Leaps and Loops of Consciousness
Introducing The Existential Imagination, a collection of writings that include Kafka, Dostoevsky, Beckett and Sartre, the editors Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian say: "existentialism is a philosophy of disorientation and the literature that has developed concomitant with its influence is a literature of despair." There isn't much to disagree with in their succinct claim, even if the authors they choose are often ones we'd be inclined to see as peripheral rather than central to existential literature. Karl and Hamalian include Tolstoy, Proust, Musil and Moravia, who might be better analysed through other paradigms, and so we are perhaps closer to Walter Kaufman who in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, includes as well as philosophers Jaspers, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, Camus, Kafka and of course Sartre and Dostoevsky. Only the presence of Rilke might surprise us a little. For our purposes, we might suggest that there is in literary existentialism an epicentre and a periphery. At this centre is Dostoevsky, Hamsun, Hesse, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Beckett and Kelman, while peripherally we may include numerous names who would seem influenced by but not quite useful to explain or explore the existential: Pessoa, Pavese, Handke, Unamuno and numerous others. And to narrow things down further we will look at one work from each writer, drawing out the existential meat from the social gristle, seeing in each novel what appears to be existentially pertinent, from Kafka's The Trial to James Kelman's A Disaffection, from Sartre's Nausea, to Camus's The Outsider. In some instances, one might be surprised if not by the choice of writer then a little by the choice of book. We have chosen Dostoevsky's The Gambler over Notes from Underground, Hamsun's The Wanderer over Hunger. Sometimes a book that is seen as existentially epicentral (like Notes from Underground) can be so clearly the case that there is nothing more to be said about it. Other works that might seem less apparently existential can make us think a little differently about the movement, seeing for example in The Gambler an exploration of calculation and risk within a paradigm that makes the book less 'existential' than Notes from Underground, but potentially fascinating if we see it taking further the narrator's remark in Notes from Underground, where he discusses why 2x2 shouldn't equal 4, and how that plays out in a novel that makes great play of numbers. What we are looking to achieve here is a take on existential literature that is both narrow enough for a notion of the existential to be manifest clearly in all the works, and one not so narrow that each book seems a repetition of the one before it. When one looks online for books that fall under existential literature, the inclusions are so broad as to be catholic rather than existential: bewildering eclecticism that allows for Faulkner, Shakespeare, Kundera, Salinger, Conrad, Sabato, Miller and Woolf. Some will be pertinent to peripheral existential literature (Sabato and Miller for example) but when we have the inclusion of Tolkien and Huxley, Murakami and Suskind, the diffusiveness becomes close to a random bookshelf.
What might add to this diffusion is that as Kaufman says: "existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy, Most of the living 'existentialists' have repudiated this label, and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing they have in common is a marked aversion to each other." (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre) Yet this is Freud's narcissism of small difference, where the thinkers and writers are close enough to each other for disagreement to be inevitable, and it is also the consequence of an individualist philosophy. Who would want to be part of a group of thinkers if vital to the thought is the escape from group-think? As Kierkegaard says, "the crowd is untruth" (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre) Or as Kaufman says, "it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by these men is their perfervid individualism." Nobody in literature pursued this more perversely than Dostoevsky. While the motives of the social could usually be utilised to understand the individual, the Russian writer allowed for the paradoxical as a way to escape the social so that the individual could become psychically individuated. Throughout the writer's work, others are exclaiming the heroes as madmen, idiots, fools and degenerates. "Oh, you idiot!" Nastasya Filippovna cries indignantly, stamping her foot. She is referring to Prince Myshkin, the idiot of the book's title. In Crime and Punishment, Svidrigaylov offers up 10,000 rubles saying to Raskolnikov "I'm offering the money without any ulterior motive", while Raskolnikov reckons "but you really are mad!" In The Gambler, everyone is calling others idiots in one form or another. "What silly talk!" Polina says to the narrator. "Well he's a fool!" the grandma says of a beggar who stares at her rather than accepting her offer of money. By the end of the book the narrator, Alexis Ivanovich, notes that if he had been "harsh and stupid" over others in their circle, including Polina, an Englishman he once again meets has been harsh and stupid about Russians generally. Thus Dostoevsky's work is full of stupid people, idiots, madmen and fools.
However, this doesn't mean we have cynical narration indicating what intelligence, cunning and cleverness happen to be. Part of Dostoevsky's project is to turn words inside out; moods and attitudes that could be deemed negatively irrational are given a positive spin. In The Gambler, Polina goads the narrator into insulting a baron and his wife as they pass along the street. The narrator is personal tutor to the General, Polina's uncle, and when he hears how the narrator has insulted the baron and baroness, the General apologises to them and says to the narrator that he has to let him go. The General assumes this is all that needs to be said but the narrator's perverse behaviour towards the baron is matched by no less inexplicable behaviour towards the General, even if both have a logic of sorts, and a certain type of dignity. Instead of apologising for insulting the baron, our narrator insists that the General had no right to apologise to the baron on his behalf since the narrator is not part of the General's household. "I am neither your son nor your ward, and you cannot answer for my actions." He is also annoyed that the baron went over his head to speak to the General rather than dealing directly with him. What starts out as the General giving the narrator a dressing down and a sacking, instead turns into pleading by the General as he frets over Alexis Ivanovich having further interactions with the august gentleman. The narrator says that all he wants to do is "clear up this offensive suggestion that I am under the tutelage of a person who is supposed to have authority over my free will." By the end of the exchange, the General does almost anything to appease Alexis Ivanovich. But we shouldn't assume this is calculation on the narrator's part; that he gets exactly what he is looking for, that he wants to hold onto his position and force the General into a subordinate role. That would be to return to a schematic psychology Dostoevsky wishes to escape. Instead, Alexis Ivanovich acts irrationally if his actions are viewed from that of social status and personal need. He doesn't have money and though noting he "is university graduate and...a noble man", he would be deemed the General's inferior.
Dostoyevsky's genius rests on creating new causalities based on the intricacy of impulse. Here Alexis Ivanovich is insulting the baron for no better reason than that he wants to impress Polina with a gesture of rebellion within emotional enslavement, since he will do anything Polina asks, and what she asks is that he say something to the Baron and his wife. Yet his impulsive gesture that comes out of a desperate devotion to Polina becomes an assertive rejection of the General's power over him when the General thinks he can apologise on his behalf. With Polina, he may be incapable of controlling his desires and his impulses but at least he can claim some responsibility for them. The General apologises on his behalf the way an owner excuses the dog for littering another's lawn. The owner does so assuming that the apology needs to be his because the dog cannot speak and it belongs to him. Alexis Ivanovich can speak and does not belong to the General. But we can imagine easily another approach that wouldn't generate new causalities out of the impulsive. One can imagine Polina goading the narrator to insult the Baron and his wife, grateful that the General apologised and perhaps acknowledging that the general's niece pushed him into doing so. That would be straightforward, and more or less what the General would expect. But while this would be causally strong and socially rational, it could be seen as existentially weak Alexis Ivanovich wouldn't have taken responsibility for his behaviour but quickly abdicated responsibility immediately after the deed was done. There would have only been the initial impulse and then the social codes quickly returning as the narrator apologises.
Writers including Kundera and Gide have noted how Dostoevsky's intelligence is specifically novelistic. As Gide says, his "Journal is proof that Dostoevsky's genius is essentially as a novelist, for although in theoretical or critical articles he never rises above mediocrity, he becomes excellent as soon as a character appears on the scene." (Dostoevsky) In the deepest sense of the term this might be true of existentialism more generally; that if there is often a fictional aspect to existential writing that Sartre, Unamuno, Camus and others were both fiction writers and philosophers there is in almost every instance at least an interest in the individual and thus in character. In Kant and Leibniz, in Hume and Locke, there needn't be a specific self, only a general being. In the existential, there is the living breathing self. As Kaufmann says, "the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems as superficial, academic and remote from life - that is the heart of existentialism." (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre)
To offer Alexis Ivanovich's position as a philosophy would be to give it immediately a rationale it doesn't have. One senses that the narrator could have responded differently on a different day; could have laughed off Polina's suggestion he insult the couple, and if, having insulted them, accepted the General's apology on his behalf. We can say this aware that Alexis Ivanovich hasn't always followed through on Polina's wishes or his own claims. He hasn't jumped off the Schlangenberg mountain or killed someone at Polina's behest. Equally, the General is surprised enough by his actions to suggest that Alexis Ivanovich's response is a little out of character, or at least alien to the character the General had prior perceived the narrator to have. If philosophy often expected to universalise from the particular, From Descartes's evil genius who wouldn't have a God misleading him, to Kant's categorical imperative, that leaves all men the freedom to act within a universal maxim, it is the universal that matters. The specific is merely a way-station to the general. In Dostoevsky's work, the impulse takes precedence over the rational, the specific over the universal and the self-justification over the socially acceptable. Dostoevsky's originality as a thinker needs singularities to manifest it. If Descartes can create a person who thinks and then produces a rational philosophy out of that existence, Dostoevsky creates constant characters that are all impulsively producing individualising motives for their actions than cannot be taken as a philosophy but produces instead constantly evolving truths.
In this sense, traditional philosophy produces claims not truths. It isn't a truth that God wouldn't create an evil genius or that all our beliefs are based on habit rather than causes, as Hume insisted. They are claims the philosopher builds a system to justify and they don't need characters to do so, even if they might on occasion start with a notion of character to allow rigorous generalised claims to be made. However, if Kundera, Gide and others are right that Dostoevsky can only think well through the creation of character, then this is where existential fiction and philosophy meet. Clearly, most fictional works are characterised they produce situations people move through and a story develops. But taking into account how Alexis Ivanovich may have acted, we wouldn't have seen the sort of individuating impulse the Russian writer pursues. Whether it is Dickens or Austen, Flaubert or Balzac, the writing produces a story more than it produces a philosophy. Now in existential philosophy, if we think of Nietzsche's Zarathustra or Kierkegaard's Johannes, the 'story' is weak next to the philosophy, of course, but in existential fiction there is often a tension between the story generated utilising characters, and the philosophy that is behind the characters. Everett W. Knight may be right in saying that "philosophy has always exercised a strong, where not determining, influence upon literature, to such an extent that the latter is often a sort of practical demonstration of the principles of the former" (Literature Considered as Philosophy) but what happens when the philosophy isn't a Cartesian rationality Knight sees in Corneille but a constant process of individuating ostensible irrationalism? Dostoevsky was exceptional partly because nobody in the 19th-century more than Dostoevsky worked this tension in fictional form, creating characters and stories that were vividly narrational but at the same time controlled by impulses and desires that seemed greater than the events narrated. In The Gambler, the narrator one evening goes to the gambling table and makes a fortune, determined to raise the 50,000 francs that Polina needs. There are complications to the plot aplenty but what matters to us is that while Dostoevsky very successfully builds up the tension as Alexei Ivanovich puts various amounts on the gaming table, and the story keeps us updated on the specifics of the florins put on black while playing roulette, all this somehow doesn't matter. What matters is the impulse behind gambling that cannot be limited by the gambling urge. He returns to Polina with the money he has won which is four times the amount she needed, but she laughs in his face, telling him she won't "take money for nothing." In another work, her problems would be solved but for Dostoevsky a new problem has arisen to put alongside the old one. If before, it looked like Polina was indebted to another man who the narrator will be able to pay off, now she has been bought all over again by someone else. "Buy me! Would you like to? Would you? For fifty thousand francs like de Grieux?" Instead of one man who tries to buy her off and another man who loves her and is devoted to her, saving her from such a proposition, Polina sees now a doubling of the problem rather than its removal. A novel that was realistic about people's status and wished to acknowledge the happiness that a woman could have in the arms of a man she loves, would see Alexei Ivanovich's win at roulette as a happy conclusion.
Instead, Dostoevsky explores why this wouldn't be if one's priority is the singularity of one's impulses. Here Polina acts a little like the narrator earlier in the book when he confronts the General. The General thinks he has resolved a situation without taking into account the impulsive singularity that allows a character to act contrary to social expectation. And just as the narrator may have acted differently so we may assume Polina could have acted differently as well. If the General is perplexed by Alexei Ivanovich's response, Alexei Ivanovich is no less surprised by Polina's. The point of a contrary character in Dostoevsky's world isn't just that they act at odds with social expectation, they may often act at odds with what they have thought and done previously. If characters are often calling others lunatics and madmen it rests on people acting surprisingly enough for such an exclamation to be made. If they were more consistently contrary such claims wouldn't be necessary.
But why would this make Dostoevsky's work existential? While there are many terms in existentialism that we will later address and see how, for all its popularity, for all its black polo-necked cafe-cultural bohemianism, it can be pretty technical, two of the most obvious is that it attends to the immediacy of the present and the sovereign right of the self. This needn't lead to characters who change their mind from one minute to the next, who are irregular and constantly shifting laws unto themselves but it does in Dostoevsky's work. It gives to the fiction a fluidity that means characters aren't statically controlled by their social circumstances and must manoeuvre as best they can within them, but will see their social relations as but a dimension of their being. Even when Alexei Ivanovich insists that he is a nobleman and that the General has no right to speak in his steed, his assertion of this fact is weak next to the absurd position he takes, especially when surely no one who proclaims their noble status would be inclined to insult a baron and his wife just so he can satisfy another's impulse. His static claim is weak next to his mobile deed; he hasn't acted at all like a gentleman and so it adds to the perplexity rather than alleviates it. Later, when Alexei Ivanovich takes up with a fellow gambler in Germany, travelling with her to Paris, he isn't the naive and the lovelorn, wasting the money he has made on a woman who is not worth the attention. He is well aware she wants his cash and is determined to squander it on her. He doesn't retrospectively think she is "calculating, mean and miserly" with her own money and willing to waste 100,000 francs of his. He knows she is, right away. Decorating her apartment, holding balls and buying a horse and carriage with the narrator's money would in another novel require that Alexei Ivanovich be blinded by Mademoiselle Blanche's charms and blind to her greed. For the narrator it is the other way round as he takes full responsibility, fully acknowledges his pathetic weakness which is of course also a certain type of strength as he gives his money knowingly to someone who doesn't deserve it.
We can imagine someone lovesick (as we've noted) ambitious or charitable giving their money to a lover, embarking on a misguided project that will make them a fortune, or insisting on philanthropic activity. But in each of these instances, they would be living for the future or for another. By giving his money away stupidly yet thinkingly, the narrator creates a greater lucidity than in someone who may be using their money selfishly or unselfishly, and thus not stupidly, but where the thought behind the deed would be incorporated within it. Dostoevsky suggests that the most thoughtful (self-conscious) act may also be the most stupid from one perspective but the writer's purpose is to show another perspective: one that places someone in control of their life even if from a social position it seems mad. Whether it is Alexei Ivanovich insulting the baron, or spending his winnings on Mademoiselle Blanche, he is free to do so, and so he does it. The laws of social decorum would usually permit the former, and the various mechanisms of the ego prevent the latter. But Dostoevsky proposes a person who can live in the present and suggests the self is potentially capable of immense and contrary fluidity.
It is partly this aspect Sartre expands upon in Nausea, taking the fluidity into the arena of perceptual flux. Late in the novel, the diarist Roquentin says "I haven't any troubles, I have some money like a gentleman of leisure, no boss, no wife, no children; I exist, that's all. And that particular trouble is so vague, so metaphysical, that I am ashamed of it." At the very beginning of the book, he says: "something has happened to me; I can't doubt that any more." He sees there is something new about his hands and the way he picks up a knife; or maybe it is the way the knife is picked up. "Just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality." Objects and subjects are no longer easily distinguished; the self and what it comes into contact with generate a nausea of perception. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre makes much of what he calls the in-itself (en soi) and for-itself (pour soi). He sees that we are subjects to ourselves and objects to others; that we are active where things are static, that one is constantly dissatisfied and how could it be otherwise when our being is in a constant state of flux, trying to achieve at least an aspect of fixity? As Thomas Flynn says, "The in-itself is solid, self-identical, passive and inert. It simply "is." The for-itself is fluid, nonself-identical, and dynamic." (Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy) In Nausea, at one extreme a person becomes so lost in the flux that perception is weakened and the self doubted: at the other, someone is assured and obvious, confident and cliched, full of ready-made thoughts and observations. If Roquentin is an example of the former and hence the title of the book, when he sees a painting of a dignitary called Jean Parrottin he thinks: "this man possessed the simplicity of an idea. Nothing was left in him but bones, dead flesh, and Pure Privilege. A real case of possession, I thought...Jean Parrottin had devoted the whole of his life to thinking of his Privileges." No such nauseous attacks would overcome such a man. "Now I know: I exist the world exists - and I know that the world exists. That's all. But I don't care. It's strange that I should care so little about everything; it frightens me." (Nausea)
There is a paradox in nausea that gets to the basis of the in-itself and the for-itself. One cannot not become constantly but perhaps the best way to overcome this becoming is to have the fixity of an idea just as objects possess a fixity in their matter. Parrottin had an idea that could take him through life but Roquentin muses over how inflexible such a being must be. "When they went in [to Parrottin's office], they come up against that terrible gaze, as against a wall." In contrast, Roquentin is wet clay, unable to gather together a perceptual world that can lay claim to the solidity of a self. He will despise the Parrottins of the world but is aware that if one mustn't become a wall, how to avoid becoming a soft, malleable substance? If it can seem like a depressing question in Nausea, it becomes a pressing one more broadly in Sartre's philosophy. Parrottin would not accept his being as contingent; Roquentin knows it is as he feels the contingency of the world and the responsibility one has for one's place within it.
Hence the importance of bad faith in Sartre's work, and the distinction between facticity and choice, between what is a fact of our existence (like the colour of our eyes, our height and where we were born) and what is not. If Roquentin were to sink into nausea, he would be failing to assert himself on the world but, if he were to accept Parrottin's assumptions and become a man of the world, that wouldn't be much of an answer either. At the end of Nausea, when Roquentin listens to the song 'Some of These Days', he wonders how he may escape his irresoluteness. How he might find a means to escape nausea on his terms and not society's. Speaking of writing a novel, he says: "Naturally, at first it would only be a tedious, tiring job, it wouldn't prevent me from feeling that I exist. But a time would have to come when the book would be written, would be behind me..." He reckons that then "I might be able to recall my life without repugnance. Perhaps one day, thinking about this very moment..." If one sees that Dostoevsky gave to the novel a respect for the immediacy of the present; to show a character escaping expectation and finding singularity in the contrary, Sartre pushes this problem further but sees the danger of arbitrary behaviour. Alexei Ivanovich would feel as much contempt towards Parrottin as Roquentin but rather than creating a character who ricochets around society, Sartre creates a very 20th-century fictional personage who is caught in his thoughts as he retreats from the broader milieu. Like characters created by Hamsun, Hesse, Beckett, Camus and Kelman, Roquentin avoids bourgeois hypocrisy but the price is often extreme alienation. They become potentially their own men by retreating from the societal but potentially becomes the operative word. They have to turn their singularity into an activity otherwise nausea, disaffection, despair and despondency lurk. Robert Denoon Cumming says that "Sartre's preferred idiom for what the agent does when he acts is that he is making something of himself, and the example he favors of a significant moral choice is that made by an artist, who has made something of himself (in a moral sense) by making something (in the esthetic sense)." (The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre) However, to make something of oneself is often, more generally, seen to be consistent with the sort of person Parrottin becomes. A person makes something of themselves by becoming a doctor, a lawyer, perhaps an architect or scientist they fit into society. If Cumming is right that Sartre focuses instead on the artist it lies in the singular rather than the normative: in the individual choice made rather than the social expectation met. One makes something of oneself while being oneself.
But one needs to make something to be someone Sartre would propose, and this is what Roquentin cannot at present manage to do. Jean Parrottin manages all too easily, with apparently no existential effort required: he is Pure Privilege. To be someone without making something and to make something without being someone would seem to be the twin hazards of the existential. To become a man of character that bourgeois society accepts is no less a failure than to become unable to shape existence out of personal choice. Whether relying on society to make us who we are or failing to make ourselves, both would be existentially enervated. The former would lack authenticity and the latter will. Rather than an ego that negotiates the world according to its given expectations, Sartre proposes ipseity: individual identity. As Flynn notes, "the shift is from relations of "appropriation" or being where I focus on identifying with my ego in a bad-faith flight from freedom, to relations of "existence" and autonomy where I attend entirely to my project and its goal." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) The individual has a task, we might say, while the bourgeois agent has an ambition: a set of societal expectations that ought to be met to be a fully-rounded and developed character. Sartre says in Nausea: "no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, a probability which can be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city and myself. When you realize that, it turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float, as the other evening at the Railwaymen's Rendezvous: here is Nausea." One must face nausea but not succumb to it, acknowledge contingency without assuming everything is thus meaningless. To be oneself becomes an act of tension, between the freedom that is vertiginous and the will that is constantly in the process of forming one's being. "A choice is said to be free if it is such that it could have been other than what it is." (Being and Nothingness)
Sartre gives elsewhere the now-famous example of a young man who must choose between fighting in the war and avenging his brother's death, or looking after his mother who will be left alone without him. Sartre cannot tell the young man what choice he should make - but the difficulty of the dilemma is what makes us aware of choice in the first instance. If the boy can fully allow for the tension in the choosing he will have escaped the bad faith of 'having no choice'. The greater the impossibility of the dilemma, the greater is the choosing. To decide on a date slice over a piece of carrot cake is strictly speaking a choice too, since in Sartre's formulation it can be other than what it is. But this is true of the most innocuous choosing to the most pernicious: to settle for the date slice over the carrot cake or one child over another when the Nazis insist they will only allow one of your children to live. The former is not really a dilemma even if it is a choice, while the latter demands the maximum amount of tension in the choosing. Do you choose your young son or daughter and on what basis? Is one child a favourite or will you choose based on practicalities? Is your son stronger or your daughter more beautiful? Is one sickly; the other strong? Who will be more inclined to survive? Yet Sophie's Choice (to mention the title of the William Styron book where such a dilemma is offered) is perhaps like Abraham expected to kill his only begotten son for God, a sort of Hobson's Choice. One can choose but one is forced to choose: it can seem like no choice at all even if, strictly speaking, "it could have been other than what it is". In the example of the boy who can go off to fight or stay, there are other choices available as well. He could join the army and desert; he could stay and later join. The point however is that the possibility or impossibility of choice is recognised. If someone says they have no choice but to look after their mother that would be failing to recognise the choice and resolving the dilemma in an imperative. One ought to look after one's mother. True, but it could be argued that one ought to go off and fight and avenge one's brother just as readily.
The bourgeois will let the choice be made for them; the person overcome with nausea cannot make a choice at all. The apparent arbitrariness of choice is what Dostoevsky more than most brought into literature: that the impulse compels his characters with actions that can seem inexplicable to those around them. Sartre sees that an action can be very complex indeed: that choosing one thing over another can involves so many feelings, ideas, past experiences, future ends, that it can be very hard to discern what makes for an action. Dostoevsky understood that to claim to know the reasons for one's actions is a form of bad faith; that by making the action surprising, apparently motiveless and counter-productive, he gives to the action the complexity it deserves. He refuses the transcendence that generates bad faith. Sartre reckons, "how can I evaluate reasons and motives on which I myself confer their value before all deliberation and by the very choice which I make of myself? The illusion here stems from the fact that we endeavour to take reasons and motives for entirely transcendent things which I balance in my hands like weights and which possess a weight as a permanent property." (Being and Nothingness) Ipseity is to see oneself as acting without transcendence and this is where nausea threatens but must be overcome. Yet to ignore it altogether is a problem in a different direction.
In both The Outsider and A Happy Death, Camus enquires into the consequences of an action, though the former might not seem like a choice, while in the latter it appears subsequent to a motive. In both books, the central characters kill a man. In The Outsider, Meursault does so due to the heat and the sun shining in his eyes. In A Happy Death, Patrice Mersault kills chiefly because he wants a better life. He murders a man he befriends, a man who has lost the use of his legs and thinks his life is worthless, wishing he had the courage to kill himself. "Zagreus says "I don't like talking seriously. Because then there's only one thing to talk about the justification you can give to your life. And I don't see how I can justify my amputated legs." It would be wrong to say that Patrice kills Zagreus to put him out of his misery, but equally he doesn't kill anybody else. Some might say he kills Zagreus because he has money and after the deed Patrice goes off with it, leaving his dull job and travelling through Europe. But that would be to turn the book into the sort of thriller Patricia Highsmith wrote so well. Instead, we might wonder how Camus' novel differs from even the best of thrillers to comprehend an existential aspect. If for some it might seem like a failed Highsmith, and for many a poor version of The Outsider (which it preceded and in many ways resembles), it rests on the messy tension between detailing a murder and then ignoring it, and musing over how free someone is when they have the money to enjoy the sensual life they yearned for while, before, working in an office. When Patrice escapes to Prague he notes that "to suffer so distinctly here what was absurd and miserable in even the tidiest of lives, showed him the shameful and secret countenance of a kind of freedom born of the suspect, the dubious. Around him the flaccid hours lapped like a stagnant pool." In Highsmith's work the tension the murderer feels isn't chiefly existential but suspenseful: the fear of getting caught over the anxiety of being. In The Talented Mr Ripley, the title character has murdered the wealthy Philip Greenleaf. Late in the book, he is in a hotel room and a message arrives. Greenleaf's father is in Venice and wishes to see him. Highsmith tells us that on receiving the note Tom shivered...he dreaded it...He imagined greeting Mr Greenleaf at the door, shaking his hand firmly, and he tried to imagine his questions, but his mind blurred tiredly and it made him feel frightened and uncomfortable." The tension rests on the plot that is manifest in the body; in Camus, the tensions rest in the body as an existential condition.
The responsibility one feels in an existential novel is chiefly towards oneself and how to live in the world, a murder a secondary consideration, merely a part of the primary concern. This doesn't mean Camus or any other existentially-inclined writer is indifferent to culpability but it must become part of a bigger question than fear or guilt: of worrying about getting caught or feeling that one will be judged by a higher being for one's act. Obviously, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment opened up this question, wondering if a man can put himself above God and the Law, and finding if he cannot it might have more to do with his chaotic disposition than it does with a priori notions of right and wrong. In A Happy Death part of the book's provocation rests not on the suspenseful time after committing a murder, but the idle time after leaving one's job that the murder has afforded. Now with the resources to live freely, how does Patrice take responsibility for the time he has on his hands, rather than the blood on them?
In The Outsider, Camus addresses the problem differently. Meursault is caught and while the first half of the book has followed his sensual life, the second half focuses on his trial and incarceration. Here, responsibility takes an interesting form since Meursault isn't at all in control of his time; that has been given over to the authorities. However, he is in control of the perception of his offence. If he will be held responsible for the Arab he murdered, it will be on his terms and not the moral dictates of a legal system that thinks he must be guilty because "I declined to see Mother's body, I'd smoked cigarettes and slept, and drunk cafe au lait." Here he understands he is guilty, just as he soon realises that the court has no interest in what he has to say or how he might be able to justify or explain his actions. Meursault may insist, "Damn it all, who's on trial in this court, I'd like to know? It's a serious matter for a man, being accused of murder. And I've something really important to tell you." But he also knows that his "fate was to be decided out of hand." Once arrested, the trial continues as though he doesn't exist except as an argument for the prosecution or the defence. He will go the guillotine as a man who didn't cry at his mother's funeral and went to see a comedy at the cinema after her demise, and will see the absurdity of such a court system; lucid in the face of death, in the absence of God and with a trial that he has no part in.
Meursault's choices are limited but they are not non-existent. He could accept the chaplain's need to redeem his soul, try to find mitigating circumstances why he didn't cry at his mother's funeral and justify why he went to a comedy film so soon after she died. But that would be to collude with the system that will punish him, and agree too much to their terms. If Patrice has immense freedom after murdering Zagreus, and must fill it responsibly, meaningfully and sensuously; Meursault has almost no freedom but that doesn't mean that he is completely without choice. Camus famously said that "in our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death" (Selected Essays and Notebooks) but if Mearsult did not realise that this would cost him his life after murdering another, he can go to the guillotine aware that he acted freely by not allowing the law to dictate the reason for his actions and the excuses for them. If as Camus says " a man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says" then Meursault is indeed more of a man, someone who isn't only suspicious of others speaking for him but even of speaking for himself.
There are reasons for this and one rests on language and the other, and closely associated with it, the normative as opposed to the singular. When Wittgenstein, Derrida and others observe that there is no such thing as a private language, we can note that, as soon as someone opens their mouth to speak, the singular becomes the normative. As Terry Eagleton says, writing on the similarities between Wittgenstein and Derrida: "How can I invent names for my experiences unless I am already inscribed in a discourse which includes the practice of naming experiences? How could I get somebody to understand the name of an object by pointing to it, unless he or she already grasped the social institution of pointing, looked away from my fingertip to the object rather than up my arm?" (New Left Review) "Wittgenstein as much as Derrida", Eagleton adds, "is 'opposed to the idea that certain forms of language are specially privileged, meaningful in some unique, fundamental way'".
Even if Camus says that he is freer by what he keeps to himself than by what he says, this shouldn't be taken as a position similar to Wittgenstein's or Derrida's on this point. One reason why existentialism created a technical language was to generate words that could have a singular meaning, and where the context would give singularity to them. The words wouldn't be the usual social babble but words that expressed the self. Otherwise, best shut up. As Kierkegaard would say, "how ironical that by speech man can degrade himself below dumb creation he becomes a chatterbox." (The Last Years: Journals 1833-55) Heidegger used the term Gerede to describe idle talk: "We do not so much understand the entities which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said in the talk as such." (Being and Time) If in quite distinct ways and coming from very different philosophical backgrounds, Wittgenstein and Derrida see the impossibility of a private language, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, by indicating the impoverishment of most speech, propose that there is language that can express the self and not only the social. The sort of silence Camus admires would seem closer to resisting language that one cannot call one's own rather than a position that insists language a priori cannot be one's own.
Wittgenstein and Derrida have a point that can't be denied, but an existential position would argue that language speaking us rather than we speaking language (in a Structuralist formulation) doesn't allow for the freedom to speak individually. We cannot invent language and expect to be understood but writers and philosophers are constantly finding new formulations and concepts that make language much more their own than someone who uses language phatically or idiomatically. Someone saying it is a lovely day, or saying it never rains but it pours won't be expressing themselves in language, but when Camus says in 'Summer in Algiers' that "at the other end of the town, the summer already offers us the contrast of its other wealth; I mean its silence and boredom. These silences do not always have the same quality, according to whether they are born of shadow or of sun", he is speaking about more than the weather. (Selected Essays and Notebooks) Language, like the law, will often speak in our name, but that doesn't mean that we mustn't try to find a way to speak in our own manner within the constrictions. One wouldn't wish to undermine Wittgenstein or Derrida; more to make clear they are very far from an existential perspective.
Yet where does this leave Kafka, a writer often invoked existentially but who might seem closer to Derrida (who has written on the Czech writer) and Wittgenstein (with a number of critics have drawn similarities between the Viennese philosopher and the Prague novelist). Rebecca Schuman says, "the purpose of this article is to show that Wittgenstein's early philosophy of logic offers extraordinary new insights into the inner workings of Der Proce despite their obvious differences in form and content." ('Unerschtterlich: Kafka's Proce, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and the Law of Logic') Raphael Foshay notes, "Derrida sees in Kafka's parable an exemplary instance of the peculiar kind of differential relations he signified in the neologism differance. The doorkeeper's endless deferral of the man's request for entrance, keeping him waiting for a lifetime on the hither side of the aperture to the law, configures the material interdependence of difference and deferral that Derrida embodies in this key construct of deconstruction." ('Derrida on Kafka's Before the Law"') However, Kafka is so fertile a writer, so suggestive in his exploration of being, that he can be vital to animal studies, paranoiac websites, exophonic enquiry, the complexity of social security systems, the study of the Other and numerous and by no means overlapping areas of analysis. Seeing Kafka through the prism of Wittgenstein and Derrida, and their inquiry into language is useful, but for our purposes only as a way of rescuing him again as a figure of the existential. While Derrida's notion of differance, with its play on difference and deferral, can illuminate the frustrations of Kafka's 'Before the Law', the twist in the tale rests on the singular. A man from the country comes to seek admittance to the Law but no matter what approaches he tries, he cannot gain entry. At the end of the story, the man says that since everyone strives to reach the Law, how is it that nobody else but he has begged for admission. The doorman replies: "No else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."
There are many ways to read this story and when it appears near the end of The Trial, various interpretations are offered by Joseph K and the priest who tells him the tale. But here what counts is that this is Joseph K's gate, nobody else's. Kafka in his work may often indicate wider oppressive forces but they are also oddly individualising, as though they couldn't quite happen to anyone else. Whether it is writing about his father in Letter To His Father, to his lover in Letters to Felice, or offering 'The Hunger Artist', Kafka writes from the inside of an experience that insists what is happening is happening to him. It may also be happening to others of course but part of Kafka's genius is balancing the twin bedevilments of egotism and scepticism: to acknowledge that what is happening to him may or may not be happening to others but he cannot always say with certitude that the experience is general or particular, though he can say that it is his experience. When near the end of 'A Hunger Artist', the titular figure says people are wrong to admire his fasting, he says that he fasts "because I couldn't find food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." But he is not, it seems, like "you or anyone else" and vital to Kafka's work is creating the literary space for the exception.
One reason why this isn't egotistical rests on the modesty of the enterprise and the fragility of the figures he often creates. In 'The Bucket Rider', in need of coal, the narrator says "I must approach like a beggar, who with the death rattle already in his throat, insists on dying on the doorstep..." "It is possible that some people are sorry for me, but I am not aware of it. My small business fills me with worries that make my forehead and temples ache inside yet without giving me any prospect of relief, for my business is a small business.' ('The Tradesman') Sometimes Kafka's characters can be bumptious and indignant and none more so than Joseph K, who says early in the novel, as he passes numerous children playing on the stairs: "If I ever come here again...I must either bring sweets to cajole them with or a stick to beat them." But usually the emphasis rests on creating characters or reflecting his own thoughts as frangible and sensitised. In a diary entry, Kafka says of his friend, Max Brod: "Max's objection to Dostoevsky, that he allows too many mentally ill persons to enter. Completely wrong. They aren't ill. Their illness is merely a way to characterize them, and moreover a very delicate and fruitful one." But while Dostoevsky's characters usually function within a world of external conflict, Kafka conflicts are much more internal. Dostoevsky's often fight for their singularity and this is partly why there is still a great deal of melodrama in the Russian writer's work. In Kafka's fiction, and also in his letters, diaries etc, people are surrounded by a solitude that no narrative can quite melodramatise. Even 'Metamorphosis' quickly settles down into an account of the everyday worries that accompany someone when they wake up one morning and have turned into a giant beetle. His father says "...the chief clerk has come and wants to know why you didn't catch the early train." One might have become an insect but that doesn't mean someone escapes their obligations.
Egotism in Kafka is a complicated thing but so also is scepticism. He cannot know how others think or feel but literature is partly the space that creates this possibility. Few writers more than Kafka insisted on the compassionate, however far from taking it for granted he happened to be. Milan Kundera, who has written well and on several occasions about his fellow Czech writer, says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: "In languages that form the word 'compassion' not from the root 'suffering' but from the root 'feeling', the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other's misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion joy, anxiety, happiness, pain." Though Kafka may often be seen as a great writer of suffering, this is contained by a greater need to express feeling, and one that extends not only to other humans but also non-human animals (apes, mice, dogs and moles) but even the inanimate too. In a beautiful short piece, he suggests the difficulties of being a bridge: "I was stiff and cold, I was a bridge, I lay over a ravine. My toes on one side, my fingers clutching the other." ('The Bridge') Scepticism is overcome imaginatively, by thinking oneself into impossible states as though all states other than (and yet including) one's own are difficult. Kafka doesn't propose that since we are human and we have language then the barriers between us are small and those between us and other species much greater it is paradoxically because they are great between one being and another that they can be closed not by assumption (we share a language, a set of cultural norms, a religion) but by the imaginative faculty. There are many ways into Kafka's claim that "I am nothing but literature" but one would be that literature is where language can escape more than most the assumption of the communicative and insist on the imaginative. In Letters to Felice, Kafka says, "I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp. Food would be brought and always put down far away from my room, outside the cellar's outermost door."
Literature is created out of communion rather than communication; at a distance from the social rather than in close proximity with it. To close the sceptical gap with assumption would be a meagre consolation. Everybody might know what you mean but that doesn't mean anybody cares about what you mean. When Kafka says "Viewed from the outside it is terrible for a young but mature person to die, or worse, to kill himself...To die would mean nothing else than to surrender a nothing to the nothing but that would be impossible to conceive, for how could a person, even only as a nothing, consciously surrender himself to the nothing, and not merely to an empty nothing but rather to a roaring nothing whose nothingness consists only in its incomprehensibility?" How to convey that in communication; in the sort of language, based on certain customs, that allow one person to speak to another? Kafka's interest in the singular and the sceptical is finding in the outer reaches of scepticism that singularity which might just possibly be shared, and can only be discovered in literature.
In this sense, existentialism is interested in an idiotic language if we think both of its usual meaning and the etymological root of the term. Idiot comes from the Greek, and in its original it means idios: one's own or private. An idiolect is a private language: the speech and habits of a particular individual. Much that passes for existential literature plays on the notion of idiot and idios, the person who is a fool and the one who is an individual. Nobody more than Dostoevsky pursued this question in The Idiot, but we find variations of it in many an existential work, and certainly in Knut Hamsun's. Often his characters aren't quite part of society but neither are they outside of it either. They are adjacent figures who keep their distance but can't resist the lure of the societal, especially in the form of women. If in The Gambler, the narrator acts 'idiotically' towards the baron and his wife, Hamsun's characters often act idiotically towards women, as though searching in themselves for a private feeling they wish they could seek alone but find that others can steal into the comfort of their nervous system and create in them stupid behaviour. In The Wanderer (Under the Autumn Star), Knud Pederson assumes an affinity with the wife of a captain he is working for. When he leaves to work elsewhere, he writes to her and receives the briefest of replies: Don't write. Does this mean that she wants to see him instead? When she visits the city he follows her there but she leaves before he can see her. Does this married woman want to see him but won't for moral reasons or indifferent ones; is she attracted but resistant or repulsed and irritated? In the second novella (On Muted Strings), she appears again, this time in a large town where he is working for a youthful engineer on a logging project. She takes up with the young man and is horrified to see Pederson, and they don't acknowledge each other. But she still has power over him and remains a preoccupation throughout this book that offers the most unrequited of romances. For a man who doesn't want to settle down this woman nevertheless consistently unsettles his nerves, and the second novella is narrated in a manner that leaves Pederson hearing through others the actions of Madame. He hears of the arguments she has with her husband when she leaves the engineer (or he leaves her) and she returns to her husband's estate. By the end of the book she is dead: walking across thin ice to see the engineer, she disappears into the water. But there is much by this stage to suggest she is suicidal, a childless woman whose best years are behind her and little but anguish in front of her. Pederson, older still (he seems to be two score and ten), might be anguished too, but he has always sought the wandering life and if his nerves are still on edge then this he can credit to age rather than women. "...It must be my years which make me so weak, my nerves that join in the sounds I hear."
In Hunger, the desire for food often outstrips the desire for women. "The truth was there wasn't much spring left in me these days. Women became to me almost like men. Hunger and misery had dried me up." Nevertheless: "I felt...my embarrassing position towards this unusual whore, and I determined to save face." The narrator then enters into a speech that astonishes her as he says he isn't one of those types who run after young girls, and ends by saying to her "Good night! Go and sin no more." Frequently, Hamsun's central characters are trying to retain their dignity in the face of non-existent slights and there is a Dostoevskian amusement to be had in these individuals colliding with the societal. James Wood quotes a letter Hamsun once wrote where he says "the kind of oddities Dostoevsky has written about in the three books by him I have read ... are something I live through daily.'" (London Review of Books) Hamsun's characters, for all their need for isolation, very much get out and about, creating, like a Dostoevsky figure, social skirmishes as their inner worlds collide with external social norms. Kafka's characters are usually much more interior people so that even if there are obviously many encounters in The Trial and The Castle, the oddities are in themselves odd, as if we might think they are products of the persecuted character's imagination rather than a societal collision, where in the latter a strong subjectivity meets with horrified social expectation. When Kafka said the "essence of his being" was angst, it was in Erich Heller's words "that anxiety which rises like a poisonous exhalation from the gap between a self and a world." (Kafka) This is a constant question within existential literature but in Hamsun as in Dostoevsky it leads to melodramatic event, as the gap is externalised, or to introspection, if the event is internalised as we find in many of Kafka's stories, in Nausea, and as we will see too in Hesse, Beckett, and Kelman.
What is interesting about Hamsun's work however is a general physical robustness we find in his characters. While Kaka's often suggest the weakest of constitutions, Hamsun's are tough people who can work long hours in all weathers. Hamsun in his early years, Karl W. Maurer notes, "herded cattle through the long and magical northern nights lit up by the Arctic sun; roaming the Norwegian countryside and its vast forests." ('The Solitary Outsider') He also when a young man worked in the US doing various jobs, including employment at a lumberyard for a year in Minnesota. But "whoever thinks this was Hamsun's life in America is mistaken. He did some travelling and tried a variety of occupations; yet for all that his experience was rather limited. He did not as one might be led to think from his writing work as a fisherman on the Newfoundland Banks, as a laborer in California vineries." ('Knut Hamsun and America') Nevertheless, however active he may or may not have been in his actual life, Hamsun's characters are workers as many existential figures are not. Whether describing the specifics of logging or house painting in The Wanderer, harvesting in 'On the Prairie' or the seafaring that sits behind Mysteries and leads to the conclusion of Hunger, manual labour is often present. Despite the numerous privations his characters undergo, they are constitutionally solid. Even the no longer young central character in The Wanderer is still physically able as he disappears into the wilderness, aware that "something surely could have turned up for me", though he instead decides to retreat to a logger's cabin.
Yet probably his most famous book and surely his most existential is Hunger, where like many a character in such works a lot of time is spent in an urban environment hiding away from people more through staying within their four walls than venturing into nature. in this sense, there are a few similarities between Hunger and Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf even if the degree of deprivation is much greater in the former than in the latter. While the figure in Hunger is so cold in his room that he warms his hands by passing it through his thick hair, Harry Haller takes a room in a bourgeois family home in fact two rooms, a bedroom and a lounge in the attic. He is himself bourgeois: "I would not for the world laugh at the bourgeois life. It is true that I live in another world, certainly not in this....but...I am the son of a mother, and my mother too was the wife of a bourgeois..." If Harry lacks the anger and force often found in Hamsun characters, he makes up for it in sorrow and suicidal intent: "the next time I have recourse to the opium, I might allow myself to use big means instead of small, that is, a death of absolute certainty with a bullet or a razor." He is a man in his late forties with little to live for and too much time to give over to contemplation, but the book is also centrally about different life forces: the life of the mind versus the life of the body, the way that thought can often debilitate the body's possibilities. Here Hesse isn't so much schematic as thematic, trying to weave into the work the various strands that can make a life lived. Haller meets a young woman Hermine and in turn a saxophonist called Pablo, people who live closer to the body than the mind but also have the advantage of youth that Harry no longer possesses. The robustness Hamsun so often predicates his work upon, the existential vigour that allows someone to wander as many of Hamsun's characters do, is problematised by Hesse in Steppenwolf.
One says the book is thematic rather than schematic partly because of the complexity of its narration and the dissolution of its story. Published in 1927 (almost forty years after Hunger), the book opens with narration by the nephew of Harry's landlady, who finds Harry Haller's Records: 'For Madmen Only', which itself incorporates into its story a lengthy interlude called 'Treatise on the Steppenwolf', before returning to the book that may be a work of fiction or more or less of fact but that either way becomes a work of indeterminacy as it increasingly becomes hallucinatory in its late stages as Harry kills Hermine. Frank Kermode while looking at English language works of the early 20th-century draws comparison between John Galsworthy's The Country House in 1907 and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier in 1915. "The easiest way to say what's wrong with The Country House is to declare, perhaps unreasonably, that it ought to be a Fordian novel." Galsworthy's was too straightforwardly written for the time, too unwilling or unaware of changes both literary and social to avoid clumsiness and obviousness as the book works off ironies that had become paradoxes, kindnesses that had become tensions. In other words, Kermode seems to propose that Galsworthy's sympathy towards the poor hadn't acknowledged enough the burgeoning complexity of narrative technique and shifts in the working class. To explain why would be to absorb the nuances of Kermode's argument and to speak about work that isn't at all relevant to this piece, but what counts is that Kermode sees that a complex problem cannot find a simple solution, and 20th-century literature had the advantage of technical procedures that could match the convolutions of a crisis. It is why we can talk of Hesse's interest in the thematic rather than the schematic: that he creates a muddy enough text, an ambiguous enough character, and, too, an awareness of the age, not to fall into schema.
Schematically, Harry is a man out of his time but time in the novel is a malleable concept, both objective and subjective, ancient and modern. The self too is no less malleable; man and beast in one. At the beginning of 'Treatise on the Steppenwolf', the narrator says "he had not learnt to find...contentment in his own life. The cause of this apparently was that at the bottom of his heart he knew all the time (or thought he knew) that he was in reality not a man, but a wolf of the steppes." The narrator adds that "clever men might argue the point whether he was truly a wolf, whether he had been changed, before birth perhaps, from a wolf into a human being..." but that would be to schematise, to create a tale like The Jungle Book or Tarzan, while what Hesse needs is a conceit convoluted enough to capture feelings that are vague and new sitting alongside the ancient and the primal. In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti talks of tribes including the Jukum and Bambara, and where the king survives on the basis of his health. "A King who shows grey hairs, whose eyesight deteriorates, who loses his teeth, or becomes impotent, is killed, or must commit suicide; he takes poison or is strangled." In Hesse's time (whatever the atrocities around the corner in Nazi Germany), no such fate will befall Harry Haller, but a man who thinks he is a wolf, who knows he is ageing, may wonder why he is still alive, and one may see this as an important variation on the Camus question of suicide.
Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus: "...this I draw from the absurd three consequences which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform a rule of life what was an invitation to death." If Camus uses the image of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain only for it to roll down again, and so on, time after time, showing man's absurdity but also his will to live, then this image also suggests a muscular and powerful Sisyphus, the figure we find in paintings by Pietro Della Vecchia, Zanchi and Titian. There is surely a difference between the man who finds life meaningless and is tired of life even if they may coincide, as they do in Harry Haller. Camus is after all a philosopher of youth, not especially because he died at 46, a couple of years younger than Haller is here, but more that he often wrote about the sensuality and the pleasures of youth, As he says in 'Summer in Algiers': "Throughout their youth men find here a life which matches their beauty. Then afterwards comes decline, and forgetfulness. They have wagered on the flesh, but they knew that they would lose." Asking such young men why they are alive at twenty will be a different question to ask them when they are fifty or sixty. At twenty they can push the boulder up the hill; the absurd question is contained, even ignored, as the body is optimally alive.
A schematic book would make this a central question, and see in the image of the wolf a living force that man, and especially ageing man, loses. Hesse was the same age as Harry Haller when he wrote Steppenwolf, but the autobiographical would have been but one element of the novel even if we wouldn't want to underestimate it. While we might be reluctant to play up links between the life and the work, as a novel that is both modernist and existential, it is naive to deny it - even if reading a work through the author's life is often the height of critical naivety. Yet at the same time, while most 19th-century novels can be comprehended without knowing anything about the author, modernist fiction often invites the link. We don't need to know much about Dickens' life to read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, with an awareness that Dickens' father was jailed when Charles was twelve, leaving Charles orphaned out to a family friend while the rest of the family was imprisoned en masse in a debtor's jail. Nothing in the work alludes to it even if it may have been the source for numerous orphans in Dickens' work. Yet modernism often allows for such connections, either more directly through the narrational meeting the autobiographical or the need to comment on the 'age' more generally. Whether it is Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, DH Lawrence or Anais Nin, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Woolf and Proust, modernist writers often wrote close to their lives or were very much aware of writing within their era. The Great Gatsby is the key novel of the Roaring Twenties while Hemingway is viewed as a great writer of the Lost Generation. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers seems to pass through the prism of Lawrence much more strongly than Oliver Twist passes through the life of Dickens, and while Flaubert's 19th-century claim that he was Madame Bovary reads like a provocation, if Proust were to insist that he was Marcel it would be close to a tautology. Though critics may speak of the Dickensian to describe Victorian values that allowed for impoverishment, or see Balzac as a great figure of French embourgeoisement in post-revolutionary France, these are accidental byproducts of an attention to detail, which is why Georg Lukacs can see Balzac as such an important figure in laying out the society of his time. "Only occasionally does he go back to earlier ages. The great original plan to present the development in connected form..." As Balzac would say, quoted by Lukacs: "today, equality in France has produced endless nuances. Formerly, the caste gave every person his physiognomy which dominated his individuality; today he receives his physiognomy from himself." (The Historical Novel) In different ways, Dickens and Balzac were chroniclers of their age but the sweep was so broad, and the aim so deliberately documentative, that they are writers who sum up an epoch more than an age, a very broad sweep of time rather than a moment within it, and wouldn't see themselves as sensitive instruments to the times. As the nephew says in introducing Haller's records: "a nature such as Nietzsche's had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today."
Combining aspects of existentialism with modernism, insisting that the self is central and the form vital, gives to a work an entanglement that not only distinguishes it from most 19th-century fiction but also means that a throughline is much harder to perceive. In Steppenwolf, by focusing on Haller's crisis (existential centrality) while removing Haller from the centre of the telling (modernist device), the novel remains loose and suggestive. The initial narrator tries to comprehend Haller and can say little more than that he "saw that Haller was a genius of suffering, and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche, he had created within himself an ingenious, boundless and frightening capacity for pain." Imagine if wolves fought wars that they lost and then lived lives that they could not countenance; that is perhaps the time Haller exists within, but it is also one the initial narrator believes he survives. "...All the same I do not believe that he took his own life..." But of course, we do not know as the novel insists on another dimension to the 20th-century work that the 19th-century work resisted: closure. Kermode quotes Roland Barthes who draws on the image of the onion and the apricot. Certain texts "would be rather like an onion, whereas the text of the lisible [the legible, the readerly], which always close on something, offer at best an apricot. There is stone or pit of content." (Essays on Fiction) We cannot know if Haller takes his life or not, because the form doesn't allow it, as if reflecting a world of uncertainty that the novel wants to capture. It ends on the indeterminacy of Harry Haller's Records; there is no return to the initial narrator contextualising the records.
In a note accompanying the 1961 edition, Hesse says "poetic writing can be understood and misunderstood in many ways" as he also says "I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale" but anyone who attends only to the record and the sufferings of Haller are ignoring the form the book takes and the numerous questions it asks beyond the identificatory aspects of the central character: post-WWI Germany, the difficulty of living both humanly and animalistically, to remain energised despite the constant possibilities of enervation. The record is but an aspect of a broader work as Hesse asks us to attend to the slipperiness of the form to understand aspects of the content. If there is such a thing as existential literature it must be distinct from existentialism as a philosophical movement: its kerygmatic, proclamatory, dimension is contained by its formal tension. If we can claim to know what an existentialist novel says, then it might not be much of a novel at all, but equally if it doesn't absorb the intricacies of a problem within its narration, it might not seem like a modern novel either.
Beckett's relationship with existentialism is unquestionable and problematic. "[Theodore] Adorno sees a certain conceptual connection between Samuel Beckett and the Parisian Existentialists; "not only due to their literary practice, but also due to their struggle with the category of the absurd as an expression of the modern crisis of sense." (Epoche) So Timofei Gerber opens an essay on existentialism, before adding that for Adorno, the Existentialist plays of Sartre and Camus "the absurd remains an idea, a theme that is treated on the contentual level within a traditional form (the play, the novel). Beckett, on the other hand, reflects the absurd on the formal level, because the loss of meaning will necessarily impair the possibility of performing and watching plays, just as it will impair the possibility of uttering meaningful sentences." If we have noted that Hesse absorbed modernism partly to counter any categorical message that might seem to be contained within the material, Beckett pushed further than most in wondering what would happen when producing works that take the absurd not merely as a premise upon which to build ideas, but one that made it almost impossible to build a work at all. It is one thing to bury as Hesse does a categorical meaning within a proliferation of devices that makes us aware that the work is much more than the ready meaning that can be extracted from it, but another to premise the work on its impossibility. If for Camus, suicide is absurd for metaphysical reasons, Becket proposes in Waiting for Godot it is absurd for physical and social ones. "We should have thought of it when the world was young, in the nineties...Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first. We were respectable in those days. Now it's too late. They wouldn't even let us up." They are too old and too scruffy to gain entrance, a sort of variation on Hesse's concerns about ageing and suicide, and Kafka's concerns with achieving entry 'Before the Law'.
But what Beckett's work often insists upon is the meaninglessness of existence as a formal property rather than a philosophical concern. He turns emptiness into its proper objective correlative, if we take into account Elliot's famous term, and also think of Kermode again and his invocation of Queneau, Robbe-Grillet and others. In such writers, "hermeneutics and other forms of closure are contingent not necessary aspects of narrative. This, rather than a purely modern dissociation of narrative from kerygma, is the lesson of the new novel and also of codes." Speaking in the context of detective fiction, Kermode sees that the story is mysterious up to the point of its resolution: the crime is solved and meaning assured. But in a writer like Robbe-Grillet, the novelist wants from the mystery story only what will allow the continual opening up of mystery itself. Two important features of detective fiction are comprehending the significant detail (the red herring is the falsely significant) and the confident resolution. Thus you can have leads that go nowhere and deductions that turn out to be incorrect, and Kermode gives as an example a novel by E. C. Bentley, Trent's Last Case that does conform to detective fiction but has the potential within it not to do so. Kermode talks about false bottoms; that Trent thinks he has solved the case only for another conclusion to present itself, and then another which allows Trent finally to solve the case with confidence. But what happens if our confidence in the detective is no longer valid if he has so often come to the wrong conclusion, or if the story gets so lost in incidental details that no plot can be formed as we fail to distinguish clues from non-clues? Kermode quotes Raymond Queneau speaking of "'an ideal detective story' in which not only does the criminal remain unknown but one has no clear idea whether there has even been a crime or who the detective is." (Essays on Fiction)
Perhaps existential fiction has always been interested in creating in the form problems that will impact on the notion of selfhood, so that the story falls apart because the self under discussion and the narrative in which they find themselves do not quite come together the self is too idiosyncratic or the world too unfathomable for the story to deny the existential that threatens it. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment can seem like a thriller where we wonder if Raskolnikov will get away with a crime but, rather than fretting over whether he will be caught, instead Dostoevsky attends to a character who is less covering up the crime than determined to confess, and all contained within a broader metaphysic that calls into question guilt itself. It may be in The Brothers Karamazov where a character says: "Each of us is guilty before everyone, and for everything, and I more than all the others" but it is a comment valid in much of the Russian writer's work. The detective fiction cannot quite progress when the criminal not only acknowledges guilt but sees it is a human condition. In The Trial, the procedural aspect of finding a man guilty is of little interest to Kafka, and again partly because the notion of guilt is metaphysical rather than narrational the form cannot remain within the boundaries of the question (why has Joseph K been arrested?) because the question asked is too great for its containment.
By this reckoning, what is Beckett's question? It is in the loose sense the Absurd, which is both a theatrical movement and a philosophical problem that obviously existentialism addresses in the form of Camus's investigation in The Myth of Sisyphus. Martin Esslin sees it everywhere in post-war theatre: in Ionescu, Pinter, Genet and Adamov for example, and quotes Ionescu saying, the "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose...Cutoff from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless." (The Theatre of the Absurd) No writer seems to fit this application more than Beckett, and Esslin goes on to explore Beckett's work under the title 'The Search for the Self'. He sees Beckett's project thus: "...if Beckett's use of language is designed to devalue language as a vehicle of conceptual thought or as an instrument for the communication of ready-made answers to the problems of the human condition, his continued use of language must, paradoxically, be regarded as an attempt to communicate the incommunicable." There is the risk in Sartre and Camus' fictional work, if Adorno is right, that the ideas carry the drama; that the work is utilised to illustrate a concept. Camus may have believed he was suggesting the opposite when he said, reviewing Nausea, that a "novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images. And, in a good novel, the whole of the philosophy has passed into the images. But if once the philosophy overflows the characters and action, and therefore looks like a label stuck on the work, the plot loses its authenticity and the novel its life." (Selected Essays and Notebooks) However, Camus is assuming a preconception, or a pre-conceptualisation, that if Esslin is right Beckett resists, or won't accept. Rather than the form allowing for the expression of an idea; the work instead suppresses it.
Thus we have a variation of Kermode's comments on the Queneau/Robbe-Grillet approach to the detective work. If in a Robbe-Grillet novel the plot disappears into the manifold possibilities that the work creates, in a Beckett work, the form keeps undermining rather than affirming its own assertions. At the beginning of Malone Dies, the narrator says: "I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of it all. Perhaps next month. Then it will be the month of April, or of May. For the year is still young, a thousand little signs tell me so. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I shall survive Saint John, the Baptist's Day and even the Fourteenth of July, festival of freedom." A couple of sentences later he says: "I could die today, if I wished, merely by making a little effort, if I could wish, if I could make an effort." If there is often a leap made by existentialism into meaning and action, that within the futility and meaninglessness one must choose, Beckett's work refuses to move away from the predicated problem, as though the move into action and the meaningful are acts of bad faith given the impossibility laid out in the premise. If there is no meaning that can be deduced beyond the action, no higher calling or broader morality that can contain it, why do something rather than nothing? Camus as an atheistic existentialist cannot rely on religion. He says, "...to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them, without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them." (The Myth of Sisyphus) "Living is keeping the absurd alive" Camus insists and that "one of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt." However, inertia might be a more coherent one still.
Sartre could see the dangers of nausea but believed also that one needed to move beyond this condition into action, or at least artistic creation. But logically it is more consistent to say that if there is no privileging of one thing over another, if there is no transcendent notion that can justify why we should act at all, then inertia possesses a validity that makes the leap into action from the absurd seem like a return to a certain type of transcendence. John Passmore sees that for Sartre, even though the worlds weighs heavily upon one as brute fact, nevertheless "I am free, and this means that I am a bare capacity for action, a being whose very nature it is not to be anything in particular." (A Hundred Years of Philosophy) We have seen earlier that Sartre distinguishes between the in-itself and the for-itself, and this means that our being isn't necessarily a brute fact but also a becoming thing, and thus an active rather than a passive force. A stone doesn't move unless we pick it up and throw it, or something dislodges it, but the further away from dead matter you get, the more this agency becomes evident, whether it is a plant stretching towards the sun, to an animal moving from one place to another in search of food. The human is thus capable of immense action and part of Sartre's philosophy is predicated if not on the evolutionary (he owes more to Heidegger than he does to Bergson, more to a psychological ontology than to a metaphysical biology), the greater the higher up the evolutionary process we go the more this freedom is present as movement. In different ways, for Camus and Sartre, even if they premised their work on the absurd and the nauseous the point was that they were premises and not conclusions. Man must act.
Yet Beckett offers no conceptual consolation but instead relies on formal precision, and would thus be seen by many as a greater existential artist than Camus or Sartre: that he wants to see how nausea and the absurd work as form. Adorno shows that in Beckett's work "there is no longer any substantive, affirmative metaphysical meaning that could provide dramatic form with its laws and its epiphany." ('Trying to Understand Endgame') Or as Stanley Cavell says, also writing on Endgame. "Perhaps he [the character Hamm] means that the biggest fiction is that one's days form a story, that you can capture them by telling them." ('Ending the Waiting Game') Cavell notes this is Sartre's best subject too, and an important part of Nausea, but for Sartre the problem seeks philosophical resolution; for Beckett it perhaps seeks no more than a formal solution. It would make sense that Beckett's suspicion of conceptualisation would lead to the mathematical, as though a problem can only be resolved on the axiomatic terms in which it has been created. If one talks of Camus and Sartre's leap it may have little to do with Kierkegaard's but it can seem like a leap nevertheless: that it has faith in it: the faith to believe that one action is better than another if for no better reason than it is an act rather than a non-act. And this is perhaps in the hope that the accumulation of actions will create character; that if existence precedes essence, that doesn't mean that existence cannot produce something that resembles essence retrospectively in an existence's specific agglomeration. If Beckett is having none of this, if his work examines the non-act more than the act, the inertia over the action, then how to attend to the brute fact, to see a person not as an agent of change but of repetition or decay? This can take the mathematical form we find in Quad or even in the cylindrical details of 'The Lost Ones'.
Whether a stage production or a short story, Beckett's work often thus entertains not conceptual consolations but mathematical ones. As S. E. Gontarski says "the focus of injustice in Beckett is almost never local, civil, or social, but cosmic, the injustice of having been born, after which one finds consolations where one may in mathematics say." (A Companion to Samuel Beckett) Or as Gilles Deleuze puts it, musing over the order of our exhaustion: "Must one be exhausted to give oneself over to the combinatorial, or is it the combinatorial that exhausts us, that leads us to exhaustion or even the two together, the combinatorial and the exhaustion." ('The Exhausted') If one thinks about it there is no reason to act but perhaps by offering reason, demanding reason, inaction is inevitable and we thus need the leap into action. Beckett can sometimes play to its logical conclusion the absurdity of Descartes' proposition that I think therefore I am. In existential terms, it is thinking that stops one being. Man needs perhaps a small amount of evolutionary stupidity, a sort of combination of the intelligence demanded of the idea that one has become a higher species and the primitive notion that our being must act. But if we are predicated on thought, why do anything at all? As the narrator says in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, after telling us how much a misfortune man's consciousness happens to be. "Consciousness is infinitely greater than, for example, two and two make four. After twice two is achieved there will of course be nothing left to do, much less to learn. All that will then be possible will be to shut off one's five senses and immerse oneself in meditation."
That is close to the position often found in Beckett, though rumination might be a better word, a sort of mathematical rumination that might not quite pass for the consolation of mathematics S. E. Gontarski proposes if Deleuze is right. Here he suggests with Beckett we have "the greatest exactitude and the most extreme dissolution; the indefinite exchange of mathematical formulations and the pursuit of the formless or the unformulated." ('The Exhausted') This needn't only be the mathematical we find in the specifications offered in Quad and The Lost Ones; the meaningless and the meaningful are in conjunction and generating disjunctions in words too, even if humour often brings the two together. In Malone Dies, the narrator says, "I call myself an octogenarian, but I cannot prove it. Perhaps I am only a quinquagenarian, or a quadragenarian. It is ages since I counted them, my years I mean. I know the year of my birth, I have not forgotten that, but I do not know the years I have got to now." We frequently find in Beckett that the more precise the formulations the more dissolute becomes the meaning, which is why we can talk of existential form, and see Beckett as an exemplary existential writer. He has taken the problem of existentialism as an absurd proposition and showed not the stupidity of the existential, more the idiocy of its logic if one expects logic from it.
Instead of attacking Sartre, Camus and others for their logical loopholes, better to see that the holes were necessary ways of escaping the ferocious circle of reason. If AJ Ayer could say of Sartre's terms in Being and Nothingness that "I cannot but think that they are literally nonsensical", then maybe it would have been better to say logically non-sensical. They are absurd but how to escape the problem of being constantly endangered by nothingness? Thinking about it logically won't solve the problem. Action must do that, if we agree that the human isn't a fixed entity but an agent of spatial choice. One might say 'Why move?" but that is to try and find an answer that the experiential needn't entertain. Food, warmth and shelter might prove reason enough, though reason would be too strong a word for such instinctual needs. Part of Beckett's absurdity is showing what happens when thought gets in the way, when the absurd becomes not a means of making a leap but getting caught in the loop. Cavell quotes Kant saying, "human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which...it is not able to ignore, but which...it is also not able to answer." (Cities of Words) Cavell also notes that Wittgenstein saw in his later work that there was not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies. ('The Availability of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy') As Wittgenstein said, "the philosopher is the man who has to cure himself of many sicknesses of the understanding before he can arrive at the notions of the sound human understanding." (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics) That wasn't Beckett's project, even if Andre Furlani can say "among the best-represented authors in Samuel Beckett's library was Ludwig Wittgenstein." ('Beckett After Wittgenstein') Instead, Beckett formalised the problem, leaving characters ricocheting in meaninglessness, often unable to escape the absurdity of their ontological condition.
One might say that James Kelman gives meaning to Beckett's meaninglessness if we wanted to hyperbolize the absence of meaning in Beckett and exaggerate its presence in Kelman's. Yet there is no doubt that while Beckett's name is often invoked in the context of the Scottish writer's work, Kelman is a much more ostensibly political and rooted writer than Beckett. It isn't that he takes Beckett's abstractions and makes them concrete; it is as though he sees in the Irish writer's existential inertia its likelihood in a post-industrial Glasgow. In the perfectly titled 'Not Not While the Giro', the narrator says "I talk not at all, am confined to quarters, have no friends." He lives in "a single bedsitter with sole use of confined kitchenette whose shelves are presently idle." His condition is caught perfectly between the existentially despairing and the financially straitened as we may wonder how much of the problem is of his own making and how much the consequence of the societally neglectful. Kelman captures very well the post-Industrial Thatcherite landscape where numerous towns and cities were neglected, as a modernising Britain focused much more on the service industry. This is the backdrop to Kelman's work and also the subject of several Kelman essays, including "Fight for Survival: The Steel Industry in Scotland' and 'Scottish Law and a Victim of Asbestos'. Other essays in the same, bulky, collection (And the Judges Said...) include a lengthy appraisal of Noam Chomsky and common sense philosophy in Scotland, and a longer one still on Kafka's fiction. Like Sartre, Kelman believes in literature as commitment but while for Sartre this was a theoretical position, for Kelman it is more existentially vivid. Sartre came from a bourgeois household; Kelman was 'thrown' into a working-class one. "My own background is as normal or abnormal as anyone else's. Born and bred in Govan and Drumchapel, inner-city tenement to the housing scheme homeland on the outer reaches of the city. Four brothers, my mother a full-time parent, my father in the picture framemaking and gilding trade, trying to operate a one-man business and I left school at 15 etc. etc." (Some Recent Attacks)
Sartre's politics lacked Kelman's facticity: Sartre came to understand the importance of the political but he wasn't born into a sense of its necessity. Kelman wouldn't want to make too much of that facticity, the sort of working-class background that can gain someone extra credit as a struggling artist against the odds; hence the etc. etc. But it is to acknowledge that Sartre's political engagement was girded by the abstract, by a Marxism that was always going to create problems for his existential position, no matter how brilliant he was at negotiating self and society. After all, if the existential is based on individuality and choice, and Marxism on society and determinism, then that requires a lot of ingenuity to resolve the apparent contradictions. As Sartre said of his younger self: "At the time I graduated from Ecole Normale, I had based an entire theory on that feeling. I was a 'man alone', an individual who opposes society through the independence of his thinking but who owes nothing to society to whom society cannot affect, because he is free." (Sartre in the Seventies) Kelman would have always been aware of the limited choices available to him. For Kelman, this doesn't mean that it leaves one without choice, but it will leave someone with an awareness of how choices aren't only individually dictated but societally demarcated. Kelman's work negotiates the space of the individual choosing and the society dictating, constantly aware of a character's potential bad faith when they blame society, and the presence of false consciousness if they can't see that one's predicament isn't inevitable but contingent, based on circumstances that go far beyond their ability to choose.
In A Disaffection, vital to the book is central character Patrick Doyle's inability to sort his life out and his awareness that many people around him accept their material conditions too readily. Is Doyle acting in bad faith by suggesting that society is structured in such a manner that inertia is likely, or are others practising false consciousness by saying it is people's personal responsibility to get their lives in order? Pat is working in a Glasgow school where he feels the system is too oppressive and forcing the kids into conformism. Others around him reckon it could be worse and that he is cynical. Fellow teacher Alison believes "it's supposed to be quite a good school" and Pat reckons "there is no such thing." We might read this passage, where Pat has designs on the married Alison, as Pat expressing bitterness; that Pat cannot have Alison so everything is coloured with failure. But there is little doubt that Pat's despair is deeper and broader than unrequited love, even if the novel emphasises a few days in Pat's life where his feelings for Alison become articulated. And isn't Alison's comment an example of making do, that she will stay in the school since it is okay, just as she will stay in her marriage because that is okay as well? Alison looks like she accepts her lot even if the feelings she has for Pat may be stronger than those she has for her husband. "What about my husband?" she asks while out drinking with Pat and others. "Fuck him." Pat replies, as Alison "gives Pat a huge smile."
If Pat's awareness of bad faith leaves him angry and confused, wondering if he is just finding excuses for inaction or seeing realities others are blind to, Alison settles for the sarcastic. It is a potential false consciousness if one sees sarcasm not as the lowest form of wit but (to paraphrase the second half of Wilde's witticism), the highest form of denial. Pat sees Alison practising "a sort of subdued sarcasm" and an ability to screen out anything that might be counterproductive to her beliefs. When Pat says that he can't understand why the parents just stand back and let the teachers fill the kids' heads with "rightwing keech", Alison replies that she thinks what he says is nonsense. She might be right or at least no more wrong than Pat, but if Pat is more inclined to do nothing as he thinks the world is against him, Alison is more likely to screen out things that might question her relatively comfortable life. She will practise sarcasm and denial, while Pat offers frustrated and often useless sincerity.
Yet our claims about Pat's thoughts and Alison's cannot claim the same certitude, with the latter demanding a far higher degree of speculation than the former. As in much of Kelman's work, the perspective is restricted third person: we know what Pat thinks but not what anyone else happens to be thinking, even if Pat will often muse over other people's thoughts. The perspective is, if you like, limited by the existential rather than social reality, if one sees the 19th-century novel as concerned chiefly with society and 20th-century, and more especially existential, fiction, focused on the self. This isn't just a question of narrative voice. Dickens's Great Expectations is in the first person; a Disaffection in the third. It is more a question of scope. Whether it was Balzac or Zola, Dickens or Austen, 19th-century fiction writers often insisted on the broadest of sweeps, evident especially in Balzac's Comedie Humaine and Zola's Rougon-Macquart series. Such assertive ambition would be anathema to many a 20th-century writer and more especially an existential one. (Works by Proust, Mann, Musil and Broch may be even fatter than much 19th-century fiction but they are explorations in the intricacies of time and thought more than explorations of societal vistas, no matter, for example, Proust's delineation of Parisian society) We are with Roquentin in Nausea, and while we might not have much access to Meursault in The Outsider we don't have access to anybody else either. In The Trial, Kafka stays with Joseph K as he tries to make sense of his predicament: a counter-narrative detailing his trial from the perspective of the powers-that-be would have ruined the whole novel. Dostoevsky often still possesses a 19th-century narrative interest, allied to an existential consciousness, and creates characters that are part of society but at the same time as if products of the one broader sensibility, the sort of Dostoeyevskianism that can have the grandmother arriving from Russian and turning promptly into as big a gambler as everyone else in the novella of that name. But if Notes from Underground is seen as an early form of existentialism in fiction, it rests on the singularity of Dostoyevsky's perspective, the suffocating restrictiveness of its narration. "I see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist", Walter Kaufmann says, "but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written." (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre)
Kelman says "nothing that happens happens outwith the perception of [The Busconducter] Hines...absolutely nothing." (Edinburgh Review) It is partly why Kelman's work can seem paranoid, in the sense of its Greek root as being beside one's mind. When Kelman says of The Busconductor Hines "I could describe it as a first-person novel written in the third person", he could be extending Dostoevsky's approach in Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov etc. which are third-person novels yet contain within them first-person perspectives: a very strong sense of individual subjectivity. In both instances, paranoia is present because of the tension between the individual and the social. It may even be what makes Kelman an especially interesting writer, working the tension between bad faith and false consciousness as a problem between self and society. Thus, the person who is in bad faith tries to blame others but can feel the others blaming them; however, that the others blaming them are in false consciousness means they shouldn't be taken seriously either. How to find a value between one's useless self-pity and the others' empty social judgement?
Near the end of A Disaffection, the hapless Pat is miles from home walking in the rain and thinks: "why in the name of christ had he neglected to buy a new pair of shoes. It was just crazy. There was no other word for it, it was insane he was insane. He was fucking outsane never mind fucking insane for christ sake..." He knows what he ought to have done as his social self gives him a ticking off but his private self fights back with a neologism. He should have bought a new pair of shoes but while he might have the financial resources to buy a pair he lacks the inner resources to look after himself. But at the same time, he has the inner awareness to laugh at himself well aware that the rest of society would be inclined to be laughing at him. Kelman brilliantly balances the self and society not as a dry treatise on self-reliance or the put-upon but as an ongoing inquiry into the tension between these two places, and the way we see ourselves and others see us. In The Busconductor Hines, Hines is sitting opposite his mother and discusses moving to another part of Glasgow and thinks: "here you have a woman in middle age, then, a nice looking lassie with mysterious dreams, who has always been enjoying seascapes. She marries a young fellow. They wind up in the District of D. And the first baby is to arrive, then the next two and they are all leaving school, and now a grandmother, the eldest son sitting facing one, lighting his cigarette." Here he starts by describing his mother and it ends as though his mother is looking at him.
Yet this happens to be so because Kelman can create uncanny effects in the restricted narrative positions he adopts. A less restrictive third-person narration could move easily between different characters because the perceptions belong to the narrator rather than characters within the narration. When in Emma, Jane Austen says "Mr Elton had only drunk wine enough to elevate his spirits, not at all to confuse his intellects," the narration is distanced enough for Austen to then move easily into another character's thoughts on Elton in the next paragraph. "...She thought less of his inebriety, she thought more of his inconstancy and presumption." There is wisdom and perspective in Austen's narration, a sense that the writer has the measure of characters who don't always have the measure of themselves. In Kelman's work, the characters are more inclined not to have the measure of themselves but try from this precarious position to have the measure of others. It creates an unsettling world, a ricocheting feeling that while others remain distant from us as we cannot expect them to understand what we are feeling, they are in close proximity to us when it comes to making us feel bad about ourselves. In 'Street Sweeper', the titular character "was sick of getting watched. He was. He was fucking sick of it. The council have a store of detectives. They get sent out spying on the employees, the workers lad the workers, they get sent out spying on them. Surely not. The witness has already shown this clearly to be the case your Honour. Has he indeed. Aye, fuck he has, on fucking numerous occasions, that's how come he got the boys out on strike last March." Is the street sweeper Peter being watched or is it just in his head? What seems to be so is that while the dialogue is in his head, the spying isn't that he has managed to get the boys out on strike because of it. But there is no objective position that can tell us events have happened or not; all we have is Peter's consciousness to go on and while he might not be reliable he wouldn't seem to be unreliable either. What we can say with confidence is that he remains inside his head throughout the story, so that conversations taking place are products of his thoughts even if they may well have taken place in the indeterminate past. The question isn't how reliable Peter happens to be but how isolated and insulated the narration is as Kelman manages to make society absent and present simultaneously; the self and the world's encroachment upon it constant. Kelman comprehends the existential as a self in society and is bedevilled on both sides.
Trying to describe literary existentialism is a fool's errand indeed. John Macquarrie reckoned, "when we try to say what existentialism is, we are confronted with a certain elusiveness. Partly, the difficulty arises from the fact that what was intended as a serious type of philosophy has frequently been vulgarized to the level of fad..." (Existentialism) Sartre believed "the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all." ('Existentialism is a Humanism') Some might see that Sartre was part of the problem. Heidegger thought Sartre misunderstood his work, writing Being and Nothingness on the back of Being and Time and producing a worthless tome. Hubert Dreyfus says he visited Heidegger and he had Being and Nothingness on his desk in a German translation. Dreyfus sees that he is reading Sartre and the German philosopher says, "How can I even begin to read this...dreck". (The Great Philosophers). Camus said in Les Nouvelles Littraires, in 1945: "I am not an existentialist." If the term has become so loose as to be meaningless, if key existential philosophers misunderstand or disrespect each other, and others refuse its application to their work, how impossible must it be to describe a literature that comes out of it, coincides with or resembles it? Yet there does seem to be, an "existential imagination", as Karl and Hamalian have noted. In their collection, first published in 1963 and republished a decade later, they include works by Tolstoy, Proust, Musil and Brecht, writers that would seem far away from the existential imagination as we have defined it, but they include others like Miguel de Unamuno and certainly Cesare Pavese whose inclusion here wouldn't have been entirely troublesome. In their introduction, Karl and Hamelin say that "Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre...all of the four above-mentioned philosophers have helped define the terms of reference of the last seventy-five years, whose severe disarrangements have led to a crisis in literature." (The Existential Imagination) Attending to this crisis in literature, one created partly because the self was no longer defined by the society but by attempts by the individual to define themselves, however problematically, chaotically or unsuccessfully, led to the sort of works we have analysed. George Steiner says: "To Kafka and this is the core of his representative role in modern letters the act of writing was a miraculous scandal. The live nakedness of his style takes no syllable for granted." (Language and Silence) JM Coetzee might disagree, saying "in the second half of The Castle, in particular, Kafka slips on occasion into some very tired-sounding prose", but for Coetzee this seems a problem chiefly of editing, not of perception, as he notices the sentences are "slack" and possessing "light, even minimal punctuation." (New York Review of Books)
These are editorial lapses in unfinished work, that Coetzee questions rather than a sensibility he attacks, and we might be inclined to agree with Steiner and think of a remark by Kelman. "The important thing is to have mastery over the prose it's nothing to do with English." (The Edinburgh Review) The vigilance isn't fundamentally over the language but the freedom one has in using it on one's own terms. When the interviewer, Duncan McLean says that the opening of The Busconductor Hines says it is two sentences separated by a comma, Kelman says for him it was very important that this sentence not be separated by a semi-colon. "Hines jumped up from the armchair, she was about to lift the huge soup-pot of boiling water." (The Busconductor Hines) Kelman reckons it needs to be a comma because it is a picture of a fact and not a cause with a consequence. Kelman offers an attention to detail that might from another perspective seem like weak grammar but that is part of the point: perspectives matter, individuating perception and getting the reader to think about the prose as part of a broader problematic in thinking about life. As Gabriel Josipovici says, speaking of Kafka, "if words are like bodies. banging against each other, then the body is very like an unruly sentence, filled with violent and contradictory impulses which cannot easily be harnessed." (On Trust) If we noted the problem of a private language and its impossibility, then much that passes for existential fiction exists in the space of that impossibility, unwilling to fall into easy language it instead acknowledges a vertiginous tension between language and things; between being and others. There are many very fine writers for whom these questions aren't problematic and no reason, consequently, why they would find themselves in an article on literary existentialism. For Kafka, Beckett, Kelman and others, however, how could they not be part of such a piece?
© Tony McKibbin