Existential Angst

I’ve been reading a lot lately. I’ve always read, and especially since I picked up the comics hobby I read constantly. That’s somewhat necessary, since I get a twice monthly shipment of comics from Discount Comic Book Service that usually ranges from about 14 to 19 books, and those things have to be read because more of those suckers will be coming in fourteen days. But beyond the comics, I’ve been reading a lot of novels recently as well. I’m on a Neil Gaiman kick at the moment; I recently read all of his Sandman comic series, as well as Neverwhere and American Gods. I mentioned American Gods in “Storytelling and Religion” in passing, and I’m constantly amazed at the mastery that Gaiman can show with a wide variety of characters at his disposal. On Free Comic Book Day back in May I picked up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, a really enjoyable story about two comic creators that works as a corollary to the hell that Siegel and Schuster went through after they created Superman. I’ve said before that it’s the type of book that has the potential to be turned into a really bad Oscar bait movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Cinderella Man, because it is very much just a book about people living their lives, and there’s no real unifying theme, plot or conflict, which has a tendency to work a lot better on the page than on the screen. The second book I grabbed on Free Comic Book Day was one that was getting a lot of press in the geek circles, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s a simple concept: take Jane Austen’s seminal work and spice it up some by having it take place in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. The idea seems to work quite well in theory; Jane Austen is certainly the type of author that needs to be spiced up, especially in this day and age. I must say, however, that the book was a complete failure in my eyes. Granted, I did not finish it, but when the reason you can’t finish a book is because you just can’t bring yourself to keep reading after less than 100 pages, that is not a good sign. The problem with the book lies in its strict adherence to the source text. This is completely written in the style of Jane Austen, and as such the novelty of these characters being beset upon by “unmentionables” loses its luster quickly, and it’s just as slow and uninteresting as an actual Jane Austen book. I guess if you’re a fan of Austen and zombies, knock yourself out, but it wasn’t for me.

What I’m focusing on now is a slow and measured reading of Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. I’m working through the first part at the moment, and even though I’ve read sections of it in the past for a 19th Century Philosophy class, I’m practically reading it again for the first time. It’s somewhat slow going at the moment because the section in which I am currently embroiled, The Immediate Erotic Stages, is an explication of aesthetics through the lens of a careful analysis of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which I’ve never heard, nor do I know much about. So there are some particulars that I can’t quite follow, but in general it’s a very interesting read. What it does lead me to talk about, and this is something I said I would get to in “Memory,” is existentialism. The two forebearers of existentialism in the 19th century happen to be two of my favorite philosophers, the aforementioned Kierkegaard, and the guy I just can’t stop mentioning, Friedrich Nietzsche. These men were not contemporaries; Kierkegaard wrote predominantly in the 1840’s and Nietzsche from 1873 to 1888. These were two philosophers that oddly enough had similar ideas from entirely different spheres of perspective. They overlap in many ways, especially when it comes to their opinions about music as one of the highest forms of aesthetic art, and while they may have shared opinions about the weaknesses of organized religion, but Kierkegaard was a deeply religious man and Nietzsche, well (and I know this will come as a shock…) wasn’t.

Existentialism as a movement grew out of the study of these two philosophers in the twentieth century. It has the stereotypical moniker of being the philosophy of the extremely depressed, disaffected and down in the dumps (okay, that last one was a little weak, but I had to keep the alliteration going). The main reason this stereotype exists is because the two most famous existential philosophers of the past sixty years were Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, neither of whom were particularly cheery. This side of existentialism seems to come more from Kierkegaard than Nietzsche, as Kierkegaard wrote an entire book on what is now come to be known as existential angst (The Concept of Dread), and most of Nietzsche’s negativity (of which there is not nearly as much as most assume) is more centered around pity and anger than angst or dread, which are entirely different places on the emotional spectrum. I do think that Nietzsche’s outlook is a lot closer to my personal beliefs and inclinations, and I wanted to spend the rest of this article talking about why this sense of negative existentialism is a bit weak in my eyes.

One of the contributing factors to this existential angst is the central belief that the philosophy is predicated on the existence of the individual. The concerns of the existential philosophy are not the world as such, but how that world is shaped by, interacts with, or relates to the individual. Since the individual is paramount, the world must necessarily be a subjective and relativistic one, because once absolutes of any kind come into play, you have created something that is above the individual, which is against the central thesis of existentialism. As such, free will is absolute, and the angst comes from the need to make decisions in a world that is predicated upon the self. This is the central thesis of The Concept of Dread. There is no escape, because the existentialist is freely and totally in control of himself, and thus has no outward release to relieve the pressure of simply living. This is also how you eventually reach the point of potential nihilism, which for the later existentialists is often rooted in the notion that we are but insignificant beings in a vast uncaring universe that has no legitimate support system with which to deal with such a perspective. As a small aside, one of the more humorous implications of this outlook was made by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The Total Perspective Vortex was designed to show the victim a scaled recreation of the entire universe, with the tiniest speck marked with a sign that says “You Are Here,” leading to the implicit ideal that nothing any of us do has any meaning within the scope of the cosmos at large. In the book, it was designed to be a torture device, and the only person to ever come out mentally unscathed was one Zaphod Beeblebrox, which wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the character.

I think that this kind of macroscopic view of our place in the world is a little out of place considering the philosophical foundations of existentialism. The philosophy lies in the concrete importance of existence, which is of course where the term comes from in the first place, and existence can only be known through the lens of the self. The angst comes into play when the self is broken down in some fashion, whether that is due to some kind of denial or despair that either comes from the failure of the self or the failure of the universe to support the self. In both cases, the subject despairs because he has no support system to use in order to escape the failings of his life. Kierkegaard speaks extensively about this feeling when discussing the anguish of the poet in the Diapsalmata section of Either/Or. The poet attempts to express his feelings of pain and depression, but he is such a good poet that his audience is struck by the beauty of his phrasing and never actually reaches the point of empathy toward the subject, reestablishing that the poet is alone with his grief and can find no solace in the existence of others. It's the famous line from Sartre's No Exit. Hell is other people. All of this is fine, and technically accurate when seen from the existentialist's point of view. The question, however, is whether this point of view is actually necessary within the scope of existentialism, and whether it is possible to keep this subjective sense of the self struggling against the uncaring world without having to immediately revert to despair and angst.

Nietzsche's philosophy, as a foundation upon which existentialism is eventually built, seems to take the more hopeful perspective. There is definitely a sense of frustration in much of Nietzsche's writing, but much of this is a product of his attempts to break down the paradigms of the well known and well accepted philosophies of history from Plato to Hegel, nearly all of which were heavily concerned with creating absolute truths that could be used to define the universe for one and all. The difference, however, with Nietzsche is that this outrage he constantly feels when railing against the universe (just read section 125 of The Gay Science, entitled "the madman") very rarely permeates his actual philosophies. In many ways, Nietzsche's protagonist (Thus Spoke Zarathustra's titular character) is very much the poet described by Kierkegaard, with the marked difference that those emotions he tries and fails to explicate to the herd are generally those of an uplifting and self-actualizing nature, but are doomed to fall upon deaf ears because of the long and storied permeation of Judeo-Christianity into the psyche of western culture. Really, Zarathustra (as the paragon of Nietzsche's entire belief system) is more akin to the Greek Cassandra, forced to constantly show the rabble the truth of the world while just as constantly failing to elicit change. This is where the existential angst would come into play, as it is the perfect setup for the subject to give in against the uncaring world and devolve and shrink back into the despair of the self. But to do so would completely discount the entire journey of Zarathustra and the self-actualization of the übermensch. By its very nature, the humanistic value system allows for a great amount of freedom. The self can achieve anything because he is bound by nothing. Nietzsche sees the despair and failures inherent in this system and chooses to not ignore them, but instead to use them as a stepping stone to a higher metaphysical existence. The übermensch is not even necessarily defined in any reasonable way; it is simply the goal of human beings.

It just seems silly to me that a philosophy so immersed in the self as the one true measure of life and the world can so easily fall into the trap of being affected by the pressures of the outside world. Really, external emotional factors shouldn't even really have much of an effect on the self whatsoever. Oddly enough, this is the main tenet of stoicism, which isn't really what any of us are going for here. External stimuli will exist, and they will impose their wills on the self in various ways. And it is certainly possible for the self to become caught up in these moments of stimulus for various reasons and with various outcomes both positive and negative, and it is perfectly natural for these things to happen, and they should be embraced as the products of an organic world in which almost anything could legitimately happen. However, to simply make the jump that the negativity will almost always win out in the way that the existential movement constantly falls back on, and that life will always (to borrow the iconic phrase from Hobbes) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, seems to defeat the purpose of the self as the core of the belief system. You become more concerned about what acts upon the self than the self itself (wow. That's quite a phrase…), and in so doing, you lose sight of what you based your entire belief system on in the first place. This, to me, is the failing of twentieth century existentialism.


I'm cutting things off here because it's late and I'm tired. Not sure if that was actually a fully conceived and executed idea. It certainly isn't meant to be a true representation of all the facets of existentialism either. I'm not writing a thesis here.