Existentialist Literature in the Burkean Parlor: Exploring the Contingencies and Tensions of Symbolic Action

Zac Gershberg, Ashland University


Existentialism is known as a philosophical construct, but one consistent theme in its canon is a critical exploration of the ontological aspects of communication. Drawing the connection between this and Kenneth Burke’s understanding of symbolic action, this paper considers the Burkean parlor a representative anecdote of existentialism and analyzes two works of existentialist literature, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Fyodor Dostoevskey’s Notes from the Underground. The purpose is to consider existentialist literature as rhetorical acts which provoke a Burkean discussion of communication that emphasizes the contingencies and tensions inherent to symbolic action.

EXISTENTIALIST LITERATURE is often referred to as a function of absurdity, alienation and nihilistic despair since the works of this genre are inhabited by unsavory protagonists and gloomy subject matter. The idea of existential dread often dominates our understanding of existentialism, and this is not only unfortunate, but terribly flawed. It is as if the decision to pick up and leaf through any novel by Franz Kafka or Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Albert Camus’ The Stranger or Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot, is not just an exercise in leisurely entertainment, but a statement about how one is feeling—and that feeling might be summed up, in the popular imagination, as meaninglessness. Viewed through a Burkean lens, however, one may re-consider existentialist literature as rhetorical acts that provoke the ontological difficulties with which persons negotiate their social environment equipped with only the resources of symbolic action. Instead of viewing this genre as advancing the desolate egoism of individual consciousnesses, applying the Burkean Parlor described in The Philosophy of Literary Form and Burke’s notion of the representative anecdote re-figure these works of fiction as animating a particular orientation and worldview—the point of which is to create a vocabulary that reflects, selects and deflects reality (Grammar of Motives 59). Burke’s method of literary analysis suggests that literature should be organized “with reference to strategies” in “active categories” (Philosophy 303). By adopting Burke’s methodology to analyze existentialist literature, I’d like to move away from the popular reception of the genre and reveal its preoccupation with the ontological struggle of communication which fits squarely within Burke’s dramatistic notion of symbolic action. These works of fiction should not be evaluated aesthetically but as rhetorical acts whose purpose is to intensify the exigencies that arise in human interaction. In this essay I conceptualize the Burkean parlor as a representative anecdote for existentialism and then analyze two works of existentialist literature through a Burkean lens: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground. I’ve chosen these two works because Beckett and Dostoevsky did not write philosophical essays explicating existentialism to accompany their fiction—like Beauvoir, Camus, and Sartre—but instead sought to articulate the ontological tensions of symbolic action through the presentation of dramatic situations in literary form.

Authorial invention and the act of reading, which initiates an intersubjective communicative process, would seem to preclude the foreboding landscape that existentialist literature is said to possess. As early as 1931, with the publication of his first critical work, Counter-Statement, Burke declares “all competent art is a means of communication, however vague the artist’s conception of his audience may be” (73). For Burke, a symbolic act functions as “the dancing of an attitude” (Philosophy 8-9). Taken from a Burkean perspective, then, our understanding of the purpose and style of existentialist literature changes. Rather than a stamp of approval for egotistic conduct, the literary works of existentialism are presentations of situations that individuals face and the corresponding attitudes with which they face them. As one scholar writes of the rhetorical texture of these works of fiction, existentialist literature “begins with a complex gesture on the part of the author [who is] inviting an audience to consider the nature of the universe” (Kaelin 131). In What is Literature?, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre describes how literature only comes into being through the “joint effort” of the author and the reader: “The creative act,” he writes, “is only an incomplete and abstract moment in the production of a work,” adding, “There is no art except for and by others […] realized through language” (51-52). If we take an expansive view of rhetoric as Burke does, whereby symbolic acts impress an attitude from one to another in any communicative exchange, the scope of existentialist literature is altered such that it does not function as a descent into the bleak depths of one’s singular consciousness. Rather, it activates a forum of meta-communication that describes the sheer difficulty of living in a body that, as Burke says, learns language in a world where only our symbolic resources bring us together. Existentialist literature activates this intersubjective process, alerting readers to the necessity and struggle of consciousness as intertwined and compromised by other consciousnesses through communication. If there is anything absurd about existentialist literature, it is the dominant perception that it represents the hopeless despair of individuals living in an otherwise ambivalent world.1

The writings of one of the few self-declared American existentialists, the novelist Walker Percy, are instructive in this regard. First, in a very Burkean manner, Percy suggests, in his non-fiction writing, that humans should be viewed as man-the-talker or man-the-symbol-monger. “Language, [or] symbolization,” he writes, “is the stuff of which our knowledge and awareness of the world are made, the medium through which we see the world” (The Message in the Bottle 17, 150). In Signposts in a Strange Land, Percy sizes up humans as “homo symbolificus” (120). What this implicates for existentialist literature is that the movement of such art “achieves a reversal through its re-presenting. To picture a truly alienated man, pitcture [an existentialist] to whom it had never occurred to write a word” (93). The act of writing and reading is thus a communicative endeavor which quashes the idea of existentialist alienation or, for that matter, art for art’s sake. Albert Camus considers such a distorted view of the literary process to be the invention “of a factitious and self-absorbed society” since, as he writes in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, “art cannot be a monologue” (255, 257). Burke shares a similar distrust of pure art in the pages of Counter-Statement. He finds the expressiveness of the author “is too often confused with pure utterance” when it should more properly be seen as “the evocation of emotion” projected to the reader (53). Whether they know it or not, authors of dramatic fiction, adds Burke, use their “expressiveness as a means of making people seek what they customarily fled and flee what they customarily sought” (67). To size existentialist literature up more properly, as Burke might have us do, I propose that it be seen as the presentation of rhetorical situations which emphasize the contingency of social experiences brokered by intersubjective encounters between consciousnesses that are not isolated in the Cartesian view but mutually dependent and compromised by one another. “Existentialist literature [is] social action,” writes Kaelin, adding, “It intended to produce change by offering its audience a conception of the human individual consistent with (ironically enough) its true nature: man in face of his coefficient of adversity, a given individual working out his destiny within an unfriendly environment” (103). This is the pervasive, active category, I propose to argue, that binds the genre of existentialist literature together.

I continually stress the focus on intersubjectivity because it must be established that existentialism does not endorse an autonomous, unitary subject free to impose her will as she pleases.2 What may be considered an existentialist struggle is the subject’s recognition that she is not alone, that her consciousness necessarily projects, via communication, with and toward others. As Percy writes, to fully understand existentialism, it is vital to see consciousness and intersubjectivity as “inextricably related; they are in fact aspects of the same new orientation toward the world, the symbolic orientation” (274). What existentialism—existentialist literature, in particular—rebels against is the danger of what Burke might call pure identification: fleeing from one’s being to merge the self into either a process of scientific rationalism, a determinism set in advance by a god, or losing oneself in a public crowd. It posits intersubjectivity as a dramatistic interaction of the self’s being-with-others which should never degenerate into negating one’s own being or freedom. This is often taken for an endorsement of fluid egotism, but it most assuredly is not. While his novella, The Stranger, features a man condemned for his indifference, Camus warns readers from identifying him, as an author, with his characters. In The Rebel, Camus describes the radically contingent situatedness of the self that is emphasized in such works of fiction: “I have need of others who have need of me and of each other [….] This individualism is in no sense pleasure; it is perpetual struggle, and, sometimes, unparalleled joy when it reaches the heights of proud compassion” (297). Existentialist literature asks and attempts to answer the following questions: How can we live authentically when we have a need to identify with others? That is, how can we symbolically act when we have such a tendency to either lock up our consciousness within itself or to yield it all-too-willingly to others? Contrary to accepted opinion, existentialism does not permit the refuge of solipsism, but nor does it, for that matter, allow the perversion of communion Burke so eloquently warns against.

Unfortunately, the present critical enterprise is not without difficulty since the characters that inhabit existentialist literature, taken individually, are, to begin with, unlikeable fellows. They are often selfish and preoccupied with only themselves. For instance, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, from The Stranger, fail in their ability to possess any empathy for, or reach out to, others. This should not, however, be construed as encapsulating the projected ethos of their authorial creators. What we find over and over in existentialist literature, on the contrary, are situations where individuals have the possibility of the ability to act with others, morally or unethically, or do nothing. The authors of existentialist literature intensify the constraints and the freedom of contingency in the predicaments and situations individuals face. Some characters rise to these challenges with honor, others fail to act at all; others make poor choices for unspecified reasons. Milan Kundera has written that while some may consider Kafka’s works to be preoccupied with the solitude of consciousness, on the contrary, his writings feature “[n]ot the curse of solitude but the violation of solitude” (The Art of the Novel 111). Kundera’s observation can be extended to the entire genre of existentialist literature. As Burke demonstrates, the literary transaction itself negates the possibility of lapsing into solipsistic despair. Each literary act of existentialism is a rhetorical enterprise and cannot be judged merely by the admittedly pervasive failure of its characters: Estragon and Vladimir, who never find Godot in Beckett’s play; the final pages of Antoine Roquentin’s diary in Sartre’s Nausea, which shows a man yielding to unjustifiable resignation; Meursault’s acquiescence to his own execution; and the conclusion to Kafka’s The Trial, where Joseph K. is inexplicably killed before a fair trial is conducted. There is, true enough, very little triumph in the narratives of existentialist literature.3 Its pages are inhabited by anti-heroes who, as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man recognizes in himself, “produce a most unpleasant impression” (296). While existentialist literature may seem to possess, on the surface, a pessimistic scope, it is important to move beyond mere character assessment and consider the dramatistic situations in existentialist literature. The world of human relations in these books is not governed by reason but rather a contingent space where the tissue of human communication is disruptive, fragile and unavoidable. It offers a world in which only the exercise of symbolic action is at one’s human disposal, highlighting the ontological aspects of communication. For far too long, however, many have evaluated existentialist literature with a focus only directed toward the feelings its characters evoke rather than the situations or attitudes the author presents. It is thus appropriate to apply some critical energy from a Burkean perspective to analyze the orientations of the works taken holistically.

While all literature may be said to function as acts of communication, existentialist literature, in particular, highlights a two-fold aspect of it: the author is communicating to the reader and the consciousness of the characters are haunted by their need to communicate with one another. The violations of solitude which Kundera describes reflect the total will-to-communication, which, for the existentialist Karl Jaspers, is impossible to deny. Kaelin expresses existentialist literature in terms of “creative communication”: an author exercises the rhetorical tool of invention, which necessitates a communication situation (98). I would add that, as in the Burkean parlor, the fundamental theme to existentialist literature is about the process of communication itself, which is why I have described it as a form of meta-communication. Its characters experience the need to communicate and the difficulties that arise from this perforce requirement. They can neither escape themselves with a flight into pure being nor break free of others; if they fail, it is because they attempt one or the other. The fact remains they exist precisely because they communicate. That they communicate entails absolute contingency within the particularity of their situations, the constraints that compromise the ability to choose, and the responsibility that stems from such choices.

Abandoned in the Burkean Parlor

Burkean scholars such as Wess (“Pentadic Terms”) and Brock (“Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Rhetoric”) find within his works a collapse of the traditional dividing line between ontology and epistemology.  In a Burkean frame, knowledge is dictated by the drama of human relations fortified by symbolic action. Language, for Burke, can never be transformed into a pure domain of objective facts. As such, knowledge takes on a secondary role to dramatism, which, Burke writes, is concerned with the problems of action and form rather than methods employed to isolate kernels of knowledge (Language as Symbolic Action 367, The Rhetoric of Religion 38-39). Knowledge, or the process of knowing, is seen as a function of our ability to symbolically interact with one another, which renders epistemology as inextricably tied to ontological considerations. As Wess writes, Burke moves away from positing any final epistemological program, preferring, instead, the open-endedness of drama whereby knowledge “is not [expressed by] an individual in permanent possession of a knowledge fixed once and for all, but, rather, in symbol-users equipped to converse today better than yesterday and maybe even better tomorrow” (“Pentadic Terms” 168). Existentialism rebels against epistemology in a similar way by enfolding it as, or into, an ontological understanding of communication.

This rebellion begins specifically with Soren Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegelian system-building, a distrust that can be traced all the way back to Plato, who elevated reason as the hallmark of human greatness. The faculty of reason had been celebrated as “the distinguishing mark of man,” according to Miguel de Unamuno, but for existentialism, he writes, all reason, all knowledge, becomes a social product that owes its origin to the use of language (Tragic Sense of Life 25). Privileging language by accepting its rich ambiguities, Unamuno considers any “purely rational philosophy” to have been constructed from “an inhuman language—that is to say, one inapt for the needs of life” (144). His thoroughgoing critique of the myth of pure language and pure knowledge resembles Burke’s own criticism of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian calculus of a neutral vocabulary, which Burke describes as “a patient labor of hate” (Permanence and Change 191). Just as existentialists such as Unamuno, above, and Jaspers, who considered all truth and reason to be a function of communication (Reason and Existenz), Burke likewise reduces knowledge to the exchange of our symbolic resources. Burke is explicit about this in The Rhetoric of Religion, distinguishing his method of dramatism and logology as ontological compared with “scientism,” which is epistemological. In drawing these distinctions, however, Burke is apt to point out that we be “reminded that each ends by implicating the other” (39). For this reason, it is better to say Burke and existentialism collapse the epistemeological/ontological breach rather than necessarily privileging the latter over the former. Both Burke and the existentialists could be seen, from this vantage point, as forerunners to postmodernism or the rhetorical turn in the humanities, which is said to have heralded a devastating critique of Enlightenment thought and its preoccupation with discovering objective knowledge.4

Burke’s idea of symbolic action is the central theme that binds his corpus together because it suggests that all language use, manifested as communication, functions ontologically. Symbolic action is essential to Burke because his other main concepts—dramatism, identification, and logology (among  others)—are implications that draw from the belief that we are the symbol-using animal or, as he later put it, bodies that learn language. All verbal acts, as Burke writes in The Philosophy of Literary Form, are to be considered as instances of symbolic action (8). Grounding Burkology, as Stanley Edgar Hyman calls it, in symbolic action is, admittedly, a thesis that could be (strenuously) contested. The justification here is that symbolic action functions as not merely a theory but an orientation to the world itself—one that locates Burke firmly in the existentialist camp. As Bertelsen points out, “The realm of symbolic action, then, is the realm of social existence [….] Thus, all of our talk embodies a statement about existence—an ontological statement” (233). Recognizing symbolic action as fundamental to Burke’s project provides a window into how he viewed the world. After all, Burke’s ingenious ideas do not play out in a theoretical vacuum. By teasing out the implications of symbolic action and all that Burke shares in its wake, an existentialist warrant surfaces that suggests we, as humans, are abandoned on earth with only our communicative resources available to negotiate existence. Burke’s entire career was spent investigating what I consider the central tenet of existentialism: exploring the meaning in life as opposed to the meaning of life.

Declaring that humans are abandoned does not necessarily entail an affirmation or negation of God or religion, either. Burke stresses over and over that this is not even within his critical ability. In the introduction to The Rhetoric of Religion, for instance, he writes: “It is not within the competence of our project to decide the question [of God] either theistically or atheistically, or even agnostically” (2). Later he would declare, as a demonstration of logology, “Linguistically, God can be nothing but a term” (Language as Symbolic Action 456). And in an interview conducted in the early 1980s, Burke adds: “You can’t have religious doctrine unless somebody tells it to you. Theology is a function of language” (On Human Nature 380). This is precisely the stand Kierkegaard, a devout Christian, and Sartre, a committed atheist, make. Asking the question whether God exists or does not exist is beyond the communicative resources humans possess. Belief itself occupies a spatial realm that transcends the faculty of discourse. As a result, communicative interaction arises as the most significant aspect to our existence and should be the locus of human inquiry. Human abandonment, for existentialism as well as Burke, is but the point of departure for beginning critical explorations. An illustration of this is worked out in Burke’s Permanence and Change:

I do not see why the universe should accommodate itself to a man-made medium of communication [….] Perhaps because we have come to think of ourselves as listening to the universe, as waiting to see what it will prove to us, we have psychotically made the corresponding readjustment of assuming that the universe itself will abide by our rules of discussion and give us its revelations in a cogent manner. (99)
  This sentiment reflects existentialism such that, as Jaspers writes, communication is considered “the universal condition of man’s being” (Reason and Existenz 79). It is, that is to say, all we have—or all we can be sure of. The world does not find us; rather, we carve out our projects of discovery through symbolic action. This view, however, provides little comfort. Privileging symbolic action necessitates a view of human life awash in abandonment warded off from pure logical or religious truth. Positing communication as the fundamental, perhaps only recognizable certainty in existence lacks any secure ground since it is a wholly slippery enterprise. Burke’s theory on humans as the symbol-using animal finds its fullest expression with not only the statement that we create and use symbols but, more importantly, we necessarily misuse symbols. That we coerce or disagree with one another allows for life to unfold as primarily dramatistic rather than scientifically knowable or theologically determined.

In the section of The Rhetoric of Motives where Burke establishes identification, “The Range of Rhetoric,” there is a productive display of this existentialist worldview. Our understanding of rhetoric, writes Burke, “lead[s] us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard.” He concludes the section by asserting that “[r]hetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall” (23). The necessary corollary or unspoken warrant to Burke’s view of the fall of Babel, or, as he would work out in The Rhetoric of Religion, man’s fall expressed through original sin in the story of Adam and Eve (172-272), is the inauguration of a world where humans are abandoned but have need of one another through communication. According to Burke and the existentialists, we are abandoned in the world except for the properties and possibilities of symbolic action. Biesecker recognizes this existentialist warrant in Burke’s corpus, suggesting that he “is quite correct from the existential purview” such that Burke “claims the human being is always already estranged” (27, 46). The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty supports this existentialist-Burkean nexus as well, writing, “We are in the world, mingled with it, compromised with it,” and adding that communication is our “way of being” through this world (Sense and Non-Sense 147, 93). While Burke articulates how symbolic action functions in a human life-world governed by contingency rather than reason, his writings critically dwell on the effects or implications of such a state of affairs. Existentialism, on the other hand, works from the inside out: its major thinkers continually describe the individual’s supreme difficulty in negotiating a world with no a priori legitimization. They lack a facility with rhetoric which would otherwise provide more rich explorations of how to negotiate one’s existence with others. Both, however, share a frame of acceptance that acknowledges the possibility of an extra-human dimension but focuses more introspectively on human-interaction. “We start out,” Camus confirms, “from an acceptance of the world” (The Myth of Sisyphus 64). Thompson and Palmeri clarify this Burkean frame in a comparable way: “Acceptance,” they write, “means dealing with the drama of human action as it is but allows one the freedom to ‘thunder against’ it” (277). A frame of acceptance, as Burke describes in the opening to Attitudes Toward History, entails abandonment—one accepts the world as it works from within rather than determined from without.

Abandonment, in this sense, should not be seen as a terrifying encounter with nothingness or pure relativity. It merely expresses that while we cannot be sure of any truth that can deliver a teleological meaning of life or an objective set of determined values, we can profitably concentrate on analyzing and devising the means of our all-too-human encounters through a focus on communication. Existentialism would indeed be a thoroughly pessimistic enterprise if it left us standing alone without any recourse to deal with such a state of affairs. Camus, in particular, addresses these charges of pessimism, suggesting that such a philosophy would be one of “discouragement” whereas existentialism explores the problem of civilization thus: “to know whether man [sic], without the help of eternal or rationalistic thought, can unaided create his own values” (Resistance, Rebellion, and Death 57-58). From this vantage point, existentialism does not merely throw up its hands in nihilistic resignation; it paints a poetic, Burkean view of life that galvanizes our ability to communicate in order to recognize that values and actions are thoroughly creative in scope and open to chance, flux, and purposeful commitment. “We believe,” Camus adds, “that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it” (59). Recognizing our collective abandonment is merely a point of departure upon which one can begin to more profitably negotiate the symbolic activities of an all-too-human life-world.

To take it a step further, let me assert that Burke’s unending conversation presented in The Philosophy of Literary Form serves as a representative anecdote of the existentialist notion of abandonment in a world that necessitates communication.5 A representative anecdote, according to Burke in The Grammar of Motives, stems from the human need to create “vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality” (59). He adds that it is reductive in scope that can be understood in terms of drama “in the realm of action, as against scientific reduction to sheer motion” (61). Here an opportunity arises to stand Burke on his head. His relaying of an unending conversation in a parlor evinces the rhetorical texture of existentialism and reveals what I consider Burke’s existentialist warrant more clearly. In writing this little sketch, Burke, of course, is not attempting to define existentialism but make an account for the source of his dramatistic view of human relations. Its retelling betrays the existentialist implications that underscore Burke’s work, however. Dramatism, he begins, starts with “the ‘unending conversation’ that is going on at the point in history when we are born” (110). Burke then invites the reader to imagine herself entering a parlor, arriving in the middle of a heated discussion in which the participants neither pause nor inform the newcomer about what the discussion entails. After listening for awhile, you, the reader, decide to “put in your oar” and start participating in the discussion. The vicissitudes of the Burkean parlor are such that one person may argue against you while another may defend you while someone else may take a completely different approach altogether. “However,” Burke concludes, “the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress” (111). While this certainly serves as an accurate description of the drama of human relations, it also encapsulates existentialism better than any pithy statement, essay or story I know of.

Notice that Burke provides no epistemological grounding that explains why you, the reader, should show up at just such a parlor; who the other persons that inhabit the parlor are, or why they are there; and there are no descriptions of, or explanations for, the parlor itself. All we find is an abrupt ontological manifestation of communication between persons who spontaneously come and go. All sense of time and truth exists outside the contingencies of the parlor. The participants of the discussion are equipped with no resources to negotiate the parlor except for engaging what is being said and trying to find ways to engage the arguments at hand in order to interact with one another. Communicative acts are granted a primacy above the questions of how the parlor came to be and who the participants of the discussion are. As mentioned above, it rounds out a frame of acceptance to the natural world. Burke points out, a few pages later, that “[w]hatever may be the character of existence in the physical realm, this realm functions but as scenic background when considered from the standpoint of the human realm” (115). The objective of this representative anecdote is to bring the discursiveness of the parlor into sharper focus because the process of symbolic action is the only dominant, pervasive aspect of existence we can be sure of.

Whereas a scientist or theologian might encounter Burke’s parlor and then attempt to discern why it was there and what the meaning behind it was, someone with an existentialist orientation would accept the terms of the parlor and, as the reader is instructed, gauge where the discussion is flowing and put in an oar. In Sartre’s lecture, “Existentialism and Humanism,” he asserts that “man [sic] first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards” (28). In Burke’s parlor, you, the reader, are summoned to the parlor without any a priori cause reason: you show up and are disciplined to recognize the flurry of symbolic activity going on around you, and are thus compelled to join in. Imagine, however, someone demonstrating Sartrean bad faith in the Burkean parlor—perhaps a person with either a scientistic or theologically-deterministic orientation. Pretend, for a moment, this person is in fact able to imagine themselves, as Burke instructs, entering a parlor. In keeping with Burke’s anecdote, that person first recognizes her own tardiness. Next, she realizes that a discussion, well-advanced already, is continuing without her. These two factors of the situation immediately arouse feelings of inadequacy, shame and vulnerability. At this point, you can either accept the parlor for its dynamic, or rebel against it. Recall that a Burkean, or, in my reading, an existentialist, sizes things up and decides to put in an oar, reveling in the odd contingency of fate that should locate oneself in such surroundings. But would everybody? I think not. The person of bad faith, whom I hypothesized above, would halt the discussion immediately and demand to know whence the parlor came. The discussion would not be permitted to continue unless a satisfactory account of the parlor’s origins and make-up had been formulated. If no factual reasoning for the parlor could be assessed or divined, the newcomer would not permit the previous discussion, or a new, spontaneous one, to ensue. The person of bad faith would demand an inquiry and instruct the other participants to never again impulsively converse until the parlor’s constitution was ascertained. Rather than enjoy the meanings that multiply within the parlor, this newcomer would want the participants to discover the meaning of the parlor. The Burkean parlor, that is to say, does not work for everyone. It takes what I consider to be an existentialist frame of acceptance in order for the parlor to continue on in the Burke imaginary. Since the parlor, in my reading of it, can be seen as a representative anecdote of existentialism, the remainder of this essay pivots to demonstrate the degree to which existentialist literature creates Burkean parlors.

How (Not) to Wait for God(ot)

Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot, is an illustrative example of the two-fold element of communication in existentialist literature. Beckett’s work can be seen as but an extension and exploration of the parlor itself. In Burkean dramatism, the statement, “all life’s a stage,” is not considered metaphorically, but literally: it serves “as an aid for helping us find answers to the question ‘What related observations follow from the proposition that humans are people who can act, as distinct from things that can but move?’” (“Rhetoric, Poetics, and Philosophy” 29). Burke adds, moreover, that dramatism should not be seen as merely drama in and of itself. Rather, he considers it “the systematic use of a model designed to help us define and place the nature of human relationships and of the relations among our terms for the discussion of such matters” (29). It is important to keep this in mind since technically, there is very little drama in Beckett’s play—if drama is considered as the coherent structure of a narrative detailed with character trajectory and plot devices. Beckett’s play is dramatistic, as opposed to dramatic, such that it reflects the perforce demand of negotiating our contingent existence through only the resources of symbolic action. Waiting for Godot functions as an intensification of the tensions that result from being bodies that learn language—or, otherwise put in a Burkean vocabulary, the symbol-using animal.

Vladimir and Estragon show up on stage without any a priori justification. While they attempt to figure out their purpose, they are abandoned in this Burkean parlor equipped only with their potential for symbolic activity. They know they are waiting for someone named Godot, but they do not know why this is the case or when, if ever, Godot will come. They think, however, that should they find Godot, their purpose will be finalized—that is, all will be well. Beckett, of course, does not permit them to find Godot—or allow Godot to find them—but this wont of purpose or justification on the part of Vladimir and Estragon represents the Sartrean bad faith and/or the drive towards pure identification. Godot, for them, represents a purposeful cause by which, in their minds, they can escape the pure contingency of their situations. They symbolically interact with one another and Pozzo, who intermittently appears on stage, because they have to, not because they want to—ultimately, they would like to flee from being in order to be with God(ot). The God/Godot link is so obvious as to perhaps not even warrant mentioning, but it demonstrates the wish to escape being through pure identification. Whether Godot is an authoritative figure such as a general or political leader or captain of industry (a boss, if you will), or, for that matter, a god, he represents Vladimir’s and Estragon’s hope to lose themselves. If they find God(ot), they will then be able to finally abandon the world of talk to which they are already assigned.

Beckett’s play serves as one long exercise in communicative frustration for Vladimir and Estragon. They are not permitted to escape themselves or their symbolic action. Vladimir cries out, at one point, “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!” (51). It betrays Beckett’s attempt to call attention to our condition, which is always situated in the particular, not the abstract, and governed by the resources of symbolic action within the Burkean parlor. It is why Vladimir continues in the following way:
But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate cosigned us! [….] The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflexion [sic], or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come. (51-52)
Notice how Vladimir recognizes the fundamental contingency and pervasiveness of symbolic action but ultimately rejects it. He wishes to be like an animal of the wild, or function through the properties of sheer motion, as Burke would say. If only, for Vladimir and Estragon, they could react like animals and not have to think or communicate with others. Vladimir fails to realize that there is no such thing as idle discourse. All language is purposeful in and of itself to a particular end through its intersubjective, rhetorical texture. The act of communication necessitates a world pregnant with meaning, but Vladimir and Estragon, despite their verbal flurry with one another, cannot recognize this. They have bad faith because they want to negate their own ability to talk with others.

As the play unfolds, it becomes clear Vladimir and Estragon want out of this Burkean parlor, but Beckett denies them this possibility. It is why, in the final pages of Beckett’s play, the two main characters contemplate suicide. They cannot abide by the meaning in life without some greater purpose coming into focus. “I can’t go on like this,” says Estragon in the conclusion to the play, indicating his exasperation with being a symbol-using animal (61). “We’ll hang ourselves to-morrow,” Vladimir responds, adding the caveat, “Unless Godot comes.” “And if he comes?” asks Estragon, to which Vladimir answers: “We’ll be saved.” A couple of lines later, the play ends with Vladimir asking if they should go; Estragon agrees, “Yes, let’s go,” but Beckett’s final word before the curtain is the stage direction, “They do not move.” The stage, or Burkean parlor, is inescapable. The characters are suspended in communicative flux on stage as the curtain draws to a close. They cannot escape the dramatistic stage of existence.

To understand this play as an exercise about communication divorces Beckett, the dramatist, from his characters. The conditional situation of the play is what is significant, not the fact that Vladimir and Estragon do not find Godot. While it is necessary that the characters fail in their attempt to erase their being in order to find a purpose or the purpose that God(ot) promises, they still have one another as well as the ability to communicate. This, I think, is the lasting impression of Beckett’s play, and it is why we have seen performances of this work staged in bleak or hostile landscapes. A performance was staged in San Quentin prison in 1957, Susan Sontag directed it in Sarajevo in 1993 amidst a civil war, and the artist Paul Chan orchestrated a performance of it in New Orleans’ 9th ward in 2007. The point of each performance was not to emphasize the hopelessness of each situation but reflect the common bond of vulnerability, which can only be met with symbolic action as it is existentially understood. Ultimately, all we can be sure of are the possibilities of symbolic action that we share despite the fact we cannot compute it mathematically. “Life totters,” writes Jaspers as an illustration of this theme, “not really understanding the speech it is itself using” (Man in the Modern Age 79).  While our abandonment is thus stark, it possesses that binding aspect of our nature, symbolic action, which ties us together and upon which a better future can be actualized. 

Communicating from the Underground

While Beckett’s play is meant not just for an isolated act of reading consumption, but public performance, existentialist novellas and novels suppose a greater difficulty.  Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is an interesting case study in this regard. Walter Kaufmann, who helped frame the existentialist canon with the 1956 publication of his reader, Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre,6 included only the first section of Dostoevsky’s novella in his reader. While quite obviously Kaufmann, serving as an editor, has page limits and structural constraints prohibiting the inclusion of the entire work, it is curious that he dismisses the second portion of Notes as unnecessary to Dostoevsky’s work as a whole. I draw attention to this prior to discussing Dostoevsky’s book in order to demonstrate the purposeful disregard of any social interaction within the text by the protagonist with others, which happens only in the second part. To read the first portion of Notes is to witness a long, polemical digression from a singular consciousness. It is a quite fascinating soliloquy, but by reading only the first installment of the text one fails to witness the narrator being rendered vulnerable by others—and that, ultimately, is our situation—his situation—in existence. After being embarrassed by a group of associates—it would be a stretch to call them friends—the Underground Man returns to his previous isolation and decides that while he only likes playing with words himself, “what I really want is that you all should go to hell” (290). This sentiment would later be reflected in Sartre’s play, No Exit, whose conclusion finds the antagonist exclaiming, “Hell is other people!” While this may be construed as support for an egotistic view or solipsism, the point of these works is to demonstrate the inability to wish away other persons. A more fundamental question arises as well: who can the reader believe—Dostoevsky, who is writing the book as an act of public communication, or the Underground Man, who is mired in his contempt for humanity?

This question ultimately surfaces when considering any work of existentialist literature. We have no choice but to communicate with others. Even if our interpersonal communicative efforts fail, as in the case of the Underground Man, we must exercise the will-to-communicate and symbolic action in some manner, and, in this case, it is the composition of “notes” for a reading public. It is why, despite his evocation of solitude, the Underground Man continually peppers his writing by addressing his readership as “gentlemen”. This betrays Dostoevsky’s attempt to speak through his protagonist, who considers himself a coward but is aware that, in the act of writing, he is reaching an audience: “If it is not for the benefit of the public, why should I not simply recall these incidents in my own mind without putting them on paper?” asks the Underground Man (214). The answer is simple: despite himself, the Underground Man cannot escape his total will-to-communicate and symbolically interact with others. By evoking a sense of personal feeling, Dostoevsky’s narrator is thus provoking his audience in a rhetorical act. Even though, as a character, the Underground Man rejects his opportunity to be with others, calcifying his criticisms with self-righteous disgust, this does not amount to a mere surface endorsement by Dostoevsky of a retreat into solipsism. In fact, Dostoevsky is demonstrating the impossibility of the position in which such a character adopts by virtue of writing as a communicative endeavor.

While the Underground Man is contemptible in his concern for others, he is not without justification for his opinions. Like much of existentialist literature, the Underground Man rejects the rationalist account of human nature prevalent in the nineteenth century, just as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche critique Hegel and Plato, respectively. In particular, the self-assurances of scientism are Dostoevsky’s target; he imbues the Underground Man with both distrust and hatred for the wish to rationally codify the universe. The existentialist texture of this book is reflected in Dostoevsky’s unwillingness to permit any finalized, teleological account for human actions and motivations:

[S]cience will teach man […] so that everything he does is not by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000 and entered into an index […so that] everything will be so clearly calculated and noted that there will be no more deeds or adventures in the world. (200)
Dostoevsky teases out scienticism as resulting in a nightmare where our very humanness is erased—being as such is collapsed into a mathematical model of exactitude. The will to calculate everything by scientific or religious decree is an illustration of bad faith; it reflects the wish to flee being as such and reduce human interaction to the re-activity of sheer motion. Dostoevsky approaches human rationality as does Unamuno and other existentialists as well as Burke, where it is considered but one aspect of our human capabilities. “You see, gentleman, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that,” says the Underground Man, “but reason satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole of human life including reason and all the impulses” (203). Now Dostoevsky is not explicit about the primacy of communication as Burke is, but consider the above passage by adding “the will-to-communicate” as a manifestation of the whole life. This is what Jaspers does in discussing existence in terms of the manifestation of communication—or the self’s “communicative manifestation” in the world (Philosophy 92). As it has been remarked above, though, manifesting communication as ontologically grounded provides a slippery ground for which to evaluate and negotiate our human life-world. It reflects our fallibility and the inability to perfect human interaction or relations. This is why existentialists such as Dostoevsky can admit through his Underground Man that although life “is often worthless, yet it is still life and not simply extracting square roots” (203). The above statement captures the existentialist orientation to life such that there is no a priori justification for the meaning of life, but at the same time a totalizing frame of relativity is avoided because life itself, pregnant with meaning from our symbolic activity, is lived with others in an interaction of meaning in existence. While on the one hand Dostoevsky could be interpreted as being pessimistic here, a Burkean frame allows us to consider Dostoevsky’s Underground Man as presenting life as dramatistic in scope. A human being, writes Dostoevsky, “is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it” (208). Yet many people, as it was hypothesized when considering the Burkean parlor, reject a dramatistic or existentialist view of life. It is why Vladimir and Estragon want to enfold themselves in God(ot) or flee being through suicide. Science and religion are not to be eliminated, but their goal to discover a complete account of all human actions and motivations can be seen as misguided. Existentialism proposes that we negotiate the hand we are dealt, moving our chips forward without certainty as to whether we will win the hand. As Dostoevsky writes in the conclusion to Notes from the Underground, “It’s a burden to us even to be human beings—men with our own real body and blood; we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man” (297). This sentiment reflects Beauvoir’s claim that “[u]niversal, absolute man exists nowhere” (The Ethics of Ambiguity 112). We are ashamed of ourselves as symbol-users, that is, and thus we drive toward a state of perfection or entelechy instead of accepting the ambiguities which being the symbol-using animal presupposes. Existentialist literature attempts to move us toward accepting the insecurity of our contingent situations without bad faith, which would be the self’s acquiescence to the temptations of pure identification.


Existentialist literature can be actively categorized as representative anecdotes that exhibit an orientation to the world which highlights the contingency and non-reason, beyond-reason and the irrationality of such a place where we have only recourse to symbolic action. It directs us toward the maze of meanings within the human universe which operates in a natural world that it is distinct from but inextricably linked with. The situations which appear in the pages of existentialist literature present uncomfortable aspects about our condition: the inability to secure any prima facie cause or final, teleological goal to life; the difficulties involved in our interactions with others; and the temptation of acquiescing to bad faith or pure identification. All persons, in their particular situations, must negotiate the meanings in life, and this is where existentialist literature directs us. Reading these works, one is disciplined to consider the Burkean parlor to which the chance of circumstance has assigned her. It is the rhetorical ploy and hope of these authors to convince the reader to begin concentrating on the maze within the parlor rather than getting caught up and exasperated with the meanings of it. Don’t fret for God(ot) to allocate a sense of purpose for you, is the coherent message of these works. For, truly, hell is other people, as Sartre’s antagonist concludes in his play, but they are also, as Merleau-Ponty writes of Sartre’s play, “indispensable to our salvation” since “[w]e are so intermingled with them that we must make what order we can out of this chaos” (Sense and Non-Sense 41). We can but communicate in a world fraught with peril, but we can do so patiently and with generosity if we try. Resisting the urge to lock up consciousness in solipsistic bad faith or purely identify the self with a cause or public is the very foundation not just of existentialism as a philosophy, but a thoroughly Burkean perspective grounded in the ontology of symbolic action.

I am hesitant to assert Kenneth Burke was an existentialist since he critiques the philosophical positions of the movement in A Rhetoric of Motives, but our understanding of existentialism should, at the same time, move beyond the identity of the propositions we associate it with. As Beckett and Dostoevsky demonstrate, existentialism is grounded in an orientation or worldview demanding greater focus on the ontological aspects of symbolic action. Burke’s influence in communication and rhetorical studies owes to his own insight that more careful intellectual study regarding the relationship between communication and human interaction is warranted. Existentialism, as both a literary genre and a philosophical position, lacks the Burkean vocabulary to explicitly make clear its interest in communication and rhetorical theory, but the works themselves, as I hope my analysis has made clear, offer a profitable consideration of the tensions inherent to a world where symbolic action governs our ability to interact within it. *Zac Gershberg, PhD is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at Ashland University. This essay was developed from his 2008 dissertation, A Rhetoric of Existentialism, which was advised by Andrew King at LSU. An earlier version of this essay has been accepted for presentation at the 2010 NCA Convention in San Francisco, CA. Persons wishing to contact Dr. Gershberg about this essay will find him at zgersh@hotmail.com.


1. While absurdity and existentialism are related in particular to Camus, it is important to note the context in which he invoked absurdity. By absurd, Camus merely suggests there is no rational explanation for our being or existence, but importantly, beyond that, he writes: “the absurd can be considered only as a point of departure” (Lyrical and Critical Essays 159).

2. For a critique of existentialism from a post-humanist rhetorical perspective, see Gunn’s “Mourning Humanism.”

3. In an explicit connection between Burke and existentialism, Kaelin writes how the failures found in the pages of existentialist literature are because they serve as “novels of reaction of which Burke had spoken: to depict its pathetic shortcomings and abortive justice” (103).

4. Implicit in this pre-postmodern connection is the chronological trajectory of the works of Burke and existentialism. Besides the contributions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, existentialism plays out in the same time period as Burke’s written career, extending from the 1930s to the 1960s.

5. I owe to Robert Wess, “Pentadic Terms and Master Tropes” (168), the idea that the “Burkean parlor” functions as a representative anecdote, but he sees it as a microcosm of Burke’s methodology writ large whereas I am attempting to adapt it to existentialism.

6. On the stature of Kaufmann’s text, which is still in print, and its contribution to shaping public conceptions of existentialism, see George Cotkin’s Existential America, 134-35.

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"Existentialist Literature in the Burkean Parlor: Exploring the Contingencies and Tensions of Symbolic Action; by Zac Gershberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.