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I am a writer in Central Florida with strong interests in the ways in which religion and philosophy intersect in popular culture. I especially enjoy examining how this is expressed in film, literature, music, and art.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cultural Movements in Confessional Literature

17 October 2008
*(MLA format has been altered to facilitate online posting.)

The greatest authors have often been witnesses to the contemporary concerns of their society. It is usually simple to trace specific movements, whether philosophical or political, in many classical works of literature. When examining the literature of the late 19th century, the reader can actually witness the end of Romanticism and can anticipate the birth pangs of the movement which would come to be known as Existentialism. Romanticism and Existentialism share a view in which passion has supremacy over reason, and therefore are much more concerned with a person as an individual rather than society as a whole. Both movements also embrace a lifestyle which can be classified as bohemian due to a high regard for travel and the reluctance to conform to societal norms. Finally, both movements share a view of man as essentially alone in the Universe. Although the main concerns of Romanticism and Existentialism are similar, their approaches differ greatly. Upon reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and comparing it to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, it becomes possible to witness the evolution from sentimental Romanticism to the psychological angst which would become inseparable from Existentialism.

Romanticism has at times been considered overly sentimental by some critics due to its preoccupation with human emotions. The Romantic ideals arose as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment which focused heavily on the practice of reason. Romantics sought to exchange this gravitation towards reason in favor of a more natural approach to life which revered the very passions which make us human. Rousseau exemplified this attitude when he wrote "As this period commences the brief happiness of my life; here approach the peaceful, but rapid movements which have given me the right to say, I have lived" (Lowell, 667). This sentiment expresses the idea that one must embrace intense emotions in order to truly live life. Romantic writers record a full range of emotion in their desire to live life fully, but their main focus deals with feelings provoked by love, beauty and nature.

Existentialism may be seen as the consequence of this focus on personal emotions. One can only stare at his reflection for so long before it begins to stare back. The first Existentialists had plunged into the wellspring of their emotions and seemingly drowned in them. Unable to get back to the comfort zone, they delved deeper in and became self-conscious. When the Underground Man tells Liza that the reason she is there is because he spoke words of pity to her and tells her that she wants to hear more pity, he is at his cruelest. He tells her, “Well you should know that I was laughing at you then...Yes, I was laughing at you!” (Lowell,1374). With these words he destroys any remnant of self-worth she has and also marks himself as a scoundrel. As if his self-worth wasn’t low enough, he adds fresh guilt and self-hatred to the mixture. Dostoyevsky imbues the Underground Man with the emotions Existentialism would deal with: anxiety, dread, estrangement from society, and misery.
Romantics revered the bohemian lifestyle with its nomadic existence. This may have been partly influenced by their veneration of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The ideal Romantic person traveled vastly and was able to study classical aesthetics in architecture and art. It was impossible for Romantics to find solace in things such as the family, for their sights centered on the world around them and their minds were under the spell of wanderlust. As a consequence of the inability to find comfort in the traditional home environment, Romantics embraced nature and viewed the world at large as their home. Rousseau’s desire to lead a “wandering life” (Lowell, 675) echoes the Romantic theme of man as a lonely wanderer on the face of the Earth.

Existentialists on the other hand, were witnesses of the havoc that the Age of Industrialization had caused. Political upheaval and governmental reforms left their toll on society and its thinkers. For the Underground Man, the “definition of man is this: a creature who walks around of two legs and is ungrateful” (Lowell, 1322). At the root of Existentialism is a strong dissatisfaction with society which can only be explained in light of the turbulence which surrounded the shift from a rural way of life to that of an urban lifestyle. “It is Dostoyevsky's distinctive achievement in Notes from the Underground to have portrayed and analyzed a contemporary revolution, the anguished moment when the old myths of Enlightenment rationalism give birth within apparently continuous forms to the new myths of individualism and their radical opposition between the 'self' and the 'other'” (Hall, 5). The fact that the Underground Man stands on the threshold of a new type of society is the reason we find him so opposed to everything he encounters. Although he renounces the norms of society like the Romantics did, his bohemian lifestyle does not aim for pleasure. His wandering is that of a madman, a frenzied rush through cold city streets in a world that is ever more hostile.

Romantic literature often centers on feelings of loneliness, but has the recurrent theme of nature as a comforting mother. Perhaps the greatest evidence for Romanticism in Rousseau’s Confessions is the “romantic color in certain passages such as long walks in the countryside and attendant reflections on the beauty of nature” (Carmody, 6). Like Rousseau, many famous writers of the age were known for their solitary nature. Rousseau in particular often referred to his feeling very alone and his need to be loved by everyone who knew him. Still, he is able to find peace in nature, regardless of what ails him or how alone he may feel. "I walked on in a kind of ecstasy, abandoning my hearing and senses to enjoyment of all, only regretting, with a sigh, that I was obliged to enjoy it alone." (Lowell, 675) Clearly, Rousseau finds solace in nature, yet even during his moments of greatest tranquility he yearns for companionship.

Existentialists shared the lack of peace in the home, but were unable to find solace in nature. For Existentialists, the entire world is a hostile place and there is no peace to be found anywhere. The concept of liberation is seen not as a gift, but as a curse. This is because the individual is the sole person in charge of his own destiny and he must therefore carry the weight of his world on his shoulders. Dostoyevsky intuited this when he created the character of the Underground Man, who when “feeling alone and helpless in a hostile world, he tried to cope with his anxiety by withdrawing from others and nourishing a belief in his own superiority” (Paris, 4). Although he attempts to convince his readers and himself that he is superior to others, the fact remains that he still yearns for companionship. "Either they'll all fall on their knees, embracing me, beg for my friendship, or ...or else, I'll give Zverkov a slap in the face” (Lowell, 1351). With these words it becomes evident that the Underground Man is a lonely man, but not necessarily by choice. The Underground Man, in true Existentialist fashion, is alone in the universe and can find no comfort in the world he has been thrust into.

Rousseau’s Confessions and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground share similar themes. The main focus in both works is the narrator’s intense emotions, his attraction to alternative lifestyles, and overwhelming feelings of loneliness. Although quite similar, the ways in which these concerns are expressed are very different from each other. Reading both works in light of our understanding of Romanticism and Existentialism enables the reader to fully grasp how Romantic ideals formed the seed for Existentialism. Rousseau’s Confessions serve as a final adieu to the Romantic Age and leaves us with a portrait not merely of a philosopher, but with that of a man, giving us “the most complete estimate of his own character and his attitude toward life and conduct” (Havens, 3). Although not actually an Existentialist himself, since the movement would not come to fruition till the commencement of the 20th century, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground anticipate the concerns of Existentialism and “is the best overture for Existentialism ever written” (Kaufmann, 14). Comparing both works, the reader comes across similar themes, but the thoughts which are conjured up are very different. Reading Confessions, one is left with the opinion that the world is generally good and that life can be lived fully. Notes from the Underground offers less optimism, since the world we have just left is one in which anxiety and dread are prominent, and where each man is an island with no one to call a friend.

List of Citations

Abstraction in Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground" Author: J. R.
Hall. Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 129-137 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association. Accessed: 10/10/2008 17:25

Kaufman, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre. New
York: Meridian, 1956.
Notes from Underground: A Horneyan Analysis Author: Bernard J. Paris
Source: PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 3 (May, 1973), pp. 511-522 Published by: Modern Language Association. Accessed: 16/10/2008 17:20

Rousseau's Confessions: Notes on the Style Author(s): Francis J.
Carmody Source: The French Review, Vol. 30, No. 5 (Apr., 1957), pp. 358-365 Published by: American Association of Teachers of French. Accessed: 15/10/2008 17:19

Sarah Lowell, Ed. Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. New
York: Norton, 1999.

The Theory of "Natural Goodness" in Rousseau's Confessions
Author(s): George R. Havens Source: Modern Language Notes, Vol. 38, No. 5 (May, 1923), pp. 257-266 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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