Existentialism is a philosophical approach that rejects the idea that the universe offers any clues about how humanity should live. A simplified understanding of this thought system can be found in Jean-Paul Sartre's often-repeated dictum, "Existence precedes essence." What this means is that the identity of any one person— their essence—cannot be found by examining what other people are like, but only in what that particular person has done. Because no one can claim that his or her actions are "caused" by anyone else, existentialist literature focuses on freedom and responsibility.
Existentialism attained the height of its popularity in France during World War II. While the German army occupied the country, the philosophers and writers who gathered to discuss and argue their ideas at the cafeś in Paris captured the attention of intellectuals around the world. The oppressive political climate under the Nazis and the need for underground resistance to the invading political force provided the ideal background for Existentialism's focus on individual action and responsibility.
Although the French war-era writers are most frequently associated with Existentialism, its roots began much earlier. Existentialism can be seen as the response to the frightening loneliness that prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to pronounce in the 1880s that "God is dead." People's loss of faith in religious and social order created Page 223 | Top of Articlean understanding of personal responsibility, which led to literary works that reflect the existentialist's loneliness, isolation, and fear of the uncaring universe. Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels, written in the 1860s and 1870s, show existential themes, as do twentieth-century works by Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, and Nathaniel West. The French existentialists were so influential on writers elsewhere in Europe and in the United States that many contemporary philosophical works show some influence of their thought.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, and lived there most of her life. She was educated at the Sorbonne, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre in 1929. They began a personal and intellectual relationship that continued for fifty years. Mostly known for her 1949 book The Second Sex, a two-volume examination of the roles of women throughout history, Beauvoir was also a prolific writer of fiction. Her novels, mostly based on events of her own life, provide readers with fictionalized versions of the vibrant intellectual scene in Paris throughout the forties and fifties. They include She Came to Stay (1949), based on the romantic complication between her and Sartre and a young student who lived with them; The Blood of Others (1946), about a young man's struggle to remain uninvolved in the political situation around him; and The Mandarins (1954), about the dissolution of the Parisian intellectual community after the war. The Mandarins won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Beauvoir also wrote plays and philosophical texts. Her death from pneumonia on April 14, 1986, marked the end of the first generation of existentialists.
Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Albert Camus was one of the most influential figures in the existentialist movement that emerged in Paris in the years before and during the Second World War, although he himself refused to accept the label "existentialist." Camus was born November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria, a country in northern Africa that at the time was a colony of France. Soon after France entered in World War I, Camus's father
was drafted into the army, and he never returned. Albert Camus and his brother were raised by his mother and grandmother in poverty, in a three-room apartment in the working-class section of Algiers.
Camus studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. Graduating in 1936, he was unable to work as a teacher because he had tuberculosis. He became affiliated with a leftist theater group and wrote for a newspaper and moved to Paris just before the start of World War II. In 1942, he published one of the most important and influential novels of his career, The Stranger, about a man who, acting out of complex circumstances, kills a man whom he does not know. The situation explored in the book and the protagonist's detached, curious attitude about his own behavior captured the basic mood of Existentialism and made Camus an international success. His second most significant novel, The Plague, was published in 1947. The novel's depiction of a plague that sweeps across a country was seen as an allegory for the wartime occupation of Nazi forces and of the struggle of the individual against political oppression.
As his fame grew, Camus distanced himself from the existentialist movement in Paris, Page 224 | Top of Articlerejecting their Marxist political stance in favor of political action free of any party. The intellectual rift between him and Jean-Paul Sartre became well known in France. Camus's literary reputation suffered, as his opponents painted him as a populist who was afraid of offending the bourgeoisie because his main interest was selling books. He stayed active in the theater, writing plays and sometimes directing, and in 1957, at age forty-three, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in an automobile accident near Paris on January 4, 1960.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist whose works examine human existence as a tragedy in which the struggle for rationality is constantly undermined by the inherent senselessness in human events. Born October 30, 1821, in Moscow, he was the son of a surgeon, a cruel and strict man who was murdered by one of his serfs when Dostoevsky was seventeen. In college Dostoevsky studied to be a military engineer, a career path he abandoned after graduation in order to be a writer. His early novels were well received, but they did not anticipate the intellectual achievements he was to later reach.
In his twenties, Dostoevsky began associating with a group of radical socialists, for which he was arrested and sentenced to death. The death sentence was commuted, but the feeling of impending death affected him permanently. He served four years of hard labor, followed by four years of military service.
In 1864, he published Notes from the Underground, a short novel that presents the view that humans value freedom over all else, even happiness. This emphasis on freedom identifies Dostoevsky as an antecedent of the existentialist movement. His next novel, Crime and Punishment, remains his most popular work, and it presents the existential situation of a man who kills another man while robbing him and learns to cope with the moral ramifications of his action. His novels The Possessed and The Idiot address the issue of moral behavior in a world in which the actions of humans are not controlled by God. His final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was completed just months before Dostoevsky's death from emphysema complications on January 28, 1881. Its plot concerns four sons who each bear some guilt in the death of their father, mirroring the guilt Dostoevsky himself felt after his father's murder.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 21, 1899. At age eighteen, Hemingway did not want to go to college, choosing instead to be a newspaper reporter. Six months later, in 1918, he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps to aid World War I soldiers on the Italian front. He was wounded after only a few months and was sent home. Hemingway resumed reporting work, eventually moving to Paris to be a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. There he connected with prominent contemporaries such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and John Dos Passos. Encouraged by this group of writers, known later as the Lost Generation, Hemingway began to write fiction and poetry. His novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) is a semi-autobiographical account of a group of expatriates traveling around Europe. Hemingway returned to North America in 1923. By 1929, the success of Hemingway's novels made him financially independent. He lived in Key West, Florida, traveling to Spain and Africa to gather material for his writing. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea; the following year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Hemingway was an active sportsman—and accident prone, receiving serious burns, sprains, gashes, and other injuries on his adventures. His health was also degraded by alcoholism. His memory purportedly damaged by electroconvulsive therapy, Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961, at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
A writer of short stories and novels, Kafka often portrayed a surreal world, touching upon themes of modern life such as alienation, absurdity, and the deeply felt dread that is often expressed in existential literature.
Born in Prague, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), on July 3, 1883, Kafka spent his childhood in Prague's Jewish ghetto. He was educated as a lawyer and spent some time in a government job, working on workmen's compensation claims. He published several important short stories, including "The Hunger Artist" and The Metamorphosis. In spite of his request that the manuscripts of his novels be destroyed after his death, his literary executor saved them Page 225 | Top of Articleand published them. They include The Trial, about a man who finds himself accused of a crime, although no one will tell him the charge against him, and The Castle, about a similarly indecipherable bureaucracy that keeps the main character from entering the building referred to in the title.
Kafka died of complications from tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, at the age of 41. He thought that his literary career had been a failure, when in fact his insights into the fear and confusion caused by modern social life were to make him one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father rose from poverty to amass a considerable fortune, retiring early to devote his time to Christian philosophy. At eighteen, Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology. On his twenty-second birthday, Kierkegaard's life changed when he found out that his father's Christianity was flawed: the older man had once cursed God and had years earlier impregnated a servant. This revelation drove Kierkegaard from religious studies to a life of hedonistic excess. Another significant event in his life happened when, at twenty-seven, he became engaged to a beautiful heiress but called the engagement off two days later. The woman went on to marry and lead a happy life, but Kierkegaard continued to obsess over her throughout his writing career.
Kierkegaard's writings are a mixture of fiction, philosophy, letters, journal entries, aphorisms, and parables. He rejected formal philosophical systems of knowledge, maintaining that no one system could ever offer a complete understanding of the world. His first work, Either/Or, was an assemblage of short unrelated sketches aimed at convincing readers that life is a series of choices. He went on to produce over twenty books. The most significant of these, such as Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread, explore the terrible aspects of human freedom. The other significant aspect of his philosophy was its fervently Christian nature despite the philosopher's strong opposition to organized religion.
Kierkegaard died in Copenhagen on November 11, 1855. During his lifetime he was mocked in newspapers and vilified in churches, and his writing was not read outside Denmark until well into the twentieth century. In the early 2000s his ideas are recognized as the groundwork of existential thought.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Sartre was the single most important figure of French Existentialism. Born June 21, 1905, in Paris, France, and raised by middle-class Protestants, Sartre made the decision at an early age to be a writer and to expose the hypocrisy of the comfortable life offered to him by his parents and grandparents. In college he studied philosophy, particularly the branch known as Phenomenology, which concerns itself with the fact that life can be experienced but not really known. Throughout the 1930s, he wrote both fiction and philosophy with equal sincerity, leading, in 1938, to the autobiographical novel Nausea, which helped define the uneasy position of people in the modern world. A short story collection followed. His reputation as a literary writer established, Sartre distinguished himself as one of the century's most important philosophers with the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness, in which he examines the human situation as the awkward position of existing but being aware of nonexistence.
In the years after World War II, when Existentialism reached the height of its popularity, Sartre remained in the international spotlight as a philosopher, writer, and political activist. He wrote several plays that continue to be performed into the twenty-first century, including Dirty Hands, No Exit, and The Flies, all demonstrating the existentialist motto, coined by Sartre, "To be is to do." In 1964 Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he refused to accept it because he did not think that such an establishment should define a writer's achievement. Sartre was a familiar face around Paris and was continuously in the news until his death on April 15, 1980, from a lung ailment.
The Brothers Karamazov
Most of Dostoevsky's works concern the existentialist struggle between freedom and responsibility, but the theme is handled with particular grace in his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, first published in 1880. In this book, a son kills
his father, while his two brothers, for separate reasons, feel a sense of guilt over having let the event occur. One chapter in particular "The Grand Inquisitor" was instrumental in promoting existential themes long before the term "Existentialism" even came into usage. This section, a dream sequence, concerns a debate between an inquisitor who represents the devil, and Christ himself, regarding the question of whether humans are or should be free. Long been considered Dostoevsky's most brilliant work, The Brothers Karamazov is a most thought-provoking novel by one Russian literature's most philosophical writers.
André Gide was a great influence on the French existentialists, particularly his 1902 novel The Immoralist. It concerns a scholar from Paris who falls ill while traveling with his new bride in Tunis. He survives, but his illness leaves him with a taste for life that he was lacking before, so that he quits his intellectual work, leaves Paris to live on a farm, and eventually ends up traveling away from civilization, further and further south on the African continent. The quest for authenticity, for escaping the familiar and conventional, is one that the existentialist writers would return to again and again, as their characters come to recognize what they thought to be true is really false. Page 227
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Unlike the protagonists of existentialist books such as Camus's The Stranger, however, Gide's Michael is constantly thinking over his situation, not just reacting, making him a well-rounded character while some other existential heroes come off as being hollow.
The Little Prince
The Little Prince, written and illustrated by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is often categorized with children's books, perhaps because it has cartoon illustrations or because it rejects the arbitrary rules that adults enforce. It is this last element, however, that qualifies it as a work of existential literature. The story is a fantasy about an airplane pilot who crashes in the Sahara Desert, where a little prince who lives on an asteroid with a single flower approaches him. He explains his travels to different asteroids and the people whom he has met on each. The book offers a satire of serious adults, including a judge, an alcoholic, and a businessman. Its affirmation of childlike innocence has made it a perennial favorite since it was first published in 1943, but the issues that it raises about the superficiality of social structure and the purity of freedom make it one of the more uplifting examples of existential thought.
Readers interested in the postwar existentialist movement in Paris find two benefits from Simone de Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins (1954). First, it is a book true to the existentialist ethos, with characters who struggle to follow their philosophical beliefs while giving in to the basic romantic entanglements that complicate ideological purity. Also, it is a compelling, thinly veiled autobiography, recording Beauvoir's own affairs and affiliations during the late forties and early fifties, when some of the world's greatest thinkers sought out the apartment she kept with Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir brings a feminist sensibility to her characters that the male existentialists show no interest in. This book was the winner of France's highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Though it is not one of the most frequently read works of existential literature as of 2008, it is considered Beauvoir's finest novel.
Nausea was Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel, published in 1938. It is a fictionalized account of the author as a young man and is generally considered to be one of the most influential books in the French existential movement. Written in the form of diary entries, the book presents the life of a writer, Antoine Roquentin, who finds himself feeling sick about no particular complaint, but rather about life itself. Because of its unique style and theme, Nausea excited the passions of some literary critics and philosophers when it was first published, while others found it to be too obscure and self-important. In the early 2000s, readers are interested in it as much for the movement that it created as for the ideas that were made familiar by later writers in the movement.
Jean-Paul Sartre's surreal stage play, No Exit (1944) gave the world the phrase "Hell is other people." The setting is minimal: three characters are confined to one room, not remembering how they got there, carrying on with social interaction until they realize that their small-talk and amenities are the whole point of being there, that they have been damned to each other's company for eternity. Though the catchphrase already mentioned has become the point on which readers and viewers focus, the more important point is why these characters have been condemned to Page 228 | Top of Articlehell: they have all lived with "bad faith," which was Sartre's concept of a life lived insincerely, fearing instead of embracing the universe's lack of meaning. This play was instrumental in bringing the concept of Existentialism to the United States in the late 1940s, and Sartre's storytelling and language are powerful enough to keep the play interesting for modern audiences, so that it has continued to be produced frequently.
Albert Camus's 1942 novel The Stranger was one of the most widely read books of the twentieth century. Its plot concerns a young Algerian man, Meursault, who kills a man for no reason after a minor scuffle and the court trial that ensues. During ', the emphasis is not on whether Meursault committed the murder and not on his possible motive, but rather on the type of person he is. The prosecution focuses on external matters, such as how the defendant treated his mother and his girlfriend, making it clear that it is his existence, not just his action, that is on trial.
Meursault is the quintessential existential hero—aloof and cool. He does not think his actions matter much and is not afraid to accept responsibility for what he has done. Some critics have written this novel off as dated—a clear look at a worldview that has passed like any fad. Others believe that the sense of alienation and absurdity Camus captured will never pass from style.
The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway is often considered to have looked at the world with an existential point of view and that is most obvious in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Published in 1926, the work portrays a man who has been injured in World War I, who is trying to find meaning to his life by traveling from one destination in Europe to another, always seeking excitement and distraction. Allyson Nadia Field describes The Sun Also Rises as a travelogue not only to sights around Europe, but also to a lifestyle. Hemingway's distinctive style does not let readers in on the thoughts of his protagonist, Jake Barnes, but his precise descriptions of actions and tightly focused dialogue make the feelings of the character known. While later Hemingway novels have more tightly structured plots, the disillusionment and freedom in The Sun Also Rises make it an ideal vehicle for existential ideas.
When Franz Kafka died in 1924, his novel The Trial was not finished, but his literary executor put the pieces together to publish it the following year. The story concerns Joseph K., a government bureaucrat who is awakened in his bed one morning and taken off to jail. He is released soon after but is told to report back to court regularly. Throughout the whole experience, no one—not the officers who arrest him, the judge, or his own lawyer—tells Joseph what crime he is accused of. As with all of Kafka's works, this absurd situation is used to explore deeper philosophical truths about the nature of society and of the individual, showing how the political system can isolate a person from the basic truths that he once took for granted. The book was written long before the French philosophers coined the term "existentialist" in the 1940s, but its themes and style are the same as the ones they were to use. Though Kafka died in obscurity, he came to be considered as one of the most talented literary figures of the twentieth century.
Waiting for Godot
Written by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and first produced in Paris in 1953, Waiting for Godot has become a mainstay of modern theater. Its absurdist plot features two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, who wait near a barren tree on an empty stretch of road for someone named "Godot," who may represent their pointless hopes. The fact that nothing significant happens during the play's two acts helps to make the existential point of the play: the lack of meaning when life is not actively lived. Beckett's artful use of language makes it easy for readers and viewers to experience the play without becoming bored. Even when the dialogue seems to make no sense and when the characters seem to be bickering with each other pointlessly, there is a deeper meaning to Beckett's structure that offers a running commentary on the state of modern existence.
Existentialism seems to recommend abandonment any belief in God because the concept of God contradicts the idea of personal responsibility that is at the center of the philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most prolific existentialist
writer, was an atheist, as were Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. The characters in their novels can be seen as people coping with the loss of faith in God by trying to determine the proper behavior in the absence of some supreme being.
There is, however, a subset of existential writers who combine religious feelings with Existentialism. One of these was Søren Kierkegaard, who solved the question of how to reconcile a belief in God with responsibility of one's own actions in his philosophical works such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling,and The Concept of Dread. For Kierkegaard, there was no contradiction between freedom and God. In fact, the basis of religious belief was the ability to choose freely to believe. Another religious existentialist was Martin Buber, whose 1923 philosophical work I and Thou brought together Jewish, Christian, and humanist beliefs. The book uses personal relationships, such as the ones one forms with other humans ("Thou"), to explain the human relationship to God, who is seen as the ultimate "Thou."
Existentialism derives from the principle that human behavior is based on nothing except free choice. It rejects those theories that try to find other factors that control behavior, such as economic, social, or psychological systems that exist in order to explain what people do. Existential writers do sometimes recognize such comprehensive worldviews, but they do not accept them as being acceptable explanations or excuses for behavior. Sartre, for instance, was a lifelong supporter of the Marxist theory of class struggle, but he would not accept Marx's theory that certain behaviors are necessary for certain classes. Instead, he explained why members of one class might behave similarly as a choice made by people who were unaware of their freedom to choose.
This sense of freedom sometimes leads the protagonists in existential works to commit actions that are commonly considered evil, as if to assert to themselves that no universal system of justice will bring punishment down on their heads. Thus, Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Meursault in Camus's The Stranger, and Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son commit murders with no remorse. In each of these books, the transgression is not punished by divine justice, such as the ways that other writers might have the criminals fall victim to illness or bad luck, but they are prosecuted by the legal system.
Guilt and Innocence
One of the central concerns of existential thought is that, in the absence of divine or biological rules, people must be responsible for their own actions. This is the price of freedom; with no rules from God or psychological traumas to excuse what one does, the responsibility for each action falls on the individual. Hemingway's characters offer a good example of this condition. They follow rules of behavior that they establish for themselves, often referred to as the "Hemingway code." Whereas other writers Page 230 | Top of Articlemight present characters that are victims of fate, the characters in Hemingway's books and other existential literature are responsible for their own fate. Other examples of this are Sartre's play Dirty Hands, which shows its protagonist accepting guilt for murdering an obviously dangerous opponent during wartime, and Beauvoir's The Blood of Others, in which a student who is shaken by the inadvertent death of a colleague decides that he must still participate in violent radical political activity.
The presumption of innocence that comes from absolute freedom is inverted in the works of Franz Kafka, most notably in his novel The Trial. Instead of being an existential hero who chooses to make himself guilty, Joseph K. is proclaimed guilty by a dense and illogical legal system, for reasons he cannot understand. Rather than focusing attention on the free individual, Kafka shows the repressive social order that makes it difficult for the individual to realize that he is, in fact, free to decide his own fate. By making the bureaucracy that condemns Joseph K. so impersonal and irrational, Kafka shows how transparent it is. In this novel, the legal system is frightening, but it is not in control of the individual. The superficial charge of guilt helps readers see how shallow it is to believe in any universal system of guilt of innocence.
Identity and Self
Existentialism, like other philosophical movements, seeks to explain human identity and condition. Other systems might define identity in relation to something, such as when psychologists find the roots of identity in past experiences or in the effects of chemical balances in the brain, or when Romanticism frames identity in terms of man's relationship to nature. In Existentialism, however, there is no point of reference for human identity. A person's identity does not exist in anything except that person's actions. As Sartre explained it, "existence precedes essence"; there are no rules governing a person's essential identity until after that person exists.
French Existentialism crossed over to the United States in the early 1950s, when the civil rights movement was just beginning to give a voice and identity to black Americans. The two were a natural fit. Blacks who had been treated in society in accordance with the color of their skin were open to the existential concept that a person creates his or her own identity. One of the preeminent American novelists of the twentieth century, Ralph Ellison, explored existential themes as they applied to the race issue in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, about a black man's struggle for self-identity against society's narrow definitions of him.
Alienation was considered by many intellectuals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to increasingly be the condition of civilized humans. It is the feeling of isolation, of not belonging, of standing alone. Since the advent of the Industrial Age, social philosophers such as Karl Marx have shown how people are alienated from the work that they do, with the connection severed by the economic and industrial system. Psychologists have shown alienation as a rift between the conscious and unconscious aspects of self. Theologians have shown humanity as becoming increasingly alienated from reality as the importance of God diminished.
Existentialism can be seen as a response to the social phenomenon of alienation. As the feeling grew of being left out of society, so did the existentialist's philosophy that it is natural to be separate from society because the idea of belonging to society is an illusion. It is no coincidence that one of the most prominent novels of the French existentialist movement is Albert Camus's The Stranger. As its title implies, the protagonist is outside the social order, alienated even from those closest to him. In novels such as The Deer Park in 1955, Norman Mailer applied the concept of Existentialism to the particular form of alienation that was felt in the postwar United States, with fear of the atomic bomb and of Communism. Mailer devised the concept of the "hipster," who reacts to everything with his own wry sense of irony. In fact, the term "existential hero" came to be used to describe characters in books and movies who acted alone, who had no ties to anyone, and who followed the rules of behavior set down by his own understanding of the world.
Many existential works employ a persona who is a stand-in for the author, with similar life experiences and views. The word persona is Latin, Page 231 | Top of Articlemeaning "mask." Authors of fiction tend to hide behind characters like masks, to convey their ideas in the context of their stories, but this is even more common than usual in existential literature. One can draw clear correlations between characters in Sartre's Nausea, for instance, and the people of his early life, and between most of the protagonists in Simone de Beauvoir's novels and her own experience and beliefs. Terry Keefe concluded in his essay "Beauvoir's Memoirs, Diary and Letters" that "in spite of obvious difficulties involved, autobiographical material in Beauvoir's fiction must sometimes be acknowledged to be as telling, or as 'accurate,' as material presented in non-fictional form." The main reason that so many literary works by existential writers feature thinly masked versions of their authors' lives is the genre's clear background in philosophy. Writers such as Sartre and Beauvoir are primarily philosophers, accustomed to pondering the underlying principles that may explain the circumstances of their own lives. The nature of philosophy is to consider the human condition and to locate the individual's place in the world. Existentialism, in particular, rejects the idea that one can understand another person's thoughts. Existential philosophers who have expended most of their energy understanding themselves as unique individuals are typically inclined to think of the protagonists of their works as masks for themselves.
Existential literature is often characterized as grim, depressing, and hopeless. This reputation clings to the movement in spite of the efforts of writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre to show it as an optimistic worldview that offers its readers a chance to take control of their own fates. One reason that Existentialism is assumed to be bleak is that it consciously tries to change people's minds about their traditional avenues of hope. Those who believe that God will justify in the afterlife the hardship of mortal existence will find their ideas opposed in existentialism, and those who believe in the ability of science to raise human behavior toward perfection experience the same sort of resistance. Lacking the hope that one can look to these external sources for comfort and salvation, existential thought aligns itself with the sometimes frightening prospect of meaninglessness, directly standing up to the blank void that other philosophies try to fill. The titles of books such as Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread by Søren Kierkegaard, whose works formed the basis of the existentialist movement, give some insight into Existentialism's reputation as a philosophy of despair.
While many works of existential literature do, in fact, tend to emphasize life's pointlessness, it would be too restrictive to say that despair is their only message. The inherent pointlessness of life is almost always followed by an encouraging example about how life can be given meaning by the individual. This is most clearly seen in the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" has two waiters discussing the bleak existence of an old man who comes to their cafe every night. Readers who focus only on the meaninglessness of the old man's life miss the larger point—that he has somewhere to go that gives him comfort. Similarly, Hemingway's "The Killers" shows a washed-up boxer who waits without hope for two contract killers who are coming to get him, but it is told from the point of view of a young man who is unwilling to sit quietly and accept grim fate.
Because existential writers do not view their characters as the products of past events, their works seldom use the linear, chronological plots that many novelists and playwrights use. Conventional narrative structure is built upon the premise of causality, with one event resulting in the next, following each other in succession to create a cumulative result. While other writers present a psychological web that shows how each character's personality is constructed, characters in existential works are not bound to such interpretation. As a result, existential works tend to present a sequence of events that o not typically appear to be related.
Existentialism tends to support an absurd view of the world, one that ignores commonly assumed rules of reality. In Franz Kafka's short story The Metamorphosis, for instance, a man wakes to find himself transformed into a giant bug—the situation is completely illogical, but it helps the author make a point about the pervasive absurdity of common daily life. Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot takes place in an unnamed, barren wilderness, with two people standing near a tree at a crossroads. The play does not have a plot, just a series of conversations Page 232 | Top of Articlethat happen to occur after one another. The lack of any meaningful causal relationship between events helps to reinforce the existential idea that the human condition has no inherent meaning or structure.
Humanism is the cultural and literary philosophy that spread through Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a response to oppressive church doctrine. At the time, the position of clerics was that human beings were weak and immoral. Humanism offered the optimistic view that humanity was rational and was thus able to understand truth and goodness without the Church handing down the definition or intervening. To some extent, Existentialism is the ultimate form of Humanism because it takes all responsibility for human happiness and achievement out of the hands of fate and places it in the hands of human beings.
Yet there has been some debate about whether Existentialism is really a humanistic philosophy. Many existentialists would define themselves as humanists because of their commitment to human responsibility over reliance on outside influences. Detractors, by contrast, say that the philosophy's emphasis on the nothingness and meaninglessness of the world paint too dismal a picture for humanity. They refuse to believe that the existentialist position that action is necessary but pointless can be considered a positive attitude toward humanity. Jean-Paul Sartre addressed this controversy in his early essay "Existentialism Is a Humanism."
Nihilism is a philosophy that asserts that existence is meaningless, that traditional beliefs and values are unfounded, that there is no truth. It is a philosophical stance that recognizes no values and sets no goals. The word comes from the Latin word nihil, meaning "nothing," and was coined by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev in his 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. The concept is related to the philosophy of the ancient Greek skeptics who rejected the idea of philosophical certainty, and it has appeared in one form or another repeatedly in Western civilization.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, nihilism was most closely associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who saw it as more than just despair, but as a force of destruction. In his book The Will to Power, published in 1901, Nietzsche predicts that the meaninglessness presented by nihilism would win acceptance over other systems of thought and that nihilism would eventually lead to society's collapse.
When Existentialism became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, Sartre's idea of life as "nothingness" was seen as a nihilistic position. Leaders of the movement such as Sartre and Camus struggled to show Existentialism as a positive force, but their insistence that true existentialists should embrace life despite its emptiness was not quite convincing for many. The rejection of external values always led back to the idea that existence must be meaningless. Existentialism became almost synonymous with nihilism, leading to a popular caricature of existentialists as grim, dark, empty individuals. Existentialists, by contrast, thought of themselves as fighting nihilism by giving life meaning in spite of its natural meaninglessness.
Theatre of the Grotesque
Theatre of the Grotesque was an Italian movement characterized by plays that emphasize the ironic and macabre aspects of daily life in the World War I era. This movement was named after the play The Mask and the Face (1916) by Luigi Chiarelli, which was subtitled "a grotesque in three acts." Theater of the Grotesque was a reaction against the Naturalism of the nineteenth century and included playwrights Luigi Chiarelli, Alessandro Varaldo, Enrico Cavacchioli, and Alberto Casella. The movement influenced the work of famous Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, who wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Theatre of the Grotesque, known in Italian as teatro grottesco, was a brief movement, but it influenced the much larger and ongoing movements of Absurdism and Existentialism.
The main philosophers of the French existential movement, including Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, wrote dramas for the stage in addition to novels and essays. It is fitting, then, that one of Existentialism's lasting legacies was the Theatre of the Absurd. Absurdist dramas presented Page 233 | Top of Articleno direct linear plot line, instead mocking the traditional forms by presenting the unexpected, and by actively defying any attempts to read meaning into the events on stage. There was always a tendency for artists to violate conventions, to make people think by refusing to give them what they anticipated, but this tendency increased by sharply in the early twentieth century, with Dadaism and Surrealism. It was only after Existentialism gained international attention in the 1950s, making the concept of "meaninglessness" a familiar subject among intellectuals, that a school of drama based in absurdity developed. Samuel Beckett published Waiting for Godot in 1953; The Bald Soprano,byEugène Ionesco, was performedin1956; andEdwardAlbee's The Zoo Story played on Broadway in 1959. These are among the most important and representative works in the Theatre of the Absurd.
The term "absurd" was first used to describe literary works by Albert Camus. In 1961, theater critic Martin Esslin's book Theater of the Absurd named the movement that was already in full swing. Esslin observed how absurdist drama avoided making statements about the human condition by presenting it in its rawest form, which often led to situations that would be incomprehensible within the common view of reality but which were well suited for the stage. Unlike existential fiction, which focused on the internal struggle for beliefs, drama does not present internal thoughts to the audience (except in asides), and so it can focus its energies on the strange instability of the external world. In the early 2000s, Absurdism is a staple of the theater, with constant revivals of the plays from the fifties and sixties and new plays that, while not purely absurd, incorporate absurdist elements.
Jean-Paul Sartre, who first put the phrase "Existentialism" into use as a branch of philosophy, based his thought on his studies in the philosophy of phenomenology. The two are closely linked. Phenomenology is a twentieth-century philosophical movement that examines the relationship between experience and consciousness. The founder of this movement was German philosopher Edward Husserl. In his 1913 text Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Husserl explored the structures within consciousness that enable the human mind to conceive of objects outside of itself. Because the mind is able to think of things that do not exist as well as things that do exist, Husserl focused upon the mind's activity, leaving aside the overall question of existence. Husserl called actions such as remembering and perception "meanings," and the act of examining these meanings "phenomenological reduction."
Although Husserl is credited with generating phenomenology, the name most often associated with that movement is that of his colleague Martin Heidegger. Heidegger focused attention squarely on the question of being, presenting the experience of life as "Dasein," or "being there," putting emphasis on experience as opposed to abstract concepts. Language was also a strong part of Heidegger's phenomenology because humans would have no way of contemplating existence without it. As Heidegger phrased it, "Only where there is language is there world." His philosophical works gave serious consideration to the philosophical value of poetry.
In college, Sartre studied phenomenology, and his theories about Existentialism grew out of Heidegger's ideas. The relationship between the two philosophies can be seen in the title of Sartre's major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, which mirrors the title of Heidegger's own 1927 masterwork Being and Time. Sartre's Existentialism adapted Heidegger's phenomenology, combining his emphasis on language and experience with Husserl's idea that consciousness is always directed away from itself toward objects and not at the nothingness of the subjective self. Since the 1940s the two philosophies have been so closely related that they are often referred to by the combined term "existential phenomenology."
Philosophies are meant to capture the truth, and so there are likely to be traces of any philosophy at any time throughout history. For example, traces of Existentialism can be found in the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who in the fourth century BC founded the Cynics, who distrusted civilization's artifice. existential ideas also appear at various times throughout the world's literature, such as when Job in the Old Testament questioned whether his concept of God was truly relevant to his troubles, or when
Shakespeare had Hamlet question the purpose of his own existence by asking, "To be, or not to be?"
The first philosopher to touch upon existential themes was the French writer Blaise Pascal, who, in the seventeenth century, rejected the idea that rational humans could explain God. Like the later existentialists, Pascal accepted life as a series of irrational paradoxes.
As a formal philosophy, Existentialism began to take form in the 1800s, with the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard thought of life as an impossible choice between two conflicting attitudes: the aesthetic, which is based on immediate experience, or existence and the ethical, which is based on ideals. He presented the ethical life as false, based upon imaginary concepts, but the aesthetic life was not satisfying either. In fact, for Kierkegaard, the aesthetic life led only to despair, because human consciousness is not satisfied with the sheer, raw experience that might be enough to distract an unconscious being. His writings, particularly his book Either/Or, were not essays or treatises. They had a literary style to them, presenting his ideas as character sketches, dialogs, and imaginary correspondences.
Unlike Kierkegaard, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist who believed that religious belief was a sign of weakness, which would leave society vulnerable to destruction by those who held no such illusions. Nietzsche's completely unsentimental atheism paved the way for the existential view that life is based on nothingness.
The most immediate antecedent to Existentialism was the twentieth-century philosophy of phenomenology, especially as practiced by the German writer Martin Heidegger. Phenomenology raised questions about how humans could ever know the world that they encounter outside their own consciousness. As with Existentialism, phenomenology relied heavily on examples from literature for understanding, giving the imagined world nearly as much credibility as the experienced world.
Although earlier philosophers and writers had ideas upon which this philosophy was based, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who gave it the name Existentialism. In school, Sartre studied the works of German philosophers, wrote his exit exam on Nietzsche, and he studied in his postgraduate years under Edward Husserl, who is widely considered a founder of phenomenology, a philosophy similar to Existentialism. In 1928, at the age of 23, he met Simone de Beauvoir. The two fell in love and spent most of the next fifty years living together on and off, although they never married. In 1938, one of the major texts of existentialist literature, Sartre's novel Nausea was published, giving the world its first sense of the moral despair of the philosophy and the cold, unsentimental intellect of the fiction.
The year after Nausea was published, Adolph Hitler gave up any pretense of peace by attacking Poland. France went to war against Germany and was captured in 1940. While France was occupied by Germany, the new existential movement flourished. The principle figures if the movement were acquaintances in Paris, including Sartre, Beauvoir, and Albert Camus (although Camus would come to resent being called an existentialist when hostilities formed between him and the others). Their ideas were spread by a magazine that Sartre edited, Les Times Moderne ("Modern Times"), and through their plays and novels, which had gained international attention. The war was a fitting backdrop for plays and novels with existential themes, which concerned protagonists who were willing to act politically rather than die passively. The war gave French Existentialism an air of tragic Romanticism, as existential heroes, well aware that nothing they did could change the insanity of the larger social order, still made noble choices, presumably without the false encouragement of sentiment or religion.
After the war ended in 1945, Existentialism became a household word, but the writers who made it famous moved on to other interests. Sartre became increasingly interested in Marxism, and the main circle of French existentialists shunned Camus when he rejected Sartre's political stance. Although Sartre was to identify himself as an existentialist for the rest of his life, his postwar writings never captured readers' imagination as had the radical works produced under the Nazis.
In the United States, Existentialism reached its height of popularity in the 1950. After the stock market crash of 1929, the country suffered desperate times, and the cautious conservatism that had characterized the generations of the Depression and the war gave way to a new youth culture. The disaffected Beat generation, lacking any major political struggle, grappled with meaninglessness and was ripe for Existentialism's message that the world is absurd and that individuals create their own morality.
Existential literature as a phrase came to be seldom used. The description became, for the most part, irrelevant. One reason that literary works are not labeled existential as much as they used to be is that the movement, which captured the wide readership during World War II, faded from public attention after the 1980 death of its most charismatic practitioner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Modes of literature and philosophy that once would have been described as existential were later described by other terms. On the positive side, the main reason that the description existential seems so irrelevant is the massive popularity that it had in the 1940s and 1950s. Calling literature existential is almost a way of stating the obvious, since most contemporary literature presumes an existential worldview.
From the start, existential literature was seen as little more than a forum in which the existential philosophers presented their ideas. For example, Charles I. Glicksberg, in his 1945 essay "Literary Existentialism," writes, "Though Existentialist literature, particularly in the field of fiction and drama, does exist, it has thus far contributed nothing by way of innovation in aesthetic form. By and large, it is a literature based upon a philosophy, a Weltanschauung, a method of interpreting the life of man upon earth, his character and destiny." It soon developed that the most important reason for reading the literature produced by the French existentialists was to prove, if only to oneself, that one belonged to their intellectual society. In 1951, James Collins introduced his book The Existentialists with an explanation about the relationship between Existentialism and how one lives. Stating his intention to focus on disagreements between members of the existential community, he noted that, in studying the people and not their writings, "the picture that [emerges] is drawn more in terms of methods and problems than of a common fund of doctrinal content." As with Glicksburg, the literature was deemed less important than the ideas and the people who lived those ideas.
The shift in Existentialism's relevance in literature came during the 1960s and can be seen in the writings of Hazel E. Barnes, one of the movement's most prolific observers. In her 1959 book The Literature of Possibilities, Barnes begins her exploration of existential ideas with this bold statement: "About the middle of this century novelists and playwrights stopped making men and women to order for psychologists and began to re-create Man." A few sentences later she attributes that view to Jean-Paul Sartre, but only after she has drawn readers in with that challenging claim. By 1967, in the chapter "Existentialism and Other Rebels" of her book Existentialist Ethics, Barnes was defending the philosophy from being lumped with other, similar movements with which it might be confused: Ayn Rand's Objectivism, the Beatnik or Hipster nihilism espoused by Norman Mailer and others, and Oriental philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism. "Like man himself, philosophy is always 'in situation,"' Barnes wrote, continuing that Existentialism "is acutely aware of its own position in the world order of the twentieth century. It can envision its own transcendence." One of Existentialism's strongest supporters, Barnes could already see it dissolving, losing its character to similar philosophies, new and old.
Today, critics frequently point out existential elements in literary works, usually those set in contradictory or self-defeating situations. While used frequently to describe specific elements of literary works, it is seldom used in an attempt to understand an author's worldview. Christopher O. Griffin examines the works of contemporary southern author Barry Hannah and finds significant overlap with Existentialism. Griffin concludes that Hannah's work will take its place, in time, among the big names scholars have ascribed to Existentialism. In literature, the word existential refers to a mood, rather than to a specific philosophy.
Kelly is a professor of literature and creative writing at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County and has written for numerous scholarly publications. In the following essay, Kelly argues the case for using Sartre's novel Nausea as the touchstone for gauging existential literature.
The concept of "existential literature" is a tricky one. Since Existentialism is a philosophy that means to describe existence, everything that has ever been done or written should rightfully fall within its bounds, since everything exists. Even works meant to illuminate other philosophies could be interpreted by existentialists as their authors' attempts to cope with their existential condition, and might reasonably be categorized as existential. But it is useless to have a category with no distinguishing characteristics to set its members off from everything else: if everything is existential, then there would be no use having the word, because the word "everything" would cover their shared idea well enough.
Another possible way to recognize existential literature would be to limit the phrase to works produced by the members of the French intellectual movement—primarily, Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus—who named this philosophy during the 1940s, and the writers who followed their example. Since these are the writers who willingly associated their works with Existentialism, they would seem to be the ones who are producing the existential literature. Unfortunately, participation in the existential movement alone does little to help define existential literature. The works of Kafka, Dostoevsky, and early Hemingway are all clearly existential in nature, even though their authors never had the philosophy defined for them. What about Hamlet's dilemma, or Abraham's choice to sacrifice Isaac in the book of Genesis? These are clearly existential moments, if not actual examples of existential literature. Closely associating existential literature with the French existential movement also raises the problem of the people who chose to call themselves and their work by that name when it was in vogue. At the peak of Existentialism's popularity in the 1950s, there were hundreds of fans who used the existential concept of angst to describe their unhappiness, or mistook medium-sized disappointments for "dread." Their works are not considered truly existential, whether the writers thought they were or not.
Labels are anathema within a philosophy that can be characterized by the catchphrase "existence precedes essence." It would be dishonest to the core beliefs of Existentialism to make any general claims about the essence of existential literature. It is the nature of the philosophy that each piece of literature, especially the literature associated with it, should be experienced before it is defined. More than other literary movements, such as Romanticism or even Modernism, existential literature cannot be identified by checking it against a preexisting list of aspects to see if it fits some sort of profile.
In the absence of any set criteria, there is still a possibility of calling a body of literature "existential" by recognizing what specific works resemble. This open-ended option for identifying things is like the one used by the Supreme Court justice who could not define pornography but felt sure that he would know it when he saw it. Maybe there are not and cannot be rules that identify the varieties of existential literature, but there should at least be some useful standard by which any one work, experienced in and itself, could have the term applied to it in some meaningful way.
The most likely candidate for a work of existential literature that can be used to test other literature against would be Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea. It is not the most accomplished or successful novel of the existential movement, nor even the most fully realized literary work that Sartre himself produced, but this novel has particular characteristics, both in its technique and in its historical situation, that identify it with Existentialism in a way that other works lack.
Nausea was Sartre's first published novel. This means that it was the work that launched the literary career of the man who launched the philosophical movement. At the time, Sartre had published some philosophy, but with Nausea he put his philosophy into motion on the page, giving his ideas a reality that talking about them could not achieve. The fact that it was published before he attained a widespread reputation as a literary and philosophical genius almost certainly gave him a freedom that he would have to fight for in later years, when he was aware of the weight a whole world of followers would put on his every word. Later, Sartre was to view the ideas in Nausea as "dated," noting that he thought so even at the time of its publication. His philosophy moved on, becoming more involved with questions of political commitment than those of simply existing, such as those shown in his next-most-famous literary achievements, the plays No Exit and Dirty Hands. Readers can argue which of
Sartre's novels or plays was the "best," and even which stage of his evolution was most "authentic," but his first novel, Nausea, has a purity that it holds in common with almost all other existential literature that came before it or after.
Stylistically, Nausea has the elements that most people have in mind, if only subconsciously, when they speak about existential literature. The story steers clear of a linear plot. Instead, its narrator, Antoine Roquentin, organizes it like a series of journal entries. It is a narrative technique that is common to much existential writing, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to John Hawkes. Just as the point of Sartre's novel, and the cause of Roquentin's nausea, is the contrast between existence and meaning, so too this character's existence is at odds with the faith that readers can traditionally invest in the hidden stream of meaning that holds a plot together. Lacking the desire to sustain a traditional narrative, existential literature works best in short stories, plays (which always take place in the here-and-now), and fragmented novels like Nausea, where scene changes appear as random as the situations in life.
Nausea, in fact, dispenses with its faux-diary style without any hesitation. For example, a section called "Sunday" starts on page 40 and continues on to page 57, which would be an extraordinary amount of writing for a diarist, even one as obsessed with his own ideas as Roquentin, to record in a single day. That particular entry is written in the present tense, and it includes four pages of dialog. Clearly, Sartre was not interested in maintaining the illusion that this was anything like a diary: illusion and Existentialism are incompatible. Most works recognized as existential are just as jarring and fragmented, with little attempt to establish a fictional "reality."
Roquentin's story follows his search for meaning, which leads him through familiar channels of live and community, God and Humanism, before leaving his life as empty as it was at the novel's start. The conflict between reality and meaning has Roquentin nauseous at the beginning, and in the end he is just a little short of convincing himself that writing a book about his experiences might help him accept his situation. It is no small achievement for an author to have his protagonist change so slightly over the course of a novel: Sartre achieves this by filling Roquentin's days with minutely observed details. He creates a reality for the reader, one that is just a little too real for Roquentin to bear. Such an intricate rendering of detail is just good fiction writing, existential or otherwise.
One final element that makes this novel exemplary existential fiction is its relationship to the author's life. Nausea is generally recognized as a thinly-veiled autobiography. It would be almost impossible to conceive of existential literature that does not have the authenticity of its author's own doubts, fears, and misery as a kind of subtext. Not all philosophies require that their fictional versions be bound to the lives of their authors, but not all philosophies are so intricately tied to the author's sense of authenticity, to the importance of her or his own life. Regardless of whether it was written after Sartre or before, existential literature leaves readers with a strong sense of the teller of the tale. This is why, despite its existential elements, Hamlet would not qualify as existential literature: Shakespeare is always indistinguishable in his works. On the other hand, Franz Kafka, who is recognized as a leading existential writer, can tell a richly imagined tale, but his presence is still felt. For instance, Kafka never starved in a circus cage for spectators to watch, as the protagonist does in his story The Hunger Artist. Still, no one can doubt that the suffering for art that is the story's central metaphor was indeed Kafka's own suffering.
In his introduction to Nausea in the current paperback edition, Hayden Carruth examines the ways in which this novel was certainly not the first or finest work of existential literature, and its protagonist was in no way the first "existentialist man." What makes the book so extraordinary, according to Carruth, is that Sartre's Page 240
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Roquentin is "a man living at an extraordinary metaphysical pitch, at least in the pages of the journal he has left us." This, in the end, might be the thing that makes this the most existential work of all. Existentialism is not a philosophy given to sustained fiction, and in this one small book Sartre takes it about as far as it can go. Readers who know Existentialism when they see it are advised to stay away from definitions as much as possible. But, when there is any doubt, they can refer back to this novel, where they will see this particular worldview take form in every word.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Existentialism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Christopher O. Griffin
In this essay, Griffin uses existential thought and the writings of existential writers to analyze the works of southern author Harry Monroe. It focuses on the novel Geronimo Rex.
From beneath the bleachers of the Dream of Pines Colored High School practice field, the narrative voice of Harriman (Harry) Monroe, protagonist of Barry Hannah's novel Geronimo Rex, confesses wonder and dread at the sound of music. The music Harry experiences at the novel's opening is that of the Dream of Pines Colored High School band, directed by "a fanatic man named Jones who risked everything to have the magnificent corps of student musicians he had." While Jones and his band themselves serve negligible roles in terms of plot, Harry's encounter with them in the opening pages of the book sets forth some of the novel's major thematic and metaphoric images.
In the world of music, an overture introduces the listener to a larger piece while also "indicating the character" of that piece. In a similar sense, Chapter 1 functions as an overture to the philosophy of Geronimo Rex. More specifically, Harry's examination of the relationship between Jones and his band members lays a philosophical groundwork for the novel by revealing the absurdity in notions of determinism and by implying a Sartrean philosophy of freedom. In addition to the theme elicited from the Jones/ band relationship, the music created by this union, with its intuitive link in Harry's mind to action, serves as a subtle yet powerful metaphor for the experience of authentic being in the midst of the bourgeois irresolution and inauthenticity of his father. Finally, Harry's early, vicarious exposure to the atrocities of World War II
provides evidence supporting the childhood emergence of his keen and sometimes brutal existential perspective. These three themes submerge and surface throughout Geronimo Rex, providing structure and meaning to even the most absurd stops along Harry's existential journey. More important, perhaps, is that this "existential ethic," established in this, Hannah's debut novel, marks the defining philosophic key in which his scores of later works—both short and long—are loosely played.
Jones's Dream of Pines Colored High School band was undoubtedly the best in Louisiana, and to the eight-year-old Harry Monroe spying from beneath the stands, its image and sound created "a weird forest that sent dread right down to my bones." While the dread of unmitigated existence is, in the words of Kierkegaard, "different from fear and similar concepts which refer to something definite," the dread felt here by the young Harry at first appears more akin to that experienced by an awe-struck devotee before a god. Harry's implicit view of Jones as a god whom he initially seems to revere aligns with his later delusional allegiance to "gods" of equal absurdity. Whether it be music, women, or the novel's namesake, Geronimo, the gods to which Harry bows always dole out absurdity to their followers. Besides this, however, Hannah seems to be suggesting something of greater philosophical import, for in spite of his fear and awe before the "scary celestial horde" that is Jones's band, Harry still possesses enough mettle to admit that for all the scene's beauty and power, "I knew this man was crazy."
In addition to the correlation that can be made between Jones and the other "gods" which throughout Geronimo Rex vie for prominence in Harry's periodic episodes of Sartrean bad faith, the scene described above offers a parodic vision of the conventional God in his Heaven. This comparison is subtly supported by the text: Jones's godlike fierceness in commanding his band, like the fierceness of the God of the Old Testament, "was the kind of wrath you didn't mess with," and Jones demands a level of musical praxis which makes "the kids . . . ashamed to come back [to practice] next day without their parts down perfect." Moreover, Harry admits never to have seen Jones's face, "not ever," a condition similarly noted of God in Exodus 33:17-23. In this Old Testament passage, God agrees to let Moses see his back, but pointedly maintains that "my face shall not be seen." "[Y]ou cannot see my face," says God, "for man shall not see me and live" (v. 20). In his fear, Harry entertains similar thoughts about Jones: "I got the notion he'd kill me if he found me hidden down there [beneath the bleachers] to peek on his band in what [Jones] thought was its imperfect state; it was scary, all the way around—the great music out there, and Jones above."
Both literally and symbolically, Harry's situation broaches questions concerning conventional authority and determinism, and in doing so, the scene lays a subtle but important philosophical groundwork for the novel as a whole by implicitly advancing a Sartrean philosophy of freedom over the conventional idea of a free-will/determinism paradox, one that attempts to account for the individual's freedom of choice while still maintaining the idea of a deterministic, authoritative God.
In The Quintessence of Sartrism, Maurice Cranston writes that "Sartre's starting point as a philosopher was his rejection of the teaching of the central philosopher of the French tradition, Descartes." Similarly, Hannah's starting point for Geronimo Rex is a parody of Descartes's and others' notions of cosmic determinism. With "Jones above" in the symbolic position and role of the conventional Godhead, "the great music out there" (symbolic of the created world) subtly parodies the conventional interpretation of supratemporal power and influence. In the manner of Sartrean thought, beneath this veneer of beauty and power is a madman demanding an impossible perfection, all the while cursing "No, no, no!"
Sartre's existential novel Nausea is often cited as the work of fiction which best illustrates the revelation of existential awareness—the dreadful-yet-awesome apprehension of one's Page 242 | Top of Articleunjustifiable being in the midst of a wholly contingent existence. In Nausea, the protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, comes to an existential realization analogous to Harry's as the former observes the pulsing ocean from the shoreline:
The true sea is cold and black, full of animals; it crawls under this thin green film made to deceive human beings. [People] all round me have let themselves be taken in: they only see the thin film, which proves the existence of God. I see beneath it!
In Geronimo Rex, Harry, viewing the world from the existentially privileged "vantage slot under the bleachers", also perceives the contingent and "crazy" truth of what he witnesses. When the raving leader halts his troops in order to reprimand out-of-step band members, Harry confesses with more than a touch of irony, "That Jones must've had some ear, and some kind of wrath to overcome that music the way he did." The perfection Jones demands of his "creation" is in truth a frightening—and ridiculous—idea.
As in Kierkegaard's famous example of Abraham before Yahweh, situations of "determined" action such as the marching of Jones's band reveal the free potential for action inherent in any situation. The band members on the field are not held by force; they could choose to do anything. They choose, however, to march, to follow the "incredibly difficult and subtle military drills" determined by Jones, regardless of the impossibility of attaining his desired absolute perfection. Moreover, their devotion is extraordinary. "In two months," writes Harry of Jones, "he had them all considering serious life careers in music":
The tone-deaf dummy on cymbals quit smoking so he could conserve his wind, and looked forward to studying at a conservatory after graduation. Three girls quit doing what they used to because of loss of energy on the clarinet.
Although his voice is nevertheless obeyed, the apparent reality of Jones's control—and by analogy, of conventional ideas of God and cosmos—is shown to be absurd.
While Jones and his band offer a deeply philosophical implication concerning the Sartrean concept of existential freedom, music itself— here as well as at particular moments later in Harry's life—is intuitively linked to action. "This band," confesses Harry in Chapter 1, "was the best music I'd ever heard, bar none. They made you want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere." Music plays a key role in Geronimo Rex, serving Hannah as a subtle metaphor for the existential experiences of Harry Monroe. Like moments of existential revelation, music in performance possesses an immediacy unapproached by notes—or words—on a page, and it is such that it can be experienced without "conscious understanding." As Hannah has remarked in one recent interview, "Music remains the ultimate act to me; I love it because there's no comment after good music." Harry's intuitive response to the music of Jones's band leads him to conclude in his retrospective narration that he was a musician before he even could play an instrument. Like existence, music surrounds Harry, even before he is able to understand it. As a child, Harry admits his inability to understand on an abstract, rational level the notes blasting off that field in the middle of the Louisiana pines, but his experience nonetheless sends "dread right down to [his] bones" and calls him to action. Harry's response to the situation thus moves beyond fear of Jones as a god and into the realm of existential angst.
Only a moment of reflection is necessary to conclude that an eight-year-old boy has no business bearing arms and dying in battle. Nevertheless, this is the intuitive call Harry receives from his experience with Jones's music; it is beyond rational thought and squarely in the realm of existential possibility. Harry's intuitive desire to "pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere" is, as Kierkegaard writes concerning existential dread, "the reality of freedom as possibility anterior to possibility." While the actual possibility of such action is practically impossible, the possibility of such a possibility is experienced intuitively, beyond any rational, conscious consideration of the "actual" possibility. This "possibility anterior to possibility," however, is conjoined at this point in the story with the reality of his situation—a Louisiana mill town in 1950—and so his desire is not converted to action. But what this moment does do is articulate Harry's tendency toward (or openness to) existential possibility.
In one of the earliest passages in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, Roquentin demonstrates a moment of incomprehensible, yet palpable, existential dread similar to that felt by Harry hiding beneath the high school bleachers. Standing before the churning ocean watching children Page 243 | Top of Article"playing ducks and drakes", Roquentin picks up a stone to toss into the water, just as the children are doing without the slightest reservation. "Just at that moment," however, writes Roquentin, "I stopped, dropped the stone and left." Roquentin's difficulty in hurling the stone is linked to the mysterious feelings of dread which have begun to attack him. "I can't explain to myself," he writes; "anyhow, it was certain that I was afraid or had some other feeling of that sort. If I had only known what I was afraid of, I would have made a great step forward."
The anxiety of existence that the informed reader recognizes in Roquentin is the same felt by Harry at the mercy of Jones's band. After conveying the sentiment quoted earlier—that such music makes him "want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere"—Harry adds, "The trombones and tubas went deeper than what before my heart ever had room for. And I just didn't know what to think." While confronted with the desire to act—whether to throw a stone or to take up a rifle—the protagonist in each story is unable to do so. Moreover, each protagonist "can't explain to [him]self" (Nausea) the nature of his dread. For the most part Harry, like Roquentin in Nausea, struggles throughout Geronimo Rex to resolve the myriad dilemmas that result either from action taken recklessly, or from paralysis resulting from over-analysis or bad faith. As a child, however, Harry demonstrates an acute ability to create existential meaning through action.
Harry's strong affinity at such a young age for World War II reveals one of the major factors accounting for his intuitive existential perspective. In Nausea, writes René Lafarge, Roquentin's intuition "is [revealed] through a harrowing experience, both disgusting and frightening, [in which] being is grasped in its contingency and its gratuity. ..." Just as Sartre himself found in World War II the impetus for his own existential viewpoint, so does Harry, in viewing images of the harrowing death and frightening action of war, develop as a child the ability to accept life's brutality as merely a consequence of existence, to resist the paralysis of feigned erudition or overanalysis, and to act "when some simple act [is] called for."
Repeated references throughout the early pages of Geronimo Rex to World War II reinforce the importance of action in Harry's psyche and demonstrate Hannah's subtle cues signaling an important historical source for the novel's philosophical underpinnings:
I'm second-grader Harriman Monroe. My mind is full of little else but notes on the atrocities of World War II. I saw them all in photographs in a book compiled by a national magazine. It was on some playmate's daddy's shelf. Then I'm eight, third grade, and have in part understood what I saw. I'm not clever enough to be horrified yet.
The harrowing atrocities of World War II provide Harry with the same evidence that historically supported Sartre's pronouncement of the contingency of existence. In his autobiographical work, The Words, Sartre remarks that "children and soldiers don't bother their heads about the dead." Harry's comments above confirm here the applicability of Sartre's words. Images of war rend the veil of convention and common notions of civility. Harry's viewing of photographs of war atrocities, having already occurred by the time the reader meets him, exposes him to the potential brutality of existence and the contingency of humankind's civility. Humans can be civil or horrible to one another with equal ease, just as a seemingly innocent object like a cheese knife can be used to eat dessert or gouge out an acquaintance's eye. By extension, any suggestion of a purposeful essence inherent in anything is seen to be merely wishful thinking.
Harry's exposure to the horrors of war stands as a major influence in the emergence of his keen existential self-awareness. Nevertheless, according to Sartre these same conditions also surround all humanity, rendering all, in a sense, isolated by conflict. Cranston supports this reading of Sartre, agreeing that "existentialists lay great stress on the isolation, the solitude, the 'abandonment' of the individual; and no existentialist writer has stressed this more than Sartre . . . " The contingent, random absurdity of individual existence, once realized, prohibits the individual from seeing life through established convention. As Roquentin amazedly admits in Nausea,"Anything can happen, anything."
Two episodes from Chapter 2 in particular portray Harry as possessed of an uncanny sense of the existential milieu. Harry's killing of one of his neighbor's peacocks and the entanglement arising from the mysterious appearance in his yard of a festering dog and a dying mule expose to the reader the futility of both feigned erudition and conventional belief. These incidents, as well Page 244 | Top of Articleas the settings in which they occur, not only reveal Harry's existential vision but also heighten its clarity by contrasting it with the bourgeois mind-set of his father, Ode Elann. As a child, Harry recognizes the possibility arising before possibility, and this recognition reveals itself in his willingness to act. In the end, Harry's childhood view of life and death—of human existence—aligns itself surprisingly closely with that of Sartre, as several comparisons will confirm.
One would think that such a revelation, experienced in the truth of subjectivity, would be difficult to ignore. Sartre, however, argues that all individuals are aware of the reality of existence, yet most practice a form of self-deception or self-delusion that keeps the harsh truth of existence at bay. For Sartre, the difference that separates those with authentic existential perspective from those without it involves the latter group's mauvaise foi, defined by Cranston as "culpable self-deception, by means of which certain people evade their moral responsibility." When in mauvaise foi, often translated as "bad faith," an individual denies both the harsh brutality of existence as well as the total gratuity of Being, choosing instead methods of evasion such as abstracted thought or belief in conventional (and often bourgeois) value systems. Such evasion, claims Sartre, is immoral. One must choose to confront one's existence, acknowledging one's past for what it is—mediocre, ineffectual, or whatever—and then choose to throw oneself forward, to project oneself, to be, creating for oneself an essence—a history—involving authentic commitment and action rather than continued inauthentic, self-deceived flight. Among adults such commitment is rare, although in the young it is often implicit in their simple and direct perspective. For Harry, this existential ethic is first demonstrated in his childhood reactions to violence and death.
Hannah, of course, is not the first author to delineate the presence of an intuitive existentialist perspective in children. For the existential philosophers, it seems, the implicit innocence of youth allows closer encounters with the dread of existence, while such encounters remain obscured from or denied by adults. The philosophical premise for the intuitive existential perception of children can be traced back to the earliest generally acknowledged existentialist, Kierkegaard. In The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard directly addresses the presence of existential dread in children, whom he sees as "posited in innocence" and, therefore, "not [seated in] guilt", as might occur in the anxiety over a particular wrongdoing, for example. "This dread," writes Kierkegaard, in fact "belongs to the child so essentially that [the child] cannot do without it; even though it alarms him, it captivates him nevertheless by its sweet feeling of apprehension." This apprehension, however, is "more definitely indicated as a seeking after adventure, a thirst for the prodigious, the mysterious."
In Geronimo Rex, Harry's desire for adventure and its manifestation early in the novel in the form of war fantasies tightens the link between Kierkegaardian dread and Sartrean existentialism stemming from the violence of war. Harry plays in patches of cane "where," he thinks, "the Jap snipers should've ideally been sitting in the high crotches and just ready to be potted by my air rifle." On another day of play, Harry calmly notes that "a piece of stick I'd thrown at the mailbox a week ago" had been imagined as "a grenade and the mailbox [as] a German's mouth." Such adventuresome play clearly associates Harry's behavior with that described by Kierkegaard.
Besides philosophical precedent, however, there is also autobiographic evidence on the part of both Sartre and Hannah that suggests the personal impetus for their existential perspectives. In Jean-Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment, Charles G. Hill points out that "[Sartre] was already aware as a child of [the contingency] about existence." In his autobiography, The Words, Sartre admits a moment of childhood existential revelation which reveals that the seeming innocuousness of Kierkegaard's comments in reality is not so:
At the very moment when [I was convinced] that nothing exists without a reason . . . my own reason for being slipped away; I would suddenly discover that I did not really count. . . . Nobody, beginning with me, knew why the hell I had been born.
(Qtd. in Hill, p. 41)
The seminal influence of such a revelation on Sartre's work is evident, for as an adult, he worked out on a philosophical level this recognition of gratuitous existence first felt intuitively in his childhood.
Instead of the disturbingly confessional mode emphasized above by Sartre, Hannah uses the veils of fiction and humor to discuss his own childhood. In his heavily autobiographic work Page 245 | Top of ArticleBoomerang, Hannah implies the prodigiousness of existence, toning down Sartre's pessimism by mingling his recollections of childhood with punches of humor nonetheless containing the potential for great destructiveness. The results strongly reinforce Kierkegaard's views on the intuitive existentialism of children:
We were so tiny but we were sincere. . . . [W]hen we were tiny we fought and we had secret intrigues. We built a fort out of railroad ties. The kids would roam out and find pecans and horse apples and a stick of dynamite.
There were Reds and Nazis out there.
We knew about dynamite.
Here Hannah intuitively demonstrates Kierkegaard's philosophical observations while also demonstrating the power inherent even in the play of children. The quest of Boomerang's narrator—virtually Hannah himself—for "secret intrigues," along with the underlying seriousness of very real danger, informs the character and experiences of Harry Monroe in Geronimo Rex.
While considerably more overtly humorous than Sartre in his ironic "portrait of the respectable citizens of Bouville ...as they take their Sunday strolls" in Nausea (Hill, p. 40), Hannah creates a bourgeois industrial backdrop before which he lays out the existential drama of most of Book One of Geronimo Rex. In Book One, the condition of mauvaise foi is clearly presented in the life of Ode Elann Monroe, Harry's father. As the behavior of Ode Elann Monroe demonstrates, the attempt both to maintain meaningless conventions of civility where events demand coarser or more direct action and to avoid confrontation with the mediocrity of one's own life fails to protect those in fear of the surging contingency of existence. This failure, while experienced individually, is yet symptomatic of a class of people against whom much of Sartre's Nausea was directed. Nausea, writes one critic, is in large part "a scathing satire of the bourgeoisie and its 'principles"' (Hill, p. 40). For Barry Hannah, Ode Elann acts as the bourgeois target of young Harry's existential indictments.
Harry's description of his home, situated between the houses of "the Sink brothers, who were the paper mill barons of Dream of Pines," contains as great a stereotype of bourgeois capitalism as anything in the seaside town of Bouville in Nausea. Before the arrival of the Monroes, the Sinks in their greed had turned the surrounding woodlands, once "looking deep and sappy," with "real shade on the road and big rocks lying mossy off the roadbank," into a "smelly heap a mile east of Pierre Hills"— the pretentious name the Sinks bestowed upon their estate. Harry observes, "By the time my old man moved us into our house . . . the Sink brothers and the rest of their friends managing the mills had stoked up such a glut of wood in the mill production that Pierre Hills itself breathed a slight fart of the industrialized woodlands."
The Sinks provide an image of bourgeois stature to which Ode Elann, Harry's father, shamelessly aspires. Ode Elann, owner of a local mattress factory, "always had a blind admiration for anybody holding monstrous wealth." According to Harry,
[Ode Elann] thought it took an unearthly talent to become rich beyond rich. He loved the city of New York because it was so incomprehensibly rich. He loved paying homage to it, and I guess that's why we took all the New York magazines and newspapers.
Like Sartre's benefactors of Bouville who "try, through their portraits, to prove that their lives were 'necessary' and 'right"' (Hill, p. 41), Ode Elann Monroe takes "all the New York magazines and newspapers" in order to bolster his idea of himself as a member of the cultural and financial elite. Himself a parvenu in comparison to the Sinks, Ode Elann longs to be accepted by the upper echelon of bourgeois society that the brothers symbolize. Thus it follows that Ode Elann "didn't really allow anything to be said against the Sink brothers" even when they "never sent condolences or anything" when Harry's mother had a miscarriage. Harry eventually forces his father to see the futility in such groveling, but at this point in Harry's life, his father lives in obsequiousness to his bourgeois icons, the Sink brothers.
In addition to his bourgeois vision of wealth, Ode Elann nurses Sartrean bad faith concerning the notion of intellectual pursuit: "He was one of these magazine handsomes who was turning gray in the hair at forty-five; the gray strands were flames from a hot and ancient mental life, or so he thought." But despite all of the New York reading materials in the Monroe household, "nobody read anything in them beyond the gaudiest headlines." Surprisingly keen in his observations, Harry unemotionally notes the chimera of his father's erudition:
[Ode Elann's] mental life was always the great fake of the household. He had three years at L.S.U., makes sixty thousand a year, has the name of a bayou poet . . . and has read a book or two over above what he was assigned as a sophomore. . . . [H]e's a snob, and goes about faking an abundant mental life.
Ode Elann's intellectual airs have a profound impact on the young Harry. By observing his father's self-deception, Harry develops a dislike for hollow rumination, and he comes to identify easily such falsity in others beside his father. At the age of eight, however, Harry's primary interaction is on the home front, and so his disdain for such delusion is focused on Ode Elann. Harry's hypothesis concerning his father's true activity during the latter's periods of "thought" when "he's demanding Quiet Hours outside his study after supper" reveals the existential basis both behind his father's behavior and beneath Harry's criticism of it:
[In] his study, . . . if my guess is right, he sits scrutinizing his latest hangnail and writing his own name over and over in different scripts until he bores himself into a coma. About midnight, he charges out of the study, ignoring Mother and me watching the national anthem on the television, every insipid show of which (TV was bland-new to us then) he adored better than breath, but denied himself for the mental life, and he is banging into the walls of the hall making toward his bed and sleep, so frightened by the mediocrity of his own thoughts that it's truly sad.
The grim hilarity of Harry's description of his father nevertheless belies a deeper observation of existential import, one expounded upon by Sartre, although it is strongly prefigured in the work of Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger argues that mere positivist "[c]alculation uses everything that 'is' as units of computation . . . and, in the computation, uses up its stock of units." This calculation, which Sartre would identify as the bourgeois attempt to create order and meaning out of either the material or the abstract, can never reach the essence of Being itself, because the things calculated are always part of what-is (existence), not what transcends what-is—Being. Harry in his innocence recognizes this, while his father, despite his partial college education—which he felt entitled him to "life on a higher plane"—"always endured the horror of knowing that his thoughts in the study were no different than the ones he had during the day when he added a random sum on the to-the-good book." In equating Ode Elann's thinking with mere calculation, Hannah adopts a deeply philosophical analogy symbolizing the inability of Harry's father to contemplate Being, which according to Heidegger must be conceived by "thinking . . . thoughts [that] not only do not calculate but are absolutely determined by what is 'other' than what-is."
But not only can Harry's father not conceive beyond mere calculation; he also cannot surmount his cowardice in the face of existence. It is this "dread of dread" which exudes from Ode Elann Monroe, and which in fact causes his paradoxical despair over and maintenance of a self-deluded mental life. Unconsciously following the lead of Descartes, Ode Elann hopes that by engaging in abstracted thought, he can separate that thought from consciousness and thereby avoid confrontation with his mediocre bourgeois being and perhaps understand his existence in terms of a "meaningful" abstraction.
In contrast to his father's bad faith, Harry in his childhood demonstrates what might be called "good faith," the delineation of which it now seems appropriate to present. "The nature of consciousness" for Sartre "simultaneously is to be what it is not and not to be what it is" (Being). Despite the complexities of this condition of consciousness—a condition that undermines the possibility of good faith as opposite to and separate from bad faith—Sartre maintains that "that does not mean that we can not radically escape bad faith." Instead of the term "good faith," Sartre defers in a footnote to a term original to Heidegger: "authenticity." Sartre's development of authenticity, however, moves beyond Heidegger's more overtly academic analysis of praxis and on to a more concrete realization of authenticity in specific contexts.
As opposed to his father, young Harry Monroe has no reservations about this existential perspective, for his actions demonstrate a commitment in perfect accord with Sartre's pronouncement on authenticity. That perspective, like Roquentin's in Nausea, is "'prereflexive,' or instinctive" (Hill, p. 39). But unlike Roquentin, whose "reactions to things, people, and situations...cause varying degrees and types of physical distress as he periodically rejects what he senses to be the truth about existence", Harry's childhood existential intuition assesses a given situation and reacts immediately, before becoming bogged down in purposeless deliberation that Page 247 | Top of Articleis, in fact, only an attempt to delay or avoid taking action.
Harry's commitment to action is best presented in his slaying of one of the Sink's peacocks, an action to which the protagonist commits himself wholly and for which he provides a straightforward Sartrean explanation. A second demonstration appears shortly after this one, but in both, Ode Elann's reaction to Harry's acts clearly reveals his bourgeois obsequiousness and his flight from the harshness of existence.
"The Sink brothers had two peafowl that came trespassing in our cane patch alongside the driveway," begins Harry. Ode Elann, taken in by the bourgeois ascendancy of the Sinks, relishes the peacocks' "prissing around on his land," believing that the peacocks' presence signifies some vague comradeship between his family and the Sinks. Harry, however, thinks otherwise of the birds: "The female was a whore, and the male lived on her, and was jealous as hell."
"Seeking after adventure" (Kierkegaard, p. 38), air rifle in hand, Harry one day attempts to explore the cane patch, pressing "back to the deeps, where the Jap snipers" of his World-War-II-permeated imagination "should've ideally been sitting . . . " Instead of the Japanese, however, Harry "hit a dip and slid off into that peafowl dung I didn't know was there." The resulting scene is not a sanitary one: "It was all in my hair and up the barrel of my gun, and my lever had this unmentionable stalactite of green hanging on it."
Harry's response to his experience in the cane patch subtly foreshadows the time of the explosive resurgence of Harry's own existential awareness during college: "I looked around and saw there wouldn't be any decent playing in here until maybe I was twenty." It is with the discovery of Geronimo in college that Harry fully realizes the Sartrean nature of his existence: that committed action always supersedes the bourgeois paralysis that results from overanalyzing options. In an absurd world, action must precede moral speculation upon action; committed action, in fact, becomes the moral choice. Immediately following his experience in the cane patch, Harry places himself in a situation demanding just such action.
One day, as he is "walking out for the papers at the end of the drive," Harry is attacked by the male peacock, who "all of a sudden beats out of the deeps and starts hammering at my thigh." Harry clearly states that he "wasn't thinking about the birds or the cane" prior to this incident. Like Roquentin in Nausea, Harry does not seek out existence; rather, manifestations of it rush in on him. On the surface, Harry acknowledges that after the peacock's sudden and unprovoked attack, "I was afraid of him." If the peacock is seen as a metaphor for some Sartrean Other, then the episode contains a powerful lesson in existence and action, for despite his fear, Harry refuses "to detour around the cane walking back on account of any bird." Instead of cowering, Harry chooses to act:
I picked up a piece of stick I'd thrown at the mailbox a week ago, pretending the stick was a grenade and the mailbox was a German's mouth; it was a healthy length of hickory, never a very feasible grenade. I walked back on the cane edge of the drive, and got to where the cock ambushed me coming out. The old boy was roosting about four feet off the ground this time and jumped on me at head level, making a loud racket in the cane as he launched himself. This terrified me, but I stood still and swung on the peacock with both arms. I caught him on the head, and his beak swerved like plastic. He dropped on the bricks like a club, his fantail all folded in. I toed him. He was dead, with an eye wiped away.
Having seen the horrors of war at such a young age, Harry possesses a hazy awareness of the absurdity and cruelty of life, while his father still adheres to fallacious ideas of essential meaning and purpose. Moreover, Harry is not so weighted down with his father's "sheer timidity" that he cannot take action when life demands it. Harry's fear is not enough to drive him to cowardice, as his father's fear of the mediocrity of his own life has driven Ode Elann to the cowardice of feigned erudition.
Motoring up the drive immediately after Harry has "toed" the peacock, Ode Elann can only stare in frightened amazement. When the father finally speaks, another of the peacock's metaphorical functions is suggested. At first in denial, Harry's father asks helplessly, "It's not dead, is it, son?" Then, realizing the truth, he declares, "Pray to God. He is dead." The pronoun in Ode Elann's pronouncement contains an ambiguity which provides the key to interpreting the significance of the peacock here, for while "He" seemingly refers to the dead peacock, the word's proximity to "God" echoes the infamous claim made in Nietzsche's Joyful Wisdom by the madman with the lantern:
Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putre-faction?—for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him.
The aftermath of Harry's violent act is more than his father can handle, and even though the peacock's death offers Ode Elann a moment of existential insight, he is too far gone in his bad faith to confront the truth. Like the message of Nietzsche's madman, who, casting down his lantern, cries to the astonished listeners, "I come too early.... [M]y time has not yet come," the existential import of the peacock's death comes too early for Ode Elann to realize fully. The reader, nevertheless, can recognize in the scene several metaphors symbolizing Harry's own emergence into an awareness of the existential ethic.
Once Harry's father has pronounced the death of the bird, he asks Harry, "Why would you kill a lovely bird like. . . . You know who he belongs to, don't you?" In his language, Ode Elann reveals his primary reason for being upset: the bird, symbol of his connection with the Sinks (and their status), has been brutally struck down by his own son. Harry's reply to his father's question is simple and direct, "He came at me. Twice." Harry's answer to his father's next question, "What do you think we're going to do about this?", is equally abrupt:
"Put some lime on that sucker, he'll melt into the ground without a stink in three-four days." The old man's jaw dropped.
"Who taught you about lime?"
"Aw, the Nazis used it on bodies in concentration camps."
"Oh yeah? You're really getting an education, aren't you?"
"Yessir. You want me to handle it?" The old man was looking away at some hopeless horizon.
"I want what?" he said.
"You want me to handle this peacock. I'll drag him up in that cane. You get me a little lime, and nobody'll know nothing." Now the old man's roasting me with a hard look.
"You get your little ass up to the bathroom and get your pants down. I'm going to handle you."
Harry's father exhibits anger and confusion at his son's knowledge but more importantly at his ability to act. Note that Harry, who throughout the novel generally adheres to correct grammar, comments that after he disposes of the peacock, "nobody'll know nothing." Heidegger's premise in "What is Metaphysics" is that by bravely thinking beyond mere calculation of what-is, an awareness of Nothing which was once intimated through existential angst or dread reveals itself in its relationship with Being. Similarly, Sartre argues that the authentic individual has realized himself as the origin of the Nothingness that haunts him in his existential angst. Based on such a preponderance of symbolic evidence, it can be argued reasonably that were he to take action, Ode Elann—a "nobody" certainly by Harry's standards— would experience a truly existential moment, a moment of confrontation with Nothingness. As is to be expected, however, Ode Elann continually but unsuccessfully flees from such an encounter. Nevertheless, the metaphorical significance of this episode in Geronimo Rex is one of the most powerful, and its presence early in the novel signifies the importance of existential themes within the story.
Shortly after the incident with the peacock, Harry finds himself in another situation exposing the meaninglessness of existence and of the primacy of action. Despite his father's "trying to explain the concept of a yard chore and what it had to do with Duty," Harry finds himself skeptical of the idea, preferring to let the leaves in the yard "lay and rot, and just imagining all the moldering beauty underneath they must be causing." The appearance of a large Doberman in the front yard, apparently having been led there by the pheromones of Harry's menstruating terrier, Maggie, "save[s Harry] immediate Duty on the leaves." What is important about this incident, however, is not the Doberman but Ode Elann's cowardice and inability to act:
But the old man couldn't do anything about the Doberman. . . . It was the gentleness of his that my mother always bragged on him about. I didn't see this side of him, or wasn't ready to see it, until a couple of days later, when it was too sad to miss.
With this transition, Harry recounts the incident that, more than any other, opens his eyes to his father's inability to take action. Harry writes that one morning, the Doberman is replaced by a "new suitor-dog outside. He wasn't on the porch. He was out in the edge of the cane. He was a sick, scabby, and practically Page 249 | Top of Articlehairless combination of Spitz and setter." The disgusting dog does not arrive alone, but with a mule, the two "apparently . . . joined up to see the last of it together. They were both clearly terminal." Just as Harry's experience in the "the deeps" of the cane prefaces his killing of Bayard the peacock, Ode Elann's experience with the Doberman prefaces his encounter with the Spitz-setter and the mule.
Although both Harry and his father spy the creatures simultaneously while staring out the bay window of their home, they have diametrically opposed reactions. "All right, Daddy, I'll go be getting the lime in the garage while you get the shotgun. Better put in some double-aught shells", declares Harry without a moment's consideration. To Harry, the immediate response to the situation is one of action. His father, however, again demonstrates his ineffectual existence: after "fak[ing] three paragraphs of thought", he suggests, "They look like they're on the move. Don't they?" and takes Harry on to school, leaving the decrepit animals out near the cane. In order to avoid action, Ode Elann practices mauvaise foi, although his asking "Don't they?" immediately after his attempt at self-deception clearly indicates that this statement is an excuse to avoid action, not a logical conclusion based on observation.
"The animals," Harry states laconically, "didn't leave. They were still out there four days later. The old man's sense of beauty was hurt." To a man like Ode Elann, the cruelty of existence as seen in the "hewed-out," "mangy", odiferous and quite clearly dying creatures in his yard is horrifying, and shooting the animals would be too blatant an admission of the senseless existence of these two creatures. Instead, Ode Elann asks Harry to use his air rifle to "pop them" into moving elsewhere. The reader realizes by this point that the father's bourgeois "gentleness" is in reality nothing more than a fear of facing life's cruelties, and that it is not the animals' welfare being considered, but rather the self-deceived, idealized conception of the world under which Ode Elann operates. When his father changes his mind about the air rifle and tells Harry, "Wait! . . . Don't do that. No use to hurt them if they just can't move", Harry realizes that "the old man's as gentle as a nerve."
Such gentleness is a great impediment to action, Harry learns. When the animals do not leave but continue to deteriorate in his yard, Ode Elann attempts another maneuver to avoid action: "There's an organization I've heard of that handles these types of animals" he offers, despite the fact that no such organization is to be found in Dream of Pines. Inaction creates guilt on the part of Ode Elann, but his cowardice in turn refuses to permit action. One day, when father and son are out in the yard examining a spot from which the dog had shuffled a few feet, Harry's father finally admits his self-deception to his son:
Where the dog had lain in the grass, hair remained, and hundreds of maggots.
The old man winced, and groaned, "Harry. This is the first time in my life I ever knew God let things like this happen. . . . I've read books about it," he said flatly. "But somebody has been keeping the real information from me. When things die, they get eaten by worms. They really do."
Ode Elann's revelation is not merely that "when things die, they get eaten by worms." His revelation is that the world abounds in senseless cruelty and absurdity. In reality, of course, Ode Elann has known but has been deceiving himself, acting in bad faith by evading the brutality of existence.
Despite this revelation, however, Ode Elann is still unable to take action to resolve the situation, as Harry observes with great acumen, "[Ode Elann] was not a hero of tender feelings; this gentle portion of himself mixed up his mind quite a bit, and landed him in protracted confusion, when some simple act was called for." Harry finds in this characterization something of his older self; as Harry later admits of himself, Ode Elann would "have to dream an answer before he knew it was right. He'd wake up and know what he ought to do, having just seen some righteous version of himself in his dream." This and the words of his wife are the only things capable of initiating action in Ode Elann, and neither one stems from personal commitment. The novel later reveals in Harry similar characteristics, and even at this point Harry-as-narrator readily admits such similarities: "The old man and I always tended to trust every girl we ever knew, and little else but our own dreams in sleep."
One Saturday night, Harry rises from sleep to realize that his father has "dreamed something, or the old lady had risen up in the night and commanded something in short, simple English." From the beginning of the ordeal, Page 250 | Top of ArticleHarry, of course, has "wanted to personally shoot the big mule sucker and see him cave in." Yet his father has refrained from action, because, according to Harry's mother, "He thinks he can shoot them in a kinder way than what the sheriff would." Harry immediately recognizes the absurdity of the idea, stating that "a bullet to the brain is just a bullet to the brain. . . . You can't die quick in different ways." Like his father, Harry's mother is alarmed by her son's frank awareness of the facts of existence. After reprimanding him with her transparent belief that "little boys aren't supposed to be thinking about bullets to the brain," she helplessly offers that "Daddy has to think it out," despite Harry's assessment that "Daddy's waited wrong this time."
At six the next morning, Harry and his father finally rise to take action. The animals, as if sensing the finality of their situation or perhaps the final breaking of Ode Elann's "gentleness," had "gotten in the cane and smashed it up, wallowing": "The mule was lying dead among some broken stalks. The dog lifted up his head in the foot-high pin-plants on the edge of the cane. He smiled when the old man shot him with the twelve-gauge."
In the end, Harry's father is forced to take the same action called for weeks ago by Harry when the animals were first sighted. Moreover, Ode Elann's inability to act has only resulted in the prolonged suffering of two creatures, as well as his own suffering of guilt due to his inaction. In a lesson known intuitively by Harry in his innocence, Ode Elann finally learns the inexplicable nature of existence and the necessity of action over thought, real or feigned. Harry observes, "I think he gave up trying to be a perfect neighbor to the Sink boys that morning." Harry's father even admits in retrospect, "That peacock Bayard needed killing," and he tells Harry, "I was proud of you when you bashed him." Harry, however, realizes that this is merely another, a different, form of bad faith on the part of "Ode Elann Monroe: slayer of the Spitz-setter. Puller of the trigger when the chips were down."
From a theme-setting overture to several character-defining episodes of absurdity and action, the early pages of Geronimo Rex place heavy but subtle emphasis on the existential milieu and the two modes of addressing it: bad faith versus authentic action. Like Roquentin's experiences in Sartre's Nausea, Harry's engagements relate to him the contingency of existence as well as the absurdity of notions such as authority, determinism, duty, and idealistic abstraction. Nevertheless, throughout these examples Hannah keeps the deeper philosophic issues at arm's length, referencing them obliquely, making their final purpose unclear. Moreover, the humor in Hannah's characters consistently threatens to undermine the presumed "seriousness" of any of the novel's philosophic import.
When prodded during a 1992 interview concerning the character of Harry Monroe, Hannah reveals what could be taken as the definitive statement on Geronimo Rex's angst-ridden protagonist:
Hannah: I admit it. Harry's a creep. A jerk. And I don't care for him. It's me.
Cawelti: He carries a gun . . .
Hannah: Very cowardly, and [a] punkish thing to do—
Cawelti: Did you ever carry one?
Hannah: I didn't, but I kinda wanted to, you know I wanted to have a smart coat, and have a gun. I realize now that it's a very clichéd, Southern thing to do. There's not a damn thing original about it, every redneck can do it and does. I think it's in the French mode, you know, creating art by drawing a pistol. You know, it's the absolute act, the act of firing a gun randomly into a crowd—it's the absolute act of art.
Cawelti: Existential act.
Hannah: Right, your existential act.
Cawelti: You've gotta make some choices—
Hannah: I had existential pretensions about Harry.
Hannah's claim of having "existential pretensions about Harry" suggests on one hand an admission of his attempt to create in Harry an existential hero "in the French mode." On the other hand, Hannah has always demonstrated a strong tendency toward farce—something he has admitted doing with all things both Southern and serious. "In one respect," writes critic Fred Hobson, "Hannah belongs to the guns-guts-and-glory world of southern thought. . . . In another respect, it might be claimed, Hannah writes a critique of that southern world." If Hobson seems hesitant to take sides on the issue, it is due to intelligence rather than indecision; of the two options offered, Hannah consistently takes both.
In his biographical and literary sketch of Hannah for Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, Owen Gilman, Jr. concludes that "future scholarship will be obliged to assess Barry Hannah's supercharged style as a mode of being." I would argue that within Hannah's work the search for an authentic mode of being runs much deeper than his style alone—that in fact Hannah's work is haunted by "the big questions" of existence, and that his stories reflect very human attempts to confront those questions with varying degrees of courage and cowardice. It is the resulting interplay that brings Hannah's humor sparkling to the surface. Hannah has said that "all life is absurd, but if you keep laughing and smiling, you can make it better." Discussing his novel Ray, Hannah offers the following:
Life is a lot of confusion and pain and death, and the only way to deal with it is to face it with the attitude that there's no place to go but up. "Sabers up gentlemen!" is the way I end Ray. That's all I know. Straight ahead. Hit 'em high. Let's go get 'em again. That's the only solution I know. There's too much depression and confusion and death to allow any real hope. We don't have a f——ing chance. But "Sabers up!"
Hannah thus remains existentialism's post-modern faithful, cognizant of the philosophy's inherent and undermining potential for farce amid a fragmented, nostalgic, and disintegrating South, yet unwilling to forsake the glorious and daring pursuit of authentic meaning. In Geronimo Rex, as well as throughout his canon, Hannah's oblique handling of deep philosophical issues within the rowdy framework of "neo-Southern Gothic" humor evinces his intuitive command of both the existential ethic and its farcical critique. It is a credit both to the author and to the South that Hannah juggles the fragments of this postmodern world while often making us laugh ourselves to tears.
Source: Christopher O. Griffin, "Bad Faith and the Ethic of Existential Action: Kierkegaard, Sartre, and a Boy Named Harry," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 173-96.
Barnes, Hazel E., Existential Ethics, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967, p. 121.
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Griffin, Christopher O., "Bad Faith and the Ethic of Existential Action: Kierkegaard, Sartre, and a Boy Named Harry," in the Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 173-96.
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Baker, Richard E., The Dynamics of the Absurd in the Existentialist Novel, Peter Lang, 1993.
By its nature, absurdity avoids rational understanding. In this study, Baker uses examples from key existentialist novels to illustrate the philosophical basis for the absurdist attitude.
Beauvoir, Simone de, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, Pantheon Books, 1984.
Beauvoir gives her impressions of the last ten years of Sartre's life (1970-1980), followed by a lengthy transcript of a conversation that went on between them in 1974.
Bielmeier, Michael G., Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and Existential Tragedy, Edward Mellen Press, 2000.
Starting with the references that Kierkegaard made to Shakespeare's plays, Bielmeier offers a full existential reading of the tragedies.
Borowitz, Eugene, A Layman's Introduction to Religious Existentialism, Westminster Press, 1965.
The passionate atheism of the French existentialists is often noted, but there is a powerful school that combines existential thought and religious experience. Borowitz's overview introduces many philosophers and writers Page 252 | Top of Articlewho are usually not mentioned in general discussions of the philosophy.
Cotkin, George, Existential America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Historian George Cotkin challenges the claim by Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus that Americans were too shallow and materialistic for Existentialism. In this book, Cotkin traces the history of American Existentialism from Emily Dickinson in the early nineteenth century to Ralph Ellison and Norman Mailer of the twentieth century.
Husserl, Edmund, "The Paris Lectures," in Phenomenology and Existentialism, edited by Robert C. Solomon, Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1980, pp. 43-57.
Sartre attended these lectures, given at the Sorbonne in 1929, and they greatly influenced his development of a philosophy of Existentialism that was separate from the Phenomenology of Husserl and Husserl's successor, Heidegger.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, "An Explication of The Stranger," in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 108-21.
Originally published in 1955, Sartre's explication has frequent references to Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, finding the novel to be one of the greatest of French literature.
Solomon, Robert C., Introducing the Existentialists, Hackett, 1981.
Solomon brings the subject of Existentialism to life for readers by presenting imagined interviews with Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus. The result is more focused and less abstract than actual interviews with these authors, serving well as an introduction to their thoughts.