Online Edition: Summer 2003

Existential America

Existential America

George Cotkin

The Johns Hopkins University Press ($39.95)

by Christopher Luna

Existentialists argue for personal responsibility in the face of what Walter Kaufmann identified as the four elements of this philosophy: "dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness." But as George Cotkin's overview of existentialism's influence upon American culture points out, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir felt that the "confidence and na•ve optimism" of Americans blinded them to "the problems of existence, authenticity, and alienation." Beauvoir especially found Americans to be materialistic, "afraid of freedom, unwilling to engage in high-level discussions of serious ideas, childish in some ways, and unable to trust themselves." Yet Cotkin shows there was an existential strain in American culture that preceded all three of these philosophers, in the work of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Edward Hopper, among others. Unlike their French counterparts, American intellectuals "refused to make a fetish out of nihilism"; instead, "anguish and despair" functioned as "goads to action and commitment."

As Cotkin goes on to illustrate, the horror of World War I and "the skeptical disposition of science had rendered traditional beliefs untenable." The influence of Soren Kierkegaard's "inwardness and religious anxiety" upon American religious thinkers and artists in the first half of the century "did not bode well for political radicalism or reform; it supported for some intellectuals a retreat from leftist commitments of the 1930s." Kierkegaard shared a "faith in the absurd" with his largely conservative followers, who "found much of American religion empty, marked by rote optimism and belief in progress."

The willingness of Kierkegaardian thinkers to wrestle with "paradox, irony, and tragedy" in the aftermath of World War II made the Danish philosopher's ideas very attractive to writers including Thornton Wilder and W.H. Auden, as well as the painters Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, for whom art was "a mythological and heroic 'act of defiance,' which opened the path to transcendence through engagement with the canvas and the unconscious." Kierkegaard's "mode of argument, positing two opposites," was also posthumously appropriated by Cold War proponents who demanded that Americans make a choice between "faith in God and faith in communism."

In the 1940s and 1950s, as the ideas of Sartre and Beauvoir attained prominence, the press emphasized their happiness in an effort to dismiss their philosophy as a pose. The couple skillfully manipulated their reception in France and the United States, presenting a "model of the philosopher as personality" that made them vastly popular. But ultimately, "the reception and dissemination of existentialism" was beyond their control. The chilly reception Sartre and Beauvoir received from the New York intellectuals, anti-Stalinists who "feared the power of popular and middlebrow culture," will be familiar to anyone who has ever argued over whether a particular artist's best work occurred before they achieved fame. Despite their criticisms of existentialism, the writing of New York intellectuals such as Saul Bellow "adopted many of its essentials."

Norman Mailer saw Sartre as "the only thinker in the world who could match him." Both "shared a desire. . . to effect 'a revolution in the consciousness of our time,'" though Mailer thought that Sartre "lacked a sufficient sense of evil." Mailer labeled his own novel, The Barbary Shore, (1951) as existential, and revealed an "existential focus" in The Naked and the Dead, (1948) where "the absurdity of war" is "demonstrated in the utter inability of men to control external events and the forces of nature."

Cotkin includes an astute analysis of Mailer's well-known essay, "The White Negro," in which he claimed that blacks had been "transformed into the psychopathic hipster through centuries of oppressive social conditions." Like Jack Kerouac and the photographer Robert Frank, Mailer saw African-Americans as "endowed with existential recognition and freedom." Cotkin sees this appropriation of the image of the "Negro as sexual libertine" as an act of "bad faith" and racist stereotyping. Mailer's habitual celebration of psychopaths leaves him in "no man's land. Action replaces impotence . . . but at the cost of human solidarity." Mailer is ultimately a "fundamentalist" who believes that only those "who live close to the abyss, who battle against the conformity of American culture. . . are near to religious ecstasy and existential transcendence."

The ideas of Camus appealed to student activists during the 1960s. Like Camus, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Robert Moses and Tom Hayden, radical activist and drafter of the Port Huron Statement, "worried about how the rebel could avoid becoming the oppressor." Moses felt a certain amount of responsibility for those who were injured or killed in the civil rights movement, while Hayden came to regret calling for violent revolution, having learned from Camus that in "defining ourselves, we must move beyond mere inwardness toward commitment to values such as justice and humaneness." Unfortunately, this section of the book is undermined by Cotkin's statement that these students "were the last generation for whom books made a difference," a conclusion that will surely surprise every scholar and writer alive during the four subsequent decades.

Cotkin concludes with a comparison of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1962), best-selling books that "transformed the lives of many women in America." Both women focused on the "responsibility of the individual" rather than external sources of oppression, and both held "the existential imperative that men and women create themselves through constant acts of negation and transcendence." But Beauvoir did not "appreciate the heroism of women working against constraints in a limited fashion: surviving domestic violence, facing yet another pregnancy, managing to support a family." Friedan, in turn, disagreed with Beauvoir's critique of capitalism; instead, she "was a reformist, wanting women to have opportunities equal to those of men within the existing structures of power." By 1975, when they met for the first time, "Friedan's conservatism . . . and her rejection of sexual politics--indeed, even of discussions of sexual identity--marked her as bourgeois and backward-looking." Beauvoir saw Friedan's ideas for reform as "reactionary, linked to a notion that 'women are doomed to stay at home.'" Both women virtually ignored the plight of the working class and avoided the subject of non-white women altogether.

Within "liberal and leftist academic circles, existentialism had, by the 1970s and 1980s, been pushed aside by deconstructionist and postmodern theory. . . . Critics derided existentialism for its refusal to understand the science of signs, the ways in which the human individual is constructed and constrained by structures of thought." Nevertheless, Cotkin concludes that "existentialism is receiving renewed attention in American culture because it speaks to everyone's frustrations in life: to dissatisfaction with ideals of success and to the unavoidably tragic nature of existence." He hopes that we will be able to "pass through despair to, if not salvation, then to a depth of understanding that is at once humbling and enabling."

Despite its fascinating subject matter, Existential America suffers from a maddening repetitiveness. Particular words (e.g. "anguish" and "absurd") and phrases recur so frequently that one is forced to wonder whether the author lacks imagination or is simply insulting our intelligence. Many of the chapters began as articles in scholarly journals and magazines, and it shows. Although it is unfortunate that more attention was not paid to the overall coherence of the narrative, Existential America is a useful reference volume for students of philosophy and American culture.

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Summer 2003 Table of Contents