- Sabato's El tunel and the Existential Novel
Critics of Sábato's El túnel are agreed (insofar as they address the matter at all) that El túnel is an existential novel, but a clear definition of the form and the evidence that fits the book to the genre are not available in the criticism. It is the purpose of the present writing to establish the terms of the "existential" novel and to present the evidence that identifies El túnel as an example of that form.
According to Professor Walcutt "all literature is based on some concept of the nature of man" (4). In order to make the case that El túnel is an existential novel, it is necessary first to describe those aspects of existential thought that bear on the literary exploitation of existential concerns. A complication is that it is in the nature of existentialism to make it more appropriate to identify the assumptions by which the existentialist arrives at his position rather than to cite the details of his particular philosophic synthesis. Existentialism, with its emphasis on the personal, unique, and therefore subjective, is better described as a philosophic method than as a philosophic system. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason describes a philosophic system based on reason, but it is to a denial of the exclusivity of reason as a means for identifying the real world that existentialist thinkers have addressed themselves. Their intuitive approach [End Page 459] denies the possibility of a final solution to the problems of existence other than those painfully derived by each individual. Thus it is more accurate to speak of "existentialists" than it is to speak of an existential movement, if by the latter term is meant a group of thinkers sharing a common set of final assumptions.
In its literary manifestation, existentialism shares some of the difficulties of romanticism in that it is difficult to form an exclusive and operational definition. It is possible, however, to describe the philosophical positions of the existentialists and to indicate how these positions have determined the form of their literary works. The demonstration of a thesis must incorporate both necessary conditions and sufficient conditions to be termed valid. It is necessary, therefore, but not sufficient to show that Ernesto Sábato was familiar with the existentialists and their ideas. Sábato was in Paris during the last years of the decade of the 1930s when existentialism was a part of the ideological climate. His early essays, collected under the title One and the Universe, contain the idea that man must reject the reductivity of positivistic science and return to a balance that incorporates the intuitive, the irrational, and the subjective. The statement may appear to be atypical, coming as it does from a man whose academic training through the doctorate was in theoretical physics. In his subsequent book Heterodoxy, also a collection of essays on several subjects, there is a discussion of Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading literary exponent of existentialism. Yet another collection of essays by Sábato, Men and Gears, contains an essay entitled "The Existential Reaction," which includes commentary on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Camus: the grand pantheon of literary existentialism. Such interest on the part of Sábato, but not all of the publications cited above, antedate the appearance of El túnel in 1948. So much for the necessary conditions—the external case.
The major assumptions and directions of literary existentialism are by this time in the public domain and subject to general agreement and description (cf. Kern). Among the existential themes or ideas that have been reflected in literary works is the contrast between the private self and the public mask. Several of Kierkegaard's illustrative stories in otherwise philosophical treatises make the distinction, and it is a major theme in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Another theme is that of the absurd man resolved to live meaningfully in a world without meaning; Sartre's Nausea is the obvious example. The man of good faith, who is determined to live authentically, is a theme implicit in all the major existentialist writings. The assertion that man's freedom is absolute...