An optimistic novel for an indoctrinated nihilist?
March 10, 2009 2:46 PM   Subscribe

What is a classic, perhaps philosophical, novel about individual freedom to choose? So that no matter how desperate the situation you find yourself in, you always have choices about what to do, how to feel and how to think about your situation.

The book is for a Russian lady who grew up mostly in the Soviet era but finds herself in Western civilisation somewhat isolated. When things get very difficult, she tends to react in a nihilistic fashion, rather than a hopeful optimistic fashion. I was thinking some thing in the Jean-Paul Satre mold, but then my knowledge of novels is very limited so very open to suggestions. Ideally it would be so widely available that its pretty likely I could find it written in Russian.
posted by zaebiz to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The classic book to make this argument is not a novel; it's a memoir of the concentration camps - Man's Search For Meaning.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:53 PM on March 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't know that this qualifies, but Saint Exupery's Wind Sand and Stars has gotten me out of brain ruts in the past. It's more about what things matter in life, rather than which choices got him there, though. The other things I can think of are probably too new age-y.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:55 PM on March 10, 2009

You'll hardly find a better novel along these lines than East of Eden.
posted by nasreddin at 3:13 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Going off of just the part of the question that's displayed on the main page, I was going to recommend John Barth's The End of the Road. Barth's previous novel (The Floating Opera) was an argument for nihilism; The End of the Road is an argument against nihilism. But now that I see you're looking for an optimistic book, this one is probably not appropriate. It doesn't proceed by showing how great it is to have choices; it proceeds by showing how nihilism leads to horror and tragedy. It is not an uplifting novel.
posted by painquale at 3:34 PM on March 10, 2009

Seconding Viktor Frankl as the classic proponent of this viewpoint - basically, that the last of human freedoms is the ability to choose your response, whatever the situation. Recommended as a tremendously inspiring read.
posted by Weng at 4:08 PM on March 10, 2009

V for Vendetta

It seems strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and apologized to no one. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish. Every inch, but one. An inch. It is small and it is fragile and it is the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it or give it away. We must NEVER let them take it from us. I hope that whoever you are, you escape this place. I hope that the worlds turns, and that things get better. But what I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that, even though I do not know you, and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you, I love you. With all my heart, I love you. Valerie.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:09 PM on March 10, 2009

JP Sartre is a good start, but can be a little dense and intense. Easier existentialist novels on the theme of choice would be Simone de Beauvoir's Les Belles Images and The Blood of Others.
posted by girlgenius at 4:32 PM on March 10, 2009

posted by Sitegeist at 4:48 PM on March 10, 2009

OK, I fully expect to get flamed for this, but...

Anthem, by Ayn Rand
posted by leotrotsky at 5:18 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Frankl is awesome, by the by.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:19 PM on March 10, 2009

She might like Luke Rhinehart's "The Dice Man" which is about a guy who decides to make every decision in the throw of a die.
posted by rongorongo at 5:58 PM on March 10, 2009

Blindness by José Saramago (wiki) is a very gentle and compassionate look at a world of the blind.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (wiki) is a heavier, shocking look at a dead world all but snuffing out the flame of love.

(2nding advice to avoid the traditional existentialists....though I find Camus the most cheery of the bunch)
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:20 PM on March 10, 2009

Response by poster: b1tr0t: "When things get very difficult, she tends to react in a nihilistic fashion

Oops, you should avoid Sartre and Camus.

Why? Maybe nihilistic isn't the right word I am looking for. I mean kind of amoral and without hope for the future.
posted by zaebiz at 9:08 PM on March 10, 2009

Also recommending Frankl.
posted by neuron at 10:08 PM on March 10, 2009

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand.
posted by konig at 11:13 PM on March 10, 2009

I'm surprised no one explicitly recommended The Stranger by Camus.. one could read it as Nihilistic but I always took it be a relatively positive book in that we control our lives and its outcomes and are the masters of meaning relative to ourselves. To a lot of people its an incredibly freeing idea. Whether one is Nihilistic or hopeful in light of that really comes down to the individual and how they choose to view it... 2 sides of the same coin if you ask me.
posted by zennoshinjou at 4:45 AM on March 11, 2009

I'd add Camus The Plague to the list. I wouldn't call it optimistic, but it does focus on the ability (and necessity) to choose, especially in a dark situation. I'd recommend this one over The Stranger, in fact, unless you're prepared to have a discussion with your friend about the different ways of interpreting the ending (as that novel can mean vastly different things, depending especially on how you interpret the ending).
posted by wheat at 6:27 AM on March 11, 2009

Narcissus and Goldmund, or Siddharta, by Hermann Hesse.
posted by nicolin at 8:03 AM on March 11, 2009

I second "East of Eden" my favorite novel!
posted by kat721 at 8:59 AM on March 11, 2009

Why? Maybe nihilistic isn't the right word I am looking for. I mean kind of amoral and without hope for the future.

Both The Stranger and The Plague do not encourage "hopeful optimism," but rather a deeper engagement with the practice of living. The philosophical lessons of any existentialist/absurdist are just not going to break down to "keep hope alive!" In fact, Camus' essay The Myth of Sisyphus hinges on painting 'hope' as a destructive force which prevents us from being at peace with a reality full of struggles. If you hadn't filled out the "more inside" box, though, Camus would be perfect.

Sure, Camus and Sartre could produce the results you'd like in your friend, but it would be a circuitous path, fraught with the annihilation of traditional ideologies and a hefty learning curve. It might even be a little rude to suggest them as self-help, since there's alot of radical critique of traditional institutions (religion, law, social conventions, morality). I mean, it's great literature, and anyone open to it should read away, but just give the wikis some thought or read them yourself before recommending them.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:53 AM on March 12, 2009

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