Humanities Information

The Contingencies of Despair: How Existentialists Survive

~ Dread is dizziness unto freedom-freedom that gazes down into its own possibility. In this dizziness freedom succumbs. ~

An individual awakes as he usually does, uses the bathroom and brushes his teeth as he usually does, and goes to the kitchen for his usual bowl of Slurpy O's cereal. But his new housekeeper has shopped for him the day before and unable to find Slurpy O's has brought to his cupboard four different brands of oats and rices, hoping one will satisfy him until she can find his usual. When he reaches to open the cabinet and see the options of ?.., he stops, stuck for thought, stuck for making a decision. He absolutely cannot wrap his brain around this early morning choice and so he eats nothing. [1] This is, in small part, what existentialism is.

A few doors down, a person deals with another conundrum. Six months ago he had succumbed to an offer made by a leading ISP to sign up for 45 days of free browser and email service. He had entered his credit card number on day one, knowing that though it was maxed-out, by the time a month and a half had passed he would have been paid and would then be able to pay off the $300.00 limit, so the ISP could charge the $30.00 per month from thereon in. But on day thirteen, he finds that the ISP has frozen his account. When he finds out why-because they attempted to charge his card and the card denied them billing-he becomes angry that the company has lied/defrauded him by giving him only 13 days free, and then has shut off his livelihood (he works online) when failing to successfully charge him 32 days prematurely.

He immediately writes a letter to ISP Godzilla, demanding it cancel his membership, a letter he faxes that same day. ISP Godzilla writes back, saying that this is not the way cancellation works, and would he please call 1-800-XXX-XXXX. He calls and first gets put on hold, a position that for five minutes keeps him riveted to a looped recording of a saccharine voice saying, "If you need further help with your computer repair needs, go to" When he gets a human he gets a person who informs him that the company "cannot find" him in their records. At the same time, he also has an answering service provided by the same company. When he dials the home base to retrieve his messages and punches in his password, a mechanical response tells him there is no such account. The messages are there, as his indicator shows 5, then 7, then 12 incoming messages?which he cannot access. The unreturned calls result in losing three clients, two friends, and a fianc-all inferring he has shut them out.

Within the next few months he receives three threatening bills from Godzilla, which demand payment that if he does not pay will result in termination of his account. Then the bills are turned over to a hostile collection agency, bills which arrive with the rest of his mail-which also contains new CDs for start-up service with the same company. On the CDs are the words "Come back to Godzilla and we will give you 45 days free online access!" This, too, is existentialism.

And in another anywhotown on another part of this hurtling and rickety globe, a person is kidnapped. She is taken to the captor's home, tied up, and used for the man's pleasure. Every day for two weeks, she is made to submit, allowed to rise only to bathe, groom, and eat, and is then tied back to the bed to stay while the man goes off to work at a major everycorporation everysite downtown.

On day fifteen, the man leaves for work and the woman does all she can to free herself. She finally gets loose and leaves the house to shop, eat, drink caf, and sit in the park feeding the birds. After a few hours, the woman returns to the house, puts herself back in the shackles and waits for him to return. [2] This is also existentialism.

In the same respect, though, existentialism involves much more. The umbrella concern of this social, atheistic, and/or theistic philosophical movement holds that the existential human, the solitary individual, lives an existence that is one composed of essence only when/if/after he/she defines him/herself-that the individual's existence precedes his/her essence. [3] And the tenets of existentialism (though technically impossible to isolate and encapsulate in a few pages) consist of the understanding that one has freedom because one is nothing; that one must exert this freedom by accepting the moral responsibility of free will and by using this free will to choose (in good faith); that because each is an individual with individual approaches to existence, life is only subjective; and that life--even and especially to the rational human--is irrational, is absurd.

It is because existentialism as a whole philosophy is actually a set of philosophies that do not fit into neat, quiet categories but instead are reflexive, multi-dimensional, sometimes screaming, other times contrasting and conflicting contingencies-ironies and absurdities--that overlap and often collide like the parts of a freak of a fluke hybridized onion that I address here only one integral part of the whole.

It is because existentialism is absurd in its very understanding of the absurd (and points out its own absurdity), is paradoxical in its very understanding of paradox (and declares its own paradoxical nature) that I attempt to identify one single nature of existence. It is because of such a component--the characteristics (or symptoms) of the contingencies as they are and as they lead inevitably to despair--that I write.

And it is with all of the respect one can possibly have for the onion skins and layers initiated by Hegel and Heidegger, or first bred by Descartes, or developed by Sartre, de Beauvoir, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, or taken on and piece-by-piece dissected by Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka that I write?again, to express understanding of one (subjective) human experience, and not to speak in any intellectual, all-encompassing way to a definitive discussion of every single cell of the most profound of philosophies.

First, existence. Existence first. Existence precedes essence. A human is first, nothing. A human makes him/herself something by defining him/herself. And he/she does this by accepting responsibility for self, which he/she does by acting, by choosing. What comes of this responsibility for the existentialist is angst, a combined and internalized anxiety, fear, forlornness, longing, desire, guilt, and [what Kierkegaard defined as] dread-as a fear of this freedom to make of oneself what one will. Add to this angst the notion that one is also responsible for humankind and must act, must choose, and a one is in a kind of living death agony-one is in despair.

Of despair's forms-to not be conscious of having a self, the unwillingness to be own self to get rid of self and imbalanced relating to another, and to will to be one's own self [4]-one paradoxically brings on more despair out of the despair itself. That is, out of despair one might be tempted to avoid responsibility. But to avoid is to be in what Sartre called "mauvaise foi," or bad faith [5]?which leads to further despair.

We cannot know this, any more than we can know our own future self/our epoch, any more than we can control our own self, future, or destiny. This contributes to the conscious despair of the existentialist, one that contains, even the despair of hope.

We cannot control another, either, in our human drive to be know/think self, which is considered an effort to be God (or what Nietzsche would maintain we could be and are: Der Ubermunsch, The Overman/Superman). The impossibility of this creates a despair that parallels the dread of knowing we cannot know our own beingness-because such beingness is only recognizable/definable by its relation(ship) to other existing beings. As Hegel designed (or de-coded)it, we are in a constant dialectic of self and other. A human cannot exist unless he/she exists against the existence of another.

The best known analogy is that of the Master/slave, but to deny antiquity in favor of modernity, let's go back to the woman in the open example who freed herself, only to re-shackle herself again.

At some point, she (consciously or unconsciously) identifies herself as submissive, or masochist, who does not exist as a masochist unless there is a sadist to bring out the masochistic nature of her. Once she is free, then, she is no longer "masochist," and therefore no longer anything. She does not exist. She needs the other to "name" her, to give her existence?or beingness. This notion of the self being contingent on the other for meaning is one Sartre pointedly commented on from the place of his own despair, saying, "The other is the drainhole of my existence."

Further, though we share this interdependency, this dialectical demandingness, we really only share one universal: that we are fundamentally free. Conversely, though existentialism is sometimes considered a social philosophy, it eludes the nomenclature as it individualizes us, stripping us of any universal identity. We are, in every sense, alone in our existence. As modern radical therapist R.D. Laing says, "I cannot experience your experience," [6] emblematizing the very alienation of the human. Hence, the despair as it resurfaces in yet another multi-layered dimension.

In addition, since existence is subjective-since the only meaning/essence is that which we attach, that which we make or bring to the world-communication, also, is subjective. By the very act of communicating, one is attaching subjective meaning or subjective character to that communication. So by imposing meaning on the outside, one robs the outside of the ability to absorb one, which saps one to the point of death.

This brings us back to the internalization of alienation and the fear and at the same time the odd longing for and need of that very inevitable possibility of alienation necessary in order to be free. For the morning man to face cereal choices, this means to be an aesthete-and do nothing (or to be an animal making animal choices). To not choose is to not attach meaning, but to attach meaning is to be subjective. To separate and define is to be in good faith but to separate and define to any conscious degree is to attempt to control that which is uncontrollable, while to succumb like the woman to her shackledness is to embrace the freedom in the dialectic. To attempt objective communication as did the man with the ISP nightmare is to unconsciously (and therefore in bad faith) volunteer for the absurd which one consciously attempts to deny, though to attempt to change that which is adamant in its unchanging is to also be in bad faith.

So is it then only possible or only necessary to resort back to nothingness or death (to killing one's self)? Maybe so. Or it is to be an existential thinker, which is to be a reflective thinker, which is to be in oneself, inward, presupposed as a being, achieved as a self? Is that possible, though, anywhere but in the dizzying blur of our own imagination?

End Notes

[1] Palmer, Dr. Donald. Analogy from lecture. College of Marin, Kentfield, CA. Oct., 1981.

[2] Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness. Citadel, 1956. 270.

[3] Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. Dir. Pedro Almodvar. Perf. Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas. Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1990.

[4] Kierkegaard, Sren Aabye. The Sickness Unto Death. New Jersey: Princeton University, 1980.

[5] Cumming, Robert Denoon. ed. The Philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

[6] Laing, R. D.. The Politics of Experience. London: Routledge & Kegan, 1967.

N.H.-born prize-winning poet, creative nonfiction writer, memoirist, and award-winning Assoc. Prof. of English, Roxanne is also web content and freelance writer/founder of, a support site for academic, memoir, mental disability, and creative writers who need a nudge, a nod, or just ideas?of which Roxanne has 1,000s, so do stop in for a visit, as this sentence can't possibly get any longer?.

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If you have been anywhere near a university that trains doctoral students in the humanities, you will know that the market for new Ph.D.s is abysmal.

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