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Existentialism and Literature

August 26, 2021

Literature and philosophy have always been associated. Literature puts a face on philosophical abstractions. A recent article in Philosophy Now makes the case for the existentialism of African-American author Richard Wright (1908-1960).

In the article, author Roger Karny discusses a number of Wright’s classic texts and explains the way existentialism permeates them.

Existentialism is a philosophy founded by a radical Christian named Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). The movement eventually became identified with atheism because of its fundamental pessimism. The most significant existentialist in the 20th C was Jean Paul Sartre (1915-1980). For these philosophers, life is meaningless and pointless. The only way to create meaning is through the action of the human will. Humans create meaning where there is no meaning.

When an author such as Wright creates characters who determine their own identity through action, we are looking at existentialism.

As a black man, existentialism would have been attractive to Wright. Black men weren’t free in American society of the first half of the 20th C, but rather than suffer, the existentialist black man creates a meaningful life in spite of the fact of racism.

Wright was a Communist for some time, but existentialism doesn’t mix well with any totalitarian system. In existentialism, there is simply too great an emphasis on the individual’s need to choose freedom, to create the self.

For students of literature at Southern, Wright’s works show a valuable contrast between the biblical notion of meaninglessness found in the Book of Ecclesiastes and atheistic meaninglessness. Biblical meaninglessness is found in life without God.

Since our world is in rebellion against God, much of life is mere repetition and pointlessness—vanity. But the answer to this lack of meaning is faith in God’s ultimate provision for meaning. The Book of Ecclesiastes ends with this admonition: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (ESV).  

Life may sometimes look hopeless and pointless, but there is meaning to be found in doing God’s will, not our own.