Another Look at Existentialism

Originally in Writers' Monthly and The Sons of Camus Writers International Journal.

There being nothingness oi can see.

     Existentialism? Isn't that something that was fashionable around about the nineteen-fifties? Many of those of you who have read beyond the title of this essay will be wondering what, if anything, it has to do with writing today.

     I can sympathize. One of my memories of the sixties (I was too young for such things in the fifties) is that of the type who turned up at parties with a volume of Sartre's Being and Nothingness* tucked under his arm. He - it always was a he I, regret to say - never read the book, but carried it like a talisman, a badge of the intellectual and philosopher he was proclaiming himself to be.

     The ultimate in pretension, it seemed to me. It put me off reading Sartre and the other existentialist writers for many years. Fortunately, what this meant was that, when at last I was able to put these prejudices aside and did read them, I was able to do so away from all the intellectual razzmatazz and with an open mind. And I found that they have much to offer today's reader and writer. This is what I want to convey to you in this essay.

     Let's get over the philosophy hurdle first. Existentialism is not a "school" or movement in the same way as is say, logical positivism or Hegelian philosophy. In fact the roots of Sartre's brand of existentialism lie partly in his rejection of most earlier philosophical thinking, with its emphasis on external laws and principles, and abstract ideas like "the spirit of man".

     Existentialist thought firmly places the individual person at the center of the universe, and everything follows from his or her own inner response to individual experience. The responsibility for acting in a particular way or becoming a certain kind of person is a wholly personal one. It is a responsibility that may not be disowned by taking the line that external factors and ideas require one to follow a certain course, or that one's fate is in any way predetermined.

     If you read that paragraph again you should realize that this is an excellent, if uncompromising, starting point for psychological exploration. The very stuff, in fact, of literature of the most insightful kind.

     John Paul Sartre himself, although a student of philosophy who studied under Heidegger's teacher Husserl, owes as much to literature for his ideas as to any formal studies. One of his most important influences was Tolstoy, whose The Death of Ivan Ilyich could almost be described as the first existentialist fiction.

     The story of Ivan Ilyich is simple enough; a dying man who had never before bothered himself about such things is forced to contemplate the "big" questions. He ultimately realizes that even in the last throes of his illness, it is within his power and responsibility to do the "right thing" - in this case to open his mind to the need to accept death, and so to release his family and himself from his sufferings. It is the moral force and commitment of Tolstoy's story that makes it one of the classics of literature.

     Sartre was later to denounce some lack of commitment in his own first novel, Nausea, but in fact it remains his most revealing work, as well as his best from an artistic point of view. Nausea tells the story of Antoine Roquentin, a well-traveled historian who is now living an empty existence in the provincial town of Bouville (La Boue is "filth" in French). His lover, Anny, has drifted away from him, and his scholarly work now means very little to him. Rejecting the prevailing order of things, his life now centers on conversations in the municipal library, and his casual affair with the proprietress of a café.

     The nausea of the title, which Roquentin now realises is part of his own feeling of pointlessness, is intensified after an unsuccessful reunion with Anny. When all seems at its most hopeless, he hears a jazz song that makes him realize that existence can be justified even by small acts of creativity, and he resolves to write a book so beautiful that he will be able to accept himself.

     This bald outline does little to reveal the depths of what is a richly comic novel, as well as a philosophical statement. It is at its strongest as a piece of fiction when exposing the self-deception of the good citizens of Bouville with delightful humor and insight, when describing Roquentin's strange dreams, and when exploring the difficulties of his relationships with Anny and with another important character, "the Autodidact". The success of Nausea is not that Sartre managed to convey his ideas through a work of fiction; rather it is that the philosophy lies at the heart of the novel, and gives it an integrity that is so rarely found.

     Albert Camus is another great writer closely associated with existentialism. Although the two were often at intellectual odds with each other, the writings of Camus emphasize and explore a strain already present in Sartre's work, the notion of "the absurd" (absurde in French has connotations of "insufferable" as well as its expected English meaning). The individual is still firmly placed at the centre of the universe, but in an "absurd" universe, in other words one that is indecipherable, illogical, and ultimately baffling. This further develops the possibilities for both dramatic and comic writing.

     Camus' first novel, The Outsider, is a better introduction to existentialism than any philosophical discourse. From one of the most famous openings in literature ("Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know") the bachelor Meursault follows a path which leads to him becoming a condemned murderer, because he refuses to "play the game". The "game" is lying or, for Meursault, displaying more emotion than he really feels. In Meursault's case, problems start with his failure to cry at his mother's funeral, and from that point he is marked as the outsider of the title.

     Camus kept a series of working notebooks during his most creative period. In 1942, the year of publication of The Outsider, he notes that it is a very carefully planned book, and that his aim was to bring his character face to face with the "one great problem" by way of everyday and natural events. He succeeds brilliantly in this aim: The Outsider can be read and enjoyed without any prior consideration or even knowledge of its philosophical basis.

     This may be in large part due to the limpid writing style of the author, one that translates well into the English language, but it also owes much to the nature of existentialism. Placing the individual at the centre of things, making him or her responsible for action or lack of it in the face of a vaguely hostile world, is a perfect recipe for drama and storytelling. Existentialist philosophy and literature go hand-in-hand.

     A far more complex book is Camus' last novel, before his untimely death in a road accident, The Fall. This takes the form of a confession to a stranger in an Amsterdam bar by one Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a former lawyer. Clamence tells of his self-centered, self-satisfied attitude, and of his failure to experience any true feeling in his relationships with women. He does nothing to prevent a young woman jumping to a death from one of the Seine bridges, and his life becomes more and more wretched.

     The book is capable of a number of interpretations, but must owe something to the political and moral tensions that Camus himself was experiencing. He was left-wing in outlook, but fiercely anti-Marxist after a two-year spell in the Communist party. He was a sportsman - he played in goal for the Algerian football team and was a boxer - as well as an intellectual. He was a French-Algerian who was deeply troubled by the actions of both the French army and the Front de Liberation Nationale during the Algerian war of independence.

     Yet The Fall goes far beyond mere personal therapy. It is, perhaps more than anything else, an exploration of what it means to be a moralist, philosopher, writer, or indeed anyone who takes up a position of conscience and tries to live by it.

     It is as a writer rather than a philosopher or moralist that Camus has left his greatest legacy. Although he himself was a novelist first and dramatist second, the theatre probably owes him a greater debt. The influence of Camus can be seen in the works of Jean Genet, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, among others.

     Probably the best-known example though, is Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who lived in Paris for many years and whose first important writings were in French. His Waiting for Godot was highly acclaimed when the English-language version was produced in 1955. As is well known, even by many who have not even seen or read the play, Godot never comes. He is simply an absent figure, not even a symbol - Beckett himself said that he did not have any idea of who or what Godot was. In fact most of the play is taken up with word-games and repartée between the two real main characters, the two tramp-buffoons, Gogo and Didi. The play is existentialist in its essentials: the individual at the centre of things, the responsibility for action being a personal one: each act ends with the same dialogue: "Well, shall we go?" - "Yes, let's go".

     In fact Gogo and Didi never moved. Beckett's use of Christian symbolism (the tree, the Biblical references) and his theatrical devices give the play a reputation for profundity or even impenetrability. This reputation regrettably tends to be associated with existentialism as such. For this reason, I would not recommend Beckett's play, fine though it is, as an introduction to existentialism in literature. What it nevertheless does is illustrate is the breadth of existentialist thought.

     One of the undeservedly less well-known existentialist thinkers is Gabriel Marcel, who provides an interesting contrast to Sartre. He derived his ideas from Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Jaspers rather than from Sartre, and his philosophical writing has a personal rather than theoretical tone. This makes him more accessible than many. He was a convert to Catholicism, and this adds another dimension to his writing: Sartre's approach was essentially political and, to begin with, Marxist.

     Marcel's ideas are best brought out in Being and Having, but he is known for several philosophical and metaphysical works spanning four decades. Although he emphasizes the importance of faith, intuition, and communication with others, the core of his thinking is existentialist: "being" is a concept that cannot be explained away by abstract theory, and the free individual has to treat it as a unique experience to be explored, taking responsibility for his or her own actions. It should be no surprise, then, to find that Marcel was another who recognized the link between existentialist philosophy and drama: A Man of God and The Beacon are probably the best introductions to his plays.

     I hope that I have said enough to whet your appetites. Although existentialism has now - fortunately - lost its "fashionable" tag, the basis of its ideas continue to have wide influence. I have only attempted to give an introduction to these ideas in this short essay, but you will learn much more by reading some of the works I have mentioned.

     All are available in English translation, and this is the main reason why I have refrained from using the French titles. The other important reason is that I want to emphasize their accessibility and their value to today's reader: it is no coincidence that three of the writers I have mentioned (Sartre, Camus and Beckett) were winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, although Sartre declined to accept his award.

     Dare I add, too, that they all have a great deal to offer today's writers? This is not only for their literary skills, skills which are not lost in translation - Sartre's voice is so individual that it would come through in any event; the deceptively simple style of Camus lends itself to translation; and of course Beckett was the author of his own English-language versions.

     The real strength of the existentialists as writers was that their creative work was built on a foundation, one that gave them a world-view, which, though it might not be comfortable, was by definition unique to them. That's not a bad starting point for any writer, if you think about it.

* I have used this anecdote about three books. All were true. One instance was with Sartre's Being and Nothingness, another was with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the third was with JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man, unaccountably popular at the time.


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