Thousands of years ago, the primary use of what we might now call the dawn of literature was to explain the different horrifying phenomena that people encountered in their lives. For example, Ancient Greek mythology originated in its entirety from an attempt to assign meaning to natural events (Zeus, for instance, was at first simply the god of storm). It is a part our nature to look for meaning in everything, otherwise we might feel disturbed, unnerved or even scared by what seems to have none.
A lot of works by modern writers (most notably, Kafka, Camus, etc.) suggest that when looking for meaning or explanation in phenomena that are both more universal and comprehensive (purpose of life is a usual object of focus), you will not be able to find one, since it does not exist. The philosophy of these creators that looks for the purpose of existence or contemplates on a lack thereof is called existentialism. This philosophy lies in the core of the majority of modernistic movements in art, for example, cubism in painting, performance and installation art in architecture, art-house in cinema and theatre of absurd in drama. The works of existentialistic nature usually contradict the traditional art, thus creating controversy around their validity. While orthodox art depicts something concrete, existentialistic works tend to dig deeper to the point where an average person can no longer distinguish, whether it is the piece that is meaningless or it is the conclusion of it that suggests that our existence is meaningless.
Samuel Beckett’s writings are a classic example of existential literature. ‘Waiting for Godot’ is Beckett’s most famous and, in my opinion, most thought-provoking piece. There is not enough action in the play to retell the story, which is based solely on dialogue. “In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness.” – says Vladimir, one of the main characters, referring to death (Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot: tragicomedy in 2 acts”, Grove Press, 1954). Sadly, nothingness is a word often used unfairly to describe works of Beckett, whose symbolism may be a bit too provocative for an unprepared reader.
In my opinion, however, existentialism is a shift that is absolutely necessary for both art and life. It is one thing that can prepare us to fearlessly face what is unknown and visibly meaningless. In a world where science is so advanced that it can provide explanation for almost anything, we have to answer the remaining questions about life and religion by digging deeper down inside ourselves, and authors like Beckett have certainly showed us how to do it.