Art of Philosophy

persuading through creative works

When you want to reach the greatest number of people possible with a philosophical message, wrap the message in popular art. Existentialism is associated closely with literature, theatre, music, and film. Creative writers are indisputably among the influential thinkers classified as “existential” by critics and scholars.

Existential figures include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and John Barth. Poets from John Milton to Charles Bukowski are also considered influential within existential philosophy. Could we describe existentialism as an artistic and literary movement?

Because of its dramatic conception of existence, its widespread use of powerful images in its arguments, and its appeal to personal response in its communications, existentialism has always been closely associated with the fine arts. In fact, both Camus and Sartre were offered the Nobel Prize for Literature (which Sartre declined). Kierkegaard was a kind of poet who used pseudonyms, parables, and other forms of ‘indirect communication’ to enlist our personal involvement in the matter at hand. Nietzsche was one of the great prose artists of the German language and his allegory of a religious prophet, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, like Sartre’s Nausea, is a model of philosophical dramatization. The novels of Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), too, are expressions of her philosophical insights. Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) wrote philosophy in a meditative manner that he once said was perhaps better exhibited in his 30 published plays. [...] So strong is the influence ofexistentialist ideas in the fine arts that, as we have seen, some would prefer to describe existentialism as a literary movement. Certainly, authors like Dostoevsky and Kafka, playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco, and artists like Giacometti and Picasso exemplify many of the defining characteristics of existentialist thought.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Thomas R. Flynn, p. 16

As a writer, I know the power of creative writing, especially when you want to explore how an individual reacts to situations. Academic writing tends to be not only dry but, bluntly, much of it is horrible. By mastering other literary forms, the existentialists became more effective writers in general. Few other philosophical schools of thought have had the reach of existentialism outside academia, in no small part because these thinkers were interesting authors.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide in insolation. The Existential Primer is a living academic project, unlike a static text. I revise these pages often because the scholarship never ends. Consult the citations within these pages. Read the works of many scholars! I implore you to read the original works of the thinkers profiled.

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


On the Screen and Stage

Many movies and plays are character-driven. The famous formula in dramatic writing is the “heroic journey” narrative following a character through stages of personal growth. Stories of personal discovery and self-definition can seem “existential” even when they lack depth. I suggest an existential story should go beyond mere personal growth by asking, “What would this character die for and why?” This is more than a heroic journey: it carries with it an element of martyrdom. One model of this story formula depicts the main character…

  1. Born into the elite class.
  2. Banished for a mistake in judgment (real or perceived).
  3. Wandering, seeking a sense of purpose.
  4. Embracing a cause, complete with a mission.
  5. Sacrificing and taking a risk to complete the mission.
  6. Discovering the “authentic” self.

There are endless variations of this formula. We never seem to tire of the brave hero willing to sacrifice everything for a nobel cause. But, what of the person born to an average existence, destined for an unremarkable life, and a potentially absurd ending? How does that individual choose a purpose and strive to be authentic? How does the unsung character in a middling life rise to define his or her existence?

Theatre has addressed questions of free will, choice, and self from the earliest days of drama. Early Greek, Chinese, and African theatre each began as social instruction — “good” theatre taught the audience how to live through example. But soon early theatre was asking bigger questions: Are we free to be something other than what society expects? Are we free at all, or amusement for the gods?

Freedom, true freedom, leads to existential anxiety and responsibility. That makes for great theatre and classic cinema.

I’ve had students suggest Disney’s The Lion King is “existential.” This confuses the “coming of age” narrative for existentialism. The animated feature hints at the possibility its hero, Simba, could choose a different path — only to insist that his path in life is predetermined based on his birthright. Nice story, but not one of true choice and authenticity. The brave knight returns is not existential, but a classic story nonetheless.

Silver Screen Struggles

Many of the feature films associated with existentialism deal with issues of mortality. That death would be a primary concern should not surprise readers of Camus, Heidegger, Kafka, or Sartre. Each of these writers suggested that confronting our mortality can lead us to create meaning during life. Any list of existential cinema naturally includes films in which the protagonist confronts death and makes a choice to define his or her self.

The films discussed in this section are listed in order of year released.

The text Existentialism for Dummies (Panza and Gale, 2008) includes a chapter dedicated to “ten great existential movies” and another dedicated to existential literature. There are also numerous lists of “existential films” scattered about the World Wide Web. One of the great things about trying to define existentialism is that everyone seems to have a slightly different view of what does or does not qualify for the label — especially in the creative arts. The following are merely my recommendations, not a definitive list of films with existential themes.

Ikiru (1952)

Directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa [IMDB entry]

When Mr. Watanabe, a middle-aged bureaucrat, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he finds himself on a quest for meaning. So begins the film masterpiece Ikiru. After more than two decades in a government job, to which he has dedicated his daily life, Watanabe starts to question if his role in the world has been meaningful. If not, he has “wasted” two decades during which he could have been pursuing a purpose.

Bureaucrats and the rules they enforce appear in several existential films, implying that systems are inherently dehumanizing. Civil service duties seem pointless, though thousands of men and women toil away at government jobs on behalf of “society.” A mid-level corporate job would be as dehumanizing and at least as pointless in some settings. In 1952 Japan the audience could relate to a government worker because the government was central to the reconstruction of post-war Japanese society.

Topics for audiences to consider:

  • Ikiru translates as “to live” yet the film is about a man’s impending death. What does “ikuru” mean to Mr. Watanabe?
  • Death, a natural end to life, is feared in some cultures (but not universally). How does this fear of death lead to denial and inauthentic actions?
  • A life in a dehumanized society, one of rules and structures, is a form of emotional death. Is this film a critique of Japanese culture as of 1952?
  • How do traditional rituals, norms of conduct, and culture in general lead to inauthentic living? Why are these pressures so difficult to resist?
  • Does Mr. Watanabe find a meaning, a purpose, to his existence?

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Directed by, written by, and based on the play by Ingmar Bergman [IMDB entry]

It is difficult to imagine a darker, more depressing setting than that of The Seventh Seal. In the waning days of the Crusades, themselves raising numerous moral questions, the brave knight Antonius Block and his squire are returning to their home in Europe. As they travel, Death appears to claim Block. The two agree to a curious bargain: Block challenges Death to a game of chess. During the game, Block is allowed to live and continue towards his home. Death also agrees to leave, at least for a time, if Block manages to defeat the grim reaper.

The Seventh Seal is the movie to see for anyone interested in the history of cinema. This film is a personal favorite from a purely aesthetic perspective; it is a beautiful work of cinematography.

Topics for audiences to consider:

  • Does Death’s coming for Antonius Block in Europe, after the knight has survived the Crusades, illustrate the absurdity or existence? Or is this timing symbolic of something else?
  • The Black Plague is similar to CamusPlague, in that diseases do not discriminate between good and bad people, rich or poor, or along any other categories. How do plagues fit within existentialism?
  • Kierkegaard suggested faith means accepting God’s will can appear absurd. Block is confronted with faith, and its failings, in the Crusades and by the destruction of the plague. Does Block remain a man of faith?
  • What do the other characters in the film represent?

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness [IMDB entry]

A great man gone mad, Colonel Kurtz, is to be “terminated” by the young and daring Captain Willard. Set in the Vietnam war, Col. Kurtz has established a personal kingdom in the heart of the Cambodian jungles. Capt. Willard and his men must travel into this “heart of darkness” to locate and assassinate the god-like Kurtz. This is not a cheerful examination of self-awareness, authenticity, and assigned roles.

Admittedly, I am not a fan of Apocalypse Now. Too many people embrace Col. Kurtz as the “existential hero” (or anti-hero) being true to himself and rising above the herd. This is a twisting of Nietzsche, in my view, one too common among outcasts who mistake being an outside with being superior. Amorality, a sort of narcissistic hubris, is embodied by Col. Kurtz. The actual existentialists tended to be moralists, often dedicated to social causes. But it is impossible to ignore the “Nietzschean” rise above dictated morality in Apocalypse Now.

Topics for audiences to consider:

  • Is Colonel Kurtz authentic or insane? Can one be both? Doesn’t free will require sanity?
  • As Captain Willard and his men travel into the “heart of darkness,” represented by the Cambodian jungles, they seem to lose cohesion and order. What causes this social decay?
  • What is the role of Captain Willard? Is he a metaphor of something within existential thought?
  • In the end, is the conclusion closer to the absurdism of Kafka or the war stories of Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir?

Blade Runner (1982)

Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples; based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [IMDB entry]

 

Topics for audiences to consider:

Brazil (1985)

[IMDB entry]

More than any other film associated with existential themes, Brazil depicts the Kafkaesque nature of a dehumnized society. The government oversees most everything, and most things don’t function well.

Topics for audiences to consider:

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

[IMDB entry]

Topics for audiences to consider:

Dark City (1998)

[IMDB entry]

Topics for audiences to consider:

Pleasantville (1998)

[IMDB entry]

Topics for audiences to consider:

Fight Club (1999)

[IMDB entry]

Topics for audiences to consider:

Donnie Darko (2001)

[IMDB entry]

Topics for audiences to consider:

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

[IMDB entry]

Topics for audiences to consider:

Nothingness on the Boards

.

Hamlet

William Shakespeare

No Exit

Sartre’s play...

Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett

 


On the Page

Though not all “existential works” are by “existentialists,” most people learn of existentialism through literary works. From Dostoevsky’s novels to Kafka’s short stories, novels have confronted existentialism and absurdism. The forefathers of existentialism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both wrote parables. Students throughout the Western world read Sartre’s plays and Camus’ novels.

…[T]here is a certain ‘literariness’ to Existentialism, so that the prevalence of novels and other literary texts in the canon of Existential literature would seem to remove it further from the possibility of being a philosophy. Many of the ‘straight’ philosophical essays and books by thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are themselves cast in a literary vein, rather than in the disciplined rhetoric of a rigorous philosophical discourse.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Steven Earnshaw, p. 1

 

 

Most stories, excluding generational or situational epics, deal with one character’s journey. Stories are how we, as a culture, explore what it means to make choices about self-definition. The literature most closely associated with existential themes tends toward psychological thriller. It might be Sartre’s No Exit or any work by Kafka — the literature features an element of mystery.

The novel form has been of particular use to the Existentialists, and quite often in the guise of a thriller, literally in works such as Crime and Punishment, and metaphysically in a novel like The Trial. The reason for this is not hard to fathom. Novels usually depend upon a central character, and throughout the history of the form the focus of the novel has more often than not been the psychological, the inner workings of the mind and consciousness. As such, therefore, it is tailor-made for working through an individual’s awakening to the exigencies of existence.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, pp. 10-1

Sartre went so far as to suggest that art without an underlying, activist philosophy was worthless. An authentic writer would always be advocating for a set of beliefs, ideals, or actions. Sartre called this a commitment, not only to the art form but to humanity.

In a famous set of essays, What is Literature? published in 1948, Sartre develops the concept of ‘committed literature’. His basic premise is that writing is a form of action for which responsibility must be taken, but that this responsibility carries over into the content and not just the form of what is communicated.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 13

 

Short Stories

 

Kafka: Most Works

 

Novels

 

Notes from the Underground

Dostoevsky

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Leo Tolstoy

The Stranger

Considered by many to be Albert Camus’ masterpiece.

 

 

Memoirs

 

Run with the Hunted

Charles Bukowski

 

Other Words


In Other Forms

.

Superheroes (Comics and Graphic Novels)

It is difficult to imagine a “real” human dealing with the questions of self-identity and definition that face our fictional superheroes. If you could do anything, and get away with it, what would determine your morality? What makes you the person you are? Even the hereos without special powers deal with questions of identity and what creates the self.

Consider the appropriately named Superman. What prevents Superman from being “evil” when nothing earthly is a threat to him?

 


Sources

Earnshaw, Steven. Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London; New York: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2006. [0826485294, 9780826485298 (hc); 0826485308, 9780826485304 (pbk)]

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. [0192804286]

Panza, Christopher, and Gregory Gale. Existentialism for Dummies. New York: For Dummies (Wiley), 2008. [0470276991]




Navigation by WebRing.

 

More…

 

 

IntroductionDefinitionsSourcesHome

Written by C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 28-May-2014
Edited by S. D. Schnelbach