Home: Scrying: Existentialism: A light look
I first encountered existentialism in the early 90’s, when I was an angst-filled teen, drowning my sorrows in dark music. (Since I already dated myself by mentioning my birthday yesterday, and now with this flashback, I might as well post a photo from the early 90’s as well.) My parents were amused by my “death rock“ phase, and made sure to tease me at every opportunity. (I know, now, as a parent myself, that was their prerogative.) Well, one day, I’d bought the latest album from the Sisters of Mercyand was sitting in my room, listening to Andrew Elderitch lament “I don’t exist when you don’t see me.” My mother came in, and chuckled.
“He sounds like a reverse existentialist,” she said.
“Huh?” said my naive 14-year-old self.
“Well, instead of the world around him not truly existing, as an existentialist would say, he doesn’t exist when the world isn’t there.”
I was intrigued, but didn’t want her to know this, and so made some snide comment and turned up the music. Later, I started researching the subject, only to become more confused. How could the world not really exist? And what does that have to do with depressing, uncontrollable changes like Kafka described? Frustrated, I pushed the subject aside, and decided to find more light-hearted things to do.
So, I went to the movies with my parents. I recall everyone loved the movie, City Slickers; we spent the car ride home singing Billy Crystal’s version of “Rawhide.” Another decade would pass before I would realize that the movie answered my questions on existentialism.
When I returned to the question “What is existentialism?”, I came better prepared. Ten or years experience in the real world, starting a family, and returning to college as an adult gave me a more serious perspective. Of course, not so serious that I wouldn’t use City Slickers to explain existentialism in a paper:
Comedy may seem an unlikely source for philosophic wisdom, but was nevertheless found in the 1991 film, City Slickers. Curly (Jack Parlance) and Mitch (Billy Crystal) were driving cattle across a dusty range, when Curly posed a question that would change Mitch’s life. “You know what the secret of life is?” he asked. After Mitch admitted he did not, Curly held up a single leather-gloved finger. “This,” he said.
“Your finger?” Mitch asked.
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly explained. “You stick to that, and everything else means shit.”
“That’s great, but what’s the one thing?” Mitch asked.
Curly’s face revealed a rugged, enigmatic smile. “That’s what you’ve got to figure out” Throughout the rest of the movie, Mitch tried to figure it out. He eventually did, but not without some difficulty. If Mitch had studied existentialism, he may have more easily understood the old cowboy. Curly, like the existentialist philosopher, suggested each person must find their own reason for living, their “one thing.”
When existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence,” he was offering similar advice. This famous statement suggests we live our lives to create meaning, rather than living for meaning. While Mitch probably found Curly easier to comprehend than Sartre, he discovered the basis of existential philosophy: the individual search for personal significance.
The roots of an individual path lie in the freedom to choose direction. Whether freedom is granted by a higher power or naturally occurring, existentialists consider that we are inherently free. Sartre described this concept as l’en-soi, or “being-in-itself.” This is, in a sense, an answer to Hamlet’s famous lament, “to be, or not to be.” Sartre suggests we must “be,” for even the choice “not to be” is still “being” something. Even if we avoid an action, we are defined by non-action. “I am the self which I will be,” Sartre wrote, “in the mode of not being it” (Cumming, 119.)
Freedom can be tricky. That is we want to live for ourselves, but get caught up in what we believe to be the impressions of others. Aware that we are judging them, we fear the opinion of others, and end up avoiding our true desires. Sartre called this concept mauvaise foi, or “bad faith.” While we struggle for individuality, we often instead end up wearing masks; “being-for-others.” It can be difficult to accept autonomy, admit to our willingness to be false, and embrace the existentialist view.
Critics of the philosophy find existentialism to be disturbing, depressing, and wallowing in despair. However, themes surrounding despair and death are essential to the view.
In City Slickers, Curly faced his death without fear. Mitch, who watched the trail leader’s peaceful passing, realized Curly had lived a fulfilling life by living for himself. Mitch adopted Curly’s cowboy hat, and eventually, his philosophy.
In the end, Mitch eventually found his “one thing”; in his case, the love of family (complete with cow.) As he looked back at his journey, Curly’s words finally struck home. Again, Mitch was unwittingly following the advice of existentialism. Existential philosopher Sören Kierkegaard* described, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” (Andrews, 153.)
Rather than advising a person to wallow in misery and despair, existentialism helps to overcome such issues. Mitch, rather than feeling despondent over lack of meaning, found himself invigorated, with a new zest for life. As Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Curly suggest, it is best to live, and discover meaning after the fact. Each individual, if accepting the freedom to exist, will, in the end, find their “one thing.”
*Kierkegaard actually predated the existentialist movement, which was popularized by Sartre in the 1950s, by a century. While never defining himself by the term, Kierkegaard is considered by modern scholars to be a defining figure in Christian existentialism.