Thursday, November 10, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 1: Existentialism

I want to begin this analysis series with existentialism from a literary perspective.  I have attempted to explain this philosophy in a couple of different posts now, but I have not yet been able to fully engage in its definition, as I have clumsily defined it and applied it to a particular book at the same time.  Now, however, I will dedicate that time, but strictly from a literary perspective.  I repeat this because I want to emphasize that I am not at all equipped to approach existentialism as a purely philosophical construct and will leave that job for true philosophers.

The best way I can sum up existentialism is to say that it is the examination of one's Self in essence, separate from Self in context.  What does this mean?  We all have a tendency to define ourselves by our personalities, our skills/talents, and by the activities in which we are involved.  When we meet someone for the first time, our get-to-know-you questions are always directed in that way: What do you do for a living?  (Or for college students, What is your major?)  What do you like to do in your free time?  There is an undeniable emphasis on doing and little interest in being.  Although I don't think it's wrong to ask those surface question upon first acquaintance, they tend to pervade our private thoughts as well.  How do you define yourself?  I am smart.  I do/did well in school.  I play sports.  I write, I create, I compute, etc.  Again, none of these definitions are actually reaching a person's self in essence.  They are based on personality, activity, and social standing.

According to existentialists, every single person has this divide in his/her identity.  Existential crisis arises, however, when a person becomes aware of this divide.  When he realizes that he has a Self which is distinct from these surface definitions, he is likely to abandon his value in the identifications which now appear superficial.   Thus, he must now determine whether there is anything of consequence which is crucial to his existence.  This often results in a person withdrawing from relationships and activities in order to objectively examine the chasm in her identity.  However, it is an inevitably painful and intimidating process, as the person loses the security of her previous identifications.  Moreover, the rift in identity can seem so irreparable that it leads to the pervading attitude of, "What does it matter?" 

Once a person has reached this stage of existential angst, he may experience profound futility in his existence.  A despairing existentialist is unable to bridge the gap between one's true essence and the social qualifications of one's existence.  At this point, he retreats from responsibility and social guidelines, including a moral code.  In literature, the character in existential crisis often acts destructively at this point, challenging society's limits of appropriate behavior in order to offset the despair with some kind of dramatic action.  According to Kierkegaard, a personal in existential angst can ultimately respond to this in only two ways: 1. Resolution of the divide in one's Self, or 2. Irreparable Despair/Suicide.

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

If you are wondering this, (or gave up on reading this post long ago), this is a completely valid question.  But the beauty of literature is that it illuminates real issues of human existence.  I believe that existential crisis is a real and prevalent problem people experience.  Literature can allow us to access this problem if we have not personally experienced it or find relief if we are in the midst of it.  (Although, unfortunately, not all authors offer a positive resolution).  A number of authors have brilliantly portrayed existential angst in their work, and if we are not looking for it, we may miss one of the supreme messages of the text.  If we cannot relate to the characters on this level, we may be irritated with their listlessness and misunderstand its source.  We may likewise be put off by the conclusion, especially if we are not aware of the problem at the core of the text.  If we read existential literature without considering existentialism, we may experience the piece to be slow and exasperating rather than compelling and insightful.  In this way, existential literary analysis can greatly increase our appreciation for the work of literature.

To see existentialism in literature, check out:

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

For more on existentialism, check out:

Existentialism by the Literature Network
Feminism and Existentialism by the ladies at A Year of Feminist Classics
Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard
The Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre


mel u said...

Interesting post

I would add to your reading list The Woman in The Dunes by Kobe Abe-a great novelist very influenced by Sarte and Camus

Amy said...

Thanks Mel! I'll add it to my reading list.

christina said...

I was a lit major and then I went onto grad school for therapy; my best friend during this time was a philosophy major. This post reminded me of all of my aMAYzing convos back in the day.

Thank the gods for books or my mind would have become gooey mud by now. I can no longer afford college. :)

Andrew Shaughnessy said...

I wonder if existentialism is a bit more nebulous than all that though? You mention that it often leads to destruction of self and others and a moral breakdown, but thinking through some examples that I have heard described as existential, I'm not so sure it always pans out that way. Hemingway's characters, for instance,are often pinned with the name of existentialism, and they certainly have their existential angst, but it ends up leading to a sort of semi-depressed, anti-hero tendencies of action. Even Crime and Punishment, though it initially starts with a breakdown of moral code, by the end works out into a sort of redemption (though whether this is through a working out or a working through of the existential angst I'm not sure). Anyhow, possibly there are varieties and gradations within literature. Existentialism perceived as total moral breakdown of the self vs. existentialism perceived as a kind of 'manly' realization of futility and finding solace in action and alcohol.

Amy said...

Hi Andrew,

Your challenge is perfectly valid. However, since I was attempting to explain the concept, I had to offer some kind of definition, though it is certainly a pretty vague term open to different interpretations.

I also agree that existential angst can lead to "depressed, anti-hero action." I tried to include this in the discussion by saying that the character in existential crisis often acts destructively, but it is an important clarification to say that this can be completely self-inflicted. The destruction doesn't have to be against others but can result in the kind of detrimental and depressed lifestyle you mention.

The resolution for existential crisis is worthy of a discussion all on its own. In my limited reading, this is perhaps the greatest source of discord among the leading existential philosophers. I tend to agree with Kierkegaard and think that it is possible and that it requires the recognition of a greater existence outside of one's self. Although this doesn't necessitate a new adoption of morality, it often causes one.

I appreciate the continued discussion and hope to continue thinking about this fascinating concept.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for this post. My seniors are currently reading The Stranger by Albert Camus. I read The Stranger when I was there age and remember finding it difficult. I think that part of it stems from the fact that as seniors at the school where I am student teaching they are reading a book that addresses existentialism without knowing anything about existentialism. And it is difficult for them to figure out what the point of it all is. I'm thinking that a brief overview of the philosophy might be incredibly rewarding.

Amy said...

Hi Jennifer,

I'm happy to hear that this post may be helpful to you. It sounds like your students have a great teacher at the helm!

If you want more details about existentialism in The Stranger, you should click on the link I included on this page or look it up in my past reviews. I wrote about this a little while ago, having recently grown in my appreciation for this difficult text.

Avagurl said...

Do you think Jane Eyre contains an existentialism literary lense?

Amy said...

Avagurl, that's a great question. I've been thinking about re-reading Jane Eyre soon, and I will definitely keep that in mind. I was much too young to perceive that when I first read it, so I can't answer your question... yet. I'll keep you posted.

tod pack said...

Hi Amy
Interesting article.
Camus has often exclaimed to not be an existentialist.. Can we look at the stranger from a noon existentialist point of view as well?