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“I think therefore I am.” Though reduced now to the level of cliché, Rene Descartes’ famous maxim sums up perfectly the philosophical underpinnings of existentialist thought. Existentialism has its roots in the writings of several nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers, among them Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Søren Kierkegaard. The philosophy is by most standards a very loose conglomeration of perspectives, aesthetics, and approaches to dealing with the world and its inherent difficulties. There are therefore countless permutations and flavors of existentialism which cross disciplinary lines and modes of inquiry. In the most general sense, existentialism deals with the recurring problem of finding meaning within existence. From this perspective, there are no meanings or structures that precede one’s own existence, as one finds in organized religion. Therefore, the individual must find or create meaning for his or her self. Existentialist thought has garnered an unfair reputation for pessimism and even full-blown nihilism. This reputation is somewhat understandable. The idea of created meaning strikes some as ultimately meaningless or even absurd. Some of the popular tropes associated with existential philosophy, such as angst, boredom, or fear, likewise strike the average observer as dripping with pessimism. However, nothing in the philosophical train of thought of existentialism dictates a negative view of humanity or reality. In fact, much of the philosophy revolves around the limitless capacity for ethically and intellectually engaged persons to enact change in the world. Positive change is then an imperative for the true existentialist; otherwise existence is a complete void. To put it another way, it is not simply enough to “be.” One has to be “something” or life truly lacks meaning or purpose. From this point of view, existentialism has the potential to indeed be a very positive means of approaching reality.
The writings of Søren Kierkegaard provided the base upon which later thinkers and artists built up the edifice of existential philosophy. Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher deeply interested in human psychology and Christian ethics. His principal concerns were with how people responded under crisis, and the choices one made in the shaping of one’s life. One of his most famous works is Fear and Trembling, an exploration of the nature of faith in the face of complete loss and fear. A speculation on the psychology and emotions of Abraham when asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, Fear and Trembling is a fundamental work in the canon of Christian existentialism. More than that, Kierkegaard paints a portrait of total loneliness, secrecy, doubt, and finally resignation to fate. His work complicates the simplistic and ideal notions of religious faith, showing real and absolute faith to be a kind of limitless, timeless sacrifice to an unknowable being. Later existential thinkers would frame their discourse differently, but Kierkegaard’s basic tenets have remained powerfully influential for generations of artists and thinkers.
The art world has been enormously influenced by the current of existential thought, even from its very beginnings in the nineteenth century. First the novel, and later the cinema each had unique contributions to make to existential philosophy. Many existential philosophers have intimated that literature is especially well positioned to communicate the central tenets of their philosophy. From this perspective, art tends to act as a lens which either focuses or diffuses certain modes of thinking which pass through it. In that sense, an existential novelist absorbs the ideas in vogue at the time and reproduces them within literature. Just as existential philosophy is difficult to fit neatly into a box, one cannot simply boil the literature of existentialism down to a simple recipe. There are multiple strains and variations from one author to the next, yet still just enough commonalities to see the shared underlying principles. It is perhaps more productive to discuss the work of several individual authors than to attempt a sweeping overview of the whole movement.
In world literature, few have been as universally admired as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He has been grouped with several different literary movements because his novels display so many characteristics so well. While his work is distinctly, unmistakably Russian, his characters and their specific dilemmas transcend cultural boundaries and speak to the shared problems of all humans living in modern times. Crime and Punishment is a profound example of how some of the principles of existentialist thinking can be perverted, leading to ethical decay and personal destruction. The lead character – one hesitates to label him a protagonist – Raskolnikov believes that he can justify for himself the murder of a greedy pawnbroker who lives near him. In his own mind, Raskolnikov hypothesizes that he can justify the crime of nature by using the stolen money to perform good works. This kind of moral calculus, carried out by a lone individual and not sanctioned by the greater society, is ultimately bankrupt and doomed to failure. In addition to the quasi-moralistic rationalizations for murder, Raskolnikov mythologizes himself as imbued with personal power in the mold of a Napoleon. He posits that certain individuals are born with the right and the privilege to act outside of ordinary societal rules and expectations. That all these machinations fall away and leave Raskolnikov with nothing but animalistic fear demonstrates the real danger of elevating one’s ego too high. Dostoyevsky knew a little something about feeling powerless. He spent five years as a political prisoner in the gulags of Siberia. It is no coincidence that his greatest works would be produced upon return from exile.
The writings of Franz Kafka have long been associated with twentieth century existentialism. Born to Jewish parents in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka lived through the turmoil of the First World War. The death and destruction which ravaged Central and Western Europe most definitely had an impact on Kafka’s aesthetics. He actually never completed a full-length novel, and is most famous for his novella The Metamorphosis, in which a man awakens to find himself transformed into something hideous. Critics have pointed out that in the translation from German to English, a great deal of the wit of Kafka’s writing is lost. However, the primary themes which Kafka wished to convey are understandable in any language. Like many existential writers, Franz Kafka saw the individual as being caught up in systems and bureaucracies that were beyond understanding. Even existence becomes a kind of control over personal autonomy. The natural response to this is to resign from life, but Kafka presents the situation with dry humor. He approaches the inherent terror of existence with a wink and a nod, and embraces the absurdity of everything. Later in the twentieth century, the comedy troupe Monty Python would in a sense follow in Kafka’s steps, presenting life as ultimately absurd and as meaningful or meaningless as one chose to make it.
The name most synonymous with existential literature is Albert Camus, despite the fact that he himself rejected the label. His novels typically represent characters caught up in situations and systems well beyond their control, and the ways in which they cope with such seeming futility. In The Stranger, the protagonist Meursault almost randomly commits a murder on the beach, yet seems to lack deep human feelings. He by all accounts feels no remorse for his act, nor sadness for the recent passing of his mother. The prevailing themes of the novel are isolation and ostracism, and the sense of being insignificant within the larger systems of society. In the prison awaiting execution, Meursault is incapable of any sort of epiphany regarding his actions or place in the world – all that he understands is absurdity. The absurd and the isolated nature of human existence is definitely a recurring theme for Camus. A somewhat more positivist example of Camus’ point of view can be found in The Plague, a novel recounting an outbreak of the bubonic plague in a small port city. Those trapped within the city walls with the disease are forced to summon inner reserves of strength and determination in the face of the ultimate negative force – death.
The twentieth century’s greatest existential thinker was undoubtedly Frenchman Paul Sartre. Uniquely, Sartre was the only person to ever decline the Nobel Prize in Literature award. His was a life committed to activism and the advancement of social causes. His literary contributions were relatively few, but profound. In The Nausea, Sartre tells that story of an academic who becomes aware of the intense singularity of his own existence. Objects and even other people are completely outside of his experience, no matter what steps he takes to impart his own meanings onto them. This leads to the realization of complete freedom, but also complete isolation. In the novel, this freedom is terrifying. The title explains perfectly the feelings of the protagonist when confronted with his own essential Being. In real life, Sartre saw this complete freedom as an imperative towards action. Given ultimate freedom, humans had ultimate responsibility for their own actions. In this way, Sartre took existentialism in a very positive direction. He advocated for the downtrodden, and continually struggled for a more egalitarian society based on the worth of each individual.
The theater of Samuel Beckett brings together themes and concepts common to several periods of literary and intellectual history. His drama is most frequently characterized by spare, minimalist settings, peopled by beings that seem incomplete and strange. There is a distinct rejection of traditional stage play structures and expectations. The conflicts which Beckett presents to the audience – for all drama must have some conflict – are sometimes so obfuscating as to frustrate and distort meaning entirely. Characters do not know where they are or what their purpose is or their purpose lacks discernible meaning. Audiences often find Beckett extremely frustrating and inaccessible, but one could argue that inaccessibility is precisely the point. Existence itself is difficult, confusing, frustrating and even at its very end refuses to divulge any meaning other than what the individual has created for him or herself. With that in mind, the theater of Beckett is truly a mirror held up to the insanity of modern existence. Seemingly fantastic and meaningless settings mimic those same settings which people inhabit daily, from the office to the mall to the subway train. Anyone who has stopped in the middle of their daily routine and realized, “This is crazy,” is a co-conspirator with Samuel Beckett.
Contemporary film and literature have by no means given up the ghost of existential thought. Chuck Palahniuk, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch all have created works of art that follow a direct line from nineteenth century existential philosophy. Palahniuk offers a prime example of how existentialist ideas can still permeate work that is firmly rooted in the contemporary idiom. In Fight Club, readers are introduced to a fast-talking, mentally unstable protagonist who regurgitates a lot of the ideas of existentialism, yet simultaneously cannot grasp the import of the philosophy he recites. The modern world, which commodifies everything, even one’s internal life, has rendered all philosophies essentially bankrupt. The reaction of the protagonist is to rail against that commodification in ever more violent ways, but nevertheless he cannot escape the commercial, postmodern world which he inhabits. Part of him understands this, and resists the urge to simply annihilate things – this provides the greatest twist of the novel – and that part of him is ultimately correct. The unfortunate conclusion that Palahniuk forces the reader to grapple with is that existence as such has become a commodity, a blank slate for advertisers, and the individual no longer has self-ownership and self-determination. Of course given that Palahniuk is writing in a very contemporary idiom, many interpretations are absolutely possible. One could even read that an embrace of commodity culture, a sell-out to buy-in, is the most meaningful response possible in the world that has come to pass in the twenty-first century.
As quickly as it came into the mainstream, existentialist philosophy and literature fell out of fashion. There are several reasonable explanations for this. In the first place, the labels that critics give to periods of intellectual and literary history are frequently applied in hindsight. Existentialism was never really a cohesive body of thought, but instead a vague and amorphous intersection of ideas, questions, and methods of inquiry. Few people labeled themselves as existentialists. Many, in fact, resisted the appellation altogether. Second, the adoption of existentialist philosophical principles in popular art reduced its significance to that of a product, a kind of kitsch that many self-respecting thinkers shied away from. Contemporary literature adopts, discards, and modifies so many philosophical and aesthetic perspectives that holistic points of view like existentialism gets washed out by all the competing voices. However, the influence of existential thought is not totally swept away, as many filmmakers and novelists still claim the likes of Kafka or Sartre as prime inspirations.
This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Jalic Inc. Do not reprint it without permission. Written by Josh Rahn. Josh holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Morehead State University, and a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Kentucky.
Major Existentialist Writers
- de Beauvoir, Simone (1908-1986)
- Beckett, Samuel (1906-1989)
- Bukowski, Charles (1920-1994)
- Camus, Albert (1913-1960)
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (1821-1881)
- Heidegger, Martin (1889-1976)
- Ionesco, Eugène (1909-1994)
- Kafka, Franz (1883-1924)
- Kierkegaard, Søren (1813-1855)
- Marcuse, Herbert (1898-1979)
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844-1900)
- Thoreau, Henry David (1817-1862)
- Sartre, Paul (1905-1980)