A question on a text thread from a college-age former student: "What would you say, colloquially speaking, makes a work existentialist?"
My initial response: "Working from the premise that life is inherently absurd and meaningless, and, thus, the only meaning to a man's life is that which he defines and creates for it, dealing with existence as it is, rather than some arbitrary, contrived, pre-established notions of how things are supposed to be and what they really mean."
The conversation that followed veered into distinctions from nihilism, which I feel is ultimately pessimistic in a way that existentialism isn't, or at least doesn't have to be. As the discussion veered off, I begin thinking about some of the ways I have introduced my students to the concept with the study of and references to literature and pop culture such as Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Hemingway's Code Hero in The Old Man & the Sea, the contemporary films Groundhog Day and Stranger Than Fiction, and even the story of the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
It's a big topic, existentialism, which is also a rather simple and straightforward idea, which can often be explained through some of our most familiar stories. Amusingly it was in a short essay by Robert Fulghum and on a CD of children's songs I had for my kids in the early 2000s which talked about the existentialist nature of the story of the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
This fact is indeed the interpretative key to the whole puzzle: Camus’ Sisyphus climbs the hill because his live has no other meaning, but Jacques’ Sisyphus climbs the spout because he lives in ignorance of his life’s meaning. Spiders, after all, make webs and catch insects, and we have no reason to believe that a spider doing so will face anything like the existential emptiness of Sisyphus. A spiderweb made, for example, next to the water spout, will certainly be able to withstand the coming rain. This subtle change allows Jacques to reframe Camus’ existential dread not as the desperate cry of a man in an absurd world, but merely as the confused ramblings of a spider who has seen that he was not meant to climb water spouts and concluded that he must not be meant for anything.