Maybe we innately know what “existential” means and have even lived it, and can recognize its flavor and themes in works of fiction. Yet it’s not easy to have an on-the-ready, cogent definition. Reading Sartre’s fiction pieces did not, unfortunately, help me come up with one.
I did admire the stark writing and wandering investigations into the meaning of reality. As in Camus, hefty ideas are conveyed by scenes that provoke layered, individually selective (or random) reactions.
There is helpful information in the scholarly prefaces to Sartre’s stories. It’s a philosophy, after all. And one that concerns meaninglessness and superfluity. What the hell, it’s all madness, so how do we proceed sort of stuff.
My friend Tom Weathers has a scene in his novel Redux where two characters discuss its meaning over a meal. It’s as handy as anything I’ve read:
“…in the modern books that I read, I keep running across existentialism – you know, the French thing.” He looked at me to see if I knew what he was talking about.
I ate my last piece of pork chop. Pointing with my fork at his plate which he hadn’t touched, I said, “Yeah I know what existentialism is. But if you’re going to stay here it’s going to cost you. I want your pork chop.”
“Sure. OK.” He slid his tray and plate in my direction. “The thing is, none of the explanations that I read make sense. What does it mean, existence precedes essence? Everybody just assumes you know what they are talking about – but I don’t. It seems important, like if I don’t know this then I won’t know the rest, you know what I mean?”
He looked at me. I nodded and ate his pork chop.
“So can you tell me?”
“What existentialism means?”
“Yes.” He really seemed desperate.
I paused, knowing that I would sound pompous. “It means there is no built-in meaning to anything. There is no God-given truth. It all comes from you, from your own miserable little existence. You make your own truth.”
© Tom Weathers, “Redux” 2009.
Nausea is a novel. The main character is a writer who is conflicted and unhappy. He experiences physical nausea over his heightened sense of the futility of things. He has unusual friends like Self Taught Man who acts as a sounding board for ideas, and also a female interest named Anny.
The Wall is a collection of five short stories. Some are straight-forward and amusing, some dark and dense. “Intimacy” was my favorite. It is about relationships and arbitrary preferences. The title story (Le Mur) is about a prisoner’s fate. There is random meaninglessness in the character’s avoidance of execution and the doom of another.