Existentialism As A Writing Tool
Table of Contents
The Existential Writing Perspective
Writing opens us to a world generated in cognitive ether that, when authentic, links us in the benefit of humanity's understanding. Achieving this level of writing is not easy due to the need to strip away assumptions and unprovable beliefs. This honesty necessary to view life and the universe cannot be achieved by some individuals due to the terror of viewing the absurdity of everything ending as it begins: without purpose. For the aspiring writers the existential perspective is a powerful tool for truth seeking and unique, substantive thought.
Writing from an existential perspective involves delving into human existence through the lens of existentialist philosophy. Existentialist writers ask profound questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life – and assume nothing. They strip away religion, social conventions, and other beliefs to understand life has no inherent meaning through their philosophical inquiry. Arriving at this conceptual state, the existentialist writer must face three challenges.
One of the central themes in existentialist writing is absurdity. Existentialist writers assert that the world lacks inherent meaning or order, and individuals are constantly confronted with the absurdity of their own existence. Through their works, these writers portray characters who grapple with the senselessness of their circumstances, seeking significance and value in their actions despite the absence of any objective or rational justification.
Life has no inherent purpose, making individuals responsible for creating their own meaning and purpose. Existentialism emphasizes personal freedom, individual responsibility, and the power of choice in shaping one’s own existence. According to this philosophy, the universe does not provide any predetermined purpose or meaning; instead, individuals must actively construct their own sense of purpose through their actions and decisions.
Existentialist thinkers argue that the absence of inherent purpose allows individuals to embrace their freedom and take responsibility for their lives. By recognizing that they are not bound by external expectations or societal norms, individuals can define their own values and pursue goals that align with their authentic selves. This perspective encourages individuals to engage in self-reflection, explore their passions, and make deliberate choices that give their lives meaning.
It is important to note that existentialism does not deny the existence of subjective meaning or personal fulfillment. On the contrary, it emphasizes the significance of individual experiences and encourages individuals to find value in their own lives. The existentialist view acknowledges that while life may lack inherent purpose, individuals have the capacity to create meaningful and fulfilling lives through their own actions and choices.
Existential Dread (Angst)
Angst is a key concept in existentialist literature. Since existentialist philosophy views the world as absurd and irrational, without any objective or rational meaning, this insight leads to existential dread or angst. Angst is the feeling of anxiety, dread, or despair that comes from facing the absurdity of one’s own existence and realizing the freedom and responsibility for their choices. Since life has no predetermined purpose, characters experience existential angst when they question their existence and their choices in a meaningless world. Existentialist characters also face angst as they deal with the outcomes of their decisions, and existentialist writers portray these characters’ struggle with the absurdity of situations and life and try to find meaning and value in their actions.
One of the most famous and influential examples of existential angst in literature is The Stranger by Albert Camus. The novel tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian who is indifferent and detached from his surroundings and his relationships. He commits a murder without any apparent motive or remorse, and he faces a trial that exposes the absurdity and hypocrisy of society. He refuses to conform to the expectations and values of others, and he accepts his fate with a sense of freedom and authenticity. The novel explores the themes of absurdity, alienation, freedom, and death, and it challenges the reader to question their own assumptions and beliefs about life and meaning.
However, it is important to note that existentialism does not advocate for a pessimistic or nihilistic outlook. Instead, it encourages individuals to embrace their freedom and take responsibility for creating their own meaning and purpose. Existentialist thinkers argue that while life may lack inherent meaning, individuals have the capacity to find subjective meaning and fulfillment through their actions and choices. By embracing personal freedom and authenticity, individuals can navigate the absurdity of existence and create a sense of purpose that resonates with their own values and beliefs.
Authenticity is another prominent theme explored by existentialist writers. They believe that individuals should act in accordance with their true selves, values, and beliefs rather than conforming to external expectations or norms. Through their stories, these writers portray characters who strive for authenticity, challenging social, moral, or religious conventions that restrict their freedom and individuality.
The Existential Writer
Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most influential existentialist philosophers, coined the phrase "existence precedes essence." This expression encapsulates the existentialist perspective that human beings are defined by decisions and actions, not by a pre-existing nature. Existentialist writers often illustrate this concept by demonstrating how characters shape their own identities through their decisions and behaviors.
The Christian Existentialist
Christian existentialism is worth mentioning because of the seeming paradox created and how assumption can undermine existential thinking. If existence precedes essence, then humans define their essence (purpose, morality, etc.) via actions and decisions. Belief in a Christian God that created the universe contradicts this idea.
Christian existentialists answer this seeming paradox by claiming the universe is paradoxical because of their belief in the incarnation of God in the human form of Jesus Christ which unites two contradictory concepts: an immortal, transcendent being and a finite physical human. Thus, Jesus Christ becomes the paradoxical being that reflects the incomprehensible nature of God, Christ, and the universe since God created Christ and the universe.
Existence Precedes Essence: This idea, originated by Jean-Paul Sartre, posits that a person’s existence comes before their essence (their nature or characteristics). Sartre argued that humans, unlike inanimate objects, have no fixed or pre-determined nature. Instead, humans define their own nature through their actions and experiences.
Christian Existentialism: Christian existentialists, like Søren Kierkegaard, believe in the paradoxical union of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ. They argue that the universe is fundamentally paradoxical, and its greatest paradox is the transcendent union of God and humans in the person of Jesus Christ.
Reconciliation of the Paradox: Traditional Christianity posits that a person’s essence is predestined by God and precedes their existence3. This seems to contradict the existentialist idea that existence precedes essence. However, Christian existentialists might argue that while our physical existence precedes our essence, our spiritual essence (as beings created in the image of God) precedes our physical existence. This allows for the co-existence of faith in God and the belief that existence precedes essence.
Depending on how you perceive and interpret existentialism you might see this defining of Christian Existentialism as nothing more than an assumption. Kierkegaard assumed Christianity true and reversed existentialism's primary premise to fit his faith. This fallaciousness is common amongst Christians but more importantly, it eliminates many valuable considerations based on a highly implausible assumption of Christianity's truth.
If you believe Christianity, then what is the point existentially considering life since you already have the truth?
Non-Christian existentialists find more practical thoughts in the choice of existence. They emphasize personal freedom, individual responsibility, and deliberate choice as crucial elements in navigating an absurd and illogical world. Writing from an existential perspective offers a unique opportunity to delve into the depths of human existence. By exploring themes such as absurdity, angst, authenticity, and the idea that existence precedes essence, existentialist writers challenge readers to contemplate the complexities and uncertainties of life. Through their thought-provoking works, these writers invite us to reflect on our own values, choices, and the meaning found in our existence.
Prominent Existential Writers
- Søren Kierkegaard: A Danish theologian and philosopher.
- Friedrich Nietzsche: A German philosopher known for his anti-establishment views.
- Franz Kafka: A Czech writer famous for his short stories and novels.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Russian novelist and foundational figure of existentialism.
- Albert Camus: A French philosopher and author who founded Les Temps modernes with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
- Jean-Paul Sartre: A French philosopher, playwright, and novelist who made significant contributions to existentialism.
- Simone de Beauvoir: A French philosopher, anthropologist, and feminist who played a crucial role in the development of existentialist thought.
Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, but it includes some of the most influential figures associated with existentialism.