From time to time, over the past few months, I have been musing on existentialism. In the mornings, I wake up, lie on my back and think. My thoughts flit around alighting on various topics…the birds singing in the garden, the curtain rails, my mother in London, the dim sum that my brother eats, peas I am growing, my dream that I vaguely recall. Slowly, the thoughts kaleidoscope into a pattern that usually revolves around where I am that morning, why and what I’m going to do that day. It is generally laced with good intentions and usually influenced by the books I have recently read.
Earlier this year I read Camus’ The Outsider. I had in fact intended to download essays by Jean Paul Sartre but made a mistake (that in itself is surely reflective of something pre-determined).In The Outsider, I was struck by Camus’ central character, Meursault; his relationship to the world, his mother and the impact of the Sun on the action of the novel. Meursault seemed indifferent to his life yet this was juxtaposed with his honesty and integrity. He took responsibility for his actions but the heat and whiteness of the days took their toll on the characters in the book.
This morning I was thinking again about the meaning of existentialism after finishing ‘Kindness of Solitude’ by Yiyun Li (A Chinese woman now living in America). I had downloaded it after listening to a review on Today FM. The reviewer recommended it as a thriller with a philosophical bent.
For me, it is not a thriller (interesting juxtaposition there) but there is a philosophical bent that picks up the theme of the French existentialists. The story is weaved around the lives of three Chinese children, one of whom poisons an older girl excluded by the Communist State for activities in Tiananmen Square.
The book examines the consequent lives of the three children, (two of whom go to live in the US). It looks at each of characters and how their adult selves respond to events that took place in their lives as children and explores how each one intentionally shapes their circumstances as a result and accepts the outcomes with equanimity. This is the existentialist theme: that each of us is responsible for our own actions. But there is also a nihilistic feel to it because there is an inexorable destiny to which our actions will lead. There is an underlying, passive inevitability about each individual. In Kindness of Solitude I found the inevitability of characters’ destiny tedious. Each of the central characters is unfulfilled. It undermines active responsibility and denies the possibility of change. Nearly every sentence from Ruyu, one of the three central characters, ends in a question mark which oddly left her over bearing and unengaged. The other two seemed like creatures caught in a hamster wheel. Do hamsters take responsibility? I half enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the thinking behind it.
Yes, it was nice to be thinking. Last night, surrounded by fragments of chocolate eggs, I caught up with the first episode in the last series of Mad Men. Existentialism doesn’t feature much here. Don Draper’s past story may pay homage to it, but the glamour, glitz, commercialism…the rampant march of modernity lays waste to any individuality in current day society and even the ability of the individual to take responsibility for their own actions… let alone act.
So, now this morning, having ploughed this particular thought furrow for long enough, I will leap out of bed, embrace the sun, and glory in the day. I am off for a swim and to play with Poppins, our puppy, named after my heroine, Mary. I wonder what her view of the existentialists was…maybe something to do with supercalerfragilisticexpealidocious… I am in control!
Hope you all enjoyed the rejuvenation of Easter!