ESSAYS ON EXISTENTIALISM

by Tanweer Akram


The Philosophy of Existentialism

Existentialism is the title of the set of philosophical ideals that emphasizes the existence of the human being, the lack of meaning and purpose in life, and the solitude of human existence. Existentialism maintains existence precedes essence: This implies that the human being has no essence, no essential self, and is no more that what he is. He is only the sum of life is so far he has created and achieved for himself. Existentialism acquires its name from insisting that existence precedes essence.

Existentialist thinkers are of the view that the metaphysical explanation of existence as given by the traditional schools of philosophy fails to produce satisfactory results. They also maintain that the problem of being ought to take precedence in all philosophical inquiry. Existence is always particular, unique and individual. Existentialist are opposed to the view laws explaining human freedom and activity can be formulated. Existence is essential and fundamental: Being cannot be made a topic of objective study. Being is revealed to and felt by the human being through his own experience and his situation. So it is maintained existence is the first and central problem.

Existentialism stresses the risk, the voidness of human reality and admits that the human being is thrown into the world, the world in which pain, frustration, sickness, contempt, malaise and death dominates. It was during the Second World War, when Europe found itself in a crisis and faced with death and destruction, the existentialist movement began to flourish. The dark portrait of such a sickness could be found even in the optimistic and confident nineteenth century in the works of authors as diverse as the communist German Karl Marx (1818-1883), the religious Dane Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the German Fredich Nietzche (1844-1900).

Existentialism as a contemporary philosophical trend reached the zenith of its popularity in the years following the war, the time when Europe was in a despairing mood, perhaps not without the hope of social reconstruction but pessimistic and morbid enough to accept the existentialist outlook of the lack of design and intention in the universe and the nausea of human existence and its frustration. The most important philosopher of existentialist in its celebrated form was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), recognized as the most powerful intellectual force in France in the mid-20th century.

Existentialism originated from the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevoski (1821-1881). Kierkegaard had reacted against the idealism of G. F. W. Hegel (1770--1831), whose doctrines developed from the classical idealism of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The existentialist stand that is opposed to the view of reducing existence to reason can be seen in the polemic of the idealist F. W. J. von Schelling, a contemporary of Hegel. Nietzche was influenced deeply by Arthur Schopenhauer (1778-1860), whose views were strikingly pessimistic. The influence of Blaise Pascal (1632-1662) on the existentialists should also not be overlooked.

In fact in very much diffused and different form this bleak view of human existence can be traced back to St. Augustine (354-430) and Duns Scotus (1266-1308), both Catholic philosophers. Perhaps the preoccupation with existence can be traced back even further to the works of the Pre-Socratics. In literary influence, both Dostoyevoski and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) contributed significantly. Dostoyevoski in his novels presented the defeat of man in the face of choices and the result of their consequences, and, finally, in the enigmas of himself. Kafka in his novels like The Castle and The Trial, presented the fate of human destiny graphically.

The development of modern existentialism was preceded by the works of the German phehomenologist Frenz Brento (1838-1917), and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). They were immediately followed by the modern existentialists. In this century, German existentialism was represented by Martin Heidegger (1889-1979) and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), French existentialism by Jean-Paul Sartre; French phenomenology by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961); Spanish existentialism by Jose Ortego y Gasset (1883-1955); and Italian existentialism by Nicola Abbagnano (b. 1910). An important aspect of the existentialism movement was its popularization due to the ramification of existentialist philosophy in literature, psychology, religion, politics, and culture. The most forceful voice of existentialist thought were the works of the French existentialists: Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus (1913-1960). No one has contributed more to the popularization of existentialism of this philosophical trend than Sartre. Gabriel Marcel, a Christian existentialist, wrote plays. Camus' semi-philosophical essays won sympathizers. In the arts, various schools of existentialism viewed the role of art not as reflection of objective and external reality to man but as the free projection of the human being. Through the works of Karl Jaspers and Luwid Binswagner (1881-1966), a Swiss, existentialism diffused into the arena of psychiatry. Christian existentialism, inspired by Kierkegaard, is a creed of its own kind. Among its noteworthy exponents were Marcel Karl Bath (1886-1968) and Rudolf Bulymann (1884-1976). The leading Jewish existentialist was Martin Buber (1878-1965). Somewhat surprisingly there are also Islamic existentialists; famous among its exponents are A. R. Badawi and Rene Hana Chi. The religious existentialist had some mark on theology and religion. Though not surprisingly Rome condemned existentialism as heresy.

The fundamental problem of existentialism is concerned with ontology, the study of being. The human being's existence is the first and basic fact; the human being has no essence that comes before his existence. The human being as a being is nothing. This nothingness and the non-existence of an essence is the central source of the freedom the human being faces in each and every moment. The human being has liberty in view of his situation, in decisions which makes himself and sets himself to solves his problems and live in the world.

Thrown into the world, the human being is condemned to be free. The human being must take this freedom of being and the responsibility and guilt of his actions. Each action negates the other possible courses of action and their consequences; so the human being must be accountable without excuse. The human being must not slip away from his responsibilities. The human being must take decisions and assume responsibilities. There is no significance in this world, this universe. The human being cannot find any purpose in life; his existence is only a contingent fact. His being does not emerge from necessity. If a human being rejects the false pretensions, the illusions of his existence having a meaning, he encounters the absurdity, the futility of life. The human being's role in the world is not predetermined or fixed; every person is compelled to make a choice. Choice is one thing the human being must make. The trouble is that most often the human being refuses to choose. Hence, he cannot realize his freedom and the futility of his existence.

Basically existence is of two types: authentic and inauthentic forms of existence. Authentic existence is contrasted with dynamic and is the being-for-itself, rising from the human being's bad faith, by which the human being moves away from the burden of responsibility, through this beliefs in dogma and by regarding himself as subject to outside influences and his actions to be predetermined.

There is a striking contrast between the authentic and the inauthentic forms of being; the authentic being is the being of the human being and the inauthentic being is the being for things. Yet, authentic being is only rarely attained by the human being; still it is what the human being must strive to gain. The inauthentic being-in-itself is characteristically distinctive of things; it is what the human being is diseased with for his failure to see himself as and act according as a free agent and his impotency to reject bad faith. Things are only what they are. But the human being is what can be. Things are determined, fixed, and rigid; the human being is free; he can add essence to his life in the course of his life and he is in a constant state of flux and is able to comprehend his situation. The human being does not live in a pre-determined world; the human being is free to realize his aims, to materialize his dreams; hence, he has only the destiny he forges for himself because in this world nothing happens out of necessity.

The human being hides himself from freedom by self-deception, acting like a thing, as if he is a passive subject, instead of realizing the authentic being for the human being; this is bad faith. In bad faith, the human being shelter himself from responsibility by not noticing the dimensions of alternative courses of action facing him; in bad faith, the human being behaves as others demand of him by conforming to the standards of accepted values and by adopting roles designed for him; in bad faith, the human being loses the autonomy of his moral will, his freedom to decide; in bad faith, the human being imprisons himself within inauthenticity for he has refused to take the challenge of responsibility and the anxiety that comes along with his freedom.

Anxiety ascends from the human being's realization that the human being's destiny is not fixed but is open to an undetermined future of infinite possibilities and limitless scope: The voidness of future destiny must be filled by making choices for which he alone will assume responsibility and blame. This anxiety is present at every moment of the human being's existence; anxiety is part and parcel of authentic existence. Anxiety leads the human being to take decisions and be committed. The human being tries to avoid this anguish through bad faith. But the free human being, in his authenticity, must be involved; for his own actions are only his, his responsibility is to himself, his being is his own. The human being must be committed. To be committed means not to support this in place of that, but to attach a human being's totality to a cause; it is the human being's existential freedom that leads to total commitment.

Existentialist thinkers begin from the human situation in the world; the condition of despair, the modes of existence, the human being's tendency to avoid authentic existence, his relation to things, his own body, and to other beings, with whom he cannot come into genuine communication, and the sufferings of life. Starting from the study of being, each existentialist thinkers originate their own doctrines, with their own emphasis on particular aspects. Very often their viewpoints is conflicting and sometimes contradictory; yet this philosophical attitude of being, as a whole, can be described as the existentialist movement, which stresses upon the "being" of the human being.

Martin Heidegger is generally acknowledged as the leading existentialist thinker; despite that, he himself denied having anything to do with the existentialist movement. Deeply influenced by Husserl, whose pupil he was, his ideas constitute the basis of existentialism. It is from the impact on Sartre that Heidegger contributes to this trend of though. For him the principal object of investigation is the search for being (sein) and more particularly, man's being (dasein). His main work is Being and Time, a book no one completely understands (except, perhaps, Heidegger himself). Being, he says, is felt by the difference of non-being and being. Death is the ultimate of non-being. Death, serving as a limit, calls for authenticity in human existence. The human being for the most part "falls" from the authentic way of being. The human being is continually falling till his death. But in freedom there is dread and anxiety (angst) that compels the human being to select and take charge of his being. Anxiety shows the light of dynamic existence. The whole of Heidegger is made notoriously difficult by his indulgence in forming newer terminology; he also places considerable interest on language and stresses on the importance of being silent. He hints that the study of being may be equally well carried out by the poet.

Karl Jaspers, a leading founder of modern existentialism, also denies having anything to do with this movement, perhaps, because of his dislike of the French existentialists. He was influenced by his study of medicine and research in clinical psychiatry; on the other hand, existentialist psychiatry was definitely inspired by his remarkable book on the subject. He is more concerned with the sociopolitical problems than Heidegger. He applied his philosophical views to politics. For Jaspers, the human being's freedom of being is existence, not man's being in the world. He laid two distinction of being: Dasein is the ordinary being is open to the objective inquiry of science; and existenz is the mode of authentic existence of freedom, infinite possibilities, loneliness, and responsibilities. These are, what he describes, "boundary conditions" of human conditions in death, agony, and suffering. The authentic self of the human being is outside the scope of science. Because the human being is open to boundless possibilities, the human being must take up both credit and guilt of his actions. Jaspers views the communication with others as promoting man's loneliness, the other remaining a distant being. His works, unlike most other existentialist, is systematic and pays attention to science.

Gabriel Marcel was a French existentialist who preferred the name neo-Socratic. He was a playwright and critic. Philosophical problems for him originated first in his plays. Later he took to writing treatises.

The most famous representative of existentialism is Jean-Paul Sartre. He had studied the works of Edmund Husserl and Heidegger; he was greatly influenced by their works. In his principal work, the voluminous Being and Nothingness, he investigates the nature of existence. He investigates the nature of existence. He distinguishes two type of being: En-soi and Pour-soi. En-soi is the being of an object: Fixed and static. Pour-soi is the being of the human being: Fluid and free. It is open towards the future. The human being is nothing at birth and in life he is just the sum of life. To refuge in bad faith is to despair freedom. The human being, Sartre declares, is the maker of his destiny and is condemned to make his own decision. The human being exists but is only a contingent matter of fact, as there is no more reason for non-existence. He at times seems desperate about the contingency of human existence. Yet, in this hopeless world, the human being can develop his own essence; for the human being is what he projects himself as in actuality. Hence, the human being is responsible for what he is. The human being uses his freedom to create and to be committed. The psychological problems of life are portrayed with an incomparable literary brilliance, creativity, and imagination in Sartre's philosophical essays, novels, short stories and plays. This made him one of the most influential author of the contemporary times.

Sartre was imprisoned in Germany during the war; after his release he joined the Resistance to take an active part in it. The Nazi Occupation in France had profoundly effected him. In 1946, he left his teaching position to edit the voice of the French existentialist, Les Temps Modernes, which he founded. He took a stand against the Algerian War. He was also opposed to the US War against Vietnam. In 1964, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sartre made the existentialist choice of declining it. Though there are no perfect causes, he believed, the human being must support the cause least undesirable in order to act. For him political commitment meant taking the side of the proletariat and calling for authentic and free values. He never joined the Communist Party and denounced Soviet intervention in Hungary. Marxism, he however declared, is the only contemporary philosophy; so Marxism must come to recognize the human being's existentialist freedom.

Standing very close to the philosophical outlook of Sartre is his life-long companion and intellectual associate Simone de Beauvoir. But to suggest that because she was close to Sartre, her thoughts is a mere duplicate of Sartre would be a mistake. She giver an original and independent interpretation of existentialism, though not radically different from Sartre's. Unlike him, she chooses to concentrate on the personal and moral aspects of life. Sartre, it should be remembered, failed to produce his promised work on ethics. Beauvoir treats existentialism from very much a feminist point of view. In her book, The Second Sex, she takes the position that the history of attitudes of women has determined her own views. In her novels, she illustrates her philosophy. She gives a full account of her life and intellectual development in several volumes of her autobiographies.

Another proponent of French existentialism was Albert Camus. He himself laid no claims to be an existentialist. He played an active role in the Resistance. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. For him, the absurdity of life is the first concept. His famous novel, The Stranger, concentrates on the alienation of the human being in the midst of the silent universe, the failure of the human being to comprehend his situation and his inability to find values to shape his life; thus, the human being remains an outsider. The human being, he maintains however, must not set out to destroy the absurdity, for there is no scope to "leap" towards a God or optimism but face the absurd with courage. Life, Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, is a kind o hopeless, endless, uphill labor. Hence, the only true problem is that of suicide. Yet, he rejects nihilism; for the human being must fight and never accept defeat. The problem is to be saint without a God. The last judgment takes place everyday. The human being must do his best, try for what he can within the confinements of his situation. Camus views had close affinity with Sartre's but they later broke and were involved in a bitter controversy.

In their treatment of freedom, existentialists seem to imply that the human being is free to do whatever he pleases. This is surely not the case; the human being's freedom is not only curtailed by the objective reality he confronts but also by his own limitations and inclinations. He is, to a large extent, the outcome of his own situation. His being in the world is something he had no choice over. Sartre argues that the freedom not to be free is not freedom. But only rarely in the world does the human being choose the negative course of non-being through suicide. The human being's freedom is based upon his political freedom; this is certainly linked to his social status and class origin. The existentialists fail to attach importance to the objective conditions that determine the human being's state of being. They only draw the picture of the human being's subjective attitude toward freedom. The extent of the openness of futurity for the human being lies in his present position and the objective reality the human being confronts.

Logical positivists rightly accuse the existentialists of treating nothingness as an entity. Nothingness, for all that it is, is a non-entity; the treatment of nothingness as an entity is the beginning of folly. So muddled are the existentialists' pronouncements about nothingness that it should be regarded as nothing else other than nonsensical. To regard a non-entity as an entity is undoubtedly an elementary mistake, nonetheless a gross and fatal mistake. It is alleged that the logical positivist miss the point but no explanation is given for endowing the status of an entity to nothingness.

Pessimism towers over the works of the existentialists. Pessimism, taking the depressing view of life, makes claim that the world is bad rather than good. Optimism, on the other hand, views the world as ordered for the best. The world is the case and there is no more to it. The world does not exist either for good or evil. Hence, both these outlooks are equally mistaken. There is no reason to regret the contingency of the human existence in the world, not would there be anything to rejoice if the human being's existence in the world came from necessity. Both pessimism and optimism deserves to be rejected. There is nothing tragic in the human existence in the world without meaning, nor would there be much to cheer had human existence in the world been inherent with a purpose.

Existentialists make endless claims. They never bother to show how they reached their claims or if these are, indeed, true. The existentialists when he pretends to present a representation of reality provides no cognition; unverifiable assertions may well express powerful and even necessary emotions and passions, but that's best left to the arts and literature. The existentialists, in the same strain of vogue associated with Wittgenstein, make a hopeless effort to say what cannot be said, or pretend to say there are things of some importance which cannot be said. But what can be said, can be said and clearly too.

At any rate, as a popular movement, existentialism lost its vogue. However, the rise and ramification of this brand of philosophical thought should not be regarded as trivial; existentialism does deserve serious consideration. It is not, as some Marxists accuse, an effort, allegedly the last effort, to construct a system. Existentialism is a highly passionate philosophy and, from the outset, seems to aim at a dynamic and fashionable life-style. Also it is mostly unsystematic and pays little attention to logic or science. Whatever one makes of its metaphysical claims, one cannot deny that existentialism was able to provide a moving account of the spirit of the contemporary world and the nausea and frustration of survival. Indeed, it is basically for its richness in psychological insight and its impact on culture that existentialist philosophy will continued to be studied.

[The New Nation, March 7 and 21, 1986]


The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre

Philosophy is used in many ways and somewhat loosely. However, in the final analysis, it is traceable to various world outlooks, the human being's conception of the external world, of himself, and of his position in it. The disparity in the use of the word "philosophy" itself demonstrates the manner in which the numerous schools of philosophy understand what philosophy is and what it should aim to be. Existentialism has been among the most influential philosophy on the European continent in the twentieth century. The strong appeal and popularity of existentialism in the post-war era owes to the confusion, the crisis, and the feeling of rejection and rootlessness during the World War II and its aftermath. At present, while existentialism has lost much of its former glory, its temperament is still rampant and wields powerful influence on writers and artists, especially the youth engaged in creative activities. Existentialism provides a moving account of the agony of being thrown in the world. Those who think that logical analysis should be the cardinal business of philosophy should not dismiss existentialist philosophy as trivial. On the contrary, one could profit by seriously examining its doctrines. The most prominent exponent of existentialism in the modern times is the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre and it is his philosophy that is considered in this essay with particular attention to his massive work, Being and Nothingness.

The edifice of Sartre's work is vast, ranging from his early works of phenomenological analysis of imagination and the emotions, to his mature works comprising of many philosophical treatises, short stories, novels, plays and criticisms, and finally to his attempt to integrate the existentialist concern for freedom and human individuality with a form of radicalism. The overall complexity of Sartre's writing gives the possibility of alternative interpretations of his thought. His works are eloquent, no doubt, but hardly systematic. While his writing never reach the obscurity of Heidegger, some of his terminology defines analysis. He writes with sophistic bias, although he denies being a sophist. Pessimism towers over his work, because he believed, "Man is a useless passion."

It is important to realize the reciprocal relationship of philosophy and civilization. The thoughts of the philosophers, and more so the speculative philosophers, are shaped by their socio-cultural, economic and political circumstances. Sartre's philosophy is very much in the context of traditional French philosophy, as well as the outcome of the prevailing sociopolitical situation. Sartre came to be thought of as the ablest French intellectual in mid-twentieth century.

Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905. He was the only son of Jean-Baptiste Sartre and Anne-Marie Schweitzer. His father, a naval officer, died during his early childhood. He wrote: "Jean-Baptiste's death was the greatest event in my life, it returned my mother to her chains and it gave me my freedom." Anne-Marie, his mother, returned to her parent's home. His childhood was spent in the house of Charles Schweitzer, uncle of the famous missionary Albert Schweitzer. His grandfather was a school teacher who taught German in a school. As a lonely child, he found his companion among books. Reading and writing became his twin passions. He was educated in Paris. He entered the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1925. He failed his first attempt at aggregation completely, but when he tried for the second time the following year in 1929, he came out first. In the same year, Simone de Beauvoir finished second. She was to become his intimate companion as well as intellectual associate. He discarded the idea of bourgeois marriage, but entered into a lasting union libre with Madame Beauvoir.

He taught at Le Harve, Loan, Nevilly. Between 1929-1934, he traveled and studied. In 1934, he spent a year in the French Institute in Berlin and the University of Freiburg. It was while in Germany he studied under the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and the existentialist Martin Heidegger. After his return from Germany in 1935, Sartre taught in Paris. He lived in a hotel on the Left Bank.

His first work L'imagination was published in 1936 and his first novel Nausea was published in 1938. In the novel, Sartre brings out the meaningless and futility of human life. There the hero finds himself weighed down, sickened and alienated by the opposition between things and consciousness. Roquetin is dismayed by discovering: "Everything is gratuitous, this garden, this city and myself. When you realize it, it makes you feel sick and everything begins to drift . . . that's nausea." The novel contains the philosophical themes that Sartre develops later.

Sartre joined the French Army in 1939 as a private. He was taken prisoner on the Magionot line and imprisoned in Germany in 1941. During the nine months of imprisonment, he wrote and directed plays for his fellow prisoners. He escaped and joined the Resistance to take an active in it. He was among the key intellectuals in the Resistance. The Nazi Occupation of France was to effect him profoundly. He wrote: "Because the Nazi venom worked its way even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest; because an all-powerful police sought to force us into silence, every world became precious as a declaration of principle; because we were persecuted, each of our gesture carried the weight of a commitment." During that period, Sartre produced a first-rate volume of short stories, The Wall. He also wrote two plays, No Exit and The Flies.

Sartre's major work Being and Nothingness was published in 1944. It brilliantly depicts the feeling of dissatisfaction and purposelessness. Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology was the result of his philosophical reflections on the thoughts of Husserl. He sets himself to investigate the nature of existence. The contradiction of two types of being is discovered: The being of objective things, called being-in-itself, and the being of consciousness, titled being-for-itself. Being-in-itself is the fixed being for things and is static. Being-for-itself is the fluid being cherished for the human being. The human being must strive for it. The human being makes decisions and chooses. His futurity is open toward infinite scopes.

The human being exists but it only is a contingent fact, as there is no scope for his non-existence. Sartre wrote: "The world could get along very well without literature. It could get along even without men. The question is, as Heidegger posses: Why is there anything at all and not rather nothing?" He seems quite desperate about the contingency of human existence. For him, the human being's presence in the world is irrational and absurd because the human being is unnecessary. But, as one would say, there is no reason to lament about the contingency of human existence as the existentialist do, just as there would be nothing to be jubilant about if the human being's existence in the world was due to necessity.

Existentialism badly required a full-blooded ethical theory. In spite of being a prolific writer, Sartre's promise to turn attention to the moral responsibilities that freedom implies remained unfulfilled. Though the treatise on ethics never saw the light of the day, the psychological problems of human freedom is portrayed imaginatively in many of his novels, short stories, and plays. His style and diction made Sartre one the most powerful authors of contemporary times.

Existentialists understand that human existence is a contingent fact. Nevertheless, they emphasize what is thought to be the unique character of human existence. The human being's existence is radically different from things. At birth the human being is nothing and he can, unlike things, work out his destiny. It is human freedom that sets apart the human being from things. Unfortunately, anthropomorphic illusions dominate the ideas of the existentialists. Existentialism becomes obsessed with human beings and the happenings of the third planet of the solar system. This excessive concern with human being is pre-Copernican.

The confusing pronouncement regarding freedom lead to erroneous positions. Sartre's notion of freedom typifies the existentialist view. His treatment of freedom is confusing, but intoxicating. Its appeal owes entirely to the pervasive subtlety of his analysis of the human condition. True, he does not conclude the human being is free to do whatever he fancies; he places the primacy of the will at the center of his thought. Freedom is assertion of is ego, unhampered by external conditions, objective laws and limits, and necessity. Choice is at the core Sartrean philosophy. Free choice, according to him, is not determined by any existent fact because an action is projected towards the blank, the future which is non-existent. Freedom is outside the confinements of definition, or limits. Ultimately nothing, it is said, can restrict freedom. For the existentialist, the human being can alter the society from within himself. The human being must overcome obstacles by acts of conscious decision. All of these claims are erroneous because the human being does not have the external world he wishes to give to himself; perhaps, the human being does not even the world as he conceives it to be. Human life is conditioned by necessity and material situation. Without a proper appreciation of the circumstances, necessity, and objective laws, the human being cannot achieve any real freedom. The extent of the openness of futurity for the human being lies on his own position, inclinations, capabilities, and his comprehension of the world, as well as the objective reality. Though the existentialist provides a captivating narrative of subjective freedom, the limitless freedom of choice associated with the authentic human being, is entirely baseless. Fundamentally incorrect too is the intriguing concept of nothingness, about which the existentialist has much to say. However, nothingness, one cannot overemphasize, should be regarded as no more than a non-entity.

Immediately after the war, Sartre won recognition of the leader of the left-wing in Paris, with Café de Flore as their headquarters. He and his fellow intellectuals drew young disciples among writers and artists, and also become something of a tourist attraction. In 1945 he visited the United States and lectured at several universities there. He left his teaching position to edit the avant-garde journal Les Temps Moderns which he and other launched. It become the main forum of the French existentialist movement. In 1954, he visited the USSR, Scandinavia, Africa, and Cuba. He extended his support for Algerian independence. He was the leading figure in the creation of the short-lived political party Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionaire (RDR). His political position led to quarrels with writers Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, and Arthur Koestler.

1n 1956, Sartre denounced the Soviet intervention in Hungary. He criticized the French Communist Party for its submission to the dictates of Moscow. He himself had never joined the Communist Party. But he supported its program and its trade union when disagreeing with its ideological position and even when the party had denounced him as a bourgeois ideologist.

In 1964, when Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he refused to accept it. For him, acceptance of bourgeois honor would be an act of inauthenticity. He refused official honors because he held that his writing must alone and must not carry the weight of prestige. The acceptance of honor would mean compromise and surrender.

Sartre soon give himself the task writing a "total biography" of the famous French novelist Gustave Flaubert. It was meant to be a four volume definitive study. In the work, he combined Marxist analysis with Freudian psychoanalysis. The massive two volumes appeared in 1971. He takes up the slightest Flaubertian dictum to analysis in such a detailed and rigorous manner that the average reader cannot but be bewildered. Sartre had read Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary in his childhood: It affected him profoundly.

Sartre believed philosophy must not be divorced from literature and the arts. His theory that literature must take side is expounded in What is Literature. He skillfully demonstrated how philosophical concepts and ideals can be dramatized in literature. In his works, he portrayed how the individual must decide between the enigmas confronting him: What is true; what is right and what is wrong; what to accept and what to reject; what to be and what not; and, even, whether to be, or not to be. His own answer was there are no objective values or authorities to rely upon. The human being tries to avoid the anxiety of freedom by disowning liberty. But the human being must accept accountability without subterfuge. In the plays, Dirty Hand and The Condemned of Altona, he once more looked at the problems of liberty, obligation, and the assignment of action. Both the plays ends with the suicide of the main character. In his plays, the protagonist is called to create his own values.

Sartre wrote: "One always dies too soon or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up." He himself died on April 15, 1980. He was buried without any official recognition. His funeral ceremony was, however, attended by thousands of ordinary people, whose cause he had always advocated.

The greatness of Sartre lies not in his philosophy but in the type of being he chose to be. Existentialism was more than a philosophical movement. It had tremendous cultural significance. The theater of the absurd, to cite one example only, is an expression of existentialist themes. The plays of Beckett and Ionesco were inspired by existentialist doctrines. But its popularity owes more, one would now say, to the mistaken belief that existentialism prescribes a dynamic life style than to the acceptance of its principal ideals. At present, existentialism has been replaced by structuralism and deconstruction as the dominant and fashionable ideologies in the French philosophical scene. In general, philosophy in France continues to influenced by the traditions of idealism and romanticism. Sartre was a philosopher in line of French thinkers and writers, such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Zola. Like them, he was passionately concerned about freedom. He was a writer with an international following. His writings were very moving and profound.

Even though the human being feels lost in an alien and hostile world, he believed the human being must act. As for his own work, he wrote: "For a long while I treated my pen as sword; now I realize how helpless we are. It does not matter: I am writing. I shall write books; they are needed; they have use all the same. Culture saves nothing and nobody, nor does it justify. But it is a product of man; he projects himself through it and recognizes himself in it; this critical mirror alone shows him his images." He wanted to change the world and establish justice. Even those who disagreed with Sartre's philosophical ideals will admire his moral honesty, integrity, his self-searching and his deep sense of commitment, which have few comparisons.

[The New Nation , July 17, 1987]

The Philosophy of Albert Camus

In Albert Camus's philosophical and literary works the recognition of the absurdity of human existence is a central principle. The realization of the absurdity of human existence is a necessary condition for accomplishing anything in life. The absurdity of existence is best exemplified in the myth of Sisyphus, in which the gods have condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly roll a rock to the mountain peak. Every time Sisyphus pushes the rock up the slopes it falls back; nevertheless, he goes back to push it uphill. In spite of failing to reach his objective, he is resolutely committed to keep striving. The condition of Sisyphus dramatizes the perpetual meaninglessness, futility, and absurdity of human existence. This emptiness of life's actions and endeavors poignantly reveals the absurd.

In a world stripped of its illusions and false pretensions, the human being is an outside, who lives without any meaning. The human being is placed in a hopeless and void situation. This limiting reality leads the human being to encounter the absurd in every aspect of being, ranging from routine activities in life to unusual and unconventional circumstances. The consequent problem of suicide, arising from the absurd, is the core question in Camus' philosophy.

All human actions and thoughts develop in the void, in the midst of weariness and frustrations, irrelevancies, the bizarre, unconformities, illusions, and evasions, which make those actions and thoughts absurd. The human attempt to grasp the mechanism and the dynamics of the universe also turns into an absurd confrontation between the human being and his surroundings. Ironically the human being can only realize the absurdity of the universe in his attempt to comprehend it. This contradiction and this paradox of existence seem to be the sole reality that develops as a result of the universe's indifference to human existence.

Camus does not suggest that the universe is in itself hostile toward the human being. Rather the absurdity lies in the underlying discord in the relationship between the human being and the universe. The silence of the universe creates an eerie feeling in the human being which brings about a disappointing awareness that there can be no salvation from the external world, that the human being is alone and has been thrust into a universe where self-realization is the only road to freedom. The absurdity of the universe is not a given phenomenon; the human being realizes the sweeping absurdity of his being in the universe only when he perceives the nature of his existence. Thus, the human being discovers the absurdity of existence when he correctly perceives the universe.

Absurdity is a process which develops in the human being. It becomes a concrete attitude towards the universe in which the human being recognizes that there is no scope for transcendence and the objective structure of the universe does not accommodate an optimistic outlook. The human being encounters absurd walls that limit and trap him. Life always remains incomplete. This incompleteness of life makes it purposeless. In the routines and drills of life the human being is drowned by the mundane and morbid repetition of living day in, day out. The human being is totally estranged from everything else in the universe. This estrangement expresses itself in the physiological nausea and the subjective passion to be free. He is divorced from nature. He allows the flow of time, over which he has no control, to determine his life. Death appears as a seal in this unintelligible universe. Yet, he yearns for a distant tomorrow because he is unable to realize any value in his current mode of existence, in which everything has been reduced to mechanical functions that reproduce themselves. The universe is indifferent to the human efforts to be at home in the world.

Human life consists of its own absurdity and profound sickness. For the human being there is neither a promised land nor a utopia where all problems are resolved and the contradictions are harmonized. The human being is in a permanent exile and can never overcome his separation from the universe, and even from his own life, personal events, and society.

According to Camus, the human being has to directly and readily encounter the absurdity of the universe in all its aspects. For the human being the absurd is the real relationship arising from the dialectic unity of his nostalgia and the irrationality inherent in the universe. The absurdity of the human existence lies in its insecurity, its rejections, its agony, and its disappointments. There cannot be any escape to a transcendental level once the human being has realized the absurd. He cannot "leap" into the unknown, for there is nothing to rely and depend upon. He cannot transform the absurdity to eliminate its cardinal human dimension. He has no room for renunciations. For him any attempt to retreat from the absurd is but philosophical suicide because it seeks to impose a false purpose into the world that has no inherent meaning. Thus, the absurd may make the human being vulnerable, but this does not provide a justification for denying, or disguising, the abysmal life. His authentic consciousness of the presence of the absurd provides him with a lucid way to absorb and understand the despair of the universe. Hence, it is the solitary ability to heroically face the universe that entitle the human being, in spite of the absurdity of existence, to embrace life, instead of committing suicide.

For Camus, the consequences of the absurdity of human existence are clear. The human being is capable of knowing his situation. This self-knowledge does not mean that he can overcome the contradictions of the human situations. Rather his revolt does not seek to contradict or deny what he knows because he cannot escape from the paradox of the absence of meaning. Ironically, life thus becomes fruitful and dynamic. In the final analysis, life itself is the source of his freedom of being. Life's innumerable experiences provide the human being with fulfillment because he learns to live without pleas, hopes, or codes of behavior. By acknowledging the absurd, the human being virtually defines the constraints that threaten and entrap him. His admission of the absurdity of both particular and universal existence prepares him for assimilating, embracing, and envisioning life.

Camus argues that the revolt against the absurdity of the universe provides the creative tension and serves as the fountainhead of the human being's pride, renewal, and the capacity to struggle. The human being's consciousness enables him to cope with the despondency of existence, not through denial but through understanding. Nevertheless, the nature of the universe remains as absurd and enigmatic as ever because, for the human being, there are no rules, certainties, or rigid implications in life. The absurdity of existence does not provide the human being with a predetermined set of values and beliefs; it compels him to come to terms with the wide array of possibilities, and the conflicting demands that life makes on him. The absurdity of the universe allows the human being to affirm his knowledge and to gain control of his destiny. Like Sisyphus, the human being, due to his self-realization and conscious, does not stop his efforts because he faces an insurmountable challenge. According to the myth, Sisyphus invalidates the fate condemned for him by the gods because he is content to continue on with his eternal and exalted uphill situation, because he knows that his actions proceed from his own directions and freedom. Thus, his actions and thoughts, in the midst of the limiting and engulfing human situation, show his heroism, defiance, and courage.

[Holiday, January 18, 1991]


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