Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Quest for Identity in Richard Wright's the Outsider: An Existentialist Approach

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Quest for Identity in Richard Wright's the Outsider: An Existentialist Approach

Article excerpt

Technicians of human personality especially sociologists and psychologists define man in their own perceptions and disciplinary studies. To a sociologist, man is defined only in terms of his relationship with others and the social dynamics within which he operates. A psychologist defines man in terms of his personality. The reality of his existence is determined by his total personality. The theologian's definition of man is more objective, seeing the reality of man's existence only in relation to his subservience to his creator, God. However, the philosopher's definition of man is subjective and to a certain extent complex. In other words, man can be anything or nothing. If man feels, he therefore exists. But sometimes, he may feel and yet does not exist. So man's existence is determinist in nature. Man can out of his own freewill, create non-existence out of existence, while still living. Absurd as it sounds, this is the definition of man by existentialist philosophers. Jean Paul Sartre, the exponent of the philosophy of existentialism defines man in the following words:

   Existentialism maintains that in man, and man
   alone, existence preceded essence. This simply
   means that man first is, and only subsequently is
   this or that. In a word, man must create his own
   essence: it is in throwing himself into the world,
   suffering there, struggling there, that he gradually
   defines himself And the definition always remains
   open-ended: we cannot say what this man is
   before he dies, or what mankind is before it has
   disappeared.

Man in Sartrean essence, is the creator of his own destiny and in so doing, accepts the responsibility of his own actions, rational or otherwise. Sartre applies his philosophical theory in literature by using it in some of his works. For instance, in his novel, Nausea, he uses words such as "existence" from which existentialism is coined and "absurdity" which are fundamental in the definition of the characters and their actions. As the hero of the novel, Nausea, remarks: "Never until these few days had I understood the meaning of existence."

Although it is existence that is determined by freewill, nevertheless it is meaningless, for it is accompanied by absurdity. It is existence that entraps and imprisons the human spirit perpetually:

   The word "absurdity" is coming under my pen:
   a little while ago in the garden, I could find it,
   but neither was 1 looking for it. I didn't need it: I
   thought without words, on things, with things--In
   fact, all that I could grasp beyond that returns to
   this fundamental absurdity. Absolutely: another
   word. I struggle against words; down there I
   touched the thing.

Sartre sees "absurdity" or irrationality as the basis of the existentialist's exercise of freewill. That choice that bestows freedom to the existentialist also ironically enslaves him. There is no doubt that Nausea remains central in Sartre's philosophical journey that established him as not only a leading French thinker, but also one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century.

The novel embodies Sartre's vision of humanity in which human civilization is undermined by forces of tyranny and terror. Sartre's sensitivity as an artist and commitment to liberal and revolutionary political ideals forced him to explore the absurdity of human existence in which the individual is continuously hounded and neutralized by fascistic regimes. The horrendous atrocities committed during the Spanish civil war and those of others happening elsewhere had affected his literary sensibilities and provided him with a voice to articulate visionary ideals in form of protest literature.

Requentin, the hero of Nausea comes to epitomize, idealistically, Sartre's existentialism. Requentin is presented as an ideal existential hero, who is able to break with the past and confront reality, as opposed to intensely idealistic Anny, his girlfriend, who refuses to break with her past. …

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