The Colours of Life-Existentialism and the Short Story Form: a Study of Selected Western and African Short Stories

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IN GREEK MYTHOLGY, Orpheus, a bewitching minstrel whose lyre could hypnotize animate and inanimate elements at will, married a nymph, Eurydice. One day, Eurydice was bitten by a snake, and she died. In his quest to bring back the dead, Orpheus journeyed to the chthonic realm, played his lyre, hypnotised the underground deities, and secured the release of his wife. He was to return to the terrestrial world with his wife, albeit, with one proviso; that he should at no point of the journey look back whatever the distraction. He consented. With his wife following closely at his heels, they left. Close to the egress, just when they were about entering the human world, he heard his wife screaming, and in a swift moment of agonising pathos, he looked back. Immediately, his wife disappeared, his dream evaporated, and he lost her forever.

The myth is an overt dramatization of man’s experience on earth. Man loses the world the moment he gains it. Man, a victim of cosmic principalities is thrusted upon the world to face the inevitability of death. Death negates life. His position is such that embraces anxiety, temporality, and the awareness of death (Heidegger), the assault foisted on human dignity (Jean-Paul Sartre), his heroic attempt at self- assertion like Sisyphus (Albert Camus), and the subordination of his being to a chronometric senescence. His attempts to achieve self-plenum and to actuate the Gidean’s “existence is action “ dictum conflicts sharply, with his acceptance of defeat, his endless wait for an elusive salvation, and the consequent “nothing to be done” temperament (Samuel Beckett). Eurydice will die. Orpheus will journey to the underground to bring her back. Orpheus will look back, and Eurydice will disappear forever. All actions and inactions are part of the transcendental equation, and expressions of man’s vapourizing existence. The self cannot transcend itself. Essence is empty, existence, a veil for our “ falleness”.

In” The Metamorphosis”, Franz Kafka begins his story with the climax, the death of the protagonist:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic bug.”

It is a story about death in life, a spiritually inconclusive “petering out” devoid of hope or salvation. The transmogrification of Samsa defies logic, dramatizes the helpless state of man, and the bug, an insignificant insect, becomes a microdot version of the human cosmos. This mood of total impotence in the face of cosmic dictations is further reinforced in “A Hunger Artist”, another story written by Kafka. In it, the state of man in the universe is shown as a triadic construction involving the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The image of a lone quester, the eternal seeker ignored and forgotten by the world is indicative of the author’s constant dichotomy between the real and the ideal. The story is about an unnamed man in middle-aged Europe who employed fasting as a profession, a practice which was very popular at that time. He takes delight in his profession, fasts for forty days, and is taken from town to town as an exhibitionist piece, as people pay to see and evaluate him. For forty days, he would be encaged, and throngs of people would watch him day and night to assure themselves that there was no mischief: “…everybody wanted to see him at least once a day.”(400)

The opening sentence of the story introduces from the onset, the concept of time doubling as antagonist to human ontology. We are told that the only piece of furniture in the hunger artist’s cage is a clock, a cold, calculating, mechanical contrivance that ticks away with reductionist impact. In forty days, the hunger artist becomes emaciated. However:

“It was not perhaps mere fasting that had brought him to such skeleton thinness… perhaps it was dissatisfaction with...
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