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Hell on Earth

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I'm so confused. If the fiery pangs of eternal damnation are — as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre suggested — a metaphor for "other people," why on earth would the North American Sartre Society hold a conference bringing people together, thus creating hell? Could it be a masochistic urge to bathe in a river of reflective consciousness? Or is the lure of a jug-wine and cheese-cube mixer so great that even academics who should know better will risk their lives by revealing to their colleagues that they are nothing but remote objects with Merlot-soaked egos?

If any of this ridiculous musing interests, entertains, or offends you, then you can go to hell. And by that I mean the North American Sartre Society's biennial conference, which is being hosted by the University of Memphis' Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities. The three-day conference, which features moderated discussions on topics such as "Violent Freedom and Violent Acts," kicks off Thursday, November 19th, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art with Beaujolais Nouveau, crepes, and a one-night-only performance of No Exit, Sartre's best-known play and the source of his most famous quotation, "Hell is other people."

No Exit follows three despicable characters into a surprisingly bland afterlife. Joseph Garcin, an adulterer and coward, Inès Serrano, a manipulative murder accomplice, and Estelle Rigault, a lusty gold-digging killer, are locked in a room where they steadily drive one another insane with their reflections of the past and projections into the future. Hell is presented as a vast structure or a series of structures made up of small rooms and winding halls like a hotel. Or maybe a college campus.

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