Vol. 2, Issue #11 June 22nd - June 28th, 2007

Book Review: Existentialism: from Dostoevsky to Sartre
by Walter Kaufman
By: Robert Cole

Through all the great thinkers and writers that have been categorized by Existentialism, one thing they have in common is a passionate enthusiasm about life and consciousness. The ability to reason and experience is in itself a wonderful gift, but outside that generalization, Existential thinking runs in a hundred directions. Existentialism is not necessarily a separate branch from brainstorming and it encompasses all intricate thinking. It demands in depth reflection accented by ‘long-run’ ideas: What’s the base truth after all these years or what’s the point?

These questions, maybe less important now than their hay-day after the first and second world war, are still relevant to people today. They’ve been approached in different ways from Casper’s precise reasoning or Kafka’s more simple narratives. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre organized by Walter Kaufmann is still a very difficult read to handle. Most of the philosophers were translated for the first time into English when the work came out in 1956. The wording is often awkward with archaic and drawn out descriptions of vague conflicts, both internal and external, that effect people and their insights. Luckily, the whole book isn’t a hurdle and some relief is given with Kafka and Sartre’s fiction stories that succeed in applying their ideas into a more believable situation.

The best of these are three short parables by Kafka that afford strange images without a solid resolution. The most important of these is Before the Law, a story that can be put up to so many interpretations, it’s best to be read for itself. It begins:

“Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. “It is possible,’ answers the doorkeeper, ‘but not at this moment.’

After waiting a lifetime, the story ends:

“The doorkeeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength and that his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: ‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.’ “

The reader is dropped off immediately after the plot climaxes, destroying anticipation and a hope for solid ground after the fact. This story is inspiring in itself by giving the reader slack to push and pull whatever theme or idea he or she thinks the writer is trying to communicate. Great music is measured in this way too, by suggesting to the listener an idea too abstract to make any defined judgement.

The book continues to Jaspers’ Existenz which is probably the most challenging piece of literature I’ve tried to swallow. I found myself re-reading entire pages, then paragraphs, and finally, short sentences- and still having trouble deciphering much meaning. Camus closes the book with a two page myth about a disillusioned and beaten man named Sisyphus. He had been condemned by the gods to push his weight, or his sorrow, up a massive hill, condemned to let it roll back down and continue again. Again, after the story was complete, I didn’t have much to gather. That didn’t matter though, it was interesting without any big punch line at the finish.

After all’s said and done, not much is said and done. The strange thing is, that’s the ‘big idea’ I gathered from the book that reminded me, in between the lines, to not take life so seriously. There’s this whole world outside, I realized, while I’m in here trying to comprehend ‘Being there, conscious in the moment of un-conscious being.’. The outcome isn’t what matters, it’s what is found along the way. Beginnings and endings aren’t even real. They collide and mix together. I’d recommend reading the book because most of it is bullshit, but some of it’s not.

The most vital law I’ve learned is how to tell the difference.

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