past two centuries. This final post of this series will now consider existentialism today, right now, in the year 2016. This sample essay is the ninth and final part of this blog series on existentialism presented by Ultius, and it will be dedicated to reflection on an author, Sethu A. Iyer, and modern everyday existentialists everywhere.
Existentialism is the idea that there are deeper concerns than those of simple life and death. This essay will have five main parts and will be dedicated to a key work of existential philosophy that was just published in March 2016, by a new writer named Sethu A. Iyer called Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance:
- The first part will describe the basic fact that insofar as existentialism is conceived of as an ethos or attitude, it can be seen as a perennial way to approach the human condition
- The second will provide a general overview of the work
- The third will discuss the ways in which this work draws on the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard
- The fourth will tie to work into the broader tradition of existentialism in general
- The final part of the essay will consist of a reflection on what this work implies about the potentials for doing existential philosophy that lie within every common man
The perennial tradition
Existentialism has been defined as an ethos or attitude toward life and the world that is characterized by an active and subjective passionate concern regarding the nature of the human condition. This has also implied a general rejection of Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition of existentialism in terms of a technical philosophical proposition—to the point that it has even been suggested in a previous post of this series that Sartre was actually much less genuinely existential than several other key writers within the tradition of existentialism who explicitly rejected his specific proposition.
The existentialist Bible
Considered in terms of the definition of the present essay series, it becomes clear that existentialism can be called a perennial tradition, of a psychological/emotional approach to human existence that has always been possible within the world. The Bible itself, for example, could from this angle be called the first key work of existential literature. Several parts of the Bible—like the Book of Ecclesiastes, for example—clearly reflect an existential ethos, in the sense that they subjectively deal with the problems of human suffering and the absence of meaning. Indeed, read side by side, the parallels between some of Ecclesiastes’ statements and some of Albert Camus’ statements could only be called uncanny. Understood in this way, existentialism is not just a movement found within the philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather, it becomes a perennial philosophy that reaches far back into the past—as well as right up to literally the present day.
Iyer’s new work: An introduction
A young American writer named Sethu A. Iyer has very recently published a work of existential philosophy called Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. The very first line of this work is:
“For a long time, I believed that romance was an adolescent fever to be overcome” (15).
By the term romance, Iyer is referring to a psychological ethos and attitude that is characterized by subjectivity, imagination, and deep passion. Throughout his work, Iyer develops a contrast between muddled romance on the one hand, and lucid romance on the other. Muddled romance refers to the kind of solipsism and schizophrenia that is characteristic of an imagination that becomes turned in on itself (like that of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man; lucid romance refers to the creative development of imagination in such a way that it remains actively engaged with the world and enriches the subjective experience of life and the meaning to be found within life.
Breakdown of Testament
The entire work Testament is divided up into three main books:
- “Lucid Romantic Ballad”— the first book is a kind of spiritual coming-of-age story, where Iyer first breaks the ground for his emerging vision
- “Theo-Psychological Treatise”–the second book fleshes out the full philosophy underlying the vision, including the traditional areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics
- “Book of Misgivings”–the third book, written entirely in the second person as letters to various archetypes within the imagination, tends toward the fusion of philosophy and subjective experience
Over the course of the books—and especially in the transition from the first book to the second one—lucid romance emerges in its full contours as a deeply personal Christian vision of the world and goes well beyond a simple pursuit of the meaning of life. The work can be said to become increasingly Christian over the course of its progression: it begins with almost ironic references to the Holy Ghost, but closes with fully devotional letters to the Holy Ghost.
The legacy of Kierkegaard
The fact that existentialism is still alive and well today can be seen in the intensity of the influence that the works of Kierkegaard have exerted on Iyer’s own philosophy. Indeed, one somewhat idiosyncratic feature of Testament is that from beginning to end, it insists on referring to Kierkegaard by his first name, Søren. Iyer does this in order to indicate that he feels a deep affinity with Kierkegaard, to the point that he sees Kierkegaard not as some old dead guy but rather as a personal friend, who has a living presence within his imagination in the same way in which friends have such a presence within the minds of each other. Some readers may interpret this as pretentiousness, but Iyer clearly means it in all sincerity; he is trying to make philosophy itself a more human and grounded endeavor (see Turner).
Kierkegaard’s concept of the leap of faith
In any event, the legacy of Kierkegaard in the thought of Iyer can only be called truly profound. In particular, one of the key ideas that Iyer draws from Kierkegaard is that of the leap of faith. This begins in the first part of Testament and continues in the second. In particular, Iyer innovatively juxtaposes the views of Camus and Kierkegaard, and then uses William James’ concept of the genuine option as it pertains to personal development to decide the matter in favor of Kierkegaard. Camus suggests that the leap of faith is madness, while Kierkegaard suggests that it is in fact the only possible escape from madness. As Iyer has put it, this constitutes a crossroads at the limit:
At the limit of any given worldview (or cognitive system), then, a man encounters a crossroads: rationally speaking, it is just as permissible to accept the one proposition as it is to accept the other. Paul encounters Jesus while walking down the road. According to materialism, this must be explained as a psychotic hallucination; according to Christianity, on the other hand, it must be explained in terms of Paul actually turning away from his previous psychosis of persecuting the truth. (330-331)
Iyer could have never reached this formulation if it had not been for his experience with Kierkegaard’s advocacy of the truth inherent in subjective passion.
Lucid romance and existentialism
Iyer calls his vision of the world by the name of lucid romance; and within the context of the present series of essays, it would surely be appropriate to call lucid romance a form of existentialism. That is, all of Testament is clearly animated by a deep, subjective, and passionate concern for the fundamental questions of the human condition. Indeed, Iyer makes it clear throughout his work that he is essentially writing in order to save his own life. The questions of philosophy have never been abstractions. For him, they have always been just as fundamental and insistent as ordinary physical needs. As Iyer writes in his introduction to his work:
As an adolescent, waking up to my own soul proved to be a rather traumatic event: existential questions began hounding me from every angle, making it very difficult to even live. I sought answers, because I needed them. (5)
If such a statement does not exemplify the fundamental ethos of existentialism, it is difficult to know what would.
Existence precedes essence
Again, this existentialism as it has been defined in the present series of essays: as fundamentally a matter of subjective passion, and not technical propositions. Indeed, Iyer completely rejects Sartre’s own technical definition of existentialism as the belief that existence precedes essence, insofar as follows Kierkegaard (and throughout the historicity of the Bible before him) in affirming that there is in fact a fundamental human nature that precedes this world itself. However, as has already been pointed out, the present series of essays has insisted that the technical proposition is irrelevant, and that it can even get in the way of the true existential ethos. As Kierkegaard pointed out long ago, existential truth is not a matter of ideas, but rather of how a given person relates his own soul to those ideas. Iyer has suggested that following this logic, the Christian Gospel must be understood as perhaps the most profound existential epiphany of all.
The everyday philosopher
Iyer completed his work in the March of 2016; and yet, he drew heavily on not only the works of Kierkegaard, which were written two centuries ago, but also the Christian ethics of the Bible, which was written two millennia ago. This hearkens back to the previous assertion of this essay that existentialism is fundamentally a perennial, timeless tradition of thought, and that it very much is alive and well in this day and age. Moreover, Iyer happens to be a twenty-seven-year old young man who happens to live an ordinary life within the city of Austin, Texas. This would seem to suggest that if he can pull together a serious work of existential philosophy today, then this kind of potential probably exists in most common people as well, as long have the will and desire to engage in such an endeavor.
The subjective nature of existentialism
This hope logically follows from the basic definition of existentialism as a matter of subjective passion. Everyone has problems in their lives; and existentialism is nothing other than an attempt to address these problems at the psychological, metaphysical, and spiritual levels and in terms of realism. As Iyer makes clear in his work,
lucid romance—like existentialism in general—is fundamentally a form of pragmatism: it is a matter of dealing, in a direct way, with the real problems of the human condition in a human way, and developing a vision of the world and a form of life that can enable a person to live a life filled with meaning within the context of the human condition (Iyer).
In a certain sense, every human being can and should consider such things; and Iyer’s work Testament is simply the result of him having done so. Metaphysically speaking, though, it cannot be said that there is really all that special about the author of that work, or the life he has lived. Rather, the conclusion that must be drawn is simply that there is a basic creativity inherent in all people, and that this creativity can be used in order to engage with the human condition in a meaningful way.
In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of existentialism today, with a special focus on Iyer’s work Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance as an exemplar of how the ethos of existentialism is still very much alive and well even up to this very day. This concludes the present series of essays on existentialism presented by Ultius. The essays have discussed several key existential writers who significantly developed the tradition of existentialist philosophy over the course of the last couple centuries. The present essay, though, has broadened the scope of the perspective in order to make the suggestion that at its core, existentialism is a perennial philosophy that has been around for millennia and will surely continue to be around as long as passionate human beings continue to walk on this earth.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage. 1991. Print.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. Austin: CreateSpace, 2016. Print.
James, William. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Cosimo, 2006. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Essential Kierkegaard. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2000. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Marxists.org. 1946. Web. 13 Apr. 2016. .
Turner, Luke. “Metamodernist Manifesto.” Metamodernism.org. 2011. Web. 11 Mar, 2016. .