"Riders on the storm, riders on the storm, into this house we're born, into this world we're thrown, like a dog without a bone, like an actor out alone, riders on the storm". - The Doors, Riders on the Storm
Many years after its major figures have shuffled off their mortal coil, the philosophical movement known as existentialism remains as popular as ever, particularly with young folks. Intro to existentialism courses notoriously bring big numbers and big wait lists in philosophy departments, consistently outdrawing their more rational-analytic cousins down the hall. Why the enduring interest in this loose cast of characters who shared a mood and a variety of complaints, particularly with modernity and the modern rational mind? Why are we still so drawn to their work, and what value does it still have to offer us?
I think one of the reasons why many are still so drawn to the existentialists is they asked core questions about human existence that aren't going away any time soon, and they discovered aspects of ourselves (anxiety, dread, death fear, among others) that most of us have still barely come to grips with. They also challenged an epoch and its mentality- modernity- that's still the dominant organizing force of our globalized world, and they asked the fundamental question of "how should one live?" within this secular post death-of-God context. I always find a dip into the existentialists brings new openings, depths and oddities, and I suspect they'll remain worthy companions for a long time.
So on that note, the following is a hodge podge of resources around existentialism, a bricolage truly worthy of its name. The inspiration for this piece started with a fantastic recent podcast on existentialism over at Homebrewed Christianity, one of the best general introductions to the subject that I've heard. The interview is with the theologian Paul Capetz, and it's interesting to hear someone unpack the subject from a theological perspective. There's also a really rich section on the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote a seminal book called The Courage to Be (1952) which was a big influence on me in university and is a really great read. All in all, I think it's a podcast not to be missed, and I'd encourage the reader to listen to at least some of that before going into the following materials (although it's not necessary, but helps).
So because it felt a little thin to do a piece with just a single link to a podcast, I've gathered together some other materials in an attempt to create a general meditation on existentialism and some of its themes.
First up is a monologue on Jean-Paul Sartre from Robert Harrison's podcast Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature) (a favorite of many here at Beams). Harrison has done shows on many of the major figures in existentialism, and I've chosen a pair of clips for inclusion in this bricolage. The monologue proper begins at 4:24 (and I'd skip ahead to this mark). Harrison focuses on Sartre's understanding of human consciousness/interiority as something irreducible to matter, and on Sartre's penetrating analysis into the many ways we deceive ourselves, or live in what Sartre called "bad faith":
Next up is a scene from the epic film Waking Life, in which the philosophy professor Robert C. Solomon (one of the great translators of existentialist thought) talks about existentialism. I searched hard to find the video clip itself but it seems to have been pulled off the net, so here's a transcription of Solomon's speech. In it we again hear the themes of personal freedom and the responsibilities that come with it. And as Solomon notes, certain strands of postmodernism took their theories of social construction etc. too far, and in doing so diverted our attention away from this fundamental dimension of free choice and self-creation:
The reason I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I'm afraid we're losing the real virtues of living life passionately, a sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feeling good about life.
Existentialism is often discussed as if it's a philosophy of despair but I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre once interviewed said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. But one thing that comes out from reading these guys, is not a sense of anguish about life so much as a real kind of exuberance of feeling on top of it. It's like your life is yours to create.
I've read the postmodernists with some interest, even admiration, but when I read them I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more you talk about a person as a social construction or as confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses, and when Sartre talks about responsibility he's not talking about something abstract. He's not talking about the kind of self or soul the theologians would argue about. It's something very concrete. It's you and me talking. Making decisions. Doing things and taking the consequences.
It might be true that there's six billion people in the world and counting, nevertheless, what you do makes a difference. It makes a difference first of all in material terms, it makes a difference to other people and sets an example. In short I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces. It's always our decision who we are.
From here we move to the final section of the Entitled Opinions show on Friedrich Nietzsche. It begins in mid-stream with Harrison and his guest Andrew Mitchell talking about Nietzsche's concept of the eternal recurrence, which is a difficult and enigmatic concept, but it's not necessary to focus on here. There are other key themes that come out in the discussion, including an emphasis on process and becoming, Nietzsche's call for a heroic embrace of the fundamentally fluid nature of reality and ourselves. I think that Harrison's suggestion that this principle/recognition must also be extended to what it means to be an animal, is really profound. We also hear the theme of re-integrating the body-mind, an attempt to heal the split that was at the core of the modern mind. Before listening to the clip, I should also say that I don't agree with Mitchell's claim that we'll never escape the epoch of what Nietzsche called the Last Man. Moving beyond this decay ridden eddy of the modern world seems to be precisely what Nietzsche's whole project is all about, and I see no reason why the overcoming of this fate cannot be extended beyond just a few heroic individuals. Along with Harrison, I don't think it's the end of the story.
And last up is a clip I randomly came across yesterday, a video of Orson Welles narrating Kafka's famous parable "Before the Law" (which you can read in full here). I've always found this parable simultaneously totally unintelligible and highly alluring and provocative. But I suppose that's not surprising, because as Walter Kaufmann points out in his book Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, "Kafka went out of his way to rule out any possibility of one exclusive exegesis. Ambiguity is the essence of his art...That life lends itself to many different interpretations is of its essence". And on that note, enjoy your own personal encounter with this strange parable that emanated out of the existentialist ethos.