Tag Archives: existentialism

Thoughts on “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen has been on my reading list for quite a while, and I finally got around to it. I was somewhat concerned that the book would not live up to my expectations, but I am happy to say that it did. Now the challenge is what to write about it. There is so much that can be said about this deep psychological assessment of our society, with each character representing a modern archetype. I figured I would just talk about some of the book’s darker visions of society and where our society seems to be heading.

It seems to me that many people prefer to be blissfully unaware and ignorant of the future that appears to be racing toward us, and this sentiment is poetically expressed in the text.

Others bury their heads between the swollen teats of indulgence and gratification, piglets squirming beneath a sow for shelter… but there is no shelter… and the future is bearing down like an express train.

(p. 68)

Later in the book, one of the protagonists, Rorschach, presents his dismal view of human existence.

Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

(p. 204)

So we are presented with a meaningless world full of hatred, fear, anxiety, insanity, greed, and countless other social ills. Faced with such a bleak view, the next logical question is whether humanity is worth saving, worth fighting for. This is the question that the characters Laurie and Jon debate in the book. Jon initially does not believe that human life matters, but then changes his mind. When Laurie asks what caused him to alter his view, Jon explains:

Thermo-dynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible. Like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle.

(pp. 306 – 7)

This provided me with the light I needed to find hope in this dark vision of our world. We are surrounded by miracles. Every single one of us is a living, breathing miracle, whose very existence defies all odds. And this is something I will keep in mind as I continue through this journey.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Literature

Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 2

InfiniteJest

But I look at these guys that’ve been here six, seven years, eight years, still suffering, hurt, beat up, so tired, just like I feel tired and suffer, I feel this what, dread, this dread, I see seven or eight years of unhappiness every day and day after day of tiredness and stress and suffering stretching ahead, and for what, for a chance at a like a pro career that I’m starting to get this dready feeling a career in the Show means even more suffering, if I’m skeletally stressed from all the grueling here by the time I get there.

(p. 109)

In this passage, Hal is expressing his feelings about working so hard at the tennis academy for the chance of becoming a pro, which would ultimately result in more hard work and stress. I found this to be a poignant metaphor for our society and the Sisyphean plight that most people face. The majority of Americans toil and stress in the early years of their lives to get themselves established in a career. The cruel joke is that once you attain your career goal, then you have to work just as hard to maintain your position, because there is a new and younger person coming up who wants your job. You are forced to prove your worth every day, and to constantly struggle to improve yourself, otherwise you will be deemed expendable and cast aside as something that’s obsolete or no longer needed.

This taps into the existential question of what is the purpose of this life. I’ve thought of this often, ever since the first time I read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus as a teenager. We struggle and toil all our lives, chasing this ideal which we never really seem to reach, pushing the symbolic boulder only to have it tumble to the bottom and having to begin the process over again. The sense of futility can become crippling.

So how does one overcome this problem? For me, it was a shift in priorities. While success in my career is still important, I choose not to make it the most important thing in my life. I try to keep my family, my spirituality, my creativity, my intellectual curiosity, all above my desire for material success. That does not mean that I would shirk my responsibilities regarding work—anyone who knows me knows that is not who I am. But I always remember that there are things in this life that are more important than a career. I refuse to be one of those people who lie on a death bed, looking back at a life which was nothing but struggle, and having regret be my last thoughts in this world.

9 Comments

Filed under Literature

Analysis of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” by H. G. Wells

DoctorMoreau

So I confess that this book was not what I expected. I decided to read the book because I thought it would be a cool sci-fi/horror tale for October. What I discovered is an amazing story that explores human consciousness, evolution and animal instincts in humans, social structure, morality and mores, religion, psychology, and the development of mythology. In fact, upon finishing this book, I have come to the conclusion that the name Moreau is symbolic of mores and morality, as we will see later in this post.

Before I begin looking closely at some of the key passages, I figured I’d give a very brief summary of the plot. It is the tale of Edward Prendick, who finds himself on an island where Doctor Moreau is conducting experiments, using surgery and vivisection to speed up the evolutionary process, essentially modifying animals so that they become more human and teaching them how to behave as humans. As you can imagine, this does not end well. But that’s all I’ll say—no spoilers!

The beast-men on the island are trained to repeat the Law, which is a code of ethics and morals bestowed upon them by Moreau. When Prendick encounters the beast-men, one of them who is tasked with repeating the Law points out that the animal instinct is within all, and that it is adherence to the Law that prevents them from slipping back into animalistic behavior.

“For every one the want is bad,” said the grey Sayer of the Law. “What you will want we do not know; we shall know. Some want to follow things that move, to watch and slink and wait and spring; to kill and bite, bite deep and rich, sucking the blood. It is bad. ‘Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat flesh or fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?’’”

(p. 83)

When Moreau explains his work to Prendick, he asserts that the physical transformation is the easy part; it is the mental transformation that is difficult. The reason being is that the psyche maintains aspects of the primal consciousness, and this part of the psyche always seeks to reestablish dominance.

“… But it is in the subtle grafting and reshaping one must needs to do to the brain that my trouble lies. The intelligence is often oddly low, with unaccountable blank ends, unexpected gaps. And least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch, somewhere—I cannot determine where—in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst forth suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear. These creatures of mine seemed strange and uncanny to you so soon as you began to observe them; but to me, just after I make them, they seem to be indisputably human beings. It’s afterwards, as I observe them, that the persuasion fades. First one animal trait, then another, creeps to the surface and stares out at me. But I will conquer yet! Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, ‘This time I will burn out all the animal; this time I will make a rational creature of my own!’ After all, what is ten years? Men have been a hundred thousand in the making.” He thought darkly. “But I am drawing near the fastness. This puma of mine—” After a silence, “And they revert. As soon as my hand is taken from them the beast begins to creep back, begins to assert itself again.”

(pp. 107 – 108)

After Moreau is killed, there is a poignant moment of existential crisis for the beast-people as they begin to question what will become of them and whether the laws of morality are still applicable. Prendick responds by saying that Moreau is not really dead, but has ascended to heaven and now watches over them.

I had been standing behind him during this colloquy. I began to see how things lay with them. I suddenly stepped in front of Montgomery and lifted up my voice:—“Children of the Law,” I said, “he is not dead!” M’ling turned his sharp eyes on me. “He has changed his shape; he has changed his body,” I went on. “For a time you will not see him. He is—there,” I pointed upward, “where he can watch you. You cannot see him, but he can see you. Fear the Law!”

(pp. 145 – 146)

Essentially, Wells is asserting that religion is a falsehood, designed to instill fear in people and force them to deny their animal tendencies and embrace a coerced morality. Fear is a powerful motivator, and the fear of some unseen being watching your every move, ready to inflict suffering if you disobey, has effectively guided the behavior of individuals for thousands of years.

When Prendick returns to civilization, he is haunted by the realization that society is fragile, that the fabric is so thin and frayed, it is just a matter of time before we slip back into our animal selves. Our primal nature will inevitably regain control of our psyches. There is a long passage near the end that expresses this and it is so exquisitely written that it is worth including here at the end of the post.

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.

(pp. 183 – 184)

6 Comments

Filed under Literature

Review of “Kill Shakespeare: Issue #10”

KillShakespeare_10It would be impossible to write about this issue without a couple of spoilers, so, in all fairness: SPOILER ALERT!!

A lot of characters die in this issue, since most of it depicts the battle between the rebels and the combined armies of King Richard and Lady Macbeth. But the earlier section has Shakespeare, who is an archetypal man-god, turning his back on those who follow him. There is great dialog between him and Hamlet during this section.

Ham: But what of your children? What do I say to those who believed in thee? That their god lent neither hand nor quill?

Shak: Perhaps it is best to say that Shakespeare is dead… that he never existed.

What is really cool about this exchange is that it hints at the existential philosophies of Sartre and Nietzsche which questioned god’s existence. Personally, I always viewed Hamlet as an existential play. Let’s face it, “To be or not to be” is the ultimate existential question.

In the great battle scene, Falstaff is one of the characters who gets killed, which bummed me out a bit because I really liked him. In fact, I’d say he was my favorite character in the series. As he lay dying, Hamlet kneels beside him and says: “Stubborn clown, you steal my role.” What a great line! The archetypal comedic clown takes the place of the tragic hero and dies upon the stage of war. It’s awesome. As painful as it was for me to see Falstaff die, it was a stroke of genius on the part of the writers.

There are only two more issues left in the series, so I will be finishing and reviewing those in the next week.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

I realized that in my last blog post I might have been a little harsh on the modernists, so I decided to balance my criticism by reviewing a modernist poem that I think is truly an amazing work, and that is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This poem is a masterpiece that successfully evokes imagery and emotion in a way that the average person can relate to, while at the same time incorporating allusions and imagery that will challenge erudite readers. I have to say, as far as poetry goes, this is flawless.

The poem is essentially the musings of a person nearing the end of his life and contemplating what he has and has not done. This is a feeling everyone can relate to, regardless of age. Who can honestly say they have not sat alone and relived scenarios from their past, or played out events in their heads where the outcomes were different, running through the endless possibilities?

The poem is prefaced with a quote from Dante’s Inferno (Canto 27; Lines 61 – 66), which is followed by what may be the greatest opening lines ever:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

The first two lines are kind of the set up, creating a pleasant sense that is then slaughtered by the third line. This sets up the motif of juxtaposition that carries through the rest of the poem, where images of sickness and death are superimposed upon those of beauty and life.

The following short stanza repeats several times throughout the poem, almost like a refrain:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Something about this has haunted me for years, but I could never put my finger on why until today. Prufrock finds himself in a social situation, where people are engaged, talking with each other and comfortably interacting. But Prufrock is alone, an outsider who is unable to participate in the play of life that unfolds before him. He is a classic introvert. This explains why the lines affect me on such a visceral level, because like Prufrock, I am painfully introverted and feel like an outsider in social situations, watching life unfold before me but unable to step in and participate. Even as I write this, I feel like I am somehow going through a cathartic experience.

There is one more line that I want to write about:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

This line is deeper than it appears. While it sounds like what is being stated is that he was not meant to be Hamlet, we must keep in mind the classic “to be or not to be.” It is a rephrasing of the great existential question and he is saying that he is not meant to live, to participate, or to be a part of existence. Hamlet, despite his hesitance, eventually acts, and then dies tragically and magnificently at the end. But not Prufrock. He feels that his life has been little more than a “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

While this has turned into one of the longer blog posts I’ve written, there is still so much to say about this poem. You can read it over and over and continue to uncover new ideas and imagery. This is, without question, poetry at its finest.

Click here to read the poem online.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare: Analysis of Hamlet’s First Soliloquy

HamletI decided to start on a bucket list item, which is to read everything by the great William Shakespeare. This includes re-reading plays that I have read before. It’s therefore fitting that I start with Hamlet, arguably the greatest play ever written. Although I have read it more times than I can remember, I knew I would gain new insights from another close reading.

The play is so rich that one could write volumes analyzing the text and the nuances. So, rather than trying to write a summary of the entire play, I decided to share my thoughts on Hamlet’s first soliloquy, and also the play’s ending. Here is the first soliloquy, which appears in Act I, Scene ii.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

What I find fascinating about this passage is the amount of foreshadowing that takes place. Obviously, there is the existential questioning of whether life is worth living, which is revisited in the more well-known “To be or not to be” section. But the question of suicide is also tackled during the burial of Ophelia, where the fact that she may have been responsible for her own death results in the denial of certain burial rites.

Another really interesting bit of foreshadowing appears in the second line with the words “a dew,” which spoken sound like “adieu.” The word “adieu” appears often throughout the rest of the text, and always at key points. Here are a couple of examples. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father takes its leave, it uses the word three times: “Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.” As Hamlet is dying, he speaks: “I am dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu.” And there are other examples. I encourage you to pay attention to this the next time you read the play.

At the end of the soliloquy, Hamlet mentions that he must hold his tongue, or in other words, hide his thoughts. He then makes Horatio and Marcellus swear an oath of silence regarding the encounter with the ghost on the platform. Hamlet continues holding his tongue as he feigns insanity to hide his thoughts.

Finally, I want to talk about the play’s ending. I had never noticed until this reading, but it seems to me that the ending suggests a circle, a return to the beginning of the play. Horatio states: “But let this same be presently performed/ Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance/ On plots and errors happen.” Fortinbras then responds: “Let four captains/ Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage.” It is like the play is asking to be performed again, in an eternal loop, over and over. Hamlet then becomes a play within a play, within a play, and on and on, for all eternity. As I sit here now, I feel that this may be the most brilliant ending ever constructed.

I could certainly write more about this masterpiece, but I will stop and encourage you to read it again. Please feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks, and keep reading!!

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature