Human race is addicted to illusions. I guess, at a very early stage of the evolution of human society, it became clear to man that what they termed as reality was too painful to accept as it was. Therefore, man created a pseudo ‘reality’ in the name of god, eternity, afterlife, heaven, hell and what not – this was man’s survival instincts at its creative best. When society needed order, man created god as an eternal punisher; when time became his existential limit, eternity of the soul was discovered. And probably boredom combined the two and created mythologies.
Despite all the attempts, none of this could prevent glimpses of reality in human society. Even the blind-by-choice could catch these glimpses, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually it became clear that belief in Krishna or Jesus could be desirable but disbelief in Hitler and the two world wars, however desirable, was difficult to attain. Illusions are impermanent shield and there remains no choice but to deal with reality.
The search for ‘truth’, a poetic synonym of reality, has apparently been on since the Greek ages. However, the most relevant of such inquiries have only taken place in the last couple of centuries. It started when man finally decided to question his abilities and acknowledge his limitations. The first undeniable truth that came to be known by this process was that even if there is an absolute truth (or reality), man can never know it. Man is only capable of knowing what is within the limits of his five senses. Beyond that, all knowledge at best are calculated guesses. It took over three centuries and an Einstein to figure out that Newton was wrong. It was only after his theory of relativity that the idea that time need not always be a constant was brought from the realm of science fiction to a scientific theory. As absurd as it may sound, there is a very thin line of distinction between fact and fiction – the line of human capacity to see.
Therefore, in order to ensure that we live our lives true to our reality, it is necessary first to acknowledge that our reality itself is limited. Man must accept man as man – with all his failings, with all his limitations. Any attempt to surpass the limitations of the reality knowable to us is an attempt to deny the limitations of human existence. A warning for the romantics – do not misread deny as defy. Living in denial is shameful, living in defiance of reality is quixotically impossible.
It is this limited and undeniable reality of human life that Sartre calls ‘human condition’. Like all existentialists, Sartre paints a dismal picture of human condition. But then, is not most reality dismal? Which is more real – the happy picture of Jesus turning water to wine or Hitler turning Jews to ashes, methodically?
Franz Kafka wrote that man lives like man but dies like a dog. Sartre said that man is a useless passion. Camus said that man is condemned to a Sisyphean pointless labour. Are you shouting, “Stop it! Do you have a point?” Well, this precisely is my point. Time and again the reality of man’s futility hits him in the face. All the illusions that he has comfortably wrapped himself in, can not protect but only suffocate him in the face of reality. His situation is like someone who has sewn himself in a permanent warm overcoat in winter completely negating the fact that summer inevitably shall follow. And once summer arrives – then what? Two choices – suffocate in the coat until death or tear it open.
One may ask why paint such a dismal picture of human limitations and tragedies? Isn’t it life negating? If calling apple an apple is negating apple, then it is. Otherwise, it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality that is. And why is it necessary? Because a man living in denial of his disease always fails to take medication. A gory picture of human condition is precisely what the doctor prescribed for the human race – a race wrapped in illusions. How does this prescription help? By eliminating unfounded fears, liberating man to uninhibited and innumerable choices that had been kept away from him in the fake promise of the possibility of attaining heroic ends.
If we acknowledge human condition as it is, with all the disturbing details, what then? It is only on the acknowledgement and consciousness of the true human condition that we can truly venture into attainment of any value. When Camus talks of being aware of the absurd, in simple terms, he asks man to accept all the givens and not struggle into despair trying to change it. It is only when we identify the given can we concentrate our efforts on constructing the rest of our ‘conditions’ by choice. Unfortunately, most of our efforts are wasted in defying the given. A very crude example could be the time, energy, and money spent in the name of religion and prediction of the future (astrology, numerology, etc.) when every man knows within, the futility of it.
It has been said repeatedly and with an irritating conviction that desire is the root of all human miseries. I beg to differ. Desire is a given human condition and any theory that labels it as evil labels our very being as evil. And because it is not possible to change this given, it leads to false frustrations and miseries. Result – in the attempt of killing all desires, we now have added frustrations and miseries of failure alongwith the desires which, obviously, cannot be eliminated.
To see one’s life beyond the futility of daily chores – beyond aspirations, beyond achievements, beyond ‘success’ – that should be the purpose of any human inquiry. For, what are success, achievement, and aspiration beyond life? We trouble ourselves to no end in an attempt to define us, to find a purpose. We fail to see the obvious – that our existence comes predefined; the definition being ‘life’. However, our purpose on the other hand is not pre-destined. We need to realize that our purpose exists not in a pre-defined fate but only retrospectively authored by us by our choices, our actions. For, as Camus says, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Consciousness and rejection of the comfort of illusions are the only tools one needs to acquire the ability to scorn fate. The choice is simple and clear – either we deal with our reality or die within the life of illusions. As Albert Camus says:
“If it (human mind) must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid – polar light, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding.”
This article is based on my personal understanding of what is commonly known as existentialism. I owe the development of these thoughts to the ideas I have read amongst the works of Albert Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and others. Without justification to the theory, I can best explain existentialism as a philosophy which asserts that man exists first, without any meaning. He dies without any purpose. The realm of man is only that small part between his being
Man is free to fill that void entirely at his discretion with complete freedom; whether he recognizes that freedom or not. Existentialism rejects all moral foundations and philosophies built on presumptions of tradition or after-life.
 Jean Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher, most notably known as the chief exponent of the philosophy of existentialism. His epic work, where he expounds his philosophy in great detail is Being and Nothingness. One of his most popular work of fiction is Nausea
 However, it may be noted that Sartre’s philosophy itself is not gloomy. Like Camus and many other ‘existentialists’, Sartre believes that man is the author of himself. In his work Nausea he shoes that glimpse of possible human victory at the conclusion, despite the entire book being set in a tone of despair and anguish.
 ‘Absurd’ is central to Camus’s philosophy. What Camus calls absurd is the existence of two irreconcilable eternal truths – the randomness and unreasonable world on one hand and the insatiable desire for order, logic, and happiness in man on the other hand. Camus discusses this in his work The Myth of Sisyphus and shows how it is essential for man to maintain the absurd and not defy it.