God bless the French. They gave us French kissing, French bread, Brigitte Bardot and Tati. They gave us useful terms: ennui and guillotine. They gave us The Statue of Liberty.
And the French gave us existential fiction—a gift that keeps on giving.
Born of a Danish thinker, Soren Kirkegaard, and a German, Friedrich Nietzsche, Existentialism seeded the world primarily on the winds of French literature, inspiring many works of art that characterized the bleak and blundering 20th century.
From Existentialism sprang Samuel Beckett, his characters forever waiting for Godot. Jean Genet, Andre Malraux and Eugene Ionesco celebrated the gospel of Existentialism. Later came the novels of Cormac McCarthy, who puts his human beings on soulless plains, in worlds bereft of gods or goodness, their only faith that of certain death in the end.
The Existentialist movement dramatically influenced Hollywood. Screens have swarmed with Existential anti-heroes, rebels without a cause and rebels without a clue, shaking their fists at the heavens even if nothing but rain was up there. Think of Dean. Mitchum. Brando, and works directed by Ingmar Bergman.
In painting, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon rose from the movement. Pop music produced Robyn Hitchcock, Goth music, then like the great white shark of Existentialism, The Sex Pistols.
For all this, we can thank French writers, mainly Albert Camus and his friends Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who carried the stone tablets down from Mt. Kirkegaard and Mt. Nietzsche to the masses. These writers basically considered the universe to be absurdly functioning, completely free of any divine hand or supernatural influence. The heavens were just heavens, not happy habitats for supernatural deities.—Mon dieu!
The book most often cited as the Bible of Existentialism—The Great Existential Novel, if you will—is Albert Camus’s The Stranger.
This 1942 novel concerns a middle-class citizen named Mersault who seems to have simply no beliefs or convictions or passions. He lives as a stranger among us, in a sort of continuum of existence in a nondescript town in Algeria, where he has a few acquaintances—he really couldn’t call them friends, because he simply knows them, without much deeper feeling. He has a lover, if one can call her that—a companion with whom he consorts, but for whom he seems to feel nothing deeper than physical attraction.
On holiday, Mersault goes out with acquaintances to a beach, where a fight breaks out with some young Algerians. After returning to his hotel, Mersault for some reason he cannot explain or understand then heads back to the beach with his buddy’s pistol. He confronts the Algerians again under a hot bright sun that seems to overwhelm his judgment, and he shoots and kills one of them.
This murder leads to the incarceration and trial of Mersault, and then his acceptance of a death penalty by guillotine for his crime. (Camus, the author, had a fascination for the guillotine and even wrote a separate work about the perfection of the instrument as a tool of execution.)
As Mersault awaits his fate, Camus pens these famous lines:
”… It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”
Got that? The benign indifference of the universe.
A cold comfort for many, it passes as a conversion moment for an Existentialist.
God—or not—bless the French.