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The Scream, Society, and the Common Man

Existentialist philosophy at first may appear to be at odds with the everyday world; however, existentialism has some very real applications in the context of society as opposed to the context of existence. Society gives us a role in life, something to give our lives meaning, but what happens when we look too closely at our role and reconsider it? What happens when we ask, “why?” “The Scream” by Edvard Munch is the answer. While not everyone in society feels like the man portrayed in Munch’s painting, a growing number of people do, and it is expressed in numerous ways through our society today. A plethora of evidence supports this assertion; from modern societal organization and alienation to specific examples of incidents caused by this “Scream”, to specific works in pop culture. Existentialism spawned from an expanding society, and will only become more relevant as the size of our society increases.

“The Scream” portrays an image of a man on the foreground of a bridge, an unrealistically slanted bridge with two shadowed figures behind him. He has his hands clasped to the sides of his head, engaged in a pure scream for no apparent reason. Munch’s poem narrating the work:

I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting. I felt a breath of melancholy - Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped, and leaned against the railing, deathly tired - looking out across the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and town. My friends walked on - I stood there, trembling with fear. And I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature.

The reason for the man’s great scream is intentionally ambiguous, indeed it seems as if there is no reason besides a sudden feeling that came over him. Indeed, he was walking with his friends, a time of supposed happiness! That is what this painting represents, not something terrible, not something evil and awful, but something that is intrinsic to the subject which causes fear- everything may seem just fine, and it very well may be from a native perspective, but this painting makes one think: Why is everything the way it is, and should it be that way? Analyzing this painting from a societal standpoint, it is a strong criticism of the pointlessness of our roles in society, our little cliques and niches, the drudgery of our jobs… sometimes one just wants to go out in the middle of nowhere and scream, scream for justice, scream for recognition, scream because things are how they are…

A long time ago, man lived in an agrarian, communal society; A small-town environment in which each man knew each other man, and they lived in cooperation with each other. When someone had a baby, the entire town would show up to congratulate that person, bearing gifts and cheer. Life had meaning. A man would live from day to day, upholding his status in society and living according to what his religion prescribed because he knew that was what man was supposed to do, and would be rewarded for. He knew people cared about him, his neighbors, his community and his government. When he walked down his street, people would be able to say, “Good evening Mr. Wallace,” or even, “Wallace! You lousy scumbag! You owe me money!” Life was harder then; there were few time-saving conveniences and no telephones to stay in constant contact. Granted, life was not perfect, there were feuds, killings, and other bad things, but in general, everyone knew what his purpose was.

Much changed in the industrial revolution. There was a shift away from this communal, agrarian society to the more harsh, if productive, industrial society. The system of unskilled, “dead body” labor emerged, making the worker little more than a machine to perform a task repeatedly. Sometimes they were even treated like machines, with a minimum of attention and recognition and a minimum of pay. People flocked to cities, which grew bigger than ever before. This “progress” has culminated to our modern-day situation.

Currently, our society is a gigantic monster. We have sometimes millions of people in a city, how can we pay attention to any particular one of them? When someone walks down a busy Los Angeles street, obviously no one will even say “hello.” Each man walks in his individual bubble, oblivious of those around him, aware of those he chooses to be, with cell phone and pager. It is so easy to imagine anyone in our society, the alienated, the disenfranchised, walking into the middle of town square or walking onto the golden gate bridge and screaming his lungs out in frustration. So easily can someone get lost in the shuffle, become just a figure on a tax form, vanish into the labyrinth of our society, that it happens to thousands of individuals, some of whom resent it and take action.

In the popular movie, Fight Club, middle class revolutionary Tyler Durden explains:

Fuck damnation. Fuck redemption. We are God's unwanted children, with no special place and no special attention, and so be it.

You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Tyler voices the alienation of the modern man, giving voice to the concerns of a people whose individuality has been forgotten and replaced with a mold that all are expected to fit. There is no more “town drunk”, “village idiot” or “upright banker”. Man is not judged on who he is anymore, but by what he possesses. If one possesses nothing, then one is nothing. One Size Fits All, Single Serving Only, Not For Individual Retail Sale. Society is so large that a collective identity is established, a norm that everyone seems to follow; it is necessary to drive a car to work, everyone drinks coffee, reads the same paper, follows a major political party, even the rebels are clichйd and expected. (just go to Berkeley) Everything is so silly and pointless, that it isn’t unusual that people just snap from the absurdity.

Specific evidence of these claims come from recent happenings, including the Colombine incident, the recent shooting in a German school, the increase in drug use to escape reality, “going postal”… the list goes on and on and on. Unlike the man in Munch’s painting, these people are not merely overcome with an incredible fear, they strike out at the world or try to hide from it. Many people fail to realize the toll our nameless, faceless society takes upon some people. It is hard to have nothing going for you, no future, no afterlife, no point. It is impossible to count how many of these people there are, but the more memorable ones we remember. Their senseless acts of violence and rage scar our society to the core, and yet we don’t understand why they do these things… Can society do anything to fix this? When will the individual again matter? Or will we just live on in our self-absorbed collective euphoria? If so, we must be prepared when the drug wears off.

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