Does radical subjectivity lead to freedom or imprisonment?

Although it is difficult to interpret precisely expressions of enthusiasm for certain ideas or to measure and record the motions of opinion felt in an intellectual community, no one familiar with the secular college campus today can deny that forms of existentialism have enormous appeal for students and younger faculty. This was dramatized recently on the campus where I teach by the enthusiastic response given to a featured lecturer who advanced the existential doctrine that life is absurd, and who curiously rested his case on an intemperate attack against Christianity. The sympathetic reception of this lecture clearly suggested that the speaker and the audience shared a common ground.

Existential absurdity is a dynamic rather than static idea-complex. Nevertheless, the essential proposition is simple: on the testimony and evidence of existence, life is patently chaotic, incoherent, meaningless, and hence absurd; consequently, the only responsible and honest intellectual and emotional response is to turn to the imperatives of the human spirit, to assert the freedom and autonomy of the self in order to impose meaningful form on the chaotic flux of existence. The widespread acceptance of such postulates, even by people who do not consciously use existential terms with reference to themselves, seems to be a characteristic of our age, related no doubt to the fin-de-siècle state of mind we are experiencing as we approach the year 2000.

Anyone who tries to trace these ideas to their origins will discover that existential and nihilistic tendencies are ingrained in our cultural consciousness. For example, three major nineteenth-century writers—Emerson, Melville, and Twain—dramatized ...

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