There is something about life that makes people feel a certain unease about how things are or should be. Moments arise where a person may feel an incredible weight within her/himself, a sense of dread or anguish when contemplating existence or reality. This struggle may come from the struggle of living as an individual in a society that stresses collectivism (one of the tenets of democracy) and shuns those who rebel against the norm, whether commercially, politically, socially or spiritually. This paradox of trying to live one's life as a free individual while at the same time trying to live an interdependent lifestyle in a collective causes these pangs of existence -- dread, anguish, despair, questioning existence and/or reality. The Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit, the painting Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon, and the musical piece Variation for Orchestra I by Arnold Schoenberg are all examples of media that address these existential questions and problems. Though one's act of "looking inward" may bring about a sense of darkness, nihilism, and fear, there is also a paradox of existence that may counter this darkness: a Subject may find existence and reality not only in her/himself, but in the perspective of an Other.
In the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit, a unique theme permeates throughout the narrative that contemplates or meditates on existence. The setting of the afterlife in a drawing-room set in Second Empire style gives an impression of materialism, fitting for three French people who seem to be completely enamored with themselves in terms of appearance and namesake. In fact, there are a large number of scenes in which the three characters refer to something outside of themselves in order to feel reality -- to realize that they do, indeed, exist, and that the world around them is not just an illusion.
Near the middle of the play, after Garcin has convinced both Estelle and Inez to sit quietly in corners, all away from each other, Estelle begins to question Garcin, asking him if he has a mirror with which she can use to apply makeup. Garcin remains in a state of defiant quietude and Inez offers for Estelle to use her mirror, only to find out that she also does not have one. Estelle, seemingly frustrated, says, "How tiresome!" before nearly fainting after a short silence. Inez rushes to hold her up, to prevent her from falling over onto the floor, and asks her, "What's the matter?"
ESTELLE [opens her eyes and smiles]: I feel so queer. [She pats herself.] Don't you ever get taken that way? When I can't see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn't help much. (17-19)This small example of the need for an external self-awareness speaks of an idea of existence as experience through that of another. Estelle seems unable to convince herself of her existence without being able to see an external representation of herself: the perspective of her that others see. Being unable to understand her existence from her own perspective is not something that is constrained only to this one moment (whether in this play or in life generally speaking). In the beginning of the play, when Garcin notices that the Valet's eyes are lacking any lids, he becomes a little jittered to the fact that Valet is always watching him, without any sort of break.
GARCIN: ... Wait a minute, there's a snag somewhere; something disagreeable. Why, now, should it be disagreeable? ... Ah, I see; it's life without a break.This little moment allows Garcin, and everyone, to take a break from having to constantly investigate and pursue all that our sense of sight allows us, but being from the perspective of a Subject prevents us from investigating and pursuing the Subject her/himself. How can we be sure of all that we see, despite how much investigation a person can or will make, when that person cannot turn the investigation inward, toward the investigator his/herself?
VALET: What do you mean by that?
GARCIN: What do I mean? [Eyes the VALET suspiciously.] I thought as much. That's why there's something so beastly, so damn bad-mannered, in the way you stare at me. They're paralyzed.
VALET: What are you talking about?
GARCIN: Your eyelids. We move ours up and down. Blinking, we call it. It's like a small black shutter that clicks down and makes a break. Everything goes black; one's eyes are moistened. You can't imagine how restful, refreshing, it is. Four thousand little rests per hour. Four thousand little respites -- just think! ... No eyelids, no sleep; it follows, doesn't it? I shall never sleep again. But then -- how shall I endure my own company? ... I can't go on doing that without a break. (5-6)
Perhaps this self/subjective investigation of the Subject is not something that one would enjoy or even want, given that the possible outcome(s) will not be to the Subject's liking. Inez remarks to Estelle -- when Estelle speaks of her need for mirrors, otherwise she starts to question her own existence -- that she is "always conscious of [herself] -- in [her] mind. Painfully conscious" (19). However, even though Inez feels this darkness when she looks inward, toward her inner self, Garcin finds this self-awareness not only intriguing, but needed in his "afterlife." He has a chance to leave hell, but he decides to stay because of her.
GARCIN: ... There were days when you peered into yourself, into the secret places of your heart, and what you saw there made you faint with horror. And then, next day, you didn't know what to make of it, you couldn't interpret the horror you had glimpsed the day before. Yes, you know that evil costs. And when you say I'm a coward, you know from experience what that means. (42)Garcin needs this perspective of the Other, especially one who has truly investigated the reality around herself and within herself, for him to feel that he exists. This plays off two unique themes of the overall idea that "Hell is other people": even though the characters torture each other and can find no true freedom unless they are alone, they reveal that they are still in desperate need of another to make them feel like they actually exist. The Subject can only be as such with an Other to look back into her/him.
It is this similar theme that makes Francis Bacon's Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X such an interesting piece in existential media. The Viewer perceives a figure in purple garb, seated upon a golden throne. (While being something of a recreation of Velázquez's portrait, it could also very well be representative of almost any royal subject.) The figure is surrounded by an almost pitch blackness, separated by distinct lines painted in, as though they were supposed to symbolize drapes through which the Viewer peers into a royal chamber, capturing the royal figure in a state of despair and angst. These attributes are made more evident by the open-mouth scream emitting from the royal figure. Perhaps one of the more significant aspects of the piece is the fact that the figure himself seems to be dissipating into the drapes as well, perhaps signifying that the Viewer is only able to gain a limited perspective of this man.
The attributes of angst and despair, representative of the scream emitting from the figure as well as the surrounding blackness, pitting the figure within a lonely solitude, are particularly and more clearly felt when there is no Other whom the Subject can use to identify her/his existence. Despite all the esteem and grandeur of this obviously wealthy and powerful man, he is depicted as being alone, with only his picture of power. This picture seems to have no actual power unless there is an Other who is able to view it. Placed in a room in which he is alone and unable to be viewed for all his pomp and glory, the figure becomes incredibly self-aware, seeing all his materialistic endeavors and attachments in life for what they really are -- only pictures, meaningless without a Viewer. This self-awareness leads the figure to feel a great emptiness inside, void of anything resembling what the figure has formerly deemed "happy" or "grand," in any sense. Plagued by his loneliness in a black void, he screams, as if trying to pierce the void and break through.
Perhaps he is breaking through to the Viewer, showing a painting that all but bleeds existential themes -- a man's anguish and despair when faced with the emptiness surrounding his own existence, thus making the Viewer as the only person that could be represented as the Other. Maybe Bacon was trying to show that figures, even as grand and wealthy as Pope Innocent X, are only seen that way by the Other, whether that be symbolized within the subjects of the ruler, or as the Viewer of a painting, without any form of the Other to be seen by the figure or ruler his/herself, then all the grandeur and wealth slip away into the void. Despite the anxiety experienced by the Viewer when looking at this piece, it is not something that is only confined to viewing paintings where an audience can feel this experience.
In Schoenberg's Variation for Orchestra I, the twelve-tone approach to the score seems, at first, to be filled with ornamentations and dissonances that color over the melody so much that the melody becomes almost indiscernible. This type of perspective may even be held by some of the most musically refined and critical of listeners. But for this piece to truly be understood, in the face of those who would pass it off as only a mathematical equation placed within the scheme of orchestral music, the Listener who focuses intently on the piece and searches for the melody with great stress will find something unique and become aware of a unique identity within this style of music that belongs to no other piece.
The phrasing at the beginning entices the Listener by suggesting a forthcoming simple melody in a welcoming harmony, juxtaposed by the sharp dissonances that, at first, trick the mind into expecting these harmonies, this melody. As the piece moves past the introduction, the melody seems to hop between different sections: the winds, the brass, the strings, even the percussion. It brings about an almost comical tone, but the bassoons and low brass, coupled together by the sharp percussive staccato rhythms, give it an air of dramatic angst and despair. The piece seems lost in its own identity of what it wants to be, yet it simultaneously becomes all these things.
Variation for Orchestra I becomes a perfect example of finding its identity only after it loses its identity. It defines itself as more than a mathematical equation writ to music theory and composition. It does not so much revel in the style of existentialism than it does present themes involved in the same field.
These three pieces all speak of the great and feared themes of existence. All have experienced dread, anguish and despair at least some time in their lives (or will soon). Sometimes this is accompanied by a mid-life crisis, sometimes by the death of a loved one, sometimes out of nowhere. A person may feel that he is at a point in his life in which he needs to reevaluate something or everything. We all exist, thus we all feel the pangs of existence. But just because we are alone does not mean that we are the only ones out there, drifting in the void, contemplating existence. There's something of a comfort in that.
Bacon, Francis. Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. 1953. Artquotes.net. Linkism Art Directory. Web. 20 February 2010.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. No Exit & Three Other Plays. Village International Edition. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1989.
Schoenberg, Arnold. Variation for Orchestra I. 1926.