Existentialism is a pretty big term to try and coin but basically is revolves around the experiences of the individual in the universe. It is a study of the meaning we give to our lives and the meaning we give to the world. These things in and of themselves have no inherent meaning but only exist in relation to people, society and ourselves.
Existentialism has links to Semiotics which is the study of meaning through linguistics and language. We see the world through the language we use, which can sometimes limit our outlook. The meaning we give the world is relative to the words we use. For example, we use the word table to describe something tan object we put things on and more than often has 4 legs and is made of wood. If this object is made of metal or plastic we still call it a table. If we use it to place books on or eat dinner it’s still called a table. Basically, we as society have all agreed that this object be called a table. That’s the meaning we give to the word “table.” But it is not a “table” in and of itself, it only has that meaning because we have all made that agreement. I can call the object a “hs3 xzzz” and say that that’s what I use to eat dinner on and it would be perfectly credible because that’s the meaning I give to “hs3 xzzz.” Obviously that jumble of letters and numbers means nothing but it shows how meaning is relative and is only based on societal convention.
This leads us onto societal expectations. We are all expected to abide to these non-written agreements and laws like don’t murder and do go to school. These aren’t laws of nature but laws society has agreed upon. They are so ingrained that we don’t question them and they become norms. Obviously “don’t murder” is a very extreme case and people shouldn’t question that law but things like “women should stay at home” was a perfectly reasonable norm to question otherwise we wouldn’t have gender equality, etc. Back in the early 20th century this would seem a crazy thing to revolt against but we can now say it was a just thing to have revolutionised society.
Immanuel Kant notes that our understanding and experiences of the world come from Rationalism & Empiricism. Rationalism is what we learn from raw data and Empiricism is what we learn from our experiences. For example through rationality we learn that touching a hot stove is dangerous because we’ll get burned. It is something we are told. Whereas if we touch a hot stove, empirically we learn that it is dangerous because we can remember the pain of the burn from touching it. It has more to do with the senses and our experiences. These two ideas can be used together but sometimes they may clash.
When we question the meaning of our existence, society or experiences, this is known as existential crisis. This thought process may cause depression, frustration, clarity or increased conviction. It is important to know the truth in life and not live by external forces such as society.
Friedrich Nietzsche believed that there is no objective truth and no pure knowledge in the universe. It is all subjective and agreed upon by people and society. It provides stability in an otherwise chaotic world. This comforts people in the random, meaninglessness of the universe. By questioning this system we can change our lives and society. It will allow us to open our eyes up to man made constructs and systems which restrict and oppress us.
This meaninglessness is recognised in the philosophy of Absurdism. It describes the lack of meaning in the universe and in anything throughout the universe. In people’s search for the truth, they may come to this conclusion of meaninglessness. Sometimes people may go through three of them in stages or experience all of them or just one. Some responses to this realisation are:
- Emotional deadness.
- Depression from society’s expectations.
- Contentedness with one’s life.
With the 2nd, the individual is depressed because their understanding of the world is different from what society portrays the world to be and what society expects of the individual. The inherent lack of meaning may also be too chaotic than they can handle.
With the 3rd, the individual is able to ignore societal constructivism and live their life contently by providing their own meaning to the world.
With the 1st, there is no emotional response. It may lead to extreme emotional deadness and passiveness. This may be a more extreme case of the 2nd response. This meaninglessness may make it hard to express emotions. I will discuss this further using texts where characters have this response.
L’Étranger – Albert Camus (1942)
I read this as part of a French Literature module. It was tough understanding the concepts in French, but I think I got the gist of it.The novel follows the tale of a man named Mersault. He shows many signs of emotional detachment and passivity.
At the beginning of the novel, he is attending his mother’s funeral and appears quite unemotional. It doesn’t cry and is seen smoking and drinking coffee by the coffin. Later on in the novel, he ends up shooting and killing a man with whom his friend had fought with. Again he appears apathetic about the murder and feels nothing. He is of course detained in prison and is passive throughout his time there. He does not show remorse or regret. During the time up to his execution, he remains unfazed and accepts his fate. This character portrayal is a perfect example of a person’s unemotional response towards the universe. Although his actions are without a doubt questionable, it shows us how some times people are indifferent towards the world, norms and laws.
Melancholia – Lars von Trier (2011)
An absolute masterpiece in my opinion. It follows the story of group of characters and their responses to a planet that is on an impact with Earth. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) appears unaffected by any of the events throughout the film.
The film begins on Justine’s wedding day. She disappears from the party on numerous occasions. She appears unhappy. At one instance her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is annoyed by her behaviour and Justine says “I smile and I smile.” To this Claire tells her she’s lying. These lines have a certain truth in the world at large. Some individuals pretend to be alright or happy when in fact they are suffering in society. Society’s expects people to be strong and suffer in silence when in fact there’s nothing wrong with not being happy or not being “ok.” People put on a face so that they won’t be seen differently. Justine later dismisses her new husband when he begins to make love to her. She walks down to the golf course and has sex with another man in a bunker.
In the 2nd act, the planet’s impact is nearing and the characters responses are portrayed dynamically. Justine is unaffected and detached by the imminent destruction of Earth. Claire is distraught and afraid. Claire’s husband is at first confident that the planet will pass by the Earth but when he realises it will in fact impact, he commits suicide. With the collision coming closer, Claire finally accepts her impending death. She wants some comfort from her sister and wishes to do one last thing with her son and Justine. She wants to drink wine on the terrace and sing a song. Justine responds to this by saying, “You know what I think of your plan? I think it’s a piece of shit.” It’s extremely condescending and harsh but it’s from the point of view of someone who is unafraid and is apathetic towards a fearful person. Justine is calm in the face of her death. An amazing scene is when Justine basks naked by a river at night in the light of the planet Melancholia. What makes this epic is the fact that she is giving herself fulling to oncoming planet. It’s like she’s accepting her fate and her death. She gives herself to the universe and it’s endless oblivion. And she is ok with this because she believes it all means nothing.
Lost in Translation – Sofia Cappola (2003)
A film about culture shock and isolation. It shows how individuals can have unemotional responses towards certain things while in a foreign culture. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an actor who is doing an endorsement in Tokyo and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is with her husband while he has a photography gig.
Bob is overwhelmed by the Japanese culture and doesn’t understand a lot that’s going on. Charlotte spends some time alone because her husband is working. One day she decides to go explore. A really great quote she says when she’s talking to her friend on the phone is, “I went to this shrine today and there were these monks and they were chanting and I didn’t feel anything.” She doesn’t find any meaning in her trip to the temple. Her own experiences are different from that of society’s expectations. This fact upsets her as she feels she should have a particular emotional response but in fact feels nothing.
Of course these characters aren’t entirely immersed in Absurdism, it’s more like situational or momentary absurdism experienced through culture shock.
Skins – Effy Stonem (2007-2010, 2013)
One of the best characters ever created played by Kaya Scodelario. Also one of the most messed up. She is extremely damaged because everything around her is always fucked up. She is continuously destructive because the universe seems to be against her. Her brother gets knocked down, her boyfriend dies, she becomes depressed. In the final series she seems to have her stuff together. She has a good job and lives with Naomi. Naomi is diagnosed with cancer and Effy is arrested for insider trading. As she is driven away in a police car, she gives her famous “Effy smile.” It’s a smile that shows she knows the truth. She knows that no matter how hard she tries and how good her life is, there will always be something that comes along and messes up her life. Because of this Effy believes there’s no point in feeling anything towards the world or life, because the universe is against her and will ultimately come along and fuck things up.