Jean-Paul Sartre was not only a philosopher, but also a prominent literary writer of the 20th century. Although he is well recognized for his plays, novels and short stories, today I’m going to focus on understanding his views regarding existentialism. At the most basic, existentialism states that an individual will always have both a freedom and a responsibility for his or her own actions. This autonomy is both a blessing and a curse of existence, and is expressed by Sartre when he says that we are “condemned to be free”. This places a great deal of weight on the actions of the individual, and in doing so, highlights one of Sartre’s main ideas which is that “existence precedes essence”. Sartre did not like the idea of fate or the thought that actions are predetermined or out of an individual’s personal control. He says that “man is what he makes of himself” and felt that our present reality is in our control to shape. Not only then do our actions impact our own lives, but when you decide to do something, you are acting on behalf of mankind as a whole. Anyways, that’s just a small taste of some of the major points Sartre talks about when discussing existentialism.
Recently when going through the Sandman comic, I found myself making many connections between this philosophy and the characters in the story. For those unfamiliar (hopefully very few of you by now!), The Sandman is a comic series written by Neil Gaiman which gained popularity on DC’s more adult oriented publishing subsidiary Vertigo. The comic revolves around the character Dream, who along with his siblings Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny and Delirium and one long lost sibling (who will not be named for spoiler reasons), is one of the Endless. The Endless exist beyond life, and after death. They share the world with gods from Egyptian, to Greek and even Norse mythology, but even these gods can cease to exist. The comic starts with Dream being captured accidentally by men who are trying to entrap his sister Death. From there, the story weaves tales through many different ages where Dream has had an impact. This spans across real people like Shakespeare and Emperor Norton to juxtapose magic and the surreal against the backdrop of our current reality.
At first glance, The Sandman may seem to be in contradiction with many views expressed by Sartre’s existentialism. First, Dream is one of the Endless, whose existence is well, unending. This challenges the notion that existence precedes essence, and many characters will question Dream’s actions because they seem him as not needing to take responsibility. What is interesting though is how much effort Dream does put into his actions. Before making any major decision, he carefully weighs over all the possibilities and consequences. He thinks not only about himself, but how his actions will change the lives of others. The amount of deliberation Dream puts into his actions is enhanced by the fact that he is of the Endless. Existentialism touts the importance of responsibility for ourselves and for others, which is all fine and good when you are looking out for number one. Dream however, focuses more on the responsibility he has to keep a balance within his realm of the dreaming and by doing so, sets a strong, positive example for those around him.
Another relation to existentialism comes in how the comics treat religion. Sartre outright rejected God and the supernatural so when first reading the comics, Dream’s existence alone may seem to be out of place in this philosophy. However, despite Sartre’s personal, atheistic beliefs, he was still aware of the religious world he lived in. Dream, like Sartre in this case, lives in a world surrounded by the otherworldly. Although Dream has the ability to interact with these angles, demons, gods and fairies, he does not let their dogma change his own actions. Like Sartre, he tries to position himself as objectively as possible in between these different views, and make the best decisions for not only himself, but for the world as a whole. This is exemplified in sequence where Dream happens to become the owner of Hell, but decides to pass the keys onto someone else. During this, he hears the sides of different spirits and deities, and spends a grievous night debating what he should do with the valuable property. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that he does choose to make the right decision, or well, at least the decision that would fit well into line with existentialist philosophy.
Overall, it seems that Dream is condemned to be free. His bold and thoughtful actions define his character more than anything else, and Gaiman creates a world riddled with complexities so the reader can try and get a glimpse at the lack of clarity when it comes to “right” or “wrong” decisions. The story plays with the idea of fate, and by the end of the series you are left wondering if Dream, or anyone for that matter, can create their own destiny. Of course, an existentialist reading of this would argue that fate and destiny are close to irrelevant, however that is only one interpretation. If you haven’t read through the full Sandman series already, I would highly recommend it and most volumes can be found in major bookstores or even on the iBook store.