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Family Ties Themes

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,442 words.)