I have been reading (yes reading. You can stop laughing now) Walter Kaufman's "Existentialism - From Dostoevsky To Sartre", a wonderful thought provoking book on the philosophy of existentialism. Why I sought out this book and what I think of it is irrelevant to this post. What is relevant, is his scholarly insight into the stalwarts of the existentialist movement, the essence of their philosophy - its evolution and impact, and unmatched clarity of thought and presentation. I have distilled some passages from the afore mentioned book for the interested reader. All text in (bold) italics constitutes passages from the book while my fillers are in plain text. I urge the reader to chew on the general philosophy, savor the ideas and themes, relish it and bask in all its glory.
Kaufman introduces Existentialism with - "Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducable to any set of tenets." He presents various passages, essays and letters from philosophers and litterateurs who, in his opinion, influenced and shaped this movement. Of these scholars, he says "The three writers who appear invariably on every list of "existentialists" - Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre - are not in agreement on the essentials. Such alleged precursors as Pascal and Kierkegaard differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians...If, as is often done, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold then we must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism."
"The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic and remote from life - that is the heart of existentialism."
Though Kaufman has extensively translated, in his book, many essays from each of the philosophers he mentions, I am going to cull out, modifying the tone if the need arises and present excerpts to paint you, my interested reader, a pseudo-indivdualistic landscape of existentialism. I again urge the reader to savor and relish the myriad textures and hues of individuality that Kaufman, through the philosophy of existentialist giants, paints.
Of Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground", Kaufman opines "is the best overture for existentialism ever written. With inimitable vigor and finesse the major themes are stated here....." He goes on to say "...the drama of the mind that is sufficient to itself, yet conscious of its every weakness and determined to exploit it. What we perceive is an unheard of song of songs on individuality: not classical, not Biblical and not at all romantic. No, individuality is not re-touched, idolized or holy; it is wretched and revolting, and yet, for all its misery, the highest good." He points out an important trait of romanticism that contrasts itself sharply with core of existentialism - the celebration of the self, the individual with all its faults and shortcomings. "Romanticism is flight from the present, whether into the past, the future, or another world, dreams, or, most often, a vague fog. It is self deception. Romanticism yearns for deliverance from the cross of Here and Now; it is willing to face anything but the facts. No prize, however great, can justify an ounce of self deception or a small departure from the ugly facts. ....... Man's inner life, his moods, anxieties and decisions are moved into the center until, as it were, no scenery at all remains.... he [sic, the man whom Dostoevsky has created] believes neither in the original sin nor in God. For him, man's self will is not depravity; it is only perverse from the point of view of rationalists and others who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality.
I am sure the astute reader already sees a pattern emerging here - celebration of the self, the overlordship of individuality, atheist in nature, lengthy self observation and understanding and above all absolutely no self deception - the dark, grimy underside of human nature is celebrated with much the same gusto as love and happiness. In any celebration of individuality, the differences are stressed, studied and exphasized over the similarities. Also, interestingly, lengthy self observation and understanding oneself without any self deception affirms psychology as another concurrent theme in existentialism. Keep in mind Kaufman's words that existentialism cannot be reduced to some tenets. I leave you to contemplate these points. Their import will sink in only, in my opinion, with some inrospection. I will return to post more nuggets from the other existentialists that highlight other themes in existentialism, hopefully, broadening and pushing the boundaries of your consciousness.