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Are there some or many songs by Georges Brassens which could be considered as existentialist?

A Wikipedia definition of the philosophy of existentialism (developed by authors such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, but also Sartre and Camus):

Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence.1 Existentialist philosophers explore questions related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence. Common concepts in existentialist thought include existential crisis, dread, and anxiety in the face of an absurd world, as well as authenticity, courage, and virtue.[3]

I think we can legitimately ask this question, since French existentialism was popular in intellectual circles in Paris, at the moment Brassens lived there (around year 1945) [1], and was politically, professionnally (as a journalist for an anarchist journal) and artistically active.

Thinking about it, many of his lyrics are written from a very subjective standpoint ("Le Parapluie", "Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit"), and exhibit a quite cynical view on human existence ("Les amoureux des bancs publics", "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux"), although they don't overtly talk about the absurd.

Edit: Thanks to Armand's answer, I came to the idea that Brassens was certainly in the "cynicism" tradition (Diogenes), therefore his natural acquaintance whith anarchism. This confers him a common point with the hippie movement, which also partly draw upon cynicism.

Definition of cynicism, from the IEP:

Foremost for understanding the Cynic conception of ethics is that virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Social conventions, however, can hinder the good life by compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason. Conventions are not inherently bad; however, for the Cynic, conventions are often absurd and worthy of ridicule. (...) Only once one has freed oneself from the strictures that impede an ethical life can one be said to be truly free. As such, the Cynics advocate askēsis, or practice, over theory as the means to free oneself from convention, promote self-sufficiency, and live in accord with nature. Such askēsis leads the Cynic to live in poverty, embrace hardship and toil, and permits the Cynic to speak freely about the silly, and often vicious, way life is lived by his or her contemporaries.

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  • without at least some song lyrics, you may want to ask this on music stack
    – user67302
    Aug 19, 2023 at 4:25
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    Existentialism is not really a philosophical school since it is not logically consistent (existentialists can't even define the term existence). Due to such inconsistency, any song can be associated with existentialism; and not. In addition, the Wikipedia definition is quite bad, applies to multiple schools of philosophy.
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 19, 2023 at 6:57
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    i.e. their approach to their object (human condition), which is marked by a radical subjectivism
    – Starckman
    Aug 19, 2023 at 7:01
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    @Starckman "they reject defining rules": Exactly! That's why existentialism is not really a school. But the thing is even worst, they HAVE defined contradictory rules as the result of their void philosoph-esque narrative. Statements are essentially judgements, which are rules; just by writing something, you are submitting rules (consistent or not) to logic.
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 19, 2023 at 7:17
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 19, 2023 at 7:31

3 Answers 3

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One could probably say so, although Brassens would certainly not have identified as member of any "-ism" current.

His clear rejection of social norms indicates he was no essentialist ("Le pluriel", "La mauvaise réputation", "Mourir pour des idées").

He was cynical about love, particularly the idea that it can last forever ("La non-demande en mariage", "À l'ombre des maris") but not friendship. Overall it can be felt that he was aware of the fact human relationships, and state of being in a general way, are transient ("Le boulevard du temps qui passe").

There is also a materialist feeling that people's thoughts and values are determined by their life conditions and not the other way around ("Le petit joueur de flûteau", "Auprès de mon arbre").

However, one thing that is completely absent of his texts is "existential crisis, dread, and anxiety". Although Brassens talks about death a whole lot, he seems at peace with the idea ("Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète", "Les Quat’z’arts"), and even the death of people close to him ("Les copains d'abord") but not in an uncaring way. He clearly thought about it and has come to terms with it.

Although he is clearly anticlerical, there is a form of respect for transcendence and one song I don't quite know what to think about ("Le Grand Pan") where he longs for enchantment in the world.

All things concerned I wouldn't qualify him as an existentialist proper, but more of an Epicurian. If I had to link him to another French thinker, Brassens looks closer to Montaigne than Camus or Sartres.

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    (incredible answer, thank you very much)
    – Starckman
    Aug 19, 2023 at 7:08
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Brassens was not cynical about love, he just didn't believe in monogamous marriage, and all the hypocrisy that goes with it.

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We have a lot to learn from Brassen, like to many great song writers. I think what is key is that - while I wouldn't look for arguments in song lyrics - only a little epiphany that we can stay alive anyway - you should only really fear yourself and your actions, not what you completely lack control over. Sometimes bad people succeed over you, but please do wait and see.

Epiphany? How can you believe everything they tell you?

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