As ancient literature is generally characterized by its Father-heaviness and much medieval literature by its Spirit-heaviness, the great bulk of modern literature is characterized by a Son-heaviness. That is, it is driven not by an overarching idea or an inevitable fate, as is ancient literature, nor by the action of the story itself, as in much medieval literature, but, instead, it is driven by its characters. Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of the human condition is a useful descriptive of the state of the characters of modern literature: “We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.” These characters are not driven by and often have no reference to an overarching idea nor, often, as in Sartre’s own play No Exit, is there is any action, in the usual sense of the word, to speak of. Instead, what confronts the reader is a character or cast of characters thrust into a world they do not understand, acting (or not acting) according to their own whims, impulses, and quirks, which also they do not understand, and, finally, responsible (to whom?) for their own failings (by what standard?).
While the examples of this Son-heaviness in modern literature are multitudinous, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one of the finest examples. Nearly the entirety of the short novelette is consumed by the story of the elderly fisherman, Santiago, being pulled along in his boat by a large marlin in an attempt to capture the fish. He subjects himself to the suffering which ensues, including a terrible cut on his own hand, exhaustion, and dehydration, because he “was born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish.” He must follow the law of his own nature, though he does not understand it or how it came to be, nor is there anything finally redemptive within it.
Notably, Santiago is alone for the whole of his struggle with the fish, interacting only with himself and his personified marlin of his imagination. There is, so to speak, no one to witness his crucifixion and record his story. In the end, a group of tourists sees the remains of the marlin, after most of its body had been stolen away by sharks, lying on the beach and asks a waiter what it is. The waiter, unsure himself, responds by telling them, falsely, that it is “Eshark.”
Meanwhile, Santiago and his young boy assistant, Manolin, have returned to their usual course of living on scraps and trying in, often in vain, to catch the fish they feel compelled to chase after. Because there is only the drive of the characters, there is no final idea, logos, or Father-figure, which can make sense of all of this in the end and no Spirit, ethos, or activity, to enlighten the world about its meaning and its importance. There is a crucifixion with no redemption and no gospel. There is only a return to the norm, to a prolonged and enduring suffering.
William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a remarkable example of modern literature because it simultaneously keeps its feet firmly planted within this paradigm while stepping outside of it and returning to an earlier order in which the three elements were brought together in more equal measures. The novel is divided into four parts, each of the first three under the direction of one of the elements and the final bringing them together into a near-perfect mixture.
The first part of the novel is told by Benjy, an intellectually disabled man whose narrative of events is often confusing in its nonlinear and ungrammatical structure. It is entirely pathos, or Spirit, driven. Benjy is something of a prophetic figure in that he possesses insights into future events which others lack. His narrative is filled with foreshadowing of the fates of the various members of his family. He vividly remembers seeing his sister, Caddy, who will eventually become a promiscuous young lady pregnant at her own wedding with the child of another man, with “muddy … drawers” while climbing a tree. So much does this event inform his perception of his sister that he continually identifies her with the smell of trees. Similarly, in Benjy’s olfactory-linked premonitions, his brother Quentin, who will later commit suicide by drowning himself, “smelled like rain.”
The tragedy of Benjy, however, is that he his mental handicap is so severe that he is nonverbal. Due to his inability to communicate, Benjy is unable to convey the content of his premonitions through any means but crying, which the others around him regard as a nuisance with no discernable meaning. The Spirit-driven nature of Benjy’s narrative allows him to possess special insights through apparent prophecy and discernment, but renders him incapable of communicating or even understanding his own gifts. With only pathos freed entirely of ethos and logos, there is no means of conveying the message and no grand narrative to place it into and give it meaning.
The second section of The Sound and the Fury is told from the perspective of Quentin, one of Benjy’s two brothers. Quentin’s narrative is ethos, or Son, driven, as Benjy’s is Spirit-driven. Early in his narrative, Quentin conveys much the same idea as Sartre concerning the aloneness of the individual in a world beyond his comprehension and control, saying, “it’s not when you realise that nothing can help you – religion, pride, anything – it’s when you realise that you dont need any aid.” Quentin’s narrative adheres the closest of the four narratives to the framework of modern literature in its Son-driven nature, including the obsessions with freedom and guilt, which manifest in Quentin as obsessions with perception and time.
Both themes are introduced early in Quentin’s narrative. The theme of time is the first introduced, only a few sentences into Quentin’s narrative, as he remembers his father’s admonition to “forget [time] now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” Shortly after, there is a veiled reference to Quentin as a Christ-figure in the modern sense of the term, as he remembers another statement of his father “that Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” Quentin, like Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea, will not be subject to a horrifying but brief and glorious crucifixion; instead, he will, like Santiago, be worn away by the inevitability of time, by his own listless and unsatisfactory freedom.
The theme of perception is most insightfully introduced through Quentin’s meditation on his observations of blacks in the North and how they differed from those whom he had grown up around in the South. He realizes that the blacks he encountered during his upbringing in the South had learned to behave in certain stereotyped ways in order to act in accordance with the preconceptions of the Southern whites with whom they interacted. “That was when I realised that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior;” he says, “a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.” His conclusion is that perception is reality. And what he desires to be in reality is a terrible sinner; therefore others must perceive him as such. To this end, Quentin continually attempts to convince others that he is far more sinful than he is in actuality. He confesses to his priest that he has engaged in incest, a crime of which he is not guilty, he lies to his sister about his sexual exploits, and finds joy in being falsely arrested for attempting to kidnap a young girl.
These two themes, time and perception, coalesce into Quentin’s obsessive desire to protect the virtue of his sister. Faulkner’s own commentary on Quentin in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury are particularly illuminating. Faulkner points out there that Quentin clung to “some concept of Compson honor precariously and (he knew well) only temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead as a miniature replica of all the whole vast globy earth may be poised on the nose of a trained seal.” Driven by this antiquated notion of honor, Quentin desired to become a great sinner that “he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires.” Quentin, then, is a man out of his own time. He clings to ideals of martyrdom and chivalry whose day had long sense passed. As a result, he clings to them in a way that dislocates them chronologically and reorients them focally. Whereas martyrdom and chivalry had had God and the Christian ideal at their center within their respective historical contexts, Quentin’s martyrdom and chivalrousness instead have only an unidentifiable and unconquerable drive which results in the will to self-destruction. Because the Father/logos and Spirit/pathos have been stripped from his perspective, Quentin is left with only the Son/ethos, he has the desire to do what is right, but without the guidance, meaning, or means only imbued by the Father and the Spirit.
The third narrative in The Sound and the Fury is that of Jason, the final of the three Compson brothers. Jason’s narrative exemplifies the third element, the Father, or logos, in literature. Jason’s Father-driven nature presents itself in his obsession with fulfilling his duties and his constant insistence that others fulfill theirs. Jason’s narrative hearkens back to the literature of the ancient world in its preoccupation with fate and destiny. As Aeneas, driven by his fate and his need to fulfill his duty, leaves the sorrowful and suicidal Dido in his wake in Virgil’s Aeneid, Jason’s drive to fulfill his duty leads to the further destruction of his family, as his young niece, Quentin, is driven from the family home and his brother, Benjy, is sent away to an insane asylum. Without the Son or the Spirit, the Father becomes a tyrant in Jason’s narrative as in ancient literature.
After presenting each of these three characters, each driven along by a single element of the three, Faulkner completes his quartet of narratives, apparently presented as a foursome in imitation of the four biblical evangelists, with a final section in which the narrative proceeds from the objective perspective of a disinterested observer who brings the three elements into harmony. This imitation of Shakespeare, however, is too late to prevent the destruction of the Compson family. Instead, the separation of the three elements that has predominated the narrative has resulted in a family that has self-destructed due to its imbalance.
The one source of hope presented throughout the novel is the black house servant Dilsey, referred to in the final sentence of the Appendix with the mysterious phrase “they endured.” Throughout the entire course of the decline and fall of the Compson family, it is only Dilsey who consistently bears suffering patiently and greets every situation, no matter how terrible, with a calm and self-sacrificing love. It is this Christ-like love which shines as the only point of potential redemption in the narratives which make up The Sound and the Fury. Though she remains on the margins throughout the novel, ignored by the members of the Compson family except insofar as she can be of use to their varied ends, it is Dilsey may be the greatest character in the novel. In her are combined in perfect harmony the Trinitarian admixture of Father/logos, Son/ethos, and Spirit/pathos, with a fourth element which binds the three together: self-sacrificing love.
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.
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.
When we speak of forlornness, a term Heidegger was fond of, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense. About 1880, some French teachers tried to set up a secular ethics which went something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it; but, meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it is essential that certain values be taken seriously and that they be considered as having an a priori existence. It must be obligatory, a priori, to be honest, not to lie, not to beat your wife, to have children, etc., etc. So we’re going to try a little device which will make it possible to show that values exist all the same, inscribed in a heaven of ideas, though otherwise God does not exist. In other words — and this, I believe, is the tendency of everything called reformism in France — nothing will be changed if God does not exist. We shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we shall have made of God an outdated hypothesis which will peacefully die off by itself.
The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoievsky said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book, the Bible of modern existentialism, is one of the most difficult and yet rewarding and thought-provoking books you will ever read. There is hardly a page here which does not need to be read over and over again in order to absorb and understand the insights and ideas that are being offered. No matter how much or how little you agree or disagree with Sartre, there is one thing guaranteed: after you read this book, you will never think about your life, yourself, or the world you live in the same way again.