An Exploration in Existentialism

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Kierkegaard once said that man is not his own creator in this world (Huxley 198). Manipulating this observation are two prominent writers and philosophers of the post-war era, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. As authors of fictional works, Sartre and Camus exercise their power over the world of the characters in their respective novels Iron in the Soul and The Plague to express their views on existentialist themes.

Although both are considered influential teachers of existentialist philosophy, the manner in which they express their views regarding the themes of existentialism do not always share a parallel perspective. Both authors share views concerning the freedom of man and his responsibility to the choices made under such freedom, as well as the precedence of the existence over the essence of life. They differ, however, in their analytical developments of alienation and the concept of death.

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Existentialism dictates that freedom is not only offered to every man and woman, but it is also an inevitable presence in life. Each person is free whether or not such freedom is desired, because each encounter is primary and demands a new choice (Caute viii). Freedom is the power of choice, but it comes with a price: responsibility for ones own actions. In their portrayal of freedom, Sartre and Camus parallel their perspectives through the characters of Mathieu and Dr. Rieux. Mathieu, the protagonist of Iron in the Soul, is an educated and upright man. In his dying moments, he shoulders the consequences of his life decisions. As the sole survivor of his platoon, he is seen firing upon Germans below; in these moments, Sartre demonstrates a unique model of mans contention with freedom. Each one of his shots avenged some ancient scruple, but these scruples do not concern Mathieus misdeeds (Sartre 245). Instead, they represent his life regrets.

One shot for Lola whom I dared not rob; and one for Odette whom I didnt want to kiss. This for the books I never dared to write, this for the journeys I never made, this for everybody in general whom I wanted to hate and tried to understand (Sartre 245). Sartre implies that Mathieu is ultimately responsible for all of his own regrets: when the opportunities presented themselves, the choice to act was his alone to make.

Likewise, Camus uses Rieux to demonstrate this existentialist value of choice and commitment. Rieux, a doctor tending to plague victims, is confronted by his friend Tarrou. Tarrou mentions to Rieux that the victory of his great efforts will be short-lived because it will be impossible for him and his medical teams to defeat deaths devastation. Yet Rieux replies that this is not a good enough reason for him, or anyone else, to stop fighting the plague. Rieux realizes his choice is a never ending defeat, but justifies his actions by expressing his commitment to his decision: Thats how it is, and theres nothing to be done about it (Camus 118 and 189). Here, Camus character chooses to act according to his abilities and talents, to aid the town through all possible methods (Judt xi). Ultimately, Rieux accepts the outcome of his decisions gracefully. Sartre and Camus share the belief that with universal freedom, dutiful commitment must follow choice. This common ground is modelled by characters in their novels, who also demonstrate the existentialist principle of precedence of existence over essence.

The idea that existence precedes essence, originally stated by Sartre, is the foundation of existentialist philosophy. Longins companions from Iron in the Soul and Dr. Rieuxs staff from The Plague share this attitude of living for the present rather than for the future.Longin is one of the many defeated French soldiers. As they await the arrival of German troops, he pleads with his comrades to look ahead at what is to come: We got to learn to see further than our noses. We got to think about the Europe of the future, to which the men respond, Is the Europe of the future going to put food in my belly? (Sartre 89). While Longin is concerned with life beyond Nazism, the men are concerned only with their immediate survival. Through their choice, Sartre communicates that if one does not live to satisfy his physical needs, future experience is not only pointless, but also impossible.

Similarly, Dr. Rieux is a true physician. He is a physician of the human body, a healer of the flesh, not a healer of the spirit: mans health is Rieuxs first, and perhaps only, priority (Lupp 63). This is demonstrated when his friend, Rambert, asks Rieux why he aids plague victims, to which the doctor replies: A man cant cure and know at the same time. So lets cure as quickly as we can. Thats the more urgent job (Camus 188). Through Rieux, Camus exemplifies the idea that it is more important to act for the present than to justify or understand those actions. Rieux and his teams do not agonize over the deaths of their own loved ones, but rather use every moment to cure as many patients as possible.

Thus it is evident that both authors impress a parallel view of living for its own sake. Both men distinguish that living the here and now is much more important than knowing how and why the future will unfold.

In addition to freedom and survival, the authors also correspond in their portrayal of alienation. The two novels depict a similar illustration of a society that is isolated from the world around it.

In Sartres Iron in the Soul, the French prisoners of war are alienated by the Germans in a garrison. They are, as one of the men observe, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone (Sartre 262). The prisoners are tightly packed into the small courtyard, provided with only biweekly rations of bread. They can no longer relive the delicacies of the past, of spending time in their homes with families and friends, or of working at their respective occupations. On top of being conquered by their enemies and secluded from their allies, they are also abandoned by their own officers (Caute xvii). Their painful cries fall on deaf ears; no French troops remain to fight for their liberation, which merely accentuates their entrapment and isolation from the rest of the world. Now, their only hope is for mercy from their captors. Mimicking this pattern, Camus uses the metaphor of the plague to trap the Oranians within the confines of their own town walls. The people become isolated from the rest of Europe. They can no longer contact family and friends, lovers and colleagues, until the plague ceases and the gates of Oran reopen. Like the French captives, the Oranians are at the mercy of a captor. In fact, at an early stage of development, Camus even considered entitling his work The Prisoners, as the citizens of Oran are often referred to as prisoners of the plague, further reinforcing this theme of separation (Sprintzen 84). Hence, the authors views of this societal form of alienation are analogous. However, at this point the thematic similarities between the novels draw to a close.

The types of isolation presented by each author diverge into two distinct aspects. Sartre focuses on the mental aspect of alienation in characters such as Gomez, whereas Camus concentrates on the physical aspect of alienation in characters like Rambert. In Sartres novel, Frances victory over Spain causes Gomez to take refuge in America. While attempting to earn a living in New York as a critic of Mondrian art, Gomez is frustrated by the American outlook on life. He feels separated from this new society because his thoughts are widely divergent from those around him. His newfound American friend, Ritchie, tells him, We Americans like painting to be something that appeals to happy folk, or to folk who are trying to be happy (Sartre 31). Gomez, however, remains disconcerted. To him, Mondrian paintings do not ask the embarrassing and awkward questions posed by painters such as Klee, Rouault, and Picasso. Like Sartre, Gomez hates art for arts sake, and prefers to write about more important issues, such as the deathly effects of war (Caute x). He reflects on Ritchies irritation towards his ideas: My thoughts are dubious because they are European thoughts (Sartre 33). Although Gomez lives among the Americans, his contradictory opinions are considered unrealistic and unacceptable. Ultimately, he is separated from society by his psychological rationale.

From an alternate perspective, Camus uses the character of Rambert to portray physical alienation. Rambert is separated from his fianc when he is involuntarily trapped in the plague-stricken town of Oran. He is constantly looking for a means to leave the quarantined town. First, he attempts to intimidate town officials; later, he seeks illegal escape. At one point, Rambert reflects: his presence in Oran was purely accidental, he had no connection with the town and no reasons for staying in it (Camus 77). Rambert, finally remaining in the town until the plague disappears, has to endure an aggravated deprivation (Sprintzen 85). The intensity of Ramberts despair heightens the readers awareness of his alienation. Although this occurs with many other characters throughout The Plague, Camus demonstrates this theme of physical isolation more prominently in the account of Rambert and his fianc.

While both authors acknowledge societal alienation, they also express their views of individual alienation in the differing forms of mental versus physical isolation. Camus and Sartre also show great contrast regarding the existentialists concept of death. Sartre, having lived through and participated in World War II, has first hand experience of its horrific violence. Camus, on the contrary, is much younger, and has not experienced the direct physical contact with the war as did Sartre. Still, what brings Camus so close to Sartres level of understanding is his expertise in post-war politics, combined with his personal experience with chronic tuberculosis, specifically during his stay in Oran for detailed research regarding The Plague (Judt vii).

The deviation of focus is apparent: Sartre writes about death and its looming existence, the inevitable nothingness that claws at the edge of life, while Camus touches upon how to live under the suffocating presence of death. Sartres final account of the character of Brunet, a French prisoner, begins with Brunets loss of his sense of self and reality. With the death of the printer, a fellow prisoner and Brunets sole supporter of his revolt against the Germans, and the looming death awaiting their arrival at the concentration camps, all Brunet can think about is the death that consumes his tiny, insignificant life. To-morrows dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. To-morrow the black birds would come (Sartre 379).

In the train, Brunet leaves the body of the printer lying on the ground alone. Fleeing from death, Brunet ironically travels towards it. Death reigns, and nothingness reigns over it; above all things, the novelist, Sartre, reigns as the creator and destroyer of all his characters (Caute xiii).

Unlike Sartre, Camus deals with death through acknowledgement. Through Tarrous narrative journal, Camus compares the victims of the destructive pestilence with a fettering old man who is to die at the hands of the plague (Camus 228). Tarrous, and thus Camus, concern is with that foul procedure whereby dirty mouths stinking of plague told a fettered man that he was going to die, and scientifically arranged things so that he should die, after nights and nights of mental torture while he waited to be murdered in cold blood (Camus 228). By including Tarrous personification of the plague, Camus acknowledges the existence and cruelty of death. Tarrou later explains to Dr. Rieux that to be stricken by plague is wearisome, but to refuse to be plague stricken is wearier still. Many people want to live and be free, yet the only survivors battling the plague are those who acknowledge that nothing remains to set us free except death (Camus 229). For man to follow his desires without having to suffer the anguish over the nothingness that death entails, he must first confront the reality of death (Lupp 63). Perhaps Sartres experience in the war leads him to believe that there is nothing left in his life but death (Caute ix); maybe Camus young courage sees hope in the total expanse of nothingness (Judt viii). The true reasons, however, will remain buried with the authors.

Through the characters in Iron in the Soul and The Plague, Sartre and Camus portray variations on existentialist themes, some sharing a common view, and others presenting the authors unique perspectives. According to existentialism, freedom allows man to make choices in life for which he must be responsible. This permits the existentialist to live for his own existence rather than any essence it is believed to bring. However, Camus illustrates the confines of physical alienation of friends and family, while Sartre explores the expanse of separation within intellect and understanding. Sartre regards death as an omnipresent nothingness, but Camus believes that hope can be found in death by acknowledging the reality of its existence. In weaving such themes into the characters of their novels, Sartre and Camus are able to reflect the thoughts of existentialist philosophers. Like a two-way mirror, the authors write to heighten their readers awareness of the diversity in human insight.

An Exploration in Existentialism With Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert CamusJoanna Wong22 April 2002

OAC English

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