Existentialism is a concept that became popular during the World Wars in France and elsewhere in Europe, and just after it. French playwrights have often used the stage to express their views, and these views came to surface even during a Nazi occupation. Existentialism proposes that man is full of anxiety and despair with no meaning in his life, just simply existing, until he made decisive choice about his own future. That is the way to achieve dignity as a human being. Existentialists felt that adopting a social or political cause was one way of giving purpose to a life.
One of the major thinkers during this period was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre had been imprisoned in Germany in 1940 but managed to escape, and become one of the leaders of the Existential movement. Other popular playwrights were Albert Camus, who became the spokesman for the French Underground when he wrote his famous essay, “Le Mythe de Sisyphe” or “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Sisyphus was the man condemned by the Gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down again. For Camus, this related heavily to everyday life, and he saw Sisyphus an “absurd” hero, with a pointless existence. Camus felt that it was necessary to wonder what the meaning of life was, and that the human being longed for some sense of clarity in the world, since “if the world were clear, art would not exist”.
During the World Wars, Paris became the existential capital of the west, and popularized a new form of surrealistic theatre called “Theatre of the Absurd”. Many historians contributed to the sudden popularity of absurdity in France to the gruesome revelations of gas chambers and war atrocities coming out of Germany after the war. The main idea of The Theatre of the Absurd was to point out man’s helplessness and pointless existence in a world without purpose. It is the freedom of the slave to crawl east along the deck of a boat going west. Quite often, such texts reveal the human condition at its absolute worst.
Instead of the theatre, war poetry can also be discussed to get a better glimpse of ‘Existentialism’. In this light, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen can be brought forth. The absurdity of war is starkly reflected in their poetry and the murder machine called ‘War’ only emphasizes the pointlessness of our existence. In such a circumstance, fighting the war in a way gives meaning to the soldier’s life, which turns out to be an illusion in the end, which is again absurdity. For example, in Owen’s “Send off “the tone is quieter than other Owen’s poems, being set in England, not the war zone, but makes its point with utter clarity. The poem was written at Ripon, where there was a huge army camp. The troops have just come from a sending-off ceremony – cheering crowds, bells, drums, flowers given by strangers – and now they are being packed into trains for an unknown destination.
From the beginning, the atmosphere seems sinister. The lanes are darkening and claustrophobic; the shed reminds us of execution sheds and slaughterhouses; the crowds have gone elsewhere and they are watched only by ‘dull’ porters and the uninspiring figure of a tramp. Traditionally flowers have a double significance – coloured for celebration, white for mourning. So the women who stuck flowers on their breasts thought they were expressing support but were actually garlanding them for the slaughter. Their departure is secret, ‘like wrongs hushed-up’, because the true nature of what is happening to them is being concealed. We can draw parallels with life itself, where we are not revealed what our life has in store for us but we are just ‘thrown’ into existence.
Owen seems to have distrusted public emotion and felt that the highly-organized displays which have just ended can only obstruct true communication between people, and clear thought. Of the men who have been sent off, only a few will survive and each of them must find his own way back; the healing process needs silence and privacy.
During and after the First World War, many people could not bear to watch a train moving away because this reminded them of a last meeting. Today, we think of trains being packed with victims for the concentration camps, other wrongs which were hushed up.
The poem is very existential in nature. The anger towards the system, contempt of the society’s hypocrisy, and the pointlessness of a soldier’s life all reflect the existential nature of this poem. The war meant imminent death. That would be the encounter with nothingness hence, the glorifying of war has no meaning and the so called patriotism is nothing but nonsense. The truth is men were on both sides were slaughtered pointlessly. The poem speaks about the futility of war. The soldiers did not have the freedom to make their own destiny either. The way we are thrown into existence, they were thrown into the trenches. The thrown-ness is an idea put forward by French existentialist, Albert Camus.
Speaking in the same tone Siegfried Sassoon too talks about existentialism in his poetry. “Survivors” is one of them. The opening line gives the reader a sense of misleading hope. The throw-away feeling emphasized by the assured ‘No doubt’ calls to mind the sinister complacency of ‘Does It Matter?’ When he says, ‘Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,” He again sends the disassociated, unfeeling voice. The flippant remark, suggesting that all soldiers were willing to return to the front, is typical of the attitude Sassoon perceived in the non-combatants at home. Sassoon contrasts the youth and innocence of the soldiers with the ageing process of the war. Yet, although these men are made old before their time, they are also reduced to infants having to re-learn such basic processes as how to walk. The pointlessness of the survival itself is brought out in this poem.
Again the poet presents us with a sense of hope, immediately reversed by a harsh reminder of brutal reality. The survivors, once they have managed to forget the nightmares and visions of their dead comrades, will then be able to reflect on the ‘glorious war’ with pride; but this, in turn, will remind them of their time spent overcoming the horror, when they had no self-esteem having been reduced to helpless children. The shocking revelation one can find in this poem is the pointlessness of the very survival of the survivors. There was no need for them to survive and they would be better off dead than to live through the misery is the essence of the poem. The insensitivity of the people towards the survivor is another issue. These points bring out the existential nature of the poem. Living, more or less like corpses, the survivors live through nothingness till his physical death.