Existentialist Lines in the Sand

Evil Mr. Heidkamp brought up some interesting points in his lecture on existentialism last week about the monotony of daily life. Primarily, he discussed the meaning of life is to “accept the absurd” and forge your own path, however underwhelming it may be. Essentially, it is the epitome of individuality. According to him, most people choose to believe in values such as love, religion, and anything else they use to explain away the truth. In doing so, they follow the grain of countless others around and before them – sheep following the flock.

So, in order to break free of this cycle and discover the true meaning of life, one must accept that life is not filled with purpose or values, it just is. It is merely a thing that exists, nothing else. And if accepting this means others view you as radical? So be it. But where does one draw the line? At what point does ‘just existing’ or ‘just doing’ become inexcusable? When someone commits murder for sure.

Which brings us to the novel, The Stranger, in which Meursault lives a monotonous and average life, doing the same things everyday without adventure. In this story, Meursault is the embodiment of existentialism. He goes through life with no emotional attachment, accepting everything the way it is. When he shoots the man and is jailed, he is unable to provide any explanation as to why. He was handed a gun, he shot it. He gets caught, he accepts it. He gets put on death row, he accepts that too. If this is what it means to “accept the absurd,” why would anyone want that? What’s so bad about choosing to believe in values and purpose? And, if one acknowledges the absurd but continues on in the fashion of everyone else, is that a roundabout way of accepting it?


In his essay “Canon Fodder” written for The Washington Post, Viet Nguyen discusses race in terms of the exclusive and predominantly white literary canon taught in curricula. He concludes his writing by saying, “the culture that produced the canonical greats also produced mass slavery and colonization that killed millions. Both Shakespeare and slaughter are part of Western civilization. Can we recognize both these faces of the West? Not if we read only Shakespeare.” (38) The attention he draws to the binary between the WHITE writer and not necessarily white reader (as literary audiences are arguably one of the most diverse populations out there) is also applicable to the binary central to the story “Conversation About Bread” in which Eldwin and Brian are anthropology majors discussing the implications and expectations that go along with being either a black writer or black reader. At one point, Brian asks, “Like why would you want to tell this story about a bunch of black Southern guys discovering bread anyway? What purposed does it serve unless it’s to show yourself as somehow better than them?” (92) Theirs is a tricky line to traipse as too much attention to a specific story like this could present as a patronizing piece of writing. However, ignoring little details in favor of coming across as less ‘superior’ risks ignorance and insensitivity. Thus, it is vital to strike a balance between the two.

It is also important to note that just as there is diversity between cultures and races, there is diversity between the individuals in every culture and race. Additionally, the common binary oppositions the mind is often drawn to are not any more prevalent than those that are more complex, crossing the dividing lines between people that make one group the ‘other’. For example, in the short story, there are several instances in which the binary of WHITE/black is noted (i.e. the white woman in the library). While this is the expected and easiest to observe, there is also a binary between the two men as one is a black writer and the other a black reader. It can even be shown that there is a binary between the men as both black readers and writers versus the white canon under which they are learning. So essentially, the argument could be made that even Brian and Eldwin are looking at themselves and the bread story through a ‘white’ lens.

Killer Intent

The short story Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders ends on a rather ambiguous note with the words “I had not killed, and never would.” The beauty of this line lies in the fact that it can be interpreted many ways. For example, one could assume Jeff is referring to his successful avoidance of having to watch Rachel be Darkenfloxxed and his consequent feelings of responsibility and guilt following her likely death. Conversely, one could argue that these words are wishful thinking – a falsity – seeing as Jeff did in fact kill himself to escape ‘killing’ Rachel. Thus begs the question: Is Jeff’s act of Darkenfloxxing himself considered a heroic self-sacrifice or suicide? On the one hand, Jeff reasons, “If I wasn’t here to describe it, they wouldn’t do it.” In this case, the only reason Jeff committed his act was because there was no other way – he couldn’t run or hide, so he needed to die. On the other hand, Jeff responds to the voice asking if he wanted to live by saying, “No thanks, I’ve had enough.” These are words of a dying man giving up. Given this, it can be argued that at this point, his intent to save Rachel transformed into an intent to die. Therefore, even if he didn’t kill Rachel, he did kill himself, and his words were a lie.