Existential responsibility started long before Nietzsche and company espoused those virtues, dating as far back as Aeschylus in his portrayal of Prometheus, the giver of light:
I know exactly every thing/That is to be; no torment will come unforeseen/My appointed fate I must endure as best I can/Knowing the power of Necessity is irresistible/Under such suffering, speech and silence are alike/Beyond me. For bestowing gifts upon mankind/I am harnessed in this torturing clamp.
For I am he/Who hunted out the source of fire, and stole it, packed/In the pith of a dry fennel-stalk. And the fire has proved/For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource/That was the sin for which I now pay the full price/Bared to the winds of heaven, bound and crucified (ll 101-111, Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound)
There is nothing like a little 20th-Century French thought to help process just how long this quarantine will go on:
Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is. (Jean-Paul Sartre)
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day of his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. (Albert Camus)
Not sure what to do with yourself as you look out that window hour upon hour upon hour? There’s nothing better than a little existential thought to crack that nut. Let’s start with the nihilistic captain himself, Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Whither is God” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now?”
“Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?“
Max Frisch writes of imprisonment in his remarkable novel, I’m Not Stiller.
My cell – I have just measured it with my shoe which is a trifle less than twelve inches long – is small, like everything in this country, so clean one can hardly breathe for all the hygiene, and oppressive precisely because everything is just right. Frisch’s book focuses not so much on physical imprisonment as the meta:
How can anyone prove who they really are? I can’t. Do I know myself who I am? That is the terrifying discovery I have made while under arrest. I have no words for my reality.And the impossibility of understanding one another:
As soon as I feel that I am alone with a simple self-evident truth I lose sight of its self-evidence, blurring it with hasty similes that are supposed to help the other person understand me, but in reality only confuse what was originally a clear realization, and finally defending what I ruined with arguments that are sheer nonsense. This novel is akin to the loss of identity found in other great works, such as Vladimir Nabakov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Gunter Grass’ Tin Drum and the journeys of K throughout much of Franz Kafka’s work. Similarly the issue of identity is addressed much as it is in The Return of Martin Guerre and Luigi Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal. Frisch is direct on this very issue throughout the narrative:
You can put anything into words, except your own life. It is this impossibility that condemns us to remain as our companions see us and mirror us, those who claim to know me, those who call themselves my friends, and never allow me to change simply so they can say” I know you.”