The Existential Argument
Pierre du Coureur

"Oh, no you don't," says Camus. Although the premise of which you were speaking before this story began is a straw man that certainly does deserve to be knocked down, it is not up to me to do the knocking."

"Oh, but you have already knocked the poor thing flat on its back," says Dostoyevsky. "By presenting your readers with a character that faces the specter of impending death with a feeling that he has accomplished something, you are denying the absurdity that is inherent in all human action. There is no accomplishment for us humans. There is no hope. There is only existing."

"I do not hope," protests Camus. "I have never hoped once in my life." (To turn the tables on his old friend, I have him shake an accusing finger at Dostoyevsky.) "But what about you? You are the one trying to trick your readers into believing life has meaning. By making Raskolnikov kill Alyona Ivanovna 'for the greater good.' you are suggesting that there actuallyis such a thing as 'a greater good." You must see the fallacy in that position. The reality is that life has absolutely no meaning. There is no good or evil. To think otherwise is to deny the true condition of the 'human condition,' which is, of course, hopeless and meaningless."

(I now have Dostoyevsky open his mouth quite wide and lift his eyebrows in a way that is intended to show his friend how shocked he is that anyone could even think to ascribe hopefulness to him, a writer who is widely recognized as a dismal existentialist nihilist. I go even further and give him a few lines of dialogue to show his dismay.) "How could you think such a thing? It is absolutely not true!" (Did you get that his response was intended to be emphatic? Amazing what a simple exclamation mark can do!) To make sure Camus doesn't get a word in edgewise, Dostoyevsky quickly goes on: "I absolutely deny that I have hope. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any group of philosophers that believed in hope. My famous story to which you refer did not contain a single shred of hope. Think about it. After the young man leaves the home of the pawnbroker, he chides himself for having evil thoughts toward the greedy old woman. But despite the values he has been taught by his society and his religion, it must be obvious to any reader that he is not going to get rid of those evil thoughts through the intervention of so simple a plot device as a glass of beer. No, although he does continue to think about it for a long time—using up a hell of a lot of pages—the reader knows which choice he is going to make. He is not a slave to the arbitrary morality imposed by his society. He will do the worst possible thing, for himself and his society, just as we all will.

(Now I have Camus shake his head to show that he disagrees, and also to let you know it is his turn to speak.) "I don't buy it. The way you've written it, I think readers will be looking for a happy ending. All flowers and rainbows by the end of the story. In that initial glass-of-beer scene, your protagonist may be dour and pessimistic, but you drop in little hints that he may have better days ahead."

(I have Dostoyevsky immediately do some kind of tsk tsk sound to indicate how deluded Camus is. It's hard to describe exactly how he does the tsk tsk sound, but it's sort of done by putting the tongue up against the front teeth and sucking in. Try it.) "Nope, you've got it all wrong, Cammy old boy. Think about this: I had him tormented by a burning thirst. Ask yourself, where did that burning thirst come from? I created it. I thought it up. Right out of my own head. And did not that thirst that I created drive him into a tavern? Think about the implication of that. He had never frequented such a place before, and despite the mores of his society, he goes ahead and does it. And don't think for a minute that he just up and decided on his own to go into that tavern; it was due to the overpowering thirst that I thought up."

"Ah ha!" says, Camus (maybe with a clap of his hands; I haven't decided yet whether to make him clap or not, but you can imagine the sound of it if you want to). "That's my point. In your story, the guy did not make a real choice about whether to engage in evil or not. In actuality, you were controlling him."

(Here, I make Dostoyevsky look confused—just as you probably are—but then I have him recover.) "No, wait. We're in a story, right? So we're in diegetic time. The time-space continuum?"

"The time-space continuum? Is that some newfangled thing? You're forgetting I died a long time ago. Our author shouldn't be bringing things like that into this story because I'm not supposed to know about such things. Hey, wait a minute, Dostie old buddy. Didn't you die even longer ago than I did?"

"Maybe I did die a long time ago, but I've kept up with things. I even know about brand new stuff like . . . uh, quantum mechanics."

Camus looks confused (and I didn't do it). "Quantum what?"

"Quantum mechanics. Quarks and . . . other stuff."

"What the hell are quarks?"

"Well, they're . . . uh, these little tiny things that sort of . . . zip around."

(At this point, I have to step back into the story to get these two old guys back on track. This is supposed to be a story about existentialism).

"Never mind about quarks," says Dostoyevsky. "What I meant was that even though it is true that I am in control of my character, within the world of the story, he can make choices. He can decide to be a good person or an evil person. It's up to him."

"Okay, I get that. But does he have to take so long to make up his mind? Some of your scenes go on so long the reader is likely to forget what the story is all about."

"Long? You call my scenes long? What about that scene in your story at the mother's funeral? All that twiddling of mustaches and hornets buzzing around and such. Now that was a long scene. I thought I was going to get reader's cramp."

(It suddenly occurred to me that you might be having trouble keeping track of which one of my two characters is speaking. How about if I have them do something? When a character is about to speak, I'll have him raise his hand or something. Yeah, that'll work. So now I'll have Camus raise his hand to wave off Dostoyevsky's opinion, and then I'll start him talking.) "Hey, that scene was at an important junction in my plot. Not only did the symbolism of his mother's death free him to act in any way he wanted to, I also had to make sure other people took note of his lack of grief at the funeral. For the later scene in front of the judge? Remember? To show the arbitrariness of the judicial system? Therefore, the scene had to be a little long."

"Why are you holding your hand up in the air like that?"

"Oh. Uh, I don't know. (Oops. I'd better have him drop his hand.)

(Now I'll have Dostoyevsky raise his hand.) Hey, who do you think you're lecturing about creating important plot points? (This time, I remember to have the character drop his hand soon after he starts speaking.) I wrote the book on creating important plot points. My main plot runs like a silver thread throughout the fabric of the entire story: kill the pawnbroker or don't kill the pawnbroker, get caught or get away with murder. Now those are dramatic plots, eh? Unlike your book, my book is a real page turner. That's what all the reviews at Amazon say. Five stars. Well, most all of them anyhow. A few reviewers just didn't get it."

"You call those plots? Why in my story—"

(Authorial politeness in deference to their fame can only go so far. Once again, I have to remind my characters to get back to my story about existentialism.)

"Okay, okay," says Dostoyevsky, now getting a bit perturbed at my constant interruptions. "I was just getting to it. At any rate, it must be obvious to readers that my protagonist is not going to get rid of his evil thoughts through the intervention of so simple a plot device as a glass of beer or the distraction of a pretty girl. I was just setting up the existence over essence moment in the story. He will make his own decision. He has free will."

"You call that free will?" says Camus. "Don't tell me about free will. Hell, when I was young, I joined the Communist Party and married a morphine addict, all in the same year."

I have no idea where he is going with that interjection, so I step in and ask him, "What does that have to do with this story?"

He shrugs and says, "Well, maybe nothing, but I just wanted your readers to know about it."

I say, "Well, now they know. Can we get back to my story now?"

"Be my guest." (Geez, talk about free will. It's getting harder and harder to control fictional characters these days.)

"My turn," says Dostoyevsky, calmer now (believe me, he is calm, but because this is a deep intellectual story, I'm not going to waste time showing his calm behavior). "As I was saying," he says, "I had to have all those subplots in order to convey the complexity that life presents us with. Long scenes are sometimes necessary to convey the rich fabric of the Russian environment. That's what the book critic from the New York Times said, and he is never wrong. "

"So you intentionally created those overly long scenes. Like when you wasted so many pages having some filthy drunk in a tavern go on and on about essentially nothing at all."

"As I said, I needed to show the rich fabric of the Russian environment. The book critic from the New York Times, remember? Never wrong."

I just assumed you were being paid by the word," says Camus with a snicker (I give him this snicker even though, I must admit, snickering is not the usual mode of expression of a profound philosopher, but as you may or may not know, Camus could be quite the joker—did you hear about the time he put a whoopee cushion on Sartre's chair at the Nobel Prize ceremony?).

(At this point, I will give Dostoyevsky a mock growl and an insulted look, which is hard to describe, but it's sort of like . . . well, I can't quite figure out how to portray it, so you'll have imagine it for yourself). "Do not insult my integrity," he says once he has finished growling. "While I may have been being paid by the word, my scenes all have clear literary purposes. For example, when Raskolnikov goes to meet—"

"Speaking of being paid by the word," interrupts Camus, "I'm not getting to say much in this story. Isn't it about time I got to defend my work?"

"Defend away," says Dostoyevsky with a shrug. (A character shrug is always a good way to keep the reader in the scene; couldn't you just see it?)

Camus responds aggressively. (Take my word for it, his behavior was aggressive in some subtle way. Aggressive nonverbal behavior is hard to show in writing. Now give me the latitude of a movie and a good actor, and I could dolly in for a close-up to show the aggressive rigidity in his facial muscles): "No," says Camus loudly to get my attention back on him. "The rule of this story is that first you have to attack some specific element of my novel that you think is not consistent with my existential philosophy."

"Are you going to play both parts in this story?" protests Dostoyevsky (I hope you don't mind my overusing a verb like "protests" instead of the usual dialogue tag "said." I think it characterizes in a way that the overused word "said" doesn't. Sorry for all the interruptions. I'll be quiet now.)

Camus holds up both hands. "Hey, I'm leaving the particulars of the attack up to you, aren't I? You have free will, don't you?" (This is meant to be taken sarcastically, like the old elbow to the ribs—did you take it thus? Sorry to interrupt again. I know I said I would be quiet, but sometimes readers don't "get" sarcasm in fiction.)

"With constraints," says Dostoyevsky, showing that he too is a master of the sarcastic rejoinder.

"Just do it," says Camus, finally remembering to drop his hands. "You're bogging down this story with your pointless arguing. You're turning it into an anachronistic Monty Python sketch."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"All right, all right," said Dostoyevsky, absent-mindedly letting his dialogue tag slip into past tense. "I'll make up a story to illustrate." (At this point in my story, I lose control of him and he slips right into the narrative role.) He begins to tell a story about a man caught peeping at a naked girl through a keyhole. The neighbors call the police, but even when he is caught red-handed there on his knees staring through the keyhole, the man refuses to admit any guilt. He says the girl was unaware that she was being watched; therefore, no harm was done. He points out that when there is no interaction between the watcher and the watched, it is only society's norms that have been violated. He goes on to suggest that within a society, norms are in constant flux, and that next year, or the year after, or in a thousand years, a despotic government will take over the government and peeping through keyholes will undoubtedly be encouraged, even rewarded.

The police are not convinced. They haul the man off to jail.

When the man comes to trial, the judge is outraged by the man's demeanor and throws the book at him.

The man ducks the flying book and complains that the judge's behavior is irrational and absurd. He says the court's only role is to determine whether or not a law was broken; therefore, the demeanor of the accused in court is irrelevant.

The judge, growing ever more angry, adds more time to the man's sentence.

The man calmly points out the absurdity of the judge's behavior. He says the judge is representative of the type of poor leadership in our society, leaders who continue to insist that essence takes precedence over existence. He points an accusing finger at the judge and says you are all trying to pretend there is a natural order to things, and that that order should dictate the behavior of the individual. The man calmly goes on to say that such a concept is clearly faulty; while an individual's behavior may be statistically predictable—if measured within the parameters of a specific society—a single exception proves the invalidity of the concept.

The judge is now shaking with anger. It has finally dawned on him that this man is a threat to the entire order of the society. With a forceful pound of his gavel on what I would describe (if it was me telling this story instead of Dostoyevsky) as the fine wood of his high bench, the judge sentences the man to death.

As the accused is led away, he finally feels calm and happy. His execution will reveal to everybody, once and for all, the absurdities that underlie the society's norms. It will also reveal the outrageous absurdity of a legal system that is founded more on protecting those norms than in protecting the public order.

Camus jumps to his feet and shakes his fist at Dostoyevsky. "You stole that idea from me, you plagiarist."

Dostoyevsky shrugs off the criticism, saying, "Hey, I'm only a character in a story. I speak the lines that were given to me. If a plagiarism was committed, it is the author, Monsieur du Coureur, that is guilty, not me."

(I'm sorry, but at this point, I am forced to terminate this story. I will not, under any circumstances, have my good name dragged through the mud by my own fictional characters.)

Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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