By Rhea Kapur (V)
Existentialism has dominated my last few weeks. What does that mean, exactly? What even is existentialism? That question in and of itself, my friends, presents its own existential crisis––and that should tell you something about just how much it has been on my mind lately. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, existentialism is the pursuit of what “further set of categories… [are] necessary to grasp human existence.” Let that sink in. Deep, I know. And, of course, we teenagers should all be familiar with the “existential crisis,” a term that is now so ingrained in American culture that it is considered colloquial, dare I say the content of memes. Just to be clear, though, an existential crisis is a moment where we question the meaning of life––or, conversely, contemplate how life has no meaning.
I love to explore different aspects of the Slavic cultures and Russian language. Russian literature offers nothing if not some of the best reading, and many great Russian writers were existentialists. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading Uncle Vanya, one of Anton Chekhov’s plays. There’s a line in there that immediately stopped me in my tracks. Helena remarks, “What a fine day! Not too hot.” And Voitski (Vanya) responds, “A fine day to hang oneself.” If that’s not existentialist, I don’t know what is. Yes, Vanya perhaps takes it too far, but the sentiment is there. In my Russian Literature HIRT, we’re reading Anna Karenina, a great novel by Leo Tolstoy, and a friend of mine recently gave a presentation on Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis. You guessed it: by the end of his life, he was a die-hard existentialist. And, in my American Literature course right now, we’re reading “Bartleby the Scrivener”––perhaps one of the strangest short stories of all time––which presents a perfect case study in absurdism, existentialism, and even nihilism.
For me, all of this inspired a Spotify playlist, which I have lovingly entitled “sediment of existentialism.” In curating this playlist, I had to think about what has had me feeling so existentialist (the literature, obviously, and maybe the crushing amount of work). How could I elicit those same feelings again at a random 2:00 AM, when I really need them?
I came up with two answers. One is slow, melancholy music: “Apocalypse,” “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” “Affection,” and “K.” These are slow-burning gems from the band Cigarettes After Sex, perfect for those late nights after you return from a memorable night out, or even while you type out one last essay before our upcoming break. Lana Del Ray, with her unique voice and powerful lyrics, has some stars too: “Love,” “Brooklyn Baby,” “Off to the Races,” and “Born to Die” (that title has me convinced that she, too, is an existentialist) are some of my favorites. All of these songs showcase raspy, unique, and contemplative voices, and they really get my existentialist gears turning, transporting me to entirely new worlds.
The other mini-genre in my existentialist music consists of songs that I’ve associated with a memory. Now, hang with me, folks, we’re getting deep here. What are those sentimental songs for me? “Supermarket Flowers” by Ed Sheeran is one that immediately comes to mind. I know I may have denounced pop in my last column, and Ed Sheeran would definitely qualify as a pop artist, but this song is exceptional; it’s poignant, and above all it’s beautifully sung. Sheeran wrote it to cope with losing his grandmother, and that loss is simultaneously raw and crystal clear in his voice. As someone who recently lost mine, I can really connect to it. Listening, I remember my dadi, yes, but I also think about death, the meaning of death, and where we go afterwards. Where is the “home” that Sheeran refers to? What quantifies “a life that’s been loved” and lived, as Sheeran sings? How can we measure that?
I have lighter songs, too: the last songs of the night that I’ve danced to (“I Lived” by OneRepublic), a Beatles piece a faraway friend of mine used to play me on his guitar (“Blackbird”), or the favorite song of a sister I never had (“The Monster” by Rihanna). All of these songs––the happy, sad, and in-between––make me contemplate life and its meaning. You could say they elicit those existential crises.
My advice for creating your own existentialist playlist? Find those songs that matter to you – the ones that make you reason, reflect, and reminisce. Find those melancholy songs to which you wallow, or the upbeat songs to which you sing along at the top of your lungs, shaking out your hair and smiling ear to ear (“Story of my Life” by One Direction, anyone?). If you need inspiration, give “sediment of existentialism” a listen. Maybe while reading Dostoevsky (another Russian existentialist––sigh) over break, as I will be. You never know what kinds of existential moments you might find yourself in.