Surrealism and Existentialism Seminar Paper

Pages: 21 (6413 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 15  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Literature

Richard Wright's

The Outsider

An Existential Examination of the Essential Blackness and Dread

Literary Existentialism

Wright and Pessimism, Dread, Fear

Narration Structure

Root of Dread

The Dread and Fear Parallels with Dostoevsky

Thirteen years after the publication of Native Son Wright reexamined the problem of the ethical criminal in the role of Cross Damon, the protagonist of his novel, The Outsider. Cross is in some respects an intellectualized Bigger; although he has read Heidegger, Jaspers, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Husserl, and Dostoevsky, his psychology is essentially Bigger's. Violence gives Cross a sense of meaning, a sense of freedom in a world that is otherwise hostile or chaotic. After committing two "senseless" murders Cross experiences fulfillment" (Dickstein, 2004 p. 23). The universe seemed to be rushing at him with all its totality. He was anchored once again in life, in the flow of things; the world glowed with an intensity so sharp it made his body ache."

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In this novel too, Wright refocuses his thoughts on the revolutionism of the Marxist Communist and that of the metaphysical rebel. Unlike Native Son, however, the differences between the two are not nearly so contradictory. Early in the novel Cross finds himself in conflict with the Communist Party; not because he is so different from other Communists, but because he is so much like them. The Communists, he discovers, use idealism and ideology (Turner, 2003 p. 11) to mask their real intentions; their will, their desire for power. For Cross, too, power is an end in itself; it is the basic ingredient of human nature; it is fundamentally a kind of libidinal assertion that often conceals itself in altruistic motives and the myths of humanitarian religion and ideology (Hricko, 2004 p. 65).

Seminar Paper on Surrealism and Existentialism Assignment

The theme of The Outsider is Cross's search for freedom; but true freedom, he finds, is but another expression of the will to power. Hence Cross, the metaphysical rebel, opposes Communists because his freedom (or will to power) must inevitably clash with the Communists' will to extend their power over him. Moreover, since Cross equates freedom with power, freedom actually means the successful subjugation of the will of others; thus the dream of universal freedom is a logical impossibility. In averring that the Communist and the ethical criminal are motivated by the same principles; that together they recognize an identical truth about the human condition; Wright avoids a number of the difficulties of Native Son wherein he tried somehow to reconcile Marxist determinism with existentialist freedom. But in summarily dismissing Marxist ideology as simply the intellectual superstructure of an innate will to power, Wright perhaps too glibly evades a number of crucial political, social, and moral issues. In other words if in Native Son Wright allowed his Communists to talk too much, in The Outsider he scarcely allows them to defend themselves at all (Dickstein, 2004 p. 38).

Literary Existentialism

Existentialist fiction is essentially a literature based upon a philosophy. At the heart of the Existentialist philosophy is the belief that man makes himself and that in this consists his fundamental freedom. Nothing is finished and final. In Christian as in atheistic Existentialism there is a consistent emphasis on living rather than cognition. If the Existentialists stress the doom that awaits man, it is in order to make clear the nature of the crucial choice that lies before him. Every moment, a point of intersection between two eternities, is a leap in the dark, emblematic of the paradox of all existence. In the theology of crisis, the polarity of consciousness leads to the abandonment of natural reason and the transcendence to the sphere of the miraculous. First comes the decisive act of choice and then the faith crystallizes. Just when man despairs and is about to give up the struggle, that is his moment of spiritual victory (JanMohamed, 2005 p. 16). As Kierkegaard declares in Either/Or: "It is impossible to live artistically before one has made up one's mind to abandon hope; for hope precludes self-limitation." Trapped in anxiety, Kierkegaard writes: "I have the courage, I believe, to doubt everything. . . "(Widmer, 2003 p. 12). And what extraordinary dialectical variations he can play, in The Concept of Dread, on the term "nothing" on which the eye is hypnotically fixed!

The modern Existentialist writer, however, in portraying the disintegration of his sense of values, his inner demoralization, is expressing what is common to the men of his time. The hero in Nausea, by Sartre, makes the terrifying discovery that he can no longer do what he wills; he is atrophied, immobilized. There we have the Existentialist thesis, applied to fiction that life is without meaning or purpose. The universe of matter is not interested in the fate of man, his aspirations or ideals, his sufferings and sacrifices and heroic dreams. Man is alone in the space-time continuum, and there is no one to whom he can turn for help. Man is his own God, dependent on his own volition. Sartre makes much of these ideas in his book, What Is Literature? The most revealing part of What Is Literature? is the section concerned with the art of fiction as practiced in accordance with the Existentialist philosophy (Winant, 2001 p. 11).

Wright and Pessimism, Dread, Fear

It should be clear from the above that The Outsider is that rare thing in contemporary American fiction, the "novel of ideas" (Tuhkanen, 2009 p. 23). It is a novel that treats seriously problems of dread, ethics, and morality, the dilemmas of politics and religion, and the paradox of racism in a democracy. Ultimately the novel is concerned with the meaning of being; the significance of life in a universe that makes no particular judgments about the value of man. In a sense the novel represents a very important fragment of Wright's thinking in that the reader here finds Wright (through Cross) attempting to reconcile his basically humanitarian and liberal beliefs with a profound feeling that man is fundamentally amoral and anarchistic (Winant, 200 p. 48). Cross, in the course of the novel, finds it impossible to reconcile freedom and order in his own personality; and despairs, as the novel closes, that such reconciliation can ever be effected in society as well. The Outsider, then, is Wright's most pessimistic novel in that he poses problems that he states frankly fail of solution; it is a novel in which the reader finds Wright endeavoring nonetheless to work these problems out; hoping, evidently, that in the course of his exploration he would discover the form of his novel. But because his "ideas" fail him, the very structure of the novel fails him at the end -and The Outsider can at best be described as a very imperfect work of art.

Wright, of course, had always conceived of the novel as a means of working out his ideas. "Writing," he told William Gardner Smith in 1953, "would always be a way of thinking aloud over issues; posing the problems and the questions as to their solution posing them only, not answering them" (Robison, 2003 p. 33). The chief problem he poses in The Outsider is how to achieve individual freedom without impinging on the freedom or humanity of others. It is this central problem on which all the other problems of the novel hinge. They fail to resolve themselves because Wright attaches a set of conditions to his notions of freedom which make the attainment of freedom impossibility. Freedom fails because man is so hedged in by predetermined psychological molds that he cannot act rationally or calculatedly (JanMohamed, 2005 p. 75). He is instead a creature and prey of physical and emotional compulsions over which he has no control. Every man, Cross discovers, is invested with a sense of dread and terror (perhaps connected with the birth trauma), with a sense of guilt (inherited from a civilization that tries to impose curbs on his violent amoral nature, his lust for power, his desire to become a little god), with a sense of injustice (the world seems to promise so much and offers all too frequently only meaningless suffering and death), and with the sense, however remote and unacceptable, that the universe is purposeless, that God does not exist, and that human life is insignificant (Macksey, 2004 p. 34). Cross, in endeavoring to seek his freedom, finds himself capable of shedding all illusions regarding the true nature of "civilization," "morality," Christian "values," and human motivation; they are all in the final analysis man's inventions to conceal from himself the fierce libidinal impulses of his own nature and the senseless chaos of the world in which he exists (Widmer, 2003 p. 45). But Cross is incapable of coping with his own physical needs, with his pride, with his self-love and self-hate, and his inborn sense of justice. In maintaining these attributes, Cross fails as god and remains human and, ironically, unfree.

Narration Structure

Wright structures Cross's odyssey for freedom into five books. The first book, "Dread," is largely expository. It relates the dilemma… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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