity in her younger years as she was growing up. In addition, it is important to take away that Natalie feels she has no self with Leah or anyone, as it showcases that bad faith leads one to define themselves through dependant relationships with others.
Throughout “NW” it is seen that although Natalie focuses on who she is as well as who she is perceived to be, it is revealed that Natalie feels like a fraud in her own life. It is learned that Natalie feels guilty due to her career success and growing apart from family. In addition to Natalie, her best friend Leah feels stuck in life and believes those around her are judging her for not wanting to be a mother. It is seen that both women perceive the other to be happily married and living great lives, but it could not be more the opposite as they are both unhappy in their marriages and life in general.
Toward the end of the novel, “NW” suggests that the pursuit of authenticity is a false hope. Although Keisha chose to change her name to Natalie in an attempt toward authenticity, the act of doing so was still under an amount of societal pressure around her that prompted her to showcase elements of personal fluidity within herself. To truly be genuinely authentic, one must remove themselves from society as a whole, a place free of judgements and opinions on others. Because regardless of how much one can try to avoid it, outside perception can, and will, have the slightest effect on one’s identity. It seems that being the “least inauthentic” (333) is the best one can strive for. This is because society has fixated on success and being likeable, which as a result, gave individuals the desire to live up to something or someone in life. Because of this, everyone is simultaneously living in bad faith one way or another, whether it be studying hard to live up to a parental standard or being outwardly friendly while working as a waiter hoping for tips. Although it is a goal that many strive for, living a genuinely authentic life is unrealistic due to personal constraints, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, and as many try, the human behavioral phenomenon of bad faith will continue to get in the way.
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