The Self-Limiting Problem of Realism in Literature

What makes a literary work truly realistic? In Book 10 of The Republic, Socrates says of the artist: “if he does not make that which exists, he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence” (Plato, 2004). This statement is one that recognizes the self-limiting problem of realism in art, a complication that is addressed in the work Six Characters in Search of An Author by Luigi Pirandello. Literary works are mimetic by nature, with even the most fantastical and outlandish stories often needing to borrow some elements from the existing world. Literary realism, as a mode, includes texts that aim for as transparent a depiction of reality as possible, often subverting idealistic conventions which romanticize the world or ignore its less palatable aspects. Instead, the realism genre often centers around themes of poverty and suffering, featuring characters that are more human than archetypal. The epic and exotic are shunned in favour of a more mundane but truthful reflection of real experience. Yet Plato’s sentiments on art being but a semblance of existence leads one to the question of whether any work, no matter how strictly the conventions of realism are adhered to, can ever truly be ‘realistic’. Given the artificiality of art itself, and the fictive quality of literature in general, do the objectives of literary realism reflect an oversimplification and naivete on the part of the writer?

            Pirandello’s works, while oriented toward a greater degree of realism, also exhibit a level of self-consciousness about the intricacies of their endeavors to do so. They offer critiques against the reductionist aims of literary realism by straying from genre conventions and incorporating elements of ‘anti-realism’ – but with the interesting effect of more precisely capturing the fabric of experience. To proceed, however, it is necessary to first address the terminological complexity of realism: specifically, to distinguish between literary ‘realism’, the set of genre conventions aimed at creating a mirror-like representation of life, and the quality of being ‘realistic’, which allows the work to more closely imitate the texture of objective reality. Establishing a distinction demonstrates that a work can be ‘realistic’, even when it departs from ‘realism’.

The meta-narrative features of Six Characters brings into focus that reality itself is often elusive and slippery. The irony of a play within a play, for example, speaks to the inchoate basis of literary realism. When an audience watches a play, they must be conscious of two realities at once: the fact that they are watching actors on stage, and that of the story being performed. Usually, the former must be discarded in order to better appreciate the latter. The audience are aware that the story they are watching is only an ‘illusion’, temporarily being accepted as a ‘reality’. This understanding is inverted in Six Characters, as Father says, “what for you is an illusion, to be created, is for us our unique reality”. Here, the ‘reality’ is the story being told by the characters, and the ‘illusion’ is the play being performed by the actors.

            By giving the characters corporeal forms and by making them coexist with the actors onstage, the separation of ‘reality’ from ‘illusion’ – or ‘actor’ from ‘character’ – is made starkly visible to the audience. Yet the distinction between them becomes less clear than ever, as seen when Stepdaughter says “watch me live it!” of her story, and the Leading Lady retorts, “I’ll know how to live it too, don’t worry, once I put myself in the role!”. The whole atmosphere when the actors perform the scene they were just shown by the characters seems rather chaotic, which closely resembles the actuality of theatre rehearsals – this is a form of literary realism. However, the stage directions also indicate that “From the first speeches, the performance of the scene by the Actors is quite a different thing, without, however, any element of parody in it – rather, it seemed corrected”. This implies that the actors’ rehearsal was more life-like (less parodical) than that of the characters; here the play departs from realism, which normally depicts reality being dramatized through performance, instead of the other way around. As the characters protest and bicker over the actor’s portrayal of them, the audience is made to question which of the two versions of the scene they should consider more real – the story being told by the characters, or the performance being given by the actors?

Stepdaughter asks, “Tomorrow you will make of us the show you have in mind. […] But would you like to really see – our drama? Have it explode – the real thing?”. For the characters, the story is neither a pretense nor a performance. Towards the end of the play, even the director and actors grow confused between what reality is, chanting, “Fiction? Reality! Reality! He is dead!”. Pirandello uses the fantastical concept of characters being alive on the stage to demonstrate that the seam separating reality from fiction can often shift and reposition itself, and if reality itself is not objective, how can it be possible for literature to be truly realistic?     

           The fragmentation of a single story into multiple narratives also adds to this. Each of the characters has their own version of the drama, each of which are necessary in order to build a complete picture of what happened. If the audience were to take Father’s version, for example, while ignoring that of Stepdaughter, they would only receive a falsified, rudimentary account of events. Father delivers a monologue about the interpretive complexities of language: “how can we understand each other, sir, if in the words I speak, I put the sense and value of things as they are inside me, whereas the man who hears them inevitably receives them in the sense and value they have for him”. His own account of what happened with Stepdaughter is different from the way that she presents it, and so whose version of events is to be taken as the truth? By splitting the narrative, the audience is encouraged to engage with the play more actively (rather than passively), to take on a much more intimate role in their interpretation of the drama. Will they be like the characters, who are each only capable of accepting their own reality, and thus reduced to mere fragments that exist in a state of restlessness and confusion as a result? Or will they instead be more like the actors, who take the given pieces of the story to shape it into a more well-rounded and holistic narrative? Pirandello warns his audience against the former, suggesting that assimilating only a single viewpoint leads to subjectivity bias, as when Father says, “Phrases! Phrases! As if they were not a comfort to everyone” and Stepdaughter responds that the twisting of phrases “quiets our guilt feelings too”. The audience is shown that they are being handed a shattered narrative, which they must pick up and form into a multifaceted truth for themselves. This relays the pointlessness of realism in trying to portray life as a single objective truth; in actuality, a single truth may have many sides, depending on whose perspective it is being told from. The deliberately embedded narrative disjunction imposes a greater responsibility on the part of the reader to continually challenge their own interpretation of everything they’re to look past textual clues toward features in the work that “imply all the rest, suggest what remains inside”.

            One such feature is the use of symbolism to add aspects of realism. In the play, the theatre is a stage for the performance of life – “you play the part assigned you, and you’re your own puppet – of your own free will”. This is represented by the fact that the characters are aware of the tragic climax of the story they have been written around, and perhaps seek some form of catharsis in being able to live it out anyway. Their desire to live their stories in front of an audience might also be taken as commentary on the voyeuristic fascination of watching terrible events unfold upon others, which explains the morbid appeal of tragic plays and novels. The characters’ very presence as living entities is not realistic, and the use of masks emphasizes their limited fictional existence. However, they are still constrained by elements of realism relating to the theatre itself.

Their drama can only take place when the setting is as it was written – when Madam Pace suddenly materializes, for example, once all the hats are hung up, to the great dismay of the actors. This “miracle of reality that is born of the stage itself” is evidently a departure from realism, but is realistic in the sense that her character, who is present exclusively in this one scene of the drama, can only appear under the correct conditions. Another example of such restrictions being abided to is when Mother moans while watching Father in his scene with Stepdaughter, and he “is momentarily turned to stone by the moaning; then he reassumes the previous tone”. The scene is essentially frozen at the interruption by Mother’s moans, then resumes as normal. This is an example of realism overlapping with symbolism (non-realism) to depict the self-contained nature of the theatre, because the story cannot proceed except in the way it was written.

            The idea that most people are made of shades of grey is proposed by Father’s in Six Characters, when he says “if we could only foresee all the evil that results from the good we believe we’re doing”, and again when he soliloquizes on his own weakness, “one gives way, gives way to temptation”. Through the representation of characters who act selfishly, have vengeful, tainted motivations, but who generally evade classification into the either categories of good or evil, the play accurately captures the reality of human experience. This serves as an important reminder that while it is thoroughly conscious of the self-limiting problem of realism in literature, often departing from it as a means of rejecting genre restrictions, it’s still effective at mirroring the actual texture of experience. In other words, although it isn’t always operating within the conventions of ‘realism’, it nonetheless does come across exceedingly ‘realistic’

Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I have to admit, despite all the raving reviews and the fact that this is dubbed “the greatest novel ever written” by many, I was not expecting to love this as much as I did. Maybe that’s because the synopsis was underwhelming, hinting that this book is about family life and marriage, which I guess I don’t consider the most interesting topics in the world. However, coming up with a synopsis that really does all its contents justice is a near-impossible task when a novel is as lengthy as this one. So in that vein, yes, Anna Karenina is a book about family life and marriage, but it’s also so much more that that.

“You look at me,” she said, “and think, can she be happy in her situation? Well, and what? It’s embarrassing to admit, but I… I’m unforgivably happy. Something magical has happened to me, like a dream.”

Anna Karenina contains some of the most intricate character studies I have ever read. At the beginning of this novel, I was skeptical and indifferent about many of the characters. But as I progressed from chapter to chapter, each and every one of them grew more familiar to me, I became more intimately involved in their inner worlds and complex personalities. Their worries and concerns became my own, their joys made me happy, their sadness and strife broke my heart. Even side-characters that only appeared once or twice, like the artist that Vronsky and Anna visited abroad, are given distinct and memorable personalities. Anna and Levin have to be two of my favourite characters ever. Reading their contrasting stories side by side created a powerful experience in appreciating what a complete and clever portrayal of 19th century Russian society this novel is. I was especially stunned by the way the author described Anna’s fall from grace, and the last few chapters about her are just so well-written and profound that I had to go back and read them several times over.

Because of how attached I became to the characters, even the boring parts of this novel became bearable. Yes, the lengthy chapters about farming were a struggle to get through, but I didn’t mind because I love Levin and wanted him to be happy. There were some points, as is inevitable in books this long, where it felt like nothing at all was happening, but even these are enjoyable because as the action lapses, we get to really delve into the thought processes churning through characters’ minds.

Overall, reading this was such a great experience. I love how immersive the story was, how as a reader I wasn’t meant to take any sides or play favourites with characters, because each and every one of them was so gorgeously flawed in their own way. I am still so blown away by how much I loved following their lives the way I got to with this novel – it was absolutely incredible

Book Review: Candide by Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, known by his pen name Voltaire, was a French writer and philosopher in the Enlightenment period of 1685 – 1815. He often wrote satirical novels and plays that criticized contemporary social institutions and religious intolerance. His signature work Candide, or Optimism, follows the story of a naïve young man that experiences a series of increasingly tragic and painful mishaps. The work was a criticism of several Enlightenment philosophies, including that of optimism: the belief that the current world is the best of all possible worlds. Following a progression of natural disasters and human atrocities such as the Lisbon Earthquake of 1775 and the brutal torture and execution of the cloth merchant Jean Calas following (false) allegations that Calas murdered his own son to prevent him from converting to Catholicism, Volire wrote Candide to criticize the widespread belief in optimism and show the naivete of believing that a world full of so much suffering is the best of all possible worlds.

When asked by Cacambo what optimism is, Candide replies, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong”.

            The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was a period in history that brought about an increased appreciation for values such as inquisitiveness and honesty, while shunning older beliefs in tradition and dogma. Enlightenment thinkers favored reason over religion, and empirical evidence over customs. During this time, the philosophy of optimism grew popular as a means for people to explain away all the suffering in the world. Candide’s tutor Pangloss teaches him about optimism, saying, “they who assert all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best”. This was in relation to the trend of theodicy, which sought to explain the presence of evil in a world made by a perfect God. Pangloss believes that “things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end” – basically saying that humans should not question the way things are just because they don’t understand it, because there’s a greater hidden purpose that we are not aware of.

            Candide assimilates this overly optimistic message and stays faithful in his belief, as tragedy after tragedy befalls him. After being forced to leave the comfortable castle he grew up in, he’s tricked into joining the Bulgar army, where he is beaten violently. While marching with the army he witnesses villages full of suffering: passing over “heaps of dead and dying” to a neighboring village that was “in cinders”, and saw “here, old men covered with wounds, beheld their wives, hugging their children to their bloody breasts, massacred before their faces; there, their daughters, disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be despatched”. Running to another village, he finds an orator who asks him whether he is there for a good cause, to which Candide replies, “the whole is necessarily concatenated and arranged for the best”. Despite undergoing abuse at the hands of the army and witnessing so much hardship in the villages, Candide is not yet ready to give up on his overly optimistic outlook on life.  

            In Chapter V, Pangloss’ optimistic message is criticized by a Familiar of the Inquisition, who says:

Apparently, then, sir, you do not believe in the original sin; for if all is for the best there has then been neither Fall nor punishment.

This was an echo of Voltaire’s view that optimism encouraged complacency with the state of the global affairs, because it suggests that there’s nothing to improve about the world. It’s easy to see how this type of thinking can be dangerous and detrimental, by noticing the way that Pangloss explains away the tragedies that occur to him. Instead of feeling angry at the injustice of his situation and the cruelty that he suffered at the hands of various social institutions, even though he was hanged, dissected, and whipped, Pangloss tells Candide that “I am a philosopher and I cannot retract”. Philosophies such as optimism were antithetical to the aims of the Enlightenment. Instead of admitting that he was wrong and looking at the evidence around him, Pangloss remains stuck in his ways and insists that he will not change his mind. He is not using his sense of reason to see the situation as it is, and thus can never make any progress. This is also a criticism of organized religion, as Pangloss represents a parody of religious figures who relied more on religion than reason. Throughout the book, Voltaire uses satire to expose the hypocrisy of organized religion, such as in chapter III when the orator’s wife expresses her “religious zeal” and pours her chamber-pot over a man “who doubted whether the Pope was Anti-Christ”.

Voltaire’s view on human nature becomes evident through James, who tells Pangloss,

Mankind have a little corrupted nature, for they were not born wolves, and they have become wolves; God has given them neither cannon of four-and-twenty pounders, nor bayonets; and yet they have made cannon and bayonets to destroy one another.

He believed that humans had a tendency toward evil and destruction. Looking at the state of the world sometimes, it’s easy to empathize with this view. He criticizes the cruelty of the slavery system by describing Cacambo’s treatment at the hands of his masters. Later in the chapter, after the magistrate asks Candide to pay ten thousand piastres for a hearing, Voltaire writes: “The villainy of mankind presented itself before his imagination in all its deformity.”

Let us cultivate our garden.

     The final chapter of the book expressed the above statement which reflects Voltaire’s philosophy, with the garden being a metaphor for one’s own life. By this he’s suggesting that you should refrain from being too involved with politics and the world, but rather focus attention on personal wellbeing. The old man says that by cultivating our gardens, “our labour preserves us from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want.” Without simple labor and an honest lifestyle, man would be drawn towards committing the many injustices and crimes that befell Candide and the other characters in the book. Most of those tragedies were instances of humans being cruel to each other. Voltaire believed that by focusing on ourselves, and on our own growth and development, we can avoid a lot of the suffering that we cause to each other in this world.

Plato vs Aristotle on the Nature of Art

In Book 10 of The Republic, Socrates says of the artist, “if he does not make that which exists, he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence”. He uses the example of a bed to demonstrate that everything in the world has three forms: the ideal form created by God, a form created by the carpenter, and finally a form created by the painter: “You may look at a bed from different points of view, obliquely or directly or any other point of view, and the bed will appear different, but there is no difference in reality. And the same of all things.” Plato, through his characterization of Socrates, believes that painters are “creators of appearances”, and the “imitator of that which others make”, thrice removed from the ideal form of the subjects they paint. A bed painted by an artist is an imitation of a bed made by a carpenter, which is itself only a copy of the ideal bed. This is in accordance with his Theory of Forms, and suggests that art cannot represent reality, because reality itself is a world of appearances, of imperfect versions of the ideal world. He posits that artists are inferior to makers and users because they can only create imitations of a subject, without knowing anything about the subject itself, saying that “the real artist, who knew what he was imitating, would be interested in realities and not in appearances”. This introduces the idea of mimesis, or imitation: that all forms of art are imitations of that which already exists. 

            In Plato’s view, art needs to be utilitarian in nature; it needs to “educate and improve man-kind”. The poet, like the painter, is also an imitator, who “with his words and phrases may be said to lay on the colours of the several arts, himself understanding their nature only enough to imitate them”. He criticized Homer’s plays about the gods being capricious and vengeful, because stories full of such passion and drama speak are intended not “to please or to affect the rational principal of the soul”, but rather the spirited principle of the soul because it is easier to imitate. Plato believed that art needs a moral component, because it has the power to stir feelings and corrupt, as is the case when the imitative poet “implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature”. A story told by poets should promote values like courage, self-discipline, and a resistance to laughter, instead of being so dramatic and emotional that it “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up”. For a society to be virtuous, its passions should be controlled, not amplified. Because of this, Plato wanted poetry to be limited to “hymns to the gods and praises of famous men”. Otherwise, one who is “under the excitement of poetry will neglect justice and virtue”.

            Similar to Plato, Aristotle also believed that all art, including theatre and poetry, are imitations (forms of mimesis). Unlike Plato, though, this doesn’t mean it isn’t still useful, because “imitations come naturally to human beings from childhood […] having a strong propensity for imitation and learning their earliest lessons through imitation”. While he agreed that tragedies and dramatic poetry appealed to the appetitive soul, he viewed this as advantageous, because it means that art can serve as a medium to get rid of negative emotions in a controlled, healthy way: “effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions”. This is known as catharsis, the arousal of powerful and irrational emotions in order to purge them. Here we see that Aristotle and Plato shared the same view that art should be utilitarian in nature, but the difference is that Plato believed that only art that teaches positive values like virtue and courage is useful, while Aristotle believed that dramatic poetry such as Sophocles’ plays were useful in a separate way. He disagreed with Plato’s opinion that narrative is better than poetry, stating instead that “poetry tends to express universals” – by which he means “the kind of speech or action that is consonant with a person of a given kind in accordance with probability or necessity”. It has the ability to discard the mundane and irrelevant aspects of real life to more easily represent the essential. However, there are specific guidelines that should be followed to create the right kind of art that is useful to society, as outlined in Poetics. For example, a tragedy should not be overly vulgar, invoking fear and pity for the sake of sensation or spectacle (such as with unnecessary violence). Rather, the plot should trigger a deeper emotion in the audience, filling them with horror and pity because of their understanding of the events in the story, instead of simply through shock value.

Book Review: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This was my first Dostoevsky ever! I adore his writing and laughed out loud several times (“haha I do that!”). Darkly funny, strangely introspective and painfully relatable. As bitter and pathetic as the underground man undeniably is, it’s startling how many similarities we share (which honestly is now making me question whether that means I’m bitter and pathetic… hm)

It is fascinating that despite being a clear caricatural figure, something about the underground man still feels undeniably ‘real’ to me. Perhaps it is from the recognition that his flaws, though comically magnified, are mine; the underground man gives a physical form to the unconscious weak spots in my morality, highlighting and exacerbating them to an almost pathological level. All his existential angst, spite, and bitterness with the state of the world are only amplified echoes of every human’s weaknesses. Caricatures are effective at striking chords because they are reflections of humanity – distorted reflections, much like those in a funhouse mirror, but reflections just the same. His depravity and narcissism are exaggerated just enough to be satirical, but also seem uncomfortably probable, bringing up insecurities and doubts about your own character that you may not want to be too conscious of. He exists in everyone, at least to a certain extent.

His writings are the result of consciousness reflecting in on itself – this is seen most clearly in the fact that although the underground man is the one telling his story in first person, he is not the only narrator. The writing is fragmented into multiple perspectives with the effect of creating a disorienting, chaotic narrative that scrambles the architecture of plot and temporality in the novel. Many times, the underground man addresses the reader directly, making them an involuntary narrator in the work by crafting imaginary responses for them.

He demonstrates himself to be an unreliable narrator within the first few pages of the book, overtly admitting to lying to his reader: “I lied about myself just now when I said I was a wicked official. I lied out of wickedness”. His account of events is structured around the imaginary voices of his audience, which can range from being cynical and pragmatic to sarcastic and cruel. In turn, his responses are both defensive and strangely venerable in tone: he is asking to be understood, to be vindicated. The fact that he is unstable and antithetical to an extreme is a form of caricature, yet it makes his character seem more realistic. It reminds you that reality itself is the product of subjective interpretation, and the fragmentary, multifaceted rhetoric in the book accurately mirrors the inconsistent manner in which people remember and relate events in real life.

He is known as the underground man, though he does not actually live underground – rather, the underground is symbolic of his reclusion from society. He writes of a wretched and vengeful mouse, covered in “stinking filth consisting of its dubieties, anxieties, and, finally, the spit raining on it from the ingenuous figures who stand solemnly around it like judges and dictators”. The mouse, insulted and ashamed, retreats to its “loathsome, stinking underground” where it “immerses itself in cold, venomous, and above all, everlasting spite”. This is an allegorical depiction of the underground man’s own experience; like the scorned mouse, he too withdraws from the world into his private little corner, where he festers in his own misery for decades on end. The image of the underground and the reference to the figures spitting on him from above are also symbolic of his imagined sense of inferiority. So debilitating are his insecurity and resentment that his entire identity has been constructed around this idea that he is living underground. Yet his failings make him more of a victim than a villain, more real than comic:

“It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone.”

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a very important book with a very important message. As children we study the history of wars in school, we dissect and examine the extensive and cruel horrors that humans have subjected each other to. We ask questions like “what were the main causes of this war?” and “what important factors led up to that particular event?”. We often say that it’s a necessity to learn from history’s mistakes and great failures, so that we may never make them again.

I don’t deny that. It’s imperative that we understand the causes and effects that these wars have had, to be shocked and horrified by the massacres and destruction they left behind. This knowledge equips us with the inclination to be better, to move forward favouring diplomacy over conflict. However, this historian-approved approach to looking at the past, of seeking answers, connecting dots and using them to draw conclusions is embedded with a hidden flaw: it fails to acknowledge the idea that at the end of the day, there is no way to explain war. War is a senseless, confusing, chaotic thing. What was once upon a time deemed to be the ultimate apotheosis of national glory and pride revealed itself to be nothing more than a blood-splattered sophism, a tragedy scribbled over and over and over again into history’s pages. People dying by the millions over imagined boundaries between themselves and other people, people using these illusions of “us” and “them” to justify slaughter. None of this is new, of course: it is only knowledge that must be continually repeated, as often as it can, because it is a fact that will never stop being relevant or true.

What Vonnegut does with Slaughterhouse Five is to present war as the pointless, absurd thing that it is. As a POW who was there during the infamous firestorm of Dresden (a city with zero military significance that was still completely obliterated by Allied bombing), he writes with sharp honesty and insight. So much in these pages give a sense of the author scrambling to make sense of what he saw out there. The bizarre plot points, while odd and bewildering at first, are an incredible device he uses to show how all that suffering can erode away at a person. It’s a profound glimpse into the heartbreaking reality of PTSD. All these years later, people are still horrified by the aftermath of that event, and the explanation that it was necessary to bring the war to an end or demoralize the Germans is no longer enough to justify what happened. Events like the destruction of Dresden are not victories for anybody involved at all. They’re just endings. Not of wars or morales or violence, but of something even more fragile still – the ending of human lives. Their stories, their dreams and memories and adventures. Tens of thousands of sparkling little threads in this cloth of humanity, ripped out overnight. Reduced, as Vonnegut succinctly puts it, to the “listless playthings of enormous forces”.

Yes, he chooses to discuss these important concepts rather uniquely in this avant-garde and wonderfully strange novel. But Slaughterhouse Five does exactly what it’s meant to do, and does it exceedingly well: it forces us to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror of history; not only to stare at the monsters that we manage to be, but also to notice the painfully delicate, human things we all are underneath.

Book Review: Reveries of a Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacque Rousseau

I am now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself.

It’s pretty hard for me to review this book, given that I… don’t actually know how I feel about it. As a work of literature, it’s quite interesting and was probably very novel in its time. Rousseau is clearly a gifted writer, and I enjoyed the excessive, convoluted, flowery style of his prose. It seemed in tandem with the rambling, chaotic, stream-of-consciousness content in this work. He establishes from the very beginning that he wrote this for himself, as a form of self-reflection and, in some ways, self-retribution. It’s all typical diary entry stuff; there’s very little narrative structure to be found here, no clear direction in any of his Reveries (he starts each essay writing on a particular topic, only to inevitably yield to whatever other topics spring to mind as he does). Lots of repetition, contradictions, and confusing elements that really only make sense if you’re familiar with Rousseau’s biography and other works. It makes about as much sense as any of the entries found in my own journals – which is fine, since that is essentially what this is.

Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: ‘Would that this moment could last for ever!’ And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state which leaves our hearts still empty and anxious, either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come?

My biggest gripe is to do with whether or not I empathize with Rousseau’s meditations. It’s easy to accuse him of having a persecution complex, but if you keep in mind the violence and hostility he suffered prior to his self-imposed exile, he isn’t necessarily exaggerating or imagining all of the reasons he has for being so paranoid. This is the mind of a man who was alienated by society and now attempts to find reprieve in nature and solitude. A lot of it comes off as him trying to convince himself that he’s content with his situation, but evidence of his inability to leave the past behind bleeds through the pages anyway. He continuously claims that he doesn’t care about people’s opinions or the injustice they’ve inflicted on him, only to then launch into extensive tirades about why they’re all the worst and how misunderstood his poor soul is. There’s an inane amount of self-pitying, although it does eventually give way to attempts at rising above his situation. I have to say that this sentiment did not come across as entirely convincing to me, which I’m guessing is the product of Rousseau’s own lack of conviction that he is as serene as he claims to be. He says that he has “seldom related what is praise-worthy” in himself, yet over the course of his Walks he refers to himself as being “humane, benevolent, and charitable”, as well as saying “I am good, and do nothing but what is right”. Contradictions such as these are peppered all over his recollections; it raises the question of whether he failed to see them as such, or if he glossed over them due to a refusal to perceive things as they are. The paradox between the tendency of humans to vacillate between self-awareness and its complete opposite is perfectly captured here.

To say that this was enjoyable to read might be a stretch. He does churn out some very insightful aphorisms and ideas, though these are somewhat difficult to isolate from the wider pool of chaos that his Reveries contain. He suggests that untruths are excusable under certain conditions and even refuses to refer to them as lies, but rather fictions. Strangely, despite his hatred for lying, he realizes that he has never experienced remorse for these inventions and seeks to understand why. This leads to him deconstructing the definition of a lie: “concealing a truth we ought to divulge is to lie”, yet when we who is “not bound to speak the truth, advances the contrary” we are not lying. Do we have an obligation to the truth if not always bound by it? Rousseau reaches the conclusion that it’s possible for untruths to exist without weighing on the conscience. This is achieved when one conceals truths that have no utility or effect on anyone – without the intention to deceive.

In all the ills that befall us, we are more concerned by the intention than the result. A tile that falls off a roof may injure us more seriously, but it will not wound us so deeply as a stone thrown deliberately by a malevolent hand. The blow may miss, but the intention always strikes home.

That being said: his sadness, dismay, and bitterness with the world is so pathetic and pitiful that I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. I don’t know enough about his life to judge whether he truly deserved all that befell him, but I think most people will be able to relate in some way to his expressions of anxiety and loneliness in the world.

I was made for life, and am dying without having enjoyed any of it.

Book Review: The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental questions of philosophy.”

I think that to most healthy individuals, the notion of resorting to suicide can be inconceivable. Humans are biological organisms like any other: evolutionarily geared towards survival, genetically hardwired with strong instincts for self-preservation. How then might the phenomenon of suicide be explained? What drives anyone to consider killing themselves?

Camus’ answer to this question is what he calls the absurd – a conflict between man’s search for meaning and the indifference of the universe. Most of the time, we tend to get through life without ever noticing the absurd. But then one day, out of the blue, we might find ourselves taking a good long look at the repetitive, futile, monotonous nature of existence. Everyday we wake up, we work, we sleep, and eventually we die. On a larger scale we also know that our presence here on earth is merely transitory, that everything we’ve strived for will cease to matter at some point in time. All our monuments, technology, and scientific advancements will be swallowed up by the vast silence of eternity someday. And when we find ourselves becoming conscious of such things, we naturally think “Well, ****.”

This was illustrated by the story of Sisyphus in his book, a Greek mythological figure who kidnapped and chained death so humans could live forever. As you can imagine, the gods weren’t too happy about that, so they sent him to Hades (the underworld) and condemned him to an eternity spent rolling a huge boulder up a mountain every day, only for the boulder to roll back down each evening for him to start all over again the next day. No matter how many obstacles we face and overcome everyday, tomorrow there are always more. There will be more the day after, and the day after that, and so on, everyday until we die. 

Like Sisyphus, our boulder always rolls back down, and we always have to start again in the morning. And we become conscious of the fact that this is just what life is, that it’s one never-ending, repetitive struggle, we might ask ourselves what the point of doing anything even is. Why struggle to push our boulders all the way up, if we’re just going to have to do it tomorrow? 

So what do we do in the face of this terrible, soul-crushing truth? How are meant to grapple with the existential despair that accompanies our realization that everything is meaningless? How do we convince ourselves that life is even worth the trouble of living? Camus thinks that when we become conscious of the absurd, we lose hope and stop finding satisfaction in our daily lives. It’s hard to want to live once you become aware that this is all life is and that nothing means anything.  According to him, we might resort to committing one of two forms of suicide as a result: physical or philosophical.

“The absurd ends with death.”

If you ask yourself “what is the meaning of life?”, and you can’t come up with any satisfactory answer that makes it worth suffering through, you might commit physical suicide by killing yourself. You might escape the absurd through death, because it’s not like you can worry about the meaning of life if you haven’t got a life to live in the first place. 

When we ascribe to religious ideas about there being some sort of higher purpose to which we are simply not privy, we are committing philosophical suicide. This is what Camus calls a “leap of faith”, surrendering to spiritual ideas about a greater meaning to the universe, an afterlife that makes the struggle of this one worth living.

Either way, we are absolved of our need to confront the absurd and find meaning in our lives. Camus rejects both types of suicides, and instead of trying to escape the absurd, urges us to “revolt” against it. Because only by living in full awareness of the absurd can we be given the opportunity to truly make life beautiful. To give it the meaning that we decide to give it.

He believes that because Sisyphus is fully aware of his situation, he can choose to live in the face of its absurdity, and by doing so, he changes his fate from tragic to empowering. Once he understands that the boulder will inevitably roll down every evening for the rest of eternity, he can find some control over the situation, because every successful trip up the hill is a win, and every morning is an opportunity to triumph over all the struggles of rolling that boulder uphill.

We can also live our best lives by remaining fully conscious of the absurd and choosing to keep going anyway. We too can become masters of our fate, and we can rebel against the pointlessness of existence by creating meaning in it wherever we want. For example, I love hiking with my dog and reading good books – this is what gives my life meaning. What gives yours meaning may be different; the point is that it is up to you, because it is your life to live, just like it is Sisyphus’ boulder to roll uphill.

“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him, his rock is his thing.”

Instead of despairing over it, we can choose to live passionately and happily in the face of all our struggles, even if we know that tomorrow the struggle will start all over again. Like Sisyphus, we can keep pushing our boulders up the hill everyday, because each step along the way is a triumph; each step is a reminder of our choice to keep going, even when the odds seem stacked endlessly against us.

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Lessons of Existentialism in Literature

Albert Camus coined the term “absurdity” to describe the conflict between man’s search for meaning and the indifference of a universe which has none. This was illustrated in the collection of essays published in The Myth of Sisyphus1, in which he relates the story of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder up a hill. Each day the boulder Sisyphus toils to push the boulder uphill, and each night it rolls back down for him to begin his arduous task again the next morning. Camus compared Sisyphus’ torture with man’s struggle to find meaning in a chaotic, senseless world. To escape the existential despair that accompanies man’s confrontation with the absurd, he suggests that people commit two forms of suicide. They commit physical suicide, because:

“In its way, suicide settles the absurd. It engulfs the absurd in the same death.”

Or they can commit philosophical suicide, suspending reason and performing a “sacrifice of the intellect” by ascribing to religious or spiritual notions of some higher purpose in the world. Camus rejects both types of suicide, noting that they are merely attempts at eluding the problem of the absurd, rather than facing it.

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?

            His argument against suicide is one that may be considered relevant to the field of psychiatry, if we are to pose suicide as an existential problem. He suggests that although it is impossible to find any inherent underlying meaning in the universe, this should not drive one to the conclusion that life is not worth living. Rather, it presents an opportunity for the freedom to create meaning in one’s life that feels authentic and personal to the individual:

If I admit that my freedom has no meaning except in relation to its limited fate, then I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living”. Thus, one should “draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. 

            By remaining fully conscious of the absurd, and by admitting that the only certainty is that life ends in death, we are reminded each moment of the necessity of living a life that is valuable and meaningful to us. Camus further demonstrates how this can add purpose to a life, even when such a life has objectively lost all its value. In his novel The Stranger2, the protagonist Mersault represents an absurd existentialist who undergoes a series of tragic and seemingly random mishaps that lead eventually to him being sentenced to death for murder. At the end of the novel he thinks about his life through an existentialist lens:

What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to “choose” not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people?

By admitting that nothing is known for certain except the inevitability of death, and that death is the ultimate fate of every man on earth, he finds peace in his situation. He realizes that when one makes the most of every day that he is alive for, it makes no difference whether he dies tomorrow or in sixty years. This is an existentialist attitude that means we shouldn’t blame external circumstances for failing to live a meaningful life. No matter what hand one is dealt with in life, life itself is inherently meaningless, and it is up to us to take what we have and create our own meaning in it. By doing so, like Mersault, it is possible to find peace even in the most tragic circumstances.

I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

            Existentialism calls for the living of a life with no rules or barriers, yet this must not be misunderstood to mean that one should live with no moral codes or values. Existentialist attitudes should not be used to excuse violent crimes such as murder, for example. This is shown through the story of Raskolnikov is Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment3. The story follows a destitute college student who kills two innocent lives and spends the rest of the novel being haunted by his own choice. He attempts to provide various explanations for his crime, such as hunger and poverty, even claiming to be a “Napoleon” figure similar to Nietzche’s ubermensch4, who is superior to other people and does not need to follow the same laws and morals as everyone else. In the end, however, such justifications ring hollow because as we see in the novel, Raskolnikov is not the Napoleon he imagines himself to be; rather he is quite a kind and generous individual who performs many charitable deeds for those in need. Overcome by his own guilt, fear, and paranoia, he eventually confesses to the murders himself and finds peace in his punishment. This tells us that existentialism is not only about living without any rules; it is about making choices that are meaningful to us and accepting the consequences that follow. By failing to stay true to himself and committing those crimes, Raskolnikov has missed the point of existentialism completely, and is made to suffer for it. This novel clearly illustrates that the freedom to live by creating our own meaning is both a choice and a responsibility. 

            Finally, another existential work by Dostoyevsky is his novella Notes from the Underground5, which follows a man who is tortured by his own inability to make sense of his place in the world. He is bitter at the thought of a society that has failed people like him, while at the same time remaining aware that he has the freedom to fight against such a society to make a better world. Rather than being liberated by his belief, however, he feels overwhelmed and burdened by it. He feels like a slave to the world he lives in, encapsulating Sartre’s idea of the anguish of freedom in his work Being and Nothingness6, which states that with the total freedom to live how we want, comes total responsibility:

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

            With these books described above, we can see how existentialism can create an experience that is both liberating and uncomfortable for an individual. It can lead one to find happiness even in the most difficult situations, such as Sisyphus and Mersault; it can lead one to make the wrong choices by not remaining true to themselves, such as the case for Raskolnikov; or it can also lead one to suffer because the responsibility of taking ownership over one’s life and stop blaming external circumstances might be unbearable, like the Underground Man.


  1. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage International, 2018.
  2. Camus, Albert, and Stuart Gilbert. The Stranger. Knopf, 1973.
  3. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and David McDuff. Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics). Revised, Penguin Classics, 2002.
  4. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  5. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground and the Double (Penguin Classics). Penguin Classics, 2009.
  6. Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Richmond. Being and Nothingness. Amsterdam University Press, 2021.

Book Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”

Feminism is always a complicated topic to write about, because I’ve seen its focal elements vary by the contexts they’re applied to. In the West, the third wave of feminism tends to focus a lot on body politics, sexual empowerment, and intersectionality – all of which are critical, of course, in the fight for true equality. I understand and respect these values, and don’t mean in any way to discredit them.

This review, though, is centered around the type of feminism I think is still highly necessary, and often underdeveloped, in the ethnic and religious cultures I grew up around. There, feminism is still fighting its earliest battle: the idea that women are no less intelligent, capable or deserving of freedom/independence than men. Sexism prevails in so many archaic ways, and I see it every single day in my culture. Women are beat into submission, raped, and even murdered for “indiscretions” as minor as dressing a certain way or acting against misogynistic ideals. They’re expected to be docile, obedient, complacent. They’re expected to bear disrespect and subjugation without complaint. Equal access to education and employment is a privilege only afforded to those occupying higher social classes. Their bodies are made the properties of the men in their lives, and their free will only extends as far as they comply with the dictates of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. It’s hard not to view this type of prejudice as utterly dehumanising, a reduction of women’s value to the sum of their reproductive parts.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Right of Women” is considered the first feminist philosophical text ever written. It was published in the 18th century, and many of the issues it discusses have now lost their relevance in Western countries, where such ideas are common sense.

But when I read that quote at the top of my review, I’m reminded of how much more work there is to be done for women’s rights in my culture. The fact that a woman is more than a weakling in constant need of male protection/guardianship, whose morality is more than just the responsibility of the men around her, is still highly controversial in places. Wollstonecraft’s feminism has been criticized for being too didactic and harsh against women, and while I agree, I think we need to remember the rhetorical context of the work itself. It was written from frustration at the state of affairs in a century rife with gender inequality. I relate to and understand that frustration very well myself when I bear witness to the misogyny in my own culture. Towards the second half of the book her ideas get progressively more ascetic, but I think my main takeaway from this was about the importance of education. A lack of education is the root of so much inequality in the world, and though I am not convinced on everything in this book, I certainly appreciate the value of her call to educate women.

When I call myself a feminist, I am thinking especially of these women in my culture who would benefit from the basic principles in this book. Your voices aren’t forgotten, your sufferings no less valid. We may be fighting a different battle than our contemporaries in the West, but it is still a fiercely important one. Keep doing the good work, keep pushing for gender reforms, and most of all – keep strong in your conviction that your womanhood is a source of STRENGTH, not that of shame and servitude. You are powerful, intelligent, and important; please never forget that.