WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED EXISTENTIALISM? Broadly speaking, existentialism is a philosophy that says that each individual must create his own meaning outside of social structures and expectations. That is, existence (the fact that you are living thing and can operate in the world) precedes essence (all intrinsic and extrinsic properties, forms and definitions). In practical terms, this means that someone who is aware of their role in the world and how artificial that role is both feels despair/angst about that role and sees the absurdity of their own role and those of the people around them.
For instance, consider Les Moches (The Flies), by Sartre. It is a retelling of the Orestes/Electra complex of myths dealing with the fall of the House of Atreus. Orestes enters Argos feeling completely cut off from the city that is his by right of blood. After the action of the play, Orestes has upended the social, cultural and religious order of Argos. He still finds himself cut off from his city and people, but he recognizes that as a radical form of freedom. (I might write a paper about The Flies because it is amazing and I kind of love it.)
WHAT NOBEL WINNERS WERE EXISTENTIALISTS? Arguably, just Jean-Paul Sartre, who, strictly speaking, isn’t technically a laureate because he refused the award. But I am going to pigeonhole Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett into the Existentialist category. Sartre was the first to explicitly call himself an existentialist, so of course he’s here. Camus considered himself an Absurdist, and, at least according to Wikipedia (which sees all and knows all), existentialism contains a healthy dose of absurdism, so I will override Camus’ and Sartre’s own objections on the matter. As a side note, I can see their point; Sartre is much more pessimistic than Camus, and he writes much bleaker stories. Beckett isn’t really an existentialist at all, but his dramatic output is similar to Camus’ absurdism, and so he is on the list.
WHAT ARE YOU READING BY THOSE PEOPLE: A whole bunch of stuff. Probably more than I’ve read by the others, but this is Existentialism Week! Nonstop existentialism to temporarily hide the futility of your miserable life! But really, I’ve read (so far, as of Tuesday night) No Exit, The Flies and The Trojan Women by Sartre; The Stranger and Caligula by Camus; and Krapp’s Last Tape, Dante and the Lobster and part of Molloy by Beckett. I plan on reading a few more of Beckett’s plays (I scored a deal at the rotting carcass of the Borders that used to be near my house), The Fall by Camus (which I got from a retired French professor who gave away three boxes of books mostly in French. Like Le Nausee and L’etrangere.) and Nausea, because seriously. That the existentialist novel.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF ALL THIS? Now you’re getting it!