View Full Version : Existentialism- dissertation, advice needed!

12-21-2006, 05:46 PM
Hi Everyone,

Wonder if anyone can help me out at all here...got myself into a bit of a fix with my undergrad dissertation. My big idea(plan A) was to examinine existential elements in literature. I had planned to have chapter one as a defining chapter where i would define existentialism(LOL) through Sartre then go on to examine Nausea and The Wall ..Chap.2.Dostoevsky's "Note's from the Underground"&Kafka's "The Trial". Chapter Three was to take a look a Camus' L'Etranger followed by a brave attempt to analyse Fight Clubas a neo-existentialist piece.

Now...I realize that I was being overly ambitious...and apart from feeling an acute sense of the blues from reading so many utterly depressing works at once...I'm also getting a severe sense of dread as the thing is due in soon and I can't seem to reduce it.

Defining existentialism is impossible.Getting literary criticism has proved difficult as most commentators concentrate on the "philosophy" and not the art...which is what I should be homing in on.

I've decided to scap Kafka and maybe even Palahniuk as I feel they are confusing matters. I do like Camus' work so I think I may just concentrate on him on Chapter 3.

The trouble is I need a clear line of argument...which I am severely lacking. Reducing Dostoevsky's piece to mere existentialism would be ridiculous as it's more a Swiftian satire and I feel like I'm blinding myself to this if I do what Kaufman does and only consider pt1 of the novel. Also since it isn't essentially an existentialist novel, there's no existential criticism. Most books just re-print Part one, with little or no explanation of existential elements.

Nausea..is obviously existential...but all criticism is purely philosophical.

I'd be incredibly grateful if anyone could assist me in formulating a clear argument....it's the proposal that's giving me the most trouble. What elements should I concreate on in each of the books...if anyone is familiar with these books perhaps you could help me break it down....I feel like I'm sinking into the void. lol

Thank you in advance!

12-21-2006, 06:18 PM
You have chosen an ambitious topic. I may not be able to offer an argument, but perhaps a few references that may be (slightly) useful.

One of the most lucid discussions I've ever read is a book by William Barrett called Irrational Man (I just looked it up - it's on Amazon). I read it as a reading assignment in grad school and I thought it expertly spoke of how existentialist philosophy actually influenced how literature was written (writing technique) as well as themes in existentialist literature. I'd highly recommend reading it. The one thing I remember it saying was that existential philosophy changed the writer's relationship to time and space - where "space" was flattened out (ala Picasso) and time was fractured from its 19th century linear form (ala Faulkner). Much is made of the symbol of Quentin's handless watch in The Sound and the Fury. But beyond that I can't remember the details.

The best (highly simplified) rundown of existentialism I've read lists six primary themes:

1. existence before essence
2. reason's inability to deal withe the depths of human life
3. alientation/estrangement
4. anxiety
5. the encounter with "nothingness"
6. freedom

Going into detail on these would take too much time, but most examinations of literature in terms of existentialism point out the existence of these themes (but maybe that's what you mean by the focus of criticism on "philosophy" - if it's the "art" of writing (technique) then Irrational Man will be of great help.)

Suggestions made by other writers as to "existentialist" works would include Shakespeare's King Lear, the chapter entitled "The Grand Inquisitor" from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov and Sartre's drama "No Exit" is a good example I think. You might also examine Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" - it explores the idea of "nothingness."

Sorry - I may not have helped. Good luck - sounds like an interesting paper.

12-22-2006, 09:05 AM
Hi Red.

Thank you so much for your time.

Barrett's book sounds really good, I'll get onto it, perhaps the libraries may have a copy. That's exactly the type of thing I've been looking for, thanks for that.;)

Yes, those are the themes I've been considering, and you're absolutely right to dissect the books in this way would be much too time consuming but those are definitely the key themes and I will of course be highlighting them as I go along. As you say, Barrett's book, if I can track a copy down, may be just the thing to bring the philosophy and art together.

I haven't read "The Grand Inquistor" but I do know that a lot of commentators mistakenly take this piece as the "voice" of Dostoevsky.I'm quite familiar with King Lear...but I'm a little hesitant to include anymore writers at this point, as I'm required to do a detailed study on a few writers rather than a general discussion on many. I agree that "No Exit" is worth including and I will be making reference(if fleeting) to this as it's an excellent dramatisation of the "bad faith" element.

Anyway, I really appreciate the time you took and if I get my hands on Barrett's book that could well tie up a lot of loose ends for me. It's lovely to chat with people who know a bit about it. Great site and thanks again.:thumbs_up :)

12-22-2006, 08:41 PM
Well, I wouldn't drop Kafka after all. "The trial" is one of the most important books in European literature in the beginning of the 20 century. Camus - who is as you know one of two founders of existentialism - was crazy about him and claimed that he was trully the biggest e. writer. He even wrote an essay about him - in the "Sisyphus myth" (I'm sorry I don't know the English title) one of the last chapters - "Hope and absurd in Franz Kafka's writings".
Anyway it's perfect for reading, even if you don't go into deeper levels and I don't know a person, who didn't have depression after :)

12-23-2006, 01:53 PM
Hi Valcaster,

Yeah, I know where you're coming from...only problem is there's a word limit on my paper and it has to have an even structure ie 0ne or two writers per chapter...if I include Kafka then I'm back to using 6 central texts which just doesn't give me room to go into detail.

Yeah, "The Trial" was an experience lol but I actually found Dostoevsky's Notes heavier. I will refer to it though.:)

Red...managed to get Barrett's book! Hadn't been taken out of the library in 6 years lol anyway going to have a flick through it now, fingers crossed!:)

12-25-2006, 11:23 AM
Although I think "The Grand Inguisitor" is a brilliant chapter. I do not recommend reading it detached from the entire "Brothers Karamazov". You will miss too much if it is seperated. I think you are right in choosing "Notes... underground" it is easier too deal with and digest for a short paper. That being said I would like to comment on your author selection (not criticizing just giving more info)

If you really want to paint a true picture of the beginning of existentialism you need to start at the beginning. The first big existential thinker was Blaise Pascal. He famously said "Custom is our nature" which turns out to be very important for many existentialst from Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Sartre, and Nietzsche. I think the text you are focusing on are great, and I have read them all, but I dont think that they signify the best paradigm cases in Existential literature. In a way they (Sartre, Kafka, Camus,) are the least radical and most derivative of the true existential writers. Sartre's story "The Wall" is wonderfull and so are his plays. But you have to remeber that a lot of Sartre is just bad Heidegger.

I don't have much to say about Camus, except that I don't think he is an existentialist. Maybe jonjt1 will come in and talk about Camus.

I think you would have an easier time dealing with the bigger thinkers like Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Pascal. The only way to get a true view of existentialism is to read the latter. Not that you can't use the authors you have, I just think that they are hard to formulate and use because they are all writing in the shadows of giants.

12-26-2006, 11:08 PM
Hi Kurtz,
Thanks for your reply :) Some interesting points.

I chose those writers because I'm concentrating on modern literature as opposed to the origins of the philosophy itself...and trying(somewhat desperately to reduce the thing lol)

I haven't read extensively on Heidegger but I'm aware of his influence on Sartre. I don't think anyone could deny the influence of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche& co, and you are right in saying that their ideas helped shape the views of Sartre and Camus but as they are all so diverse, and all of them except Sartre shunned the label of existentialism (until his politics finally eclipsed it) I would find it difficult to say that one was a "bigger" thinker than another. That's just me though...and I'm no philosophy expert.

I find Camus' work extremely sincere, and moving. You say you don't think he's an existentialist...but none of them really were. They all dealt with existential themes. In the end I think Camus shirked the label...as they all did, but his particular "brand" is more appealing to me than for example Sartre's. Perhaps it's simply a matter of preference.

From my reading...and like I say I'm no expert....Existentialism cannot be defined or broken down to a set of tenets so therefore it's simply a case of examining the themes peculiar to each writer. Which is why I chose Sartre as he was the only one willing to attempt this lol

I realise that Sartre is no artist, although as you say, The Wall, No Exit and Nausea were all successful existential pieces. I found No Exit to be Sarte's most successful fusion of art&philosophy but in the main I feel that it's over intellectualised and this (for me anyway) is a bit of a turn off. I'd rather the art speak for itself.

I don't find this with Camus, obviously the philosophy is there but you don't feel like his novels..eg The Outsider are just a way of explaining and simplifying philosophical concepts to "the herd".

Anyway thanks for sharing your thoughts...you're right I probably should read up more on the guys you mentioned....but to be quite honest my brain's hurting enough, so I'm afraid my assignment will be a very general overview...I mean, what's the point anyway? lol And if Jonjt1 cares to talk about Camus that would be lovely :) Ta again Kurtz.