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William Barrett : The Age of Nothingness

Dernière mise à jour : 23 déc. 2023

William Barrett

Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy


"The one thing that is not clear in modem art is its image of man. We can select a figure from Greek art, from the Renaissance, or the Middle Ages and say with some certainty, "That is the image of man as the Greek, the medieval, or Renaissance man conceived him." I do not think we can find any comparably clear-cut image of man amid the bewildering thicket of modern art. And this is not because we are too close to the period, as yet, to stand back and make such a selection. Rather, the variety of images is too great and too contradictory to coalesce into any single shape or form. May the reason why modem art offers us no clear-cut image of man not be that it already knows - whether or not it has brought this knowledge to conceptual expression - that man is a creature who transcends any image because he has no fixed essence or nature, as a stone or a tree have ?

A good deal of modern art has been concerned, in any case, simply with the destruction of the traditional image of man. Man is laid bare; more than that, he is flayed, cut up into bits, and his members strewn everywhere, like those of Osiris, with the reassembling of these scattered parts not even promised but only dumbly waited for. Our novels are increasingly concerned with the figure of the faceless and anonymous hero, who is at once everyman and nobody. Perhaps, again, it is Joyce who began this process of dissection, and he can even evoke an echo of prehumanist art in the incident of Odysseus' encounter with the blind giant Polyphemus, in which the Greek hero calls himself ou tis, Noman, the man without an identity.

In the novels of Franz Kafka the hero is a cipher, an initial ; a cipher, to be sure, with an overwhelming passion to find out his individual place and responsibility - things which are not given to him a priori and which he dies without ever finding out. The existence of this cipher who does not discover his own meaning is marginal, in the sense that he is always beyond the boundary of what is secure, stable, meaningful, ordained. Modern literature tends to be a literature of "extreme situations," to use Jaspers' expression. It shows us man at the end of his tether, cut off from the consolations of all that seems so solid and earthly in the daily round of life - that seems so as long as this round is accepted without question.

Naturally enough, this faceless hero is everywhere exposed to Nothingness. When, by chance or fate, we fall into an extreme situation - one, that is, on the far side of what is normal, routine, accepted, traditional, safeguarded - we are threatened by the void. The solidity of the so-called real world evaporates under the pressure of our situation. Our being reveals itself as much more porous, much less substantial than we had thought it - it is like those cryptic human figures in modern sculpture that are full of holes or gaps. Nothingness has, in fact, become one of the chief themes in modern art and literature, whether it is directly named as such or merely drifts through the work as the ambiance in which the human figures live, move, and have their being. We are reminded of the elongated and attenuated figures of the sculptor Giacometti, figures that seem to be invaded by the surrounding void.

"Some live in it and never know it," writes Hemingway in the story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," which presents in its six or seven pages a vision of Nothing that is perhaps as powerful as any in modern art; and he continues,

"It was all a nothing, and man is a nothing too."

The example of Hemingway is valuable here, for he is not an artist inspired by intellectual themes; quite the contrary, he is a reporter and a poet intent on reporting what it is he really sees in experience, and what he has seen and reports to us in this story is the Nothing that sometimes rises up before the eyes of human beings." A story by Sartre on the same subject would be much more suspect to us; we would have reason to believe that the Existentialist writer was loading the dice intellectually, reporting on experience out of a previous philosophical commitment. But to reject Hemingway's vision of the Nothing, of Nothingness, might well be to close our eyes to our own experience.

It is worth emphasizing, once again, that the vision of Nothingness with which modem art presents us does express a real encounter, one that is part of the historical destiny of the time. Creative artists do not produce such a vision out of nowhere. Nor in general do audiences or readers fail to respond to it. When a play Waiting for Godot, by an Irish disciple of Joyce's, Samuel Beckett - a play in which Nothingness circulates through every line from beginning to end - runs for more than sixteen months to packed houses in the capitals of Europe, we can only conclude that something is at work in the European mind against which its traditions cannot wholly guard it and which it will have to live through to the bitter end. Surely the audience at Beckett's play recognized something of its own experience in what it saw on the stage, some echo, however veiled, of its own emptiness and, in Heidegger's phrase, its "waiting for God." It is not only stuffy and pompous of the Philistine to reject these responses in artist and in audience, but dangerously unintelligent, for he loses thereby the chance of finding out where he himself stands historically.

An epoch, as we have seen, reveals itself in its religion, its social forms, but perhaps most profoundly or, at any rate, lucidly in its art. Through modem art our time reveals itself to itself, or at least to those persons who are willing to look at their own age dispassionately and without the blindness of preconceptions, in the looking glass of its art. In our epoch existential philosophy has appeared as an intellectual expression of the time, and this philosophy exhibits numerous points of contact with modern art. The more closely we examine the two together, the stronger becomes the impression that existential philosophy is the authentic intellectual expression of our time, as modem art is the expression of the time in terms of image and intuition.

Not only do the two treat similar themes, but both start off from the sense of crisis and of a break in the Western tradition. Modem art has discarded the traditional assumptions of rational form. The modern artist sees man not as the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West by the Greeks, but as something else. Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable. At the limits of reason one comes face to face with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life.

This break with the Western tradition imbues both philosophy and art with the sense that everything is questionable, problematic. Our time, said Max Scheler, is the first in which man has become thoroughly and completely problematic to himself. Hence the themes that obsess both modern art and existential philosophy are the alienation and strangeness of man in his world; the contradictoriness, feebleness, and contingency of human existence; the central and overwhelming reality of time for man who has lost his anchorage in the eternal.

The testimony art brings to these themes is all the more convincing in that it is spontaneous; it does not spring from ideas or from any intellectual program. That modem art which is most successful and powerful moves us because we see in it the artist subordinate (as must always be the case in art) to his vision. And since we recognize that man's being is historical through and through, we must take this vision of modem art as a sign that the image of man which has been at the center of our tradition till now must be re-evaluated and recast.

There is a painful irony in the new image of man that is emerging, however fragmentarily, from the art of our time. An observer from another planet might well be struck by the disparity between the enonnous power which our age has concentrated in its external life and the inner poverty which our art seeks to expose to view. This is, after all, the age that has discovered and harnessed atomic energy, that has made airplanes that fly faster than the sun, and that will, in a few years (perhaps in a few months), have atomic-powered planes which can fly through outer space and not need to return to mother earth for weeks. What cannot man do ! He has greater power now than Prometheus or Icarus or any of those daring mythical heroes who were later to succumb to the disaster of pride. But if an observer from Mars were to turn his attention from these external appurtenances of power to the shape of man as revealed in our novels, plays, painting, and sculpture, he would find there a creature full of holes and gaps, faceless, riddled with doubts and negations, starkly finite.

However disconcerting this violent contrast between power and impoverishment, there is something a little consoling in it for anyone who is intimidated by excessive material power, as there is in learning that a dictator is a drunkard or marked by some other ordinary failing which makes him seem a trifle more human. If we are to redeem any part of our world from the brute march of power, we may have to begin as modem art does by exalting some of the humble and dirty little comers of existence. On another level, however, this violent contrast is frightening, for it represents a dangerous lagging of man behind his own works; and in this lag lies the terror of the atomic bomb which hangs over us like impending night. Here surely the ordinary man begins to catch a fleeting glimpse of that Nothingness which both artist and philosopher have begun in our time to take seriously. The bomb reveals the dreadful and total contingency of human existence. Existentialism is the philosophy of the atomic age."


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