Existentialism and Post-Modernism: Value in Lingering

Exhaustion, deconstruction, existential uncertainty–these are some of the qualities associated with post-modernism. Even the name suggests passing from a known state into ambiguity. In “Myth and postmodernist philosophy,” William Doty defines the challenges of postmodernism and mythology, while also provoking the complexity of interaction between the two perspectives as they engage in a conversation with the philosophical tradition. Specifically, these interactions are defined by Doty’s article, synthesized by the question of the role of narrative in philosophy, and actualized by Albert Camus’ 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, and Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Maker,” published in 1960.

The goal of post-modernism is to inspire; the devastation is a compliment. Rising out of the ruins of two world wars and countless other crime against humanity, the challenge of postmodernism was to create new meaning where everything smelled of desolation and death. The philosophy of existentialism and the theory of deconstruction were responses to worldly circumstances. If there is no god, only the individual, how does one create purpose? Likewise, in deconstruction, the challenge is to explore the unknown space between signifier and signified and to warn “against the assumption that we can master or control either the primordial or the future” (149). As in life, the origin is elusive, and the center shifts with the approach. How does one live in a world where nothing is certain? How does one create when the foundation keeps shaking? In the postscript Doty quotes Umberto Eco’s statement of the intent of postmodernism:

The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. (154)

The aim of the postmodern perspective is to look at the world and put the existing pieces together in a way that creates a third plain of understanding. However, the point of postmodernism is not found in the resolution, but in engagement.

Of mythology, Doty engages in the question of “How we treat the past” (144). Like postmodernism, mythology is also a response to interdisciplinary questions. Doty quotes Lawrence Hatab as he poses semiotic questions regarding the nature of myth:

If language is the key to meaning, we must listen to the language of a mythical age to gather its meaning. We will try to let myth show itself through postmythical terminology. We will try to let myth show itself through its language. (146)

Responding to the relationship between myth and language, Doty expands on the idea of making the abstract importance of myth apparent through language, by stating that the function of myth is to make the everyday spectacular:

Myth, […], is a sort of science of the abstract become concrete, a symbolic language useful for designating meanings within the everyday that are initially discerned in the realms of particularly heightened (or sacred/religious) experiences.  (146)

In this statement, the goal of mythology is to elevate the mundane to the special; to abstract extraordinary meaning from what was thought to be impenetrable. While postmodernism has similar ambitions, the difference is the origin. Postmodernism is free to be explored throughout a variety of forms and gains potency through intertextual negotiations.  Mythology is developed through creation stories that preface the psychological, cultural, and religious situations that unfold. These creation stories create a meta-world; stories of creation about creation. Within these situations, it is possible to focus on a variety of personal, social, and religious qualities depending on the needs of the audience and intention of the storyteller. Mythology establishes a parallel world to reveal the purpose of the world we live in.

Though distinct in their origins, mythology and postmodernism have a natural interaction. The context of mythology creates a foundation for a variety of perspectives to be emphasized. Many postmodern tales enter into mythic dialogues with the intention of providing insight into the conflicts between individual psychology and culture during the 20th century. Through the interactions between postmodernism and mythology, it is possible to stimulate clichéd recitation into becoming an active engagement of text, psychology, and culture. Exhaustion, deconstruction, and existential uncertainty are symptoms that reflect an active, explorative engagement with the material. Both mythology and postmodernism were established to respond to questions of existence. Mythology established a creative forum to play out possibilities; postmodernism focused on the process of creativity itself.

One of the most important aspects in comparing mythology to philosophy is to understand the rhetorical devices the bridge the gap between creativity, and rational reflection. In literary criticism, Aristotle initiated the debate of the importance of form and content around 335 B.C. In The Poetics, Aristotle “propose[s] to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each; to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry” (Aristotle 19). Clearly, Aristotle put the emphasis on form over content. In the first century A.D., Longinus reversed the order, emphasizing content over form: “the greatest poets and writers of prose have attained the first place and have clothed their fame with immortality. For it is not persuasion but to ecstasy that passages of extraordinary genius carry the hearer” (Longinus 48). Longinus is interested in the divine-like essence, “the sublime,” which is the content of great artwork. Both sides of the form | content argument are of equal importance and have been reiterated throughout the centuries; both are critical to understanding the intentions of a narrative. In Myth and Philosophy, Lawrence Hatab outlines the evolution and interaction between the two approaches to reality. The intention of both mythology and philosophy is to understand the world, however, mythology focuses on creating metaphors and parallel realities, while philosophy is defined by rigorous methodology expressed through strict formulations. In his chapter “The Advent of Philosophy” he defines the role of the first philosophers in outlining the original relationship between mythology and philosophy:

Although philosophy represented a departure from mythical disclosure, the relationship between early philosophy and myth is far from black and white. As we have seen, many philosophical developments grew out of a mythical background; the mythical tradition itself gradually cultivated views of the world and human selfhood, which were preconditions for philosophical inquiry; and many of the first philosophers developed images and themes that clearly had mythical origins. In fact, as we will see, some philosophers simply conceptualized certain fundamental themes of Greek mythical culture. In other words, although philosophy introduced methodological or formal innovations which displaced the specific narrations of myth, nevertheless in many respects early philosophy shows a thematic continuity with mythical disclosure, at least with regard to the underlying meaning of a mythical world. (Hatab 164)

Both Mythology and Philosophy share “enduring interest in the divine as well as a perpetuation of the related notion that humanity runs up against a certain limit” (164). Hatab separates the two in how they relate to the “distinction between thought and experience” (165). Mythology is the experience of the abstract as the embodiment of the sacred; philosophy focuses on empirical evidence as it reflects the boundaries of the universe and the possibilities of God. Both philosophy and mythology are necessary in the development of consciousness and the self, providing a narrative method of reflection, either critically or creatively. Hatab explains, “The immediate, existential response to life’s radical changes does not permit an abstract notion of a unified self” (43). The narrative provides a space for the abstract and concrete truths to be revealed. “For instance, myth would not account for the death of a person through biological laws but through a narration telling why this man died at this particular time” (31). Likewise, philosophy would incorporate the biological laws into an understanding of universal laws, and create a critical narrative explaining the death of the man at such and such time. The narrative operates in a form to accomplish the demands of consciousness and the desires of the unconscious.

The traditions of narrative as a rhetorical device influenced by both form and content began to deconstruct as existential philosophy and the post-modern creative period emerged in the 20th century. As a philosophy, existentialism “stressed the absurdity of human existence and human freedom to make choices” (Terizan lecture). Founded in the 19th century thinking of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, authors such as Sartre and Camus stretched the boundaries of the role of the individual, society, and the universe. Sartre outlines Existential philosophy in his 1957 essay “Existentialism” stating “existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men” (Sartre 17). Sartre’s late interpretation of Existentialism equates the search for the divine as the development of the self; at once alienating the individual in the universe and evoking ultimate responsibility. A result of world wars and destruction, a primary concern of Existentialism was how to generate meaning. If one man is responsible for the existence of all men and the world is a disaster, what is the purpose of living? In the 1955 preface to “The Myth of Sisyphus” written by Albert Camus, he states that the “fundamental subject” of his essay reasons the following:

[I]t is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes, which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate. Written fifteen years ago, in 1940, amid the French and European disaster, this book declares that even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism. (Camus Preface)

As a response to Sartre’s statement that man is responsible for creating purpose in his own existence, Camus focuses on the alternative to existence: nihilism. Existentialism encompasses extremes; Man is a sublime creative power, and Man has no purpose in the universe.

Camus philosophical examination of the dialectic of meaning and nihilism follows the narrative pattern of his philosophical father, Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Birth of Tragedy. Both Camus and Nietzsche rely on mythological narratives to examine philosophical meaning. Nietzsche opens his argument with the following statement:

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality—just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations. The terms Dionysian and Apollonian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mid the profound mysteries of their view of art, not, to be sure, in concepts, but in the intensely clear figures of their gods. (Nietzsche 33).

In this quote, Nietzsche establishes a psychological paradigm between the mythological figures of Dionysus and Apollo. The mythic symbolism that was established by the Greeks is re-activated as Nietzsche explores two worlds of thought: the rational illuminated world of Apollo, and the desire-driven creative intoxication of Dionysus. Like the first philosophers, Nietzsche relies on mythic themes to conceptualize a cultural relationship with the universe. Earlier Hatab was referred to as stating that, “early philosophy shows a thematic continuity with mythical disclosure, at least with regard to the underlying meaning of a mythical world.” (Hatab 164) In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche returns to the methodology of the first philosophers as they strive to synthesize the mythical structures embodied by the culture and the empirical evidence of the lived world.

The fusion between mythology and philosophy is critical in existential thinking because both are narratives that provide models for reflection and the generating of meaning. Because of this relationship, it is understandable why Camus parallels Nietzsche and the First Philosophers as he analysis the value of suicide as an option to existence in “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Camus begins by retelling the tale of Sisyphus, changing the narrative structure to reflect the philosophical questions he is preparing to encounter:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. (Camus 119)

Camus-as-Narrator immediately raises a philosophical question, what is the purpose of life? Clearly, it is not “futile and hopeless labor.” Camus continues to explain that Sisyphus is being punished for multiple crimes, but essentially for stealing the secrets of the gods. Sisyphus’ life, death, and punishment are summarized as being the experiences of an “absurd hero”.

He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. (120)

Camus is arguing that while Sisyphus’ life was governed by the pursuit of divine knowledge and the passions of existence, his punishment is intended to embody the opposite, total futility. Sisyphus is absurd because the purpose of his life is negated by his punishment in death. Camus states that “myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (120), by negating Sisyphus’ heroic actions the Gods attempt to annihilate his existence. Camus attempts to redeem Sisyphus from a nihilistic fate by re-mythologizing Sisyphus not as a prisoner of fate, but as a conscious participant. Sisyphus becomes conscious of his suffering and fate as he watches his bolder return roll out of his control and returns to the bottom of the slope.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moment when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. (121)

Through the depiction of Sisyphus as a hero who is both condemned and redeemed by his consciousness, he provides a philosophical foundation to argue against suicide. In undertaking a conversation that evaluates the merits of annihilating oneself in response to the absurdity of experience, Camus projects new mythical meaning onto the tale of Sisyphus. Camus discovers meaning for his existence by establishing the value of consciousness, thereby creating meaning for all men. World War provided the empirical evidence to argue that existence is absurd, leading to the evaluation of nihilism and the choice of the individual to exist. When the lived-in world fails to provide a rational model for continuing existence, mythology may be accessed as the rational philosophical evidence needed to sustain purpose. If a man can imagine a world that has meaning than there is a reason to continue living.

Post-modernism is the creative response to an existential crisis. While the roots of post-modernism may be traced throughout literary history, it is predominantly identified as the critical period after WWII. Like Camus’ essay on Sisyphus, post-modernism strove to access and generate fresh understanding to mythological form and content. The deconstruction of classical formulas in structure, perception, and audience acts as a device to stimulate active participation. Like Sisyphus, post-modern salvation is obtained through consciousness. However, there is a fundamental difference between Existentialism and Post-Modernism. Existentialism focuses on absurdity as a path toward nihilism; Post-Modernism views absurdity as a stimulant of creativity. Jorge Luis Borges, the muse of post-modern narrative explorations, encounters the intentions of the creator in a very different way from Camus in his short story “The Maker.” In only a handful of paragraphs, Borges describes the relationship between the creator and the universe. The perspective of the narrator is that of the “Maker” as he describes his relationship with the lived world. This is an immediate contrast with Camus, who focused on the Gods as the inflicting punishment on man. Instead, Borges describes the “Maker” as being seduced by the sensuality of existence.

He had never lingered among the pleasures of memory. Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him: a potter’s vermilion glaze; the sky-vault filled with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen; the smoothness of marble under his sensitive, slow fingertips; the taste of wild boar meat, which he liked to tear at with brusque, white bites; a Phoenician word; the black shadow cast by a spear on the yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or women; heavy wine, its harsh edge tempered by honey—these things could flood the entire circuit of his soul. (Borges 292)

The voice of the narrator is at once the voice of God and the voice of man. The combination of abstract and physical living is overwhelming as Borges lists the “pleasures of memory.” Just as the reader is sucked into the decadence of existence, one must wonder why the story begins with the statement that “He had never lingered” within these memories. The first response is to see this statement as a rejection of the sensuous, however as the prose continues the opposite occurs. Just as the experience of living was described in the first paragraph, the second describes the departure of the Maker from the world and his experience of loss:

Gradually, the splendid universe began drawing away from him; a stubborn fog blurred the lines of his hand; the night lost its peopling stars, the earth became uncertain under his feet. Everything grew distant, and indistinct. When he learned that he was going blind, he cried out. […] Now (he felt) I will not be able to see the sky filled with mythological dread or this face that the years will transfigure. Days and nights passed over this despair of his flesh, but one morning he awoke, looked (with calm now) at the blurred things that lay about him, and felt, inexplicably, the way one might feel upon recognizing a melody or a voice, that all this had happened to him before and that he had faced it with fear but also with joy and hopefulness and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory […]. (292-293)

The experience of life and the experience of the otherworld are united by an understanding of mythology. Mythology inhabits both realms: what is experienced and what is remembered. Meaning in both realms of existence is a product of mythological making. “The Maker” is both God as he makes existence conscious and man as he mythologizes experience. By fictionalizing this process Borges creates a post-modern re-conceptualization of reality. Both Borges and Camus asked similar questions and find answers by the following mythology into consciousness. However, the form of these accomplishments differs. Camus applies a philosophical methodology to mythological content to argue a philosophy supportive of existence; Borges creates a new mythological perspective as a model of the creative process. Instead of arguing against annihilation, “The Maker” explores the content of existence in a new form, one of creative possibility.

Existential philosophical concerns and post-modern creativity are highly influential in how the contemporary world interacts with philosophy and mythology. It is uncertain how these questions will evolve into new critical forms in the future. However, what is certain is that the process of consciousness as provided for by these two disciplines will be in high demand. Thus far, many re-visionings of the boundaries between form and content, myth and logic, and the concrete and abstract have provided models for the dialectical process to be engaged. The question is not whether the conversation will be continued, but rather, in what incarnation will the narrative be propelled forward and whether the future will be perceived as a burden or a curiosity.

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