Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1442
Existentialism is a philosophy that places tremendous responsibility on humans, because it posits no meaning to life except that which each person makes of it. The existentialists (Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Camus) in their various formulations of this philosophy of being (ontology), either deny the existence of God or point out that because God does not reveal the purpose of life, the consequence for humankind is the same as if God did not exist. With no purpose in life, each human is totally free—but also totally responsible for his or her own actions. The meaninglessness of existence coupled with ultimate responsibility causes angst, a physical and emotional rejection of an unwelcome truth. Life is absurd, and humans shrink in horror from its absurdity and fear to take responsibility to create themselves. How does one decide how to live, how to create oneself in a meaningless world? Jean-Paul Sartre, the ‘‘father of existentialism,’’ coined the term to describe the creation of the self as a necessary reaction to awareness of the existence of others: ‘‘I see myself because somebody sees me.’’ Without others to remind one of one's existence, a person's state of mind is simply ‘‘unreflective consciousness,’’ an inert state. Being aware of the presence of others is a reminder that the world, meaningless as it is, cannot be escaped. Being seen by another does not result in morality, however, since each person is alone in creating a self and a purpose in life. The presence of others only serves to remind one of one's own existence, and of the other's freedom, not of any particular moral code. Sartre explains in Being and Nothingness (1943), ‘‘nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values.’’ The loneliness of mutual but unconnected co-existence is described in Sartre's novel Nausea, where a couple cannot sustain their relationship in the face of the absurdity of life. As depressing as existentialism may seem, there is a way out of its prison of absurdity. Sartre describes the ‘‘man of good faith’’ as one who fully governs his life responsibly, even though no moral consequences exist. The ‘‘man of bad faith’’ harms himself and others through hypocrisy or selfishness, or by withdrawing from the world. Thus existentialists find it crucial to make responsible choices. Another way to fight against absurdity and nausea is to create. In a world without values, the freedom to create one's own meaning can be liberating, at least to those with the strength of character to face the responsibility implied in the creative act or gesture. The narrator of Nausea overcomes his despair by imagining he will write a perfect novel, a redeeming act of creativity.
One of the hallmarks of the existentialist writer is to probe the consciousness, searching for understanding of oneself, and exposing self-contradictions, in an attempt to achieve total honesty. The self, because it is always creating itself, is always in flux and thus always in need of re-evaluation. Clarice Lispector (who had read Sartre and loved Dostoyevsky) shares the existentialist concern for soul-searching and responsibility. Her writing surveys her character's fluid consciousness, moving from one thought to another, without fixing or defining her character definitively through assertion, using a combination of deliberate vagueness and specificity. Giovanni Pontiero in his translator's introduction to Family Ties says that ‘‘Clarice Lispector shares the Sartrean conviction that we are not content to live. We need to know who we are, to understand our nature, and to express it. Her vision of reality gives identity to Being and Nothingness and satisfies the need 'to speak of that which obliges us to be silent.'’’
Phenomenology is a philosophy centered on psychological processes. It concerns the way that objects are perceived or registered in the consciousness. Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, sought to make of it a science that would give philosophy the same status as the sciences of psychology and math. Therefore, he posited not only the philosophy, but a way of approaching it. Since phenomenology involves only the registering of objects in the mind, it is necessary to "bracket out’’ any preconceived notions, inferences, or valuations of the object. In phenomenology, the only acceptable emotive or intellectual process is the notion of "intention" which comprises the conceptualization of the object and empathic response to it. The world and the self are thus constructed through the subjective human consciousness. There are several implications for writing implicit in a phenomenological approach. One is the necessity to describe consciousness as a temporal flow that moves from one encounter with objects to the next, incorporating the past, present, and future. Such accounts would tend to be first-person accounts, bordering on solipsism, or self-centeredness. Given this personal point of view, the individual's history of experiences affects or molds the possible ‘‘horizon of meanings’’ that a given object will summon up in the mind. While objects and the world exist independently, they can only be perceived through the consciousness, and thus any description of the world and its objects is necessarily subjective and idiosyncratic.
Clarice Lispector has been called a phenomenological writer and thinker due to her obsession with portraying the ever-changing consciousness. As she has explained, her approach is to let her own thoughts flow freely: "When writing I have insights that are 'passive' and so intimate that they write themselves the very instant I perceive them without the intervention of any so-called thought process.'' In other words, Lispector tries to "bracket out'' her editorial mind as she writes, in an attempt to reproduce the actual flow of her own consciousness.
Existentialism has a particular importance to women, as shown by Simone de Beauvior, Sartre's life partner. If, according to existential philosophy, each person constantly recreates herself in reaction to awareness of the other, then women are doubly subjected, because of oppression by male others who use women, and their power over women, as a means to define themselves. De Beauvoir explains, ‘‘Woman.. .finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other.'' Existential feminism does not place the burden of female identity solely on males, however, but recognizes female complicity in the formation of woman' s gender identity. Women are compliant to their own oppression to the extent that they accept their subordinate role and to the extent that they create their own identity as a subordinate identity. Feminism is the study of the construction of gender identities and the impact these identities have on women's lives and writing. If, as Sartre had shown, writing is a creative outlet for working out problems of identity, then women's writing can be an act of subversion against oppression. According to feminist critic Elaine Showalter, feminist criticism is concerned with "woman as the producer of textual meaning, with the history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women. Its subjects include the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career; literary history; and, of course, studies of particular writers and works.’’
Clarice Lispector was not a feminist in the political sense, but her work has been appropriated by numerous feminist critics, most notably Helene Cixous, who reads into Lispector's fiction her own feminist viewpoint. In Cixous' hands, Lispector becomes a feminist who portrays "libidinal economies’’ by recounting which sexual energies are invested in and which are not. Cixous sees Lispector as a writer who recognizes and exposes her own complicity in the creation of a subordinate female identity, and who, at the same time, mildly subverts male authority through writing. Cixous dissects Lispector's stories and novels and reconstitutes them as evidence supporting her own feminist philosophy, a process for which she has been criticized. Maria Jose Barbosa, another feminist critic, sees Lispector's work as empowering language ‘‘to combat discourses that seek to dominate and corrode women's power as authors and as subjects within Brazilian culture.’’ However, Lispector quite consciously avoided writing with political intent, feminist or otherwise, a move of departure from the mainstream of Brazilian literature in the 1960s when the full-length work Family Ties was published. It is doubtful that Lispector would identify herself as a feminist, either in the 1960s political sense of the word or in the current linguistic/ semiotic/ontological sense of it as expressed by Cixous. Although she said that the status of the Brazilian woman ‘‘still leaves much to be desired; she is enslaved,’’ her writing is more focused on human consciousness and the perils of intimacy than on the politics or semiotics of gender.
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