To continue from where we left off yesterday we may affirm that the existentialists are centrally concerned with rediscovering the living person amid the compartmentalization and dehumanization of modern culture, and in order to do so they engage in depth psychological analysis. We also adverted to the fact that May praises his friend Paul Tillich’s book The Courage to Be as showing brilliantly the existential approach to life.
May mentions many other contemporary and not so contemporary existential writers, all of whom he has obviously read and digested. The novels of Kafka show a despairing and dehumanized humanity. These novels portray protagonists who are accused of unknown crimes and one of his short stories depicts a man who has turned into a beetle. Camus’ The Stranger and The Plague illustrate existentialist themes, even though its author refused to be categorized as such.
May asserts, and I’m inclined to agree with him that the most potent and vivid portrayal of the meaning of existentialism occurs in the world of art. Art is very much a symbolic articulation of themes, many of which happen to be existential. As symbolic expression art manages to get below conscious thought and it reveals with a special clarity the underlying spiritual and emotional condition of a given culture. Unfortunately, I am not a huge art buff, but I have a deep appreciation of it. The artists whom May mentions are Cézanne, Van Gogh and Picasso. I would add Edvard Munch, whose famous Scream I added to a recent post by way of illustration, to this short list. May, then returns to his good friend and existential theologian Paul Tillich by way of quoting the latter’s insights into art. Tillich, according to May, held that Picasso’s painting Guernica gives the most gripping and revealing portrayal of the atomistic, fragmentized condition of European society which preceded World War II and “shows what is now in the souls of many Americans as disruptiveness, existential doubt, emptiness and meaninglessness.” (Quoted ibid., p.56)
Existentialism and Crisis
Existentialism is born out of crisis. This is quite axiomatic really. It was born from the ashes of a modernism which started at the beginning of the nineteenth century and which heralded a myth of continual progress, a lie which was put to bed after the First World War brought such superficial ideas to an end. It is continually being born anew as individuals in the world grapple once again with still more crises. Humankind, unfortunately and sadly, has to learn from its repeated mistakes as each human being can only learn from his or her own faults and not from those of their fathers or mothers. That again is simply the nature of being human. Today, in the wake or even in the midst of the international economic depression, modern culture is at a crisis point. I have mentioned here before Mr. Patrick Cox’s (our former Irish President of the European Parliament, scholar and wonderful diplomat) comment that the world was in the grip of “a tsunami of greed.” How right he is. All people of any calibre and moral standing see this as glaringly obvious. What we need is ethics and morality in high places not naked and base greed. We the ordinary citizens of planet Earth are paying for the greed of the few with higher unemployment figures, savage cut backs and a terribly debilitating lack of hope. This is our modern crisis. And in all this, I have not mentioned the plight of the starving millions in the underdeveloped and developing worlds. With us, it seems to be out of sight out of mind. This is another sign of our crisis – the fact that we ourselves are becoming morally bankrupt. Today the crises are many, and the ecological one even greater. How can we as human beings look on at the devastation we have wrought on our own Mother Earth – Great Gaia? We are indeed a crisis-ridden people.
Crisis, Existentialism and Depth Psychology
Let me begin this section with an apt quotation once again from our wise guide, Rollo May:
This is one of the most important affinities of the existential movement with psychotherapy – both are concerned with individuals who are in crisis. And far from saying that the insights of a crisis period are “simply the product of anxiety and despair,” we are more likely to find, as we do time and again in psychoanalysis, that a crisis is exactly what is required to shock people out of unaware dependence upon external dogma and to force them to unravel layers of pretence to reveal naked truth about themselves, which, however unpleasant, will at least be solid. (ibid., p. 57)
In short, existentialism is an attitude or an insight into humankind which sees that it is always becoming, and since it is always becoming it is always in a state of crisis. I remember some lecturer back at college in the late 1970s saying that a crisis was essentially an opportunity to grow and to change, and if I remember correctly that is the etymology of the word back in the Greek root. However, this also means that humankind need not be despairing as it is like the throes of pain in childbirth as a new generation is being born from the ashes of the old – if the reader will forgive the rather gauche mixed metaphors here.
Existentialism is also about honesty, integrity and authenticity as the homeless mind of the searcher finds some place of rest for his weary and still questioning mind. It is, then, also in virtue of these personal struggles the birth of a new awareness and of a totally new and renewed self-consciousness. It is a self-consciousness that holds the subject and object link within the thinking self-conscious being. It holds Being and Non-Being in a wonderful equilibrium which sees Life and Death as part of a totality and not one the obliteration of the other. (This is the study of being called Ontology and it is central to existentialism as it is to Eastern thought, Buddhism and the like.) In this sense, existentialism finds a comfortable bedfellow with Eastern thought which unlike its counterpart in the West never experienced a wrenching apart of subject and object within the one perceiving being.
I cannot finish these few musings without quoting the wonderful passage from Blaise Pascal which May praises for being the best description he had yet come across for the meaning of existentialism. It is like a passage of Buddhist philosophy:
“When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not. And which know not me, I am afraid, and wonder to see myself here rather than there; for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there, now rather than then.” (Quoted ibid., p. 58)
This is the existential state lived by every human being. It is, in short, a good description of “Dasein” or “throwness,” as the enigmatic Heidegger described it. (Sometimes Heidegger gets me bothered as I often wonder how such a good philosopher and existentialist at that could have had significant Nazi tendencies. How he could square that with existentialism I don’t know! However, maybe there is a study on that topic somewhere. I’ll find it if my interest in him continues!)