Existentialism in Literature Existentialism in literature is a movement or tendency that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice. While Existentialism was never an organized literary movement, the tenets of this philosophy have influenced many diverse writers around the world and readers can detect existential elements in their fiction. Americans writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck reveal existential elements in their writing. Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice.
Humanity’s primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the freedom to choose. Because we are free to choose our own paths, existentialists have argued, we must accept the risk and responsibility of following our commitments wherever they lead. American writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson often wrote about these concepts. Existentialism is not dark. It is not depressing. Existentialism is about life. Existentialists believe in living—and in fighting for life.
The politics of existentialist writers around the world varies widely, but each seeks the most individual freedom for people within a society. Despite encompassing this wide range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are constant: ? Mankind has free will ? Life is a series of choices ? Few decisions are without any negative consequences ? Some events and occurrences are irrational or absurd, without explanation. ? If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through.
So existentialism, broadly defined, is a set of philosophical systems concerned with free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Because we make choices based on our experiences, beliefs, and biases, those choices are unique to us—and made without an objective form of truth. There are no “universal” guidelines for most decisions, existentialists believe. Even trusting science is often a “leap of faith. ” The existentialists conclude that human choice is subjective, because individuals finally must make their own choices without help from such external standards as laws, ethical rules, or traditions.
Because individuals make their own choices, they are free; but because they freely choose, they are completely responsible for their choices. The existentialists emphasize that freedom is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. Furthermore, since individuals are forced to choose for themselves, they have their freedom—and therefore their responsibility—thrust upon them. They are “condemned to be free. ” Many existentialist writers stress the importance of passionate individual action in deciding questions of both personal morality and truth.
Personal experience and acting on one’s own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth. 17th-century French philosopher and existentialist Blaise Pascal saw human existence in terms of paradoxes. He believed that “We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart. ” And as many existentialists, he acknowledges that “It is the fight alone that pleases us, not the victory. ” The modern adage that the journey is more important than the final destination applies to this idea.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who was the first writer to call himself existential, reacted against traditional thoughts by insisting that the highest good for the individual is to find his or her own unique vocation. As he wrote in his journal, “I must find a truth that is true for me . . . the idea for which I can live or die. ” Existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. The 19th-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche contended that the individual using free will must decide which situations are to count as moral situations.
He believed that “There are no facts, only interpretations. ” . . . and he is famous for this well known adage:“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger. ” The 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably the most well-known existentialist literary figure. In his book Notes from the Underground the alienated anti-hero questions experiences in life that are unpredictable and sometimes self-destructive. French writer, Jean Paul Sartre wrote that man can will nothing unless he has irst understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth. There is no ultimate meaning or purpose inherent in human life; in this sense life is absurd. We are forlorn, abandoned in the world to look after ourselves completely. The only foundation for values is human freedom, and that there can be no external or objective justification for the values anyone chooses to adopt. When the Swedish Academy granted the Nobel Prize in Literature to Sartre for his work which, they recognized as “rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, [that] has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age,” Sartre made it known that he did not wish to accept the prize. In a public announcement, in1964, Sartre expressed his regret that his refusal of the prize had given rise to a scandal, and he wished it to be known that his refusal was not meant to slight the Swedish Academy but was rather based on personal and objective reasons.
Sartre pointed out that due to his conception of the writer’s task he had always declined official honors so this act was not unprecedented. He had similarly refused other awards offered to him. He stated that a writer’s acceptance of such an honor would be to associate his personal commitments with the awarding institution, and that, above all, a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.