Modern Literature and the Human Condition

Liberal Catholic theologian Hans Küng once described the modern history of thought as “man’s great disillusionment through a series of humiliations” (On Being a Christian 37). Küng’s list of such humiliations includes Copernicus’s discovery which displaced man from the center of the cosmos, Marx’s discovery that human societies are often shaped by forces outside of the direct perception and control of human beings, Darwin’s discovery that man did not stand apart from the lower animals as something altogether different and superior but was in fact contiguous with them in his biological development and identical in his origins, and, finally, Freud’s discovery that man’s conscious thoughts and desires were often the product of parts of his mind of which even he was often unaware and over which he had very little control. In short, according to Küng, man’s modern humiliation was the product of his displacement from the center and zenith of creation accompanied by the realization that he in fact did not have as much control over his world or himself as he had previously assumed. The coup de grâce, according to Küng, came in the form “of fascism and Nazism … which cost mankind an unparalleled destruction of human values and millions of human lives” and demonstrated both man’s fragility in the hands of impersonal forces under whose control he acted and impersonal institutions which he created as well as his own capacity for inhumanity and destructiveness (ibid.). This disillusionment and humiliation of man by his own discoveries and atrocities generated the distinctive marks and emphasis of modern literature, which might most accurately be called existentialist, in its focus on the subjective thoughts and feelings of individuals, its suspicious attitude toward any collectivity or institution, and in its frequent representations of the isolation and disorientation of the individual within an indifferent world.

Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s 1963 short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits all of these qualities and themes which predominate in modern literature. In “Zaabalawi,” Mahfouz brings together the existentialist concern with man’s subjectivity and isolation, suspiciousness of traditional and established structures, and the dreamlike quality of descriptions of experience with the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and applicability and yet uniquely Islamic in its context and content. The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. The identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction from the existentialist themes upon which the author wishes to focus. Preventing certain characters from developing independent existence and personality is a common practice in existentialist literature which acts both to exhibit man’s state as subject to forces outside of his own control as well as to allow the reader to identify as closely as possible with the main character . Meursault, the main character in Albert Camus’s 1942 novel The Plague, for instance, through whose first-person narrative the story is told, is rarely given the opportunity to record individual impressions, thoughts, and ideas, but instead has almost the entirety of his internal content explained and exhibited through the external actions in which he participates and which occur around him. In his essay “The Humanism of Existentialism,” Jean-Paul Sartre, the twentieth century philosopher whose ideas are most readily identified with the existentialist movement, made this point in existentialist thought especially clear, writing “man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life” (Essays in Existentialism 47).

Although it is not a piece of existentialist literature in the strict sense of the term, Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” also demonstrates a similar approach to its main character while also adopting a unique element that makes it stand apart from similar literature. Melville’s story is in similar in its approach in that Bartleby, the title character, is experienced only through his words and actions. Only at the end of the story, and even then through a secondhand report which may be little more than rumor, does the reader gain any measure of insight into Bartleby’s inner motivations, thoughts, and feelings. The story is told entirely but another person who is observing Bartleby rather than in the first-person or by the disembodied voice of an omniscient narrator. What makes the story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” unique, however, is that Bartleby says and does remarkably little in the story. This scarcity of deed and word, of course, is what makes Bartleby important. He stands out precisely because of his destitution of action and language. What makes him noteworthy is that he refuses to interact with others in the usual way, to follow the customs and conventions dictated by mainstream society with its social demands and cultural norms and mores.

In the case of Mahfouz’s “Zaabalawi,” the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy” (Mahfouz 885). Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Soren Kierkegaard, the founding figure of existentialist philosophy, as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life. In other words, it is the existential condition of modern man whose origins and influence Küng traced.

Mahfouz’s story also demonstrates the suspicion of established institutions and collectivities in its treatment of certain figures. The search for Zaabalawi, a symbol for God, which the story describes consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind (Mahfouz 885). Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again (“Religion”). Aquinas’s statement and Mahfouz’s story alike indicate a lack of trust in and a turning away from institutional edifices in favor of a personal, more intimate, and more experiential approach to religion and to human life in general.

Finally, Mahfouz’s story exhibits the dreamlike quality which preponderates in existentialist literature. The story has a dreamlike quality throughout as the main character makes his way through the complicated corridors of an Arab urban center, visiting various people and questioning them on the whereabouts of Zaabalawi. When the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God, in line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the universe (Mahfouz 890). The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis. The dreaminess and disorientation in existentialist literature are perhaps most evident in the works of the early twentieth century writer Franz Kafka. His various novels and stories include themes such as humans turning into ugly giant creatures and people being tried, convicted, and punished on charges which no one will tell them about or allow them to defend themselves against. Mahfouz’s short story also bears another striking similarity with many of Kafka’s works in that it has no finality in the ending. Rather than attaining his goal, the story of the main character in “Zaabalawi” instead “ends” with his continuing pursuit of the distant and elusive but nonetheless necessary goal which he craves to attain.

These examples of the focus on subjectivity and individuality, suspicion for institutions, and disorientation in modern literature represent only a small sample of the attention these themes have been given in the nineteenth and, especially, the twentieth centuries. Even in stories that are not explicitly and obviously part of the existentialist movement reflect these themes. The effects of the so-called Copernican Revolution, which was followed swiftly by the equally upsetting revolutions of Marx, Darwin, Freud, and other similar thinkers, run throughout modern thought and are reflected in the way that stories are written and told in the modern world.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Random House, 2012.

Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Norwich: SCM Press, 2012.

Mahfouz, Naguib. “Zaabalawi.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 884-892.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. Vol. E. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 296-321.

“Religion: The Case of Aquinas.” Time. 15 April 1974. Web. 7 April 2013.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Humanism of Existentialism.” Essays in Existentialism. New York: Citadel Press, 1993.


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