POST TIME: 12 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Existentialism: An endless narrative
That existence precedes essence is the basic principle of existentialism
Muhammad Kamruzzamann

Existentialism: An endless narrative

In the social embodiment of human beings, there are two parties: “the faceless crowd” and the atom––the individual. In the history of human development, the atomic version of humans is always marginalised as its counterpart (society and all its organs) is always given priority in the name of developing the human condition. As an authoritative body, society or any organising system always tries to have control over individuals and individuals always try to overcome the suppressive situation––a situation where an individual finds himself/herself acting according to the given purposes following certain principles, though, according to Sartre, there are no such given purposes for humans. For Sartre, an individual “is a conscious subject” ––a being, which has no predestined identity, as well as no given essence in advance to perform accordingly.

Existentialism is not something that has come forth reasonlessly; the chronological changes in the last two centuries have made the plot indeed. In the 19th Century, Science and its interpretation had challenged all the existing ideologies of that time and had an influential impact on people. The literature of the Victorian Era reflects the influence “of Science,”particularly of Darwin. The consequences of the scientific impact on the people are understandable through reading the poems of that era, specifically of Tennyson and Browning. Finally, in the 20th Century, both the World Wars had brought the ultimate destruction in the world of ‘systems’, and as a result, “emptiness” became a constant human nature. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is the perfect piece of work to get the picture of “the post-war disruption” and its continuity in the Western World.

    One thing is pretty clear: the idea of collectiveness had met its end after the collapse of people’s faith in the established conventional systems, and individuals found themselves all alone in front of themselves, as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche believed, “the crisis of the modern world is a problem concerning the individual, the human self.” As a system, Existentialism rejects “sociological concern” dealing with social organs because social systems kill individual from inside in the process of turning every ‘exclusive individual consciousness’ into ‘a collective consciousness’.

“Existence precedes essence” is the basic principle of existentialism. According to Sartre, it means that a human being first exists and then gradually creates his/her essence. Unlike Sartre, from the very beginning of the human world, social, religious and political organisations have outlined humans as objects tagged with some sort of predestined activities as if everyone is born to act accordingly believing that essence creates existence. Sartre argues that a human being cannot be described in advance because he/she is a ‘being-for-itself’, a self-conscious being “existing as a conscious subject,” an opposite version of a ‘being-in-itself’ that exists having no self-conscious. In 1945, Sartre delivered a lecture in Paris in defence of Existentialism and the criticism against it. In the lecture, Sartre brings forth an example of a paper-knife that demonstrates the difference between ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-itself’. He says, a paper-knife is designed and produced according to the plan to perform accordingly and most significantly, the purpose behind manufacturing a paper-knife is determined even before its creation by the manufacturer and thus the essence of a paper-knife––a ‘being-in-itself’––“precedes its existence.”On the contrary, a human does not fit in the list of ‘being-in-itself’ because the existence of a person––a ‘being-for-itself’––takes place before his/her essence. The basic thing that Existentialism offers is that every ‘being-for-itself’ at first exists consciously and then creates the meaning of the self.

Existentialism, as a system, gives everyone a great power and that is to choose for the self as a free being. In choosing for a self, says Sartre, a person depends on his/her own self and when a person chooses, he/she chooses being responsible for the action with having no intention of blaming others because an existential individual is responsible for what the self is, and a self is nothing but a complete form of his/her own free and responsible choices. The most important part of choosing for a self is that when a person chooses, he/she not only chooses for himself/herself but for the rest too. Nonetheless, being independent individuals, people cannot expect or it is impossible for everyone to choose for each other having the same level of accountability. From this very point, people find themselves in a problematic situation because they are responsible for both: the self and the others, knowing that it is impossible to choose with the same manner because every individual is unique and has a different taste for the self.

Uncle Ben (a fictional character from the movie, Spiderman, 2002) says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In the case of existentialism, the power of choosing freely (total freedom) brings the burden of taking the responsibility too. In order “to seek the escape” from freedom of choice and responsibility, people start pretending that the things happening with them are “unavoidable and necessary” and most importantly “determined by nature.” Sartre says, the attempt of escaping is nothing but self-deception because people are trying to escape the authentic living, and in doing so they enter the territory of “bad faith” thinking that “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It, 2.7. 54-55). Sartre rejects the classic role-playing theory and says: Every existential individual makes his own authentic meaning consciously.

According to Sartre, a ‘being-for-itself’ does not choose to be free; a being is free in a forceful way. For example, Prince Hamlet, as a fictional character, is free to choose, but he is not free from choosing; he has to choose for himself and through choosing, he creates his own meaning. The most interesting part of the play, Hamlet, is that the prince, Hamlet, is totally aware of the existential fact that if he chooses to do an act, he has to bear the responsibility of his choice too and therefore (before taking the revenge) he wants to be sure about his uncle’s (Claudius’s) involvement in the murder of his father. Existentialism helps to understand the reasons behind Hamlet’s distress because he is a conscious being and every conscious being is “condemned to be free,” says Sartre. Thus Hamlet cannot make himself free from freedom-of-choice and “total responsibility” to create the essence of life and realising all this, he finds himself in a distressful situation. Though in the end, he chooses, takes responsibility for his action and notably, faces the consequences of his action.

An existential individual does nothing but lives and produces the meaning of life, as well as gives meaning to other things. For example, a smartphone is nothing but an unconscious thing; it has no self-given meaning for itself and has nothing of its own to demonstrate. A phone––a being-in-itself––has its limit because it does not exist like an existential individual (a being-for-itself), who has to choose all his/her life and has a never-ending process to demonstrate what he/she is, as today is something different from yesterday, and tomorrow has nothing to do with a person’s yesterday. Whether it is best of times or worst of times, everyone has to exist as an authentic self by rejecting ‘bad faith’ because there is no greatness in living a life of a ‘being-it-itself’. Greatness lies in living a life of a ‘being-for-itself’––an endless narrative of freedom and responsibility.

The writer is a freelancer

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