That “nothingness” of which Sartre speaks creates a lot of problems for us. Or should I say, we create a lot of problems, ’cause we’re the ones who “bring” this “nothingness” into the world. Says Sartre, “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world.”
In a strange way, this “nothingness” is the means by which we all tend to make meaning of our lives. Think about that example of the fellow who looked in his wallet and found less cash than he thought he had. He “experiences the absence” of money, and it is this process of “bringing nothingness” into the world that subsequently colors (or makes meaning of) his experience. Sartre talks about different kinds of “anguish” we feel as a result of our experiencing various absences, including what we’re feeling when we worry about the future, or what we feel when we look back on the past and realize the difference between who we are today and what we were yesterday.
It is amid that latter discussion when Sartre’s gambler finally arrives. With Dostoevsky in mind, Sartre refers to the case of “the gambler who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble anymore and who, when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away.” Sartre then talks a bit about psychological explanations for this reaction, such as the one that suggests the mere sight of the table “reawakened . . . a tendency” already present in the gambler that is in conflict with the resolution he’d previously made not to play.
All applesauce, says Sartre. “In reality -- the letters of Dostoevsky bear witness to this -- there is nothing in us which resembles an inner debate as if we had to weigh motives and incentives before deciding.” Rather, what we have is our “existent” -- our gambler -- here today standing before the gaming table. Sure, he remembers his earlier resolution. It is “there,” so to speak. “But what he apprehends then in anguish is precisely the total inefficacy of the past resolution,” Sartre explains.
In other words, the resolution -- like all his past gambling activities and other experiences -- is “there” but it is not there. Not really. It is nothingness.
“The resolution is still me,” says the gambler, “to the extent that I realize constantly my identity with myself across the temporal flux, but it is no longer me -- due to the fact that it has become an object for my consciousness.” That is to say, “it is nothingness which separates him from himself.”
The gambler, then, is in a tricky spot. According to Sartre, he can’t really rely on his past resolution, as that was the past and is not, technically speaking, a part of his present “being-in-itself.” No, he’s gonna have to make that resolution all over again. “I must rediscover the fear of financial ruin or of disappointing my family, etc., I must re-create it as experienced fear,” says Sartre’s gambler to himself. “After having patiently built up barriers and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic barrier of resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from gambling.”
Sort of thing usually didn’t work for Dostoevsky, as he ended up back at the roulette wheel again and again. You can see how this way of looking at our experience tends to produce a lot of “anguish” or anxiety or dread about our existence. What does my present “being” mean, really, if it has no real connection with who I am going to be tomorrow (other than what I imagine, or create out of “nothingness”)?
You can also see how this notion that our present “being” isn’t necessarily related to previous versions of ourselves -- even though we often do color our experience with ideas drawn from the “nothingness” of the past -- can apply to the way things often go at the poker tables. Will try to make a couple of such applications in the next -- and last -- post on the subject.