A checklist for the
existential critic

by Geoff Ward

 

In typically down-to-earth fashion, Colin Wilson has explained existential criticism in this way: “If a wife began to criticise her husband in a private conversation with her best friend - that would be existential criticism because it's based upon a total knowledge of her husband, or at least a much fuller knowledge than somebody who lives around the corner has. Now it seems to me that's quite important in an age like ours where we're often moving forward into absurdity.”

Wilson believes that existentialism is the one certain road to the creative development of literature in the future. While his theory of existential criticism embraces humanistic formalism, it goes a radical stage further - to evaluate literature by assessing it in terms of its capacity to satisfy the depths of human need, to clarify the image of "what we are yet to become" on the evolutionary spiral. Wilson wants to know what, fundamentally, an artist is saying, what concepts of human purpose lie in the basic assumptions of the work, and how far the work succeeds in revealing existence as potentiality.

Certainly, for Wilson, the purpose of literature is nothing less than to liberate the imagination in order to point the way forward for human evolution, to act as a "magic mirror" in which the reader can see reflected his or her own soul.

Premises:

* The standard of value of existential criticism is existence, the opposite of the limiting personality.

* The existential critic wants to know precisely what a book/poem/movie is saying, not whether it is true to life or tells its story well.

* The existential critic is in revolt against many of the values of our time - or the tacit assumption that values are unimportant.

* Existential criticism is the normal procedure with certain kinds of poetry, eg “What experience of the poet led to this statement?”

Aims of existential criticism:

* To challenge the author’s overall sense of life. No conclusions are to be accepted separately. The question to be addressed to the author is not “What do you see?” but “How broad do you see?” One must ask what relation the work bears to the whole of life.

* To develop a standard of meaning, not moral, religious or political, but meaning in the broadest and deepest sense. A thing “means” something because of the relation it bears to our lives.

* To become an instrument which is in no way dependent upon the moral personality of the person who makes use of it. Early existential criticism, such as that of Berdyaev on Dostoevsky and Jaspers on Nietzsche, as Wilson points out in Existential Criticism, was based on the creative temperament of the writer rather than upon a general method.

* To summarise life finally - its ultimate affirmations and negations.

Thus the following questions may be asked of the text:

1. How far does it succeed in revealing existence as potentiality?

2. Does it recognise that life is never exhausted because it is pure potentiality?

3. Does it substantiate the credo that the purpose of all art is to effect an escape from personality and to embrace a vision of the world as pure potentiality?

4. Does it strive to get beyond the values and limits of the “natural standpoint”, to probe the question of existence itself?

5. What fundamentally, is its author saying? How mature is his/her vision of the world? What concepts of human purpose are concealed in the basic assumptions of the work?

Select Colin Wilson bibliography:

The Outsider (1956)
Eagle and Earwig, including the seminal essay Existential Criticism (1958)
The Age of Defeat (1959) and its new introduction for the 2001 Pauper’s Press edition
The Craft of the Novel (1975)
Existentially Speaking: essays on the philosophy of literature (1989)
The Books in my Life (1998)