Existentialism is a school of philosophy dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that is based on the disorientation and confusion encountered in the absurd modern world. Nineteenth-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are considered the fathers of existentialism, but the philosophy did not begin to take hold until the twentieth century when French philosopher Gabriel Marcel coined the term and Jean-Paul Sartre popularized the philosophy with the publication of his short book, L'existentialisme est un humanisme (Existentialism is a Humanism). Other prominent existentialists from the twentieth century include Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger (who had a profound influence on Sartre), who all wrote about the tension between the individual and the public and rejected causality as an explanation for the human being.
Existentialism is not only a philosophical movement, but a literary one as well. Sartre's ideas reached a wider audience through his fiction, such as Nausea and No Exit, than through his philosophical tracts. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka both described existential themes in their literary works, as well.
The movement protested against academic philosophy and tried to break free from the “iron cage” of reason. This is not unlike Wallace's attempts to break free from the cage of irony, which is perhaps the modern-day response to the absurd world.
By the mid 1970s the cultural image of existentialism had become a cliché, but the concepts themselves do successfully identify philosophical questions about human existence in the twenty-first century.
Existence Precedes Essence
The existentialists turned from a concern with “existence” in general to what it specifically means to have a human existence, a concept prevalent in Wallace's work as he strives to figure out and convey "what it is to be a fucking human being."
Rather than debating what a human essence or soul is, existentialist thinkers focus on the fact that a person’s life is determined by the choices he makes. The consequent actions of his body are what constitute his “essence.” This means that man is (1) defined only insofar as he acts and (2) he is responsible for his actions.
Angst, also sometimes called dread, anxiety, or anguish, is generally held to be the experience of our freedom and responsibility and lack of predetermination. The meaning of angst can sometimes be confused with fear, but with fear a person can remove whatever object he is afraid of. With angst, however, there is no material subject and the cause can never be removed or even lessened. In experiencing freedom as angst, a person also realizes that he is fully responsible for the consequences of his actions; there is nothing for him to blame if something goes wrong.
The fact that there are no intrinsic concrete values to be found in the world does not mean that there are no values. Everyone is free to determine his own values and to define his life by the way he acts on these values. With this freedom comes the responsibility of choice; a common existentialist idea is that even in not making a choice, a person is still choosing. To leave life up to chance is to lead in inauthentic existence.
To lead an authentic existence is to "find oneself" and then live in accordance with that self. This concept is very closely tied to the concept of freedom; the authentic act is one that is in accordance with one's freedom. Similarly, the authentic choice is one where a person lets his values determine his decisions, instead of randomly choosing, so that he must take responsibility for his actions. In contrast, the inauthentic existence is the refusal to live in accordance with one's freedom. A person may do this by pretending choices are meaningless or random, by convincing himself that life is predetermined, or by subscribing to a sort of mimicry where he behaves as he thinks he should. This does not mean that it is necessarily inauthentic to act in accordance with social norms; what is important is the attitude one takes to one's own freedom and responsibility, and the extent to which one acts in accordance with this freedom.
Emphasizing action, freedom, and decision, existentialists argue against definitions of human beings as primarily rational. Rather, existentialists assert that a person actually makes decisions based on the meaning of the decision to himself rather than the rationality of the decision. This belief grew out of the existentialist truth that the world is fundamentally irrational and random; to believe that people make choices rationally is to impose that rational structure onto a world of unconnected phenomena. To do so would be inauthentic.
The absurdity of our lives comes from the idea that there is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give to it. This meaninglessness also accounts for the “unfairness" of the world. Existentialist thinkers do not subscribe to the “good things come to good people” school of thought by which most people live. Because of the world's absurdity, at any point in time, anything can happen to anyone, and a tragic event could plummet someone into direct confrontation with the Absurd.
Existentialism in Wallace's works
- Marshall Boswell notes that the way veteran AA members hyphenate "DISEASE" "so that it becoes DIS-EASE (203) "is best understood as despair, a concept central to Søren Kierkegaard's psychological phenomonology, particulary as outlined in The Sickness unto Death, where he identifies one for of desair as that of 'not wanting to be onself; or on an even lower level: not wanting in despair to be a self; or the lowest of all: wanting a new self.' Nearly all of Wallace's characters suffer from this despair" (137-8). People acheive the illusion of escaping the Self, he notes, through drugs, self-consciousness, irony.
- This despair that plagues Wallace’s characters also highlights their connection to Kierkegaard’s aesthete. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard’s aesthete describes how he finds human life to be utterly boring, and so every choice he makes in life is one that attempts to conquer this endless ennui. In this way, Kierkegaard’s aesthete essentially lives a life in the pursuit of pleasure. And, as Boswell notes, so do Wallace’s characters, for “Wallace’s desperate drug addicts are essentially ‘aesthete’s’” or those who, as Kierkegaard explains, “‘[hold] existence at bay by the most subtle of all deceptions’” (Boswell 138). Specifically, Hal "bears the stamp of Kierkegaardian aesthetic despair" (Boswell 139) and possesses "hiddenness," one of an aesthete's defining characteristic. Furthermore, Joelle and UHID "represent the novel's most visible instance of Kierkegaardian hiddenness" (141).
- Just as existentialists describe the perspective of engaged agency in terms of “choice,” Rémy Marathe says that we chose what we worship, as we chose what we are attached to, and "our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith?"