Gustave Dore - The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia
Illustration by Gustave Doré

Sometimes we feel that our efforts are futile; that we are no more than specks of dust in a boundless, indifferent universe; that our aspirations are pointless in the face of grave injustices, natural calamities, undeserved suffering, and, ultimately, death.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto 1.

The second unit, Threats to Meaning: Humanity’s Discontents focuses on the crises of meaning, their causes and consequences. Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich captures the protagonist’s inner turmoil, precipitated by terminal illness. In Ward No. 6 by Anton Chekhov, a disillusioned doctor meets an unusually sharp interlocutor, his psychiatric patient, who challenges the doctor’s philosophy of resignation. Will the doctor’s self-proclaimed stoicism survive the terror of ward No.6?

The characters’ struggles, failures, and triumphs remind us of our own vulnerability and mortality, our tendency to dismiss the suffering of others and in general, our attempts to ignore the tragic side of life. Stories and essays by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre confront us further with the ideas of existential anxiety (angst), the contingency of existence, and the absurd. Perhaps the darkest prophesy comes from Arthur Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism: “the longer you live, the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.”

Is that so? We look for plausible responses in the Recovery of Meaning: Crises and Hopes. Tolstoy’s Confession, an autobiographical account of the artist’s life-long struggle with meaninglessness, serves as a bridge between the two units. 

Selected Readings

Melencolia_I Durer

  • Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brian. New York: Vintage, 1991. 
  • Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage, 1988.
  • Chekhov, Anton. Ward No.6. In Stories. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. 
  • Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” In The Waste Land and Other Poems. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 1962.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. In No Exit and Three Other Plays. Trans. S. Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1989.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Wall. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. In The Wall and Other Stories. 3rd ed. New Directions, 1969. 
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On the sufferings of the world” and “On the vanity of existence.” In Studies in Pessimism, On Human Nature, And Religion: A Dialogue. Trans. T. Bailey Saunders. Stilwell, KS: Publishing, 2008. 
  • Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 2010.
  • Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession. In A Confession and Other Religious Writings. Trans. Jane Kentish. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988.