Is Existentialism Extinct?

Not from where I sit in my writing space, cursed with a degree in philosophy and pulling the strings of motivation on my characters.

Existentialism is alive and well in every story of mine because of the simple fact that it is the only philosophical concept that, in my opinion, explains the human experience.

Here’s a quick primer for all of you who opted for a more practical college degree:

The philosophical concept that the act of thinking begins with the human subject, but not merely a thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. While most point to the supreme value of existentialist thought as the attainment and expression of freedom, the true apex of human existence is the virtue of authenticity. Authenticity is borne of our choices and not predetermined by our genes or any divine orchestration. In the view of an existentialist, an individual is cursed with a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless and/or absurd world.

I came to my existential leanings having made a pivotal and life-altering choice. When I went to buy my textbooks for my first semester of college classes, I turned down the philosophy aisle and saw a bright blue book with the words “Either/Or” on the spine. Apart from being a thought-provoking title, the author was some guy with a slash through the “o” in his first name and two “a” in a row in his last: SØREN KIERKEGAARD.

I bought the book, initially to appear esoteric and a little quirky. I thought about how cool “Either/Or” would look pinned between “Introduction to Psychology” and “Biology” on my book shelf. And then, I started reading it.

For fun.

(Side note: I was a psych major when I arrived at college. After a nicotine/caffeine-fueled all-nighter with a grad student studying ethics and freewill, I switched majors.)

What would Kierkegaard say about this choice to buy his book? He’d say that my choice was driven by an expression of my authentic self: it was part of my essential nature to be inclined to read existentialism and my subsequent adoption of the tenets of the philosophy was a confirmation of my essence.

And then there was Sartre, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche: all of them layering their thoughts onto the Kierkegaard.

The Absurd, Facticty, The Other, Authenticity: all of these constructs bring explanation and, frankly, confusion to the world as we “know” it — provided the knowing encompasses acting, feeling, and living.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time reading these dead white guys, and of course Simone de Beauvoir. My favorite movies have existential themes: American Beauty, A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, Shawshank Redemption. Woody Allen and Wes Andserson are existentialist directors. The writings of Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison, Samuel Beckett, David Foster Wallace, Jack Kerouac,  and Charles Bukowski: all existentialists. And my favorite poet: T.S. Eliot. He, too, writes in an existential voice.

So perhaps my membership in this club is authentically and essentially chosen. But I’ll tell you what: my ongoing, interior struggle with the Absurd and the search for Meaning not only keeps the volume up on my brain chatter but also my fingers moving over the keyboard. And later this morning, I will infuse a little more Fear and Anxiety into a character who might just prefer to be left alone.

3 thoughts on “Is Existentialism Extinct?

  1. In my early twenties, I went through a brief “existential” period. I read a few books by Camus, dyed my hair black and smoked cigarettes. But I wasn’t a real student of the philosophy, and decided, ultimately, that it wasn’t my “authentic self”, at least the outer trappings that I’d taken on. If asked, I’m agnostic, but deep down, wonder at the absurdity of it all.

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