Existentialism is in many ways a philosophy of despair. It is the ultimate reaction to an age beset with such evils as totalitarianism, compulsion, conformity, overorganization, mass irresponsibility, violence, and potential annihilation. It postulates that modern existence is a meaningless absurdity polluting an indifferent universe, and it emphasizes the isolation of the individual who, because of his fundamental nature, must remain a stranger to all about him. Its themes underlie a great deal of contemporary art, drama, music, and literature: isolation, alienation, noncommunication, discord, jarring or shattering impacts upon the senses. In terms of much traditional belief, it is spiritual nihilism. It informs us that God is dead and that each person is utterly alone in a world where all semblance of meaning is illusory.
This is not to say that existentialism is without its positive aspects, for its great virtue lies in its recognition that each individual human being is unique, unlike any other person who has existed before or will exist again; that each person can shape—indeed, has the responsibility to shape—his own destiny; and that individual acts not only matter but have a direct influence upon the world in which we live. The moral and ethical implications of this concept are obvious. The slogan “God is dead” does not necessarily deny a higher power, for there are many religious existentialists. It rather means that the concept of a personal God who acts as decision-maker or problem-solver is invalid and that the individual self, once created, is given the responsibility of discovering its true nature, making choices based on that discovery, and thereby achieving life rather than existence. It must do so alone and unaided.
The difference between mere existence and what Sartre calls authenticity lies in the necessity of choice. One must choose the life he is to live; he must choose between good and evil, between truth to self and acceptance of a multitude of shams. Refusal to choose is in itself a choice and insures self-destruction. As Sartre puts it, in one of the expressions of absurdity characteristic of existentialist writers, man is not only condemned to be free but also embodies his own freedom. In addition to the responsibility of making a choice that will give his life meaning, each individual has the additional responsibility of leaving the world a better place than it was when he came upon the scene: it is a basic tenet of existentialist thought that just as each individual influences the entire world in some way through each act he performs, so he is at the same time individually guilty of all the evil that is abroad in it. To recognize evil and do nothing about it is to make a choice in its favor. This helps to explain the obsession with mass guilt that permeates so many avenues of contemporary expression.
To be sure, the notion that meaningful decisions based upon true awareness of a unique self will inevitably lead all such selves toward world betterment is an obvious non sequitur; and it presents some knotty problems for those who would develop a moral or ethical system based upon it.
The message of existentialism, as transmitted through the arts, does not customarily deal with such considerations. Instead, it dwells primarily upon the emptiness of conventional existence, the agony of self-discovery, the necessity of choice, and the search for true meaning. These elements have been exploited until they have become in a sense stereotypes, and reflect a certain mystique rather than a philosophical system. The tormented individual, alone in a mad world with which he cannot communicate, is as much a stock character as Pierrot or Harlequin, or a character in classical Japanese drama. Existentialists tend to repeat the same themes over and over. Preoccupied as they are with perceived absurdities and clichés, they at times become absurdities and clichés in themselves. Yet the effect is often intentional.
With certain very notable exceptions, Peter Handke’s A Moment of True Feeling typifies what has become the standard existentialist novel. The plot is entirely predictable: its protagonist undergoes an experience of shattering awareness which severs all ties with the world he has known and leaves it an incomprehensible and terrifying place; he endures frightful tortures while he peels away the layers of simulation from his true self; he tries to escape this responsibility through forays into masochism and sadism, violence, readaptation, disguise. He is denied the refuge provided by his former life of thoughtless conformity; the world about him is utterly alien. He contemplates suicide and almost carries it out before he recognizes and assumes his basic responsibility. This satisfies the dictum of Camus that our moment of awareness leads either to suicide or to authenticity. Handke’s plot adheres to formula.
For any reader not already steeped in the existentialist literary mystique, identification with Handke’s protagonist is all but impossible. This is largely because we are given no opportunity to know Keuschnig before his transformation. There is no real comparison with the former life other than a brief statement of identification that establishes him as a bourgeois stereotype,...
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