A complete derailment into existentialism

The comment discussion of existentialism in the reading list post made me think back on why I dislike it so much, and what brought that opinion into, hahaha, existence.

Back in the day, when I was a young and eager first year college student, our professor professed a great passion for existentialism, and proceeded to explain it at a depth that she felt appropriate for folks taking a 1st year class; dipping a bit more deeply into what it was, though no where near the level of a course devoted to it.

And then she loaded us down with dozens of poems, short stories, novellas, and a couple of actual novels. We probably spent more time on this one type of literature than any other, and sort of squeezed in the rest of the normal standard first year stuff around it.

I have to say, she had a real knack for picking the grimmest, darkest, most depressing stuff possible. If there was something related to existentialism in a different era or tone, she picked it. And based on the comments, if she had a choice between a story that had humanity and one that fought against it, she picked the second one.

grumpy-cat-on-people-saying

Looking back, I can see that had she been born in a different generation, she would have been a goth or an emo kid. She had a romantic view of existentialism (which is really weird, when you think about it), of flirting with death, that I was never going to ‘get’. She was also the head of the English department, so the people she would hire often had the same attitude toward existentialism. Epiphany time for me!

I’m a bit of a Taoist and a lot of a mystic (and was back then too). When I think of being a tiny bit of dust in the universe, this doesn’t fill me with fear or loathing, but a sense of community and belonging. When I acknowledge that we are all animals underneath the veneer of civilization, I don’t see the negative of this because I don’t judge animals as innately inferior or as mindless machines.

So, I think I was deeply influenced by one overly enthusiastic point of view, and I think the prof would be shocked at how many people she managed to turn against existentialism. I am still a bit begrudging at the idea of letting go of my aversion to existentialism; habit of a life time at this point. However, I’ve put a library request in for some Camus. We’ll see!

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11 thoughts on “A complete derailment into existentialism

  1. Oy. I’ve met the type. Typically, they are convinced that they would get more “enlightenment” out of my disease than I have ever found. They romanticize stuff like the fact I’ve more than once forgotten (or not cared enough) to eat for days in a row. I want to ask if my terrible teeth (because I’ve also failed to care about dental care) are equally romantic. (I strongly suspect not.)

    I also, by the way, object strenuously to the idea that students should be warned away or protected from material “too advanced” for them. (Just barely restrains self from cursing on your blog.) I once brought a Shakespearian sonnet into a 5th grade remedial reading class and opened it up to class discussion. It’s amazing what students will engage with when you respect them and show them the horizon.

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    • I think I was taught a very specific style of existentialism, and not a very fun one. I can see the differences between nihilism and existentialism (the one I learnt about), but it’d be another long post to explain the differences (and I’ve hit peak existentialism, lol). And I also think that Camus’s type of existentialism would have been a hell of a lot more palatable than what we were taught.

      An interesting link (which if you don’t like academia, please feel free to ignore): http://www.tameri.com/csw/exist/exist.html

      I didn’t know about the divide between analytical and continental philosophy, which probably explains a fair bit of how I ended up learning what I did…

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  2. I remember existentialism being really big at my university as well. We read some play by Sarte…I can’t think of the title, but the characters are trapped in a huge trash can…. I thought it was cool…since I never saw myself in a trash can to begin with. I think my professors more or less enjoyed making us feel like crap every chance they got. Why? Maybe because we were young…or maybe because novels like Ethan Frome were so damn depressing we really didn’t want to talk about them, which of course pissed the profs off to no end. 🙂

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  3. Good. I loathe existentialism. It has a suspicious whiff of white dude wank about it to me. Oh woe is me, I can sit around philosophising about how meaningless it all is. 😉 More to the point, I dislike and disagree with the whole attitude, as you described. Like, stop trying to drag people down or push nihilism or whatever.

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    • Being able to look at the broader picture of it, I can now see some value in it, but as I said above, I’m enough of a Taoist to find much of it perplexing. (lol, a link I shared takes a dig at Taoism. I may have rolled my eyes).

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    • And to be clear: nihilism is a lousy excuse for a philosophy and navel-contemplating, when you could be out changing things and fighting wicked injustice, is worse than useless.

      Nihilism honestly sounds like the lies my brain likes to tell. I think what I like about Camus is that he did fight the inhumanity around him. He resisted and called on others to resist as well.

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