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Shubnell Senior Seminar October 21st 2009 Existential Struggle in The Sparrow: Tragic Misconceptions and the Absurd Maria Dorethea Russell s The Sparrow is an excellent resource for the application and discussion of existential literary theory. To properly understand and apply these terms requires a discussion of existentialism due to both its abstract nature and wide (and often conflicting) range of ideas. To cover the entire scope of existentialism is the subject of hundreds if not thousands of books, but I will do my best to provide a working knowledge of the ideas to be covered in this paper. The term existentialism takes its meaning from its root word, existence. As such existentialism is a philosophy of personal existence. French philosopher Gabriel Marcel gave this term to this set of philosophies of existence almost 100 years after existentialist ideas began to appear in writing (Statemaster). Particular attention is paid to the thoughts, emotions, and actions of individual people, and a general rejection of rationalism s implication of a perfect form deducible by reason. It is important to note that existence is not synonymous with essence (Oaklander 11-13). It is the study of human experience as it relates to the individual. It is not a generalized theory of what it means to be human. Existentialism is not a single set of ideas or theories, but is in fact a name given to the ideas of a large number of
philosophers who have similar interests in the nature and meaning of existence. Some philosophers like Jean-Paul Sarte take a distinctly atheist position, while others, such as Kierkegaard have a theological bent. Despite the fact that existentialism embodies a wide number of differing viewpoints, most of its philosophers have a similar set of concepts that they wrestle with in their works. The first of these concepts is the idea that, as Sarte describes it, Existence precedes essence (Sartre, vii). This is basically saying that you are what you think you are and you think about yourself like you do because of your past experiences and not your human nature. It can also be described in a psychological fashion as nurture over nature. An example of this is a person who, for example, kills a loved one and becomes sick and wretched with guilt. He becomes an angry lonely recluse and is sick much of the time. This person later gets total amnesia for some reason. His personality rebounds to its old self until the amnesia wears off, at which time the memory of his crime comes back to haunt (drive) him (Oaklander 226-227). This is in direct opposition to the idea of essence preceding existence; it denies the preeminence of a human nature. In Sartre s essay Existentialism and Humanism he explains the difference in thinking between an existentialist and a rationalist using the example of cowards and heroes: If you are born cowards, you can be quite content, you can do nothing about it and you will be cowards all your life whatever you do; and if you are born heroes you can again be quite content; you will be heroes all your life, eating and drinking heroically. Whereas the existentialist says that the coward
makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always the possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. (Sartre 49) This idea of you are what you think you are does not to say that because you think you are a bird you are. The idea that we are what we think we are must be based in what is real (Oaklander 226-227). Not to take into account the plain facts about what and who you are would be a denial of yourself because it would be inauthentic. The effect if true of this concept is that humans are both free and completely responsible their lives. This absolute responsibility for your life can in turn cause existential anxiety; "Anxiety is neither a category of necessity nor a category of freedom; it is entangled freedom, where freedom is not free in itself but entangled, not by necessity, but in itself" (Kierkegaard 145). Existential anxiety is a reference to
anxiety caused by the knowledge of the possibility that life in-itself may in fact be meaningless (Olson 31). This term is not a reference to psychological anxiety that people experience as a result of life pressures and fears, but is in fact its own class of feeling. The use of the word anxiety can be misleading in this respect and as such it has several other names. The two most common references to this aspect of existentialism are Angst and Dread. The main difference between psychological anxiety and existential anxiety is their source. Life pressures such as financial situations, death of loved ones, fear, and pain can cause psychological anxiety. Existential anxiety on the other hand is limited directly to anxiety related to the
meaning of life. An excellent example of existential anxiety can be see in the main character of the self proclaimed existential comedy I Heart Huckabees. In this movie the character has come to a place of existential despair because a series of life failures had led him to question the meaning of living. He feels his actions have no real meaning and feels smothered by the weight of this, No, I think that I am going to stay with her, and the cracks and the pain and the nothingness, because that's more real to me, that's what I feel (Swartzman). This feeling is not as a result of daily struggle, but is instead fueled by a struggle with meaninglessness. In existentialism the term Absurd is used to describe the meaninglessness of life. The Absurd is encountered in a variety of ways in human life. The most common of these is in what Alfred Camus calls the absurdity of daily living (Oaklander 340). This is questioning what the meaning of our life is when we take into account the inherent pointlessness of our daily routines. Life in-itself is meaningless and any meaning we find in our daily life is self-imposed. Another facet of absurdity is the unfairness of life, or namely the randomness of it. This is in direct opposition of karmic modes of thinking, which state that there is an inherent fairness to life. The implication of this concept is that the only meaning to be found in life is the meaning that we as humans decide to give to it. This ties in with the existential concept of freedom by giving total responsibility to each person for his or her meaning of life (Oaklander 338-40). Existential anxiety and the conditions that cause it can lead to existential despair. Despair is a condition that occurs when the basic foundations of person s
life have been uprooted and destroyed. Existential despair, like existential anxiety, differs significantly from conventional despair though it can be a cause conventional despair. When faced with existential despair a person has two choices. The first is to give up and fall into a state of conventional despair and hopelessness. The second is to accept the absurdity of the world and forge your own meaning (economicexpert). The final discussion necessary for a proper analysis of The Sparrow is a discussion of the existential philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, considered by many to be the father of existentialism, was a nineteenth century Christian philosopher in Denmark. This is remarkable in that existentialism is generally thought of as being atheistic in the vein of Sartre and Camus but in fact has its roots in Christianity. The simplest explanation of Kierkegaard is that he believed all knowledge about the nature and existence of God is subjective and personal rather than objective. Objective truths encompass things like mathematics, science, and history, not God and the meaning of life. The existence of God cannot be proven in any objective fashion, and any attempt to do so is disingenuous, Woe to all those unfaithful stewards who sat down and wrote false proofs (Kierkegaard 104). Thus Kierkegaard concludes that belief in God is in fact absurd in the literal sense because it requires one to accept something as true that is inherently outside of provability. The only reason one would believe in God is because one chooses or wants to. It is an act purely of faith, not one of reason.
It may seem a contradiction, at first, for a person to believe in the basic tenets of existentialism while also being a Christian. The meaninglessness of life seems a problem in particular since standard Christianity finds its meaning within God. This means that for the spiritually minded Christian, finding God is synonymous with finding meaning in life. (During the analysis of the text it important to keep this in mind since the main character s search for meaning is framed within his search for God. This means that existentialist terms --including those from atheistic existentialists-- can be successfully applied to the characters experience. ) Kierkegaard s position in this is that while there may in fact be a larger meaning through God, we as limited humans are unable to ever know such a thing. The mind of God is literally unknowable and any attempt to know God s will/meaning are futile. Thus for Kierkegaard, all meaning in life is apparent to us because we create it, not because God gives it to the world inherently. The end result of this line of thinking is that in practice Kierkegaard s Christian existentialism differs very little from its atheistic cousins, as both believe in the inherent meaninglessness of the world. The basic moral and philosophical question found within The Sparrow is the question of evil. To be more specific this is the dilemma of how can God be a good and loving God when evil things happen in the world. The main character in The Sparrow, an initially agnostic Jesuit Priest named Emilio Sandoz is forced to confront this when he is exposed to a series of horrific events that are existential absurdity in its extreme. The resulting struggles are a good example of the quintessential existential error of finding your meaning in outside things, including God. Existential
anxiety, isolation, and despair are the results of this error. He is forced to come to terms with the fact that God may not be good and that truly knowing his mind is impossible To follow the course of Emilo s existential struggle necessitates an analysis of how Emilio started his life and what path he took to fill his life with meaning. Without this it is impossible to understand both the unfoldment of his existential struggle and the extreme nature of the absurdity he is exposed to on Rahkat. Emilo Sandoz grew up in a poor Puerto Rican town called La Perla that offered little in the way of finding deep meaningfulness. His life consisted of violence, drugs, and sex at a young age, It was an uphill battle in a place where fathers told sons, Anybody give you shit, cut his face (Russell 338). Emilio s father hated Emilio because he was a product of his mother s infidelity and regularly abused him, My mother s husband and I used to play a game called Beat the Crap out of the Bastard (Russell 338). For Emilio the result of this upbringing was an ingrained comfort in chaos and a lack of purpose in his younger years. He started out his life in of state of meaningless Absurdity and the existential anxiety this caused can be seen in his penchant for acting out violently. During this time Emilio was also attending a Jesuit school taught by D.W. Yarbrough, who was attempting to mentor him. A drug deal went bad and as a result his brother went to jail. Emilio had to leave the island and was unable to return because his brother blamed him for the incident. D.W Yarbrough arranged for him to attend a Jesuit high school in the United
States where he was more isolated and less accepted than he was in La Perla, The first few months in Jesuit high school were a shock. He was as far behind the other students scholastically as he was ahead of the in raw experience. Few boys talked to him, except to goad him, and he returned the favor (Russell 106). As time goes on he adjusts to his new residence and finds that the calm life of boarding school had its benefits, The quiet orderliness of life in the boarding school began to seduce him. No crises, no sudden terror, no gunshots and screaming in the night. No beating. Each day planned, no surprises. Almost in spite of himself, he did well in Latin (Russell 106). This comfortable life, free of the chaos and violence pushes him to exceed. It becomes the first bit of real comfort and meaning he has ever experienced. He is given a taste of relief from both existential and conventional anxiety. As a result of this comfort, and a powerful religious dream, Emilo makes the decision to join the Jesuit priesthood. His previous chaotic life and its corresponding tension had conspired to make the priesthood the perfect place for Emilo to find a sense of meaning, Things that drove other young men from the path to priesthood were balm to him: the ordo regularis, the liturgical cadences, the quiet, the purposefulness. Even the Celibacy. For looking back on his chaotic youth, Emilio had no experience of sex that was not about power or pride or lust undiluted by affection (Russell 107). This idea of celibacy as one of Emlio s pillars of meaning in life is particularly important in light of his subsequent rape. It later becomes a pillar of his despair. This love of the priesthood does not mean that Emilo has placed his meaning in God yet. He is in fact an agnostic at this point, And yet, in all those years of preparation, the prayer that
had resonated most strongly in his soul was the cry, Lord, I believe. Help me in my disbelief (Russell 107). Emilio eventually becomes a full priest and gets a PhD in Linguistics. He is then sent on a series of missions that required him to learn a large number of languages while in the field. During this time he is never allowed to stay long enough to feel like he is doing any real good because as soon as he learned a language he is shipped off to another place, I felt like my education was being squandered. Nothing made sense to me (Russell 287). He is once again placed in a position where he is forced to face the possible absurdity of life. The Existentialist answer to the anxiety this caused him would have been acceptance of this absurdity. This acceptance offers freedom from despair. He does come to this point when he gets an assignment that exposes him to how trivial his personal absurdity is, And then well, professional irritation seemed pretty trivial...It was awful Anne. No time for anything except feeding people. Trying to keep the babies alive (Russell 287) Emilio accepts the absurd within his personal situation and as a result finds himself free of his own personal despair even though the emotional cost of that freedom is rather high. He does not stay in this state for long. Instead of accepting absurdity as the total state of existence, he finds a way to tie his experiences back into a state of meaningfulness when he gets a final reassignment to report to an AI specialist at John Carroll University, Emilo, what is so funny?... I m sorry Tahad, it s too hard to explain, gasped Sandoz, who was on his way to Cleveland to serve as intellectual carrion for an AI Vulture, ad majorem dei gloriam. It s the punchline to a three-year joke (Russell 21). It is significant that this experience is referred to as both a joke
and as majorem dei gloriam, or for the greater glory of God. Part of him understands the absurd nature of the world and correctly laughs at it, while at the same time rejecting the absurdity and placing meaning on it al la for the greater glory of God. This is the first, but not the last time he sees what is happening to him is a joke. The difference between this experience and later experiences of the absurd is that this one had a happy ending. It makes for a simple and easy explanation of his pain and trouble and it provides no real impetus to question the foundations of his thinking. The problem with this tidy interpretation of events is that it puts Emilio in a mindset that the world has a greater meaning through God; that everything works out in the end. In the existential sense this is where Emilio begins exhibiting his tragic existential misconception of insisting the universe makes sense. It becomes a crutch that he cannot live without and eventually crushes him in despair. Time moves on for Emilio and he finds himself friends with a group of people who become a family to him. One of these people, Jimmy Quinn, is an astronomer working for SETI. One night Jimmy comes across a signal that turns out to be an alien radio station. Emilio sees this discovery as a sign they should attempt a mission to the planet. His first impulse, as a result of his experience in the Sudan, is to see a random set of confluent events as a sign of God s grand and benevolent plan, None of them could have known what he was thinking, how much this reminded him of that evening in Sudan when he read the Provincial s order sending him to John Carroll (Russell 96). With this in mind he set in motion a series of events that lead to the Jesuits planning a mission to the new planet.
As the mission is planned and prepared for by the Jesuits, Emilio s growing conviction that God has a plan and that he himself is an agent of this plan becomes self re-enforcing. A series of fortuitously solved problems during preparation for the mission are automatically interpreted by Emilo as a sign God s divine will, and if the speed of the events scared him, the precision with which the pieces were falling into place was even more unnerving (Russell 111). This is not to say that he is completely convinced it really is God, but he has already set the ball in motion that forces him to interpret all events through this flawed meaning through God lens. An excellent example if this comes when there is a problem obtaining some materials to make the lander capable of surviving re-entry. The materials, due to military needs, were unavailable until a government that had ordered up what was available dissolved, leaving the materials open for purchase. Because of his mindset Emilio interprets this as a case of Deus Vult (God wills it) instead of the fortuitous but meaningless and random event that it is, Emilio Sandoz smiled and said, See? Deus Vult (Russell 141). During the mission, right before they land on the planet for the first time, Emilio has an experience that causes him to place all of his meaning and understanding in the idea of a God that gives meaning to life, for D. W Yarbrough and Emilio Sandoz, this voyage had given meaning to random acts, and to all the points where they had done this and not that, chose one thing and not another, to all their decisions, whether carefully though out or ill considered (Russell 189). This affects him in such a way that he is described as falling in love with God, he felt the void fill and believed with all his heart that his love affair with God had been
consummated (Russell 189). The others in the party notice this and D. W Yarbrough goes as far to make this statement, Today I may have looked upon the face of a saint (Russell 237). Perhaps the most telling and ironic statement is Sofia s playful accusation, You are drunk on God, Sandoz (Russell 261). This idea of drunkenness is a perfect analogy for the state of Emilio s intellect. He is drunk on the idea that God has given the world perfect meaning. As a result he is living his life in an elated and intoxicating illusion that will give way to a nasty hangover when the illusion is broken. He is riding the euphoric drug of false understanding without understanding the price he will later pay for his mindset. Just like alcohol, this false security is addicting and the addict will often rationalize anything in an attempt to keep using. This can be seen in Emilio s constant return to rationalizing both good and bad event as meaningful. After some time on the planet everyone in the mission, including Anne the proclaimed agnostic, believes that the mission cannot fail because God is watching over them, God who has begun this will bring it to perfection, Anne thought, and shivered with warmth (Russell 224). This notion is challenged when Alan Pace dies for no apparent cause, but not very much. The event is not personal enough (Alan was not well liked) to truly challenge any theodicy or sense of meaning within Emilio. Anne is the only one who questions God s role in the meaning of death, Why is it God gets all the credit for the good stuff, but it s the doctor s fault when shit happens (Russell 189). Alan Pace s death is not by any means the last experience of absurdity that
the mission is subjected to. They become stranded on the planet after accidentally using up too much fuel. D. W. Yarbrough gets chronically sick and then a poacher kills both him and Anne. Jimmy, Sofia, and her unborn child are killed defending Runa children when the Jana'ata (who are raising the Runa as meat) come to slaughter the Runa s illegal children. The absurdity of this is even greater because the Runa gave birth to these illegal children because they copied the human s garden, disturbing Jana ata s food supply method of population control. Emilo and Marc are then captured and fed what turns out to be the meat of the Runa children that were killed. Marc and Emilio are then rescued by a friend only to have their hands surgically maimed as the result of a simple mistranslation. Finally, Marc dies as a result of the surgery and Emilio is sold into slavery. The human s committed no great sin to be punished and yet tragic things happened to them. This is the unfortunate nature of the absurd in action; it ignores all facets of karma. Despite this Emilio continues to cling to the hope that God truly has a purpose and meaning for the pain and suffering he and his friends have suffered. This can be seen in his reaction right before he is raped by none other that Halavin Keitheri, the singer whose voice inspired Emilio to believe God wanted them to travel to Rahkat, And then, suddenly, everything made sense to him, and the joy of the moment took his breath away. He had been brought here, step by step, to meet this man: Hlavin Kirtheri, a poet perhaps even a prophet who all of
his kind might know the God whom Emilio Sandoz served. It was a moment
of redemption so profound he almost wept, ashamed that his faith had been so badly eroded by the inchoate fear and the isolation. (Russell 390) This is in stark comparison to Hlavin s concurrent thoughts of sex with Emilio, We shall sing of this for generations (Russell 394). Emilio s rape is a powerful case for the absurdity of life. As he later puts it, I loved God and I trusted in His love. Amusing, isn t it?... I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped (Russell 394) Not only was he raped but the subsequent songs transmitted to earth were actually pornography about his rape. He was a person who had given up sex in his commitment to God. He had also given up his feelings of romantic love for Sofia, as a gift to God. This absurdity of his situation is compounded when, in an attempt to end his suffering, he decides to kill the next rapist who came though the door to his cell. Instead of a rapist, it turns out to be Askama, a young Runa girl with whom Emilio had taken up a father role. She is leading a group of humans from the UN to come rescue him. He cannot stop himself in time and he kills what amounts to his daughter, She smiled at him, blood bubbling in the corner of her mouth and seeping from a nostril. You see, Meelo? Your family came for you. I found you for them. (Russell 297). The final insult is that the report sent back to earth along with Emilio paints him as a whore and child killer. He returns to Earth to find everyone on his planet hates him. Emilio responds to this horrific series of events in classic existential fashion, by falling into extreme and deep despair, He had also discovered the outermost limits of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at
that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God (Russell 21). The pillar of meaning is his life, the goodness of God, had been utterly and completely destroyed. He has been exposed to the brutal reality of the cold unfairness of an absurd universe, But it wasn t my fault. It was either blind, dumb, stupid luck from start to finish, in which case, we are all in the wrong business, gentlemen, or it was a God I cannot worship (Russell 396). He refers the experience as farce and a sick joke, I m afraid I still have enough pride to deny God the punchline to whatever sick joke I m playing out now (Russell 137) but is unaware of the irony that he also saw life this way when good things happened to him, such as his reassignment to John Carroll. Emilio is experiencing this intense emotional suffering and pain because he is unwilling to give up the idea that the world makes sense in some way, This will kill me and then I can stop trying to understand (Russell 130). This is not to say that the experience would not have been horrible and painful, but that he would have been able to accept it and move on. Instead, as a result of his misconception about the meaning of life, he is tortured by the impossibility of reconciling his experience with his belief. The logical answer to this is that his experience cannot change but his beliefs can. He needs to take the advice of the Runa girl in his dreams, He was apologizing because though his hands were unharmed in the dream, he couldn t seem to do his magic tricks any longer... Well, she said with the confident practicality of the half grown, learn some new tricks (Russell 128) The existentialist position does not say that he has to give up his belief in God, only his belief that everything in the world makes sense through God.
Emilio does not take this advice. Instead he continues on with his search for meaning, I had a dream last night, he said quietly. I was on a road and there was no one with me. And in the dream I said I don t understand but I can learn if you will teach me (Russell 404). This shows that this experience, despite its extreme nature, was not enough to free Emilio from his misconception and it resulting despair. He is like Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit predecessor he is compared to, Beaten regularly, his fingers cut off by the joint with clamshell blades no wonder Jogues came to his mind (Russell 134). Jogues recovered from him wounds and returned to the Mohawks where he was finally killed. Emilio will return to the mindset that destroyed him the first time because he sees no other way of living. He it doomed to repeat these rises and falls of belief and despair. Just as alcohol for the relapsing alcoholic, the peace that the illusion of meaning offers is too much for him to resist. Unfortunately it will steal the freedom and peace of mind he thinks it will bring him, just as it did on Rakhat.
Works Cited "Existentialism." EconomicExpert. n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2009 <http://www.economicexpert.com/a/Existential:despair.html>. " Christian Existentialism." Statemaster encyclopedia, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2009 <http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Christian-existentialism>. Shwartzman, Jason, perf. I Heart Huckabees. By David O. Russell, and Jeff Banea. 2004. DVD-ROM. Kierkegaard, Soren. "Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses." The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 104. Print. Oaklander, Nathan L. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996. Print. Olson, Robert G. Existentialism. New York: Dover Publications, 1962. Print. Russell, Maria D. The Sparrow. New York: Random House Publishing, 2004. Print. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. 2nd ed. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1947. vii, 49 Print.