From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Existentialism is a philosophical movement in which individual human beings are understood as having full responsibility for creating the meanings of their own lives. It is a reaction against more traditional philosophies, such as rationalism and empiricism, which sought to discover an ultimate order in metaphysical principles or in the structure of the observed world. The movement had its origins in the 19th century philosophy of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and was prevalent in Continental philosophy in the 20th century. In the 1940s and 1950s, French philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus wrote scholarly and fictional works that helped to popularize themes associated with existentialism: angst, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, [and] nothingness.
Existentialism first appeared in English in 1941 from Ger. Existentialismus (1919), ultimately from Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), who wrote (1846) of Existents-Forhold ("condition of existence").
Influence outside philosophy
Film and television
Existential themes have been evident throughout 20th century cinema. Many films portray characters going through the "existential dilemma" or existential problems. Existential movies are those which have plots that deal with subjects such as dread, boredom, nothingness, anxiety, alienation and the absurd.
A number of 1940s and 1950s-era films explored existential themes, including the US film noir genre, which explored the ambiguous moral dilemmas of people drawn into the gangster underworld. Film noirs tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic heroes of noir are described by many critics as "alienated" and "filled with existential bitterness." (Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style). Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The movies are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt. Classic film noir has been associated by many critics with the American social landscape of the era—in particular, with a sense of heightened anxiety and alienation that is said to have followed World War II.
The French director Jean Genet's 1950 fantasy-erotic film Un chant d'amour shows two inmates in solitary cells whose only contact is through a hole in their cell wall, who are spied on by the prison warden. Reviewer James Travers calls the film a, "...visual poem evoking homosexual desire and existentialist suffering," which "... conveys the bleakness of an existence in a godless universe with painful believability"; he calls it "... probably the most effective fusion of existentialist philosophy and cinema."
Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory "illustrates, and even illuminates...existentialism" by examining the "necessary absurdity of the human condition" and the "horror of war". The film tells the story of a fictional World War I French army regiment ordered to attack an impregnable German stronghold; when the attack fails, three soldiers are chosen at random, court-martialed by a "kangaroo court", and executed by firing squad. The film examines existentialist ethics, such as the issue of whether objectivity is possible and the "problem of authenticity".
On the lighter side, the British comedy troupe Monty Python have explored existentialist themes throughout their works, from many of the sketches in their original television show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, to their 1983 film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Some contemporary films dealing with existentialist issues include Fight Club, I ♥ Huckabees, Waking Life, The Matrix, Ordinary People, and Life in a Day. Likewise, films throughout the 20th century such as The Seventh Seal, Ikiru, Taxi Driver, High Noon, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Groundhog Day, Apocalypse Now, Badlands, and Blade Runner also have existentialist qualities.
The film, The Matrix, has been compared with another movie, Dark City where the issues of identity and reality are raised. In Dark City, the inhabitants of the city are situated in a world controlled by demiurges, much like the prisoners in Plato's cave, in which prisoners see a world of shadows reflected onto a cave wall, rather than the world as it actually is.
Notable directors known for their existentialist films include Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Hideaki Anno, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen. Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York focuses on the protagonist's desire to find existential meaning. Similarly, in Kurosawa's Red Beard, the protagonist's experiences as an intern in a rural health clinic in Japan lead him to an existential crisis whereby he questions his reason for being. This, in turn, leads him to a better understanding of humanity.
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) (now republished as Blade Runner) 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 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Michel Foucault, Franz Kafka, Friedrich 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 one often finds in their works 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." (In French, "L'enfer, c'est les autres"). 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. Samuel Beckett, once asked who or what Godot is, replied, "If I knew, I would have said so in the play." To occupy themselves, the men 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 human experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can be reconciled only in the 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.
Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdist tragicomedy first staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966. The play 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 of 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 B.C. In English, it is often distinguished from its antecedent by being pronounced in its original French form, approximately "Ante-GŌN." The play was first performed in Paris on 6 February 1944, during the Nazi occupation of France. 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). The parallels to the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation have been drawn. Antigone rejects life as desperately meaningless but without affirmatively choosing a noble death. The crux of the play is the lengthy dialogue concerning the nature of power, fate, and choice, during which Antigone says that she is, "... disgusted with [the]...promise of a humdrum happiness." She states that she would rather die than live a mediocre existence.
Critic Martin Esslin in his book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existentialist belief that we are absurd beings loose 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 Ionesco 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.
Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy
A major offshoot of existentialism as a philosophy is existentialist psychology and psychoanalysis, which first crystallized in the work of Otto Rank, Freud's closest associate for 20 years. Without awareness of the writings of Rank, Ludwig Binswanger was influenced by Freud, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. A later figure was Viktor Frankl, who briefly met Freud and studied with Jung as a young man. His logotherapy can be regarded as a form of existentialist therapy. The existentialists would also influence social psychology, antipositivist micro-sociology, symbolic interactionism, and post-structuralism, with the work of thinkers such as Georg Simmel and Michel Foucault. Foucault was a great reader of Kierkegaard even though he almost never refers this author, who nonetheless had for him an importance as secret as it was decisive.
An early contributor to existentialist psychology in the United States was Rollo May, who was strongly influenced by Kierkegaard and Otto Rank. One of the most prolific writers on techniques and theory of existentialist psychology in the USA is Irvin D. Yalom. Yalom states that
Aside from their reaction against Freud's mechanistic, deterministic model of the mind and their assumption of a phenomenological approach in therapy, the existentialist analysts have little in common and have never been regarded as a cohesive ideological school. These thinkers - who include Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Eugène Minkowski, V.E. Gebsattel, Roland Kuhn, G. Caruso, F.T. Buytendijk, G. Bally and Victor Frankl - were almost entirely unknown to the American psychotherapeutic community until Rollo May's highly influential 1985 book Existence - and especially his introductory essay - introduced their work into this country.
A more recent contributor to the development of a European version of existentialist psychotherapy is the British-based Emmy van Deurzen.
Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often offer existentialist philosophy as an explanation for anxiety. The assertion is that anxiety is manifested of an individual's complete freedom to decide, and complete responsibility for the outcome of such decisions. Psychotherapists using an existentialist approach believe that a patient can harness his anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, patients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve his full potential in life. Humanistic psychology also had major impetus from existentialist psychology and shares many of the fundamental tenets. Terror management theory, based on the writings of Ernest Becker and Otto Rank, is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people confronted with the knowledge that they will eventually die.
- Abandonment (existentialism)
- Existential despair
- Existential humanism
- Meaning of Life
- Human, All Too Human (TV series)
- The Ister (film)
- Meaning (existential)