Cultivating discomfort: An exploration of existentialism and horror

Plan Author

  • Autumn Mackin, 2018

Fields of Concentration

Sample Course

  • Course: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life
  • Course: Subculture and Society
  • Tutorial: Temporality and the Self
  • Tutorial: Humanistic Psychology

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Deb Gorlin, Hampshire College


This Plan comprises three distinct parts. “Autopsy: a Memoir” is a plunge into my experience, an attempt to find meaning in the darkest of places. It offers an experiential account of mental disturbances; it is a portrait of a traumatized mind and body offered without the clinical filter of psychology. Although the memoir is the central piece in this Plan, it is accompanied by two other pieces that serve to further cultivate the idea of discomfort from additional angles. The literary analysis of Sartre’s Nausea is an exploration of the theory and philosophy behind cultivating discomfort. Venturing into the imaginary, “Transmutation” is a work of fiction that explores my unfulfilled possibilities, the person I’d be if my life had maintained its horrific rhythms. This Plan is a collage of the horror, pain, and beauty of experience, pieced together with the objects in my life that allow me to find meaning among the suffering.


I obsess over collecting pages and pages of quotes on everything I read, the act of handwriting these pebbles of knowledge, pouring over every word, materializing them, tracing letters, imagining the impact of each line. Sometimes I talk back to these writers, exploring their perspectives, trying to peek into their minds. It is crucial to keep these small notebooks organized, careful to make sure these thinkers have their own spaces carved out accordingly. The collected weight of these minds, all commingling, conflict pressed together in the pages, cheek to cheek—this is the beauty, the art of it all. When I pour over these pages I do not feel as though they are compilation outside of myself. Ink touches paper as a kind of umbilical cord to the self.

Sartre’s Nausea shows us that “horror is not only a peculiar emotional arising from time to time in response to a possible monstrosity, but it is an enduring feature of our being in the world.” Existence itself can take on the shape of a monster. Nausea elucidates our ambiguous, unique, and sometimes challenging, being. In order to face oneself authentically, one must face the absurdity of existence. This means laying aside the common understanding of the world that we are given by the they.

Nicholas washes his face, trying to steady his hands. His dreams have become a battlefield. All of his energy goes to maintaining some sort of balance between the opposing sides. He dries his face, and catches a blur of movement in the mirror when he hangs up the towel. His mouth fills with saliva as he tries to swallow the lump in his throat. He attempts to take in the figure reflected in the glass. A pale landscape of a face stretches down from a cluster of knotty roots, dropping, pulling itself around chaotic curves—a surrealist sculpture.


What I remember most was seeing my vision come to life. I couldn’t have done it without the structure and brainstorming sessions provided by my wonderful Plan sponsors. It is incredibly rewarding to see a year’s worth of work come to fruition. I really liked a Plan Writing Workshop in which two other seniors and myself workshopped each other’s writing every week. The feedback was invaluable and I really enjoyed seeing what my peers were doing, the ways in which their Plans were taking shape.

The most interesting thing about my Plan is the multi-genre approach. My Plan contains memoir, philosophy, literature, art, critical analysis, non-fiction, and fiction writing. I like to keep the reader guessing. I hope to expand parts of my Plan into a book. The Plan process reassured me of my ability to see the bigger picture—to manage a long term project—as well as of my voice as a writer.


Artwork by Autumn Mackin.