Meaning-making in Literature and Life: an Introduction to Existentialism – Elizabeth Ruth Deyro

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Elizabeth Ruth Deyro is a Filipina writer and editor with a BA in Communication Arts from the University of the Philippines Los Baños. She is the Founding Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director of The Brown Orient and the Fiction Editor of Rag Queen Periodical. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Moonchild Magazine, L’Éphémère Review, Jellyfish Review, Ellipsis Zine, Black Napkin Press, {m}aganda Magazine, Affinity Magazine, Rappler, and The Tempest.

Her Twitter handle is @notjanedeyro. Readers can also find more of her works at elizabethruthdeyro.weebly.com.

This essay was previously published in TERSE. Journal (March 2018) and The Cerurove (October 2017)

Meaning-making in Literature and Life: an Introduction to Existentialism

In literature, it is the reader who gives meaning to a text.

The process of creating this meaning is in the dialogue between the reader and the text itself. Giving it meaning is their way of understanding it. We should recognise that the text, once birthed, becomes a separate entity apart from its writer, much like a newborn from their mother. The writer’s significance should remain unquestioned, as it is they who has created the text, but they do not hold the power to set a standard meaning for their work. The text speaks for itself; it is no longer the writer’s words, but rather its own. Should the writer attempt to put meaning on the text, they become a reader. We can assume that the text would encounter several readers, and consequently, have dialogues with several minds; therefore, a plurality of meanings would be created. Some of these meanings may be deemed the common interpretation of the text, but none could claim to be the right meaning. In fact, there is no right meaning, as it would always be a variation of interpretations created by different people with different experiences.

What we can say, however, is that without these interpretations and the readers that created them, the text is meaningless. It is but a compilation of words that follow the basic rules of grammar, it has no essence. Nevertheless, a reader can give meaning to a text without fully acknowledging that the text is meaningless without them.

This is almost similar to finding the meaning of life in spite of its apparent meaninglessness.

In his last words, the famous poet Francois Rabelais mentioned he shall go seek, , a “great perhaps” . Most of us, if not all, go to seek a great perhaps, for our own set of reasons. This is why we find or create our own meanings of life. Humans seek meaning because we want so badly to make sense of all things around us.

This desire to understand even encompasses things that are beyond our intellectual capacities. We obsess over reason, which results  in numerous theories that remain hypothetical because, in actuality, there are things that we cannot provide definite answers to. Immanuel Kant’s concept of mind-independent external world, which he defines to comprise things that we cannot know, must be deemed relevant. Kant claimed that humans “cannot make a cognition of things in themselves, but only as they appear to us.” René Descartes agreed by saying that “the mind-independent external world is mediated only through the ideas of it” and thus, we can only ever know it indirectly. John Locke further suggested that human beings only understand things as how we perceive them to be, and never as they are. Therefore, we can only hypothesise about things that fall under the mind-independent external world, but we can never be able to pin an exact definition to such.

An example of this is the origin of everything. How the world came to be has been a lingering question in the fields of science, philosophy, and religion. We understand that, no matter how many theories we propose, we can never truly verify whether or not it is right, and yet, the curiosity among us remains, though we are aware that knowing more about it would not be beneficial in our personal lives. This obsession with finding explanation is less of an effect of innate curiosity than a product of fear to fully embrace the reality that everything is in fact meaningless. This fear may be something we experience either consciously or unconsciously. We fill the void of meaninglessness by interpreting life as such in relation to our existence.

Using the lens of existentialism, we can view life as having no inherent meaning, just as human beings have no inherent purpose. It is us that give life essence; further, it is us that set our purpose as beings. How we create this meaning depends on the dialogue between us and life itself, in the form of our experiences. Jean-Paul Sartre abridged this thought when he coined the statement “existence precedes essence”, the central idea of existentialism. The statement suggests that the mere existence of an individual is more fundamental than his essence, and that his essence is dependent on his existence. Man is not born with a purpose nor value; it is something he creates for himself, whether or not he is aware of the process.

Richard Taylor’s interpretation of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus gave two ways in approaching the problem of discontent in life: The first one is finding meaning “from the outside,” or in the significance of the product of what one is doing with his life. The second, and the more favoured, is finding meaning “from within oneself,” or simply conditioning oneself to enjoy whatever he currently has in life. By giving meaning in life as such in relation to one’s existence, we subscribe to Taylor’s latter suggestion. Taylor even wrote: “[t]he meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.”

In essence, to give life definition is not solely to absolve oneself of its meaninglessness, but also a way to make life matter, which R.M. Hare defined as a word that “isn’t intended to describe something that things do, but to express our concern about what they do.” It is a way to show that life as such is our concern.

However, coming to grips with life’s meaninglessness is not a requisite for an individual in order for him to give meaning to his life. The fear that drives us to find reason can either be a conscious thought or something wired within our unconscious. In most cases, the latter is the more realistic scenario. Furthermore, very few would even entertain the thought of life’s meaninglessness; it is not an idea suited for everyone. Just as a reader does not have to acknowledge the fact that a text’s meaning is entirely up to them and, without their interpretation, the book is meaningless, people can give meaning to their lives even without recognising life’s apparent meaninglessness.

 

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