Atheist Fiction

What does literature mean for the atheist who reads novels, plays, poetry and essays?  For many of us literature is the only transcendent value because it is open-ended. The great literature to which we return again and again provides a deep and exhaustive observation of the human experience.  Each author, even when plumbing the depths of the human puzzle, the human problem, will approach it in an equally profound and different manner.  Each author will present a different interpretation.  The various strategies that writers have employed to approach the problem of god’s non-existence can be observed in the volumes chosen for the Book List.  Each volume will deal with the difficulty of living without a “transcendent other,” and consequently without a given dispensation.

Humans must create their own meaning in an indifferent universe, and many secular readers believe that literature helps them with that task.  The great writers have seen the eternal dilemmas and challenges of life so incontrovertibly and written of them with such clarity and passion, that even far-reaching changes in human customs and practices through the centuries cannot obscure their meaning for people.

Serious literature is not for entertainment, although it might entertain us, nor is it to convince us of some religious or political creed, although it might serve to change our minds about something we believe.  Serious literature is open, searching, diverse, and free from the tenets and bondage of religion, politics, false societal values, and received opinion.  Literature not only grants readers the ability to traverse nations and continents, but the entire universe.  It can delve deeply into the human psyche, as well, permitting its readers to penetrate the minds and motives of other people.

Serious literature continually tests itself, its philosophy and its characters.  Are belief or unbelief, love, or self sacrifice, the answers to the difficulty of our human condition?  If the serious artist thinks she has found any of the answers to the problem of life, she will test that solution to the extreme.  She will have the protagonist fail to employ the answers correctly, or ignore them, and decide to take an opposite path. She will present characters who challenge her conclusions.  She will create ambiguity, so that the reader will be hard pressed to discover what a correct course of conduct might entail.  Serious literature is not content with shallow clichés, easy answers, and restrictive boundaries.

Some contemporary atheist authors, such as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, are very interested in the creation of a new metanarrative for contemporary times.  No writer has attempted it as yet.  Both writers have a sense that evolution, the true story of the human race, needs a secular poetry to express its grandeur, beauty and terror.  They believe we need a new Milton, who will weave the facts of evolution into a new account that will be a gripping epic.  Such authors think that the scientific description of evolution, although written elegantly, is not sufficient for people, that humans respond to storytelling’s magic more than to scientific precision.  They maintain that a spellbinding story about evolution can achieve a secular transcendence.

The artists in the book list below are atheists or agnostics who have adopted a variety of strategies with which to express their doubt.  Each of the volumes below is written in a different style and has a different way of exploring the non-truth and ineffectuality of religion and the belief in god. Some of the approaches are subtle, such as Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Some are blunt and emphatic, such as Nietzsche’s ringing cry that “God is dead.” Most often, irreligious writers will mingle several strands of criticism in their narrative.  They will frequently combine their critique of religion with negative depictions of bureaucracy, politics, and social values.  Very often the non- believing author will create an entire narrative world with little, if any, mention of god.  Marcel Proust’s great work, In Search of Lost Time (1913,has recreated the secular world of Belle Epoque France in all 6 volumes; his magnum opus is frequently described as a “godless world.” Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22 (1961,) does not get around to the question of god and belief until about page 189.  He creates a satiric dialogue between his anti-hero and an officer’s wife at a party who argue about the nature of the god neither one believes in.  The Preface will explore the various techniques the secular writers have adopted in the Book List below.

Many atheist readers believe literature written by great irreligious authors “shows an extraordinary ability to elucidate the numinous without conceding anything to the supernatural.” (Christopher Hitchens. God is not Great (2007, 286.) Hitchens was speaking specifically about Ian McEwan, whose work he admires, but he might just as well have said the same about any timeless atheist writer. The Preface closes with an admirable quote from Salman Rushdie, an atheist who depicts “the quarrel over God” as ongoing and never-ending.  Readers will remember that since the publication of his Satanic Verses in 1988, Rushdie has been in peril of his life because of a fatwa issued by the Islamic Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini the following year.  His words give the lie to the dogmatic and rigid thinking demanded by religion.  One can breathe the air of freedom and find space to think one’s own thoughts when reading his tribute to literature. Rushdie believes fiction is “less the soapbox for dogma or polemic than a utopian place of disputation where everything could be said to everyone by anyone on any subject, including the non-existence of God and the abolition of Kings.” (Salman Rushdie. The Enchantress of Florence. 200835-36.)

Recommended Books

The books list below have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers.

The discussions of the volumes below contain spoilers.

Four of the critiques of authors’ works below, Camus, De Beauvoir, Nietzsche and Sartre, are excerpts from the Atheist Philosophies – Existentialism Section on this site. ( For a more extended discussion of existentialism and the four writers listed, see Existentialism.)  All four authors were atheists, who believed that people are responsible for creating their own meaning in the face of an empty universe devoid of god.  They believed that joy would come with the realization that the individual has taken the necessary steps to face life with courage and exultation.  Man stands alone, but each decision he makes is the first step on a new path.  He stands with head upright, his feet solidly on the earth.  He is not a supplicant but has emerged as an authentic and creative being.

Samuel Beckett. (1952-1953) Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts.  New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Samuel Beckett’s play is often interpreted in a variety of ways.  It has been considered psychological, political, existential or religious.  A complex work of art resists being confined to one interpretation.  The deeper, more universal the work, the more meanings will be found within it.  For the purposes of this list, since Godot is replete with religious symbolism, imagery and resonance, a religious interpretation will be found to be valid. Beckett’s play was the first Theatre of the Absurd work to be successful when it was performed in 1953.  The term, Theatre of the Absurd, was first used by the critic Martin Esslin in 1960.  Some critics maintain that the idea for the name came from Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (See Camus below,) which discusses the meaningless of life and the rebellion that is the result. French theatre critics were amazed by how Beckett achieved the hypothetically impossible.  He wrote a play with a first act where nothing happens, and then a second act where nothing happens, and the audience was riveted to their seats when they saw it.

Two tramps that have seen better days, named Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting by a tree on a road.  They have been waiting for the mysterious Godot for a long time.  The play consists of two days in their bored and weary lives.  They expect Godot to explain the point of their lives, to give some meaning to existence.  An overbearing man called Pozzo comes in with his slave, Lucky.  Lucky is bullied by Pozzo who plans to sell him.  Lucky has lost his ability to amuse- he no longer performs complex dances.  They leave.  When they come in during the second act, Pozzo is blind and Lucky now leads him.  Pozzo suddenly speaks with occasional bursts of insight rather than the pompous clichés he used the day before.  A boy comes in at the beginning of both acts to inform Vladimir and Estragon that Godot wasn’t able to come “today,” but will definitely arrive the following day.  When Lucky speaks it is a garbled, nonsensical speech scattered with references to god.  Many critics believe such drivel mimes the nonsensical Christian rhetoric. 

The entire play is made up of dreamscape, meaningless chatter, and surrealism that audiences understand is linked to the quest for answers and the loss of meaning in the modern world.  Vladimir and Estragon contemplate suicide but decide against it and go back to waiting for God(ot.) In the first act, Estragon asks Vladimir what he will ask of God(ot.)

Vladimir: “Oh… nothing very definite.”

Estragon: “A kind of prayer.”

Vladimir: “Precisely.”

Estragon. “A vague supplication.”

Vladimir: “Exactly.”

The audience knows that Estragon and Vladimir will go on waiting indefinitely, that god is absent from the world, is nonexistent- to wait for him to invest life with meaning is, indeed, as the title states, tragicomic.

Camus, Albert. (1942) The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien.New York: Vintage, 1991.

(1946) The Stranger. Trans. Patrick McCarthy. New York; London: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

(1947) The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 2004.

When Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, his concept of the existential hero began to emerge.  Camus believed that revolt is an essential feature of mankind. Sisyphus was a rebel against the ancient Greek gods, who punished him by condemning him to everlasting labor.  He was sentenced to pushing a heavy rock up a mountain, and when he reaches the top with it, it rolls back down again.  He must begin anew each time.  Sisyphus conquers his punishment and the decree of the gods by embracing his labor.  His task is hopeless, but he is determined to continue it, accepting the terms of his rebellion.  By this acceptance, he rises above his punishment.  Camus pictures Sisyphus with a smile on his face because he is still in revolt.  He is conscious of his fate and his consciousness makes him happy.  This happiness turns the punishment into a supreme act of self-realization. 

Camus’ lucid, poetic style and brilliant philosophic position inform The Myth of Sisyphus. He has portrayed the tenets of existentialism in the story of Sisyphus and provided his readers with an exemplar of how to live life fully, deeply and courageously.  Highly recommended

The Stranger was written by Camus in the same year he wrote Sisyphus, 1942.   It is a novel concerning an affectless Frenchman in Algiers who murders an Arab on a beach.  The Arab has pulled out a knife and the Frenchman fires his gun at the man over and over.  He is condemned to death because the prosecutor focuses on the man’s indifference at his mother’s funeral.  In jail, he rejects the comfort and solution of religion.  After an outburst of rejection toward the prison chaplain, the narrator finds a sense of peace and some sense of the meaning of life before going to his death.  Camus’ novel is close to nihilism, but Camus never succumbed to the extreme philosophical principal of negation.

Camus’ later works, such as The Plague (1948) show that he was moving toward a resolution in which some people work together to rise above their fate.  Camus’ books continue to be read by young people with a great deal of interest.  He was a public intellectual and was known to possess moral authority. While he later moved on from existentialism, he was a highly important and visible member of the philosophy.  He came to believe that humans, by working together, can create new values.

De Beauvoir, Simone. (1945.) The Blood of Others. Trans. Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988.

De Beauvoir wrote several fine novels, but Blood is the novel that most exemplifies existentialist philosophy. A young woman decides to help the Resistance in France during World War II after leading an aimless existence.  Her lover must deal with the responsibility of sending people on missions for the Resistance that he knows might lead to their deaths.  He contemplates his responsibility for a friend’s death and for the young woman’s death, but concludes that he must bear this burden and freely go on to help the Resistance.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Vendler, Helen.  Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge, Mass; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.

Vendler’s edition of Emily Dickinson has been chosen for its merits.  Vendler is one of the most eminent poetry critics of this age, and one of the most attentive readers of poetry, as well.  She has read Dickinson carefully over the years and makes the convincing case that the “Belle of Amherst,” was ill-served by her family and editor/friend when the first edition of her poems was published in 1890.  They apparently attempted to “pretty” the poems up, which undermined Dickinson’s intent.  The first unaltered edition of her poetry was edited by the scholar, T.H. Johnson, in 1955.  According to Vendler, the poet was a non believer.  Emily Dickinson was a recluse who never went to church and who refused to accept Jesus as her “savior” in the only year of college which she attended.  In a letter she speaks of her family praying in the morning to an “eclipse” that they called Father.

There are 150 poems in this edition, brilliantly elucidated by Helen Vendler.  Dickinson is one of our finest American poets and these poems are her best.  Many readers prefer her to Whitman.  She wrote short, concise poems with odd punctuation, such as dashes where readers might expect a comma.  Her small poems are concentrated with passion, skepticism and analytical strength.  Vendler states: “All of Dickinson’s poems that resort to Christian imagery and language rework Christianity in some way- intellectually, blasphemously, or comically.” (16)

In the poem, “In the Name of the Bee,” Dickinson plays with the language of the Trinity, her poetic voice mimicking a pastor.  It is a parody of the rite of baptism.  Vendler points out that Dickinson is using the specific words with a comedic purpose.  The poem reads:

“In the name of the Bee-

And of the Butterfly-

And of the Breeze- Amen!”

Dickinson is using the word Bee to symbolize god, or Being; the Butterfly stands for Jesus, or Psyche, the resurrected soul, and the Breeze of course is the holy spirit.  Vendler points out that Dickinson is celebrating her own secular Sabbath in this poem, paying homage to Nature rather than god.  Dickinson elsewhere writes on the doubtful possibility of being resurrected, but when she considers what she would desire from resurrection it is to be alone with her lover. (This is a blasphemy in Christian doctrine.)  She writes many poems about the finality of death, and she considers a sweep of beliefs that encompass a movement from prayer to despair. (10) Her poetry ranges from her yard to the whole world, takes in myth, geography, the “temporal scales of years,” space, time, years and seasons.  She is as comfortable and profound with the cosmic as with the nature to be found close at hand.  She loved nature, but her poetry demonstrates a belief in the emptiness and indifference of the universe.

Dickinson is a very difficult poet, but a rewarding writer who should be read with commentary.  Vendler is a close reader of Dickinson, and her volume demonstrates the best understanding of Dickinson to be published so far.  Highly Recommended.

Heller, Joseph. (1961) Catch-22. 50th Anniversary Ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Heller’s novel is a dark, hilarious satire about an American combat unit in Pianosa, Italy during the end of World War II, around 1944 and beyond.  The book became a cult favorite despite some poor reviews and is now considered an American classic.  The novel’s anti-hero, Yossarian, finds that the army bureaucracy (which is a microcosm of society,) has invented a Catch-22.  This phrase means that whatever choice one makes is not going to succeed.  Yossarian wants to pretend he’s insane so he can stop going on dangerous bombing missions.  But if a man wants to stop going on bombing missions that means he is perfectly sane, so he cannot be relieved of his duties.  Since Catch-22 does not officially exist, no one can rescind it, change it or overthrow it.  Critics have pointed out how much Catch-22 resembles god and religion.  God does not exist, either, but nobody can get rid of the concept. 

The chaplain is totally ineffectual, either in helping the men psychologically, or in getting them relieved from bombing duty.  Milo, the mess officer, makes illegal deals with everyone, including the enemy; he is forgiven by the military when they see how much money has been amassed.  The fact that he is responsible for a great deal of the bloodshed in the unit is overlooked. 

Yossarian is given a final Catch-22.  If he will praise the military and its officers they will send him home as a hero.  If he doesn’t agree, he will be court martialed and shot. He will be in bad faith if he leaves as a hero, lying about the military, and abandoning the other airmen to death; if he doesn’t agree to the terms, he will be dead.  When he learns that a fellow airman, Orr, has escaped by rowing to Sweden, Yossarian decides to do the same. 

God is absent from the novel except in the person of the ineffectual chaplain.  On about page 189, Yossarian and an officer’s wife argue about the traits of the god they don’t believe in. It is a hilarious, satiric exchange, pointing to the fact that there are emotional remnants of god belief in both characters. Their conversation is exemplary of the entire tone of the novel.  The dialogue is a mere two pages in length, but it is very significant.  The officer’s wife disbelieves in a just god, a good god.  Yossarian disbelieves in a wicked god, who is responsible for tooth decay and making old people lose control of their bowels.  Critics have been quick to point out how much god is like Catch-22. As with Catch-22, god could be a myth, invented, and then enforced by people because they believe in it.  The argument between Yossarian and the officer’s wife suggests that this is likely the case about god.  No one believes in god or in Catch-22, but all the same, the rules are enforced.  This satirical dialogue is very amusing, but also sharply thought provoking.  Heller’s plot device is excellent; it creates doubt by invoking laughter.  The entire construction of Catch-22 follows this ploy.  Readers are disoriented by the shifting time frame, the surreal violence, and the black comedy; some will be inspired to criticize received opinion.

Hemingway, Ernest. (1929) A Farewell to Arms. New York, Scribner, 1995.

Frederic Henry, an American who is an ambulance driver in the Italian Army in World War I, is an exemplary Hemingway hero.  Hemingway was an atheist and on page 8 of Farewell to Arms, an Italian officer states: “All thinking men are atheists.” Hemingway believed that the universe was empty and meaningless and that the way a person dealt with that nothingness was the definition of a worthy human being.  He maintained that one had to face life with courage and grace.  Henry is wounded and while in the hospital, falls in love with one of the nurses, Catherine.  At first they play at love, but their affair turns serious and Catherine becomes pregnant.  Henry, disgusted by war and treachery, deserts, and he and Catherine go off to Switzerland.  They have some months of peace, but she has a horrible labor, and both she and the baby die.

There is almost no hope in Farewell to Arms. Catherine is a female Hemingway heroine.  She is sure of herself and her lack of belief in god.  She tells Frederic that he is her religion.  When she is dying, she does not mention god or the afterlife- she maintains that it is a “dirty trick.”  Her heroism does not avail Catherine, just as it does not help the other characters in the novel.  Hemingway states his pessimism in perhaps the most quoted lines in American literature:

“If a person brings so much courage into the world that the world must kill him to break him, so of course, it kills him.  The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.  But those it cannot break it will kill.  It kills the very good, the very gentle, and the very brave impartially.  If you are none of these things, the world will kill you, too, but there will be no special hurry.”

Hemingway’s style is bare and stripped of allusions, metaphors and convoluted sentences.  It is a newspaper style that is deceiving.  The terse phrases and descriptions create an unforgettable picture of the horror of war and the death that accompanies it.  The characters are vivid, as is the streamlined dialogue. It is an artful, hard-boiled style which draws the reader into Hemingway’s main theme.  He believed that the only salvation for people in this dangerous and indifferent world was to maintain grace under pressure, even when facing inevitable defeat.  Hemingway’s world is one without god and the Hemingway hero must find the strength to go on alone, as Frederic does at the end of the novel.  He has looked at his lover’s dead body in her bed and he tells the reader that it was like looking at a statue.  He leaves the hospital and walks alone, in the rain, without Catherine, without faith, but with fortitude and courage. 

Franz Kafka. (1926)  The Castle. Tras. Mark Harman. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

The Mark Harman translation and the Michael Hofman translation are considered the closest to Kafka’s style and language.

The Castle is a surreal, dark vision of book.  A surveyor, known only as K, arrives in a village, apparently hired by the authorities in the Castle above the town.  The entire plot of the novel, which Kafka never finished, concerns K’s struggle to gain access to the Castle, which he never succeeds in effecting.  He remains living in the village, but it seems he was never hired, or his paperwork has been misplaced.  The Castle claims its processing of paperwork is perfect, but K witnesses, somewhat later in the novel, a servant destroying documents which he can’t make out.  It becomes obvious that the bureaucratic paper system of the rulers is completely jumbled. K may have been hired by mistake. K’s attempts to reach the Castle or make a human connection in the village fail. The officials of the Castle do not interact with the village in most cases, except when they have sexual contact with the women.  At the same time, offending them, as one young woman did when she turned down one of their sexual advances, is dangerous.  Her entire family was ruined by her refusal.  The authorities are vindictive and making a misstep without regard to their amour propre can result in disaster. Kafka’s stated intent was to complete the novel with K’s death.  On the day K dies, the Castle sends him a message that K can work and live in the village, but his legal claim to live there is not official yet.

Max Brod, the friend who saved Kafka’s work, believed the novel had a religious intent, that of a man trying to reach god. Willa and Edwin Muir, his initial translators, were very influenced by Brod’s point of view.   Later critics see it as a man defeated by modern bureaucracy. Kafka spent most of his working life as a lawyer/manager for two large and bureaucratic companies. The most recent interpretations have been that K is a man enmeshed in the prison of language. All such readings are valid, but that of the search for an absent god, who has vindictive and ineffectual intermediaries standing in for him, is very suggestive of a negative religious stance.  Kafka, at one point in his life, called himself an atheist socialist. It is most interesting that K is a surveyor by profession, a man whose responsibility is to draw straight lines between areas, to establish boundaries. Yet throughout the novel, K remains in a liminal state.  A liminal state is a transitional one, being between two things, which is a direct contradiction of K’s profession. 

The most modern readings, of K as a man trapped in language, also suggest the non appearance, or nonexistence of god.  The early deconstructionists, such as Derrida, saw the concept of god arising out of language.  The early Derrida was clear about there being no transcendent other. K is trapped by many things, including language and bureaucracy, but especially by his yearning to achieve some correspondence with a deity who is not in the Castle, nor anywhere else.  The Castle sometimes seems as though it is a dream, or a nightmare.  Kafka’s book balances many themes within a text where very little happens.  Some of the recurrent patterns are investigations of social class, alienation, salvation, and the search for life’s meaning. The indifference of god or other forces to man’s condition is front and center in The Castle. K’s acceptance of such a state of affairs condemns him to wait for a nonexistent answer, a nonexistent salvation until he dies.

McEwan, Ian. Saturday. New York: Doubleday-Random House, 2005.

Ian McEwan embraces the New Atheism (see Atheist Activism) and he is also a believer in the power of fiction to achieve a secular transcendence.  He tests this theory of his frequently in his work.  In Saturday he sets up asituation that queries literature’s importance to people in our contemporary scientific society.  Henry Perrone, a successful and happily married neurosurgeon, wakes up one morning, and from his window sees an airplane with its engine on fire. This sight reminds him of the tragedy of 9/11. The plane actually lands safely later.  But Henry’s vision of the burning plane awakens uneasy thoughts.  He thinks about the fact that there are people in the world, irrational and religious fanatics, who want to kill him. Henry is not only successful, so is his wife, a newspaper writer.  His daughter is beginning to win important poetry prizes, his son is a talented blues musician and his father-in-law is an eminent poet. None of the members of this family are Christian.  They are non believers.  The characters discuss the need of creating a story for evolution and that evolution’s Milton has yet to arrive.  Henry is beginning to lead a complacent life, and McEwan’s style is to break into a character’s self-satisfaction with a crisis.

Henry has a minor auto accident with a young man, Baxter, who has Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder.  Henry recognizes the illness and they discuss it.  Baxter feels slighted concerning the accident and begins to stalk Henry.  Baxter and a friend show up at Henry’s house during a family reunion, and the afflicted young man pulls out a knife.  He orders Henry’s daughter to take off her clothes and to read him some of her poetry.  She reads Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, “Dover Beach,” instead.  Dover Beach is the quintessential poem on the loss of religious faith in the world, and its lines are excruciatingly beautiful.  Baxter is transformed by “her” poetry and orders her to dress. He still menaces Henry, but the son of the family throws Baxter down the stairs.  Henry operates to save the young man in the operating room of his hospital.  He decides not to prosecute.  Baxter is on his way to brain and body deterioration, perhaps before he can even be brought to trial.  He will need care until he dies and Henry plans to place him in a decent institution.

The large question in Saturday is whether Baxter reached a secular transcendence with the reading of “Dover Beach?” Both poets, the grandfather and the daughter, believe that Baxter’s behavior confirmed the ecstasy he felt hearing the poetry.  Henry, who has never understood the arts or thought they had any utility, disagrees. He thinks Baxter was merely experiencing mood swings, as the Huntington’s disease is wasting away Baxter’s temporal and frontal lobes.  Is he correct? Or do the arts have a transformative power, an ability to effect secular transcendence and infuse life with meaning?  Atheists who love the arts and receive sustenance from them will answer “Yes.”

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold (1867)

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;–on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the {AE}gean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

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.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1883-1885.) Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for None and All. Tras. Walter Kaufmann.  New York: Penguin, 1978.

Zarathustra was written after Nietzsche’s Gay Science. The book is a long narrative, somewhat resembling an epic poem rather than an essay or novel. There is an Oxford translation for readers who do not like Kaufmann as a translator.  Some readers enthuse about Zarathustra while others consider it a literary disaster.  The volume sets forth the ideas that would become themes in Nietzsche’s later works. 

Zarathustra is a prophet of some sort, who comes down to speak to mankind from his seclusion of many years.  Readers of Nietzsche will recognize the familiar themes that were to preoccupy him, such as the Overman, the God is Dead theme, and the concept of eternal recurrence.  Nietzsche either believed in eternal recurrence literally or used it as a metaphor, depending on the critic one is reading. It is the concept that life happens over and over the same way for eternity.  Nietzsche believed, therefore, the Overman has a responsibility to love his fate and to live joyously and creatively.  If one has the same life to repeat until the end of time, one should live so well as to have no regrets.  That is the task for the Overman. 

Rand, Ayn. (England 1938; U.S.A. 1945.) Anthem. Expanded 50th Anniversary Ed. New York: Plume, 1999.

 The late Ayn Rand continues to be remembered as the founder of Objectivism (See Atheist Philosophy- Objectivism,) as well as a famous novelist, and atheist.  Anthem is a short, early work of hers, but it is very representative of Rand’s philosophic stance.  It is also a fine example of the artful manner in which Rand was able to blend an engrossing plot with the didacticism of her entire oeuvre. 

Anthem opens with a young man writing a journal in a forbidden tunnel he has found.  He is living in a dystopian collective society, where the word “I” is forbidden.  The citizens of this futuristic community use the word, “we,” for their collective consciousness.  The young hero of the story is more intelligent and better looking than many of his fellow citizens, and his superiority is looked on with disapproval by the authorities.  He had wanted to enter the Home of the Scholars when he graduated from school but was appointed to be a street sweeper by the Council of Vocations.  He is glad because he feels guilty about his superiority and his liking to be on his own, both of which traits are regarded as “sinful.”  The word “I” is such an anathema in this world that those who use it are punished.  The young man, named Equality 7-2521, witnesses a public burning of a “blasphemer” who used the word “I.” Equality links eyes with the man while the flames gather around him, and Equality becomes convinced that he is the murdered man’s disciple.  After finding materials in his secret tunnel, Equality is able to put together a light bulb.  He is eager and anxious to show his discovery to the World Council of Scholars, which is meeting in his town that year.  He believes that the light bulb will be of great benefit to his society, since candles are the only source of illumination.  Around this same time he meets a young woman to whom he is attracted and his private name for her is The Golden One. 

Late one night to his Home of Street Sweepers, he will not confess about his actions or reason for his lateness.  Equality is tortured and jailed, but breaks free and presents his light bulb to the Council.  They are furious and threaten to kill him and destroy his light bulb. Equality cannot accept the destruction of his invention, so he escapes and runs to the Unchartered Forest, where the Golden One soon joins him. They travel until they find a house from the old “Unmentionable Times.”  Equality finds a library there and immerses himself in it.  He learns the meaning of the word, “I,” renames himself Prometheus and makes plans to father a new race of individualistic men.

Although Rand is speaking out against the idea of a collective society, she very consciously models Equality’s community in the same terms that would be used to describe a religious theocracy, possibly from the Middle Ages in Europe.  The title Anthem itself has religious resonance.  The ignorance and spitefulness of the leaders of the collective seem very much in line with the historically recorded behavior of the Church’s religious hierarchy.  The public burning of the man who uses the “blasphemous” word “I,” is surely taken right from the practice of the numerous auto da fes, or “Acts of Faith,” which were the executions by fire of heretics during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe. Critics have maintained that Equality is described in language that equates him to biblical prophets. When he is tied to a pole and whipped, some see it as a secular equivalent to Christ’s scourging in the New Testament. The vocabulary of the collective is decidedly religious. Equality is told: “It is a great sin to be born with a head which is too quick.  It is not good to be different from our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them.” Equality, now Prometheus (the bringer of fire to man in ancient Greek mythology,) ruminates on how men were first enslaved by gods, then kings, then class. From his reading, he has discovered that man has rights “no king, god, or other men can take away.”

Anthem is a thought-provoking and well written novel.  Rand’s atheism and individualism are perfectly blended with a thrilling and passionate plot.

Sartre, John Paul. (1944)  No Exit and Three Other Plays. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1955.

No Exit is a vehicle for Sartre’s philosophical ideas.  Most of the existentialists wanted their message to reach the general population rather than remain in rarified intellectual circles. 

Three people, a beauty, Estelle, a pacifist journalist, Garcin, and a lesbian, Inez, have recently died.  They are placed in a highly decorated room with three color clashing sofas.  They have no mirrors, but there is a bell to call the valet and a paper knife. (Sartre discusses a paper knife in Being and Nothingness as an object that has been designed, being-in-itself, unlike a human who has not been designed and is faced with choice and action-being –for-itself.) Each character has a terrible past.  Estelle had an extra marital affair and killed the baby from that affair, causing her lover to kill himself.  Garcin was cruel to his wife, and cowardly in politics. He ran away instead of standing by his principles.  He was caught and shot.  Inez lured the wife of her cousin away; he died and Inez taunted her lover about killing him.  Her lover burned the house down and they both died.

Each person sets about tormenting the others.  They remain in bad faith and need the gaze of the other to authenticate them.  Esther craves Garcin and doesn’t care if he’s a coward.  Inez desires Estelle; Garcin needs Inez to believe he is not a coward.  They are in a state of being-for-others.  When the door swings open, none of them have the courage to escape their intolerable situation.  They are moral cowards, incapable of courageous choice.  Garcin states: “Hell is other People.”

Recommended Further Reading

Amis, MartinThe Second Plane (Collected Writings)2008
Amis, MartinThe Voice of the Lonely Crowd2002
Arnold, MatthewDover Beach1851
Atwood, MargretThe Handmaid’s Tale1985
Balzac, Honoré de The Human Comedy Series approx. (1829-47)19th cent
Bretch, BertoltMother Courage and Her Children1939
Bretch, BertoltThe Good Woman of Szechwan1943
Chekhov, AntonAnton Chekhov’s Short Stories;Plays19th cent
Cioran, E. M. The Trouble With Being Born 1973
Crane, HartThe Bridge1930
Eliot, GeorgeMiddlemarch1871
Flaubert, GustaveMadame Bovary 1856
Joyce, JamesA Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man1916
Larkin, PhilipCollected Poems2001
London, JackThe Call of the Wild1903
Melville, HermanMoby-Dick, or The Whale1851
MoliereTartuffe, or The Imposter1664
Proust, MarcelRemembrance of Things Past1913
Rabelais, FrançoisThe Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel1534
Rushdie, Ahmed SalmanThe Satanic Verses1988
Stevens, WallaceCollected Poems1954
Thomas HardyJude the Obscure1895
Turgenev, IvanFathers and Sons1862
Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet Candide1759
Whitman, WaltLeaves of Grass1855
Woolf, VirginiaMrs. Dalloway 1925
Woolf, VirginiaTo the Lighthouse 1927
Zola, EmileThe Rougon-Macquart Series (1871-1893)19th cent
Zola, EmileNana1880