From Dostoevsky to Sartre, here are five must-read philosophical novels no existentialist can live without.
A Love Affair With Philosophy
When I was sixteen, I bought my first philosophy book.
It was a peculiar stroke of fate that I should choose Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil as my seminal introduction to the world of philosophy. Even now, seven years and a degree in philosophy later, I fail to whole-heartedly understand that book - and yet something on those pages made me fall in love with a literary and philosophical investigation into the workings of human life.
I must confess that my love affair with philosophy, which climaxed with a compulsion to understand the most obscure and incomprehensible German thinkers, has left me with a slight queasiness when confronted with names such as Hegel, Kant, or Heidegger, not to mention a more generalised anxiety when confronted with the physical books themselves.
My collection of existentialism, phenomenology, ancient Greek thought, and Zen Buddhism, now belongs to a past life. Although today the books do little more than gather dust upon my shelves, they are never abandoned, for the ideas contained within them have been instrumental to my life. Philosophy has forged my personality and deeply influenced my perception of human existence.
In an ode to my past self, and in the spirit of sharing my passion for philosophical literature, I present to you my favourites.
Here are my top five favourite books of all time:
5. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ok, I'll admit it - this is a long book. At over 1000 pages, The Brothers Karamavoz is an epic work of Russian literature.
This is a story of three brothers, a murder mystery intertwined with a series of love affairs that encapsulates the physical and spiritual aspects of Russian life. In this multi-dimensional book, Dostoyevsky explores questions of religion, free will, morality, society, and family.
I remember beginning this weighty novel in the Isle of Man after dipping my toes in an introductory text to phenomenology, finishing it weeks later in Italy. Despite the commitment that Dostoyevsky's novel requires, I am confident that every minute of this dark and gripping tale is worth the read.
"People sometimes talk about man's 'bestial' cruelty, but that is being terribly unjust and offensive to the beasts: a beast can never be as cruel as a human being, so artistically, so picturesquely cruel."
Another great book by this author: Notes From Underground
4. Human, All Too Human - Friedrich Nietzsche
As you might have already guessed, I'm a bit of a Nietzsche fan. What speaks volumes to me in his work is the passionate, artistic spirit that springs forth with such eloquence and tenacity (some might call it arrogance) from every page. Nietzsche's biographical details have always fascinated me - I recommend Sue Prideaux's I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche for a fun and interesting account of Nietzsche's life, whilst Walter Kauffman's Nietzsche: Psychologist, Philosopher, Antichrist (a title which inspired my own bio) is a classic in explaining the philosophical themes and ideas contained within Nietzsche's work.
Human, All Too Human isn't the most well-known of Nietzsche's books, but it's certainly one of my favourites. It's subtitle is 'A Book For Free Spirits', a free spirit being someone who thinks differently - or rather, someone who dares to think for themselves in a society where everyone is taught to think the same. Nietzsche's philosophy calls out to all those individuals who feel themselves somehow different from the rest, those lonely few who look for meaning and truth deep within themselves, rather than searching for answers or consolidation from the outside, from the "herd" as Nietzsche calls it.
Human, All Too Human has some beautiful insights into human psychology, morality, religion and art, which is why it ranks as one of my favourite books of all time.
"Transcendence in art. Not without deep sorrow do we admit to ourselves that artists of all times, at their most inspired, have transported to a heavenly transfiguration precisely those ideas that we now know to be false: artists glorify mankind's religious and philosophical errors, and they could not have done so without believing in their absolute truth. Now, if belief in such truth declines at all, if the rainbow colours around the outer edges of human knowledge and imagination fade; then art like The Divine Comedy, Raphael's paintings, Michelangelo's frescoes, Gothic cathedrals, art that presumes not only a cosmic but also a metaphysical meaning in the art object, can never blossom again. There will some day be a moving legend that such an art, such an artistic faith, once existed."
Another great book by this author: Thus Spoke Zarathustra
3. 1984 - George Orwell
I am currently re-reading George Orwell's masterpiece 1984 for some literary inspiration. The novel never fails to shock and disturb me. Perhaps it is because the dystopian world that Orwell depicts is not so unimaginable is why it is so terrifying.
In beautiful, hauntingly descriptive language, Orwell describes a nightmarish political reality in which the ideas of the Party are so deeply infiltrated into society and the psychological make-up of the individual, that the only private space one owns is the few centimetres within one's own skull. History has been re-written, children have been turned into spies against their parents, and God has been replaced by the all-seeing, all-powerful Big Brother. Orwell's depiction of the human mind, traumatised, brain-washed, and forced into unrelenting submission to the State, is a masterpiece, and undoubtedly takes place as one of my favourite books of all time.
"It was always at night—the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces round the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word."
Another great book by this author: Animal Farm
2. The Gay Science - Friedrich Nietzsche
Really... more Nietzsche? "Enough of the man with the moustache."
Ok, I'm sorry - but this book has some of my favourite aphorisms, including The Parable of the Madman in which Nietzsche prophetically announces the end of Christian faith as the death or murder of God.
I think the best way to explain the beauty of The Gay Science is to let it speak for itself. Here are a few hand-picked aphorisms from the book itself:
"'Life as a means to knowledge' - with this principle in one's heart one can live not only boldly but even gaily, and laugh gaily, too."
"Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings - always darker, emptier and simpler."
"the greatest enjoyment is - to live dangerously!"
When I was doing my A-levels, I remember hiding a copy of The Gay Science under my desk to read during our philosophy class. I often arrived early to morning registration, sitting at the back of the classroom to read a few pages of Nietzsche before the day had begun. It was around this time that I drew a portrait of my favourite philosopher to give as a present to my philosophy teacher, without whom I would never have gone on to study philosophy at sixth form, let alone at university.
Favourite quote: (The Parable of the Madman deserves to be quoted in its entirety)
"Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -- Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us -- for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars -- and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"
Another great book by this author: On the Genealogy of Morals
1. Nausea - Jean-Paul Sartre
If you made it past the death of God, well done.
Here we are at my number one favourite book of all time: Sartre's Nausea. This strange existential novel has always had a place in my heart since I first encountered its bizarre phenomenological description of human life in my teens. (It was only later when I learnt about Sartre's obscene drug intake that I understood why it was quite so weird).
I think that what captivates me about Sartre's first-person narrative, which he presents through the eyes of his protagonist Roquentin, is the intense degree of description and philosophical rumination applied to the most ordinary of things - a rock, a pen, a tree... these objects, which often do not even pass the threshold of conscious awareness become the subject of extreme scrutiny by Roquentin who asks why a seat might not rather be a dead donkey, why he ought not to plunge a knife into a stranger's eye, and why he deserves to exist at all.
Something about Roquentin's solitary and strange perception of the world of ordinary objects has always struck me as both odd and alarmingly familiar. I don't know whether it is the mind of a philosopher, the mind of someone with a mental illness, or the mind of a person who has taken psychedelic drugs that this novel describes. Nevertheless, it is a rather delightful and captivating read if only for its wonderfully detailed phenomenological description of human perception.
"'I was just thinking,' I tell him, laughing, 'that here we are, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence, and that there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.'"
Another great book by this author: Existentialism Is A Humanism
(Warning: Please, save yourself the agony, do not attempt Being and Nothingness)
That's the end of the list of my top five favourite books. Please leave a comment and let me know what your top five favourite books are and why. Thanks for reading.