Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

“Existential literature” is a phrase that is seldom used anymore. The description has become, for the most part, irrelevant. One reason that literary works are not labeled existential as much as they used to be is that the movement, which captured the world’s imagination during World War II, has faded from public attention since the 1980 death of its most charismatic practitioner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Modes of literature and philosophy that once would have been described as “existential” are now described by different terms. On the positive side, the main reason that the description existential seems so irrelevant is the massive popularity that it had in the 1940s and 1950s. Calling literature existential is almost a way of stating the obvious, since most contemporary literature presumes an existential worldview.

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From the start, existential literature was seen as little more than a forum for the existential philosophers to present their ideas. For example, Charles I. Glicksberg, in his 1945 essay “Literary Existentialism,” wrote, “Though Existentialist literature, particularly in the field of fiction and drama, does exist, it has thus far contributed nothing by way of innovation in aesthetic form. By and large, it is a literature based upon a philosophy, a Weltanschauung, a method of interpreting the life of man upon earth, his character and destiny.” It soon developed that the most important reason for reading the literature produced by the French existentialists was to prove, if only to oneself, that one belonged to their intellectual society. In 1951, James Collins introduced his book The Existentialists with an explanation about the relationship between Existentialism and how one lives. Stating his intention to focus his study on disagreements between members of the existential community, he noted that, in studying the people and not their writings, “the picture that [emerges] is drawn more in terms of methods and problems than of a common fund of doctrinal content.” As with Glicksburg, the literature was deemed less important than the ideas and the people who lived those ideas.

The shift in Existentialism’s relevance in literature came during the 1960s, and can be seen in the writings of Hazel E. Barnes, one of the movement’s most prolific observers. In her 1959 book The Literature of Possibilities, Barnes begins her exploration of existential ideas with the bold statement, “About the middle of this century novelists and playwrights stopped making men and women to order for psychologists and began to re-create Man.” A few sentences later she attributes that view to Jean-Paul Sartre, but only after she has drawn readers in with that challenging claim. By 1967, in the chapter “Existentialism and Other Rebels” of her book Existentialist Ethics, Barnes was defending the philosophy from being lumped with other, similar movements with which it might be confused— Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, the Beatnik or Hipster nihilism espoused by Norman Mailer and others, and Oriental philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism. “Like man himself, philosophy is always ‘in situation,’” Barnes wrote, continuing that Existentialism “is acutely aware of its own position in the world order of the twentieth century. It can envision its own transcendence.” One of Existentialism’s strongest supporters, Barnes could already see it dissolving, losing its character to similar philosophies, new and old.

Today, critics frequently point out existential elements in literary works, usually those set in contradictory or self-defeating situations. While used frequently to describe specific elements of literary works, it is seldom used in an attempt to understand an author’s worldview. In literature, the word Existential refers to a mood, rather than to a specific philosophy.

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