Existentialism is a philosophical belief system that regards the human being as a living human rather than a reasoned or ruminating individual. In teaching philosophy, the starting point of existentialism lies in what is known as the existential attitude or one's disorientation in the face of a world of abstracts and absurdities. Existentialism proposes that each and every individual is solely responsible for providing meaning and depth to their life and living it as fervently as possible. Gordon E. Bigelow's "A Primer of Existentialism," removes the veil from the philosophical thought process and seeks to understand the sensational question of existentialism that is who am I rather than why mankind exists or what is mankind. Bigelow presents six facets of the concept: existence before essence; reason is impotent to deal with the depths of human life; alienation; anxiety; the nothingness encounter and freedom. Existentialism has been prominently featured in literature as well as theoretical texts.
One literary text that presents a characteristic of existentialism is Albert Camus' "The Guest." The story itself reflects on the issues that were taking place in Algeria and is primarily about the character of Daru, a schoolteacher who is faced with a plethora of dilemmas common to the human experience. Camus' presentation of choice and accountability is one that emphasizes the freedom aspect that Bigelow speaks of. "Freedom means human autonomy. In a purposeless universe, man is condemned to freedom because he is the only creature who is self-surpassing, who can become something other than he is" (Bigelow 13). Thus, man can makes choices and must be able to deal with the consequences of those choices because he is his own man and no one is guiding him. Daru is faced with the quandary of how he will handle a prisoner and whether or not he will turn him in for being a rebel. To Daru, the prisoner is simply another human who has made his bed and now must proverbially lie in it. "I know you'll tell the truth, you're from hereabout and you are a man" (Camus 21), Daru states to the prisoner. Daru understands that the prisoner is free to turn himself in without the aid of Daru or Balducci. Daru ultimately allows the prisoner the freedom to make his choice by supplying him money and assuming that the prisoner will turn himself in. Camus here paints an existentialist viewpoint that neutrality is not an acceptable option in certain cases, yet at the same time allows the reader to glean that Daru indeed did make a choice to let the prisoner make his own mind up.
Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," enlightens on the purpose of life as well through the eyes of three individuals: an old man, and two waiters, who are to be assumed as one that is old and one that is young given the dialogue. Each has varying degrees of beliefs about life and the aspirations of an individual and how he/she opts to actualize them. The young waiter is aligned with the nonchalance of the tangible, the reliable and predetermined. He seeks to understand why the old man would consider suicide and the older waiter states "nothing" (Hemingway 2) was the reason for his attempt at death.
The old man is a frequenter of the cafe where the waiters work. The younger waiter continues to question why the old man selected death over life. This is evident with "what did he want to kill himself for?" (Hemingway 2). The older waiter is not able to answer this question of the younger waiter. Instead, the older waiter looks beyond the younger waiter's question and into the choice that the old man has made to frequent the cafe sipping and drinking brandy instead of being at home or exploring society since "he has plenty of money" (Hemingway 3). Hemingway uses the older waiter to be somewhat compassionate to the old man's reasoning in spite of the superficial qualities that life is sunshine and rainbows that society often reasons about rich people. Hemingway sees fit to advocate through the waiters and the old man that life is and should be a painful journey, and that meaning is not derived unless one has some form of struggle. That the “modern man finds himself, not on the highway of upward Progress toward a radiant Utopia but on the brink of a catastrophic precipice, below which yawns the absolute void and uncompromising black Nothingness" (Bigelow 12). The old man is his illustration of existentialist thought regarding nothingness.
Existentialism has also been depicted in poetry. Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” seeks to reflect on the duality of the world in the hopes of humans accepting their mortality. Larkin uses the existentialist thought that reason is impotent to deal with the depths of life. For Larkin, the darkness brings truth to the forefront. The opening line gives way to Larkin's eloquent description that man must be taken in whole. That dark and light equally exist within man and that all of the frailties of man are present in the psyche. Reason cannot be applied to the narrator in "Aubade," as [he] "gets half-drunk at night, waking at four to soundless dark" (Larkin). The narrator is seeking to understand the meaning of life and has tried to avoid the fear of what [he] uncovers. "This is a special way of being afraid, no trick dispels. Religion used to try, that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die and specious stuff that says No rational being can fear a thing it will not feel" (Larkin). To Larkin, the emphasis here is on the agony of dealing with one's choices and one being involved in the consequences and truths that result from the choices.
The mania of existentialism is that freedom of the will is obvious. That philosophical inquiry into human life must be taken seriously through a series of questions and enlightening experiences. For existentialists, negativity and experience comingle and are the responses to human existence. One cannot be objective without exclusively acting instead of talking about their choices. For Camus, Hemingway and Larkin, their characters’ lives have no meaning or depth without abstract difficulties.
Bigelow, Gordon A. “A Primer of Existentialism.” 1961. Print.
Camus, Albert. “The Guest.” 1957. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” 1933. Print.
Larkin, Philip. "Aubade." Poetry Foundation, 2013, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178058. Accessed 14 Apr. 2013.