Existentialism’s Dual Impulses: Camus vs. Sartre

Similar to the twin impulses of Romanticism––Transcendental and Gothic––Existentialism can be divided into dual impulses, though not as aptly named. I knew this to be a fact of Existentialism, given its flexible nature, but didn’t realize it for myself until I read Camus’ Happy Death and Sartre’s Nausea consecutively.

In Camus’ Happy Death, the protagonist, Patrice Mersault, decides that happiness is the ultimate, desired state of being. Throughout the novel, he pursues happiness relentlessly; once he finds it, he clings to it even in death. Though happiness isn’t philosophically absolute–or even significant–Mersault defines himself in its context, anyway.

In Camus’ portrait, we are given one impulse of Existentialism: Humanity over nothingness. As Existentialism sneers at the self-righteous, pretentious, overly complex aspects of classical philosophy, it turns to common man and extends a willing hand. Existentialism is useful and practical (as practical as a theory can be), and Camus doesn’t ignore that.

His character doesn’t care about some elusive truth or reality, but rather enjoys a charming selfishness; one that benefits him in the end, and endears him to the reader. Camus’ initial work gives force to that tired axiom: “Life is what you make it.” Despite some flaws in the portrayal, Camus’ existentialism targets the Average Joe–something we can all admire.

The reader forgets this attractive portrait of Existentialism entirely in reading Sartre’s Nausea. We find Antoine Roquentin, the novel’s protagonist, in the midst of an existential crisis. Instead of coming to terms with his situation, Roquentin falls deeper into a despair that summons a vast, dark, suffocating feeling he refers to as “nausea”.

Suffering this “nausea”, he begins to question everything around him–the brick of houses, a beer mug, humanism––and realizes that phenomena (abstract and concrete, alike) are simply a façade. Behind that façade lies, as the Existentialist is fond of calling it, “nothingness”.

Simply, “nothingness” references a bare state of existence– objects occupy a space determined by their volume–, devoid of any coherence, communion, or connectedness. In nothingness dissolves humanity, happiness, success, fulfillment, or even color. Things simply exist.

Here, we’ve come upon the second impulse: Nothingness over Humanity. Though Existentialism does sneer at objective, clinical philosophies of the past, it doesn’t necessarily denote a feel-good, serotonin explosion. Born out of ruin and sorrow from the World War generation, Existentialism champions a certain nihilism as soon as it does the fulfillment of the individual.

Still, I’d pay more attention to the similarities between these works: Each focuses on the individual experience rather than general, holistic speculation; each references a crisis of existence, supposedly inherit in every conscious being, to which the individual must respond; each allows the possibility of an answer to that crisis, which is more than might be said for other philosophies.
Existentialism isn’t dead––it’s absolutely unique, modernist, and diverse. If you’ve forgotten it, and you’re already looking for the newest coffeehouse philosophy, I suggest you study something more age-appropriate. Otherwise, venture into a clamorous philosophy that’ll either harken your fulfillment or failure.


“What matters––all that matters, really––is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous, ever-present consciousness. The rest––women, art, success––is nothing but excuses. A canvas waiting for embroideries.”

A Happy Death

“I was just thinking,” I tell him, laughing, “That here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.”


To Review, Kiddies:

God Save the Books,
C. Harder

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