Never were we freer than under the German occupation.
With these ironic words, Jean-Paul Sartre drew a prelude to his article in The Atlantic Monthly – Dated: December 1944.
Why would a prominent French philosopher, under the boots of Nazi occupation, draw such ironical conclusions?
By these words, what Sartre meant, was other than the apparent freedoms, which we espouse. He, in his Existentialist foray, framed the answer to the most pressing question of humanity – What is the purpose of life?
Sartre elaborates, in the same piece – Nazi oppression made them live every moment, fully realizing – Man is Mortal. Their choices, as such, were Authentic; since these had to be made under the perpetual presence of death. Sartre remarked that this condition could be well explained in the formula - Rather Death Than...
The article, written seven decades ago, is fully impregnated with all the Existentialism signifies; and serves our purpose sufficiently. Existentialism summed Satre, in his seminal Existentialism is a Humanism, as - existence comes before essence. What did he mean? Unlike a book or a paper-knife (to quote his examples) – our life does not have a preordained purpose. It is not set into motion, before it actually sets motion. We exist and confront our being; only then do we decide upon what essence(s) we choose for ourselves. The basic condition of Man is meaningless and absurdity. But, we are also free – nausea, ennui, angst, are what we feel with the questions we have and the cold silence of the universe. This though, can be remedied by our passionate acceptance of the absurd and a task to live authentically – to embrace our fate and freedom, and make conscious choices in the directions consistent with our values. We are not what our circumstances make us – that is Bad Faith! – We are what we make of our circumstances. We are our choices!
Nazi occupation was crippling and soul-sucking – Nonetheless, it did offer one opportunity – The realisation that our time is limited. That we must live to realise our freedom, and to become what we espouse – Authenticity! In the face of death, we must truly discover what we are: Rather Death Than....? How you fill in that blank, describes who you really are!
These happen to be some of the very common denominators of Existentialism. Embodying a wide array of thought; ranging from Philosophy to Literature, to Psychology and lately Entertainment Media – Existentialism essentially expresses an understanding of the position of Man in the Universe, as a sheer absurdity. Man cannot find meaning, as there exists none - He must create it! There lies the essential freedom and responsibility to be gallant, creative and authentic.
Building on - Another French philosopher, Albert Camus, begins his Myth of Sisyphus, with shivering words:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
He explicates, Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
Existentialism, par excellence! The first, and foremost, decision we make every morning is to live – To come out of our beds and carry on living. What we do with our time – family chores, love, hate, politics, philosophy or sport is all secondary. The primary question is – Is it worth it? Should I live? I reply, yes! This is our first act of rebellion, against an ‘ill-fated’ existence. We decide that our individual lives are worth living – to provide it meaning, follows as our prime purpose.
The aforementioned essay, in itself, is devoted to a mythological figure – Sisyphus; whom the divine order subjects to eternal punishment - He would have to push a rock up a mountain; upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving Sisyphus to start over. The task is not daunting; it is meaningless – That is where the punishment lies! Camus finds this as the existential condition of man. But, he also believes, despite the apparent lack of meaning, for an outsider; Sisyphus must find meaning by being passionately in love with his absurd condition; creating his own purpose and meaning, in what apparently seems to be an insufferable condition. Sisyphus, even under divine wrath, rebels – He, teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.
His rebellion is to create meaning out of absurdity -
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.
Camus seals the point -
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Existentialism has two faces – one leading to another. The premise is that there is no inherent meaning to life, the conclusion is to create it – consistent to the point of fidelity; thereby living an authentic life: A life that is not conditioned on the prefabricated notions of society; a life that is not designed by the sheer time and place of our birth. Rather, a life that is lived, knowing fully that we are free in all the decisions we make. And those decisions make who we are. Like a painter with a blank canvass and infinite colours - We paint the absurdity of our life by the choice of our decisions. The point is to dare and create!
In an industrial world, while freedoms are flaunted, advertised and envied – One may well ask, how free are the free? The bourgeoisie world offers fewer freedoms and more advertisements for freedoms. They sell freedom, precisely in order to curtail it. From his very birth to his death – Man is conditioned to be a good factory worker – Society values it, industry incentivises it and schooling indoctrinates it. There is a semblance of freedom to choose, but the purviews of those freedoms are strictly within the confines of what a Capitalist order can afford a worker; without going bankrupt. Existentialism can well light a path away from this spiritual drudgery. Its ideas (particularly the plots of its novels) may seem dark and hopeless – But, what it essentially aims is to draw our attention to the condition of Man. Once known, he encounters himself to the fullest – with zest and creativity – My will be done!
Allow me to end it on a lighter note - From a popular show – A child prodigy gets overwhelmed by the scepticism of his Philosophy Teacher; to the point that he stops doing anything. On inquiring, he answers if everything is subject to Philosophical scepticism - What is the point? The Teacher gracefully replies that you are asking the right question, but in the wrong way. What you should be asking is not, what is the point? You should ask ‘What...is the point!!!
That, I believe, sums up everything!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.