The other day I was struck by how fond I have become with existentialist literature. That might be one of the most pretentious sentences I’ve ever written, but so be it. I recently finished reading The Trial by Franz Kafka (amazon.ca), a fascinating book, and it deals with many existentialist themes. Kafka loved to write absurdist fiction (the cousin of existentialism)—evidenced by the fact that people now refer to absurd situations as “Kafkaesque”.
The Trial is about a man named Josef K. (the reader never learns his full last name), who is arrested one morning by a couple officials who don’t seem to really know much about why they are arresting him. From there, K. attends a court hearing, during which he never learns what he is being charged with, and proceeds to attempt different methods to resolve his case, all of which end in failure of some sort or another. K. repeatedly runs into the bewildering bureaucracy of this strange court system, which has lawyers who write pleas without knowing the charges laid, which has judges that write reports and send them off never to hear about them again, and which has cases that stagger on for years and never seem to actually produce a verdict. Kafka brings the reader along on a journey that winds up being largely a wild goose chase—and that is exactly the point.
In this book, Kafka explores the futility of value judgments in life. The protagonist learns that very few (if any) cases actually end up in acquittal; one source he talks to mentions that the only real options are “apparent acquittal”, in which the case seems to be resolved but then at some point in the unknown future, it will typically be picked up again by some judge who finds it still unresolved, and the whole process is started again; and “deferment”, in which the case is simply kept going in continual circles. The futility is immediately apparent, and yet K. is drawn into the process. At first he brushes it off, stating that the trial is unimportant. But as the novel progresses, he is continually pushed further and further into the downward spiral, taking on more and more responsibility for seeing his case to its conclusion. One gets the sense that, somewhere deep down, K. knows the inevitability of his guilt. But still he strives onward, taking very little heed of the endpoint—and in the end it seems he is simply continuing the process for its own sake.
Daring to Ask the Question
Existentialism in general explores these very same themes. The primary subject is the meaning of life; but many existentialist authors and philosophers do not really start at this point. Instead, they start at the question which stares us straight in the face: “What happens if there is no meaning to life?” Often we don’t appreciate thinking about this question. It is a question which we normally reserve only for those nights which we lay on the grass and stare up at the stars (either literally or metaphorically). It is one which we normally push off, except for those broad-minded yet brief moments when we remove ourselves from the routines of daily existence and look at the larger scope. These existentialists, though, start at that point and move forwards with passion. They say, “Let’s assume life has no meaning; now what?” At times, their conclusions look bleak and depressing. But if one really spends time among the words of these philosophers, one finds that their search generally results in a passionate exaltation of freedom and a celebration of the human condition.
I find these existentialists refreshing. It’s not that I necessarily agree with them that life is meaningless or that value judgments are futile. But I find it refreshing that they actually face the problem head-on. They bravely ask that question and offer an answer. Like I said, a lot of times we push off the question of meaning, or else we only ask it in a superficial sense so that we can reassure ourselves with the answers we’ve been told to recite: “God gives meaning to life,” or “Meaning is found in doing good to others,” or “Values are found in the shared experience of society.” But these are not answers. They are evasions. They are not attempts to answer the question—they are attempts to avoid the question altogether! If we reassure ourselves that life does, indeed, have meaning, we sidestep the need to ask the question, “But what if it doesn’t?” But this question, I believe, is central to the human condition. We can’t see or feel or hear the meaning in the world. If it is out there, it is only there in some indefinable sense, like a whisper that one hears but just can’t quite make out the words. Meaning only comes to us once we’ve convinced ourselves that it is already there. But if we don’t face the stark possibility of a meaningless world, we are living in delusion. Even if, in the end, the meaning was actually there, we’ve still come about it in the wrong way, and believed it for the wrong reasons. But these existentialists, in their courage, dare to ask the question, and show the world in its naked, raw power, devoid of all the smokescreens and cognitive filters that we have put up to obscure the view. Existentialism is refreshing because it dares to ask the question no one wants to ask.
Depression or Defiance?
But what of their conclusions? Sartre described a world of nothing but pure “existence”, the forms and content of which are only produced by us. We force meaning upon the world, and we create the objects that we see. Camus envisioned a struggle against the absurdity1 of the world. He believed that a person must confront the absurdity head-on, recognizing even the futility of this act, and yet defiantly act anyway. What depressing statements! Or are they? Sartre spoke of the absolute freedom of humanity. We might be stuck here in a meaningless world, but we are free to create our own meaning. In fact, we must create our own meaning. Camus had a similar viewpoint. It is in the futile struggle against absurdity that we create our meaning. We take on goals and projects not because of some duty or necessity, but for their own sake. We do these things because we want to do them, because they are meaningful to us. Existentialist philosophy is only depressing on the surface, because it deals with the most depressing of all questions. But their answers to the question reveal a flowering of beautiful creative energy and human freedom. They describe the empowerment of human nature, even amidst the ultimate dis-empowering state of the universe. Within this futile world where death awaits us all, we yet have a brief moment of time to create something new and create ourselves as conscious beings.
So even though I do believe that there is still a way to salvage some absolute meaning and moral value, I appreciate the input that existentialist thinkers have had. I find immense comfort in the fact that someone has dared to challenge the great question, that there are people out there willing to stare into the face of the abyss. It is a refreshing divergence from religious texts which claim to have all the answers, from cultural values which claim authority, and from tedious routines which serve only to keep us from pondering more impressive mysteries. I would encourage all of you who are reading this to make this same journey through the fires of existentialism. But if you do, do it honestly. Set aside your evasive answers and take the dark journey through the absurd. If you come out on the other side with your answers intact, you will still be all the better off for it.
- By “absurd”, he meant something more than just “weird” or “crazy”, but rather a conflict between humanity’s search for meaning and the inability to find any. [↩]