Pessimistic Existentialism (pt. 3)

from Feb 11, 2009 Category: Articles

(Continued from Pessimistic Existentialism (pt. 2))

Theater of the Absurd
European films, such as those of Ingmar Bergman, Antonini, and Fellini have communicated some of the motifs of existentialism. The “theater of the absurd,” a phenomenon that began in France in the 1950s and came to Broadway in the 1960s, was another vehicle of existentialism.

The theater of the absurd gained prominence with Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. In this play, two vagrants pass the time while waiting for the unidentified Godot. But Godot never arrives. Godot is a thinly veiled characterization of God. The idea is that modern man lives in the absence of God. He waits for God, but God never shows up.

Beckett began writing in the early 1930s. His works portray man as an absurd and pathetic creature who lives in a meaningless, unintelligible universe. His best known novels include MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable.

The theater of the absurd went to such extremes that in some of the later productions, the actors would come out on the stage and utter unintelligible sounds over and over. They were saying (or more precisely, “babbling”) that man has reached such a degree of irrationality that even human speech is no longer intelligible. There is no meaning to life. Meaning traditionally is communicated by words or by pictures that are easy to understand. The new message was: Life is meaningless. It is not a symphony; it’s a cacophony. There is nothing that brings the universe together in a coherent fashion. Our universe is speeding away from rationality towards irrationality.

Religious movements also sprang up that embraced existential principles. Zen Buddhism was one such movement. It was the first significant penetration into Western culture from oriental religions. Zen is not pure Buddhism but an existential variety. In Zen, a person is to discipline his mind so that he can come into touch with his inner self. The person is to seek intuitive understanding of a larger “awareness.” Yet this awareness yields the conclusion that life is irrational. It cannot be found in orderly systems. God is one hand clapping.

William Barrett has written an important study on existentialism which is one of the best introductions that I know of for the layman. It is not light reading nor is it simple, but it avoids the technical. It is titled Irrational Man, and I commend it to you. In it, Barrett makes this statement: “When mankind no longer lives spontaneously turned toward God or the super-sensible world—when, to echo the words of Yeats, The ladder is gone by which we would climb to a higher reality—the artist too must stand face to face with a flat and inexplicable world. This shows itself even in the formal structures of modern art. Where the movement of the spirit is no longer vertical but only horizontal, the climactic elements in art are in general leveled out, flattened.”

What Barrett is saying is that the connection between earth and heaven has vanished. The vertical sphere, the upward dimension, is no longer the concern of the artist. Man is trapped in this horizontal dimension. (Does this sound familiar from our earlier discussion of secularism?)

One may see what appear to be bizarre forms of modern art. Consider cubism, for example. Look at Picasso’s guitars with their strange shapes. See a face with three noses or three eyes. We may respond to such distortions by exclaiming, “That doesn’t make sense to me.” The artist would respond by saying, “That’s because I’m compressing life and flattening it so that we understand that all of life must be understood on the horizontal level.”

In the film industry the existentialist viewpoint brought a noticeable shift in plots and storylines. It used to be that the drama and the pathos of pain and death were followed by a happy ending. When I was a boy the Saturday afternoon matinees featured the likes of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. I could always tell who the good guy was because he wore a white hat and he won in the end. He was noble, virtuous, and idealistic.

Hollywood picked up on the existentialist theme and began producing films of despair. The heroes began to wear black hats. A new era of realism was ushered in on Marlon Brando’s motorcycle. The hero became an antihero. War was no longer glamorized. Vietnam had no place for John Wayne or Van Johnson. The Green Berets were no longer “Fighting Leathernecks.” War was viewed in terms of Catch-22and M*A*S*H. The ultimate meaninglessness of life was communicated by Antonini’s Blow Up and the Jane Fonda featureThey Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

The most obvious change in films came with respect to sex and violence. Here the passions of man were deromanticized. It was a long way from the “scandalous” suggested rape in Duel in the Sun, and the beach scene in From Here to Eternity to Deep Throat and The Devil and Miss Jones. Sex changed from an integral part of love to a base animal drive. Graphic violence made an obvious transition from The House of Frankenstein to Scarface.

The film Rocky seemed like an anachronism. For a moment audiences breathed a sigh of relief as some good news came down. The old American dream was rekindled by the Italian Stallion whose dreams and aspirations did not end in despair. Adrianne’s admonition, “Win, Rocky!” was a throwback to earlier days. The nostalgia went on withChariots of Fire, a study in contrast to the normal Hollywood fare.

Another theme that appears frequently in existentialism is captured by the German word Angst (anxiety). Modern philosophers have done extensive investigation into the human feelings of anxiety. These are not specific anxieties such as a fear of flying or a fear of heights or of closed-in spaces. Those are traditional fears that have specifications attached to them. The Angst about which the philosopher speaks is an undefined, faceless, amorphous type of anxiety which hangs over us and eats away at us. We can’t really put our finger on what it is that is unsettling us inside.

The most important philosopher who has dealt with this anxiety is the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In 1927 Heidegger wrote one of the most important books of our century, titled Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). We traditionally use the word for being to describe the life of a person; he’s a human being. The German word for “being” is sein. Heidegger does not talk about sein. Instead, he talks about dasein. In German the prefix da means “presence.” It can be used to mean “here to there.” Heidegger doesn’t speak simply about human beings; he talks about human beings here or human beings there—here a being, there a being, everywhere a being. The idea that he stresses is that the life of every human being is defined by its finite boundaries, where he is. He lives his life not in the theater of eternity; he lives it in Philadelphia, Paris, Berlin, or wherever he is. We use statements like, “Here’s where it’s at.” Our life is defined by where we are. In the big picture, Heidegger uses another German word that is very graphic. He said that the reason man experiences anxiety and dread is that man lives in his finite boundaries as a result of what Heidegger calls the experience of “throwness.”

Modern man experiences being thrown into existence. We can go to our family Bibles and discover that we were born on a particular day at a particular time in a particular place. We try to convince ourselves that we came into being by an orderly process. But our experience suggests that the process was not really orderly. We feel like we were hurled into the world, just thrown into it. We had no choice about where we were born or who our parents would be. Our existence may be compared to a baby who is thrown into a turbulent sea and told to “sink or swim.”

Man has been hurled into an impersonal universe where nobody is at home. We are expected to carve out our own existence and live between twin poles of nothingness. We come from nothing and we are destined for annihilation. We understand this intuitively. It eats away at us; we’re afraid to talk about it. It produces Angst, a nagging anxiety about who we are and why we’re here. We are concerned about it, but we see no solution to it.

A final theme found in existentialism is that of freedom in an absolute sense. As Nietzsche’s Superman creates a master morality so the existential person must carve out his own destiny by being morally autonomous. He must learn to be a law unto himself. He need not submit to norms because there are no norms. He must have the courage to “do his own thing.” He is not only free to do his own thing; he is responsible to do his own thing.

Authentic man” looks into the pit of despair, into the black void of nothingness, and sees that life is hopeless and meaningless. Nevertheless, he chooses not to succumb to it or surrender to it by seeking the safety of the group and its conventional values and institutions. Instead, he has the courage to exercise his own absolute freedom. He takes sole responsibility for his actions.

The courage for such decisions is a strange sort of courage. The existentialist calls it “dialectical courage.” A dialectic involves a severe tension, a tension provoked by an irreconcilable contradiction. Dialectical courage, then, means “contradictory courage.” It is contradictory because it follows a bizarre sort of syllogism:

Life is meaningless.
We must face life with courage.
Our courage is meaningless.

We are called to heroic acts of courage with the full knowledge that such acts of courage are themselves meaningless.

*****

This is part ten of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.