Existentialism: Not an Excuse to Be a Jerk

I don’t know about other class periods, but my class has been having a lot of debates about whether Meursault is a perfect existentialist who has achieved radical subjectivity and is free from society’s oppressive power structures or is just a bad person. I would like to suggest that the answer is, well, both. Meursault is undoubtedly an existentialist. He has accepted that nothing in life has meaning. However, the answer to the question of what sort of person he is, morally, lies in how he deals with that knowledge. 

As a result of the realization that life is meaningless, Meursault is sort of a jerk. He does things that hurt others, such as writing a letter to Raymond’s ex-girlfriend that he knows is going to get her into a bad situation and murdering a guy, under the premise that “nothing matters” and these actions are “meaningless.” However, that’s just wrong. His actions do matter. They matter to the people they affect. Even if Meursault is enlightened and knows that none of our suffering matters in the long run, that doesn’t give him the right to inflict unnecessary suffering upon other people, because that is infringing upon their freedom and subjectivity. 

Some might say that Meursault’s complete apathy and disregard for the things and people around him is the only natural response to existentialism. But I disagree. I believe that there is another way to respond: the idea that because there is nothing but this life, we have to spend it making the most positive impact on the world that we can, reducing the small fraction of the suffering of others that it is actually in our control to reduce. We have to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, fight for the rights of the marginalized, et cetera. 

While this idea may initially seem counter to existentialism, it actually fits with it perfectly. Because there is no afterlife that people who suffered on earth will get to enjoy after death, we should make sure that they suffer on earth as little as possible so that the entirety of their existence is not miserable. Sure, it’s ultimately meaningless, but it’s nice to do anyway. After all, nobody likes to suffer, and it’s kind of a jerk move to say to someone, “Well, suffering is inevitable, and everyone eventually dies anyway, so I’m not going to help you out from under that fallen tree that is crushing you lifeless.” Because if you were the one suffering, even if you knew it was meaningless, you probably would appreciate if that suffering could be diminished or removed. 

What I like about the “helping others” response to existentialism is that it can coexist with mutual recognition. Existentialism, no matter what, allows the existentialist to be a subject. However, if the existentialist realizes that others are subjects as well, their natural response will be to want to help them. In this light, existentialism can be a force for good not only for those who practice it but for the whole world. 

Altogether, I would say Meursault offers insight into one way an existentialist life can be lived, but certainly not the only way. Existentialism can make us apathetic, yes, but it also can rouse us to action. After all, life is meaningless, but we have to spend it doing something. Why not spend it doing things that make others a little bit happier?

Mutual Recognition in a Relationship with Domination

While reading all of these stories, many of them have interesting power dynamics. The Tlic with the Terran in Bloodchild, the designated mate with the beauty spy in Blackbox, the daughter and the mother from Good County People, the old man and the town’s people from the Very Old Man with Enormous Wings and many more. All of those stories contain a relationship between two parties where one is more so dominating the other.

With every story, I was trying to find mutual recognition between them. In Spiderhead was there mutual recognition between the man in charge and the narrator when the narrator had to first say “acknowledge” before anything was done to him? Was there mutual recognition between the narrator’s friend and Ms. Moore in The Lesson when the main character’s friend accepted the lesson? I’m still not sure. I believe that when a more powerful figure allows their less powerful counterpart a “choice,” it is not mutual recognition. I believe is more so them still lording their power over the other. Like saying “I will give a choice to make you feel like you have power,” but that way, they’re still in power but now only manipulating emotions.

If mutual recognition means that one party sees the other as an equal, I feel like majority of these stories lack that. But if mutual recognition simply means that one party sees the other as an individual with valid feelings and thoughts but still decides to lord power over the other, then the stories do have that. I’m not sure if mutual recognition is up to interpretation, but I believe that if something were to *mutually* recognize another thing, then it would have to see it as an equal being.

Mutual Recognition in “Bloodchild”

Jessica Benjamin explains that people have to recognize everyone as individuals in order to avoid dominance and aggression. People need to build relationships to steer clear of building a hierarchy of dominance. Without building relationships, people will never reach mutual recognition. Benjamin disagrees with Freud’s theory because the theory ignores the need to connect with others. It also only allows for women to be submissive players in their own lives. However, both need to realize the power dynamic in order to reach mutual recognition. 

This need to recognize that you are in a power dynamic is a bit problematic to me because although people in the submissive side do need to realize they are being oppressed for the relationship to change, more responsibility should be given to the dominant side of the relationship. The dominant side enforces the power dynamic and it ultimately up to them to fix the skewed relationship. 

In “Bloodchild” although Gan is ultimately given the choose to decide whether him or his sister should be impregnated, this is not a sign of mutual recognition. The choice is not really his because someone in his family is still going to have to go though this painful process. The terrains do have examples of not completely submitting to the power dynamic. However, the Tilcs are still the ones with the power and will not be willing to give more power to the terrains because then their species would be threatened by not being able to reproduce. The dynamic is very oppressive to the terrains. Gan, since birth, has been brainwashed that it is his duty to be impregnated. When he contemplating not to be impregnated, he was taking some power back but he never reaches mutual recognition. The terrains are seen as a mean to reproduce and not as an individual on the same level as the Tilcs. Mutual recognition would only be achieved if both sides saw each other as equals in all parts of life.



The Old Blog is Dead! Long Live the Old Blog!

For many years, we used the Blogger platform for the AP Lit blog. Since it is owned by Google, it integrates pretty seamlessly with your Google accounts — which made it easy to use, in some respects — but it is a very limited and bug-ridden platform. So this year, we have decided to construct a new class blog from scratch using the most more powerful and stable WordPress platform.

If you are interested, though, in seeing what past AP Lit students have been thinking and writing about, feel free to wander over to the old blog.

old blog