Themes in Literature

Literary Futility


The theme of futility or overriding hopelessness in literature has been driven by philosophical concepts regarding life and how we live it. The later decades of the 19th century saw rapid industrialization, which helped support Karl Marx’s theories of alienation and the consideration of all history as a battle between opposing economic forces—an eternal class struggle between the new industrialists and their workers. If Marx was right, then human history is robbed of any emotional or superlative value and God is unnecessary. Thus, human life becomes valueless and life after death just so much dust and myth. In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809–82) wrote On the Origin of Species, in which humans were shown as descending from primates. The long-held idea that man was simply made in the image of God was challenged by science. Thomas Huxley (1825–95), the grandfather of the novelist Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) was one of the eminent men who took upon himself to refute religion and establish this new Darwinian idea. Marx and Darwin, though perhaps not intentionally in the latter’s case, called the idea of God’s existence into question. This naturally had the effect of extinguishing any hope that people had of better lives after death. This sense of futility and utter hopelessness was expressed in British literature by Matthew Arnold (1822–28) in Dover Beach (1851): The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.

This is further reflected in Thomas Hardy’s pessimistic novels The Return of the Native (1878), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). This line of thinking was continued by the likes of the French author Albert Camus (1913–60), who had written on the monotonous absurdity of daily life in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). The novel is a retelling of the ancient myth of Sisyphus, who has to forever push a stone up a hill. Our lives are like Sisyphus’s: No matter what we do, we are bound to fail. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604) is a well-known study in futility. Faustus loses all hope in both the Renaissance and Christianity. He can only lament when he hears Satan answer about life: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God, And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells In being deprived of everlasting bliss? (3.74–78) Even in the 17th century, Marlowe anticipated the intensity of futility’s pain that the modern era would explore in depth. The irony of the critiques of futility, both literary and philosophical, lies in their ultimately revealing the “charm” of despair and how futility almost always gives way to inner spiritual freedom.

We see these kinds of Romantic meditations on futility in such diverse works as William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1603) and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is a journey by the audience into futility and then a rebirth from despair. Macbeth goes insane when accosted with the pointlessness of action: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. (5.5.19–23) These famous lines are glossed as the essence of futility and how, being aware of the deceptive nature of time, we will surely be wary of actions similar to Macbeth’s. The underlying idea is that there still remain ways to make our lives less than futile, if only we can avoid imitating Macbeth. After all, according to Aristotle, tragedies purge us even of despair. When, by definition, the awareness of futility cannot conceive of anything beyond the limitations of the present moment, this leaves alone any soul whose freedom is worth attaining. Futility in literature is not an isolated concept. Rather, it is located firmly within the repressive process of Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle, or the id.

According to Freud, when our desires are thwarted, we start sinking into despair, which creates within us a sense of uselessness or futility. This is not to be confused with the ideas of existential philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre (1905–80), who saw the world as a stage where every action is meaningless. Existentialism posits that while our actions may be meaningless, they are influenced by inner spiritual struggles. Much later, after the great surge of existentialist writings, we find the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) establishing futility as the end result of his forays into literature and texts. Derrida argued that it is futile to search for ultimate meanings in texts, including patterns in historical thought. Futility, then, has a long ideological history, from the laments of the preacher in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (1:2–3); listlessness to St. Augustine of Hippo’s concept of acedia which had such a hold on the British romantics; to the agnosticism that we find in Friedrich Nietzsche, Émile Durkheim (Suicide, 1897), Freud, Sartre, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; and then through Michel Foucault, Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and their disciples to such present-day classics as the best-selling writers Stephen King (The Stand, 1978) and Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, 1985; The Road, 2006). We find deep despair in the heroic codes of old: The Babylonian Gilgamesh, the Scandinavian Beowulf (Anonymous), Widsith, The Wanderer, and The Ruin seamlessly spill over to the famous “Dance of Death” poems in the Middle Ages. In Europe we find the uselessness of trying to find meaning in life in the works of Franz Kafka (1883–1924; especially The Trial, 1925) and Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936). American literature, too, obsesses about the uselessness of life and its struggles. Famous examples are Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and, to an extent, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Salinger’s teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, even finds it futile to consider people as individuals. He just calls everyone he meets “phonies,” much in the same way as Antoin Roquentin, the main character of Sartre’s Nausea (1938), continually feels nauseous in his utter disgust at the futility of breathing to live on. Futility also figures as a theme in non-Western literature. Whereas the Christian concept of history is forward-looking with clear divides, the Eastern sense of history is circular. In the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, events are considered as repeating themselves endlessly. As such, God is not thought of as a separate entity as in Christianity and Islam. Hinduism sees the world itself as an emanation of the godhead, or Brahma. Thus, all sorrow is momentary and born of ignorance of our final ends and our true natures. We indeed are “amritasya putra” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 2.5) or “sons of the Immortal.” While Buddhism is silent about the presence of God, Jainism denies it.

But in both these systems of thought, what occurs now will repeat itself in some manner later, giving eternal scope for personal and social improvements. Thus, there is present a conscious negation of futility in Eastern ancient literatures, including those written in Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit. As a result, nothing is seen as futile in the end; there are salvation and hope that every single living and nonliving being will ultimately be set free from the bondage of repetitive historical processes or Karma. This is why Sanskrit poetics eschew tragic endings, and tragedy as a genre is nonexistent in ancient India. Abhijñanashakuntala’s tragic heroine Shakuntala is saved from ultimate despair right at the last moment by the fourth- or fifth-century playwright Kalidasa. This is the norm in ancient Indian literature.

While the West has a rich tradition of meditating on futility, the East has struggled to show futility as a paralyzing emotion to be discarded by the individual at all costs. The Buddha sees futility as a disease to be disposed of. We know of an anecdotal story where the Buddha exhorts one not to analyze life in a morbid manner but rather to find out ways to come out of the resultant inertia brought about by depression. The Buddha draws an analogy between an arrow-struck man and the need to heal him rather than telling him of the arrow’s origins. This is the hallmark of Eastern ancient literatures. There is no scope for Dante Alighieri’s “All hope abandon, ye who enter here” (The Divine Comedy). Futility is thus seen as a luxury we can ill afford.

See also Byron, George Gordon Byron, Lord: Don Juan; Camus, Albert: Stranger, The; Eliot, T. S.: Wasteland, The; Greene, Graham: Heart of the Matter, The; Hemingway, Ernest: Sun Also Rises, The; Vonnegut, Kurt: Slaughterhouse-Five; Williams, Tennessee: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Yeats, William Butler: poems.

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