Existentialism is a philosophical approach that rejects the idea that the universe offers any clues about how humanity should live. A simplified understanding of this thought system can be found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s often-repeated dictum, “Existence precedes essence.” What this means is that the identity of any one person—their essence—cannot be found by examining what other people are like, but only in what that particular person has done. Because no one can claim that his or her actions are “caused” by anyone else, existentialist literature focuses on freedom and responsibility.
Existentialism attained the height of its popularity in France during World War II. While the German army occupied the country, the cluster of philosophers and writers who gathered together to discuss and argue their ideas at the cafes of Paris captured the attention of intellectuals around the world. The oppressive political climate under the Nazis and the need for underground resistance to the invading political force provided the ideal background for Existentialism’s focus on individual action and responsibility.
Although the French war-era writers are most frequently associated with Existentialism, its roots began much earlier. Existentialism can be seen as humanity’s response to the frightening loneliness that prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to pronounce in the 1880s that “God is dead.” Civilization’s loss of faith in religious and social order created an understanding of personal responsibility. This led to literary works that reflect the existentialist’s loneliness, isolation, and fear of the uncaring universe. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels, written in the 1860s and 1870s, show existential themes, as do twentieth- century works by Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, and Nathaniel West. The French existentialists were so influential on writers throughout the world that it is almost impossible to find a contemporary book that does not show some influence of their thought.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986)
Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, and lived there most of her life. She was educated at the Sorbonne, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre in 1929. They began a personal and intellectual relationship that continued the next fifty years. Mostly known for her 1949 book The Second Sex, a twovolume examination of the roles of women throughout history, Beauvoir was also a prolific writer of fiction. Her novels, mostly based on events of her own life, provide readers with fictionalized versions of the vibrant intellectual scene in Paris throughout the forties and fifties. They include She Came to Stay (1949), based on the romantic complication between herself and Sartre and a young student who lived with them; The Blood of Others (1946), about a young man’s struggle to remain uninvolved in the political situation around him; and The Mandarins (1954), about the dissolution of the Parisian intellectual community after the war. The Mandarins won the prestigious Goncourt Prize. Beauvoir also wrote plays and philosophical texts. Her death on April 14, 1986, marked the end of the original generation of existentialists.
Albert Camus (1913–1960)
Albert Camus was one of the most influential figures in the existentialist movement that emerged in Paris in the years before and during the Second World War, although he himself refused to accept the label “existentialist.” He was born November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria, a country in northern Africa that at the time was a colony of France. Soon after France entered in World War I, Camus’s father was drafted into the army, and he never returned. Albert Camus and his brother were raised by his mother and grandmother in poverty, in a three-room apartment in the working class section of the city of Algiers.
Camus studied philosophy at University of Algiers. Graduating in 1936, he was unable to work as a teacher because he had tuberculosis. He became affiliated with a leftist theater group and wrote for a newspaper, and moved to Paris just before the start of World War II. In 1942, he published one of the most important and influential novels of his career, The Stranger, about a man who, acting out of complex circumstances, kills a man who he does not know. The situation explored in the book, and the protagonist’s detached, curious attitude about his own behavior, captured the basic mood of Existentialism, and made Camus an international success. His second most significant novel, The Plague, was published in 1947. The novel’s depiction of a plague that sweeps across a country was seen as an allegory for the wartime occupation of Nazi forces, and of the struggle of the individual against political oppression.
As his fame grew, Camus distanced himself from the existentialist movement in Paris, rejecting their Marxist political stance in favor of political action free of any party. The intellectual rift between him and Jean-Paul Sartre became well known in France. Camus’s literary reputation suffered, as his opponents painted him as a populist who was afraid of offending the bourgeoisie because his main interest was selling books. He stayed active in the theater, writing plays and sometimes directing, and in 1957, at age forty-three, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in an automobile accident near Paris on January 4, 1960.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)
Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist whose works examined human existence as a tragedy in which the struggle for rationality was constantly undermined by the universe’s inherent senselessness. Born October 30, 1821, in Moscow, he was the son of a surgeon—a cruel and strict man who was murdered by one of his serfs when Dostoevsky was seventeen. In college Dostoevsky studied to be a military engineer, a career path he abandoned after graduation in order to be...
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