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Existentionalism and Personal Significance in Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand

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Cover art for  Doorways in the Sand 
 under fair use from ISFDB I have enjoyed reading all of my life. When I was ten, while other kids were outside playing ball, I was sitting on the porch reading the dictionary. Eventually, I discovered science fiction, which I have read avidly for many years. Of all the story's I have read, the pivotal one for me is the story that prompted me to return to school and seek a BA in English Literature: Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand. Doorways tells the story of Fred Cassidy, a professional student and his involvement in the quest for an alien artifact, the Star Stone. This story helped me to realize that, like Fred, I enjoy the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It also has given me insight into my own life and helped me develop an understanding of how I fit in with the rest of the universe: somewhere between Zelazny's passion and Camus' futility.

In a memorable and for me significant part of this story, Fred reflects on the time a college adviser told him he was, "a living example of the absurdity of things" (Zelazny 27). He alludes passingly to a French novelist and goes on to describe the absurdity of the situation in which he as found himself. He has been staked-out in the desert by men who demand to know the location of the Star Stone; information he does not have (Zelazny 27-36). Besides arousing my curiosity about French existentialism, the comparison opened the way for me to examine the absurd in my own life. One absurdity in my life is that I perform well in a profession I loathe: nursing. I have been bound by monetary chains to nursing for more than twenty years. Unlike Fred, I lack a not quite dead uncle who can afford to sustain me in a career of scholarly pursuit (Zelazny 6). Financially, I am on my own. Thus, if I seek a career doing what I enjoy, learning for its own sake, I must first sacrifice my income to attend classes. If I reduce my income too greatly, I cannot afford school. Conversely, if I work too much, I cannot give my studies the attention they deserve. The best answer is a compromise, in which I work part time and attend classes part time.

Although Fred's life has its share of absurdity, he deals with life in a more active and dynamic faction than Camus' stranger or his judge-penitent. Fred is like Mersault and Clamence in that he is able to maintain a remarkable sense of detachment and objectivity. This is shown by his dispassionate summary of his torment by two of the story's villains (Zelazny 29-34). He differs from Camus' characters in his outlook on offenses and his emotional engagement with life. Mersault declaims, "The more I judge myself, the more right I have to judge you. Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and that relieves me of that much of the burden" (Camus, Fall 140). Thus, he condemns the world and himself. Like Clamence, Fred realizes that humans are not angels and seldom act from divine motives. Despite this, Fred reserves reserves judgment for those who have gone out of their way to injure him. However, he is still willing to forgive others if he can understand the circumstance that lead to their behavior. For instance, although Paul Byler has ransacked Fred's apartment and assaulted Fred in a desperate attempt to locate the stone, Fred understands his motivation and is willing to work with him to solve the problem (Zelazny 12-16). However, he avoids Clamence's morass of treating all offenders equally, as is seen in his treatment of the author of his woes. He does attempt to save this final culprit, but it is a utilitarian act rather than one of magnanimity (Zelazny 167).

Although Fred shares the Stranger's sense of detachment, he lacks his callousness and sense of alienation. Mersault, who behaves as though numb during the first half of the novel, expresses no feeling except a vague sense of guilt caused by what he surmises to be the feelings of others, even at his mother's funeral (Camus, Stranger 11). An active participant in life physically and intellectually, he has separated his feelings from life. Not until the second half of the novel, when his life hangs in the balance, does he express an interest in living (Camus, Stranger 135). Still, he feels that nothing has mattered, or will matter, or could matter because, all alike would be condemned to die one day. . ." (Camus, Stranger 152). Unlike Mersasult, Fred is fully engaged in his life and is appreciative of it. Though he may die one day, he is determined to live life on the best terms he can arrange. For instance, when his livelihood is terminated, he expresses and acts out of anger, punching the man responsible in the eye (Zelazny 87). On a more positive note, he goes out of his way to sustain and nourish his friendships. First he attempts to salvage his relationship with his girlfriend, sharing a weekend with her in which he takes obvious delight (Zelazny 168). Toward the end of the story he goes out of his way to take a gift to an old friend. Fred's delight in giving this gift, a new and exotic cognac, is evident (Zelazny 175). From these examples it is clear that Fred is determined to live, while Mersault has died long before his execution.

If given a choice, I should rather live than die, regardless of life's absurdity. According to Cruikshank, Camus wrote that whether or not life is worth living is the ultimate question (Cruikshank 212). For Clamence, the answer is "yes," or he would have jumped into the river long before he engages the audience in his one-sided conversation. I suppose he enjoys misery or hopes one day to improve his life-- "se la vie" with a question mark. Mersault wants to live, but has failed to learn how. Fred leads a life of the sort that is only read about; no one really lives this way-- "se la vie" in bold face and with an exclamation point. As for me, I am convinced there is no such thing as a meaning to life per se. If my life is to have any meaning, then I must be the one to define it. As I hurry through each day, paying lip service to my mortality, I sometimes forget to cherish my life. This, I think, is Mersault's real crime: that knowing his life would someday come to an end, he failed to cherish each moment as though it were his last. This then is my resolve: to cherish each day for whatever it brings. Se la vie. .

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Fall. Trans. Justin O'Brien. NewYork: Random House, 1956.

---. The Stranger. 1942. Trans. Stewart Gilbert. New York: Random House, 1972.

Cruikshank, John. "Albert Camus." in The Novelist as Philosopher. Ed. John Cruikshank. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962: 206-229.

Zelazny, Roger. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.