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Rollo May : "The Existentialist Experience"

Jan Matejko - Stańczyk (1862)

Rollo May

Symbolism in religion and litterature

6. The Broken Center: A Definition of the Crisis of Values in Modern Literature


Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats

The Second Coming


In his important book Diagnosis of Our Time, Karl Mannheim proposes the interesting and cogent hypothesis that the despiritualization of modern life is best understood in terms of the gradual evaporation in our period of authentic "paradigmatic experience" and of those great "primordial images or archetypes" which, being formed out of this kind of experience, have directed the human enterprise in the most genuinely creative moments of cultural history. By "paradigmatic experience" Dr. Mannheim means those "basic experiences which carry more weight than others, and which are unforgettable in comparison with others that are merely passing sensations." Without experiences of this kind, he says,

"no consistent conduct, no character formation and no real human coexistence and co-operation are possible. Without them our universe of discourse loses its articulation, conduct falls to pieces, and only disconnected bits of successful behaviour patterns and fragments of adjustment to an ever-changing environment remain."

And his contention is that "paradigmatic experience," in so far as it yields some conviction as to what is radically significant, does also, in effect, create a kind of "ontological hierarchy," in accordance with which we say, "'This is bad, this is good, this is better.' "But, of course, the whole drive of the positivistically oriented secularism of modern culture has been towards such "a neutralization of that ontological hierarchy in the world of experience" as encourages the belief that "one experience is as important as any other" and that the question of right or wrong merely concerns the most efficient environmental adjustments.

So the result has been the evaporation of those "primordial images" which objectify a people's faith and provide the moral imagination with its basic premises. And when there are no "paradigmatic experiences," then nothing is any longer revealed as having decisive importance, and men are ruled by a kind of "kaleidoscopic concept of life" which, in giving an equal significance to everything, does, in effect, attribute radical significance to nothing at all. In such an age, the individual is condemned to the awful prison of his own individuality, since nothing means the same thing to any broad segment of people — and the primary fact about the human community is disclosed as being the complete collapse of anything resembling genuine community.

This is a fact which has been dramatized by much recent social criticism in its notation of the astonishing lack of drama in modern society. The life of the average megalopolitan today is ungraced by any rituals which strengthen the ties of sympathy and fellow-feeling. Nor is the civic scene complicated and enlivened by any round of celebrations and festivities comparable to the religious liturgies or the secular rites that figured so largely in the common life of earlier times. In the great cities of our day we are cave dwellers, scurrying about the urban wilderness from one vast compound to another, like "bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind" ; and, like the members of Captain Ahab's crew, we are, as Melville says, "nearly all Islanders," none "acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own."

This, then, is the intractable and unpromising reality that confronts the modern writer. Burke says that it is the artist's task to supervise a weighted language whose weightings are shared by the commonalty. But it has been the fate of the modern artist to live in a time when the commonalty, as anything more than a statistical assemblage of unrelated atoms, is something to be remembered only by the historical imagination. And this is why the problem of understanding modern literature so largely involves the problem of understanding the stratagems that become inevitable for the artist when history commits him to the practice of his vocation in such a vacuum. What the modern artist has needed to find are "systems of reference, acceptable to the experience of our time, by means of which he could give order and unity to his work." This is, indeed, what the artist has always needed, and, when the circumstances of his culture have afforded a good soil for art to grow in, the ethos of his community has provided him with coordinating analogies and key metaphors and with myths and symbols which, in flowing out of the funded memories and experience of his people, could well serve him as instruments for the full evocation of the human communion.

Surely it is no merely willful or sentimental nostalgia that leads us, when we roam back through the tradition, to account in these terms for the greatness of the achievement of Sophocles and Dante, of Shakespeare and Racine, or, on a far less exalted level, of, say, Madame de Lafayette or Jane Austen. In these older writers we feel a kind of freedom and a kind of security of reference that strike us as being a consequence of their having had the good fortune to live in cultures which, having a vital unity, could liberally provide those "primordial images" and "archetypes" which centralize and order the poetic imagination. These older writers were the lucky ones, for they did not have to invent ways of construing experience; they were lucky because the writer who has to expend energy on philosophical and theological enterprises before he can get his literary project under way will have squandered reserves of imaginative power that, in more favorable circumstances, would be used up in the practice of his art. And when one thinks, say, of Jane Austen in relation to the woman of our own time who wrote such a book as Nightwood, we cannot help but feel that the older writer was also lucky because, in receiving her ultimate terms of reference from her culture, she was relieved of any uncertainty about how to establish contact with her readers and was, therefore, enabled to make the kinds of assumptions that facilitate the poetic transaction.

This is precisely the kind of luck, however, that the writer in the modern period has not enjoyed. Inheriting no traditional and widely accepted frame of values from his culture, before his art could be steadied by some executive principle of valuation, it has been necessary for the artist to try to construct some viable system of belief for himself, by means of an effort of personal vision. He has had to be, in a sense, his own priest, his own guide, his own Virgil. He has been condemned by the cultural circumstances of his time to draw from within himself everything that forms and orders his art. The deep waters in which he has swum have been those of his own individual mind, and he has had to plunge deep in his search for the principles by which the anarchy of experience might be controlled and given a shape and a significance. Thus we might say that the reigning law of the modern movement in the arts has been that of the principium individuationis.

Indeed, all the great literature of the modern period might be said to be a literature of metaphysical isolation, for the modern artist — and this is perhaps the fundamental truth about him — has experienced a great loneliness, the kind of loneliness that is known by the soul when it has to undertake, unaided by ministries either of Church or of culture, the adventure of discovering the fundamental principles of meaning. Unquestionably, this accounts for the obscurity of so many great modern texts — of Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer, of Rilke's Duino Elegies, Joyce's Finnegans Wake, or Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Amidst the confusion in values of his age, the artist is attempting to invent for himself a system of attitudes and beliefs that will give meaning to his world. And it is this idiosyncrasy, this extreme individuality, of modern poetic vision that has often made our finest literature so difficult to penetrate.

What has been most distinctive of the great heroes of the modern tradition is, as Stephen Spender says, that they assumed the task "of re-experiencing everything as though it had never been experienced before, and then expressing it not in terms with which traditions and education have made us familiar but in new ones minted out" of their separate sensibilities. In a time when

So various

And multifoliate are our breeds of faith

That we could furnish a herbarium

With the American specimens alone

the writer felt himself to be without a common background of reference which could orient and bring into a profound rapport his own imaginative faculties and those of his readers. So he has turned inward, pursuing a system of values or beliefs in the world of his own subjectivity.


But, now, a second major observation must be made of the modern tradition in literature, for we shall not fully comprehend it until we recognize it as a tradition which represents that particular late development of the Romantic movement which is an outgrowth of what Erich Kahler calls "the existentialist experience." Not only, in other words, must we say that this is a Romantic literature; we must also say that it is an Existentialist literature as well. But when I denominate the central tradition in our literature as Existentialist, I do not intend to refer merely to certain recent writers, particularly in France, who have found a theoretical sanction for their vision in the doctrines of Existentialist philosophy. I use the term, rather, in a very much broader sense and intend it to define the literature of the last hundred years in which we find reflected an experience of existence as fundamentally and, perhaps even, essentially problematic. This is an experience which it will doubtless be our first impulse to regard as having been occasioned by those ultimate exigencies in the history of the modern spirit to which Nietzsche called our attention in his announcement of "the death of God."

But "the death of God," as a cultural fact of the modern age, is itself something whose fundamental cause, I believe, is to be sought in the "death of man" in our time, for this is the really primary fact in modern experience. What we confront, throughout the whole polity of modern society, is a tragic devitalization of the very concept of the person. The kind of life en masse, for example, that has been so distinctive of our period has been made possible by a system whose inner logic has necessitated a high degree of specialization in all fields of man's labor. And this, in turn, by a dreadful kind of inexorability, has accomplished what might even be said to be a mutation in human nature itself, in so far as the habit of requiring a man to justify himself by his ability to perform a special task has weakened in us the capacity to make the crucial distinction between the function and the human being who performs it.

But not only has the distinction become a difficult one to make; the human act by which a man transcends his various social and economic functions has also, under the pressures of a commercialized culture, become an act that it is increasingly more difficult to perform. Many of the most thoughtful observers of modern life have noticed how the logic of a technocratic culture tends to reduce the concrete particularity of the unique human individual to a purely abstract and functional identity; and they have also noticed the gray anonymity of life that this reduction accomplishes. What every reporter on the present human condition has, indeed, to take into account is the sense men have today of being thrust into the nudity of their own isolated individual existence. Though "huddled together" in the great metropolises of the contemporary world "like dust in a heap," that which figures most prominently in their awareness is a sense of the world's vacancy, and the loss of which they are most acutely conscious is the loss of the real proximity of friends and neighbors. Life seems, as Karl Jaspers says, to have grown "indefinitely vast": it no longer has that "interlinkage" which holds it together, "so that it is not frittered away" and disintegrated into "the brief perspective of the immediate present."

A man has the function he performs for eight hours a day, and he has his bit of breathing-space some where in the urban or the suburban wilderness. But, as we are told in Mr. Eliot's "Choruses from 'the Rock' ":

The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,

The desert is in the heart of your brother.

So, though all the time we live closer and closer together in our great urban compounds, we find it more and more difficult to recognize one another or even to retain a sense of our own identities. And amidst this gray, dreary anonymity we know that we live in a world from which all the gracious marks of "presence" have been banished. "Just as primitive man believed himself to stand face to face with demons and believed that could he but know their names he would become their master, so," says Karl Jaspers, "contemporary man is faced by something that is incomprehensible, which disorders his calculations". "The nameless powers of Nothingness," he says, "are, in our world whence the gods have been driven forth, the analogy of the demons that confronted primitive man."

And this, I believe, is why men in the modern period have believed God to be silent and absent and even dead. This has been their conclusion because they have not lived out their days in real nearness to one another, and, not having known the gracious reality of "presence" in their relations with their neighbors, their imaginations have been unable to grasp the possibility of the world itself being grounded in a transcendent "Presence." In such a world, where the human communion has been destroyed and man's condemnation is to an empty and unfertile solitude, what Gabriel Marcel calls Presence appears to be an obsolescent relic of the past ; not only does it appear that God is dead, but so too does it appear that an obituary notice is to be written memorializing the disappearance of man as well. In this "place of disaffection," as Mr. Eliot calls it, the only available dispensation seems to be that of loneliness and exile, and it is the sober acceptance of this icy alienation as the inescapable ground of human existence that constitutes that special modern sensibility which I am calling (after Erich Kahler) "the existentialist experience."

This is not an experience that is the sole property of those contemporary theorists of it whose program goes under the name of Existentialism. Their19th-century predecessors were, to be sure, among the first to give it emphatic definition, and it first became a public fact in the Berlin lectures of Schelling during the winter of 1841-1842 and in the later writings of men like Kierkegaard and Marx and Feuerbach and Nietzsche and Max Weber. But this is also an experience whose beginning is to be dated from the morning Baudelaire looked out upon the billboards of Paris —"that vast cemetery that is called a great city"— and felt an immense disgust. And not only do we find it in writers like Baudelaire and Rimbaud and Dostoievski and Strindberg, but we also find it in artists like Cezanne and Van Gogh, and the American Albert Pinkham Ryder. These were all men who belonged to that nineteenth-century vanguard of revolutionaries distinguished for the clarity and courage with which they acknowledged the bitter facts of alienation and estrangement as the central facts of modern existence.

And when, as Paul Tillich says, "the nineteenth century came to an end" on 31 July 1914, the existentialist experience ceased to be the experience of a sensitive minority and became the dominant experience of the age. In this century it has furnished the perspectives of the philosophic tradition established by such thinkers as Berdyaev and Shestov and Heidegger and Jaspers and Sartre and Marcel; it is the experience one feels in Stravinsky's Petrouchka, in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, in Alban Berg's Wozzeck, in Bartok's Second Quartet, and in much of the great music of our time; and it is also the experience that has been painted into many of the canvases of such classic moderns as Picasso and Rouault and the early de Chirico, or of such recent artists as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann.

Now it is this strain of sensibility that is central in much of twentieth-century literature: it is what we recognize in such poets of verse as Rainer Maria Rilke and Hart Crane and Robert Penn Warren and Gottfried Benn and in such poets of the novel as Conrad and Kafka and Faulkner and Malraux. Indeed, as Lionel Trilling has remarked,

"There is scarcely a great writer of our own day who has not addressed himself to the ontological crisis, who has not conceived of life as a struggle to be — not to live, but to be."

And what one feels to be formative in much of the representative literature of our period is a deep need for a deep restoration of confidence in the stoutness and reliability and essential healthiness of the things of earth. The trauma that has been suffered is the trauma that is inflicted upon the imagination when it appears that both God and man are dead. So the narrative that is at the center of our literature is a narrative of estrangement and alienation: the story that is told is a story of our abandonment "in some blind lobby or corridor of Time. "And in the dark," says Penn Warren, "no thread." No thread. And we are given some measure of how emphatic is the insistence upon our lostness by the apocalypticism and the hyperaesthesia of the literary imagination in our day, "its feeling," as Richard Chase says,

"that no thought is permissible except an extreme thought: that every idea must be directly emblematic of concentration camps, alienation, madness, hell ; that every word must bristle and explode with the magic potency of our plight."


All the great charismatic seers of modern literature from Baudelaire to Kafka and from Pirandello to Faulkner have, in one way or another, wanted us to understand that we are lost in a dark wood and that, in this maze, what is least trustworthy is the common, the immediate, the familiar. Thus the motion the modern artist has often performed before the revolving universe has been a motion of recoil. Sometimes, like Rimbaud, he has fallen in love with what Jacques Maritain calls "the blind glitter of nothingness" and made of his art a kind of incantatory magic. Or, like the author of Finnegans Wake, sometimes he has decided himself to be God and to create ex nihilo a universe of his own.

On occasion, his retreat, like Mallarme's, has been into la poésie pure, or, like the early Hemingway or the Dos Passos of the U.S.A. trilogy, it has been into the neutral factuality of naturalistic documentation. The recoil may have been into the subjectivistic perspectives of a Proust or a Virginia Woolf, or into that distress which provokes the belch of disgust expressed, say, in Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausee. But, various as the configurations are, it can, nevertheless, be said that many of the major literary artists of our time, whether they knew it or not, have had as their patron saint not St. Athanasius, but Dionysius the Areopagite, for, in their dealings with the body of this world, their Way has been not the Way of Affirmation but the Way of Rejection. They have not known, in other words, the kind of confidence in the world and in temporal reality that was managed in happier moments in the literary tradition.


W. H. Auden tells us that Kafka bears to our own age the kind of relation Dante bore to his, and a part of his meaning is, I am certain, that, whereas the hero of Dante's poem is a pilgrim and the movement of the poem is "from low to high or from dark to light,"the hero of the Kafkan fable is a man who, at the end of his journeying, is no nearer the Castle than he was at the beginning and who remains forever quavering in the dungeon of his dereliction. In the one case, we have the Christian drama of rebirth and redemption, and, in the other, we have a story of the soul's exclusion from the Courts of the Most High and of the despair by which it is overtaken in its abandonment and isolation — the story, in other words, that forms the characteristic judgment of the human condition rendered by the existentialist imagination in modern literature.

Ours is, then, an "extreme" literature which plunges us into "extreme" situations. Conrad's Decoud, Kafka's K., Gide's Lafcadio, Malraux's Kyo, Faulkner's Joe Christmas, and Penn Warren's Jeremiah Beaumont are all men who have been "thrown into a world without their willing it and with no place prepared for them." Their life has to be lived at a great distance from whatever are the sources of ultimate meaning, and, as a consequence, the salient stigmata of the modern hero are to be seen in his scepticism and in his despondency and alienation.

But the miracle that occurs in the existentialist universe of a Conrad or a Kafka or a Malraux or a Faulkner is that, through the grace of some power that is unnamed and perhaps unknown, this scepticism and this despondency are prevented from so completely encircling the hero as to undo his humanity. Which is to say that the modern hero, in his great moments, has had what Paul Tillich calls "the courage of despair"— the courage, that is, despite everything that is problematic and uncertain in his world, to affirm his humanity."

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