Adam Ash

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Existentialism for today

Pessimism vs. Existentialism – by ROBERT C. SOLOMON/The Chronicle

Pessimism is back. That will not surprise anyone who has been keeping track of the nation's pulse over the past several months — or perhaps the last several years. Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, which may have cost him a second term, would not be at all inappropriate today. Our famous American optimism faces a mortal threat in the combination of an unwinnable war, a collapsing dollar, a sagging economy for most people, trouble on the job front for graduating students, and lowered expectations generally. And that's aside from the recent scandals among our religious, corporate, and political leaders, and the pervasive suspicion that results.

So opined Adam Cohen recently in the International Herald Tribune, and so, too, according to a recent book by Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (Princeton University Press, 2006). In his defense of pessimism as an appropriate and realistic philosophy, Dienstag points to the usual suspects: Arthur Schopenhauer, of course, the great 19th-century pessimist; but also Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus and the modern movement called existentialism.

I do not disagree with the diagnosis, but I am disturbed by the continued reference to existentialism as a pessimistic, negative philosophy. It is often considered such. Only a few weeks ago I heard a radio commentator declare that the "nothing really matters" lyric from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was truly "existential." And I still hear pundits and some of my university colleagues decry existentialism as the source of our nihilistic gloom, the reason why our students don't vote and why they experiment with dangerous drugs. I listen to such comments with a mix of amusement and horror because I like existentialism and I think that existentialism, not pessimism, is what America needs right now.

Existentialism is said to be all about "the death of God," the meaninglessness of human life, and the anxiety those provoke. It is in the face of such anxiety that one needs the courage to make meanings, to be oneself. The theme gets dutifully traced back to Søren Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and forward through Martin Heidegger, Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Tillich, and Viktor Frankl, always with a touch of heroism but surrounded by the darkness of despair and ultimate meaninglessness.

In the early years of existentialism in postwar Europe, the emphasis was indeed on gloom and hopelessness. The books and articles that made the biggest splash — William Barrett's Irrational Man, for instance — were those that bemoaned the death of God and the despair and meaninglessness that are implied by that cosmic absence. That was challenged in the 60s by the celebrations of hipness in the United States at the hands of Norman Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, and some of the Beats. The heady optimism that ruled America in those years leavened the Old World gloom and turned meaninglessness into a challenge, recasting the death of God into a sense of liberation. Even in Europe, existentialism came to present itself as a positive philosophy, a philosophy of hope, in works like Camus's essay "The Rebel" and Sartre's lecture "Existentialism Is a Humanism."

It is my contention that the whole movement has been misinterpreted, turned upside down by three generations of critics and commentators. Needless to say, the perception of existentialism as an atheistic philosophy has had a lot to do with that, since there have been a lot of people with a vested interest in the idea that a world without God could not possibly have meaning. But apart from that dubious contention, such interpretations display real ignorance of the fact that one of the leading existentialists, Kierkegaard, was a devout Christian, and many existentialists since — Karl Barth and Martin Buber, to pick just two — weren't atheists at all.

Why does existentialism have so much trouble shaking its nihilistic and gloomy image? To be sure, its leading promoters are rarely pictured with happy faces, but then how many philosophers in history have ever been depicted as smiling?

Yet few philosophers have displayed such unmitigated joy in their writing as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The latter wrote: "At long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again. Perhaps there has never been such an 'open sea.'"

Even Sartre, not only in his plays and novels but even in his heaviest philosophy, seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. But when it comes to understanding the content of what they are doing, interpretations of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seem utterly wedded to the thinkers' supposedly intimate concern with despair and nihilism. A perennial question (students love it for both term papers and doctoral theses) is whether Nietzsche was a nihilist or not.

The answer is a straightforward no. Nietzsche warned Europe of the encroachment of nihilism, which he associated with the Christian denial of life. Nevertheless, the association of Nietzsche and nihilism lingers, despite the fact that his whole philosophical effort is to provide an alternative to nihilistic thinking.

Kierkegaard — dutifully cited as author of The Concept of Dread — is often considered the modern inventor of the Absurd — a century before Camus. However, the ultimate indeterminacy of human existence and the need to make genuine choices (including the decision to believe in God, Kierkegaard's famous "leap of faith") lay at the heart of his whole philosophy, and those concepts were anything but negative. "Christianity is certainly not melancholy; it is, on the contrary, glad tidings — for the melancholy," he wrote. Furthermore, Kierkegaard never lets us forget that it is only through such acts of choice that we make ourselves into authentic "existing individuals." He even talks of "bliss."

So, too, in celebrating "the open sea" of possibilities that greets us after the death of God, Nietzsche aspires to a mood of unmitigated cheerfulness. Even Heidegger and Sartre, the grand old Mr. Cranky and Mr. Grumpy of German and French existentialism, respectively, aim not at despair but at a kind of rejuvenation. Sartre, in particular, claims, in response to a question about despair, that he has never experienced it in his whole life. (That may throw into question his credibility, but it's nonetheless instructive as to his broad philosophical outlook.)

Perhaps the wartime experiences of Mr. Cranky put him beyond the reach of any celebration of life, but Mr. Grumpy insists that existentialism provides an experience of incredible freedom, a feeling of responsibility that is not so much a "burden" as a matter of finding one's true self-identity. If nihilism and despair play any role in this picture, it is only as background against which existentialism is the ecstatic resistance. Responsibility and choice, picking oneself up by the bootstraps, are what this positive version of existentialism is all about.

We hear so much about "the burden of responsibility" that we forget the basic lesson of existentialism: that responsibilities enhance rather than encumber our existence. Call me naïve, but most people take on responsibilities because responsibility puts them in charge of their lives and defines just who they are. Most people who enter public service, for example, do not do so because of a selfish lust for power and wealth. They usually want to change things for the better, make a contribution, and even the most corrupt and vile politicians will confess a lingering hope that that is how they might be remembered. As Sartre constantly reminds us, we are what we do.

In short, existentialism is not a philosophy that allows us to feel sorry for ourselves in the midst of our malaise. It is a philosophy with which we can come to grips with these terrible times and actually change them. The recent midterm election was encouraging. What it suggests is that America is collectively recouping its existentialist roots, not because of national pessimism but because of what I hope is the beginning of a cooperative optimism and the sense that things as they are cannot stand.

Why does existentialism matter? Who cares about the viability of a European philosophy that may have once been the fetish of sophisticated poseurs and profligates but has little relevance to anything today? My answer is that philosophy is always relevant, that, as the proto-existentialist Johann Fichte once said: "What system of philosophy you hold depends wholly upon what manner of man you are." And if I am right that existentialism defines an important stream of American life and thought, especially its individualism and insistence on self-reliance, that means that we should become both aware of and critical regarding what that philosophy is and what it portends.

(Robert C. Solomon was a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He died on January 2 while traveling in Europe.)


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