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  Existentialism is a non-rigorous form of philosophical enquiry into human nature and the human ‘predicament’ (as existentialists see it). Everything else in existence merely exists; humans are aware of their existence, and therefore have the potential to understand it and (perhaps) control it. We are self-creating creatures: we can choose what we want to be, and choose to be it. The moment of choice, the leap into existence, comes between two fixed points: the nothingness from which we come and the nothingness to which we return after we die. Our glory is the self-defining choice; our agony is that we need to make it. The idea was formulated by Kierkegaard in the first half of the 19th century, was developed by Husserl a century later, and had enormous prominence in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.

The main significance of existentialism today is not as a philosophical programme, but as the matrix of a strain of intellectual creativity which dominated the arts and preoccupations of the chattering classes in Europe between the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the student riots of 1968.

In literature, the chief existentialist writer was Jean-Paul Sartre. In his (autobiographical) novels Nausea and the three-volume The Roads to Freedom, and in such plays as The Flies and Huis Clos, he examined the idea that ‘Man is a useless passion’ and the plight of the passive hero longing but unable to contrive some self-defining act. Other French writers took up the style, notably Albert Camus. The quest for identity underlies much European drama and prose fiction of the 1950s and beyond, and existentialist thinking underlies (but does not dominate) works as diverse as Günter Grass\'s The Flounder, John Updike\'s Rabbit tetralogy and the plays of Samuel Beckett and Dürrenmatt.

Existentialist themes also surfaced in films in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly those of the Italian neorealists and by such Japanese directors as Ichikawa and Kurosawa. Indeed, Japanese artists, particularly after the shocks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, gave existentialist ideas a particularly savage and nihilistic edge. There are few bleaker explorations of existentialist dilemmas than Oshima\'s film In the Realm of the Senses or Mishima\'s novel Confessions of a Mask. Comedians, especially in the US, had a wonderful time sending up existentialist angst—and in two notable cases, those of Tony Hancock in the UK and Woody Allen in the US, Sartrean ponderings blossomed into a complete and agonizingly plausible comic persona. KMcL

Further reading W. Barrett, Irrational Man.



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