Existentialism is a term applied to the work of a number of philosophers since the 19th century who, despite large differences in their positions, generally focused on the condition of human existence, and an individual’s emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts, or the meaning or purpose of life. Existential philosophers often focused more on what is subjective, such as beliefs and religion, or human states, feelings, and emotions, such as freedom, pain, guilt, and regret, as opposed to analyzing objective knowledge, language, or science.
Existentialist perspectives are also found in literature to varying degrees. Jean-Paul Sartre‘s 1938 novel Nausea was “steeped in Existential ideas”, and is considered an accessible way of grasping his philosophical stance. Since 1970, much cultural activity in art, cinema, and literature contains postmodernist and existentialist elements. Books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing strong existentialist themes. Ideas from such thinkers as Dostoevsky, Foucault, Kafka, Nietzsche, Herbert Marcuse, Gilles Deleuze, and Eduard von Hartmann permeate the works of artists such as Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Crispin Glover, and Charles Bukowski, and their works are marked by a delicate balance between distastefulness and beauty.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944, an existentialist play originally published in French as Huis Clos (meaning “In Camera” or “behind closed doors”) which is the source of the popular quote, “Hell is other people.” The play begins with a Valet leading a man into a room that the audience soon realizes is in hell. Eventually he is joined by two women. After their entry, the Valet leaves and the door is shut and locked. All three expect to be tortured, but no torturer arrives. Instead, they realize they are there to torture each other, which they do effectively, by probing each other’s sins, desires, and unpleasant memories.
Existentialist themes are displayed in the Theatre of the Absurd, notably in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which two men divert themselves while they wait expectantly for someone (or something) named Godot who never arrives. They claim Godot to be an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting they would not recognize him if they saw him. To occupy themselves they eat, sleep, talk, argue, sing, play games, exercise swap hats, and contemplate suicide—anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay.” The play “exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos.” The play also illustrates an attitude toward man’s experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in mind and art of the absurdist. The play examines questions such as death, the meaning of human existence and the place of God in human existence.
Franz Kafka‘s works, in which themes of alienation and persecution are repeatedly emphasized, permeate the apparent hopelessness•and absurdity that are considered emblematic of existentialism. The Metamorphosis resonates the alienation and revulsion of Gregor Samsa, who gets transformed into a monstrous insect and is hopelessly abandoned and hated by his family. The Trial, in which Josef K. is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. The agents do not name the authority for which they are acting. He is not taken away, however, but left at home to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs. On the last day of K.’s thirtieth year, two men arrive to execute him. He offers little resistance, suggesting that he has realised this as being inevitable for some time. They lead him to a quarry where he is expected to kill himself, but he cannot: The two men then execute him. His last words describe his own death: “Like a doggy” The Castle — in which the protagonist, K., struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle who govern the village for unknown reasons. The novel is about alienation bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man’s attempts to stand against the system, and the futile and hopeless pursuit of an unobtainable goal.
Albert Camus‘ The Myth of Sisyphus (which introduces his theory of the absurd) presents Sisyphus’s ceaseless and pointless toil as a metaphor for modern lives spent working at futile jobs in factories and offices. Sisyphus represents an absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death and is condemned to a meaningless task. Camus saw absurdity as the result of our desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither, which he expressed in works like The Stranger and The Plague, which often pointedly resonate as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition. Camus emphasizes the ideas that we ultimately have no control, irrationality of life is inevitable, and he further illustrates the human reaction towards the “absurd.” He questions the meaning of the moral concepts justifying humanity and human suffering. The plague, which befalls Oran, ultimately, enables people to understand that their individual suffering is meaningless. As the epidemic “evolves” within the seasons, so do the citizens of Oran, who instead of willfully giving up to a disease they have no control over, decide to fight against their impending death, thus unwillingly creating optimism in the midst of hopelessness.
Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdist tragicomedy and palimpsest, which expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare‘s Hamlet. Comparisons have also been drawn to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, for the presence or two central characters who almost appear to be two halves of a single character. Many plot features are similar as well: the characters pass time by playing questions, impersonating other characters, and interrupting each other or remaining silent for long periods of time. The two characters are portrayed as two clowns or fools in a world that is beyond their understanding. They stumble through philosophical arguments while not realizing the , implications, and muse on the irrationality and randomness of the world.
Jean Anouilh‘s Antigone also presents arguments founded on existentialist ideas. It is a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and the play of the same name (Antigone, by Sophocles) from the 5th century BC. Produced under Nazi censorship, the play is purposefully ambiguous with regards to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon), Antigone rejects life as desperately meaningless but without affirmatively choosing a noble death. The play discusses the nature of power, fate and choice, the “promise of a humdrum of happiness” and of a mediocre existence.
Critic Martin Esslin in the book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene lonesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existentialist belief that we are absurd beings lost in a universe empty of real meaning. Esslin noted that many of these playwrights demonstrated the philosophy better than did the plays by Sartre and Camus. Though most of such playwrights, subsequently labeled “Absurdist” (based on Esslin’s book), denied affiliations with existentialism and were often staunchly anti-philosophical (for example, lonesco often claimed he identified more with “Pataphysics” or with Surrealism than with Existentialism), the playwrights are often linked to Existentialism based on Esslin’s observation.