Jordan Alexander Hill on the story from a psychoanalytical perspective:
Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Erostratus” may be the shortest story in The Wall, yet it serves as a fitting psychoanalytic case-study. “Erostratus” tells the story of Paul Hilbert, a lonely man plagued by insecurity and sexual impotency, who attempts and ultimately fails to commit a heinous crime. Shortly into the story, it becomes clear that the crime is mostly an attempt to escape his mediocrity through an act of powerful self-assertion. We will look at this story not only through a traditional psychoanalytic lens, but also by applying important Lacanian principles. Sartre, who developed his own “existential” brand of psychoanalysis, surely wrote “Erostratus” to support certain phenomenological and ethical themes from Being and Nothingness—we’ll look at some of these perspectives. However, in many ways, we arrive at the deepest understanding of Hilbert and his motivations by bringing Lacanian theories into the discussion. In this paper, we first locate the basic existential and psychoanalytic themes that underpin “Erostratus”, in addition to looking at Lacan’s “mirror phase” and how this relates to Hilbert’s social development. “Erostratus” is essentially a story about narcissism, alienation, otherness, and desire. Lacan’s psychic structures—particularly the imaginary and symbolic orders—will give us a sense of where these emotions come from, how they affect our protagonist, and how they function in the larger narrative.
Like in many “existential” works, our protagonist is a bland working class guy with a routine existence and a mundane job. He has no friends to speak of and is a self-professed “anti-humanist”. As Hilbert’s impatience with his situation grows, he decides he must make a statement that will prove his anti-humanism and secure his name in the history books—he will murder six random people on a busy street in Paris. Hilbert is deeply moved by the ancient Greek story of “Erostratus,” which tells of a man who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus to immortalize himself. What strikes him is that while nobody knows the name of the man who built the temple of Artemis, everyone remembers Erostratus, the man who destroyed it. The rest of the story follows Hilbert’s metamorphosis, as the day of his crime draws nearer. In what follows, Hilbert buys a gun and carries it around in public, becoming sexually aroused by the possibilities, and the power he now possesses. He becomes more and more obsessed with this power and even visits a prostitute, commanding her to walk around naked at gunpoint (he does this several times, each time ejaculating in his pants). As the day of his crime draws nearer, Hilbert spends his life savings on expensive meals and prostitutes, and even mails letters of his murderous intent to 102 famous French writers. Yet, in the end, Hilbert is incapable of following through. He winds up shooting only one man, a “big man”, and has a frantic meltdown in the street afterward. The story ends in a café lavatory, as Hilbert gives himself up to the police.
Let us first take a look at some of the elements that make up the “existential” composure of the story. Hilbert’s act of mailing letters to famous writers before committing his crime shows a deep insecurity over the potential legacy he wishes to leave. Hilbert must have others verify and be witness to his crime for the weight of his actions to seem real to him. In existential thought, this is an offense known as “being-for-others” (we’ll return to this later when we discuss Lacan). Hilbert no longer lives in a world where his actions and choices hold any real weight or significance. This lack of self-determination plunges Hilbert into a kind of moral nihilism, which only exacerbates his problems. Another significant element to note is the rise in power Hilbert feels as he buys a gun and brings it around with him wherever he goes. The angst or dread that follows—often described in existential circles as being a kind of “excitement or fear over the possibility of one’s own freedom”—is an important aspect of Hilbert’s condition. Furthermore, one would not have to use queer theory, nor is it beyond any stretch of the imagination, to assert that Sartre uses the gun here as a phallic symbol. For Hilbert, happiness truly is a warm gun, as the gun symbolizes the power he has always lacked socially and sexually. The fact that Hilbert makes prostitutes walk around naked at gun point, without letting them touch or look at him, is another teller. This voyeuristic behavior, according to Sartre, is a mechanism by which the individual avoids his or her own subjectivity—shirking responsibility—in order to live through the imagined subjectivity of another (Sartre, 1953, 244). Hilbert, it turns out, suffers in large part from a staggering lack of being (this “lack of being” doesn’t stem from any shortage of self-consciousness, but rather from a case of what I’ll call “mistaken identity,” in a Lacanian sense).
Hilbert’s crime, we come to find out, is not motivated by material gain or political ideology. What, then, is it motivated by? To start, let’s look at our protagonist’s own self-identification: Hilbert believes his crime is motivated by his “anti-humanism”. In the letter, he congratulates the famous authors for being humanists, for loving men. “You have humanism in your blood…” Hilbert writes, “You are delighted when your neighbor takes a cup from the table because there is a way of taking it which is strictly human… less supple, less rapid than that of a monkey”. He goes on to sarcastically praise the authors for relieving and consoling the masses. “People throw themselves greedily at your books… they think of a great love, which you bring them and that makes up for many things, for being ugly, for being cowardly, for being cuckolded, for not getting a raise on the first of January”. These sound like Hilbert’s own problems.
Later in the letter, Hilbert explains his own hatred of humanity. “I cannot love them… what attracts you to them disgusts me… men chewing slowly, all the while keeping an eye on everything, the left hand leafing through an economic review. Is it my fault I prefer to watch the sea-lions feeding?”. Given this, it would be a mistake to equate Hilbert’s anti-humanism to misanthropy. The word “misanthrope” is normally an intellectual self-label, which is defined by a general disgust with the thoughtlessness or lack of social awareness perceived in others. As Moliere notes in his Les Misanthrope: “I detest all men; Some because they are wicked and do evil, Others because they tolerate the wicked” (Moliere, I.i.). Hilbert, on the other hand, is not a misanthrope; he is a self-reflective watcher, a voyeur. And his anti-humanism—his “all-too-humanness” as he puts it it—seems to involve the hatred of those physical and emotional qualities which he observes in others, and which he himself cannot experience. Hilbert’s condition is strikingly similar to Sartre’s analysis of the poet Baudelaire. “For most of us,” Sartre contends, “it is enough to see the tree or house; we forget ourselves” (Sartre, 1950, 22). Baudelaire, however, “was the man who never forgot himself” (Sartre, 1950, 22). Hilbert, likewise, is too self-conscious to experience normal human emotions. He does not simply see things; but sees himself seeing things. As such, he has lost the unselfconscious grace and naturalness he so despises in others.
This deep self-consciousness, this narcissism, is something that alienates Hilbert, and makes normal communication with others almost impossible. If we asked Lacan, he would probably point us to the mirror phase and the imaginary order, which are both significant in Hilbert’s case. The mirror phase refers to a period in psychosexual development, when “the child for the first time becomes aware, through seeing its image in the mirror” (Homer 24). For Lacan, this marks the emergence of the ego, as the child realizes it can control the movements of this new image. This should not be confused with the advent of “selfhood,” but rather it is a moment of profound alienation, where we actually mistake this new mirror-image for our “self” (Homer 25).