Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Heart Of Existentialism Pt. 1

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.


Anonymous said...

The Individual(or is it the indivisible self) alone cannot exist without the 'saara' this society provides and still the Individual keeps away from Society. This is not sustainable and so the self calls that twilight zone ( being alone but not in touch with society or vice-versa) as Existentialism.

Having no school of thought or unbranded by society would mean thatthere existed some semblance/order that the individual revolts against. How would this revolt, this misdirected energy be constructive?. by the mere fact that it is devoted to Self Help and in analysing the actions of a few to retain order among many.

I'm no Bot but this passage is an existential rant that might massage the Guy who is in too deep. ;-).

BTW- Nice Photos. Sya something about your Geo-caching exploits. that way we can get vicarious pleasures that are more in 'sync' than your Metal/Rock interests.

The Expert on this is Samba:

Tejaswi said...

It's become a fun exercise for me, almost - to pick up Being and Nothingness, and read a random paragraph, and see how much of it makes sense.

I have rarely seen a book, or an author, who can make simple writing so complicated - as in, writing in simple language, but still making it so difficult to read. I guess that is because of the proliferation of words like "I", "it", "that", "be", "is", "are", and others of that ilk, and how they are not used as mere connectives, but are used in themselves, to mean what they are, and the meaning of what they are, is what they are supposed to mean. Man, I can't believe I wrote that.

Book not available in India, sadly. But after reading some of Camus's works, I was under the impression that I was an existentialist. But was not sure what I was not, by the very virtue of my being an existentialist. Did I cease being an optimist? pessimist? Nihilist? cynic? Romantic? Byronic? Seems like these are endemic to some Asterix book.

Anyway, will wait for more snippets and opinions on this.

Emperor Frost said...

Will post replies to your comments in a day or two :-)

Emperor Frost said...

"The Individual(or is it the indivisible self) alone cannot exist without the 'saara' this society provides and still the Individual keeps away from Society. This is not sustainable and so the self calls that twilight zone ( being alone but not in touch with society or vice-versa) as Existentialism."

If I get your drift, you are saying that the individual is the reflection of society? and by calling unsustainable, any attempt to stay away from society it seems to me that you disapprove(?) of existentialism because it is your opinion that existentialism negates (and is harmful as a consequence) the individual because your definition of the individual is tied to the society. Lets, for the duration of the argument, call your man - SambaMan. SambaMan is defined by his connections to society, he is an embodiment of the society's values and virtues. He is "plugged" into society. His individuality is defined based on society, i.e., built according to and on principles that a group agress on and holds dear. You already must see where this is going - a man is his own making. There are definite contributions from society to his development but his identity is his own to forge. And defining oneself sometimes takes you (atleast partly) against the flow. Existentialists are all united in censuring, in the the strictest of words, any sort of self deception during this stage of finding your calling. Going against the flow pits you against the general will of society - can be viewed as inflammatory, belligerent and disrespectful. The attitude of seeking out that is accepted as a given (one of the stronger points of western philosophy including exitentialism) has been frowned upon by tradition and tradition is one of the many pillars on which society is structured. In my opinion, existentialism has nothing to do with being away and losing touch with society. It is about defining oneself by viewing oneself in absolute, in perfect vacuum and celebrating what you see - the self in all glory and wretchedness.

All judgements are reserved because judgements imply an underlying belief system and if you are using one endorsed by society, then the colored glass through which the self is viewed can be quite damning.

Your second point is more interesting - ".....How would this revolt, this misdirected energy be constructive?" Often it isn't because in this new found freedom of self understanding and expression, a mature self fares better. By mature self, I refer to the better philosopher, the better psychologist amongst us. Interestingly, even larger than life existentialists like Nietzsche and a couple of others died in their own madness, contributed to by their isolation. "...analysing the actions of a few to retain order among many." - these are how traditions are built aren't they?

I dont understand what you mean by geo-caching exploits - do you mean travel?

in any case, welcome to my blog.