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LIT 142 M.P. No. 3 (17 February 2011)

On Existence Preceding Essence: the Hero in Modernist Literature

In “The Idea of the Modern,” Irving Howe posits that there is a marked difference between the classical hero who is imbued with a clear and unwavering sense of purpose (which comes either from the divine or the collective or national interest) which leads him to act, and the modern hero who, according to Howe, “moves from the heroic deed to the heroism of consciousness, a heroism often available only in defeat.” The difference pointed out by Howe with regard to heroes seems to mirror a new understanding of humanity and human existence itself, as provided for by existentialism, where humans must give meaning to their own lives because there is in reality, according to the existentialists, no omnipotent creator or overlord who has imbued our existence with a purpose, an essence, with which we must align all our actions. In this manner is the inner conflict in modern heroes justified, since they must not only combat a visible, towering enemy, but an enemy deep within themselves: doubt and confusion as to what the purpose of their existence really is, if there is any purpose to their existence at all. In this new understanding, there is no grand narrative and salvation, if one wants it, can only be had through the hallmark of one’s existence: one’s own choice. Masterfully explored in the world of literature through such plays as No Exit (where the consequences of one’s actions and the state in which one is bound are determined solely through the three characters’ choices), The Cherry Orchard (where Lyubov’s station in life was not enough to save her beloved orchard), and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You (which shows the dangers of fundamentalism and questions the wisdom and truth of a single grand narrative), existentialism seems to offer an attractive explanation for the “deviations” from the grand narratives of the great religious traditions experienced by people of different moorings (e.g., the Crusades), the shift in social and economic paradigms as shown by the banishment of Russia’s imperial family and the aristocracy in other countries, the decrease in influence of the monarchs, as well as the empowerment of the working class and movements for gender equality and empowerment of women. Existentialism likewise seems to support the said changes, destroying the notion that there are molds and dies cast to which people must adhere and conform, empowering people to realize their freedom to decide for themselves what to make of their lives. In this regard, I see the truth in existentialism, as free will, even in the Catholic tradition, is recognized as a reality. Existentialism also seems to be true in the sense that social constructs (e.g., caste systems, social institutions and norms) have come and gone, with divisions among the citizenry (think insulares, peninsulares, illustrados, and indios) once considered a natural way of classification, now long gone. Monarchies that have once been viewed as having the divine right to rule, such as those in China, Korea, and Germany, to name a few, have been abolished and in their place now stand governments elected by people who assert their individual freedoms and the right to select their leaders. And heroes themselves, in literature as in our day-to-day, who were once thought of as epic warriors who combat dark, evil creatures and characters, now have to deal with an inner conflict resulting from the dilemma of whether to remain in their own countries with their families while suffering low salaries and wages, or leave their families for greener pastures to give them a good life at home, while risking alienation from the very same loved ones they aim to provide for. In this day and age where there is a multiplicity of choices one can make, believing in the premise that there is no single, God-given, absolute purpose for our existence seems to conform to what I experience in daily life, particularly when I have to choose options which are not particularly morally correct (morality being part of the grand narrative), but which support the mode of existence I choose for myself. At a time when previously accepted and respected social norms have crumbled in the face of developments in technology, migration, and shifts in economic and societal relations, the truth of us having the responsibility to chart our own course and to determine and find meaning in our existence seems particularly reasonable and obvious. The fact that we are confused about the meaning of our own existence and are at times conflicted on how we should conduct our life also seem to serve as proof of the aforementioned truth of our great, sole responsibility, as this confusion implies that we have not been given explicit directions on how to live our life, makes us realize the vast number of choices one has, and empowers us to lead our lives in a manner that is more definitive, purposeful, and in line with the direction we deem right. I, for my part, have endeavored to make choices each day on different courses of action, in pursuit of the direction I’d like my life to take, which I’ve decided by myself after a long introspection and interaction with other people. As Howe asserts that “Characters…can no longer be assumed, as in the past, to be fixed and synthetic entities,” we, like the hero in literature find it difficult to believe that we are “chosen [figures] acting in behalf of a divine commandment or national will,” or that we are meant to triumph over the “evil” that surrounds us through visibly courageous acts: that we have a single purpose given by an entity whose power is absolute but whose nature is unknowable. As we discover that we are not heroes in the classical sense but individuals conscious of our own flaws and doubtful of our own purpose, we come to the realization that we act by ourselves for ourselves, giving meaning to our own existence to make sense of what could otherwise be absurd. And so, if we want to transform human existence and the fate of others (that is, be heroes in the modern sense), we must first recognize our own self, our innate power and free will, and define our own existence and chart our own fate accordingly.