I’ve often, on those rare occasions when I have been forced to talk about the writing I actually do – not the copywriting I do for work, obviously, but my passion – been asked the question that most writers find themselves dreading;
“So”, they’ll say to me, with that peculiar glint of pitying charity in their eye, “what kind of stuff do you write?” Once, in a panic, I replied “existentialism”, and that got them to shut up (I think I was at a black tie birthday party at the time, with people I didn’t know and wearing a leather coat where everyone else was in a tuxedo – it was one of those parties).
Still, when I answer that now, whether it is true or not, they always ask me more about it. They say they’ve heard the term, isn’t it all depressing stuff. Those who have read a little will ask me if I’ve read Sartre and I try not to be sarcastic when I reply.
But, What Is Existentialism?
Simply put, existentialism is a philosophy put forward by 19th century philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – both dry figures with all the charm of seagulls, of course – but it was primarily popularised by writers, particularly French writers, like Jean-Paul Sartre and, one of my personal favourites, Albert Camus.
There are a variety of different perceptions of existentialism, and your opinions of it will depend upon who you most identify with; for me, I read Camus’ The Outsider, The Fall and The First Man before I read Sartre’s Nausea and, although I will not dispute the fact that Nausea is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, when Camus gets going, he really gets going!
The one unifying theory of the myriad aspects of existentialist perceptions, however, are that it places emphasis upon the individual over society. Freedom, choice and personal existence are three of the main tenements of the philosophy, closely tied in with the – oh so French – idea of liberty.
Predominately, it takes the view that all life only has what meaning that you can prescribe to it. It is the theory that suggest self-discipline, to an extent, in that you make rational decisions in an irrational and, at times, downright insane universe. It aims a spotlight on the very question of human existence, and is something of a logical response to the feeling that so many people feel – there is no purpose, there is no explanation at the alpha or the omega – there is no why or wherefore – there simply is. In the face of a life void of meaning, or meaning arriving from any external source, it is the acceptance and even the enjoyment of existence in of itself.
What Does That Mean?
Well, existentialism – in the simplest possible terms – means that individuals are entirely free and anything which attempts to control that freedom is, in a way, unnatural and perverse. It means that everyone must take personal responsibility for their actions and the choices they have made, rather than blaming any external force. It is this responsibility that often produces the so-called angst that leads to “existentialist crises” that are so often joked about by comedians with little else to say.
Existentialism, rather than some miserable, dusty theory pushed about in rotten libraries in university towns, is an active alternative. By its acceptance of existence, it places an emphasis on action, choice, decision and, above all, freedom as a fundamental need of the soul – if there could be said to exist a soul. Personal choice is everything, and it is only through the human exercise of this choice that humans might be able to rise above the “absurd” state of human society as we know it.
Who Are The Main Existentialist Writers?
Interestingly, those writers that I have mentioned and those we look back on – people like Albert Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – refused to label themselves as existentialists. Even the commonly considered creators of the theory, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, never used the term in any of their writings.
This rejection of such a simple title has, in part, to do with the tenements of the philosophy itself. Existentialism is often applied, as a term, to those who refuse to belong to any school of thought – or popularised school of thought, anyway. Often, this results in the writer/philosopher rejecting the beliefs of any system, be it educational, economical, religious, governmental, et cetera. These societies, these communities of thought, are regarded as being superficial, academic or simply so far removed from life that they have all the value of a worthless fiction in of themselves.
Similar to Nihilism and other, externally miserable/rebellious philosophies, existentialism can easily be considered a reaction against philosophies and political systems, politics itself, rationalism and any other form of system which seeks to find some meaning, or place some organisation, upon the absurd maelstrom of that which is life – that which is existence.
Do I Believe In Existentialism?
The major issue with this question is that, a major component of existentialism is the rejection of labels and dogmatic systems of belief – to an extent, even calling oneself an existentialist is a betrayal of that which it stands for.
So, when people ask me what I write, and I say “existentialism”, and they nod along like they’re so learned and wise, I want to laugh at them. When I say “existentialism” – to me, at least – it has become the equivalent of looking them in the eye and blatantly telling them to fuck off.
Still, that’s just me, and I’m not really a very nice person.
So, I wonder, would you call yourself an existentialist? What do you say when anyone asks you what kind of thing you write?