Grendel the Existentialist Monster
The monster Grendel is the ironic eye through which the action is viewed and from this perspective he provides the reader with never-ending examples of buffoonery and self-parody. Often his claims reveal the Sartrean component in his makeup: “I create the whole universe, blink by blink”(Gardner 22). Gardner,of course,wants to make a point here about solipsism. There is more to the objective world than Grendel’s ego. Naturally the universe still exists when Grendel closes his eyes. Likewise, when Grendel says “I observe myself observing what I observe”, (Gardner 29) ,he reminds us of Sartre’s view of the self-reflective nature of consciousness. As he said in his interview, Gardner planned to parody Sartre’s ideas in Being and Nothingess in these sections of the novel.
When Grendel says “then I am not that which observes! I am lack. Alack. “(Gardner 29) he plays on the French verb manquer(to lack) that Sartre uses in his description of the lacking quality of consciousness. This ability to observe his observing is a clue to the philosophical underpinnings of the early chapters. Gardner’s irony should be crystal clear–Grendel is amusing himself with Sartre’s phenomenology.
Now what is the reader to make of all this? A brief summary of Sartre’s description of consciousness may help. According toSartre man exists on the level of being-in-itself(as a body in a world of objects) and on the level of being-for-itself(consciousness ). The key to understanding Grendel’s view of the world is this distinction between the in-itself and the for-itself.Since, for Sartre, being-in-itself is uncreated(he can find no evidence of a creating God) and superfluous(“de trop”), it reveals itself as a sort of absurd, meaningless outer reality. But being-for-itself, on the other hand, is the awareness that consciousness is not the being of the in-itself. Its being is revealed in a more paradoxical way– as an emptiness in the center of being. How can it be aware of itself as an object?Impossible says Sartre. Simply put, the for-itself is the absence or the lack(thus Grendel’s “lack”) of the objectness of the in-itself . It reveals itself as the nothingness that remains when you realize that your consciousness is not an awareness of an object(such as your body), but rather an awareness of the lack of an object; or,to put it another way, it is an awareness of a nihilated presence.Grendel is proof that only an existentialist could make such a distinction.
Grendel may wish that his world was not “de trop” and that his being was not grounded in nothingess, but in keeping with his existentialist view of the world, he only sees an indifferent universe–“de trop”from top to bottomAs he sees it, he is eternally doomed to live as the in-itself; he will never be able to transcend himself and achieve oneness with nature. Perhaps what he should have perceived was the possibility of choosing to see the for-itself as the basis of his freedom. His bad-faith of course prevents that option .He objectifies his consciousness and acts as if he is only a thing. Elsewhere, when he tells his mother that he now understands “the meaningless, objectness of the world, the universal bruteness.”(Gardner 28) he shifts the focus to Sartre’s discussion of the metaphysical nausea produced by a world of meaningless objects .
In all of this Grendel’s bad-faith is the target of Gardners polemic. Even if Grendel is the offspring of Cain, he continually reminds himself (not unlike the shaper) that he is free to change his behavior. But then again, he asks himself, why should he? On what grounds? So he knowingly denies his potential to choose moral behavior and continues to believe the fiction that he’s a meaningless object. His nihilistic revelations about the indifference of the universe and the relativity of values are nothing more than a feeble attempt to justify his role as a murderer. These ironic lines merely affirm the existence of the for-itself. When the forest echoes “why not?” (in other words, why not be good?) he hears his own repressed self. All in all, Grendel the existentialist monster is a brilliant vehicle for Gardner’s dissection of the loopholes in Sartre’s definition of consciousness as nothingness.
Grendel the Existentialist Monster