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Existentialism in Literature

Commentary by Karen Bernardo

The term "existentialism" refers to a literary movement of the mid-twentieth century which holds that man has complete freedom to determine his own fate. The actions he chooses in fact determine his existence. Existentialists believe that a particular individual is not the way he is because God made him that way, or because he is part of a great human community with common characteristics. He is the way he is because -- that’s how he is. He is an individual; he is unique and independent. His destiny is his own, his choices are his own to make, and he should make the choices that are right for him. No general rules apply. It is this singular individuality, in fact, that allows him to exist at all. Although existentialists tend to have as many areas of disagreement as agreement, the concept of "existence before essence" is relatively universal.

Another relatively universal point is that a person who is unaware of his "essence" -- in other words, a person who is not conscious of his own freedom to choose the path he follows, and who is not sufficiently self-actualized to choose that path freely -- can not really be said to exist. Existence, for the existentialist, implies not only awareness of existence but of its implications.

Existentialist literature deals extensively with the theme of alienation, because existentialists believe that each individual human being is fundamentally alone. One’s essential lack of communion with others makes the individual ultimately responsible for his or her own decisions. For this reason, the existentialist avoids doctrine and ideology, but holds to a few basic tenets.

First, existentialists seek to avoid intruding on the lives and "boundaries" of others. Since there is no such thing as absolute right or wrong, one has no business telling others how to behave, or imposing standards from outside that the individual should develop for himself.

Secondly, existentialism disavows a sense of "pattern" in the universe, a grand scheme in which we all play a part. There is no ultimate meaning, they argue; all people have to forge their own meaning for themselves, and therefore one person’s decisions have no cosmic interrelationship with another’s.

Therefore, creativity is prized much more highly than conformity, since a creative (and unorthodox) approach to life’s problems implies that one is grappling with them in an individualized way. Effort is prized much more highly than skill, for skill derives from having done something the same way repeatedly, and since no two problems are exactly alike, treating them as if they were is ineffective. Sincerity, self-analysis, and conviction, existentialists feel, is all one can expect with regard to ethical decisions, because there are no absolute standards of morality to which people can turn.

Ultimately, the most common denominator of existentialists is a rejection of authority. The only authority which any person has is himself; he is answerable only to himself as well. The existentialist teacher attempts to inculcate his pupils with a sense of their own autonomy, as well as giving them tools they can use to forge their own set of moral principles and define their own destiny. The existentialist political leader (if such a thing can be imagined) delegates responsibility back onto the shoulders of the people involved, helping them to recognize that they alone are responsible for themselves. In general, existentialists avoid positions of power because authoritarianism conflicts with their basic views of life.

The fact that existentialists stubbornly insist on the primacy of the individual self does not mean they are selfish, immoral, or uncaring. They tend to be deeply compassionate people, because they care for their fellow man out of sincere altruism and not because they think God expects it of them. They also tend to be extremely moral, because they have given a great deal of thought to their system of ethics (much more, in fact, than most people do).

Existentialism has played a significant role in the twentieth century as humanity struggles to come to grips with new challenges. The threat of sudden nuclear destruction; the overwhelming loss of community brought about by increased social mobility; the disintegration of the family -- all have reinforced man’s sense of alienation and fear. Existentialism, which freely admits these situations and offers no palliative, has been considered to be a rather dismal philosophy for dismal times.

But in fact it is not. It simply relocates the burden of responsibility back onto some rather uncomfortable shoulders -- our own -- and asserts that only through our own self-actualization and self-determination will we actually be able to look at the problem realistically, without doctrine, dogma, or ideology, and forge some solutions that work for us. Although many people attribute to the humanism inherent in existentialist literature a devaluation of "traditional moral values" and the centrality of God, existentialists see in their creative and deeply sincere approach to the study and practice of ethics a new ray of hope for humanity.