Philosophy of Existentialism and Its Representation in Literature

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I’ve been told, as I’m sure you have, to never start an essay with a quote. Instead, you must create an engaging first sentence to trick your reader into thinking you have something interesting to say. Frankly, there is nothing I could ever write that is more engaging, at least from an objective perspective, than the words of an author who once wrote a story about a man turning into a giant cockroach.

Any man who can fill 102 pages with the story of a salesman turning into a bug, not being particularly troubled by it, and then dying because he was impaled by an apple- spoilers, sorry- is by far the more interesting person. Of course, what Franz Kafka says shouldn’t really matter you, or to me for that matter- and he doesn’t, but you can’t write a paper about existentialism without mentioning cockroach man- but you also shouldn’t care about my opinions, or, in fact anyones who aren’t yours.

If any of this reasoning confuses or frustrates you, congratulations, existential thought is not for you. The definition of existential thought is hard to pin down. Because it’s a philosophy about drawing meaning from yourself first and foremost and not the will of others, as such, it doesn’t lend itself well to agreed upon rules. Most existential thinkers have their own individual ideas on how it all works, and have a penchant for disagreeing with each other harshly when another thinkers philosophy runs counter to their own.

However, what’s generally agreed upon in terms of a broad definition, is that we all exist in an abstract world and that it is the individual, not religion or society, that provides life with any meaning. That it is our responsibilities to live our lives as “authentically” as possible, being true to ourselves, and not tying ourselves down for, or out of concern, of others. Our value is internally found, not in how others see or categorize you and vice versa. We each, individually are responsible for our own happiness and purpose in life. No one else. Søren Kierkegaard, born after the turn of the 19th century, is widely considered the first existentialist thinker.

Not that he would call himself that, the overarching label of “existentialism” wouldn’t be applied till many years later by Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s about fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre put a heavy emphasis on the individual, the idea that human beings are far more than the categories we create to process the world through. We are responsible for our actions, and as such, are our actions. If we act genuinely kind, then we are genuinely kind people, but if we act kind to appear kind, then we are inauthentic. The idea of being an “existentialist” was one that Sartre originally rejected, only to backstep and reclaim the label in later years.

Sartre was a 20th century existentialist thinker, joined by his contemporaries Unamuno, Buber, Shestov, Berdyaev, Marcel, Jasper, and Albert Camus all who had the benefit of being able to build off philosophers who came before them. Kierkegaard may have been the first, but he was not the only 19th century proponent of the philosophy, he was joined Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky in the early years of existentialism. Dostoyevsky, who if, even if you don’t know him by name, you are likely to recognize quotes from. Such as, “If there is no God, everything is permitted” and “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him”.

Nietzsche is famous for his concept of the Superman or Übermensch, a superior man who would appear when he cast off the “herd morality” and “completely mastered himself” rising above the rest of the population. Because of how much existentialism evolved with the dawn of the 20th century we don’t know if forefathers Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Kierkegaard, would have even approved of what it eventually became. Existentialism is a case of trying to make sense from an abstract existence. When I read Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, a story about a historian, who becomes convinced that “inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself”, much as with the case of our good friend Kafka’s cockroach tale, the writing is laced with heavy similarities with dissociation.

A subtle intrusive disconnect from reality, preventing our narrator, and ourselves the readers, from fully processing everything put in front of us. The same can be said for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, where in which the story is centered and framed around the main characters aggressive and debilitating case of PTSD. The worlds of the stories themselves have not become fantastical or changed, rather the point of view from which we see the story has become uniquely unable to process reality as it occurs. This disconnect is officially called ‘the existential attitude’, an existential dread that is a common characteristic of the literary works of the genre.

Because existentialism appeared in full strength on the back of World War One and the economic chaos that prefaced it, and then again in the years following World War Two, we can draw parallels between the inability the characters in works of existential thought have processing their realities, and the confusion and distress that permeated the world during their creation by their respective authors. Existentialism is a reactionary movement. An attempt to draw meaning from an internal source because the world largely no longer makes sense to those who live in it. The idea that we can no longer rely on the world to give us concret answers, or a feeling of betrayal from something we draw meaning from is unmooring. Our innate desire to grab hold of something stabilizing, whether it be religion or a personal belief, when interrupted can be unsettling. The goal of existentialism is to cast off the need to hold on to an external idea and take personal responsibility for our lives.

With a heavy emphasis on free will and freedom from God or any other universal force, the existential movement is as much about claiming a personal identity as it is casting off external presenses. Where as in nihilism there is a belief that life and the universe is functionally meaningless and that there is nothing we can do about that, existentialism argues that life is meaningless unless we achieve free will and create out own meaning. Because existentialism is reactionary, it begs the question, could we see a re emergence of it again in the future? Economists, in recent years, have drawn similarities between our worlds current state and what it look like before World War One. The current push back against globalization towards a more isolated state is irrily similar to the actions of the United States in the early 1900’s.

Furthermore, we’ve seen a recent uptick in White Nationalism, and the United States has broken tradition as of late by breaking with allies. Mass shootings, strikes, and a constant news cycle of scandals and breaking news has left many Americans feeling unsteady and uncomfortable with the direction the country is heading. So, could we be in for another wave of existentialist thought? Truthfully, tha evidence suggests that we may already in the middle of one. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? Was written in 1968 during the Vietnam war and then adapted into the popular movie under the name, Blade Runner, in 1982 at the beginning of the recession. Then, just recently in 2017, the work was given a sequel called Blade Runner 2048.

All pieces of existential work, all emerging into the popular consciousness in times of strife. Fight Club, Interstellar, and Ex Machina are all movies bearing the hallmarks of existentialism appearing in our pop culture landscape today. The reason you don’t see, The Matrix, and think of it in the same terms of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, is because like the transition from the 19th century to 20th century existentialism, 21st century existential thought is different. It has evolved to suit our evolution as a spesies. Though, while the settings have changed from the bottle sized, grey-toned worlds of the past, the internal drama of ‘what is human?’ remains the same. We’re still fixated on the idea of independent thought. That we are individuals in the grand scheme of society.

Our current moral quandary, about the humanity of Artificial Intelligence, is a simple reflection to the old struggle of standing out in a categorical and stagnant world that has left us behind or buried us in the weight of conformity. If our computers can talk, think, and reason like us, what sets us apart from them. This fear of being replaced by our creations is the new ‘the existential attitude’. The world has become uncertain again as it often does, but, this time it doesn’t seem to be resettling. The chaotic world we live in is not going to get easier to understand soon, and it is not going away.

So, if historical pattern holds true- it looks that this recent uptick in existential ideology that’s begun to creep into the popular conscience is only going to grow. Existentialism is a uniquely personal philosophy, because under it, only you yourself are capable of giving your own life meaning. Franz Kafka and his cockroach’s opinion shouldn’t matter, and neither should mine, because relying one either of us, or anybody else to tell you how to think and feel is the complete opposite of what existential thought is about. Structure and order are ineffective and flawed ways of looking at an absurd world- if you hope to adopt an existential point of view you have to learn to cut yourself off from outside institutions. The uncertainties and terror of this is where the existential dread comes in. If all of this sounds interesting, but ultimately not for you, may I suggest humanism next time?

Works Cited

  1. “1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Humanism.” Codex Hammurabi (King Translation) – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/
  2. Humanism. “Billy Pilgrim’s Struggle with PTSD in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.” Essay on Contrasting Ralph and Jack in Lord of the Flies | Bartleby, www.bartleby.com/essay/Billy-Pilgrims-Struggle-with-PTSD-in-Vonneguts-FKJUYWLYTC.
  3. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Superman.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Sept. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/superman-philosophy.
  4. Daniel Miessler. “The Difference Between Existentialism, Nihilism, and Absurdism.” Daniel Miessler, 10 Feb. 2019, danielmiessler.com/blog/difference-existentialism- nihilism-absurdism/.
  5. “Day 4/30: Speed Read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – 102 Pages in 44 Minutes.” Iris Reading, 28 Feb. 2018, www.irisreading.com/day-430-metamorphosis-by-franz- kafka-speed-read-the-book-in-44-minutes/.
  6. “Existential Psychology.” Early Adulthood Development, www.allpsychologycareers.com/topics/existential-psychology.html.
  7. “Existentialism.” Virtue Ethics – By Branch / Doctrine – The Basics of Philosophy, www.philosophybasics.com/branch_existentialism.html.
  9. Sartre, Jean Paul. Nausea. Translated from the French by Lloyd Alexander. New Directions, 1964.
  10. Swanson, Ana. “The World Today Looks a Bit like It Did before World War I – but What Does That Mean?” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/why-the- world-looks -a-bit-like-it-did-before-world-war-i.
  11. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. Vintage Classics, 2019.

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Philosophy of Existentialism and Its Representation in Literature. (2021, Apr 17). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/philosophy-of-existentialism-and-its-representation-in-literature/

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