The way I read the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber (I and Thou, 1923), he offers a humanist variant of/alternative to existentialism. Where Sartre might say, “Existence precedes essence,” Buber might say, “Relationship precedes essence.” In contrast to the stark “thrownness” of the existentialist, who finds himself alone in an indifferent universe, Buber finds identity itself to be a by-product of the “I-Thou” relation (connections both to fellow humankind and to Being itself). Having shuffled off the existentialist’s burden of aloneness, however, Buber is not exactly the Walmart greeter to Happy Valley. Like the existentialist, he is weighed down with responsibility. For now he carries forever — past, present, and future – the built-in burden of all that connection, the “exalted melancholy of our fate” (16).
Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waitress replies, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?”
Probably the most important hurdle of reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger is to resist the temptation to see Meursault as hero or villain. We’re not “supposed” to identify with him or against him. He just demonstrates in every thought and action the absurdity of the world. The trial puts this in perspective. The prosecutor creates one narrative about Meursault’s murder of the Arab. The defense attorney creates an entirely different narrative about Meursault’s murder. Both create logical narratives, but both are completely wrong – there is no logical narrative that explains any of Meursault’s actions (not his homicidal outburst, nor his passive agreement to marry Marie even though love explicitly “meant nothing” to him , nor his passive agreement to help Raymond lure his girlfriend back for another beating after he’d already bloodied her once ). The oft-noted comment that he is absolutely honest is strikingly true at times, as in his discussions of his mother’s death and of marriage and of his case, but oddly untrue at other times, as in the totally motiveless deceits he perpetrates with Raymond (luring the girlfriend back for another beating and then attesting to Raymond’s blameless behavior at the police station ). Another oft-noted comment is that he comes to terms with his life once he fully realizes the absolute indifference of the universe. This one seems true enough at the end. But I detect a misguided inclination among readers to treat him as a role model or absurd hero, an admirable rebel against society and its phony ways. This, I think, is a mistake. He did, after all, randomly kill “an Arab” without the slightest thought before or after to the human consequences of that deed, he did quite nonchalantly agree to help Raymond brutalize a woman he’d never met, he admittedly feels little or no emotion for his mother or for the woman he sleeps with, etc., etc. Even if intellectually you are the most hardened existentialist, this is not the kind of “hero” you want your daughter to bring home for dinner.
If you want an absurd hero, you might start with the existentialist dilemma. Recognize that the universe is irrational, amoral, and utterly indifferent to human life. Your own life is meaningless and your death will not ruffle the cosmic indifference. Now what do you do? Meursault brings us to the question but he gives us no model for how to respond. The Fool in King Lear might be an absurd hero in that he does seem to recognize the irremediable indifference of the universe and yet tries to inject some clarity and empathy into Lear’s world, not because this will make the universe more meaningful or morally intelligible, but merely because of the local comfort it may give to Lear. Or the Dalai Lama might illustrate the path of the absurd hero in his injunction to act with compassion even though our actions will never alter the fact that suffering is built into the human condition. Although Meursault’s character is a perfect vehicle for bringing the absurd (existentialist) world view into focus, his utter lack of compassion, his complete indifference to suffering caused by his own actions, may illustrate a kind of human predicament but cannot seriously be called a “heroic” response to the existential dilemma. At least the Fool makes the absurd choice to behave morally in a world where moral behavior makes no sense. Meursault’s indifference is, if anything, a logical response to the indifferent world, and does not warrant the badge of absurd hero.
Perhaps then Meursault is the exemplar of life after the age of God. Nietzsche pronounced God dead, opined that this placed at least the most thoughtful of us beyond good and evil, and found this to be a liberation of the human spirit. Dostoevsky and more recent Christians agree that the absence of God places us beyond good and evil, but they are far less upbeat about it, fearing a dystopia where we can do anything at all to our fellow human beings without scruple. The humanist stakes out a third position by denying the shared premise of Nietzsche and the Christians (the premise that without God we are beyond good and evil and all things are permissible). The humanist finds great moral value in human actions even in, or especially in, the absence of God. Treating people kindly and attending to the human consequences of one’s actions have their own intrinsic values irrespective of divine rewards or punishment. In this tripolar scheme, I’d say that Camus’s personal philosophy tends toward the Nietzchean and his personal actions in life tended toward the humanistic, but, ironically, The Stranger seems to best illustrate the Christian point of view – that without a belief in God or any traditional morality, we, like Meursault, become detached from our own lives and indifferent to others, incapable of compassion but quite capable of brutalizing women and killing others on a whim without any sense of wrong-doing. It is easy to see Meursault in this sense as an exemplar not of the human predicament en masse but merely of the sociopathic mindset (not deliberately evil but just wholly indifferent to the human consequences of one’s actions – more a descendant of Dickens’s Harthouse than of Shakespeare’s Iago). And what better theme for the contemporary Christian than the sociopathic dystopia of life without God?
Director Paolo Sorrentino’s film, The Great Beauty (Italian: La grande bellezza), is a lovely mix of Mediterranean joie de vivre and Nordic existentialism that leaves the audience drenched in beauty and medium-heavy with melancholia. The main character, Jep (Toni Servillo), is a man of deep feeling, immersed in the timeless splendor of Roman imagery. But this is Rome at its most existential — no bustling crowds, only Jep walking the pre-dawn streets past cafes and squares eerily empty of people. The only crowds we see float above the streets — insulated rooftop parties of desperate and lonely jetsetters jamming into train dances to techno-pop music. This is Jep’s socialite crowd, which oddly elicits in the audience both heart-felt contempt and heart-felt sympathy.
The setting reinforces the painful doubleness of Jep and his circle. The grand architecture, the magnificent sculpture and gardens, the sublime soundtrack, Jep’s Roman world is filled with mind-boggling aesthetic beauty at every turn, and yet it strangely lacks — except in fits and starts — the beauty of human contact, human meaning. The film’s continuing sideshow of performance artists grabs at this lack ever more obsessively as it fails to generate the human warmth it seeks.
As he looks back over his life on his 65th birthday, Jep himself seems intermittently attuned to all this, as scenes of heartrending poignancy pop up arbitrarily and just as arbitrarily fade into the arc of the narrative. Jep has no regrets for the socialite life he’s lived, despite an awareness of its general emptiness. In his particular case, the emptiness is symbolized by the fact that he could never get back to his second novel. One could argue that the turning point for Jep – and the film is ambiguous about this as it is about everything – is the entrance of the Santa (Giusi Merli), an old woman destined for Catholic sainthood. She is frankly an old blubbering mess and her adoration a satire on church idiocy. And yet she is more than that. Everything she says can be taken two ways. Is it senile inanity or profound genius? The best example is when she tries to tell Jep why she lives on bitter roots. “Because,” she stutters, half-comatose, as if she can’t get her brain around the simplest question. And she seems to relinquish the effort with a dismissive remark that “roots are important.” It seems a throwaway line. And yet she does painstakingly climb the Spanish Steps on her knees, however ridiculous that task might seem, in contrast to Jep’s decades-long inability to start his second novel. And then Jep does return to his roots, at least in the space of imagination. He re-imagines his sexual awakening with a teenage girl on the beach, re-imagines a world so naïve, so absurd, that full, rich human contact was possible. And that, we are led to believe amidst the lyrical beauty of the film’s final images, is the beginning of his second novel.
Another path from classical to romantic to existential…
The classical ideal, epitomized say in Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, offers a closed system of perfect beauty, gives that calm rational pleasure that comes with the compound of beauty and completeness. The impact of a romantic piece like Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, on the other hand, comes specifically from a lack of closure. It is full of longing, and longing is by definition longing for something out of reach; the beauty is not the perfect beauty of a closed system but the melancholic beauty that comes with a conspicuous lack of closure, a sense that the system is incomplete, that what we desire is forever out of its scope.
Compare this to Wordsworth and Kafka, icons of Romanticism and existentialism, respectively. Both break from the classical ideal of a closed system of perfect beauty, but they break differently. For the Romantic poet, the world holds enormous meaning, warrants enormous feelings beyond the reach of the classical’s neat rational boundaries. But that locus of meaning, of feeling, is at a depth that we can sense but never quite reach. When Wordsworth speaks of the “meanest flower” that “can give / thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (“Intimations Ode”), the melancholic tone comes from an incomplete desire. The poem is not a closed system of perfect beauty, but a locus of longing, ever pointing to something outside of itself. But if “too deep” locates the object of desire ever at a distance, there is no doubt in Wordsworth as to its substantive presence:
…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Kafka and the existentialists create narratives that seem more romantic than classical in that they too rely on a conspicuous lack of closure. The meaning sought is forever beyond the scope of the system they are trapped within. But whereas Wordsworth reaches out from the system to grasp a meaning whose “presence” is too large or too deep for him to get his hands around, Kafka’s K (The Castle) and Joseph K (The Trial) reach out from the system for a meaning that is not present at all but absent. That locus of meaning, that presence that validates the depth of human feeling, was for Wordsworth too big (Kant’s mathematical sublime) or too powerful (Kant’s dynamical sublime) to be contained in classical symmetries but for Kafka it is infinitesimally small. It is an empty vanishing point and nothing more.
If I could draw diagrams in WordPress, or set up toolbar icons on my own computer program, I’d say picture a pearl that fits perfectly in someone’s hand as our classical icon. Click it to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Now picture a second icon in which the pearl has become a sphere the size of a planet under the person’s feet, far too large to grasp or hold or even imagine in its entirety, however one might long to do so. That is our Romantic icon. Click to open Wordsworth. Now the sphere disappears and the person is floating in empty space. Click for Kafka.
Romantic and Existentialist: Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness
I had to expedite this sequel to Von Trier’s Melancholia after a pleasant give-and-take with Paul Adkin in the comment section. There is certainly a romantic lacing to Melancholia, which Paul finds in the soundtrack and which I find in the lyrical beauty of the visual imagery, especially in the early sequences. To me, the romantic elements counterpoint rather than shore up the existentialist elements. The romantic lyricism, however fleeting, leaves an eternal mark of beauty, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, even when the people involved are long gone. The melancholia of the Romantics traces back not to the Blake/Byron line (where I placed Coppola’s Dracula) but to the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which were drenched in a kind of melancholia that I find largely absent in Blake and Byron. But the melancholia of Wordsworth and Coleridge, unlike that of Von Trier and Camus (to use Paul’s reference), comes from the heaviness of too much meaning, an overload of emotional content, not from the anemia of life without meaning and emotional content. As Wordsworth says at the end of the Intimations Ode, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” That to me is romantic melancholia, and (at least to me) it is fundamentally different from, though perhaps genetically related to, existentialist melancholia.
The darkness of Romanticism, unlike the melancholia, does trace to the Blake/Byron line. It comes from a passion so excessive that it becomes morally dark and dangerous (witness Dracula’s treatment of Lucy in the Coppola film). The darkness of existentialism, on the other hand, is married to the melancholia (at least as Von Trier presents the concept). It’s the empty darkness that is left when all meaning and emotional content are drained. It is the suicidal depression that Camus tries to escape by imagining Sisyphus happy. It’s different from the darkness of an emotional content so overloaded, a passion so excessive, that it becomes wildly destructive in terms of its human toll.
So the melancholia associated with existentialism (at least in Von Trier’s film) may find a historical antecedent in the Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism, and the darkness associated with existentialism may find a historical antecedent in the Blakean/Byronic branch of Romanticism, but both the melancholia and the darkness settle into completely different values in the symbolic economy of existentialism.
A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.
Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.
So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.
With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).
But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)