Literature and Film as Modern Mythology

By William K. Ferrell | Go to book overview

PART III
RITES OF PASSAGE

At the end of World War I, as the Western world began to assess the terrible price paid by both sides, a new appreciation emerged in the West for the philosophy of existentialism. The rise of existentialism, particularly among intellectuals, advocated a somewhat depressing concept regarding teleology or a meaning of life: nihilism. What nihilism denotes is that life is without any knowable meaning. Life is merely existence in a world of reality we cannot really know; that is, we can know only what our experience and intellect allow us to know based on the limits of individual perception. Before World War I, Friedrich Nietzsche ( 1844- 1900), a German philosopher, had written an essay, "Thus Spake Zarathustra" ( 1883), proclaiming "God is dead." The essay, considered an early foundation for existentialism, was not intended as a direct attack on religion but was based on the "facts" that science had produced regarding physics, cosmology, and biology which by the very nature of the information, contradicts many previously held religious beliefs. Later, Jean-Paul Sartre ( 1905- 1980), French philosopher and playwright, expressed the reality of the new philosophy in his best-known short story, "The Wall" ( 1948), and his major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness ( 1956). These stories, as the titles suggest, refer to a world in which individuals are in essence, condemned to live. Sartre, in a lecture entitled "Existentialism is a Humanism," stated, "Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills. . . . Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself" (my italics). In other words, you and I are whatever we are as a result of our choices. Each of us possesses an individ

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