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The Drama of Existence

by Rick Lewis

The office door slammed. I looked up to see Grant standing by the photocopier, a Gauloise dangling from his lower lip. “We need a theme for the next issue. How about ‘existentialism and culture’?” I stared back at him. “We don’t need a theme. It isn’t important. Ultimately, nothing matters. The universe laughs coldly at our puny efforts.” Grant sighed heavily. “That’s bullshit! We are magazine editors! If we don’t put together the next issue we won’t be editors any more; because we are what we do. If we don’t edit, we won’t be editors.” The glamorous blonde opposite me flung down her copy of Being and Time and angrily agreed: “Without a next issue, we have no magazine. We’ll all be out on the street. He’ll be out on the street.” Anja gestured with her cigarette holder towards our young son, who was hurtling across the office floor on his tricycle, a plastic shark balanced absurdly on his head, blue plastic flippers on his feet and an unlit Gauloise dangling from his lower lip.

The room span. The yellow of the walls was suddenly unbearable. It hurt my eyes. “Don’t try to deny our inescapable freedom,” I rasped. “That would be bad faith. To edit or not edit, it’s completely up to us. Even if somebody were to put a gun to our heads and tell us to edit, it would still be our choice whether to obey them or not.” Somewhere in the shadows, Eva the office administrator stubbed out her Gauloise, coughed lightly for several minutes and pulled a Walther automatic from her desk draw. As I gazed down its barrel it occurred to me that I was probably in bad faith; that I was merely acting the part of an editor reluctant to edit, and that it would therefore be more authentic of me to get on with the job in hand, of planning the next issue.

Grant’s proposal was not without merit, I mused. Of all the philosophical tendencies in all the eras in all the history of the world, few have inspired as many plays, novels and films as existentialism. Why should existentialism be so much more culturally fruitful than, say, logical positivism? Perhaps because it deals with universal human themes as its meat and drink. Anxiety, absurdity, bad faith and the search for meaning are the very stuff of drama, and more promising for novelists and dramatists than the verification principle.

Another boost for existentialist culture comes from the fact that it keeps extending itself backwards in time. The word ‘existentialism’ was coined by Gabriel Marcel in the 1940s, but people often apply it to writers who were already pushing up the daisies by then – to Kierkegaard, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, even Nietzsche. After all, if a writer shared existentialist concerns and an existentialist approach, then the mere fact of them never having heard the word existentialist doesn’t mean that they weren’t one. A purist might say that an existentialist is somebody who believes, like Sartre, that existence precedes essence – that we are born without a fixed immutable nature and continually invent ourselves over the course of our lives. It is often claimed that the first major thinker to articulate an existentialist philosophy was Søren Kierkegaard, whose books were written under an assortment of aliases and pseudonyms representing different viewpoints or voices. We meet one of them in Dan Sinykin’s article. Martin Heidegger didn’t produce a lot of fiction (unless you count his memoirs) but that hasn’t stopped people writing plays about him: we’re delighted to be publishing Zsuzsanna Ardó’s, which vividly dramatizes his first meeting with Hannah Arendt. This issue also has articles on Sartre’s views about writing, on Camus and Sisyphus, and on a modern existentialist film. We’ll also carefully examine the existentialist credentials of Oedipus and, naturally, Sam Spade.

Existentialists have occasionally been criticised for being a trifle gloomy. Even if you think life is a cosmic joke, it isn’t apparently one that we’re in on. Maybe we should all occasionally follow the advice of that great existentialist Omar Khayyam:

Leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me,
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.

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