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Existentialism Essay, Research Paper

Are Caulfield of J.D. Salinger s Catcher in the Rye and Meursault of Albert Camus The Stranger existential heroes?

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. Steven Weinberg

An existentialist is one who acts freely and responsibly accepts the consequences of his actions, who lacks any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong, good or bad (Shaw 148-149).Webster s defines the philosophy as being centered upon the emotional struggles of individual existence in an unfathomable universe ( Existentialsim ). Both Caulfield and Meursault are existentialists, independent and godless; also existential heroes, since despite rejection, both successfully convey all aspects of existentialism.

Society engenders the existentialist conflict between love and hate, good and evil. Most struggle to find and accept a bridge between the ends of this spectrum so they can become satisfied with life, but existentialists struggle in a different way. Caulfield struggles by trying to bring a small amount of love into the world of hate, only to realize that his attempts are futile and that the world in which he lives is enveloped in inevitable hypocrisy (Bruni 2325). People of his community, himself and his family term him crazy on numerous occasions. Society fears difference and deems him crazy because he refuses to compromise with the world of squalor (Bruni 2325). Caulfield hates society for its hypocrisy, but knows he is just as much of a phony lying hypocrite as anyone else; this realization makes him different from the rest. Knowledge is power, but because he lacks the ability to change the expectations of the world in order to justly be himself, this knowledge is worthless. His feelings of uselessness cause his unrest. When he encounters a young woman, whom his older-brother used to date, he demonstrates how society forces people to do things they do not wish to do: Then she left. The Navy guy and I told each other we were glad to have met each other. Which always kills me. I m always saying Glad to have met you to somebody I m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though. (Salinger 87).

Meursault struggles with his realizations as well, although his realizations differ slightly. Rejecting the concept of God, he conceives the fact that all are condemned to die and that life is thus absurd. Knowing that he will soon be executed for a senseless murder he committed, he tells the chaplain he does not intend on wasting the rest of his life on God:

He seemed so certain about everything didn t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman s head. He wasn t even sure he was alive because he was living like a dead man. Whereas it looked as if I was the one who d come up emptyhanded. But I was sure about me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn t done that. I hadn t done this thing but I had done another. And so? It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people s deaths or a mothers love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we were all elected the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn t he see, couldn t he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. (Camus 120 – 121)

In this passage, Meursault conveys his frustration with the people of the world in which he lives. From his point of view, he is the only one in the entire world that realizes the fact that all are fated to die, with or without God; that too much time is wasted on making lives worthwhile. In relation, he believes that society has no right to decide the means by which he fulfills his own definition of a life well lived. He grasps life as a temporary existence that is pointlessly lived. He knows that each individual has one life to live, and refuses to waste his time paying homage and devoting his life to God. He is enraged by the piteous empathy of the chaplain:

The chaplain looked at me with a kind of sadness. I now had my back flat against the wall, and light was streaming over my forehead. He muttered a few words I didn t catch and abruptly asked if he could embrace me. No, I said. He turned toward the wall and ran his hand over it. Do you really love this earth as much as all that? he murmured. I didn t answer.

He stood there with his back to me for quite a long time. I was just about to tell him to go, to leave me alone, when all of a sudden, turning toward me, he burst out, No, I refuse to believe you! I know that at one time or another you ve wished for another life. I said of course I had, but it didn t mean anything more than wishing to be rich, to be able to swim faster, or to have a more nicely shaped mouth. It was all the same. But he stopped me and wanted to know how I pictured this other life. Then I shouted at him, One where I could remember this life! and that s when I told him I d had enough. He wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain that I had only a little time left and I didn t want to waste it on God. He tried to change the subject by asking me why I was calling him monsieur and not father. That got me mad, and I told him he wasn t my father; he wasn t even on my side.

Yes my son, he said, putting his hand on my shoulder, I am on your side. But you have no way of knowing it because your heart is blind. I shall pray for you.

Then, I don t know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. (Camus 119-120)

The chaplain himself outrages Meursault because he seems to care less about this life than everyone thought Meursault did. The chaplain says, Do you really love this earth as much as all that? making it appear as though he has no concern for life; inadvertently proclaiming the hypocrisy of himself and his peers.

The struggles of both Meursault and Caulfield encompassing individualism and self-importance qualify them as independent and godless existentialists, struggling with individualism in an incomprehensible universe. Once again pronouncing the loneliness of life under an existential view, Meursault expresses, I felt a little lost between the blue and white of the sky and the monotony of the colors around me. (Camus 17). The role of color in this statement represents the underlying philosophy of existentialism, clearly designating existentialists as those who feel a little lost between the evil and good of the world and the monotony of the lives around them.

One is still what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become. One lives one s death, one dies one s life. Jean-Paul Sartre

Life and death are equally as absurd to the existentialist. When waiting for the verdict on his case, Meursault says:

I would always begin by assuming the worst: my appeal was denied. Well, so I m going to die. Sooner than other people will, obviously. But everybody knows life isn t worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn t much matter whether you die at thirty or seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living and for thousands of years. In fact, nothing could be clearer. Whether it was now or twenty years from now, I would still be the one dying. At that point, what would disturb my train of thought was the terrifying leap I would feel my heart take at the idea of having twenty more years of life ahead of me. But I simply had to stifle it by imagining what I d be thinking in twenty years when it all came down to the same thing anyway. Since we re all going to die, it s obvious that when and how don t matter. Therefore (and the difficult thing was not to lose sight of all the reasoning that went into this therefore ), I had to accept the rejection of my appeal (Camus 114).

Both life and death are distressing and bothersome to the existentialist, making it difficult for society to grasp an existentialist s interpretation and standards of happiness. Camus himself says, You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life ( Existentialist ). In a critical study of Catcher in the Rye, a similar statement is written concerning Caulfield, Only by facing the world and loving it indiscriminately can anyone hope to fully live within it and have any hope of changing it (Bruni 2329). Both statements reveal that existentialists are simply satisfied with the fact that they have the opportunity to live in the first place. Phillip H. Rhein, chairman of the Comparative Literature program at Vanderbilt Univerity comments on the concept of happiness to the existentialist:

From the individual recognition of the absurdity of life emerges a happiness which is neither sensual nor transcendent, but which is the affirmation of the dignity and unique value of human life. In a world which offers no hope to mankind, man learns through the double consciousness of his desire for duration and his destiny of death to count on nothing and to consider the present as the only truth given to him The sacrifice of Meursault to a society which attempted to repress his individuality is Camus plea to mankind. The man who fails to question himself is dead while yet he lives [The chaplain is an example]. The hope that Camus offers is that the individual invest his energies in the betterment of the one positive fact to which he can cling: his life on earth, in this moment (Rhein 38-39).

Like the chaplain, no one can understand the state in which Meursault appears after he learns his punishment: Meursault is not shown rebelling at his death sentence. He was happy, he has let himself live, and his happiness does not seem to have been marred by that hidden gnawing which is due to the blinding presence of death (Sartre 114). This statement proves that as an existentialist, he acts freely and responsibly accepts the consequences of his actions, although reacting only on what is happening at the current place and time.

Similarly, as Caulfield receives help for his depression, he accepts the fact that he needs to work harder at school, although he remains uncertain about his future:

A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It s such a stupid question in my opinion. I mean, how do you know what you re going to do until you do it? The answer is, you don t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it s a stupid question (Salinger 213).

The future is very difficult to comprehend when the only certainty of the existentialist is death. Jean-Paul Sartre, renowned French author and philosopher, basically explains the feelings and actions of both Caulfield and Meursault when he says in his critical essay Camus s (sic) The Outsider:

If we are able to refuse the misleading aid of religion or of existential philosophies, we then possess certain basic, obvious facts: the world is chaos, a divine equivalence born of anarchy ; (sic) tomorrow does not exist, since we all die. In a universe suddenly deprived of light and illusions, man feels himself a stranger. This exile is irrevocable, since he has no memories of a lost homeland and no hope of a promised land. The reason is that man is not the world. (Sartre 110)

Existentialist philosophy is firmly established through comprehension of the insignificance of individual existence. Existentialists recognize the absurdity of their lives, and act accordingly. Both Caulfield and Meursault convey all aspects of existentialism by showing their struggle with individualism in the universe, by displaying their responsibility for their actions and by rejecting all concepts of a supreme being or after-life.

If I were a tree among other trees this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would have none, for I would be a part of this world. I would be this world against which I set myself with my entire mind . It is preposterous reason which sets me against all creation (Sartre 110).

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