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June 21, 2012
Remember the guys with the beards and the girls with short-cropped hair, who sat until the wee small hours in coffee shops, discussing the meaningless of life?
Which now seems to be returning, from being and nothingness.
For the uninitiated, Existentialism goes back 100 years to Sören Kierkegaard, the lonely Danish theologian who was obsessed by the one tragic question: How is human existence possible?
In the face of the 19th Century's positivism that arrogantly asserted the triumph of man, he had the tragic answer:
“…Man exists not as an individual but only as an irrelevant member of a species; in eternity it is only the individual who exists, without society, in ultimate loneliness…with only God as salvation.”
1927. German Philosopher Martin Heidegger says in “Being and Time,” that “man’s understanding of this nothingness leads him to choose the only unconditioned and insurmountable possibility that belongs to him: death.”
(You can understand why Shakespeare’s light comedies were in such demand then.)
Friedrich Neitzsche killed off God, in only three words: “God is dead.” And sees the necessity for the emergence of a Superman or Overman to save us all.
While Kierkegaard evoked God, Neitzsche replaced God. Jean Paul Sartre, the diminutive pipe-smoking Frenchman who almost singlehandledly kept existentialism alive, concluded God is irrelevant, and us humans are relevant only if we do something relevant.
“Man is free to act, but he must act to be free. If he fails to choose a social or political line of action, he is not a Being; he is Nothingness."
And if you want to get at Sartre’s self-acknowledged essence there is, "You are your life and nothing else," which was said by a figure in his play, “Huis Clos.” Better known to American audiences, as "No Exit." (Just make sure there is an exit in the theater you're seeing it in.)
Delmore Schwartz, the American poet, said it somewhat differently. “Existentialism means that no one else can take a bath for you.”
And Popeye probably nailed it, when he said, “I am what I am.”
Albert Camus, who wanted to be known as a thinker not an Existentialist, contributed, “I rebel, therefore we exist.” (I’m glad he included us in the discussion.)
So...are we doomed to a nihilistic existence of being and nothingness? Does life have any purpose? Is man one of God’s blunders? Or is God one of man’s blunders. Is hope dead? Are we still worthy even if we don’t reform anything but ourselves? Is taking out the garbage meaningful? Is anything?
Put your existentialist hats on—we’re about to have an existential discussion. Don’t worry, we’ll talk each other through it.